By Chido Onumah*
Like many Nigerians I am suspicious of the national conference or dialogue proposed by President Goodluck Jonathan. But unlike some of those who have expressed their apprehension about the conference, I believe in the imperative of the “fierce urgency of now!”
“The fierce urgency of now” was a phrase popularised by Martin Luther King, Jr. clergyman, activist and prominent leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered fifty years ago on August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C., Rev. King “compelled a (troubled) nation to examine its conscience and, at long last, take action.”
“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,” he said in reference to the racial injustice that defined the American society then (and still does today). The thrust of his argument was that unless America confronted its national “demon” by addressing the fundamental question of race there would be “neither rest nor tranquility in America.”
More than anything else in Nigeria today, we need to confront our “fierce urgency of now.” The question that we must answer today, not tomorrow, is: How do we secure the promises of nationhood? This nation was founded on injustice and has been sustained through injustice in more than five decades of independence. This is why I think we should pay more than a cursory attention to the work of the Presidential Advisory Committee on National Dialogue and by extension the planned national conference.
I understand the apprehension of those who argue that we travelled this road before with General Sani Abacha and President Olusegun Obasanjo. But we are in a dire situation today simply because we allowed these rulers to take us for a ride.
I am, therefore, comforted by the robust and well-thought-out memorandum submitted by the Afenifere Renewal Group (ARG), the Pro-National Conference Organisation (PRONACO), the Coalition of O’odua Self Determination Group (COSEG) and other groups even though I fundamentally disagree with their main argument that the conference should be centred on our ethnic nationalities.
Now is the time for anybody or group that means well for Nigeria to speak out and make their grievances known. This administration has no choice but to listen to the voice of the people. Nigerians can determine the shape and outcome of the national conference if they are ready to do so.
It is for this reason that I am perturbed by the nature of the debate and the national outrage bordering on hysteria that gripped civil society in the wake of allegations that the country’s minister of aviation, Ms. Stella Oduah, had coaxed the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, an agency under her ministry, to buy her two bulletproof BMW cars at the cost of $1.6m. My position is that we cannot tackle corruption, abuse of office and impunity in Nigeria – vices that have made us a laughing stock in the comity of nations – without dismantling the very structure that makes these vices thrive.
Let me buttress my point. I agree with those who have identified corruption as our national “demon”; one that needs to be confronted frontally. But there is also the reality that the endemic corruption in Nigeria is not because Nigerians are patently corrupt or fraudulent. That, as a people, we can’t agree on what constitutes corruption or abuse of office, à la Stella Oduah, is emblematic of the unresolved crisis of nationhood that confronts us. That such national tragedy could not get nation-wide traction either because of ignorance, ethnic solidarity or elite manipulation is a reflection of the fact that corruption itself may not be our national bête noire.
Of course, Stella Oduah is not alone. If we look at some of the more recent national heists that have taken place in the name of governance in the country, it is evident that the Nigerian state is a full-fledged criminal enterprise: The $180m Halliburton bribery scandal involving former heads of state; the N155bn ($1bn) Malabu Oil grand larceny allegedly masterminded by former oil minister, Dan Etete; Diezani Allison-Madueke’s Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) non-remittance of N450bn ($3bn) to the federation account because “the NNPC is not subjected to the consolidated fund of the federal government since it runs very capital intensive operations beyond what government can finance”; the Farouk Lawan/Femi Otedola $600,000 oil subsidy bribe-for-vote scandal; the planned arraignment by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) of the sons of the Governor of Jigawa State, Sule Lamido, for allegedly laundering over N10bn ($67m); Sule Lamido’s own admission that he informed the president (the presidency has since denied the allegation) of a serving minister that collected $250m bribe; and the latest bombshell by Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State that the presidency secretly withdrew $5bn from the excess crude account.
Two years ago, Saharareporters, just as it did with the bulletproof BMW cars scandal, also broke the story about how N20bn ($133m) was siphoned from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). The story (details of which are documented in my book, Time to Reclaim Nigeria) involved a land buy-back scam in which the name of President Goodluck Jonathan, the Attorney General of the Federation, Mohammed Adoke, and the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, featured prominently.
The CBN, through its head of corporate communications, did acknowledge that it paid about N20bn ($133m) for a piece of land, originally owned by a government agency, NITEL, to build “a world- class conference centre.” Ms. Oduah, yes the same Stella Oduah was alleged to have collected N7bn ($47m) from the booty on behalf of Neighbour to Neighbour, President Jonathan’s “grassroots” campaign organisation for the 2011 presidential election. Of course just as there are no bulletproof BMW cars, two years later there is no “world class conference centre.” Talk about the “six degrees of separation” of corruption!
What the foregoing illustrates is that governance in Nigeria is a big scam because the nation Nigeria itself is a great fraud. Anyone who is concerned about corruption, about the fact that we haven’t had a credible census since independence, about the wanton destruction of lives by those who claim they want to propitiate Heaven, about impunity – whether presidential, gubernatorial, ministerial or by law enforcement agencies – or about the fact that we can’t conduct “free and fair” election in a single state out of 36, must invest some time to make the quest for a genuine national conference a reality. There can’t be any excuse. We must insist on this by any means necessary.
Talking about election, we can’t allow the 2015 election distract us from this urgent national assignment. For those who say the national conference will “disrupt” the 2015 election, I say good riddance because the election will be rigged anyway (elections in Nigeria have been rigged since independence and things are not about to change) and if necessary declared inconclusive.
If we can call on President Jonathan to sack erring ministers and expect him to do something about corruption, then we might as well go “the whole nine yards” and “force” him to do the right thing concerning the national conference. Let me say, at the risk of sounding repetitious that a genuine national conference is not a silver bullet. But it provides us a template for moving forward as a nation. And nothing can be more important than this. The sooner we hold this conference the better! Some of us are tired of waiting for Nigeria (or the president) to fix itself. It won’t happen.
I end this piece by paraphrasing Rev. King: It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. The whirlwinds of revolt (read corruption, violence, ethnic cleansing, impunity, etc) will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
*Onumah is a Nigerian journalist. He is the coordinator of the African Centre for Media & Information Literacy (www.africmil.org) and author of Time to Reclaim Nigeria, Essays 2001-2011 (2011) and Nigeria is Negotiable: Essays on Nigeria’s Tortuous Road to Democracy & Nationhood (2013).firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @conumah