Reno Omokri: National Conference – a time for building bridges

By IAfrica
In Nigeria
Mar 17th, 2014
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As the National Conference begins this week, Nigerians have a fresh opportunity to have a ‘We the People’ moment, that moment where they take ownership of their country and see it as theirs and not a legacy of Lord Lugard and his boss Lord Lewis Harcourt.

Of course, there has been so much water under the bridge. There’s been a civil war, military rule, ethnic tensions and what have you, however, delegates to this conference must have the mindset that yesterday is gone and there is no use quarreling over it. As the late Steve Jobs said “let’s go invent tomorrow rather than worrying about what happened yesterday”.

So, how can the delegates to the National Conference invent a better tomorrow for Nigeria and Nigerians? Answering this question is imperative because in the fast changing world of today, it is no longer enough to be up to date, we must be up to tomorrow.

In my opinion, this can be done if delegates see their task as one of building bridges.

Coincidentally, President Jonathan fulfilled a promise he made to Nigerians when he performed the Ground Breaking Ceremony for the Second Niger Bridge only a week ago.

If you watched that event live on Television you would have seen the excitement and anticipation on the faces of those who were there beginning from the high and mighty to those of lower estate.

The reason for this excitement and anticipation is because bridges make you hungry for a voyage. And the voyage that a bridge compels is not a voyage of self discovery. A bridge takes you on a voyage beyond your comfort zone so you can discover others.

As the playwright T.S. Elliot said “we shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”.

Many of the delegates in the National Conference have spent a life time exploring themselves and those in their communities. Perhaps this National Conference is the perfect opportunity for Nigeria’s leaders to explore others and maybe, just maybe, that exploration may end up being their path to truly knowing Nigeria for the very first time.

Why do I say this? Hitherto, most Nigerians have only known their immediate neighbours. So, for instance, a Nigerian living in the Southwest may have a world view that you are born and your parents are expected to educate you and thereafter the burden is on you (with support from your parents) to get a good job and begin to make a life of your own.

Such a person may not have the ability to conceive of parents who are illiterate because that is a rarity in the Southwest. And because they cannot fathom illiterate parents, they may not be able to understand that a child can be born into this world with little or no means of bettering himself through Western education and it is thus the responsibility of the state to bridge that gap for that child so that he can rise above the level of his parents.

Conversely, in certain other parts of Nigeria, a child is born and his world view is shaped by fatalism and the idea that all that is destined to be yours will come to you in due time. He grows up and stumbles into one opportunity after the other and eventually becomes a leader of his community who cannot understand the mad rush of some other Nigerians to make something of themselves.

And still in another part of Nigeria, a young girl grows up and is raised to see marriage as the ultimate goal of life and cannot even fathom an active life outside of being a wife and a mother, meanwhile there are other Nigerians who are seeking to liberate her when she considers herself more liberated than those seeking to liberate her. In fact, in her mind, her would be liberators are in need of a more natural orientation.

These and many other world views exists in Nigeria but many Nigerians are clueless to the existence of these states of existence and can thus not understand why others do not reason like them.

It is commonly said that if the mountain cannot come to you then you must go to the mountain. I also believe that if you cannot get others to reason like you then you must get yourself to reason like others not for the purpose of becoming like them, but for the purpose of understanding them and making adjustments to accommodate them.

And why should the delegates of the National Conference do this? Its simple really. Nigeria is here to stay and none of us can wish the other away and so the most pragmatic solution to the tensions that sometimes rise to the fore in Nigeria is to learn to understand each other.

Some may say that the National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, is the ideal vehicle for achieving the type of understanding that is envisaged by the National Conference and I would agree up to a point.

The thing to consider is this-many of us may have grown up in closely knit communities such as Festac Town or Surulere in Lagos or the many military, police and paramilitary barracks that dot Nigeria. When people are cooped up close to each other, quarrels are inevitable. The adults quarrel and those quarrels endure, but in most cases their kids still go out to play with each other when the adults are away.

No matter how much those kids play, it makes little difference to the animosity of their parents unless and until the adults in the equation decide to bury the hatchet.

My point exactly. The NYSC is doing its bit in building bridges amongst the elite of our youth, but it is the bridges that are built amongst the elders and leaders of ethnic and regional groupings that has sufficient weight to cause a burying of the hatchet.

So how do we maximize the opportunity presented by the National Conference so that understanding may be fostered amongst the elders of Nigeria leading to that ‘We the People Moment’?

I suggest the following;

i. While the Conference is ongoing, younger elements and elders who are not part of the National Conference must be prevailed upon to observe a verbal ceasefire and desist from combustible and bombastic rhetoric.

ii. The delegates of the National Conference could build trust amongst themselves by observing some sort of Chatham House Rules, where statements made during deliberations are privileged and may not be used against the maker in the media, court and in politics, and;

iii. The rest of us should observe some restraint in the media, be it Social or Traditional, and not allow ourselves to be worked into a frenzy by speculation or hearsay. It must be that the delegates influence our conversation rather than for us to influence their conversation. Doing so will allow the delegates to FOCUS. The thing about focus is that it allows its possessor to build such clarity of thought and purpose enabling him or her to weed out anything that detracts from the goal. And the goal of this conference is that future generations of Nigerians may have a country that better suits their aspiration to pursue their own happiness.

And it is possible to overcome the past prejudices in Nigeria through this conference. Look at what America has been able to overcome via dialogue.

Many people read the American Declaration of Independence and applaud the Founding Fathers for their belief that all men were created equal by their Maker but they may not recall that these Founders were almost all slave owners. They were good men but they were also hard task masters who did not envisage that their slaves would ever be anything more than property. That was the time in which they lived.

But through the American Civil War, The Emancipation Proclamation, The Civil Rights Movement and Affirmative Action, America has reinvented itself through dialogue into a nation led by a Black President in The White House. This in a land where the same black man was once considered property by those who built the original White House.

The moral of this true story is that there is nothing that cannot be overcome by dialogue.

We may never have considered each other property but if truth be told, we may have in the past sometimes considered other of our countrymen and women as rivals or worse, enemies. This must change. We have no choice but to change this mindset if we want to build the type of nation that is capable of meeting our needs for today and tomorrow.

The statistics clearly show that couples’ who engage in Marriage Counseling have lower divorce rates than couples who don’t. They also show that nations that engage in National Conferences don’t fall apart. Quite the opposite in fact, they end up growing stronger and larger. This was the case with India after her own experience with a National Dialogue in the 60s. In the decade immediately prior to their own conference, they had lost territory as Pakistan broke away. But after their conference, India added territory (Goa) and became stable, prosperous and has not had an interruption of its democracy.

Finally, Nigerians should commend President Goodluck Jonathan for having the foresight, abundance mentality and the security in himself and his position to allow Nigerians meet and fashion out their way forward for the future.

The President’s belief in Nigeria is inspiring and it perhaps explains why even opposition controlled states have seen wisdom with him by sending delegates to the Conference in defiance of their party’s directive.

As the President himself said “our founding fathers did not dream of a country where neighbors and friends exchange bullets in place of handshakes”.

This conference is precisely the place where we can retrace our steps and return to the path set before us by our founding fathers and build a nation that is a beacon of hope for the black race globally.

Let’s all have faith in this dialogue. We should not preempt the delegates and we should not rush them. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase”.

Reno Omokri is Special Assistant on New Media to President Jonathan.

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