MOST Ethno-Net publication: Africa at Crossroads


Africa at Crossroads: Complex Political Emergencies in the 21st Century,

UNESCO / ENA, 2001

Informal National Conference:
Memory, Restitution and Reconciliation in 21st Century Nigeria

Adigun Agbaje 
Dept. of Political Science

University of Ibadan, 

Ibadan, Nigeria

Wale Adebanwi
Dept of Political Science, 

University of Ibadan, 

Ibadan, Nigeria. 



Democratic politics is meant to increase inclusion and deepen the ethos of public engagement, but in particular cases, especially after several years of authoritarian rule, democratic politics tends to exacerbate exclusionary tendencies and deepen divisive politics. This is more so in contexts where the politics of resource control is also contested. This paper examines the dynamics of the interface of inclusion and exclusion in 21st Century Nigeria in regard to discourses surrounding the attempt to reconstitute the Nigerian state after the collapse of the military years and the increasing agitation by diverse nationalities for ethno-national validation if not separatism.

In time, we will demand the impossible in order to wrestle from it that which is possible…. It time it will be right to say that there are no stories (…) in the riots but the ghosts of other stories 

- Handsworth Songs

Nigeria almost always walks on the brink of collapse. Even in what seemed the best of times, the country appear to possess a potentially destabilising logic that is intrinsic to its very constitution. When this states of near-collapse have been evident in her history (in 1953, 1956, 1962, 1966, 1967-1970, 1975, 1983, 1992-1993, 1994-1998 and 2000), many were eager to declare Nigeria as mortally wounded by the fratricidal political battles that the hopes of recovery were completely ruled out.

Yet, this ‘collapse thesis’, as Ebere Onwudiwe once described the predictions of the “end-game”, “dismal tunnel” and so on, have not been fully actualised. Nigeria also seems to possess an unusual ability to stop just short of irreversible collapse and atrophy.  While she survives, she however does so in painful state of instability and/or social, economic and political upheavals feeding, and in turn, been fed by the struggles for collective advantage and validation by the many ethnic identities jostling for recognition in the national space.

One view that gained much acceptance before the return of democratic rule in Nigeria was that most of the issues that provoked (and still provoke) inter-ethnic clashes and struggles would be easily resolved, if not dissolved, by democratic governance. This view has since been too enthusiastically and prematurely discredited. Prematurely discredited because, while it is true that extremist and exclusionary claims presently crowd the democratic space, the repressive regimes of the past are largely to be held responsible, given the limited space that was given for the ventilation of public grievance.

Anyhow, the point must still be made: While both the operators of the state and the civil society are not used to the processes of democratic engagement - devoid of the latent and manifest violence of the authoritarian era - there is hardly any excuse for the pattern of events since the restoration of democratic rule which threatens not only to destroy the apparatuses of democracy, but more importantly, threatens to swallow the Nigerian state, with its pretensions to an unqualified legitimacy. 

To be sure, many people in Nigeria agree that the democratic dispensation is an opportunity for the country to, as they say, ‘begin again’: To reconstitute that political amalgam that was crafted by the British soldier, Lord Fredrick Lugard, to re-establish its claims to legitimacy of continued existence, to re-consider and re-fashion a new ethos of engagement among the several key identities of ethnicity, religion and region.

No doubt, these new attempts to re-engineer the Nigerian body politic, captured by the debates on the future of Nigeria, are informed by the past. Past events, or what the major stake-holders believe to be the events of the past, set the tone and tenor for these attempts to reconstitute Nigeria, even where such memories are tempered by attempts at reconciliation and healed by the attempts at restitution.

The push for the creation of a national talk-shop, called Sovereign National Conference (SNC), gained much attention in the early 1990s when opposition elements feared that unless the ethnic-nationalities in Nigeria gathered to re-think the basis of their association, the run-away autocracy of the General Ibrahim Babangida regime was capable of inflicting such mortal blows on national togetherness that Nigeria would become a past-tense at the expiration of Babangida’s dictatorship. Abacha’s harsher brand of martial dictatorship again was seen as emphasizing the need for such a talk-shop.

In all these years, and even among those opposed to the idea of a SNC, the debate about the past and present and their implications for the future of Africa’s biggest country continued unabated, in spite of the absence of a formal official forum for discussion. While the debate progresses, every group raises the stake(s) by making fearsome and top-ceiling demands, traversing the politics of memory, demands of restitution, the terms of reconciliation and the official and unofficial discourses of ‘what is to be done?’. The crises occasioned by the attempts to redefine Nigeria, have, as David Held (1989:118) advances, ‘transformative potentials’ because they involve challenges to the very core of the political and social order. 

Since Nigeria is believed to have failed as hitherto constituted, should it be transcended or reconstituted? What ‘sanctions’ are to be imposed on the majority group(s) and their representatives which/who have monopolized power and oppressed sundry other groups? What should constitute the correct reading of the past? How are the wronged to be compensated? If Nigeria should break, how should this be done?

Reconstructing the State: New Ethos of Engagement 
The twin-concepts of inclusion and exclusion have been central to attempts to reconstitute the state in post-colonial Africa. Most scholars agree on the fact that the inherited state in Africa is a problematic state. And there is no greater evidence are the convulsions - most of it intense and some in fact, catastrophic - which have marked the trajectory of African states since independence.

Two diametrically opposed views on constituting the post-colonial state in the immediate post-independence period in Africa is captured by the statements of two of the founding fathers of the Nigerian state, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, late nationalist and first president of Nigeria, and Sir Ahmadu Bello, the pre-eminent leader of the Northern peoples and first premier of the region. While Azikiwe preached that the multiple ethnic-nationalities should ‘forget their differences’ so as to forge a common centre, Bello insisted that rather, these different nationalities  - captured in terms of regional diversity - should ‘understand their differences’ instead of transcending them.

