National Conference And 2015 Elections

Mike Akpan

Mike Akpan  |

SENATOR Bola Tinubu, former governor of Lagos State and the national leader of the All Progressives Congress, APC, has given credence to the truism that what concerns a politician more than anything else is the next general election. As far as he is concerned, nothing should stand on the way to the 2015 general elections which the APC hopes the results would tilt in its favor. This sums up the reasons for his outright rejection of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s  proposed national dialogue/ conference which he variously described as “ a Greek gift, diversionary, an act of public deception, ill-timed.” The APC national leader suspects that Jonathan has a hidden agenda by unexpectedly proposing to convene a national dialogue/ conference at a time his ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, was battling with an internal crisis. He also suspects that the president has something off his sleeves by his decision to organize a national dialogue/ conference very close to the 2015 general elections.  His suspicions notwithstanding, Tinubu is fully aware that his opposition to the proposed national dialogue/ conference runs against the tide of public opinion especially in the South- West geopolitical zone where he holds forte. Therefore, he was merely posturing and jumping the gun by demanding that the president should clarify some issues surrounding the proposed national dialogue/ conference.

The questions Tinubu wanted the president to provide immediate answers, to me, were preemptive because that was why he set up the 13-member presidential advisory committee led by Senator Femi Okurounmu, to advise him on the proper framework and modality for such a conference. But the question Tinubu  failed to ask himself was: Supposing there is no country called Nigeria in 2015, going by the United States’ National Intelligence Network report that the country would break up by that year, will there be elections and where will they hold? It is sad that Tinubu, who has been a consistent advocate of a sovereign national conference in the past, has turned round to lead the opposition against the proposed national dialogue because of his concern for 2015 general elections. He is vilifying instead of commending Jonathan for mustering political courage to accept to convene a national conference which he had stoutly opposed over the years. As the president had confessed on October 7, when he swore in the committee members: “I was one of those who exhibited skepticism on the need for another conference or dialogue. My skepticism was borne out of the nomenclature of such a conference, taking into cognizance the existing democratic structures that were the products of the will of the people.” But today, he has come to realize that there are certain national challenges which the federal government cannot wish away by merely opposing strident calls by Nigerians for the convocation of a national conference to address them. The president has exhibited the act of a statesman by yielding to a superior argument in favor of a national conference even though he  had his initial reservation on the issue.

In Jonathan’s own words: “As challenges emerge season after season, leaders must respond with the best available strategies to ensure that the ship of state remains undeterred in the voyage.” These are the words of a statesman who has seen beyond the next elections. Apart from the likes of Tinubu, Bisi Akande, interim national chairman of the APC, Sule Lamido and Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, governors of Adamawa and Rivers States respectively, who pretend not to know that the country is heading towards a precipice going by what has been happening within it in the last few years, other well-meaning Nigerians even feel that the 2015 elections can wait to enable some pertinent national questions to be answered satisfactorily. Some of the most urgent national questions that must be answered before the 2015 general elections are: Who owns Nigeria? Is there a particular group of people ordained to monopolize political and economic powers in the country? Unless the government allows the people to have a national platform where most of the vexatious national questions will be asked and answered, the country cannot escape the possibility of a final breakup as predicted by the Americans. As the saying goes, it is better to jaw-jaw than war-war. Besides, by January 1, 2014, Nigeria will be 100 years old as a nation of ethnic nationalities forced into a union by the British overlords. So far, history has revealed that none of the ethnic nationalities knew the terms and the basis of such forced union. Within the 100 years of the forced union, certain challenges have been thrown up making a national dialogue to sort them out inevitable. President Jonathan must be commended for his statesmanlike approach to the proposed national dialogue. He is approaching it with the mindset that there are no settled national issues unlike in the past when delegates to the various Constituent Assemblies organized by former military leaders or the National Political Reform Conference, NPRC, of 2005 organized by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, were given ‘no-go’ areas. Instead, Jonathan has given the presidential advisory committee a carte blanche to bring up for discussion, all matters agitating the minds of most Nigerians on their future relationship in Nigeria. It is up to the committee to draw up a comprehensive agenda that will enable the delegates to the conference to thoroughly debate all burning issues and reach conclusions whose incorporation will give Nigeria a constitution that can be rightly called a people’s constitution. For this reason, the agenda of the national dialogue or conference must include  such items like the structure of the federation, fiscal federalism, devolution of powers, revenue allocation formula,  state police, power sharing, cost of governance, system of government (presidential or parliamentary), full-time or part-time job for legislators, local government autonomy, citizenship rights and how to tackle corruption among others. Even before the conference kicks off, there is an ongoing clamor that its conclusions should be ratified by the voters in a referendum.

