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Beware of 9 Mistakes that haunt Nigeria By Atedo N. A. Peterside con

Back Page Article published in BusinessDay Newspaper, 08 April 2014

Distinguished Fellow Delegates,

My contribution to the debate on the President’s Inaugural Address to this National Conference will be to seek to further develop an important observation made by Mr President. On Page 25 of his speech, Mr President said as follows (and I quote):-

“… We cannot continue to proffer yesterday’s solutions for today’s problems”

This observation is bold, honest and forthright. I believe it is correct, but then it is also clearly an indictment of  our leaders (including Mr President himself).

My humble submission is that our political leaders have persevered with yesterday’s solutions largely because our elite have not properly diagnosed and corrected some of the most important mistakes that the country made at various points in our history and many of which we continue to haunt us.

The nine (9) mistakes that I identified are as follows:-

1) With the benefit of hindsight, the big mistake of 1965 was the failure of political leaders to curb the excesses of their supporters in the Western Region, even when the latter were getting progressively more violent. Many Nigerian politicians still do not know the correct time to curb the excesses of their supporters;

2) The January 1966 military coup, which was plotted and executed by some young military officers, was violent in the extreme. It was almost as if they thought they could douse violence by confronting it with an even more violent outcome. That led us into a cycle of escalating violence via a violent counter-coup in July 1966 and an even more violent backlash against an ethnic group that was adjudged as having come out unscathed from the first coup.  Residents who were not indigenes were slaughtered in some cases by their next door neighbours.

Sadly, many Nigerians still believe that the only response to violence today must be greater violence. Also, minds have been poisoned in most states of the federation (except possibly Sokoto State and one or two others) against granting indigeneship rights to law abiding residents who have been tax payers in a community for several decades. Their “crime” is that their fore-fathers hailed from elsewhere;

3) Elders and other ethnic jingoists sought to score advantages over their peers by exploiting the naivete of the young and/or immature military leaders who emerged in 1966. The familiar refrain today is that, if your “son” occupies a high office then he must manipulate things to your advantage and give you more than your fair share of what you desire, to the detriment of others;

4) We then also brought religion into politics and are still trying to bring it into everything concerning the public sector. The irony here is that, if we are truly religious, then why are our public and private sector leaders more corrupt than their contemporaries in countries where religion is almost viewed and/or treated with disdain? NO, by their very actions, thieves and murderers of the innocent have confirmed that they are neither moslems nor christians. They are simply criminals who should be made to pay for their sins. Neither the Bible nor the Koran preach that we should condone criminality;

5) When confronted with a stalemate or a disagreement between any two substantial groups or groupings on a thorny issue, we refused in the past to borrow tried and tested corporate governance principles and other conflict resolution mechanisms including diplomacy. That was how we slid all the way into a full-blown Civil War in 1967. I dare say that if a National Conference, on the scale of what we have today and with a composition that similarly went beyond political leaders, had been convened in the first quarter of 1967, the Nigerian Civil War might have been averted;

6) In the mid-1970s, the military then destroyed professionalism in the civil service through the combination of the mass purges which they carried out and the consequent enthronement of tenure insecurity which has since afflicted most public officers. Accordingly, our civil service has never regained its ability to act as a restraining influence on the excesses of political office holders;

7) Our leaders also behaved in a manner that created the impression that our word has stopped being our bond and that is why there is no sanctity of contracts;

8) Mistake nos 3), 4), 5), 6) and 7) above culminated in the enthronement of injustice in many forms. Thus, you can infer the ethnic origin of those who were in power at the time the last set of Local Government Areas (LGA) were carved out simply by establishing which states were favoured the most. The oppression of minorities all over the land is now legendary.

