National Conference: Is it a Greek Gift?

Despite the nation wide acceptance by a good number of Nigerians that a national conference is desirable to address certain problems facing the country, there are still skeptics who insist that President Goodluck Jonathan, a latter-day convert to national conference advocacy, only wants to use it for his own selfish political aggrandisement

By Olu Ojewale  |  Oct. 21, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

PRESIDENT Goodluck Jonathan has apparently succeeded in getting Nigerians talking. Since the president surprisingly informed the nation about the establishment of an advisory committee to advise the government on modalities for a national dialogue, the debate has been on the veracity or otherwise of having such a conference. At the inauguration of the 13-man committee in Abuja on Monday, October 7, Jonathan described the Femi Okurounmu panel as “a child of necessity to midwife this conversation,” calling members of the committee as “Nigerians with wide experience from various disciplines to facilitate a most acceptable process that will bring our aspirations to fruition.”

Okurounmu
Okurounmu

According to the president, the committee’s work would set the stage for developing a harmonious and truly united nation. His words: “Today, we are taking historic and concrete steps that will further strengthen our understanding, expand the frontiers of our inclusiveness and deepen our bond as one people under God. In my address to the nation on the occasion of our 53rd Independence and Golden Anniversary as a Republic, I announced that in response to the yearnings of our people, we had decided to take on the responsibility of decisively and genuinely exploring the option of a national conversation.”

The conference, the president said, would “review the foundational principles that drive our action, and also address a few matters arising. This is a national project, a sincere and fundamental undertaking aimed at realistically examining and genuinely resolving, long-standing impediments to our cohesion and harmonious development as a truly united nation.” Jonathan faulted those who had been claiming that there was no need for another conference after many previous ones, saying he is a latter-day convert of national dialogue himself. “I was one of those who exhibited scepticism on the need for another conference or dialogue. My skepticism was borne out of the nomenclature of such a conference, taking into cognisance existing democratic structures that were products of the will of the people,” Jonathan said, adding: “However, we are in a democracy and in a democracy, elected leaders govern at the behest of the citizenry. As challenges emerge, season after season, leaders must respond with the best available strategies to ensure that the ship of state remains undeterred in its voyage.”

Jonathan allayed the fear of Nigerians who might think that the conference would call the integrity of the country into question, to have no such fear. “This national discourse will strengthen our union and address issues that are often on the front burner, and are too frequently ignored,” he said. Jonathan thus, urged the committee not to disappoint the country and also advised it to consult widely before developing the framework that would guide and guard the proceedings of the discussions.

Babalola
Babalola

“In the task before you, no voice is too small and no opinion is irrelevant. Thus, the views of the skeptics and those of the enthusiasts must be accommodated as you formulate this all-important framework. This conversation is a people’s conversation and I urge you to formulate an all-inclusive process that protects the people’s interest,” the president said. He also gave the committee the latitude to decide on the appropriate name for the conference.

Okurounmu thanked the President for the confidence reposed in them. “It can be argued that no committee in our polity today is more sensitive or carries higher expectations from the peoples of Nigeria than this committee,” he said. The committee chair noted that there had been calls from a number of Nigerians, for more than two decades, for the convening of a national conference in one form or the other. “Advocates of such a conference were prompted by what they perceived as the injustices and inequities prevalent in the polity, all of which they attributed to the inadequacies of the constitutions foisted upon us by successive military regimes since 1966. To this clamour for a national conference, there has also always been a strong resistance from other sections of the public who, while they may not have been as loud and numerous as the advocates of a conference, nevertheless, they have much political clout. These two conflicting pressures have always put our leaders in a very precarious position, making them reluctant to endorse the convening of a national conference or dialogue,” Okurounmu said. While commending the president for the establishment of the committee, he also expressed satisfaction that Jonathan did not establish any no go areas for the committee.

Okurounmu promised the president that the committee would not let him down and would not fail the nation either. “We shall not be another case of failed expectations. We shall not betray the confidence which the president and over 160 million Nigerians have reposed in us,” he said. The committee has been given six weeks to accomplish its task.

Awolowo-Dosunmu
Awolowo-Dosunmu

Indeed, Nigerians have been expressing their expectations from the conference and proposing modalities for holding it. Afe Babalola, SAN, and founder, Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti, ABUAD, while hailing Jonathan for setting up the committee, expressed the hope that the proposed national conference would proffer solutions to the country’s numerous problems. In a statement released by Tunde Olofintila, his media aide, Babalola said the president’s decision tallied with his many years of advocacy that the ‘conditions for the country’s continued co-existence need to be properly and conclusively discussed.’ The legal giant disclosed that he had, in the past, submitted some well-thought out papers to the office of the president and that of Justice Alfa Belgore, a former chief justice of Nigeria, CJN, on the issue.

