With an advisory committee on national conference without ‘no-go areas’, President Jonathan appears set to give the task of remaking Nigeria to the citizens themselves. But many of them insist that government must give the confab a free hand to operate
By JULIANA UCHE-OKOBI
Since his national broadcast on October 1, 2013, President Goodluck Jonathan has kept many tongues wagging along the line of keeping the Nigerian project going. Nigerians, to some reasonable extent, appear united in tackling the nation’s challenges from the root, in trying to keep pace with the President who on Monday, October 7, inaugurated a 13-member presidential advisory committee set up to fashion out the modalities for the much sought-after national conference.
These 13 members, who have been variously called the 13 wise men include Femi Okunrounmu, chairman, who was a senator for the Ogun Central senatorial district from 1999 to 2003; Akilu Indabawa, secretary of the committee and a political aide to Jonathan; Ben Nwabueze, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, and a professor of Law, who later withdrew from the committee on health grounds as well as Funke Adeboye, a professor of History, University of Lagos.
Other members of the committee are George Obiozor, a professor of International Affairs and former ambassador to the United States; Khairat Gwadabe, former senator that represented Federal Capital Territory, Abuja; Timothy Adudu, former senator from Plateau North constituency; Tony Nyiam, a colonel who was part of the failed attempt to oust the military government of Ibrahim Babangida in 1990; Mairo Amshi; Dauda Birma, former minister of education from Adamawa State and Abubakar Sadiq, former minister of tourism, culture and national orientation. Buhari Bello and Tony Uranta, a public affairs analyst, are also on the committee.
To allay fears expressed that the Presidency might influence the choice of issues to be discussed, Jonathan clearly stated that the committee was free to delve into any issues they feel are of national interest and beneficial to Nigerians. Emphasising that all shades of opinion “should be accommodated,” the President made it categorical to the committee that the task before it was a “national project” borne out of a genuine desire to remove all threats to the country’s unity and development and as such should be carefully handled.
Some say the President’s gesture is a demonstration of his seriousness to reform what some people perceive as unjust political and economic system foisted on Nigerians by colonialists to suit their own purpose. Debo Adeniran, executive chairman, Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders, CACOL, is particularly excited at the free hand given to the committee. “We are lucky that the President has not shown any indication that he wants to teleguide it. He has mentioned it that it is a people’s conference and since he has given us that open cheque, we should make the most use of it.”
While Adeniran may be right, some critics equally argue that Jonathan may have a hidden agenda with the way he made a U-turn and accepted an idea he had earlier opposed. Bola Tinubu, former governor of Lagos State, actually believes that the conference is being proposed at a wrong time. Ladi Lawal, SAN, shares the same view. While he does not question the President’s sincerity, Lawal argued that the setting up of a committee to advise the President on constitutional conference without any agenda was wrong and “is bound to fail.”
Tam David-West, professor of virology and former minister of petroleum, is even more categorical in his criticism of the proposed conference. He stressed that unless Nigerians agree to stay together, no amount of conferences convened would do it and the efforts put in place to convene such dialogues would amount to nothing. “The current effort to bring about a national conference is a waste of time. You can have 100 conferences on how to live together; it would amount to nothing if we don’t want to live together. The conference would not tell you how to live together; it is we that must decide that we want to live together. Nigerians have not felt there is need for us to live together and as long as this is the case, no amount of conference would make us live together,” he said.
David-West believes that what Jonathan needs now to unify Nigerians is good governance. Joe Keshi, director-general, BRACED Commission, made up of the six states of the South-south geo-political zone, has no different opinion. He told the magazine that if the Jonathan government could establish justice, equity and fairness in the land, there would be no need for a conference as the current problems facing the nation would naturally resolve on their own.
With the enormity of the task before the committee, some people are concerned about who should participate and whether or not it should be sovereign. Adeniran believes that issues to be discussed should include the system of government in its entirety; true indigeneship, fiscal federalism, boundaries, currency, international relations, monetary policies, economic policies, issues of self-determination, regionalism. “As a matter of fact, the basis of a country should be discussed from the scratch,” the CACOL boss said.
