Confab: opening its political balance sheet 1

By IAfrica
In Nigeria
Aug 30th, 2014
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Just reviewing the basic laws of union would have been enough for a conference of that size without overloading the delegates with an encyclopaedia of items about governance

If Professor Bolaji Akinyemi’s self-congratulation is a good measure of how to assess the just concluded national conference in Abuja, there would have been no reason for any federalist in the country to have a second thought about the hyperbolic claims of success at the end of the conference. Having served as the vice chairman of the conference, nobody would blame the former foreign minister for grading a project he co-directed generously, although most people in that capacity would rather wait for others not engrossed in the project to do the evaluation. The balance sheet of the conference does not look as good as it has been painted by the conference’s vice chairman. That the balance sheet appears more negative than the vice chairman has acknowledged is not necessarily because of what the conference staff did directly or did not do at all.

The conference was aborted ab initio or at its planning stage. Preferring to select delegates to mandating communities to elect their representatives in many ways hobbled the good people that were selected to determine how the peoples of Nigeria want to inter-relate with each other in one united political territory. In addition, the assignment given to the conference was too much: amending or re-writing the 1999 Constitution and also writing a proposal on how to re-invent governments across the board. Just reviewing the basic laws of union would have been enough for a conference of that size without overloading the delegates with an encyclopaedia of items about governance– from designing form of government to showing how to build a silo to keep harvested grains in the country.

Moreover, the possibility of thinking out of the box in terms of constructing basic laws of union was limited by the house rules that required a minimum of 70% of votes for any decision to hold in the absence of a consensus. Furthermore, what was needed to make delegates think creatively about how to design a multiethnic state-nation was ruled out at the beginning of the conference by its convener: President Goodluck Jonathan. Delegates were told that nobody had the right to think about self-determination, as doing so would question the basis of the union of Nigeria’s nationalities, as if a constitutional conference is not about questioning or problematising the status quo.

There is no doubt that honest delegates must have gone to the conference, not necessarily for the emoluments as many commentators have observed, but perhaps because delegates were optimistic that they could achieve very much with very little. To be fair to the delegates, they must have exerted themselves. Just seeing the catalogue of what they advise governments to do in order to make Nigeria work or thrive regardless of the type of constitution it has, is enough to convince those who live by criticising others that the delegates thought and talked about many things in the few months of deliberation. Taking over 600 resolutions about every aspect of governing a country, ranging from establishing a sports village and how to choose athletes to represent the country to ensuring adequate supply of potable water for toilets in the markets across the country must have required paying attention to details. The success of the conference is not in the changes delegates recommended in the direction of restoring federalism but more in terms of giving the president a Governance Blueprint of what to do and how to do them in order to govern meaningfully.

Opening the balance sheet after the conference has submitted its report to the convener suggests that the Yoruba region in particular has gained the least from the conference. This may not be because of any inadequacy on the part of Yoruba delegates. Yoruba delegates included some of the country’s best and finest men and women, many of whom would have been elected by their people were such opportunity available before the conference. But the Yoruba went to the conference as disparate groups or members of opposition parties or pro- and anti-Jonathan groups, rather than as Yoruba people with the belief that true federalism marked by shared governance and shared sovereignty including a reasonable measure of resource control among federating units would improve the life chances of Yoruba people. Each Yoruba delegate believed that his or her patriotism was enough to guarantee seminal contribution at the conference.

Even before the conference, the Yoruba region was divided on the issue of the conference. Some of the delegates, especially those referred to as leaders of Afenifere or old Afenifere were believed by many to have colluded with the presidency to design a conference that was to be driven by North-South dichotomy and to strengthen Jonathan’s bid for another tenure, on the assumption that de-federalisation of Nigeria since 1966 was the brain child of the North. Such individuals who later became delegates joined forces with other southern regions to prepare a Southern Position, which, from all accounts, now appears to have been jettisoned before the meeting or during the meeting.

In fact, it took the circulation of the paper from the North titled the “Strength and Backbone of Nigeria” for some Yoruba delegates to commission a paper on regionalism, to replace the anecdotal case each brilliant Yoruba delegate was capable of and expected to make at the conference. It also took one of the young delegates from the Yoruba region to beg and cajole a lot of the delegates for them to see the need to keep their eyes on the ball: functional federalism. The reason for this should have been obvious at the beginning. Yoruba leaders who believe they constitute the region’s permanent shadow cabinet were bent on proving Yoruba politicians who thought the conference was a diversion wrong. In this process, they were enthusiastic more about making sure the conference did not end prematurely than in ensuring that any meaningful re-federalization took place.

Such leaders had trust in the alliance they conjured with some Southeast and South-south leaders. The burden of proving Yoruba APC leaders wrong about the conference hobbled many of the delegates from the Yoruba region, to the extent that none of the issues raised over the years by the Yoruba about how to bring federalism back to the polity got into the catalogue of resolutions. The highlights of the conference’s success according to Professor Akinyemi should be seen in the context of the overall desire to avoid clear failure that could prove those opposed to the conference right. I am not sure most of the delegates had time to worry about those of us who argued that a national conference called by anybody and at any time was always worth attending. Otherwise, going back to the old National Anthem would not have counted as a success worth celebrating. Pro-democracy groups during the anti-Abacha dictatorship switched from the “Arise o compatriots” to “Nigeria we hail thee” without necessarily moving the country a notch higher on the ladder of federalism.

This was not because individual delegates did not think and talk right at the conference. It must have been because the civil war the Yoruba fought at home before and during the conference became a burden for most of the delegates, to the extent that regions that came there with proper strategic thinking got what they wanted while the Yoruba region got the option of a state police that is to be subsumed under the central police, which, in addition to other central para-police units: FRSC, National Civil Defence Corps, each state must have as the country’s superintending law enforcement agency. The conference report shows that the Yoruba may be better than other regions in fighting civil wars among themselves, other regions, particularly the North and the Southeast are more astute in strategic thinking, directed at getting their political desires fulfilled.

To be continued

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