National Conference … just before another jamboree

By EMMANUEL OLADESU
In Nigeria News Feed
Feb 4th, 2014
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The stage is set for the National Conference. As it kicks off on a controversial note, Group Political Editor EMMANUEL OLADESU examines the divergent views on its modalities, composition, duration and report ratification.

President Goodluck Jonathan has released the modalities for the convocation of a National Conference with limited powers. Expectedly, criticisms have been trailing the modalities. The seriousness of the Federal Government has been questioned by many stakeholders. The consensus of opinion is that, for another three months or more, delegates will participate in a government-sponsored jamboree in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). Since the premise for the national dialogue is not the ethnic nationalities, many have also argued that the exercise is an imposition.

However, pro-Jonathan forces have a contrary view. They believe that the conference will chart a new course for the country. Hailing the President for acceding to the popular request for a national debate, they also said that the conference will lay a better constitutional future.

When the President unfolded his plan for the conference on October 1, last year, many stakeholders queried his real intention. There were speculations that the idea was sold the option to the embattled leader to douse the mounting national tension. But, the sudden change of heart by the Commander-in-Chief still came as a surprise. In the past, Dr. Jonathan had objected to it, saying that a democratic government was in place. The proposal polarised the polity. A section said that the Federal Government was trying to divert attention from its gross failure to restore hope to the beleaguered country. In particular, the advocates of a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) were not amused. In their view, the proposal fell below expectation.

Public enthusiasm has been waning since the Presidential Advisory Committee headed by Senator Femi Okurounmu submitted its report to the President. It was a divided committee. A minority report surfaced. It was written by a member of the committee, Chief Solomon Asemota (SAN). The bone of contention was the method proposed for the ratification of the conference report. While the majority report hammered on parliamentary ratification, the minority report emphasised the import of ratification by a referendum. The majority report on the mode of ratification reflected the President’s view. Last year, Dr. Jonathan told the nation that the report will be sent to the National Assembly for ratification. The implication is that the decisions reached at the conference may or may not be approved by the National Assembly.

The fear expressed by critics were confirmed last week when the Secretary to the Federal Government, Senator Pius Ayim, released the guidelines. 492 delegates are expected at the talk show. They are to be drawn from the strata of the society: government, traditional institution, political parties, judiciary, and civil societies. They are to be nominated by local, state and federal governments. Thus, it is “guided conference”.

The ethnic nationalities may not command a strong voice there. Observers have argued that nominees may not have the mind of their own. Since he who plays the piper dictates the tune, the presidential nominees will be his eye and ear at the conference. The delegates may therefore, be manipulated by the government to achieved a pre-determined goal.

The official name of the dialogue is The National Conference. This is antithetical to a Sovereign National Conference. There is a no-go area. The Federal Government is sensitive to the warning by a foreign body that the country may disintegrate next year. Therefore, it stated that the unity of Nigeria is non-negotiable. The time frame is also suspect. The government has proposed three months. But, it is evident that the conference will coincide with preparations for the 2015 general elections.

The timeframe for the nomination of delegates is between now and February 20. Wide consultations may not herald the nominations. In outlook, the proposed conference is elitist. The President may have also played a fast game. He is not indifferent to the position of the main opposition party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), on the vexed issue. Therefore, if the 17 APC governors refuse to nominate delegates, Dr. Jonathan, an Ijaw from the Southsouth, will nominate delegates on their behalf. These delegates may come from the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP). Critics will describe their assignments as “jobs for the boys”.

The delegates are expected to receive remuneration. But, funding for the conference is another hurdle. Although the conference is expected to commence proceedings this month, there is no assurance that the budget would have been passed before next month.

The script was carefully written at Aso Villa, the seat of government. But, The President needed an ally to sell the dummy. He found one in Senate President David Mark, who was saddled with flying the cart. The retired General, who had frowned at the agitation for the conference in the past, based on his belief in the legitimacy of the National Assembly as the anchor of popular rule, suddenly retraced his steps. Thus, many believed that the conference propaganda was designed to gage the public mood.

Historically, at critical points in national history, past governments have resorted to camouflage national debate, talk or dialogue to douse the tension. Indeed, when the dreadful dictator, the late Gen. Sani Abacha, set up a constitutional conference in 1994, the uprising in the Niger Delta stopped for one year. The Abacha conference was made up of 396 delegates. The late head of State nominated 96 members. Although the report of the 1994/95 conference did not see the light of the day, the delegates succeeded in dividing Nigeria into six geo-political zones. The six geo-political regions are not backed by law, but the structure is respected by the political class. Also, when former President Olusegun Obasanjo inaugurated the Abuja Reforms Conference, expectations were high that it would usher in a new dawn. The conference collapsed on the altar of the third term agenda. Of 400 delegates, Obasanjo nominated 50 delegates. Many delegates, who have reflected on the report, have called for the implementation of the report. Former Lagos State Governor Bola Tinubu, who also nominated delegates, has backed the call for the retrieval of the report from the dustbin. He said since resolutions have been passed on many of the issues that the delegates are going to debate in Abuja, the Federal Government should have the courage to implement the 2005 report.

