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Published On: Tue, Apr 1st, 2014

National Conference and the art of dialogue

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By Nnimmo Bassey

After two weeks at the National Conference, events confirm once again that having productive conversations is an art. Hardened mind-sets and prejudices raise obstinate blockages between speakers and listeners. One of the reasons why this happens is that the speaker has a certain expectation of how the listener would respond to what she is saying, while the listener presumes that she knows what the speaker would say next and the conclusion that the speaker would reach as well.

This situation appears to be playing out very loudly at the ongoing National Conference. Of course, it is not a surprise because Nigerians are generally very opinionated and almost everyone claims to either be speaking for all Nigerians or for a section of the country they hail from. What makes the prediction tread worrisome at the Conference is that you could almost be right about where the speaker is heading and where he or she would land once they introduce themselves. This predictability makes keeping a dispassionate ear to contributions rather difficult. The implication of this situation is that many fine ideas may fall through the cracks.

It takes supreme effort to maintain a gentle mien in situations like these and some delegates determined not to literally fight to be heard may ultimately have to send in their views as part of the memoranda to be received from the public. What a shame that would be.

The National Conference has also been dubbed a national dialogue. This dialogue is going on but in the conference hall and on social media as well as other mass media spaces. Some of those discussions are deep and frank – probably because they are composed in private and could be crafted over time. But many are characteristically couched with bitter venom and are unfortunately passed as comments or responses to comments made by others. In many of those instances, you find combatants (not discussants) guessing the states of origin of other contributors by the names they bear. When this happens, you find the arguments taking a predictable slant to the mud. At the conference we equally find religious affiliations being attributed to persons by reason of their names. This is highly unscientific.

If sectional, even primordial and territorial interests becloud our sense of reasoning in online discussions, it suggests that for delegates at the National Conference to hear each other there must be a determination to rise above those barriers that trip and block us from hearing each other. Is it possible that we can rise beyond those tripping hurdles? This should be possible if we spend time to listen to each other. Listening can be a painful thing, as most men who cannot bear hearing their wives out, will testify. And there are people who compulsively take the opposite position in any argument. Sometimes, they insist they are opposing what is being said even when they are saying the same thing! In such cases, admission of error may come much later on after they have eventually calmed down enough to hear what was actually said.

One way to build the grounds for open conversations is the engagement in building common grounds. These sometimes happen through informal games, songs and what the Latinos call mystica. We do not suggest that delegates dance or hop about before sessions! The two things that prepare sessions of the National Conference are the opening prayers and the National Anthem. The adopted prayer of the Conference is the second stanza of the National Anthem. For some days, the first stanza of the National Anthem was rendered until a delegate complained that the anthem ought to be played only when the President or a Governor is around. This did not go down well with most delegates who stated quite rightly that even kindergarten and primary school children sing the anthem daily before going to their classes and that is not done only when the President or a Governor happens to be around. Others cite the fact that anthems are played before football matches even when those top-notch public officials are nowhere near the venues. Surprisingly, the anthem was off the card the day after the allegation that it was improper to sing the national anthem at the national Conference except when the president came around. This is a big lost opportunity that can be redressed.

As the search for true dialogue continues at the National Conference, the things that bind us together must be emphasised and one of those things is the National Anthem. It is one thing that will take a great deal of work for anyone to privatise. Sung sincerely, it ought to open up blocked veins and allow us all to think as Nigerians representing Nigerians, and not as jingoists representing sectional cleavages with our bags packed and ready to migrate to Bakassi, Benin, Niger, Cameroun, Equatorial Guinea or even Sao Tome and Principe.

It is true that nobody wants to lose an argument or a cherished position. And this stubborn clinging to fossilised positions is the reason civilisations suddenly collapse because it blocks the ability to read warning signs of crises. The world is currently on that track with regard to global warming. The hot debates and impasse over the matter of the proportion by which to measure agreement at the National Conference is indicative of the hard work to be done for us all to understand what it means to reach a consensus on any matter as Nigerians.

Whether we like it or not, we have to get to the point of hearing and feeling each other. Delegates have to keep their prejudices and other baggage outside the doors of the conference hall and be ready to talk and listen to each other. It is time for us all to learn the art of dialogue. And that refers to both those inside and those outside the conference hall.

NnimmoBassey is a delegate at the ongoing National Conference in Abuja


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