Almost four decades after independence in much of Africa - and even beyond the continent - the wisdom of Bello’s objection has become evident. The struggle to understand and honour difference, rather than transcending and devaluing it, has become triumphant in the contemporary world.

Various strands of the theory of democracy have attempted to come to terms with the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion in contemporary public life. For instance, deliberative democracy conceptualises ‘the process of democratic discussion as not merely expressing and registering, but as transforming the preferences, interests, beliefs, and judgement of participants’ (Young, 2000: 26). Intrinsic to this conception of democratic practice is that democratic political communication is based on public argument in which ‘people aim to persuade one another of the justice and wisdom of their claims’ (Ibid: 6). However, such conception narrows the means, modes and strategies of public expression by privileging some modes, means and strategies as ‘dispassionate, orderly and articulate’ thus simultaneously excluding other means, modes and strategies. A conception of communicative model of inclusive deliberative democracy, which constitutes our framework here, theorizes “differentiated social segments struggling and engaging with one another across their differences rather than putting those differences aside to invoke a common good” (Ibid: 18).

This perspective is grounded in normative critical theory through which it reveals the moral deficiency in contemporary democratic practice while it also admits that contemporary democratic societies possess transformative potentials organised around political equality, representation and self-determination (Ibid: 10-11) by which the societies may be reconstituted. As Young (Ibid: 29) argues:

The problems that collectives face for which they seek solutions through a political process usually have both a technical and normative aspects. They concern, not only accomplishing some ends in the most efficient manner, but also, in the process, not wrongfully burdening some members of the polity or undervaluing their rights and interests. Seeking a solution to problems a large collective faces, always entails considerations of justice even though it usually entails other considerations as well. Often the problems are posed as issues of justice directly; they arise because some individual or group claim they suffer injustice and call upon the polity to enact measures to redress or eliminate such injustice (Young, Ibid: 28).

In countries divided by exclusionary claims and fundamental differences including those of ethnicity and religion there is the tendency to suppress public engagement with virulent exclusionary claims. But such claims are kept alive and their public ventilation - even if not through official, formal channels - cannot be muffled. Inclusive deliberative democracy requires that groups in their quest for self-determination and self-development which tend to ‘construct their interests and preferences in ways that cancel out or ignore the legitimate interests of others’ should be accountable to others by transforming their interests and preferences, to make them compatible with justice (Ibid: 30). As Williams E. Connolly argues:

If the objective is to project your own perspective into the fray while decentring the political imagination of the ensconced contestants that each becomes an honoured participant in a pluralistic culture rather than the authoritative embodiment of it, then the positive possibilities expand. Now partisans of several types might negotiate a public ethos of engagement drawn from several moral sources. Here no constituency will be allowed to be the single source from which all others must draw in public life, even as each continued to articulate the strengths of the source it honours (Connolly, 1999: 6, cf. Young, op. cit.: 30).

This view of inclusive deliberative democracy can be linked with ideological-normative meanings of multiculturalism, which captures multiculturalism - in the context of social integration - as  “a slogan and model of political action… emphasising that acknowledging the existence of ethnic diversity and ensuring the rights of individuals to retain their culture should go hand in hand with enjoying full access to, participation in and adherence to constitutional principles and commonly shared values prevailing in the society (Inglis, 1996 quoted in Steven Dijkstra, et al., 2001: 55-56).

This paper considers the social transformation of identity politics in Nigeria, while rejecting the “prevailing dualisms between objective and subjective, modern and traditional, rational and emotional” (Castle, 2001: 30). We consider the social transformative potentials of the meanings produced by groups and the “recipes for social and political action (that can) help communities improve their livelihood and cope with the consequences of social change” (Wiltshire, 2001: 7).

The idea of Nigeria is one of the most contested political ideas in the contemporary world. It has always been so, from 1914 when Lord Lugard, without consulting the locals, got through his proposal to amalgamate the Southern and Northern protectorates to form a unified Nigeria. Since then, in spite of all efforts to unite the more than 250 ethnic nationalities on the Nigerian soil, Nigeria remains a contradiction in terms.

This fact has been captured in different ways. One British writer had stated that Nigeria is so complex that he wondered how Nigerians themselves understand it. Thomas Hodgin states that it is difficult to present a coherent picture of Nigeria’s past - given, of course, the ideological readings of history. Nigeria has been described as a failed state, a ‘dismal tunnel’ (Richard Joseph) that is only playing out its ‘end-game’ (Peter Lewis) or what Rudolf Okonkwo calls the “end of days” (1). Nigeria is a tapestry of ironies (Agbaje and Adebanwi, forthcoming a). Sully Abu, a journalist then on The Guardian (Lagos) stable, in desperation, wrote that, “This country (Nigeria) exists to annoy”! Another commentator states that, “anyone who romanticizes foolishness at 40 will forever exemplify it. Nigeria is foolish forever!” (2) Whether in fact the country should continue to exist is a perennial debate since 1914. (3) If it should exist, should it be reconstituted? If so, how should this proceed? 

