Nigerian roundtable sparks stimulating perspectives on diversity in Africa’s most populous

A fundamental challenge for governing Nigeria is how to manage the deep ethnic tensions embedded in this federation of 135 million, the largest population in sub-Saharan African.

The issue of those tensions was ever-present when 26 experts gathered at the University of Ibadan on Jan. 27, 2008, to participate in a country roundtable on the topic of Diversity in Federal Systems.

The country’s fabric is composed of three major ethnic groups, the Muslim Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Christian Ibo in the southeast and the religiously mixed Yoruba in the southwest. It also has hundreds of smaller ethnic minorities, and roughly equal numbers of Muslim and Christian adherents. Added to all of this are regional social and economic disparities and grievances particularly in the resource-poor Muslim North and the oil-rich, but ecologically and economically neglected, southern Niger Delta.

These tensions fuelled a 1967-70 secessionist war, the collapse of three democratic republics, a succession of military coups, continuing ethnic and political violence and unresolved demands for constitutional reform or political restructuring in the federation.

This context provided the backdrop for discussions at the Forum of Federations-sponsored Nigeria roundtable on diversity and unity in federal countries, hosted by the Political Science Department of Ibadan University.
The roundtable participants engaged in a frank and sustained, lively and often informal dialogue on the multiple challenges and dilemmas of diversity in the Nigerian federation. The dialogue unfolded in five substantive one-hour sessions devoted respectively to the following themes:

  • constitutional principles and concepts of diversity in Nigerian federalism;
  • socio-economic, demographic and spatial diversity in Nigeria;
  • cultural-identity and political and institutional diversity in Nigeria;
  • the management of diversity in Nigeria; and
  • overview of crosscutting questions and new insights of global importance.

A final half-hour session was devoted to the summary, evaluation and closing of the roundtable event.

Discussions mirrored the diversity of perspectives on the problems of unity and diversity in Nigeria. Reflecting cultural and regional fissures in the wider Nigerian society, the roundtable participants expressed divergent viewpoints on key questions about the management of diversity-based conflicts in the federation such as:

  • Should control over oil resources be shifted from the federal government to local communities in the Niger Delta in response to the ongoing insurgency in the region?
  • Can such local resource control be reconciled with the promotion of nation-wide development and the accommodation of resource-poor and developmentally disadvantaged regions?
  • Whether the clamor for the extension of Islamic Sharia law in Muslim-majority states is compatible with Nigeria’s unity in diversity?
  • Whether the current constitutional ban on sectional parties and the exclusion of ethno-religious questions from the national census are appropriate responses to the problems of diversity in Nigeria?
  • What specific constitutional changes are required to better accommodate or manage diversity in Nigeria?
  • How can the Nigerian federation evolve a functional balance or viable compromise? Specifically, how can it balance between centrist, national integration and decentralist recognition of its diversities, including non-sectarian youth and gender identities?

The questions evoked contrasting but stimulating perspectives. Yet, there were significant areas of convergence as well among the participants.
The participants, for instance, agreed that Nigeria’s current, military-sponsored, 1999 Constitution lacks popular legitimacy and is also excessively centralized to respond adequately to the country’s diversities. They expressed however a broad optimism that the consolidation of civilian rule including the succession of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua to the presidency in May 2007, could serve as a precedent thereby promoting a transition away from some of the worst, hyper-centralizing legacies and excesses brought about by previous periods of military rule.

The participants also acknowledged the deepening legitimacy of the idea of a united Nigerian federation, despite the persistence of ethnic, regional, religious and socio-economic grievances in the country.

The participants observed that current difficulties with federalism and diversity issues in Nigeria were intricately linked with a broader crisis of economic governance and democratization in the country. This crisis extends to the mismanagement of the country’s oil wealth and the corruption of its electoral processes.

Accordingly, the participants identified several options for the enhanced management of diversity in Nigeria. These include a review of the federal constitution, reform of the electoral administration, strengthening of legislative oversight, promotion of democratic values and processes within and between parties and enforcement of fiscal responsibility in Nigeria’s public financial system.

Above all, participants were unanimous in the view that the one-day roundtable dialogue had been worthwhile, and that wider and sustained dialogues among Nigeria’s diverse groups would be pivotal to the attainment of the country’s goals of unity, democracy and development.

Welcoming and opening remarks were pronounced by Professors Adigun Agbaje, the universitye’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor; Bayo Okunade, the chairman of the universitye’s Political Science Dept.; and Rotimi Suberu the co-ordinator of the roundtable.

The event was attended by 26 academics, civil society activists, government functionaries and politicians, some of whom have been closely involved with official constitutional talks or wider public debates on federalism in the country.

Among the roundtable participants were noted public scholars, social scientists or government advisers including Professors John Ayoade, Bello-Imam, Festus Egwaikhide, Stanley Okafor, Ayo Olukotun, Alaba Ogunsanwo, and Oyeleye Oyediran. Other participants included Hajiya Bilkisu Yusuf ,the prominent journalist and Muslim womene’s rights advocate; Dr. Wale Okediran, a former federal parliamentarian and the current President of the Association of Nigerian Authors; Alhaji Jeleel Agboola, with the Ibadan-based opposition All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP); Mr. Solomon Benjamin, a senior researcher on federalism issues at the Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research (NISER); and Babagana Ibrahim of the Federal Road Safety Corps.

The roundtable also attracted some younger Nigerian academics and practitioners, including Mr. Abubakar Oladeji and Drs. Nathaniel Danjibo and Antonia Simbine from NISER, Dr. Sofiri Joab-Peterside of the Center for Advanced Social Science (CASS), Mr. Eyene Okpanachi of the Kebbi State Ministry of Education, Mrs. Sonia Akinbiyi of the Ogun State Judiciary, Mr. Shola Omotola of Redeemer University, and Drs. Remi Aiyede, Victor Isumonah, Stephen Lafenwa and Irene Pogoson, all from the host Department of Political Science.

By Rotimi Suberu, Roundtable Co-ordinator.

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