National Conference: In Whose Interest?

Nigerians are divided on whether there should be a national dialogue now because previous ones had not achieved the desired goals and therefore see the current effort to convene another as diversionary tactics of President Goodluck Jonathan to shift attention from him

|  By Olu Ojewale  |  Oct. 14, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

PRESIDENT Goodluck Jonathan took the nation by surprise in his national day broadcast on Tuesday, October 1, when he announced the formation of a committee to advise the government on modalities for a national dialogue. The 13-man committee given the responsibility has one month to complete its assignment. It is headed by Femi Okurounmu, a former senator, between 1999 and 2003. He has 12 other eminent Nigerians to work with him. Among them are Ben Nwabueze, a professor of law; George Obiozor, a professor and former director-general of Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, NIIA; Khairat Gwadabe, a former senator; Timothy Adudu, a former senator; Tony Nyiam, a retired army colonel; Funke Adebayo and Mairo Ahmed Amshi. Abubakar Sadiq, Dauda Birma, a member of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP; Buhari Bello and  Tony Uranta, an environmentalist and executive secretary, Nigerian Summit Group, NSG, are also members while Akilu Indabawa will serve as secretary.

Khairat Gwadabe
Gwadabe

Since the announcement opinions of Nigerians are divided on the motive of the president to seek advice on a national dialogue now. A school of thought believes that Jonathan wants to divert attention of Nigerians from him in order to lessen the heat brought about by the division in his party. A group known as the New PDP urged Jonathan to lessen the heat by forgetting about contesting the 2015 presidential election. But there is another group which says that it is time for Nigerians to talk to decide the fate of its unity before it is too late. All these have prompted some skeptics to ask in whose interest is the proposed dialogue, if there is going to be one? And whose interest will it serve if it does not hold?

Ohanaeze Ndigbo, an Igbo socio-cultural group, welcomes the president’s decision to commence the process of a national dialogue, saying President Jonathan had pulled the country back from the brink. Joe Nwaorgu, secretary-general of the organisation, who stated this in his reaction to the president’s independence-day broadcast, said: “Nigerians can now kick-start the process of nation building where equity, justice and fair-play for all Nigerians will be our core pursuit. It is better to jaw-jaw than war-war; that is why Ohanaeze has always stood for the convening of a national conference. So, the conference is very welcome. Ohanaeze will participate in it.”

In a similar comment, Afenifere, a pan-Yoruba socio-cultural organisation, commended the president for setting up the committee. Yinka Odumakin, national publicity secretary of the group, said in a telephone interview that the president had done the right thing. “We need to discuss Nigeria at this moment and his setting up of this committee is a practical demonstration that he knows the urgency of the moment. Nigeria cannot continue like this. Nigeria is clearly heading to the road of Yugoslavia at the moment and it is only the committee that can help us to know that it is better to go the way of Ethiopia.”

Tony Nyiam
Nyiam

On its part, the Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF, a northern socio-political group, said it would support any dialogue that would bring about the strengthening of the country. Anthony Sani, national secretary of the Forum, said that the setting up of the advisory committee on national conference was welcome. Sani said the group was not averse to any national dialogue as long as the aim was to strengthen the unity in the diversity of the country. But the ACF said it should be a national conference and not a sovereign national conference as being clamoured by some Nigerians. He said: “Since the concept of nationhood presupposes that the people can come together and unleash their synergy by living up collective challenges for public good, provided such dialogue is not in the form of Sovereign National Conference, SNC, that amounts to a vote of no confidence on our democracy and its institutions, which no group has the right to do. So, national dialogue through national conference, yes; through sovereign national conference, no.”

Olu Falae, former minister of finance, said the conference, if allowed to hold, would help the country to make progress. Speaking in an interview, Falae said that as one of the advocates of a sovereign national conference for more than 20 years, he was happy that a national conference might hold. “If the conference does take place and it achieves the minimum requirements, then maybe Nigeria has a chance of surviving, reviving and making progress,” he said.

But the National Union of Textile Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria, NUTGWN, sees the proposed national dialogue as diversionary and expensive. Issa Aremu, general secretary, of the union and vice-president, Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, said in Kaduna, recently that ‘Nigeria has had its fair share of written constitutions and debates since 1954, and that organising another talk show would not be in the best interest of Nigeria. He noted that there had been debates for about 20 years for the country to hold a sovereign national conference without success.

Falae
Falae

”It’s time Nigeria had its share of good governance. The founding fathers did not agonise debating the imperfections of the inherited federation. They moved into action to build a fast growing nation ahead of China, India, Pakistan and Indonesia in the sixties and seventies. The best of Nigerians must come out for public office and reclaim the politics from the existing largely unfocused acrimonious self-serving ruling class just as the best fought for independence,” Aremu said.

