A national conference to debate constitutional reform opens in Nigeria on Monday.
But many are sceptical that the forum, dominated by nominees of President Olusegun Obasanjo’s ruling party, will suggest radical initiatives to ease the tensions that threaten to pull apart Africa’s most populous nation.
Although many political leaders have been calling for constitutional change for years to give Nigeria’s 250 different ethnic groups a greater say in their own affairs and adjust the balance of power between the federal government and the country’s 36 member states, Obasanjo himself is a last-minute convert to the cause.
The former military head of state who returned to power through the ballot box in 1999, had until recently vehemently opposed all suggestions that the constitution be reviewed from top to bottom.
However, constitutional reform has been a burning topic in Nigeria since independence from Britain in 1960 and Obasanjo has finally decided to face it.
Over the past 45 years, the controversy has led to civil war, popular unrest and a deepening of religious and ethnic divides, especially between the staunchly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south.
More recently arguments over constitutional reform have also threatened to disrupt the production of oil, the lifeblood of Nigeria’s economy.
Obasanjo finally agreed at the end of last year that the issue should be formally debated with a view to amending the rule book that governs the way in which Nigeria’s 126 million people live together.
“We should not be afraid to meet and discuss our problems, challenges, fears, aspirations, and prospects as a people,” the president said in a national broadcast to announce the 21 February start date of the National Political Reform Conference.
“We should not discuss in fear and we should never fear to discuss,” he added.
Yet Obasanjo was quick to make clear that Nigeria’s existence as a nation must not be called into question at the conference.
“Our disagreement must not lead to disintegration,” he warned.
Four decades of controversy
Secession is an issue that has been discussed over the years by several ethnic groups, especially the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria.
They fought and lost a 1967-1970 civil war to try and create the breakaway state of Biafra, a state, which if created, would have taken nearly all of Nigeria’s vital oil revenues with it.
Many political analysts doubt how representative of public opinion the constitutional conference will be, since the 400 delegates meeting in the capital Abuja have been handpicked by Obasanjo himself and Nigeria’s 36 state governors.
Three quarters of these governors belong to Obasanjo’s ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
And, at the end of the three-month discussion period, Obasanjo will have the final say on whether the conference recommendations will actually be implemented.
“The President appears to have decided to do the popular thing and let Nigerians talk without giving up control,” said political analyst Ike Onyekwere who writes as a columnist for several Nigerian newspapers.
Onyekewere told IRIN that he believed Obasanjo had weakened the credibility of the project and had failed to appease those most aggrieved by their lot in Nigeria who have been calling for constitutional reform for decades.
Already there is a parallel conference planned.
A coalition of groups opposed to Obasanjo’s conference will meet in June under the banner of Pro-National Conference Organisations (PRONACO). In this planned forum, elected delegates will be free to discuss everything, including the right by various communities to secede from the federation.
The organisers have challenged Obasanjo to allow the election of conference delegates and subject any draft constitution devised to be put to national referendum.
Recent unrest in the Oil States
Nigeria is the biggest oil producer in Africa. Its output of up to 2.5 million barrels per day provides 90 percent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings and drives the economy.
Obasanjo’s sudden conversion to the idea of constitutional reform followed threats by an Ijaw ethnic militia group last September to shut down oil production in the Niger delta – a move that would have been tantamount to flicking the switch on Nigeria’s life support machine.
These threats were taken very seriously by the global oil industry.
When the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF), led by Moujahid Dokubo-Asari, declared all-out war against the government and threatened to blow up oil installations in the Niger delta, world oil prices shot to record highs of more than US$50 per barrel.
The impoverished residents of the Niger delta have been complaining for years that the federal government takes all the oil money generated on their doorstep and has left their region poor, undeveloped and polluted by oil spills.
The oil companies have become used to activists briefly occupying their installations and taking oil workers hostage to demand the redress of local grievances.
But suddenly, last year, they found themselves taking on a 3,000-strong Ijaw ethnic militia group prepared to simply shoot their employees on sight in order to shut down production.
They had good reason to be worried.
Political analysts say the NDPVF has long connived with corrupt government officials and senior military commanders to steal oil from pipelines in the delta and sell it to tankers waiting offshore. Its fighters belong to the Ijaw tribe, the largest ethnic group in the delta, and know its labyrinthine waterways like the back of their hand. Tackling them head on would be a dangerous and costly operation.