The Obafemi Awolowo Foundation, OAF, argued that the conference should address true federalism as established by the founding fathers of the country, with emphasis on granting the federating units room to develop competitively at their own pace. Stressing that the present state structure should be reconfigured to more manageable and sustainable units, the OAF further suggested how delegates to the conference should be nominated. In their opinion, 90 per cent of delegates should be selected by electoral colleges from ward, local government, state and zonal levels and should be done on a non-partisan basis. The remaining 10 per cent should come from professional bodies, trade unions, civil society organisations, youths/students, women and pan-Nigerian religious bodies.
Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, proposed that participants could be “drawn from ethnic nationalities and, at least, the six basic estates of the realm, namely the executive, legislature, judiciary, media, civil society and organised business.”
Also, the pan-Igbo socio-cultural organisation, Ohaneze Ndigbo, suggests equal representation of all geographical zones in the country. Joe Nwaorgu, its secretary-general, said the zones must be treated equally, noting, however, that representations from the zones must also take into cognisance the ethnic diversity in the respective zones. To the group, it would not be possible for the well “over 1,000 ethnic groups” in Nigeria to be equally represented at the dialogue. “What is important,” he said, “is for the interests of the ethnic nationalities to be taken care of at the conference.” But the Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF, said it would be unjust to give each of the ethnic groups in Nigeria equal representation at the conference, saying that doing so would be “redefining democracy” to mean the superiority of the minority.” Its spokesman, Anthony Sanni who was reacting to Ohaneze’s argument, noted that representation in the national dialogue on equality “does a lot of violence to definition of injustice by Aristotle who said injustice is not only when equals are treated unequally, but is also injustice when unequals are treated equally. One wonders the justification in making the representations by the Igbos and Idoma of Benue State to be on equality, or that of South-east and North-west to be on equal basis. Those making such submissions are trying to reinvent the wheel or redefine democracy to mean minority prevails.”
The ACF’s statement indicates a mild acceptance of the proposed dialogue. At least it is a far cry from the position of Sule Lamido, the Jigawa State governor, that no delegate would attend the conference from the state, arguing that the planned conference lacked constitutional backing.
From the foregoing, it is clear that the committee has a multi-pronged challenge before it. Conveners of previous conferences have shied away from adding the word, sovereign, which many Nigerians insist would make a difference and prevent government’s possible plan to tamper with its outcome. Nomenclature apart, the committee would also be faced with the challenge of meeting the deadline. With a mandate to meet with a wide range of Nigerians and sample different opinions which, at least, would propel members of the committee to visit the six geo-political zones after which they would return and write the recommendations, a source close to the committee confided in the magazine that he was not sure the group could finish on the appointed date.
At a time when some have already expressed scepticism and concluded that nothing tangible would come out of the exercise, the committee also has to convince such doubting Thomases that it would not be business as usual and that government would not only accept, but act on the outcome of the conference.
Adeniran insists that the conference should be sovereign. Being sovereign, he said, suggests that it emanates from the people and the people would take charge of it and because of the legitimacy it would enjoy, the people would support the outcome. But that is not all. He also said that the outcome itself should be confirmed through a referendum. If the foundation and process of the confab is legitimate, Adeniran has no doubt that its outcome would be acceptable to the majority of Nigerians. “If the committee comes up with acceptable modalities for a SNC, or at least people-controlled national conference, then the outcome would be respected. It should not be subjected to the dictates of the National Assembly or the executive because it is beyond their powers to organise this kind of conference we are talking about,” he said.
Okunrounmu, chairman of the committee, has promised that they would not let Nigerians down. By the time the assignment is completed and the conference is held, he said, “even those who were initially sceptical and critical of the idea of a national conference will have become persuaded of its merits and benefits to our nation.” Only time will prove him right or wrong.