Babalola said: “It is apposite to state that Nigeria, a huge country with a multitude of tribes and scores of ethnic groupings, speaking over 250 languages and dialects, with multiplicity of religious beliefs, varied cultural backgrounds, social exposures and political antecedents among others, has problems. These problems were acknowledged by the country’s founding fathers, who sought the regional system of governance, which emphasises that each region should develop at its own pace with a relatively weak centre as practised in the First Republic. It, therefore, goes without saying that a Sovereign National Conference, SNC, will afford Nigerians the opportunity to frankly marshal their differences, fears and commonalities and address such sundry issues as insecurity, corruption and intolerance among others.”

He acknowledged that Nigeria was already at the edge of a precipice and must be pulled back “with a constitution made democratically through a conference and affirmed in a referendum by Nigerians, not subject to anybody’s approval.” He said Nigerians were already having nostalgia for the kind of federalism practiced in the First Republic as against the warped and undemocratic federalism foisted on the nation by the military.  He also said the conference would have to decide whether institutions such as the National Assembly should be full time or part time, whether it should be bi-cameral or uni-cameral because the current National Assembly is too expensive for the country to maintain.

Adesina
Adesina

“It needs streamlining to reflect the country’s realities and the worth of its contributions to governance,” he argued. Babalola said if the conference sailed through successfully, Jonathan would have written his name in the nation’s record for which the present and future generations would be grateful.

Adding its voice to the debate is the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation, which held a one-day seminar on the issue, on Monday, October 7. The seminar with the theme: ‘The National Conference: Roadmap to Nigeria’s Stability?’ issued a communiqué in which in which it made eight fundamental suggestions. First, it said there should be no ‘no-go’ areas in the course of the national discourse and reasoned that if people were not restricted, it would enhance frankness of discussions as well as greater acceptability and respectability of the conference outcome.

It advocated that the conference should address the issue of true federalism as established by the founding fathers of the nation, with emphasis on granting the federating units room to develop competitively at their own pace. Third, the seminar said: “The conference should be channelled to build a more tolerant, egalitarian and prosperous modern state with a constitution that emphasises the protection of individual rights.”

The OAF seminar said there was need for the present state structure to be reconfigured to more manageable and sustainable units. This, apparently, is not likely to receive a favourable backing of many states in the country. It further argued that the outcome of the conference “should address and lay appropriate emphasis on the needs and aspirations of the Nigerian people.” According to the communiqué, the conference delegates should have more than 400 members and that 90 percent of them should be elected from ward, local government, state and zonal levels, while the remaining 10 percent should come from professional bodies, civil orgainsations, youths, women and pan-Nigerian religious bodies. The group said the duration of the conference should not be more than nine months and the draft constitution produced from the outcome should be passed through a referendum not later than three months after the end of the conference.

Ekpe-Juda
Ekpe-Juda

The seminar, which held at the Foundation’s office located at 15 Lanre Awolokun Road, Gbagada Phase II, Lagos, at the instance of Olatokunbo Awolowo Dosumu, executive director of the foundation, and chaired by Bolaji Akinyemi, professor of political science, had in attendance academics, civil society activists and other professionals who brainstormed exhaustively on various aspects of the proposed national conference. Signatories to the communiqué of the seminar were Femi Adesina, president, Nigerian Guild of Editors; Ayo Obe, human rights lawyer; Ayo Olukotun, professor of mass communication; Itse Sagay, law professor and Ayandiji Daniel Aina, a professor of political science. Others were Bolaji Aluko, professor engineering and vice-chancellor, Utueke Federal University, Bayelsa State; Bukar Bukarambe, professor of international relations; Akin Oyebode, professor of international law and jurisprudence; Yerima Shettima, an activist and president of the Arewa Youth Consultative Forum; Tunde Oseni, political science lecturer and Chris Asoluka, chairman, Nigerian Oil and Gas Free Zone Authority.

Speaking in the same vein, Ebongabasi Ekpe-Juda, a public commentator and security expert, told Realnews that the idea of a national conference is good as long if it does not split the country. Ekpe-Juda said it would afford the country an opportunity to address all the issues agitating the minds of Nigerians. He would like issues such as resource control, true federalism, state police, the role of traditional rulers, religion and all other matters threatening the unity of the country to be tabled and addressed. “It is the only way forward for us as a nation. Take for instance, the issue of state police; we need a state police in this country. As long as we have a state judiciary, there is no reason why we should not have a state police. There is religion. Religion is a personal thing and should be removed from the constitution. I would want us to discuss the issue of traditional rulers. The constitution should find a role for them because they are very important to our very existence,” he said.