Indeed, many of the advocates of “true federalism”, “fiscal federalism” and/or “resource control”, simply hope to replace carting away the resources of a community in their state to Abuja with a new arrangement of carting away the same resources to a greedy and insensitive Governor in the state capital so he can buy himself a N7 billion aircraft. Royalties are a payment for the right to exploit minerals and a slice of royalties on minerals (whether gemstones in Zamfara State, Limestone in Kogi or Bauchi or Crude Oil and Gas in Bayelsa), should stay with the community for the benefit of residents and landowners. Note that residents should ordinarily include non-indigenes. This is what pertains in the U.K. with reference to shale gas/oil exploration and the U.S.A., is even farther ahead where it is recognised that the resources beneath your land belong to you and not to a State Governor.

People who claim to be minorities at the Federal or State level often visit the same oppression that they complain of on smaller ethnic minorities as soon as they (who are a minority within the State), become the majority in a Senatorial zone or LGA.

Having enthroned injustice everywhere, our lawyers and judges then conspired to bequeath us with a dysfunctional legal system which makes it virtually impossible for anyone to obtain justice speedily from our courts. This is Mistake No. 8.  For instance, it took my own father 17 years to pursue a case all the way to Supreme Court on a matter that would have been resolved by a disciplined, responsible and conscientious judiciary within a few months. Even in the corporate world, many innocent small traders and suppliers have been bankrupted because they naively supplied goods on credit to large corporations who simply refused to pay them promptly on due date because they know that the little trade creditor cannot seek and obtain justice from our courts.

Little wonder that this inability to seek and obtain legal redress speedily has encouraged many among us to perpetrate further injustices against the “weak”;

9) To crown it all, we then enthroned perverse incentives which reward bad behaviour. Bankers refer to this as “moral hazard”. Thus, we correctly honour General Abdulsalam Abubakar, who was the military Head of State that restored the democracy that we all yearned for within eleven months of taking office, but then we simultaneously “insult” him by bestowing the same honour on one or two military leaders before him who should correctly be tried for treason. If you reward an unruly horse with a juicy carrot you set a dangerous precedent that may well come back to haunt you.

Clearly the best and safest message that should be sent to today’s military leaders (in protection of our democracy) is to have them understand that, even at age 80, they could find themselves being tried for treason if they assault our democracy today at age 40 or 45. A few countries have done this before and Pakistan is currently doing so.

Indeed, perverse incentives have also echoed in this august assembly – that is why some of us voiced our complaint to the Chairman when he appeared to be rewarding unruly delegates who refuse to sit down by handing them the microphone ahead of obedient delegates who sat down and simply raised their hands, as we were all supposed to do. The searchlight is therefore also on us at this Confab.

We must show the nation that we can do things differently. A national conference is essentially a contest of ideas. We should seek to come up with and/or endorse the best ideas that come to us even from non-delegates. If we can establish genuine consensus here around the best ideas, we will propel this country forward with unbelievable force. This is because it will be clear to all and sundry that we are well on the way to building a grand coalition that will be a “force for good”.

 The National Conference Train is on the move and Good Governance should be our watchword and goal and the ticket for getting on board should be a genuine commitment to reject the nine mistakes enumerated above along with others that are inconsistent with good governance. Saints and sinners are welcome on board this train because we know that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. The oldest delegates (in the departure lounge) and the youngest delegates (in the arrival hall) are equally welcome to join this train. So too are the political parties. Our aim should be to get them to compete to convince the Nigerian people that they have imbibed this message.

If we are the elite, then we must shoulder the burden for ensuring that the future of our nation becomes more than a simple extension of our inglorious past.

My prayer Mr Chairman is that we will conduct ourselves in a manner that historians will identify this 2014 National Conference as Nigeria’s “Now Moment”, the “Tipping Point”, a “Defining Moment” when we chose to build a consensus by making it fashionable for all those who have any good left in them to join what should become a grand coalition to correct all wrongs and to stop repeating the worst mistakes of our past, some of which have haunted us for close to five decades.

So help us God.

(Being the full text of a speech that was delivered in summary form on the floor of the on-going National Conference in the week of 7th-11th April, 2014)