National conference: Ethnic-based representation will breed chaos

Professor Ben Nwabueze, who sold the original idea to President Jonathan but declined nomination to the Committee seems not only obsessed with a so-called North/South divide in which the North has remained dominant but is doing all he can to bring that to an end, ensuring that the outcome favours his pet project of a Nigeria (if there is still to be one) dominated by its many small “ethnic” groups who together, he believes, are the true majority. Through his group, strangely termed “The Patriots”, he may still be influential enough to push everyone into submission.
The Afenifere, a Yoruba socio-cultural group, rushed in its submission calling for a “national conference with sovereign powers’’ insisting that “ethic nationalities” are the constituent units of our federation and their “autonomy” must be restored. It suggested that 100 delegates should be elected from each of the six geo-political zones in the country and the remaining 100 delegates should represent special interest groups. It further suggested that the 100 delegates from each zone should be elected on the basis of 10 per cent representation for all established ethnic nationalities in the zones. “The remaining 90 per cent should emerge from equal number of elected delegates from all senatorial districts representing the traditional ethno-geographical contents of the region. ’’The Arogbo Ijaw Community went even further and suggested that all nationalities in the country should be considered equal for the purpose of the conference, irrespective of their population. The Pro-National Confe-rence Organisation (PRONACO) made submissions along similar lines. On their part, the main opposition parties have dismissed the whole proposed national conference as a diversion and a fraud, just as most Nigerians look on with some scepticism.
Let us not deviate by delving into the different controversies surrounding meanings and validity of the words “ethnic”, “tribe”, let us assume for the sake of argument that these are clearly definable and accept that this super conference would have equal representation of all “tribes” and “ethnic groups.”  
How many tribes are we talking about? If we accept language as the defining characteristic, we are talking of over 650. On pages 95-103 of their book The Misrepresentation of Nigeria; the facts and the figures, Yusuf Bala Usman and Alkasum Abba listed 513 languages. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, is a comprehensive reference work cataloguing all of the world’s known living languages since 1951, and is widely regarded to be the most comprehensive source of information of its kind. It lists the number of individual languages in Nigeria as 529. Of these, 522 are living and 7 are extinct. Of the living languages, 22 are institutional, 80 are developing, 358 are vigorous, 20 are in trouble, and 42 are dying. (See
Given these numbers, how many will represent each group? How do we confirm whether or not they indeed speak the language, and if elected to a national conference would they be able to follow the proceedings, address others and make contributions? Would we require simultaneous translators on over 500 different languages? If one or two delegates are selected to represent each “ethnic” group what would happen if their group is spread among 8, 9 or 10 states? Hold an inter-state special election? A friend recently told me of a group he came across during his research work. This group has only three people currently able to speak the language. What happens if they are too old to show up or die before the national conference? Can such a group legitimately claim to be different when none of the survivors can speak their unique lingo?
Beyond the logistical and other problems (identification, conference languages and translations, etc.) we cannot run away from the reality that we are trying to establish a democracy. A democracy is about numbers with the minority having their say and the majority having its way. Nwabueze and people like him with rabid attachment to this fiction of “ethnic minorities” being a majority may be aware, and still are free to ignore, that just 10 or so of these group represent more than 80 per cent of our population. Does any sane person expect, in the name of equal representation, some 8 people elected to represent say 8 “ethnic” groups of Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo, Kanuri, Nupe, Tiv, and Igala, to sit and be dictated to in a Conference dominated by about 600 other delegates representing less than a third of the population?
It may come as a shock to Nwabueze, Afenifere, sundry Ijaw separatists and their co-travellers, but the “North” seems from all indications to have over two-thirds of all the language groups in the country, as Uwe Seibert, of the Department of Languages and Linguistics, University of Jos, has found. In his Nigerian Languages Listed according to States, he counted 645, including those dying and several on the verge of extinction. (See
This is tabulated, grouped by geopolitical zones and reproduced here for the readers’ convenience.- It should be noted that some of these languages have gone extinct but in most instances the ethnicities that spoke them are there but now speaking a different languages.
– While it is important to account for the broad representation of some of the major ethnic groups in some regions, these groups have not been accounted for in many of the states where they are not indigenous.
The table shows that three Northern geopolitical zones have 74.14% of the total languages spoken nationally. Of the remaining 25.86%, the South-South geopolitical zone accounts for 20.27%, leaving 5.59% to the South-East and South West. Clearly, the mainstream (Hausa, Fulani, Igbo, Yoruba and others) are not in agreement with this “ethnic” dispersion or confederacy agenda, but we all risk being consumed by adventurists living in a mythical world of ethnic nation states. The joke is clearly being pushed too far.
In moving away from the dangerous adventure of trying to restructure a nation from the fiction of pre-existing “ethnic” “federating” units we should keep in mind Yusuf Bala Usman’s warning: “Nations and nation-states have arisen from the process of the integration of people of diverse origin whose content and context kept changing over time as a result of the various forces that come to influence them… nations, nationalities and nation-states are not biological entities held together by blood ties, but political entities, formed by geography and history and the imperatives of territoriality and communication arising from these”.

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