Prior to the commencement of the present democratic dispensation in May 29, 1999, one of the issues highly canvassed was the convocation of a national conference. The conference, incidentally, was one of the recommendations of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) for the military government before transferring of power to any civilian administration.
However, the then Head of State, Gen. Abdusalam Abubakar, was not able to convene such before passing the baton of leadership to Chief Olusegun Obasanjo on May 29, 1999. With the return of civilian administration in 1999 and the birth of the Fourth Republic, the agitation for a national conference resurfaced again as it became a common song on the lips of many elder statesmen, ethnic nationalities leaders, pro-democracy groups and human rights activists.
Therefore, when President Goodluck Jonathan, on October 1, 2013, during the 53rd Independence Day nationwide broadcast declared the intention of his administration to convene a national conference, many expressed enthusiasm. This is because many saw the president’s initiative as a path way to fulfilling the long dreams of many Nigerians who have been looking forward to opportunities for Nigerian people to sit at a round table to discuss on the future of the country.
Showing his readiness for the convocation of a national conference, President Jonathan set up a 13-man National Dialogue Advisory Committee on national conference.
The committee is headed by Senator Femi Okurounmu, while Dr. Akilu Indabawa will serve as the secretary. Other members of the committee are; Prof. Ben Nwabueze, Prof. George Obiozor; Senator Khairat Gwadabe, Senator Timothy Adudu, Col. Tony Nyiam (rtd), Prof. Funke Adebayo, Dr. Mairo Amshi, Dr. Abubakar Sadiq, Alhaji Dauda Birma, Mallam Bukhari Bello and Mr. Tony Uranta. Speaking during the inauguration of the committee on Monday, President Jonathan said the national discourse would strengthen the nation’s union and address issues that are often on the front burner, and are too frequently ignored. He therefore gave the committee six weeks to submit its report.
His words: “This is a National Project, a sincere and fundamental undertaking, aimed at realistically examining and genuinely resolving, longstanding impediments to our cohesion and harmonious development as a truly united Nation. “There is a view by some of our people that we do not need to sit together to dialogue over the socio-political challenges facing our country. Some believe that because we have held several conferences in the past, we do not need to hold another one.
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 cognisance existing democratic structures that were products of the will of the people.”
Stressing the need for a national dialogue, President Jonathan noted that: “The concept of participatory democracy is such that even after the people have given their representatives the mandate to make laws and act on their behalf, there is also a space for the governed to make further input into the political processes, without undermining the authority of the statutory bodies. Sovereignty continues to be with the people even as the people evolve strategies and tactics to strengthen its foundation for the benefit of successor generations.
“It is this sort of collaboration between the people and established institutions of government, that will allow for a robust outcome that leads to greater understanding and a more cohesive and inclusive Union. For me, there is no alternative to inclusivity, equity and justice in a modern democratic state. I will like to allay the fears of those who think the Conference will call the integrity of Nigeria into question.
This National Discourse will strengthen our union and address issues that are often on the front burner, and are too frequently ignored. “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. Let me also urge the Advisory Committee not only to be alive to the expectations of our people, but to bear in mind, that what we desire is what can work for the good of our people and country. The goal is to bequeath a better and a greater Nigeria to the present and the generation that is to come.”
In his response, Okurounmu said the committee would not fail the nation. “We, on our part, promise the President that we shall not let him down. We shall not fail the nation, we shall not be another failed expectations. We shall not betray the confidence which the President and over 160 million Nigerians have reposed in us. “It is our hope that at the conclusion of our assignment, and the national conference that will follow, even those who were once skeptical and critical of the idea of a national conference will have become persuaded of its merits and benefits to our nation,” he said.
To many people the conference, coming up few months to the celebration of Nigeria’s centenary celebration is a good omen for the country and it would be an appropriate platform to address some of the differences in the country.
The President of Ijaw National Congress (INC), Senator Tari Sekibo is of the view that the decision of the Jonathan administration to accept and drive the process of national dialogue was timely and in agreement with the long-canvassed agitation by Nigerians to negotiate our nationhood.
The National Coordinator of the Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC), Otunba Gani Adams, commended President Goodluck Jonathan’s intent in setting up a committee to work out the modalities for a national conference, adding that such a forum would be an appropriate platform to address issues of ethnic grudges and terrorism in Nigeria. “I think we should praise President Jonathan for setting up a committee for a National Conference.
I sincerely believe that the conference will proffer solutions to most of the problems that have prevented the country from developing. I also want to advise the committee to be very careful with the job they have been given. They should see this as a national service and a call to serve the fatherland,” he said. The leader of South-East Forum, Dr. Ezekiel Izuogu, in an interview with National Mirror, said President Jonathan has taken the right step in the right direction.
