When plans to convene another talkfest around the seminal questions hemming in our quest for national cohesion were bruited about recently, my initial reaction was one of irritation. At the minimum, any such dialogue makes sense in response to a representation, accountability, or democracy deficit. Within this reading, a national conference was reasonable as part of our transition from rule by the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office, to political independence. It has also been valid each time we tried to recover from the political, social, and economic deceleration that military intervention in our national life has come to represent.
In a functioning democracy, however, the convention of a national conference is a fraught activity. Understandably, there are those questions, which the transition arrangement from our last rule by the military (in 1999) left unanswered. Again, precisely because no such transition arrangement could have found suitable solutions to what were (at the time) imponderables for an unelected government. That was (and remains) the point of our insistence on the democratic organisation of our collective space over the diktat that is military (and unelected) rule. Just about everywhere that the democratic project has worked, elected representatives have proven more able than arbitrarily appointed ones to negotiate the trade-offs without which a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-everything society would continue to favour centrifugal tendencies within it.
Moreover, we have had a decade-and-half to tackle these problems under “elected governments”. In this period, executive arms of government at the federal and sub-national levels have had to work with legislatures and the judiciary in the administration of our state. Indeed, at the federal level, such was our concern with full representation that the legislature is bicameral. A context that then indicates, any of several possibilities if still we think a national conference germane to the design of lasting solutions to our problems.
The first, and most damning one, is the possibility that the representative quotient of our current effort at democracy is too low to be of much use. Given the many references to flaws in the series of elections that brought the present crop of political office holders to power, it would not surprise if they truly were not “representatives of the people”. In which case, their capacity to negotiate on the people’s behalf was always going to be that much smaller.
Conversely, if I discount the democratic deficit, then the failure of existing structures to deal fruitfully with our myriad problems invites enquiry from another perspective. Either, the nature of our problems denies them easy solutions. Or, that a certain quality to how we have approached the problems renders them insoluble.
A national conference, to the extent that it identifies this democratic deficit as the problem, could then be advantageous. Properly organised (that is with participants coming off free and fair elections), representatives to the national conference could then haggle in our collective best interests: establishing desirable ends; the prices thereof; and funding structures thereto.
Arguably, if the problem is in our stars (which is the main case made by those who would split the country up) there is scant that a national conference, however convened, could achieve. If again, the bigger burden for our failures is a derivative of our approach play, there is only so much that a conference can repair.
Unfortunately, the dialogue around the convention of the current conference did not go this far. Once representatives to it were selected, it was dubious the extent to which, or if at all they could represent any interest but their selectors’. That was how I felt at the beginning. In the event, I have been tickled by the goings on at the conference. Too many somnambulists, true. Now, a growing number now wear sunshades in a lit hall. Nevertheless, to its credit, the conference has been bold enough to grab all our “third rails” — indigeneship and ethnicity, fiscal federalism, etc.
What it has done thereafter is the problem. And, nothing underpins the sense of despair that has arisen from the conference’s deliberations more than its decision on the creation of new states. A large number, yes. Still, that is but to niggle. More important in any consideration of the establishment of new states is the condition of existing ones.
This is not the place to interrogate whether or not more states drive development. It is enough to point out, instead, to subsidiarity as a more desirable principle. The point here is to organise the administration of our state in a way that ensures that the most important tasks are “handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralised authority capable of addressing that matter effectively”. On the other hand, the danger with creating a state for every interest is that we end up with 170 million states.
Obviously, this number is a skit. And so are many of our current states: risible lampoons in the absence of the large fiscal transfers that the federal budget currently is. Doubtless, stabilising fiscal transfers, in the face of different regional economic performances are a non-negotiable requirement in a federation, so there is no real theoretical problem when the federal budget passes huge amounts of money to constituent regions.
However, when 90% of the constituent parts depend solely on these transfers, the order of difficulty is not just huge, but worrisome. It is worse, when an exhaustible resource is currently the only source of funding this humongous dependency.
Ought members of the national conference to have been alive to this fact? Methinks so. What to make of this breach of responsibility? I am not too sure about this. Still, blurred thought processes along a path this important does not offer much comfort on the success of the conference’s deliberations on the litany of worries it has put before itself.