The country faces the options, as a commentator recently argued, of either re-amalgamation or de-amalgamation. (4) This seems to be the consensus of various groups in Nigeria including those opposed to the convocation of a formal sovereign national conference (SNC). What constitutes re-amalgamation and de-amalgamation is however contentious. But, it is largely agreed that there is a need to re-constitute the Nigerian state, even by those who appeared to have “owned” that state for so long, given the belief that they are losing, or have almost lost, this “ownership”. Argues Nigeria’s Nobel laureate, and one of the most consistent advocates for a SNC:

The body (read ethnic-constituents) is ravaged and the edifice (read Nigeria) is crumbling. Even the quality surveyor (read the British colonialists) lied to us. It is time we redesign(ed) (read reconstitute) the interior relations (read inter-ethnic relations, etc.) of the household (read the Nigerian union). (5) (All words in bracket added)

The fundamental issues slated for discussion at a formal SNC are without doubt products of the colonial origin of the Nigerian state. But, the epochal social transformations occasioned by colonial rule, have been exacerbated, reconstructed and deepened by the near-epochal or quasi-epochal consequences of military rule (Agbaje and Adebanwi, forthcoming b.). Military rule has occasioned social transformation in ways that have provoked the felt-need for a national talk-shop, which, as expected, was opposed by the military regimes and is currently being opposed by the democratic government. In spite of this however, since the need was raised in the early 1990s in response to General Ibrahim Babangida’s attempt at comprehensive political engineering as a smokescreen for his self-perpetuation bid and in the years of the inflationary autocracy of General Sani Abacha, the debates on the past, present and future of Nigeria have continued unabated. Even those who initially vehemently opposed the idea of SNC have been forced to join the debate on the future of Nigeria. We attempt to capture the dimensions of this attempt to reconstitute the Nigerian state through three themes of memory, restitution and reconciliation.


Politics about the future is the politics of memory
J.F. Deinstag

Memory stands (6) at the centre of many questions that can be posed on the possibilities of political community, defining how the past is recovered, narrated and negotiated, how the present is confronted and the hopes inherent in the future. Memories are not simple constructions or performances, because they are entrenched in power relations and material inequalities (Walker, 1999). They also constitute a human strategy for coming to terms with time, process and change. ‘Remembering is also simultaneously forgetting which ties in with inclusion and exclusion. To remember, you have to include and exclude’. (7) Memory has various embodiments including recalling, forgetting, denying, repressing, erasing, revitalizing, replacing, veiling, rejecting and re-enacting (Warren, n.d.), which are the pre-occupation of every cultural and political community. Memory, to reverse Zalaquett, is identity.

Several strands of claims and counter-claims are brought into the font in the attempt to construct a (national) collective memory in Nigeria. Apart from the fact that such memories explain how the past dictated the present and might condition the future, the memories are usually organised around claims of wounds and injuries. This alleged wounds and injuries are reconstructed to make political, economic and social claims on the national collective.

A few examples here will suffice. They include the 1953 incident in which the northern region leaders returning to Kaduna - the political capital of the north - after opposing the motion for independence in 1956 were booed in Lagos and other southern cities; the 1966 coup; the 1966 counter-coup; the pogrom in the North in 1966; the Civil War; abandoned property issue; and the annulment of June 12, 1993 presidential election. All these constitute a trajectory of history, involving recalling, forgetting, denying, repressing, erasing, revitalizing, replacing, veiling, rejecting and re-enacting in the service of the interest of each of the contending groups.

While the North still remembers the 1953 incident as the touchstone of an un-abating pattern of dense insults on hauled at the north, its leaders and symbols, ‘the south’ remembers it as a key-indicator of the ‘backwardness’ of the north and its obstruction of progress, freedom and modernity. While the north remembers the 1966 coup by young army officers, mainly Igbos, as an attempt to wipe-off an entire generation of the north’s political leaders, an attempt to seal the north’s fate in the newly-independent country and a grand plan by the Igbos to seize the country from the other ethnic-nationalities, many in the south regard it as a laudable attempt to end the north’s arrogant and incompetent over-lordship over the rest of the country. The counter-coup of July 1966 is remembered too in the north as a gallant move to end what is considered the elaborate and laborious attempt by the Igbo-led military government to establish Igbo hegemony in line with the boast by a prominent Igbo that Igbo domination of Nigeria was only a matter of time. The south, particularly the Igbo south, remembers this event as the beginning of a sustained attempt to annihilate the Igbos, culminating in the pogrom in the north and eventually necessitating the Civil War in which the Igbo took up arms to defend themselves against a union that had ‘expired’.

This is linked to the abandoned property issue, which is still central to Igbo claims in contemporary Nigeria. The Igbos still demand that the property left by the fleeing Igbos during the events leading to the Civil War particularly in the oil-rich city Port-Harcourt and commercial-capital of Lagos be returned to them. Together with the £20 given to every returning Igbo male - no matter how much he had in the bank prior to the out-break of hostilities - the Igbo regards the slogan of ‘no victor, no vanquished’ after the war as hollow given what they experienced.  For the Yoruba, the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election won by a Yoruba millionaire business man and newspaper publisher, Chief M.K.O. Abiola, constituted the high-point of a long-drawn battle against the ‘northern hegemonist’ plan to exclude others, particularly the Yoruba from political power. Subsequent events including the incarceration of Yoruba leaders, the flight into exile of some, and the assassination attempt and assassination of prominent Yoruba, are used to construct a memory of political isolation of the Yoruba in their struggle against Hausa-Fulani domination, and alleged appalling let-down by the Igbo in this struggle. While this played itself out, the Igbos were quick to remind the Yoruba of the ‘historic betrayal’ before the outbreak of the Civil War where Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the leader of the Yoruba was alleged to have ‘promised’ to also pull the Yoruba out of Nigeria, if the East (Biafra) was allowed to go. (Ojukwu, the leader of the secessionist Biafra, recently stated that there was no such pact between him and Awolowo.) 

