I was fortunate enough to be the Master of Ceremonies at the 10th Trust Dialogue last week. The Chairman of the occasion was Festus Moghae a former President of Botswana one of the few winners of the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Leadership.
Throughout the proceedings he conducted himself with a grace, humility, gentility and humour which belied his status as a former Head of State. Upon arrival at the airport he walked right past the protocol officers who had been mobilized to receive a former Head of State. They didn't recognize him because he was pulling his own luggage! Everything about this gentleman is in stark contrast to the pomposity of our former Presidents who strut around in self-importance continuing to seek relevance despite achieving little in office.
Speaker of the House of Representatives, Alhaji Aminu Tambuwal, who was Guest of Honour at the occasion, set the tone for discussions that followed by claiming that insensitivity towards the yearnings and aspirations of the electorate is the cause of the leadership crises in Nigeria. "Leaders behave as if the people owe us instead of the other way around. Once we get into power we become selfish and arrogant." He advised that anyone speaking on the process of Nation building in Nigeria must address our diversity of culture and character, differences in religion and tradition, the clear gap in values and orientation and the dubious legacy of our colonial history.
Ignoring this advice the first speaker Ann-Kio Briggs launched into a tirade of Niger Delta grievances. A passionate activist she leaves no one in any doubt of the suffering brought about by environmental degradation through oil exploration. She is quite evidently a fiery advocate for her people. Unfortunately rather than blame oil companies who actually carry out the operations, she blames the rest of Nigeria! Scathingly sparing no one she referred to President Jonathan as a disappointment who in two and a half years of governance has not been able to address issues of corruption, security, political evolution or change. As for Centenary celebrations she dismissed them as irrelevant and unnecessary warning that Nigerians were growing increasingly desperate. She ended by asking what Nigeria has achieved in terms of human development that they are planning to celebrate. According to her only resolution of the Niger Delta problems can guarantee the country not breaking up.
Visibly irked, the second speaker, Dr Sule Bello made a thunderous entry from the rostrum, stating, in no uncertain terms, that the problems of nation-building in Nigeria were more than simply those of the Niger Delta. He pointedly asked if the poor masses of the North were the ones responsible for the problems of the poor in Niger Delta. As far as he was concerned, the underlying causes of poverty all over the country were the same, only the manifestations of poverty in north and south differed. He argued that unviable structures created by colonial powers were responsible for the inability of not only Nigeria but many other African countries to tackle the challenges of nation-building. Asserting that most African leaders only stayed in power if they served the interests of the West, his preferred solution to our problems involves multiculturalism, political ideology, and constitutionalism
Femi Falana, the consummate legal mind and third speaker cynically asked why we should be looking towards constitutional amendments and national conferences when we don't respect the laws we have. According to him no new Constitution or political arrangement can change our fortunes until we overcome the culture of impunity that exists amongst managers of our resources. As an example he highlighted the antics in our oil industry where no Nigerian, no Governors Forum, and no President has any idea of how much oil is actually produced or what happens to it. Falana also warned that unless critical issues of security and poverty are addressed the teeming and ever increasing population of idle youth will also begin to behave with impunity and the predicted revolution could be on its way.
The last speaker Monsignor Matthew Kukah played the expected role of a man of God. He said threats of revolution or break up of the country were not helpful. According to him such threats have been issued time and time again and yet have never come to pass so we should accept the fact that we are and shall remain, together. He said it is time to get on with the serious business of ending recrimination and starting nation building. According to Kukah our problems and woes have been caused by leaders all of whom got there by accident. In his opinion there are citizens capable of leading this nation to greater heights so we should face squarely the problem of leadership recruitment, a process which must embrace democracy and dialogue.
As is usual, when proceedings are beamed live on television, there was quite a lot of posturing for the cameras when discussion was thrown open to the floor. Alongside several incisive comments and questions, political leaders and members of professional associations spoke on matters unrelated to the topic at hand, members of the House of Representatives used the opportunity to correct some public misconceptions about current events, and some people just liked the sound of their own voice!
There was a noticeable absence of women and youth in the audience. One young university student must be commended for his attendance and willingness to contribute even though he must work hard to improve his ability to articulate points concisely.
The overriding impression from the dialogue is that our nation's leaders appear to be stuck in a time warp. We may have to wait for a whole generation to pass on until we can get away from repeated references to groundnut pyramids, cocoa, coal and oil. Perhaps only then can we face the realities of building a unified nation around young men who are truly detribalized, posses true leadership qualities, respect laws and human rights and are united in one vision for a great nation.