As I prepare this week’s column for submission, President Jonathan is getting ready to receive the report of the National Conference. Therefore I do not have the benefit of his thinking on what he will do with the report or what is next for his motivation for setting up the conference. This much I remember. The President made a case for the conference upon its inauguration, citing his belief that “sovereignty belongs to the people and that their voices must be heard and factored into every decision” that government takes on their behalf. Jonathan went on to reveal his “sole motivation” for convening the conference as “the patriotic desire for a better and greater nation” and his determination that “things must be done in a way and manner that will positively advance that objective”.
President Jonathan told the nation that the conference was not a “usurpation of the role of the National Assembly or the Executive” but rather it is meant to complement the efforts of both branches of government.”
The following words of the President are especially germane to my focus here: “The National Conference is, therefore, being convened to engage in intense introspection about the political and socio-economic challenges confronting our nation and to chart the best and most acceptable way for the resolution of such challenges in the collective interest of all the constituent parts of ou fatherland. This coming together under one roof to confer and build a fresh national consensus for the amicable resolution of issues that still cause friction amongst our people must be seen as an essential part of the process of building a more united, stronger and progressive nation. We cannot continue to fold our arms and assume that things will straighten themselves out in due course, instead of taking practical steps to overcome impediments on our path to true nationhood, rapid development and national prosperity.”
Furthermore, the President urged conference participants to “patriotically articulate and synthesise our peoples’ thoughts, views and recommendations for a stronger, more united, peaceful and politically stable Nigeria, forge the broadest possible national consensus in support of those recommendations and strive to ensure that they are given the legal and constitutional backing to shape the present and the future of our beloved fatherland.”
From the above, it seems clear what the President’s expectations were. He wanted a robust document that provides a basis for a new constitutional order for Nigeria. He desired a conference report that boldly attacks the germs of instability and anarchical tendencies in the system. He charged participants to tackle the various issues ranging from “form of government, structures of government, devolution of powers, revenue sharing, resource control, state and local government creation, boundary adjustment, state police and fiscal federalism…..” These were some of the items that President Jonathan himself believed to be crucial to the ultimate objective of a strong and united nation.
Now, the Conference delegates have done their part and I believe their best under the circumstance, including the background atmosphere of mistrust and distrust that has bedeviled the political class of the country since its birth. Compromises have been made, self-regarding interests have been sacrificed. In the spirit of give and take, a report has been prepared and is being submitted even as I pen these words. The question is: what next? What will the President do now?
It is now the turn of the President to demonstrate again the genuineness of his interest in a strong and united nation, show true leadership and deliver on his promises. Of course, there is a lot that the conference has achieved and this must not be allowed to rot in the dungeon of our suffocating bureaucracy. There is also a lot that the conference failed to achieve, especially with regard to the most crucial issues of restructuring and fiscal federalism. The President has the right and responsibility to fill the blanks and close the gaps in the conference report. This is why it is his conference. But filling the gaps should not require the setting up of another commission to study the report. That would be an insult to the integrity of the conference participants.
How might the President proceed? The National Assembly has not been in the forefront of any discussions on this matter since the inception of the conference, and rightly so, in view of the fact that it is Mr. President’s conference. Now President Jonathanhas to deal with the legislative branch of government and how he goes about this may seal the fate of the report either positively or negatively. There is no doubt that while it is the case that the National Assembly is the assembly of the people through their representatives and senators, there are conflicting interests therein paralleling the interests across the nation. The leadership of the President therefore matters in how members approach the conference report.
Secondly, it is an inauspicious time as the general elections approach and Jonathan is expected to declare and run for a second term. Is he in a position to mount the proverbial bully pulpit or to use the carrot and stick approach to get the National Assembly to do the right thing? Here is the real issue. Yet, if the President fails to get anything done after raising the hopes of Nigerians on the matter of restructuring via the National Conference, can he count on Nigerians to trust him with another term?
Beside the personal interest in a second term, however, the President has an even more fundamental interest in his legacy. As he himself stated in his opening remarks to the conference, the issue of the structure of the country has been a political albatross on its back since the dawn of its creation. The “minority” populations have suffered the indignity of being relegated to the backdoor prior to his having the good luck of occupying the most celebrated political office in the land. The question is this: how have Jonathan’s people fared under his presidency? Has there been any drastic change in the condition of the generality of the Niger Delta population? If not, then it follows that it is not the occupation of an office by one individual that can make a difference in the lives of a people. The Yoruba had it worse under President Obasanjo! What matters is a structure that provides for the autonomous growth and development of each region, state and peoples.
President Jonathan must deliver on the conference report, fill the gaps where they exist, remove the dots where they are not essential and work with the National Assembly for a new constitutional framework, either by way of amendment or by way of a completely new constitution that incorporates the resolutions of the National Conference. Then he will go down in history as a leader, even if he doesn’t get a second term. Should he fail to deliver, he can rest assured that the failure will haunt him for the rest of his life, even if he gets a third term.
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