The minorities are not without their own memories of domination by the big three ethnic-nationalities and criminal neglect - particularly those in the oil-rich Niger-Delta. The suppressed rebellion led by Isaac Boro, who declared a secessionist republic of Niger-Delta is usually linked to the travails and eventual execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the writer and environmental rights activist who was hanged alongside eight others by the General Sani Abacha regime.

These, among others provide a backdrop for articulation in the bid to reconstitute the Nigerian state. These memories define if and how the Nigerian state can be reconstituted. These memories are also claims to inclusion and exclusion, in the past, present and future.

What is to be done to ameliorate or compensate for these injuries and wounds of the past? How should those responsible for the wounds and injuries of the past be dealt with? Should individuals be isolated and punished for past injuries, wounds and wrongs? Can collectives be punished or made to pay for their errors of omission and commission or rather those errors committed in their names? What are the formal (institutional, legal, constitutional) and informal (symbolic, gestural, verbal) means of correcting past mistakes?

These are some of the important dilemmas of 21st century Nigeria that the political community and the democratic government are forced to confront. Whereas restitution simply connotes restoration to rightful ownership and/or reparation, we use it here in a more embracing sense to include not just what is restored or given to the agent that suffered a loss, but also, and crucially, what is taken from the agent that stole from the rightful owner. The restorative value of restitution in this sense includes the pleasant experience of positive deprivation suffered by the agent who had taken what was not or what was more than his due.

How has the democratic government coped with this task of restitution, particularly coming after the devastating years of Generals Babangida and Abacha?

We believe that our take on restitution allows for the institution of Sharia (Islamic) law by some states in the north to come under the purview of restorative moves. We will return to this shortly.

Against the backdrop that we have described briefly under memory, the advent of Olusegun Obasanjo presidency, which was first opposed by his Yoruba ethnic constituents, was later constructed as the triumph of Yoruba politics over and above particularly, the northern hegemony. Generally, in the south it was also captured in discourses as the triumph of southern ‘modernity’ and Christianity (Obasanjo being a Christian) over ‘northern backward traditionalism’ and Islamic imposition.

For those who hold these images in their minds, restitution has to follow this path – both at the institutional and symbolic levels. The symbolic (informal) level is very interesting in terms of how it reflects fundamental problems and changes. For instance, like never before, Christians worship has now become dominant in Aso Rock Villa, the seat of power, unlike when Moslems occupied the number one position in the country. Eventually, a chapel was constructed in the Villa, which hitherto had three mosques within its precinct. Christian prophets now have more passes to the Villa unlike in the past when Moslem marabouts from within and outside the country were given privileged access to the place. These constitute powerful symbolic changes, which point to wholesome changes in the body politic.

Beyond the symbolic, there are measures taken to come to terms with the sordid past. These include the Christopher Kolade-led Panel of Inquiry, which re-considered the contracts awarded by the immediate-past military governments; a Human Rights Violation Tribunal headed by a retired judge to examine cases of human rights violation and abuses of the past. This panel has generated the greatest interest as revelations upon revelations of what had happened in the past are made. A former police commissioner for instance disclosed that security men planted the bomb that killed two airport officials, contrary to what the public was told under Abacha. He also accused the Babangida government of complicity in the killing of the late editor-in-chief of Newswatch, Dele Giwa. Those who claimed to have been set up in ‘phantom’ coup plots, relations of the Ogoni (environmental rights activists) Nine - who were hanged - and the relations of the Ogoni Four - who were allegedly killed on the orders of the Ogoni Nine, victims of Abacha’s reign of terror, police brutality and official high-handedness, and bomb-blasts and the accused have already appeared before the panel whose work is still on-going. Related to this are the trials of Abacha’s men for assassination and assassination attempts in the regular courts. Those currently standing trial include, Abacha’s son, Mohammed, Abacha’s dreaded Chief Security Officer, Major Hamza Al-Mustapha, his Chief of Army Staff, General Ishaya Bamaiyi, former police commissioner, Mr. James Danbaba, former military governor of Kano State, and personal assistant to the wife of the unofficial winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, Mrs. Kudirat Abiola, Sofolahan. But as the authors of the document entitled, "Democracy in Nigeria: Continuing Dialogue(s) for Nation Building" state:

The ongoing investigation of past human rights violations by the Oputa Commission is a critical contribution in the democratization process. However, the question will arise once the hearings are over. What happens to victims? And what will happen to perpetrators? (International IDEA, 2000: 13)

There is also the Justice Akanbi Commission on Corrupt practices which is charged with the responsibility of investigating and punishing corrupt practices in official quarters. 

The Niger Delta has stepped up the claims to rightful ownership of the oil resources on which Nigeria solely depends. In the struggle for resource control, they are joined by other states in the south. The federal government has now gone to court to ask the Supreme Court to make a pronouncement on the rightful ownership of the resources on the soil (on-shore) and contiguous waters (off-shore) of Niger Delta. Recently, the debate on a proposed bill by a member of the House of Representative from the Niger Delta on the control of resources by on the principle of derivation was put to vote in the House and all honourable members from the North voted against it while all honourable members from the South, with the exception of two, voted in favour of the bill. This was an interesting polarisation particularly in the context of the debates on the monolithic nature of the North. The question that is being raised in the south is: Why was it that all the members from the minority areas of the north – the middle-belt – voted along-side their so-called “overlords”, the Hausa-Fulani? 