Sharing Aremu’s view is Balarabe Musa, former governor of old Kaduna State. Musa said the president was out to deceive Nigerians as his predecessor had done. He said Jonathan could not organise the kind of national conference needed by the country. “The national conference we want will not be conducted by the president, the president will be a participant just like the legislature, the judiciary and the sovereign people of Nigeria. It is going to involve all the stakeholders,” he said. Musa said the kind of conference Jonathan would like to organise would only benefit the ruling class.

Also not convinced by President Jonathan’s decision is Ali Ahmad, a member of the House of Representatives and chairman, House committee on Justice. He said a national dialogue was desirable in principle but feared that it might be a tactic to divert the attention of Nigerians from the current debate over Jonathan’s eligibility to contest the 2015 presidential election.

Harrison Ajah
Ajah

Harrison Ajah, a civil servant, is also skeptical. Ajah said there was no need for a national conference because it would only serve as another jamboree for Nigerians and a duplication of functions of the National Assembly. “This conference is a clear duplication of the functions of the National Assembly because those at the assembly represent the various groups in the country. I am also not in support of it because like every other conference in Nigeria, the recommendations will not be implemented,” he said.

Many ordinary Nigerians would, however, believe that the purpose of the dialogue would help to untangle the knots in the current mode of the nation’s existence. According to Kayode Ajulo, human rights activist, the proposed conference is the best independence gift that Nigeria has ever received. Ajulo, who noted that Nigerians had been clamouring for a national conference in the last 12 years, said the president had demonstrated his responsiveness to the yearnings and aspirations of the people. “This will afford us an opportunity of dialogue among the various ethnic groups in the country.”

Similarly, Oke Michael, a lecturer in the department of banking and finance, Ekiti State University, said the conference would enable the nation “to proffer lasting and workable solutions to the bloody lingering crisis ravaging the entire polity.” Oke said when the national dialogue eventually holds,  Nigerians would discuss pending issues bordering on Niger Delta, Boko Haram and others. For Efeturi Imoh, a doctor, the national conference is a good initiative but the only source of worry is the people who will represent the various interests in the country. “I am in support of holding a conference to address our problems as a country. But then, I am worried about the calibre of people who will represent the various ethnic groups in the country. I hope it will not end up as a jamboree where politicians will just go there to eat and drink without coming out with anything good,” Imoh said.

Efeturi Imoh
Imoh

In spite of the president’s robust explanation on what prompted his decision on the national dialogue, there are those who still suspect his motive. Could it be a bait to get Nigerians behind him for another term in office? In his address to the nation, President Jonathan said: “Fellow Nigerians, our administration has taken cognisance of suggestions over the years by well-meaning Nigerians on the need for a national dialogue on the future of our beloved country. When there are issues that constantly stoke tensions and bring about friction, it makes perfect sense for the interested parties to come together to discuss. In demonstration of my avowed belief in the positive power of dialogue in charting the way forward, I have decided to set up an advisory committee whose mandate is to establish the modalities for a national dialogue or conference. The committee will also design a framework and come up with recommendations as to the form, structure and mechanism of the process.”

Indeed, one of the persons to help in fashioning out the process is Nwabueze, who had led a group of patriots to Aso Rock on Thursday, August 29, this year and submitted a 13-page memorandum which called for the convocation of a national conference. Then, the president said he was not averse to holding a national dialogue. But said: “The limitation we have is that the constitution appears to have given that responsibility to the National Assembly. I have also been discussing the matter with the leadership of the National Assembly. We want a situation where everyone will key into the process and agree on the way forward.”

So, it was not out of place when David Mark, president of the Senate, during the opening of the National Assembly, said on Tuesday, September 17, that a conference of Nigeria’s ethnic nationalities, could be accommodated in the constitution. “A conference of Nigeria’s ethnic nationalities, called to foster frank and open discussions of the national question, can certainly find accommodation in the extant provisions of the 1999 Constitution which guarantees freedom of expression, and of association. It is welcome. Nonetheless, the idea of a National Conference is not without inherent and fundamental difficulties. Problems of its structure and composition will stretch the letters and spirit of the Constitution and severely task the ingenuity of our constitutionalists,” Mark said.

But whether the conference, if it eventually holds, will not go the way of that of February 2005, organised by former President Olusegun Obasanjo? The National Political Reform Conference, NPRC, which opened with rising expectations ended without resolving any of the vexed issues.

Reported by Vincent Nzemeke

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