At various times in the past, the Federal Government has convoked national conferences with the aim of exploring solutions to the problems of Nigeria, the recent of all was the 2014 national conference convoked by the former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. Even as all-engaging as the conference seemed, it received a template of engagement where state actors were told to avoid the discussions on the unity of Nigeria. This would have served as a golden opportunity to discuss the issues of our national unity and to further strengthen it but the government declared the issues relating to the unity of the country as “no-go-area” during the conference. Such would have been an avenue for a non-violent communication that featured representatives of State, Church, Civil societies, Media, some aggrieved members of warring communities and other relevant stakeholders with respect to nascent democracy. Some of the questions raised by the nationalists and participants at the conference were that: in whose interest was the ‘non-negotiable stand’ of the government taken?
What were the fears of those that took this autocratic position? Do the conditions in the country suggest that there is true unity and as such deserve no reappraisal? Is there really a point in a country’s life when one can say that the issue of unity is sealed and no longer negotiable? Today, the same parameters of unity in Nigeria are in serious crisis with the agitations for restructuring or secession in some quarters. The government seems to remain recalcitrant in shielding the question of Nigeria’s unity from being subjected to democratic currents and scrutiny. On the contrary what we see always are efforts to instill fear in the mind of agitators by way of arrest, raid, extra-judicial killings or indefinite detention in the custody of security agencies. These forms of approach are apparently meant to send a strong of message of military might to those either brandished as ‘criminals’ or ‘terrorists’ as against ‘freedom fighters’; a rhetoric introduced by the government to legitimize the use of maximum force as the case may be. We should however ask what message that such an approach has sent to the warring parties? In most cases, it has produced more ‘criminals’ and ‘terrorists’ as referenced in cases of Boko Haram, IPOB, Niger Delta Militants etc.
The Federal Government of Nigeria under the democratic regime seemed to have borrowed an unreview communicative strategy in handling civil matters from the military even as we transitioned to Democracy. Certainly, the language of communication by the military is ‘carrot and stick’ method as the case may be but events have revealed that no matter the level of engagement by the military, they will eventually resort to the use of maximum force to quell any form of insurrection. Now that we are out of the military era and back to democracy, shouldn’t we explore other strategies of national engagement or peace resolution that is non-violent and would keep the military at the barracks or busy about territorial protection? We seem to have turned one another to enemies rather than join hands to fight a common enemy. We no longer see one another as brothers and sisters with a common vision to build and serve our fatherland, neither do the lines of our national anthem (one nation bound in freedom) make any meaning to an average Nigerian who feels marginalized or ostracized from the events happening around him or her.
Where is the nation and where is the freedom? These are the questions on the lips of young and old Nigerians. Some of our young people who should even participate in conscious dialogue to move our nation forward are busy applying for foreign visas to leave the shores of Nigeria for nations that do not have better plans for them. How do we speak to them and convince them that their future and the future of their children are guaranteed in their fatherland? We must realize that dialogue is not a sign of weakness but strength. To call a spade a spade, who are those calling for the disintegration of Nigeria, are they Nigerians or Foreigners? Do they have legitimate grounds for their agitations? What were the initial signs of an impending danger that the government failed to address in the past? What were the communicative strategies that further escalated the problems rather than resolve the issues raised? Were they considered as Nigerians who had legitimate grounds to express their grievances and such grievances given proper attention for present or future considerations? Were they intimidated, maimed or displaced by way of response by the government? Where have such strategies of engagement brought us and where do they lead us? What do we mean when we ask the federal government to engage in dialogue with Nigerians?
What we mean is that even though the problems might not have been caused by the present administration, it is their responsibility to take frantic steps to address some of the concerns raised by the agitators and help them to address the issues in perspectives. The correctness of agitations or mode of expression should not be an issue in a non-violent communication but the need to reason together as stakeholders and partners in progress for the common good without the display of superior might. This is what can douse tensions and bring everyone to national dialogue. It is therefore important that the present government realizes that we are no longer in the military era where might is right. The strategy of communication must change and become more democratic. While we may exonerate them as non- creators of the present marginalization or bad governance that have created the current agitations, the effect of such mismanagement of our common wealth is what they have to deal with in their time. No doubt, the present administration has done more in the area of infrastructure but the security of lives and properties is a huge task that presently confronts them. The government got it wrong the day dialogue was replaced with the use of force; a strategy that has produced more criminals than compatriots. We must therefore retrace our steps to the table of negotiation and dialogue. Let the aggrieved freedom fighters come out and state their grievances and let the government be humble to listen to them no matter how unreasonable such agitations might be.
Let both parties agree that war has not produced any solution, appeal for calm and set the stage for resolutions to address the age long problems created by political actors, some of whom are presently in or outside the government. No one should be made to appear as a criminal and if possible pardon be granted. The conditions for peace and reconciliation should be realistic and not outrageous and the use of force be completely taken out. Compensations should be considered where necessary and restitution to those marginalized. With these, there would be mutual apology, forgiveness and a common effort to rebuild damaged relationships. Communication is the foundation of cohabitation. When communication is not prioritized, the consequences are hard to ignore. Studies have shown that 60% of warring nations and communities fail due to team related problems, including lack of communication. There has been an ongoing conversation over the past few months by political analysts and scholars in public relations to explore avenues to quell the fire of agitations for secession by some nationalists and particularly to address the problem of insecurity in Nigeria.
One of the strategies advanced thus far is the non-violent communication, which the Government and people must embrace for conflict resolutions in Nigeria. The framework itself is based on openness and trust-based vulnerability. Recognizing the values of transparent, honest, non-aggressive interactions that help to create a foundation of empathy, trust and constructive feedback. We must realize that Democracy is the government of the people. The people must have a say in government and policy making. Resisting negotiations will simply keep deepening the crisis of our national unity. Hence, the government must embark on a campaign to convince Nigerians about the desirability of a united Nigeria economically, politically and otherwise while they are made to know what they stand to gain by remaining united and what they would lose if the country breaks up. Finally, implementing the recommendations of such a dialogue and promoting good governance through accountability and equity will certainly quell the agitations for the separation and disintegration of the country rather than the blatant use of force. Peace should be the goal of everyone that loves Nigeria and it is a communal effort if it will be enduring. God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
• Rev. Fr. Gregory is the Director of Social Communications, Catholic Diocese of Abeokuta