The Hausa-Fulani north, which is often the target of attacks would appear to have responded to the situation by making its own claim to restitution through the twin-strategy of cries of marginalization and the imposition of Sharia, the Islamic legal code. Defenders of the introduction of this legal code - which was first introduced in the north-west state of Zamfara - argue that Christian worldview forms the basis of the Western laws that were operative in Nigeria and that the organization of the Nigerian state follows Judeo-Christian (Western) cultural logic, which subverts Islamic tradition prevalent in the north. The states argue that they had arrived at a point where they must restore their heritage to its rightful place in the total organization of the Nigerian state. Along with this is the demand for greater share of the democracy dividend by the Hausa-Fulani north which others accuse of bearing the greatest responsibility for the past years of waste..

The Igbo East is also crying of maginalization - as it has done since the close of the Civil War. The Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the most prominent Igbo cultural organization, demanded that Nigeria pay reparation of N8 trillion (about $80b) to the Igbo for the years of neglect and ecological devastation caused by massive erosion. President Obasanjo - who incidentally, as the Commander of Third Marine Command, accepted the surrender of the secessionist Biafran state, immediately repudiated this claim.

In response to the claim of the Niger Delta people for resource control, the states of Niger and Kogi (in the north) also put up a claim to compensation for the hydro-electric power Kanji Dam, which they claimed had devastated agricultural life in the area. They also ask for control of the Dam around which the national electric power system is organised.

On his part, President Obasanjo counters the floating allegations of marginalization by the north through a metaphor that was strong on restoration. He stated that prior to his assumption of office and the restoration of democracy, Nigeria was like a slice of bread in which a part had too much butter, others with little and some with none. His task, he said, was to spread the butter evenly on the slice of bread. He claimed that those making a ‘noise’ on marginalization (the north) do not want to lose the concentration of butter on their part of the bread!

However, there is the tendency to overlook the fundamental differences within these large group/segments of the country in the claims to restitution. Within each of these identities are internal contradictions, which also seek restitution. There is, for instance, the infernal struggle among minority groups for land, space and resources. A good example is the Urhobo/Itshekiri/Ijaw ‘wars’ that breaks out regularly in the oil-rich town of Warri.

It is fitting to ask here in the tradition of Milton if true reconciliation can grow where the spear of deadly hate has pierced so deep? 

Official attempts at national reconciliation are never lacking in Nigeria, even where they are largely cosmetic. But, attempts at reconciliation from the unofficial, societal level have been few and far between. One reason for this, offered even by those who have spurned official reconciliatory moves, is that except where a complete, comprehensive and grand national redemption is enacted, it will be futile to reconcile the deeply divided groups in the Nigeria state. Even where they have failed to articulate it in this way, those who hold this position have tended to fold reconciliation into the fabric of reconstruction of the state, so that reconciliation becomes a product of reconstruction; reconstruction which makes reconciliation possible, and without which it is either impossible or not sustainable.

Some of the previous attempts at reconciliation include the 1966 meeting of traditional rulers and leaders of thought in Ibadan with the Head of State, General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi. Ironsi was killed, a day or so after the meeting began by northern soldiers. Another was the Aburi meeting between General Gowon and the military governors of the four regions, including Col Odumegwu Ojukwu. The Civil War broke out in spite of the agreements signed there. The official principle of “no victor, no vanquished” and the policy of the “Three Rs” (Reconciliation, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction) after the Civil War for the returning Easterners (former Biafrans) constituted a hollow ritual.

The National Constitutional Conference convened by the Abacha regime in response to the agitation for a Sovereign national Conference particularly by the pro-June 12 elements, eventually became not just a means for Abacha to seek legitimacy, but an embarrassment to the polity. Fundamental issues were left out of the discussion and the resolutions of the Confab were never implemented until the collapse of that regime.

Many had expected that the agitation for the SNC would abate or recede with the institution of democratic governance, particularly because it is headed by someone from the (Yoruba) west of Nigeria, where the agitation is most vociferous, and also because the Hausa-Fulani north - regarded as the ‘power bastion’ in Nigeria -opposed such a conference, which it feared may lead to an irreversible loss of its advantage in the Nigerian union. But, this has not been the case. Rather, the memories of the past have been reconstructed in strong ways to combat the present, leading in part to the creation and degeneration of ethnic militias, like the Oodua People’s Congress (OPC), the Arewa People’s Congress (APC), the Ibo People’s Congress (IPC), the Bakassi Boys, Egbesu and the rest. These militia groups are complemented or rather complements the umbrella ethnic associations including Afenifere, created to respond to the isolation and victimization of the Yoruba in the Babangida/Abacha years, the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), created in response to the loss of political power by the north, and the Ohanaeze Ndigbo, created to present an organised opposition to the relegation of the Igbo to the background in the tripodal politics of Nigeria.

These various pull and push for inclusion continue to be articulated even by those who oppose the idea of a SNC. The debates on how to reconstitute or reconstruct the Nigerian state, to transcend the problems of the past, to transform Nigeria and take her to the heights of her ‘manifest destiny’ is what this paper captures as ‘informal national conference’.

The Informal National Conference: Options for Reconstructing the Nigerian State

This is an example of a country that has fallen down; it has collapsed. This house has fallen
Chinua Achebe

Though the situation in Nigeria stops just short of the extravagant claims of one of its most gifted and acclaimed writers, Chinua Achebe, the case for reconstituting the Nigerian state is, as The Comet (Lagos) puts it, “strong and unexceptionable”. It is interesting, however, that Achebe’s collapse-thesis is a good reflection of the extreme language in which the discourse on the Nigerian union is couched.