On the suspicion being expressed in certain quarters that the president might want to use the conference as a distraction to cajole Nigerians to vote for him in the next election, Ekpe-Juda said the president should not be distrusted. “I have no reason not to trust him. He promised that he was going to conduct credible elections and he did. He gave us Atahiru Jega, (chairman, Independence National Electoral Commission, INEC, who has performed creditably. We should give him a chance. He made a lot of promises and has been able to deliver on a number of them, and from what I have seen of him, I think he means well for this country,” he said.

Tinubu
Tinubu

Achike Chude, executive chairman, Joint Action Front, a non-governmental organisation, and political analyst, noted that there had been many years of agitation for a national dialogue, or a conference or a sovereign national conference because of bad governance. “It is the reality that we have to talk,” Chude told Realnews. But he feared that the recommendations of the conference could end up the way of the previous one held by former President Olusegun Obasanjo which did not see the light of the day.

“So, I think that the challenge for us is that there must be a way to ensure that the deliberations of this conference are not wasted and are integrated into the constitution of this country,” he said. The activist warned that it would be dangerous to allow conflicts arising from the conference from the political actors and the ethnic groups to becloud the good intention of the conference. “I think it is more dangerous to allow the ethnic groups to dominate the conference, because in today’s Nigeria, ethnic nationalism has become a divisive factor and, to some extent, religion. So, if we allow champions of ethnic and religious groups to dominate the conference, it would only acerbate the crisis of Nigerian state,” Chude said.

But there are also some individuals who are yet to come to terms with the idea that Jonathan could organise a sincere conference to tackle the nation’s problems once and for all. Bola Tinubu, former governor of Lagos State, on October 5, described the proposed conference as a ‘Greek gift’ and ill-timed. Tinubu, who is the national leader of the All Progressives Congress, APC, questioned the rationale behind the national conference, with the 2015 general elections barely 15 months away. Addressing his supporters at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos, Tinubu said he could not confirm whether or not the APC would take part in the national conference. “The national conference is by whom, for whom, and at what stage? How many levels of deception? I see a contradiction. I see diversion. I see deception, lack of honesty and integrity,” Tinubu said.

But in a swift reaction, Afenifere, a Yoruba socio-cultural group, faulted Tinubu’s stance, saying there was no better time for the Nigerian people to dialogue than now. Yinka Odumakin, spokesman of the group, wondered why Tinubu, who was one of the advocates of a national dialogue, would criticise the planned conference. “We, in Afenifere, disagree with Tinubu’s take on the proposed national conference. There is no better time to hold the conference than this time when disintegration stares the country in the face; when politicians are behaving in a manner that can split the country; when Boko Haram is killing people and the fabrics that hold the country together is about to be torn into shreds. This is a defining moment. People will now be able to differentiate between those who are paying lip service to true federalism, using it as votes-winning gimmicks and those who truly believe Nigeria should return to the part of federalism,” Odumakin said.

Odumakin
Odumakin

In any case, Tinubu has a supporter in Sule Lamido, governor of Jigawa State, and one of the seven governors of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, who are at loggerheads with Jonathan. Lamido described the conference as “is illegal”, adding that his state would not participate in it. Speaking in Dutse, the state capital, Lamido said there was no constitutional backing for the conference. According to him, it would be a flagrant abuse of democratic institutions. He said his administration would not be party to it and no delegate from Jigawa would attend the conference. “The only solution to the country’s problems is good governance and leaders should abide by due process, rule of law and ethics of leadership. This proposal is a flagrant abuse of democracy. We have the Senate and the House of Representatives that are legally and democratically elected to represent constituencies to discuss national issues,” he said.

Besides, he wondered how delegates to the conference would be selected and asked: “Are you going to ask Jega to organise elections for those that would participate in the dialogue, which I am sure, he would not accept or are you going to select them through nomination to go and take over the responsibility of elected ones? So, the idea for the dialogue lacks formula in our democratic society and embarking on such worthless venture is not ideal.”

Junaid Mohammed, a second republic lawmaker, believes so too. In his opinion, Mohammed described the proposed national dialogue as a waste of time since the National Assembly is still in operation. Mohammed wondered what the dialogue was bound to achieve and who would implement its decisions when the decisions of similar bodies were not implemented by the government in the past. Mohammed argued that anything short of a SNC which has the force of law would not change anything in Nigeria.

