Godwin Onyeacholem

The power game currently going on in Nigeria is nothing but an embarrassment.  If the contest as being carried out were truly driven by selflessness and an honest desire to serve the people as the jostlers often claim, the atmosphere would be reassuring. But this is not so. And they know it. The unbroken boisterous shout from one side to the effect that Jonathan must not go for a second term, and the sometimes over-the-top counteractive defiance from the other, is down to only one thing: elite self-interest.

It has to be emphasised that the enduring nonsense about the country’s presidency as an object of do-or-die tussle between the North and the South is an elite concept perpetuated by the privileged class in both sections of the country. For them the essence of grabbing power has never been for the purpose of development and improvement of the lives of the people. It is to preserve elitism by furthering class distinction to the absolute disadvantage of the lower class. This perception is informed by the experience of not-too-distant past.

It is germane to recap it. Of all the long years that one northern leader after another held the reins of government, years that would be more than enough for a focused, selfless leader to positively transform the region and the lives of its people – not to talk of the entire country – the only thing they had to show for it was absolute poverty and widespread misery for their own people. Measured with the same index of dispassion, similar horrendous fiasco is known to have defined the tenure of their southern counterparts. Meanwhile, in turn, these leaders, or rulers, come out stupendously richer than they were before they took office. Lest you are deceived, in practice, there is no difference yet between the northern leader and the southern leader.

Without doubt, a common thread that runs through the hideous tapestry of Nigeria’s arrogant leadership over the past decades is the shameless preoccupation with stealing public funds by both elected and unelected state officials. Barefaced treasury looting and crass corruption has long since been elevated to high art, to the detriment of the higher ideal of sacrifice and service delivery in the interest of the vast majority. Funds that are meant for servicing the needs of society often end up in the pockets of politicians and government officials and their cronies. In the end, no one benefits other than these few thieves in government and their immediate families and cronies.

In the face of a deliberately designed deficiency in the mechanism for accountability, and the glaring absence of consequence for impunity, the looting extravaganza goes on unhindered. Therefore, it is the determination to seize control of the juicy central government, the heartbeat of the gravy train, which fuels the perennial struggle for power between the north and the south. Nothing more. There is so much money available for stress-free stealing at the centre that the elite in either camp are ready to risk anything to succeed.

But fate has presented one man an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change all that for the sake of stability and progress of a country in serious need of all-round fine-tuning. There can be no better time for President Goodluck Jonathan to redeem his presidency by leaving a lasting legacy through the restructuring of a dysfunctional federal system that de-emphasises development and concentrates enormous power and financial resources at the centre, thus making it so attractive as to encourage unending bitter rivalry among tribes in the north and the south. This country has to be saved from its self-inflicted demons, and it can only be saved by re-inventing it. Therefore, Jonathan must, for once, prove to the Nigerian people that he is the leader they elected by seizing this moment to convoke a conference of Nigerian people to debate constitutional reforms.

The conference is of urgent necessity for no other reason than the fact that the 1999 constitution under which the country is currently governed is, as has been stated many times in the past by many astute analysts, a defective product resulting from a Decree enacted by the Federal Military Government headed by General Abdulsalami Abubakar. So flawed is this constitution that it decisively foists on the country an unbalanced and lop-sided federal structure that confers more benefits on the centre at the expense of the states which accommodate the ethnic nationalities. Unfortunately, as a result of the disproportionately powerful and extremely profitable office of the president of Nigeria, virtually all ethnic groups have been intensifying struggle for the control of the federal government.

Hopes of redressing the dangerous imbalance were raised in February 2005 by President Olusegun Obasanjo. Making a show of investing in efforts to produce for the country an acceptable constitution, Obasanjo convened the National Political Reform Conference which was made up of all sorts of persons chosen by him and the state governors. There was nothing democratic about the conference; not even a law establishing and backing it up. It turned out that the delegates were only at the conference to make recommendations which the presidency and the national assembly would sift through and see which ones would be incorporated in the constitution. At long last, with the conference in total disarray, it dawned on everybody that Obasanjo only convened it to deviously obtain tenure elongation for himself. Thanks to the national assembly, he was blocked. Meantime, yet unverified billions of naira (for conference and inducement of sundry legislators and state officials) had gone down the drain!

    That is not the type of conference Nigerians expect this time. Surely Jonathan would be better off if he rises above selfish and clannish considerations to facilitate the process of fashioning a constitution the country truly deserves – one that will effectively sort out the many injustices that have clogged the path to a new, vibrant nation. Unlike the one in use now, the constitution the people are looking forward to will have no choice but to finally institute and preserve an authentic balance between the requirements and burdens of creating a nation and the sustenance of diversity in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural society.

    Coming from the Niger Delta, the oil-producing region with the confounding paradox of being Nigeria’s major source of revenue, as well as the poster child of cruel injustice and criminal neglect, Jonathan is better placed to appreciate the crucial need for Nigerians from every part of the country to sit down, talk and reach a decision on how to move on as a people of one country. But more specifically, he can use the window to negotiate terms and relationships that will ultimately improve the lot of his people in the region. That is something they have long been clamouring for anyway.

    By all means, the constitution derived from such an exercise will not be a cure-all for the country’s multi-faceted problems. But it certainly will be an indispensable step in the onerous task of building a new, functional nation. If Jonathan makes this possible – there is no reason he shouldn’t – he will forever be remembered as the president who gave Nigeria a fresh beginning. Should he then allow this golden chance to elude him? No.

    Godwin Onyeacholem is a journalist based in Abuja; can be reached on gonyeacholem@

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