As a newspaper captures the present state of affairs: “The union is not working as it should. The present arrangements breed resentment and frustration. To carry on without examining them at a national forum can only deepen the fissures, not close them”. But those who oppose the creation of a formal national forum for examining the present arrangements argue that, “such a conference will bring highly divisive issues to the fore, and that discussing such issues might widen the cracks in the fragile union and lead ultimately to its collapse”.

While the opposition to a formal national talk-shop (SNC) prevails, the same issues that are meant for discussion at the SNC are daily being debated in the public sphere, including the media, the Internet, public lectures, conferences, symposia, meetings of ethnic nationalities and newspaper stands (by what is called the Free - newspapers - Readers Association, FRAN). The issues debated cover the whole gamut, without any restraints, including resource control and distribution, northern domination, retributive justice, fairness, Yoruba-Igbo-Hausa-Fulani relations, marginalization, minorities, women empowerment, military incursion into politics and its continued threat, former military dictators and their loot, assuaging hurt and injuries against groups, the Constitution and constitutional arrangements, Federal-cum-constituent units power sharing formula, ethnic autonomy, religion and secularity, etc.

“The natural order is a development of your ethnic sovereignty”, former secessionist leader, Emeka Ojukwu, tells the author of a recent book, This House Has Fallen: Midnight in Nigeria (Maier, 2000: 286). “Here…you must first recognize the primordial sovereignties and then negotiate their position within the amalgamation starting from that recognition that they are sovereign. In that case, the sky is the limit”. For him, Nigeria will not collapse immediately because it is presently in the hands of the Yoruba ‘who thrive in anarchy’ and know how to handle anarchy (Maier, Ibid: 287).

This pattern of “unconstrained public dialogue” on the political culture and political behaviour of some ethnic groups vis-à-vis the consolidation of democracy and the transformation of the Nigerian state is one of the most interesting dimensions of the informal national conference. While the Hausa-Fulani north has been accused of not only monopolizing power but also not having the capacity to use power to transform Nigeria - what Ibrahim (1999:13) describes as running and ruining Nigeria - the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), a group of highly visible Northern emirs, former leaders, bureaucrats, technocrats, businessmen and politicians, emerged to defend the north. ACF has on different occasions condemned the Obasanjo government, in ways that many regard as influenced by the frustration over the ‘loss of political power’ by the so-called northern oligarchy or cabal. The view of the north as a stumbling block to the transformation of Nigeria is given much salience - and even acknowledged by the “accused” - in the debate. As a radical intellectual of Fulani extraction from the north - who is an aide to Obasanjo - puts it:

Northerners are now being perceived as a group of people responsible for destroying this country…. (But) the immorality, incompetence and irregular behaviour that seems (sic) now to have become the characteristics of the Northerner is actually the preserve of a few Northerners (TELL, 2000).

Yet this intellectual agrees that unless there is a fundamental change of attitude, the north may end Nigeria’s history:

I think that when Nigeria’s politics was playing itself out, there emerged in the North a certain feeling of superiority, a total control that nothing can happen…. Unless there is a fundamental shift in political thinking and a serious about turn by the North, the future of Nigeria cannot be guaranteed. Right now, it is the North that is posing a serious threat to the continued existence of Nigeria…. I cannot imagine the situation continuing with the kind of political thinking and moral attitude that pervade the power dynamics of the North and the resultant consequences of slowing the process of Nigeria’s development (Ibid).

The introduction of Sharia law in the some northern states - which eventually led to violent clashes in which several lives were lost and property worth millions destroyed - kick-started a national debate on the secularity of the Nigeria state. While many prominent Moslems, particularly from the north, argued that secularity was not only unacceptable in Islam, but also, a disguise for the entrenchment of Judeo-Christian values in Nigeria, anti-Sharia elements averred that its introduction was a violent and batty slap in the face of the Nigerian union and the integrity of the Constitution. Balarabe Musa, former radical governor of Kaduna state, took an extreme position by arguing that the Sharia is superior to the Nigeria Constitution. This statement raised the stakes and perhaps tempted the anti-Sharia elements to declare the Sharia-supporters as unfit to be in the Nigerian commonwealth. Wole Soyinka described the introduction of Sharia as  ‘not a notice for secession, but a tacit act of secession’ (8)

Anthony Enahoro, elder statesman and the then exiled leader of the pro-democracy coalition NADECO, was more conciliatory, even though he believed that the Sharia matter was another argument for the need to convene a SNC. Argues Enahoro:

The fundamental question in the Sharia debate boils down to this: If a substantial part of the country wishes to direct its life, organize its local autonomy and order its domestic affairs with a faith, principles and laws which they share with a substantial part of humanity and immediate neighbours, can you expect for long to deprive them of the right to do so?(9)

Apart from the southern state of Cross Rivers which announced that it would institute Canon (Christian) laws, the states in the oil-rich South-South region, in reaction to the Sharia issue, resolved to seize control of their resources, in part to deny the Sharia states of the resources to run their ‘unconstitutional’ legal system. But, the resolve to control resources transcends the Sharia crisis. It is one of the most significant debates in the last one decade. This push for resource control, which also produced the Ogoni debacle, is a direct reaction to the several years of neglect, despoliation, environmental degradation and political marginalization of the minorities in the oil-rich region of Nigeria. After several years of futile attempts at seeking redress, the battle changed to self-determination struggle through the push for control of the resources on the minority’s soil. Expectedly, this has been met by serious opposition by majority groups, particularly the Hausa-Fulani, and force by the federal government.

