Association of 
Nigerian Scholars 
for Dialogue
                 Wilberforce Conference on Nigerian Federalism

Preface and Introduction


For a few days at the end of May 1997, a number of Nigerian scholars and graduate students, who are resident in North America, plus one other scholar resident in South Africa, assembled for a conference on the subject of Nigerian federalism. The venue of our meeting was Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio, a premier Historically Black College. Those of us who planned the conference had promised to provide a forum for exploring possibilities of a dialogue on the troubled affairs of our homeland. What occurred, once Nigerian scholars got together by themselves, was beyond the expectations of anyone who has been following the tragedy of Nigeria's crisis of governance that has damaged inter-ethnic and other communal relationships. The conference virtually assumed a life of its own.

The subject of federalism exerts a magnetic force among Nigerians. There was broad agreement that Nigerian federalism has been abused by military rule and that the way forward is to reconstitute our governance in such a manner as will avoid the over-centralization of Nigeria's public affairs and governance imposed by military rule. But once we settled down to the details of how to encourage Nigerians to engage in a dialogue on these vital matters, the conference ran into disagreements. The depth of anger and bewilderment against military rule was intense. But so also was the determination that we must encourage conversations, that will include the Nigerian military, on the need to reestablish federalism as a mode of governance in Nigeria's future affairs. What was remarkable above all else was the common determination that we must move forward on the path of dialogue with the Nigerian people concerning our common future.

What made the Wilberforce Conference special, however, was not the intriguing disagreement on the contentious subject of dialogue with the military, but rather the discovery that there is a broad new area for the effective practice of Nigerian federalism. The Wilberforce Conference included the topic of dialogues among communal groups, especially ethnic groups, which are at odds with one another. The matter of ethnic dialogues excited everyone's passion. It came to a head with discussions of troubled Igbo-Yoruba relationships. Scholars from these important ethnic groups in southern Nigeria dominated these discussions and agreed among themselves that their decades-old misunderstandings are hurting both groups and have jeopardized Nigeria's future prospects. There was broad agreement that this type of dialogue, indeed its expansion, must be encouraged. This was a development that surprised and pleased many participants.

The forceful entry of gender issues into discussions of Nigerian federalism also took most Nigerians attending the Wilberforce Conference by surprise. It was manifest in several presentations by female participants who commanded a leading presence at the sessions of the conference. Some of their views were well received as topics that ought to have featured prominently in previous discussions of federalism. For instance, it was widely accepted that the disadvantages imposed on married women in their husbands' states of origin ought to feature prominently in discussions of citizens' rights in Nigeria. But other fresh viewpoints advanced by some of the female participants were hotly contested and will guarantee fuller debates on gender issues whenever Nigerian federalism is examined in the future.

In view of such intellectual outcomes of the Wilberforce Conference, participants urged the leadership of the Project of Nigerian Scholars for Dialogue to make sure that these results would be well reported. The original scholarly purpose of the conference was limited to generating papers that are to be published in a reference book on Nigerian federalism, scheduled for some time in 1998-99, including papers by Nigerian scholars in Europe and Nigeria who were unable to attend the Wilberforce Conference. The requirement to issue a credible report of the conference was therefore an additional responsibility. But it is a responsibility that we are pleased to undertake.

There are other considerations for issuing this publication on the Wilberforce Conference. In his address to the conference participants, the Nigerian Ambassador in the United States made many worthy and thoughtful points. Perhaps the most significant of these is Dr. Adamu Hassan's exhortation at the end of his important address. He said: "I therefore urge you to transmit this message to your Nigerian colleagues and friends who could not attend this conference." We trust that this book is written in a way that will provide a good report of our efforts and message to our Nigerian colleagues who heroically ply their scholarly professions under very difficult circumstances. We hope for more. We pray that this report will be read not only by scholars but also by those in the Nigerian Military Government, who control our affairs, as well as by the ordinary people of Nigeria. After all, its subject matter is the welfare of our common heritage.

Nigeria's affairs have unfortunately become troublesome and accordingly the subject of international concerns. We therefore hope that this book will inform the international community of the viewpoints of Nigerian scholars on the political difficulties in their homeland. Indeed, one of the instructions by the conference to the leadership of the Project of Nigerian Scholars for Dialogue was to make sure that the report is well distributed in the international community. Needless to add, it is our hope that scholars of African and Nigerian affairs will find the contents of this book helpful in their studies of Nigerian politics and history.