“President Jonathan has taken the right step in the right direction. Nigerians have long agitated for National Conference and the setting up of the advisory committee on the National Conference is being sensitive to the yearnings of the majority of Nigerians. I think the President ought to be commended for taking such bold step.
“The committee must aim to make far reaching decisions that will solve most, if not all, the nagging problems facing nationalities in Nigeria. Be it ethnic problem, leadership, unemployment, political, social, cultural or economic problems, the conference should be able to proffer solutions to these problems.”
Despite the commendation on the national conference, some people seem not to be comfortable with the move. Among those who have lend their voice against the conference was the national leader of All Progressives Congress (APC), Asiwaju Bola Tinubu. He described the national conference as a grand deception and a Greek Gift of President Goodluck Jonathan meant to divert the attention of Nigerians from the failure of his government.
His words: “How long have we been talking about it? Why suddenly? There is something in political history and social history, they say beware of Greek gift. It is only a very smart rodent in a house full of little crumbs of poison that will survive the trappings of the owners. Let us, first of all, ask series of questions. But I need to consult with my party but I see a contradiction here. “I see a diversion here. I see deception here. I see lack of honesty and integrity here. It is time to look at our own agenda and develop it. Nigerians are being deceived.
So, where is the sovereignty? What about the Electoral Act? What about the Lemu Committee? We have not had white paper or green paper out of that. Why now? How many months to the elections? Can’t you smell a good soup when it is well cooked? Can’t you smell a bad one that stinks? Can’t you smell the odour of the deception when it is passing by?
It is left for our party and all of us to note all these development.” The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), in a statement purportedly issued by its spokesman, Jomo Gbomo, said rather than hold a National Conference, the National Assembly should be charged to live up to its billing, justify its bogus salary and allowances and redress the anomalies of the Nigerian federation.
“The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) considers the proposed National Dialogue as another deceit, a distraction, waste of public funds and time. Aside from the therapeutic benefits of letting off steam from a political perspective, it has absolutely nothing else to offer,” the group said. Irrespective of the reasons raised against the national dialogue, some analysts believe that those opposed to the conference are not doing so in the interest of Nigerians, considering that some of them had at one point or the other clamoured for a national conference in Nigeria.
The Executive Chairman of Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders (CACOL), Comrade Debo Adeniran, in a statement made available to Saturday Mirror described those opposing the convening of the National Conference as self-serving individuals and groups who are benefiting from the status quo.
“For once the people should be taken serious, and the people themselves should conduct themselves seriously and force their leaders to be accountable and submissive to their authority, which is the main tenet of true democracy.
We have discussed it in the past that democracy should be redefined as the authority of the people. Basically, the convening of a Sovereign National Conference is beyond the present regime.
That is why the people should work with the committee that has been set up. “We don’t have any other means of doing it than for the existing government to organise it; and if they are doing it the best way they know, it is for us to discover anything wrong with it, point it out and insist that the errors be corrected. Once those errors are corrected, we don’t have to bank on whether the proponents are initially sincere or not.
It is Nigerian people that would make it work. Once we are ready to make it work, everything will fall in place,” Adeniran said. Considering how several attempts by government to hold a national conference in the past has failed, some people are optimistic that nothing will come out of the conference. But to political history considering how past dialogues and conferences had produced a political system and a roadmap for Nigeria since independence. It would be recalled that the Constitutional Conference of 1957 in London effectively prepared Nigeria for Independence.
The Eastern and Western regions 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 birth to the 1979 Constitution and also created the current Presidential System with its attendant checks and balances and Fundamental Human Rights provisions.
The present 1999 Constitution 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. Putting into consideration the success of some of the above conferences, the outcome of the Okurounmu-led Committee may provide the roadmap for a new Nigeria.
But if the outcome of the 2005 National Political Reform Conference (NPRC) organised by former President Olusegun Obasanjo and the Peoples Conference organised by Pro-National Conference Organisation (PRONACO) are anything to go by, something positive may not come out of the proposed national conference. This is hinged on the fact that till date, the recommendations of the two conferences are yet to be implemented.
Whichever way it goes anyway, President Jonathan has provided a platform for Nigerian people to talk; it is now left for the people to utilise the platform the way they like. But without any iota of doubt the success or failure of the Okurounmu-led committee will have great effects on the future of Nigeria. Can Nigeria get it right this time around? This is a question beginning for answer as the Advisory Committee on National Conference kick-starts its national assignment.