Even though not generally articulated as such, what all these agitations, debates and discussions point to is not just the need to reconstitute the Nigerian state, but how this should proceed. Every group brings into the common font its demands on what is to be done and how it should be done. It is difficult to fully capture the dimensions of these demands and positions on the reconstitution of Nigeria, but an attempt is made here to sieve and condense the demands of various sections of Nigeria.

The South-South generally demands in the least, a high percentage for the derivation principle in the distribution of federally collectible revenue, if not outright control of such resources by the states from where they are derived who will then pay some percentage to the federal purse. In this, opinion is however divided between those who want a highly decentralized federation and those who crave a centralized federation because of the fear of Igbo domination - a fear, which now seems to be receding in the discourse. Whatever their different views on this, the people in the South-South want a federation in which the yoke of majority oppression would end, and opportunities for minority groups would increase. Some of the leaders from this area also emphasize the issue of a democracy based on proportional representation, given the demographic disadvantage of the minorities.

* The (South-East) Igbo are desirous of the termination of their “second class” citizenship, being the third leg of the Nigerian tripod. While they seek decentralization, which will allow them to develop at their own pace - which they believe will outstrip that of other groups - they demand federal protection in the existing arrangement for the migrant Igbo traders who are in every nook and cranny of Nigeria. They also demand that the past be settled, through addressing the problems created by the Civil War. They want to be reassured that an Igbo can legitimately and credibly aspire to the presidency of Nigeria.

* The (South West) Yoruba are perhaps the most trenchant critics of the present formation. They want a highly decentralized federation, if not confederation based on ethnic-nationalities. They support the position of the South-South on resource control (a state, Ondo, in this region has very limited oil deposit), more because they see it as a way to castrate the ‘irresponsible’ centre, which is often captured by the rival Hausa Fulani power elite. They argue that once the Fulani ‘vice’ hold on power is ended, Nigeria can begin her interrupted march to greatness and uncontested leadership of the Black race in the 21st century. However, where this is impossible, they demand a self-determining Oodua Republic. There has however been a split in the mainstream Yoruba politico-cultural ‘High Command’ with the emergence of Yoruba Council of  Elders (YCE) which, while holding on to the dominant Yoruba agenda, is more reconciliatory in their attitude to the democratic (federal) government. 

* The (Hausa-Fulani) North West and the North-East (Kanuri, etc) would appear (in spite of the fact that there are several minority groups in these two sections) to be united in their abhorrence of fundamental changes in the Nigerian union given the political advantages that British colonial rule afforded them. These areas have been complaining of marginalization since Obasanjo got to power. Apart from the six months under General Aguiyi-Ironsi (January-July 1966), these areas, prior to Obasanjo’s second coming, have never witnessed a government that subverted their over-whelming influence in the Nigerian union. They therefore demand that, given their numerical superiority (which has always been regarded as a fraud in the south), they must remain the “senior” partner in the Nigerian union, particularly in terms of political power, since the south (Yoruba and Igbo) reign in the economic and commercial spheres respectively. They also demand a Nigeria that is sensitive to their religious and cultural beliefs, heritage and institutions, chief of which is the Sharia legal system.

* The North Central (Middle Belt) is also, like the South-South, a minorities region, which is regarded politically as part of and subservient to the north. The Middle Belt is split between sworn supporters of continued association with the far north - and therefore, sharing the far north’s ideas on the future of Nigeria -and sworn enemies of the status quo - who, roughly, share southern ideas about the future of Nigeria.

It is instructive that when Major Gideon Orkah announced the abortive coup against the Babangida regime in April 1990, he stated in the broadcast that he and his comrades were doing so to liberate the ‘good people’ of the south and Middle Belt from oppression and domination by the Hausa-Fulani north, whose states the coup plotters excised from Nigeria.

The Obasanjo government hold the view that the unity of Nigeria cannot be negotiated even though it welcomes initiatives to transform its politics, economy and culture. But it regards as fundamental and unalterable, the idea of a Nigerian union. For the government, a SNC is a misnomer because there cannot be two sovereigns in one polity, since the president argues, though wrongly, that he is the sovereign. 

However, in the last few months the government seems to be coming to terms with the logic of a national talk-shop. It convened a meeting of the leaders of thought in the different sections of the country, which was later cancelled. Media reports also have it that the Attorney-general, Bola Ige, one of the most notable apostles of SNC, who later changed his views when he got to power, has presented the legal framework for convening a national conference - not sovereign - to the president for approval and subsequent action. More recently, a group of traditional rulers and leaders of thought  from different parts of the country met in Abuja and resolved that the country should convene a National Conference – without the word ‘sovereign’ added.

Identity-based politics is often exclusive, while interest-based politics has the inherent value of inclusion. The fact that the debates on the future of Nigeria have been based more on exclusive identities has tended to make national reconciliation and positive transformation difficult.

The experience under democratic rule has confirmed that Nigerians have not “forgotten their differences”, as Zik preached, yet they have also refused to “understand their differences”, as Bello advanced, rather, much disruptive salience has been given to these identities. Understanding and honouring difference is a form of inclusive exclusion, in that while it allows for the projection of the perspective of a particular group, it avoids the temptation to construct such perspective as the authoritative embodiment (Connolly, op. cit.: 6) of the collective. Such a public ethos of engagement relates well to a deliberative democracy that involves democratic discussion that not only expresses and registers interests, beliefs and judgement of groups, but also transforms them (Young, op. cit.: 26).

What is needed is that groups begin to speak with one another with the aim of persuading one another of the justice and wisdom of their claims (Ibid: 6) unlike the tendency that is prevalent now to speak down at other groups. Here, it is important to emphasize that there is a heavy dosage of insults, cultural and political, currently evident in the debates on Nigeria’s future. There is the need to quarantine this tendency to castigate and insult other groups while presenting or defending the position of particular groups.