Peter P. Ekeh
State University of New York at Buffalo


In response to the deepening political crisis in Nigeria, conversations were begun in early 1996 among Nigerian scholars in North America, Europe, and South Africa on the best ways they can assist in resolving the problems confronting their homeland. These informal discussions have led to the establishment of a project that will enable Nigerian scholars to examine their nation's multiple problems around the central issue of federalism. In a letter addressed to interested Nigerian scholars on this subject in November 1996, its director, Peter Ekeh, defined the triple objectives of this project as follows:

¨ to review Nigerian history and practices of constitutional development of federalism;

¨ to track down common ills that have hurt our development and practices of federalism;

¨ to redesign our federal system in ways that will redress these ills and reinvent Nigeria's future prospects.

Breaking the Cycles of
Civilian Failures and Military Dictatorship

The prime challenge facing those who want Nigeria to be returned from the path of lawless dictatorship to constitutional federalism consists of breaking the predictable cycles of civilian failures followed by seizure of power by a restless military waiting in the wings for any mistakes made by civilians. A major hindrance against credible attempts for constitutional restoration has been the notion, variously canvassed by Nigerian and foreign apologists for military rule, that military hegemonies have been more efficient and orderly than civilian domains. However, it is now clear that this is not the case in Nigeria. On the contrary, the military state has generated chaos and has become a major liability for Nigeria.

It seems fairly clear that Nigeria needs to move away from this path of self-destruction. The major problem against any impulse for change is that the normal institutions that were invoked in the past for charting new courses of action have been damaged. For instance, the heavy involvement of traditional rulers in military affairs has rendered their credibility vulnerable in the court of public opinion. In other words, Nigeria is faced with a severe dilemma. How will we crawl out of the abyss of misrule? This project carves one possible path out of this quandary.

Nigerian Scholars'
Role in Beginning a Dialogue

Right from the early periods of our history Nigerian scholars were taken seriously by the public. They have played major roles in advising governments. Many have had easy access to politicians and governmental agencies. Both in drafting economic plans and political projects, Nigerian intellectuals and scholars have been at the forefront of public service. Consequently, Nigerian university professors and students had political privileges that would be the envy of intellectuals in many other countries. In Nigeria, there has been that implicit trust in scholars that is usually reserved for priests in other societies.

Such trust has been severely tested in recent years because of military rule. Every military regime in Nigeria has sought out its batch of scholars, usually to validate its rule. In many cases scholars have been the military's most trusted allies. They have served as their ministers and have, in general, earned praise for good service. But in more recent times a few of the scholars serving in military cabinets have betrayed the public's trust by participating in some of the military's most egregious misdeeds.

However, the Nigerian academic and scholarly community has, arguably, monitored itself rather well. Some of the scholars who were perceived to have served with good intentions in recent military dictatorships have been well received by their colleagues. But a few others have been blamed for defending and excusing many of the military's dictatorial excesses and have had major difficulties in being accepted by their colleagues. As a backlash, many respected scholars are now unwilling to participate in the machinery of the current military government.

Although the academic community is severely handicapped by the new hardships that the country has incurred, it seems fair to say that the bond of trust between it and the Nigerian nation is still strong, despite noticeable instances of the violation of that trust by a few prominent scholars. Moreover, there is a pool of Nigerian scholars who, by their special circumstances, are less intimidated by military dictatorship and have continued to maintain ties with the Nigerian public. This is the rather large number of Nigerian university professors now working in North America, Europe, and South Africa. Their numbers in the United States and Scandinavia are quite significant. It is from among their ranks that the new impulse for a dialogue can be organized. They and a smaller number of their colleagues still heroically working back in Nigeria will engage in intellectual conversations that seek to examine Nigeria's past failures with the aim of pursuing new and credible ways out of Nigeria's current political misery.

It is this project that has spawned the conference which is the subject of this report. Its management expects that it will lead to a broad dialogue on Nigerian history and politics and on the mode of governance in a post-military era. Both the project and the Wilberforce Conference are also expected to result in a major book on Nigerian federalism.

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