columnBy Abba Mahmood
In the Sunday Sun newspaper of May 26, 2013, the communiqué of the 3rd General Conference of the Southern Nigeria Peoples' Assembly held in Lagos on Monday, May 20, 2013, was placed in a one-page advertorial. It was signed by Rev. Emmanuel Bolanle Gbonigi for the south-west, Dr Alex Ekwueme for the south-east, and Chief Edwin Clark for the south-south.
The main issue raised is "that the present skewed federalism based on dysfunctional structures that promote inequitable opportunities and privileges for some sections of the country by the use of states whimsically created as federating units has continued to be the bane of our federation. The present 36-state structure, 19 of which the north enjoys to the detriment of the south, we must say, is undeserving and has no fundamental basis of justification".
Accordingly, "that given the fundamental need to equilibrate the existing state structures that are lopsided in favour of the north, there should be created two additional states for the south -- one of which MUST come from the south-east" and "that a committee is hereby established to work out strategies and modalities to assist in the convocation of a national conference by not later than December 2013," and "that the National Assembly should give expedited passage to the Petroleum Industry Bill without any attempt to compromise the 10% provision for host communities that have persistently suffered the brunt of oil and gas exploitation and exploration".
By every definition, these are weighty but not new issues. And if Rt. Rev. Gbonigi and Chief Clark are signatories as sectional leaders, it is disappointing to see former vice president Alex Ekwueme reduced to a sectional leader of the south-east and calling for the unity of southern Nigeria instead of operating as a nationalist for the whole nation. It is really a pity and a dangerous anti-climax for an otherwise glorious career at the national level in one of the most respected governments in Nigeria.
The issue of national conference has been recurring for over two decades now since some francophone countries neighbouring Nigeria successfully convened theirs. It was convenient then to call for that due to the fact that there were no elected representatives of the people -- it was the military era. But now, regardless of how bad the elections may be, there are elected governments at all levels in Nigeria. Does it mean that these people have no confidence in the National Assembly members or are they advocating two "sovereignties" in one nation? Why can't they form parties and make the convening of this national conference their main programme to get the mandate to do so, if they are true democrats?
Many advocates of this conference believe that it is an almighty formula that will address all the problems of Nigeria once it is convened. They have conveniently forgotten that it has never taken place in any Anglophone country. Three things are uppermost on the minds of these advocates: (1) the structure of the country in which the north has a slight edge over the south in terms of number of states;
(2) the issue of Shari'a law for Muslims or the role of religion in politics; and (3) the issue of derivation or resource control.
The issue of state creation has always been a southern agenda and, between 1914 when the Northern and Southern protectorates were amalgamated to form Nigeria and 1963 when the Republican Constitution came into being, the Southern protectorate was divided into three regions - West, East and Midwest while the Northern region remained only one but nobody complained. After all, every relation is supposed to be an issue of give and take; live and let live. But, suddenly, just because the defunct North with 72 per cent of the entire land mass and almost 60 per cent of the population of Nigeria has a slight advantage in terms of the number of states in the country, every day there are calls for more states to achieve "equity" with the north.
States give a sense of belonging to minorities and bring the government closer to the people, which is good for the federation. If any state is to be created at all, there has to be clearly defined criteria: population, land mass, viability, etc, so that any area that qualifies in any part of the country will be given a state status. No one will create any state based on these illegal geopolitical zones that are very inequitable and indeed unconstitutional. Even the current recognition and use of zones for appointments into statutory bodies is clearly illegal, unfair, unjust and unconstitutional since only states are recognised by the constitution, and a lot of these states are being short-changed by these illegal zone recognitions since many states are not adequately and fairly represented.
With regards to Sharia law and the role of state in religion, it must be made clear that Sharia has been part of the judicial system of many parts of what came to be Nigeria before the advent of colonial rule just like the customary laws of many sections of Nigeria. If the constitution guarantees freedom of worship, then, it implies that it recognises Sharia which, to the Muslim, is the main guide especially in the conduct of personal life. That is why the constitutions of Nigeria have been consistently recognising it since the establishment of Nigeria. Sharia is not applicable to anyone who is not a Muslim and the common law is for all, even though it is of Christian origin.
In any case, the British monarch who is the head of state of Britain that colonised us holds the constitutional title of the supreme governor of the Church of England and defender of the faith, while the archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church, is appointed by the prime minister on behalf of the Queen. In the US, the Republican Party prides itself on being the party of conservative Christian values, hence, issues of same-sex marriage, abortion and others frowned upon by Christianity are largely opposed, but they are not referred to as "Christianists" in the same way that those in Egypt are called "Islamists". It is just a matter of stereotype.
With regards to the issue of derivation or resource control, it must be made clear that what obtained in the First Republic which the advocates are referring to was due to the sweat of the people in producing the farm products unlike oil that is just a gift of nature. But, even if it is 100 per cent those who have oil in their backyards want, it does not matter as long as it is restricted to the onshore oil on their land since offshore that is in the sea belongs to the whole country just like the air space. There is no local government area in the sea and there is no state whose map includes the sea. This belongs to only sovereign nations. And the constitution does not know anything called "host community"; there are only three tiers of government -- local, state and federal.
There is no single area or group that has monopoly of grievances or agitation. Insults and intimidation cannot get anyone anything; provocative acts will only lead to hardening of positions. Yes, Nigeria is facing leadership, political, economic, social and even moral crises. Politicians, whether from the ruling or opposition parties, are supposed to manifest more responsibility and maturity in this delicate and decisive moment in the history of Nigeria. Leaders have to rationalise their political discourses to adopt the basic principles of democracy and political pluralism, and to abandon populist, demagogic and exclusionary discourses. God save Nigeria.