Nationalities and the Nigerian Nation-State

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May I begin by thanking the Campaign for Democracy and all the organisers of this Conference for honouring me with the invitation to be part of this momentous event. Indeed Nigeria owes the pro-democracy and human rights community a debt of gratitude for taking the initiative to provide this opportunity for the free and unfettered discussion by representatives of the various basic communities on matters affecting our collective existence as a people.

Right from the beginning of our elongated and convoluted Transition Programme, Nigerians have publicly and loudly insisted on the need for a national forum in which the various communities and interest groups can articulate their interests and needs and, acting freely and together, work out the modalities for the building of a nation in which "no an is oppressed. The demand rose to a crescendo in the call on the Military Government to summon a "Sovereign National Conference" to finalise the transition programme. Fortunately the Military did not oblige.

I say "fortunately" because if they had we would have had a conference f persons and group summoned by the military and working to a script written by the military; hence without any legitimate claim to autonomy of representativeness or purpose. As a civil initiative this conference can rightly claim a superior mandate. We have come together by ourselves to represent our various nationalities and interest groups, too explore the fundamental concerns of our peoples about our common future and to work out the ground rules for the necessary and inevitable re-structuring of the Nigerian nation-state. The current Transition Programme has finally sailed and is due to berth in May next year. At a similar stage of the Babangida transition I had occasion to remark as follows:

While in my view it is necessary for us to go along with the programme, so as to put it behind us, it should be clear that any political system which emerges from it ought to be regarded itself as a transition system. The principal merit of such a transition system would be to restore sovereignty to the people, put a civilian Administration in place and allow us get together autonomously and democratically to consider a proper restructuring of the Nigerian polity for stability and progress. In other words, I considered it useful only as a TRANSITION TO TRANSITION.

I hope that the current version of the transition programme will this time end on schedule and as scheduled, so that we as sovereign Nigerians can organise a viable and sustainable transition. This conference serves notice that there are many vital matters which the present transition programme does not and indeed cannot address, and that all who seek and win our votes in to current exercise should hold themselves in readiness to note and serve the sovereign will of the people. It is my hope and expectation that the critical issues of concern will be explored and synthesised at this conference.

The roots of the continuing crisis of the Nigerian nation state are fundamentally political and economic. Politically we have been unable to build a nation with which all segments of the population can identify, a nation which, both in its structure and in its usages, guarantees security and fair treatment to every citizen of whatever region, state of origin or religious affiliation, of whatever social connections or lack thereof and economic status. The current revival of the national question highlights the fact that our constitutional provisions, official policies and socio-political behaviour so far have failed to create the proper conditions for the protection of group or community rights and for the evolution of a national community of interests and aspirations.

The transformations in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have underscored the reality that no group of nationalities or communities is obliged to remain together in one nation-state if the members cannot agree on the terms and conditions under which they should do so, or if enough of them feel strongly enough that they are better off outside it. We are fortunate in Nigeria that our recent collective experience has convinced us of the need to stay together. But if we are to have a stable nation we must provide satisfactory answers to the many questions which continue to needle us: on the rights of the citizen on the one hand, and on the rights and relationships of the various segments of the polity on the other.