By Ola Awoniyi
ABUJA, March 17, 2014 (AFP) – Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan yesterday opened a national conference, calling on delegates to tackle the country’s burning issues head-on to build a stronger, more united nation.
Nearly 500 delegates from the hundreds of ethnic, religious and linguistic groups that make up Africa’s most populous nation have converged on Abuja for the conference that could last three months, with how to tackle Islamist-linked violence, rampant corruption and share oil wealth more fairly likely to be high on the agenda, as is the effectiveness of the country’s political structure.
Strictly off-limits, however, is discussion about whether Nigeria should break apart, 100 years since British colonialists merged the previously separate northern and southern protectorates.
Jonathan said the meeting was a chance to build “a stronger foundation for faster development” to guarantee “a more united, progressive and prosperous nation”.
“We must seize this opportunity to cement the cleavages and fault lines that tend to separate us. We must re-launch our country,” he said, urging delegates to “focus strictly on the Nigerian Agenda”.
“We need a new mind and a new spirit of oneness and national unity. The time has come to stop seeing Nigeria as a country of many groups and regions. We must not allow the antagonists of unity and togetherness to prevail. We must work ceaselessly to remain one nation bound in freedom, peace and unity.”
Some of Nigeria’s newspapers have made it clear that talk of a break-up was the elephant in the room at the talks, which drew flak for their scope and cost.
“Nigeria’s future in the balance as confab begins,” the New Telegraph said in a front-page headline, assessing in an editorial that the country was “gradually drifting towards disintegration”.
“Five decades after (independence from Britain in 1960), the country remains a land of poverty and violence despite her huge potential.”
“Inefficient leadership”, among other factors, had contributed to a declining appetite for continued union, it added.
The Punch newspaper said the years since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999 had been characterised by disappointment and disillusion. Nigerians were “divided as never before on ethnic, political and religious grounds”, while violence and corruption had created the impression of a “failing state”.
Nigeria, Africa’s second-biggest economy and leading oil producer, is almost evenly split between a mostly Muslim north and largely Christian south. It is sub-divided further along linguistic and ethnic grounds, with social and economic differences between people and regions the frequent cause of tension and often leading to violence.
Successive military and civilian governments have failed to resolve the historical grievances. But some commentators suggest a tipping point is near, given an increase in corruption, critical infrastructure failings, poor governance, a growing wealth divide and upsurge in deadly violence.
For its supporters, the national conference is a chance to open up Nigeria’s closeted politics and allow scrutiny beyond the usual cabal of politicians, military officers and businessmen. But opponents, including the main opposition party, see the talks as a pointless exercise and argue the money could have been better spent improving areas such as education and healthcare.
There has also been discussion about whether the outcome of the conference should be subject to a referendum or put before lawmakers in parliament.
Some analysts have said that similar conferences in the past were used merely to make largely meaningless, last-minute promises ahead of general elections.
Nigeria goes to the polls next year to elect a new president and parliament.