The Nigerian Christian Elders Forum which has been coming into greater national prominence is leaving behind bickering, replacing it with a dramatic call for a return to the nationalist lore through transitional justice approach. In a move that is bound to catch many off guard given its scathing appraisal of the state of the nation last July, the Forum is canvassing redirection of the discourse of Nigeria from religion and ethnicity to nationalism. Mr Solomon Asemota, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, (SAN) who spoke for the Forum explained how it has privileged the political parties as the best institution by which this can be achieved. But it would want a reconciliation process built into it because, unlike in South Africa, difference in Nigeria, in its argument, has assumed tribal and religious character.
Not only does the Forum appear to have thought critically about its concerns by identifying political parties as the most suitable institutional framework by which politics of the nationalist lore can be operationalised, it also has written down its thoughts in a way that leaves no one in doubt as to where it stands. These were the two documents it presented to APC National Chairman yesterday in Abuja as part of its engagement with such bodies.
There have been no reactions as at the time of posting this but this approach differs from all other options so far on the table. Truth and Reconciliation, when well handled, offers most deeply divided societies the cheapest, the fastest and most healing safe landing from the injuries of the politics of difference. It is global best practice for dealing with prolonged inter-group bitterness because it opens the inter-subjective space most widely for the sort of communication that can cure and reconcile injured minds.
Some people would argue that the unspeakable level of poverty in Nigeria today, the dysfunctional status of most public institutions, the pervasiveness of violence and cruelty, the near complete absence of the pastoral dimension of political power or leadership across the board and the moral siege enveloping everyone should suggest that the National Christian Elders Forum might have come up with something irresistible by suggesting a Truth and Reconciliation approach to remaking Nigeria. Many would also say there are hardly any other options left beyond the Truth and Reconciliation approach in the absence of a powerful narrative of Nigeria that could have fired popular imagination as to overwhelm forces of disintegration or a government of national unity or an aggressive re-assertion of charismatic leadership or roaring success of rotation of power which would have stemmed claims of marginalisation.
Some critics might, however, object to it on the ground that the crisis in Nigeria is intra-elite in nature, not between the common people unless and until when elite manipulation of ethno-religious and regional differences degenerate into violence in which the people are normally the victims. Of course, the elite do not just fight within the camp. They also have deep seated frustration except that there are bonds and protocols by which they ought to sort themselves out without that hindering them from providing national leadership on the basis of consensus and for reason of enlightened self-interest of the collective. Why that consensus over differences has eluded the Nigerian power elite is the puzzle, especially after the elaborate mechanisms they have put in place such as Federal Character Commission, NYSC, Quota, etc.
Truth and Reconciliation was part of the Obasanjo Presidency’s post conflict peace building between 1999 and 2003 except that as Archbishop John Onaiyekan, for instance, has said, it was an opportunity squandered because “Little truth came out of it and definitely not much reconciliation either. At most, it provided a forum for a few people to tell their story and cry for people to see”. Absolving the leading personnel associated with the process of blame, the Archbishop traced the problem to “the bizarre spectacle of high-level lawyers leading big time liars to package their misleading stories for us to hear”.
His position would be a caution on what to watch against if Nigeria is going this way again, taking note of his own criteria for successfully instrumentalising TRC to heal memories of ‘ugly and tragic past’ which is very applicable to Nigeria since 2009. Again, it bears quoting his first condition which he set out as follows: “First and foremost is the truth. The truth means that everybody is ready to admit what he/she has done. It is not the time to apportion blames or to accuse one another. Nor is it time to drag in prestigious lawyers and advocates. Rather, it is time to accept that we have done wrong. … If we have not got the courage to do this, we will continue to dance around the circles. And in order that the telling of the truth may not just become racking up old wounds that will lead nowhere, it must be part of a process that leads to the next stage, namely repentance and forgiveness and reparation”.
It is instructive that the late Dr Ibrahim Tahir made almost exactly the same recommendation about the same time that Archbishop Onaiyekan was speaking in 2006 although he framed his from the canvass of political sociology of state survival at a time of threats from negative accumulation. He meant the same thing as Onaiyekan. Like the Christian elders, he too identified an institution – the National Assembly – by whose act a national forgiveness process would be enacted. The only exceptions he granted were rape and arson. That is to say that, as far as he was concerned, rape and arson are not forgivable.
There is no clear idea yet of the model of TRC the Christian elders submitted to the political parties and how different they are from whatever exists. But their move suggests that, perhaps, the current crisis is forcing ideas out from all quarters on how to remake Nigeria.