There is also the need to begin to address more seriously the possibilities of healing the wounds and injuries inflicted on different groups in the past, so that excluded groups - desperately seeking to get redress or damage the union - can begin to see the need to temper their claims on a democratic polity. Here, the element of forgiveness must be emphasized because not all wrongs can be reversed. This must proceed against the backdrop of an acceptance of the fact that no group is completely right and none completely wrong. 

As the International IDEA report avers:
Reconciliation entails a large degree of restoration and rehabilitation. The (Nigerian) government must commit itself to addressing the issues and cases and the plight of victims (of past injustices) once they have told their stories. Most importantly, the Government must address the structural causes of such violations and must lead Nigerians in building a society in which such violations will not go unchallenged. A clear constitutional clause on a Bill of Rights is one contribution that the Constitution can make. (International IDEA, op. cit.)

If all of these and more are not put in place, the desperate threats of war, both latent and manifest, may take Nigeria back into the circle of darkness which enveloped it between 1967 and 1970 in which more than one million souls were lost the Civil War.


(1) For an interesting debate on this, see Okonkwo’s “Igbos and the End of Days”, and the responses to it, including, “A Response to R. Okonkwo’s ‘Igbos and the End of Days’”. / letters / 1999 / dec / 136.htlm

(2) “Obasanjo, Nigeria and the Burden of History”,

(3) For a review of the opinions of different sectionsas presented by their representative media, see Wale Aebanwi, “Clashing Cymbals: The Nigerian Press and the Narratives of the National Question”, paper presented at the Conference on the Management of the National Question, Conference Centre, University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria, August 28-29, 2000.

(4) “Obasanjo, Nigeria and the Burden of History”, op. cit.

(5) Wole Soyinka, “Redesigning a New Nigeria”, The News, 9 November, 1998, pp. 30-32.

(6) Wale Adebanwi, “Review of Country of My Skull” (Seminar on Social Construction of Memory), Graduate Faculty, New School University, New York, November 24, 1999.

(7) Ibid.

(8) “Interview with Nigeria’s Professor Wole Soyinka”, by Laolu Akande, 11/16/99. This interview was also published in The Guardian (Lagos, Nigeria).

(9) In a speech delivered at a farewell party in New York, December 12, 1999. See, “Home-bound Enahoro Okays Sharia, but”, 

Adebanwi, Wale, “The Sharia Debate and The ‘End of Nigeria’s History’”,, 11/30/99.

Adebanwi, Wale, “Obasanjo, Nigeria and the Burden of History”,

Adebanwi, Wale, “Clashing Cymbals: The Nigerian Press and the Narratives of the National Question”, Paper presented at the Conference on the Management of the National Question in Nigeria, (Programme on Ethnic and Federal Studies, PEFS) University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria, August 28-29, 2000.

Agbaje, Adigun and Adewale Adebanwi, “ The Political Economy of the Problems of Nigerian Statehood”, in R.A. Olaniyan (ed.) The Amalgamation and Its Enemies (forthcoming a).

Agbaje, Adigun and Wale Adebanwi, “Political Culture in Nigeria”, in A. Olukoshi and F. W. Heimer, Eds. Transition and Civil Governance in Nigeria (forthcoming b). 

Akande, Laolu and Wale Adebanwi, “Homebound Enahoro Okays Sharia, but”, / news / daily / dec / 131.html

Akande, Laolu, “Interview with Nigeria’s Prof. Wole Soyinka”,

Castles, Stephen, “Studying Social Transformation”, International Political Science Review, vol. 22, no. 1, January 2001, pp. 5-12.

Connolly, William E, Why I am Not a Secularist, Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Dijkstra, Steven, Karin Gevijen and Arie De Ruijter, “Multiculturalism and Social Integration in Europe”, International Political Science Review, vol. 22, no. 1, January 2001, pp. 5-12.

Goodson, “The Story so far: Personal Knowledge and the Political”, in A.H. Hatch and R. Wisniewski, (eds.) Life Histories and Narratives, London, Palmert Press,1995.

Held, David, Political Theory and the Modern State,Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989.

Ibrahim, Jibrin, “Political Transition, Ethno-regionalism, and the ‘Power Shift’ Debate in Nigeria”, ISSUE: A Journal of Opinion, Vol. XXVII, No. I, 1999.

International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), Democracy in Nigeria: Continuing Dialogue(s) for Nation-Building, Stockholm: International IDEA, 2000.

Krog, Antjie, Country of My Skull, New York Times Books, 1998.

Maier, Karl, This House Has Fallen: Midnight in Nigeria, New York: Public Affairs, 2000.

Nas, Wada, “Balkanizing Nigeria”, Abuja Mirror Homepage, / ~today / mco1133.htlm

The Comet, “Again a National Conference” (editorial), Lagos, March 1, 2001, p. 3.

Walker, Melanie, “ ‘Open Houses and Invisible Guests’: Issues in the Storying of (Our) Lives”, Agenda, 41, 1999: 61-70.

Warren, Kay B.,  “Transforming Memories and Histories: The Meanings of Ethnic Resurgence for Mayan Indians”, n.d.

Wiltshire, Kenneth, “Management of Social Transformation: Introduction”, International Political Science Review, vol. 22, no. 1, January 2001, pp. 5-12.

Young, Iris Marion, Inclusion and Democracy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

© The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author
and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNESCO.

© Les idées et opinions exprimées dans cet article sont celles de l'auteur
et n’engagent pas la responsabilité de l´UNESCO.