He said: “What the president is planning to do has no place whatsoever in the Nigerian Constitution and is bound to fail woefully. As far as I am concerned the president’s intention to set up a national dialogue committee is nothing but an atte

Mohammed
Mohammed

mpt to buy time and prepare for his re-election in 2015. When his ploy to deceive and manipulate Nigerians in the direction of his choice fails, he should be ready for the consequences.”

But Reuben Abati, special adviser to the president on media and publicity, said the critics of the proposed conference were doing so “for selfish political reasons” and that they were in the minority. Speaking on Voice of America, VOA, radio programme on Saturday, October 5, Abati said it was ironic because some of those opposed to the conference had been in the forefront of the people advocating for same. “But now that they have been confronted with it, and they have seen that the administration is committed to really having that dialogue and giving them the opportunity to ventilate their own opinion, they are now trying to play politics just to be seen to be contrarious as a habit,” Abati said. He added: “What is different is the commitment of the government of the day, the political will to make a difference and this administration is not going to define no-go areas for the conference. This is a problem solving unity forging exercise, and it is not surprising that the proposal has received the support of Nigerians across the various ethnic nationalities, and across socio-political organisations, who have said that, indeed, a dialogue is necessary.”

According to the president’s spokesman, the mandate of the Okurounmu committee is to “work out the modalities, the form, the structure, the nomenclature, the agenda for the dialogue or conference. Part of the function is also advising government on the legal proceeding that may be necessary, the constitutional action that may follow the outcome of the dialogue.” Abati said the conference would address “those issues that continue to cause friction within the Nigerian society, issues that were left unresolved by previous conferences of this nature.”

Indeed, Funke Adekoya, SAN, in an interview, stated that the way forward for Nigerians is to sit and decide how to iron out their differences or part ways. ‘‘I do not see any other way forward for Nigeria. We must sit at a table to discuss how we can accommodate our differences. Once the delegates all realise and accept that it is possible for Nigeria to either go the way of Czechoslovakia, which existed from October 1918 until its peaceful dissolution on January 1, 1993, when it transited into the two countries (now known as the Czech Republic and Slovakia), or take the Yugoslavia route (Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro and Kosovo, which disintegrated through the force of arms) they should be able to take the decisions which are in the best interest of the groups they represent. I hope and pray that there will be no dismemberment and I believe this is the view of the vast majority of Nigerians; we only need to discuss and agree on the terms of our union,’’ she said.

Adekoya
Adekoya

Monday Ubani, chairman, Nigerian Bar Association, Ikeja branch, Lagos, agrees, but said the best way forward has to be done using the instrument of a SNC. ‘‘The conference must discuss the issue of staying together as the first major issue. If we agree to stay together, then the next issue to agree on is terms and conditions of staying together. That will be in form of giving ourselves a constitution that is from the people. The constitution drawn by the people will be subject to a referendum before it becomes the peoples’ constitution. We urge National Assembly to enact a law that will formalise the conference which will involve various ethnic groupings that make up Nigeria,’’ Ubani said.

Despite the popularity of the proposed conference, the skpeticism of some Nigerians about the sincerity or otherwise cannot be faulted. Nigerians have had conferences on its union without resolving all the nagging issues. The Constitutional Conference of 1957 in London, for example, effectively prepared Nigeria for Independence. It gave birth to the Eastern and Western regions which were granted self-government in 1957 while the Northern region got its own in 1959.

The office of the Prime Minister was created and it was also decided that the Federal Legislature would be Bi-cameral. The Constituent Assembly of 1978 gave the nation the 1979 constitution and also created the current presidential system with its attendant checks and balances and Fundamental Human Rights provisions. “The 1999 Constitution we operate today, is a successor to the 1979 Constitution and records show that the 1999 Constitution also benefited from reports and recommendations arising from the 1994/1995 Constitutional Conference.

The 2005 National Political Reform Conference produced a number of key recommendations that were sent to the fifth Assembly, but it did not see the light of the day because it was overshadowed by Obasanjo’s third term ambition. Opponents of the current forage see the ambition as a way to divert attention from the next coming elections as a lot of things would have to take place before holding the talks. As some analysts have said, if the conference is held for nine months or more, and its decision is tabled in a referendum, it would take more than one year to finish the process. This, it has been argued, would give Jonathan time to get his second term without much opposition. Whatever be the case, the president is the best beneficiary of the process in the long run whether in returning to office or writing his name in the history book.

Reported by Anayo Ezugwu

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