Shortly after he assumed the reins, the first military Head of State, the late Gen. Thomas Auguyi-Ironsi, set up an ad hoc constitutional committee to debate the contentious issues tearing apart the country. The committee was dead on arrival. At the inception of the military rule, soldiers in power lacked the political skills to handle those sensitive issues and problems which the military intervention had compounded. When the Muritala/Obasanjo set up the Constitutional Drafting Committee and Constituent Assembly, the transition to civil rule programme of the regime received a popular acclaim. Even, when the former President Ibrahim Babangida set up the Constituent Assembly in 1989, it calmed down the nerves. But, the report also did not see the light of the day.

President Jonathan’s first step at implementing the proposal was confusing. He named an advocate of a Sovereign National Conference (SNC), Dr. Okurounmu, as the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee to prepare the ground for the talk. But, the committee was on tour of the six geo-political regions to collate views on modalities, the President announced that the National Assembly will debate the conference report. The statement irked many people. But, the members of the committee became deviated from their terms of reference when they were defending the President. When the team led by Okurounmu visited Benin, the capital of Edo State, for consultation with the Southsouth stakeholders, a committee member, Col. Tony Nyiam, took on Governor Adams Oshiomhole. Thus, the committee was censoring public opinion on the conference.

During the debate on the proposed conference, members of the National Assembly were not aloof. In the beginning, they loathed the idea of conference, pointing out that the nation should not waste time on another Constituent Assembly that will be saddled with the business of constitution making at a time the National Assembly is also reviewing the constitution. But, when reality dawned on them that the conference would be inevitable, they indicated a deeper interest. Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu said in Lagos that it will not be a bad idea, if the legislators are also delegates. He explained that federal lawmakers are also stakeholders. However, the agitation for the inclusion of the legislators was doused when the President announced that the report will be ratified by the National Assembly.

According rights activists and leaders of the ethnic nationalities, a conference, on its merit, is not a bad idea. The obstacle to its success in the past was the lack of sincerity by the government. Since it is not going to be a SNC, many rights activists have submitted that the scope of the national dialogue will be essentially limited. There are some puzzles: If a constitution is expected to be fashioned out by the conference, should there be no-go areas? Can a national conference produce a truly peoples’ constitution? Should the government insist that the unity of Nigeria is non-negotiable in a country that has not become a nation, 100 years after the amalgamation? How will the suitability and competence of delegates be determined? If they are nominated or appointed by the government and influential elite as it is being proposed by the Federal Government, will their nominations meet the criteria for representativeness and legitimacy? How popular are the delegates at the grassroots? Would they have the mandate of the people who are emotionally attached to the ethnic nationalities? Now that the nomination is based partially on the ethnic nationalities, states, local governments or constituencies, what will be the ratio of representation? Will the proposed single term of six or seven years resurface at the conference for debate?

There are other questions: since delegates be appointed by the governors, what is the criteria? What will be the terms of reference? How will they emerge across the states? Will the conference resolutions be subjected to referendum? If it is not subjected to a referendum, how will the report or resolutions be validated? If it is not validated by a referendum, will it be legitimate? Will recommendations be accepted by the government, if delegates oppose the proposed ratification by the National Assembly? Will the report be thrown into the dustbin as usual? The Federal Government has said that resolutions on contentious issues would be taken, based on the approval of 75 percent of delegates. 75 percent of 492 is 369 delegates. How about resolutions that mainly touch on the lives of the minority tribes, who may not be adequately represented? Will the majority not trample on the wish of the minority?

Since the eighties, the agitation for a Sovereign National Conference had gained prominence. It was first articulated by the legal luminary, the late Chief Alao Aka-Bashorun. The deceased human rights lawyer said that it was possible to hold the conference in Nigeria. He urged the government to tap from the experience of the Soviet Union and the Republic of Benin, which resolved some of its problems by convoking conferences. Throughout the military rule, Aka-Bashorun was harassed for his principled position on the national question and agitation for a Sovereign National Conference.

Also, in the nineties, the former Oyo State governor, Chief Bola Ige, who summed up the arguments for the national conference, raised two questions: “Do we want to remain as one country? If the answer is yes, under what conditions?”. The implication is that a debate is necessary to determine the basis for peaceful co-existence and harmony. Ige said that many national problems could be resolve by debate, instead of resorting to the barrels of gun.

Following the annulment of the historic June 12, 1993 presidential election won by the late Chief Moshood Abiola, there was disillusionment. The cancellation disputed the basis for peaceful co-existence among the competing tribes. The advocates of the SNC expanded the national question. Discussion on the resolution of the identity, integration, participation and distribution crises came to the front burner. Stakeholders came to the conclusion that Nigeria was hanging on a flawed or defective federal system. The unitary system foisted on the polity by the military had created strains. But the interlopers opposed the struggle for a new order with brute force.

Up to now, these questions remained unsolved: Is state or community police not desirable in a big, diverse, heterogeneous country characterised by multiplicity of traditions, customs, and languages? Should the governors, who are the chief security officers of their states, continue to obtain permission from the distant Inspector-General of Police to maintain law and order? Should an Igbo or Yoruba, who was born and bred in the North be denied political and economic rights, owing to the tension between indigeneship and residency? Should a Fulani/Hausa, who had lived in the South for 30 years be edged out of the participatory political process? It remains to be seen if these questions will be answered by Jonathan’s National Conference, which has limitations. Does the President needs a conference to fight the infrastructure battle, tar the roads and fund education and public hospitals efficiently? Does the President needs a conference to build refineries, fight corruption and resolve the crises that have engulfed his party? Does he need a conference to guarantee power supply?

 


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