By Eze Onyekpere
Nigerians, over the years, have clamoured for a national conference. During the military era, the agitation was for a sovereign national conference. After the return to civil rule in 1999, the widespread agitation did not go away but abated a bit. The continuation of the agitation was based on the fact that the 1999 Constitution lied about its origin because the Nigerian people did not give themselves a constitution. Rather, the military by the fiat of a decree imposed a constitution on the people. It is a fundamental aphorism that you cannot give what you do not have. Thus, since the soldiers of fortune did not have the consent of Nigerians to craft a constitution, the output and outcome have been this charade going on in Nigeria in the name of governance. Although some advocates continued with the call for a sovereign national conference, the popular agitation however got watered down to a conference without the word “sovereign”. By the 1999 Constitution, the National Assembly claims the right to make laws, amend and alter the constitution and felt it could not give away the sovereign legislative power to any other body of persons. But the truth is that when a structure is built on quick sand, founded on a lie or a misrepresentation of facts, it is bound to run into troubled waters. Such a structure will eventually collapse.
Events in the last few days following President Goodluck Jonathan’s decision to set up a committee to advise on the structure, modalities and legal framework of a national conference seem interesting. The committee is to consult widely with stakeholders, devise a timeframe, make recommendations on representation, etc. Initially, the President was opposed to the idea of a dialogue and David Mark’s leadership of the National Assembly opposed any form of national dialogue which he saw as an affront on legislative powers. The Senate President had earlier hinted on the need for dialogue during the visit of the splinter Peoples Democratic Party to his office. Whatever may have induced this change of mind in the Presidency and the legislature is welcome and should set the tone for frank, honest and constructive dialogue among Nigerians.
But the challenge is that there are disparate voices opposing the President’s decision to convene a conference; voices that dismiss the idea as a distraction and a waste of time. There are even some self styled progressives and activists opposing the idea before the details have been drawn up by the committee and accepted or rejected by the presidency and the National Assembly. In a democracy, everyone is entitled to their opinion but the voice of the majority should always carry the day. There are so many national questions swept under the carpet which cannot be resolved by mere cosmetic constitutional amendments. However, the more the sweepers think they have buried the issues, the more the issues resurface. Any pretensions that all is well and that what is needed is the sharing of the proverbial national cake will not bring development to Nigeria. Yes, some critics recall the previous conferences called by the late Gen. Sani Abacha and Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and cynically ask what Nigeria got out of them. But the answer is straightforward. Nigerians got as much as they invested in the conferences. We did not seem to care and were apathetic and so the two leaders had their way. Others have raised questions about whether the National Assembly will still have powers to vet the decisions of the conference for them to become law and binding; the modalities of voting and how the contentious issues will be resolved. Some of the contentious issues include resource control, state police, political structure, etc.
It is my suggestion that there should not be any “no-go” or “settled areas” for the conference. The conference should be free to discuss anything that touches on the country’s governance and take a decision on it. Where decisions cannot be reached, there should be wider consultations and realistic bargains with contenders “giving and taking” until some form of consensus is reached. Any one currently in an elective or appointive position in any tier of government should not be part of this conference. The decisions of the conference should be subjected to a referendum where the people decide on the recommendations that would become law and those to be jettisoned. The power to take fundamental decisions regarding governance structures and their fundamentals even by the 1999 Constitution is vested on the people. Section 14 (1) (a) of the Constitution is unequivocal in its statement that sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria from whom government through the Constitution derives all its powers and authority. Sovereignty in Nigeria neither resides in the President or the National Assembly! The agent or delegate cannot be greater that his principal.
In 1999, many of the persons who fought for democracy refused to participate in the process that led to the erection of the current political structures we have today. With the experience of the rigmarole of the military, especially Gen. Ibrahim Babangida’s endless transition, activists and real progressives did not take the idea of participation seriously. Since then, Nigeria has paid dearly for it by handing over power to persons who never spent a minute thinking about how they could improve the livelihoods of their compatriots. Some of the current occupants of power were those who supported Abacha’s murderous gangs. Even Obasanjo was brought straight from prison to play a script. Empirical evidence has shown that he was grossly unprepared for the Presidency and he laid a solid foundation for the rot we have today. So, we must take this conference seriously and invest time and energy into it and direct discussion to areas that touch on the living conditions of the common people. The conference should not just be about the East or West, North or South or Middle Belt and claims of a right to the Presidency. It should also be about duties to the state and baking the national cake before we begin the dialogue of sharing. Nigerians must insist that the agreements of the conference must not become the subject of retrogressive politics.
To the President, I have a clear message. Make no mistakes; if the idea is to buy time and distract Nigerians and you from the PDP divisive politics and the heat turned on the Presidency by a section of the country, then it is better to forget the idea of a conference. But if you mean real business, then continue and I assure you the momentum, interest and passion of Nigerians will overtake any attempts to scuttle the decisions of the conference by any cabal from any quarters whatsoever. Once you let the progressive cat out of the bag, it will be extremely difficult to rein it in. Nigeria is in need of fundamental changes and this conference provides an opportunity to discuss and resolve challenges. If we have fought a bitter civil war, promoted insurrection and the challenges refuse to go away, I am confident that dialogue is the way forward.
•Follow me on twitter @censoj