But President Jonathan apparently stepped on raw nerves when he clarified the position of his government on the issue. He minced no words when he signified his intention to forward the deliberations and conclusions of the national conference to the National Assembly for incorporation in the ongoing constitution amendment. This was the ammunition people like Amaechi and other critics needed to dismiss the proposed national conference as a grand deceit of the people to enable the president to buy time for 2015. This suspicion was heightened when Okorounmu contradicted the president’s position that the outcome of the proposed national dialogue would be subjected to a referendum for ratification. But has Okorounmu the right to make such a policy statement when he is only the head of an advisory committee set up by the president to work out the template for the proposed national conference or dialogue? For the proposed national dialogue to have credibility, Okorounmu and the members of his advisory committee must resist the temptation of playing to the gallery by making contradictory statements capable of raising doubts in the minds of the public. Their mandate is to consult widely to ascertain what the people want and accordingly advise the president  regarding the structure, representation, direction, agenda and the timing of the proposed national conference among other issues. Their job terminates when they submit their recommendations to the president who will take a final decision on them. They may or may not be members of the conference depending on the nature of its membership.

The president was being sincere when he gave the hint that the conclusions of the national conference would be forwarded to the National Assembly to be incorporated in the constitution. Those who condemned the president for being straightforward on the issue must have done so out of either mischief, ignorance or just out to play to the gallery or score a cheap political point. The convocation of the national conference or dialogue will not result in the abolition of the three arms of the government. As long as the National Assembly is still in existence, and, under the subsisting constitution, the legislative powers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria are vested in it, there is no way that the federal legislature can be bye-passed from having the final say in what gets into the constitution. Besides, the existing constitution has no provision for a referendum and if there is going to be one, it is still the National Assembly that will amend the constitution to provide for it.

Be that as it may, the people have a genuine fear for not wanting the conclusions of the proposed conference to be forwarded to the National Assembly so that they may not be tinkered with. Instances of such cases abound. Going through the memory lane, many Nigerians still remember that the independence constitution did not really reflect the entire decisions reached by the delegates to the various constitutional conferences in London and in Nigeria. The colonial masters had to tinker with some of the decisions of the delegates to protect British interests. Even the 1963 republican constitution was also tinkered with for the same reason. By their tinkering with the decisions of the people, the British masters succeeded in sowing the seeds of political instability that has continued to haunt the country till today. The political instability encouraged the military to step into the political arena for almost 30 years. The climax of the instability was the 30-month civil war which almost succeeded in breaking up Nigeria.

Like the British overlords, some of the provisions of the four constitutions which the military imposed on Nigeria at various times were heavily tinkered with to reflect what they wanted Nigeria to be as against what Nigerians wanted for the country. For instance, Chief Obasanjo, then a military head of state, General Ibrahim Babangida, former military president, late General Sani Abacha and General Abdulsalami Abubakar, former military heads of state, responded to the general demands of Nigerians for a new constitution to meet their aspirations and the prevailing national challenges by setting up committees to produce draft constitutions to address the burning issues. Copies of the resultant documents  were submitted to the Constituent Assemblies made up of mainly civilians to deliberate on and adopt. They even encouraged Nigerians to forward memoranda to the committees on what the constitutions should reflect. Regrettably, most of the critical suggestions contained therein, the recommendations of the committees or the conclusions of the Constituent Assemblies, were either rejected or tinkered with by the all- military councils which sat to approve the final drafts. In all, the protection of military interest was the overriding factor.

But providence has thrown up an opportunity for President Jonathan to make history as the first head of state under whose tenure Nigeria will have a people’s constitution. It is most likely that, going by the trend of the ongoing national discourse, some of the conclusions of the conference may not be palatable to the members of the National Assembly. He must make sure that the National Assembly does not tamper with the people’s decisions to suit the selfish interests of its members. If that happens, the entire exercise would have been a huge waste of time and resources and Nigeria will never see an end to agitations for more national conferences to come up with what they will proudly accept as a people’s constitution.

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— Oct. 28, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

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