Obasanjo responded by dispatching a presidential jet to fetch Dokubo-Asari for talks in Abuja. His initiative managed to quickly calm the situation.
One of the militia leader’s key demands was for Obasanjo to call a sovereign national conference to devise a new federal structure that would give the impoverished people of the oil region greater control over its wealth.
However, Dokubo-Asari has refused to take part in the government-organised conference opening in Abuja on Monday. Instead, he has chosen to back the rival constitutional conference proposed by PRONACO.
“I have rejected them, we’re part of PRONACO,” he told reporters in Lagos last week.
The oil producing southeast has a long history of dissent.
In 1967, only seven years after independence, the southeast attempted to secede, leading to a bloody three-year civil war.
Many of the Igbo people who dominate the region still resent the fact that they remain part of the federation. They feel they have suffered deep neglect under successive Nigerian civilian and military regimes and are once more demanding the right to secede.
This secession drive is spearheaded by the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra, which appers to attracting increasing popular support among the Igbo.
The red, black and green flag of Biafra, with a rising sun at its centre, flies from many a lamp post and tree top across towns and villages in the southeast – a quiet mark of protest that lingers on.
There is also a rising clamour for more autonomy and a looser form of national federation among Obasanjo’s own Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria.
The most radical expression of this the O’dua People’s Congress (OPC), a separatist militia group, which has combined vigilante duties with fighting for the interests of the Yoruba in ethnic violence in which many have died.
Dissatisfaction in the Muslim dominated north
Even in the Muslim north, whose leaders once feared that secession by the south would deprive them of access to the nation’s wealth and an outlet to the sea, Islamic radicals are now pushing for a national conference to loosen the federal ties and give individual states more scope to implement Islamic Sharia’h law.
Many moderate Muslims and Christians, who regard Sharia’h punishments such as cutting off hands and feet for theft and stoning women to death for adultery as a violation of human rights enshrined in the constitution, view such moves with trepidation.
But in the wake of renewed fighting between Muslims and Christians in the northern city of Kano last year, Datti Ahmed, who leads the Supreme Council for Sharia’h in Nigeria, declared there would be war unless the government called a sovereign national conference to decide the country future.
"It is either a sovereign national conference now or we go to war because the federal government has failed and the system has collapsed," Ahmed said.
In the past five years 12 states in the predominantly Muslim north have adopted the strict Islamic legal code or Sharia’h, prescribing death by stoning for adultery, amputation of limbs for stealing and public flogging for drinking alcohol.
This has caused deep apprehension among Christians, who form large minorities in several of these states.
Meanwhile conflicts between farmers and cattle herdsmen in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, have taken on an ethnic and religious mantle, further deepening the Muslim-Christian divide.
Embarrassingly for Obasanjo, two of Nigeria’s most eminent campaigners for constitutional reform have distanced themselves from his conference initiative.
Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize winning novelist and playwright and Anthony Enahoro, a prominent campaigner against British colonial rule in the 1950s, were both listed among government nominees to the conference.
But at a joint news conference on Thursday, Soyinka and Enahoro said they had never received formal invitations. They said they had only heard about their nomination as delegates appointed by the president in the news.
Soyinka went on to denounce the constitutional conference as “a distraction.”
But Enahoro said he would let his Movement for National Reformation decide whether or not he should take part once his formal invitation arrived.
Both men pledged to continue working for a sovereign national conference on constitutional reform.
Some suspect that Obasanjo’s ultimate objective in calling the present conference is to amend the constitution so that he can serve a third four-year term once his current mandate runs out in 2007.
This was a fear voiced by Yusuf Bala Usman, a respected university teacher and political activist.
“I believe Obasanjo's strategy is very simple. He wants the conference to hold so that people …would fight themselves there so that he can declare himself as the only person capable of saving the country,” Usman told reporters in the northern city of Kaduna on Thursday.
“Then he may change the constitution and make himself a president like (Jacques) Chirac and appoint a prime minister,” he added.
Obasanjo would not be the first African head of state to tamper with the constitution in order to stip out a two-term limit on presidential tenure.
President Idriss Deby in neighbouring Chad is going through the process of doing this at present.
Obasanjo has so far remained silent about what will happen in two years time. However, he is widely believed to favour the nomination of former military head of state Ibrahim Babangida, as the PDP flag-bearer in the next presidential election.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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