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From the National Conference, with love

The National Conference convened by President Jonathan, has the same thinly disguised motive of favouring his re-election bid. But this time, it may well be…

The National Conference convened by President Jonathan, has the same thinly disguised motive of favouring his re-election bid. But this time, it may well be not about the fate of one man, but about the future of the whole nation. Compared to the wily Generals above, Commander-in -Chief Jonathan is least able to dominate his environment. Deep dissatisfaction about the poor governance is at fever pitch, with elite factions blaming everyone, but themselves. Those who have made a career agitating for such a conclave have now got their wish; their expectation for dramatic changes is high. Even the name “National Conference”, which previous tinkerers had avoided, is calculated to arouse such bottled up frustrations. Add the usual mudslinging of an upcoming presidential election, with the incumbent president already on the hustings, you have a combustible mix that can explode in our faces.
Most of the delegates to the conference were not chosen by their constituencies. They owe their nominations to the powers that be in Abuja and marginally, the State capitals. There are representatives of ethnic and religious groups, chosen by the government, to keep suspicious watch on the interest of their members. The list of “elder statesmen” from all the regions, have more of the elderly, than statesmen. In general, the Abuja nominees reflect the narrow vision of the politicians that made them.
With fewer slots available to them, most of the States sent some of their best men. Another saving grace is the nominations from NGO’s, Professional Bodies, Civic Associations, specifically of Youth, Women, Diaspora and the Disabled. Many friends of government have been smuggled in, but most of those allowed to make nominations have chosen real representatives. I could never make it on the list of the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), which has many distinguished men, eager for public service. I am grateful, if nervous, to be one of two nominees of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN).
Perhaps most Nigerians, especially from the Northern part of the country, are sceptical about the conference. This mood was in full display at the Conference of Leaders and Elders of Northern Nigeria in Kano, last Monday. In the keynote address, Academic and former Senior Civil Servant, Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, cautioned all Northern delegates to the conference, who he said “are about to enter the ring with one hand tied behind your back”. As a northerner, but not a northern delegate, I guess this does not apply to me.
But he added, “do not attend if all the conference will give you is a few millions in allowances and three months in a comfortable hotel, away from all the problems of your people”. This is a valid point, here is my solution. I will not accept any allowance nor stay in a hotel. This is easy for me as I live in Abuja and while I can do with a few millions, it was not in my budget at the beginning of this financial year, so I can take a deep breath and give it up!
There remains the more substantive issue:  what will the grand old men and we the younger novices achieve, by sitting for three or more months, discussing the myriad problems of Nigeria? To be honest, the answer is not obvious to me. I hear many Nigerians saying we need to sit down and talk. I thought our problem is not the desire or opportunity to talk, but actually learning how to walk the talk!  As I see it, our newspapers hold a mini-national summit daily, where people from diverse backgrounds, have their say.
In addition to waste of funds and the futility of endless talk, let me address two other concerns about the National Conference, which I hinted above. The first is that given the deep divisions in the country, along economic, ethnic and religious lines, we may end up with a national shouting match or much worse. Whether intended or not, things can go out of hand and if the nation’s elite cannot address each other in a civilized manner, what do we expect those who do not sleep in comfortable Abuja hotels to do?
The delegates list shows, that many of the old war horses have been brought into service by the government; there is after all much pasture around. So we should expect some to charge into the fray, abusing and hating. But who, in his right mind, would follow such short sighted people to perdition? Most of us want normal lives for ourselves and our families and there are enough decent people in the hall, to ensure the necessary give and take that makes living together possible.
It should not be assumed that the schemers and haters would always have their way. They can be easily overcome by solidarity and love. One sane voice can render a hundred ranters speechless, because they lack conviction and are puffed up by bigotry and bile. I may be naive or over-optimistic, but I cannot help believing that this is how God governs the world. Being your brother’s keeper is the best way to preserve yourself.
Obviously the chief convener of the National Conference would not take all this trouble and spend so much money, just to hear the sound of our voices. In a desperate bid to keep power, the strategists around President Jonathan, are adding new tricks to the old bag. Money and Positions are up for grabs; the President is using the churches as his bully pulpit; minority tribes are being mobilised to form a majority. All these factors will be at play during the National Conference. It is a golden opportunity to go fishing, and if all fails, to poison the pond.
Mercifully, after all the huffing and puffing, those who want to power must ask our consent at the polls. That should remain our focus. A sitting president has the purse strings, patronage, propaganda and ten presidential planes in his hands. He can hire many of the old political operators, who are pining away in their crumbling mansions. Let the opposition politicians prove that they can give Nigeria a more purposeful government. Shorn of all sentiments, this is what Muslims and Christians, from South to North, really want. We have a decent Electoral Body, which will get better as it overcomes logistic challenges. The International community is keen to assist; the failure of Nigeria would not be a pretty sight.
There is now a fairly well large, nationally spread opposition party that can give the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) a run for its money. But the All Progressives Congress (APC), like the PDP, has internal problems to overcome; it also has to select a presidential candidate who will fire the enthusiasm of voters. With religion and region, already made emblematic issues in the 2015 election, APC should choose its ticket, with sensitivity and creativity. If PDP has chosen the strategy of divide and rule, what might work best for the Opposition, is to settle for a conciliator, who can unite and heal. So help us God!

Yusuf, Chairman/CEO of Media Trust Limited, is a delegate to the National Conference which opens today in Abuja

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