500 delegates have three months to debate Nigeria's future. But the chances that the National Conference will come up with solutions to the many challenges the vast country faces are slight.
Officially, at least, Nigeria is attempting an effort at dialogue, an exercise in introspection. From Tuesday (18.03.2014) around 500 politicians and civil society representatives have been gathering in the capital Abuja for a national conference. "The aim of the meeting is to discuss on how the democratic system can improve the lives of Nigerians," said Information Minister Maku Laran, who believes that the conference will yield good results. "Many are convinced that the conference will help."
The challenges facing Nigeria are huge. Africa's most populous country is entrapped in violence. On Saturday (15.03.2014) gunmen attacked three villages near the central Nigerian city of Kaduna, killing up to 200 people. It was the latest in a series of assaults in the conflict between nomadic Fulani ethnic group and farmers over land rights and local supremacy.
In northeastern Nigeria, the militant Islamist sect Boko Haram have been spreading terror since 2009. In May 2013, President Goodluck Jonathan imposed a state of emergency across the states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the violence. In the south of Nigeria, decades of oil exploration have made a huge swathe of the Niger Delta uninhabitable. Because of the lack of safety measures and poor maintenance, oil has leaked into the environment. A large section of the population of the Niger Delta have lost their jobs and their sense of hope. Such things drive some people to join armed groups.
"An early election campaign"
Delegates at the national conference have three months to debate these issues. However, a clear agenda has not been charted out.
Murtala Nyako, the governor of the State of Adamawa, doubts whether the conference will be a success. "What is going to be said there that has not already been said?" asked Nyako. There has been no shortage of conferences in the past.
"People have made a lot of proposals. Now is the time to decide what to make of all these proposals. How can we implement them?" Until a few months ago, Nyako belonged to President Jonathan's People's Democratic Party (PDP). Like many other party members, he left the party in November 2013, allegedly in protest over the lawlessness in the country.
German journalist and Nigeria expert Heinrich Bergstresser is also pessimistic that the conference will fail to yield anything new. "The only difference between this conference and previous ones held under the former military government is that Nigeria has become a democratic state in the meantime," Bergstresser told DW.
He believes the government doesn't really care about the issues being discussed at the conference. "The intention of this new conference is simply to re-unite the deeply divided governing party," he said. There were hardly any new faces among the delegates and the conference is dominated by political and economic elite who have been determining Nigeria's fate for decades. "It offers these people a forum. It is a kind of early election campaign," Bergstresser said. Nigeria holds parliamentary and presidential elections in 2015. It is considered almost certain that President Goodluck Jonathan will be standing for another term.
A divided country
Civil society groups were initially in favor of having a national dialogue. But they too are unhappy with the way it was planned and organized. Nigerian lawyer Solomon Dalung goes as far as to describe the National Conference as a "worrying development. I am convinced that this is a political weapon to distract people from real problems of the country: insecurity, hunger, unemployment and looting," he said.
Bergstresser also believes that the government cares little about the numerous local conflicts troubling Nigeria.
The government in Abuja hopes it can eradicate the country's problems by encouraging foreign investment. "Foreign investors are flocking to Nigeria at present," Bergstresser said. But he doubts whether the healthy economic growth in southwest of the country could help heal its divisions.
With inequalities between north and south deepening, civil society representatives are curiously waiting to see which solutions the National Conference will propose.