Skepticism and the National Conference By Akin Osuntokun
“In my short life I participated in the writing of five constitutions in Nigeria but constitution cannot solve our problem”-Mr. Paul Unongo
The view expressed above is representative of a group of Nigerians. A segment of the group consists of those who are generally opposed to President Goodluck Jonathan and for whom he can do nothing right. Then there are the status-quo bound conservatives who want Nigeria wholly retained warts and all. There are also the intellectual sceptics — for whom scepticism is a philosophical and political virtue. I say that with due respects to the late Professor Billy Dudley.
The submissions I’m about to make rest on the assumption that the president is categorically committed to the success of the conference — success being defined as the resolve of the convener to push through the conference resolutions. On this score I’m not comforted by the pacifist and tentative profile of the president; and I would have wished that he is not constrained by the politics of seeking another term and the consequent trade-offs and compromises this may entail. This argument was originally canvassed by Professor Ben Nwabueze; he urged on the president to foreclose on seeking reelection as a necessary precondition for the probability of success of the National Conference. The counter proposition can equally be made that nobody is better suited to secure the aftermath of the conference than the person who initiated it.
To succeed, the National Conference will have to scale five notional hurdles in the obstacle race to laying a durable foundation for the political superstructure of Nigeria. The hurdles are in the following order: deliberations; conclusion; recommendation; decision and implementation. The conference, holistically speaking, is prone to abortion at any of these stages. The delegates will deliberate, conclude and make recommendations to the president who in turn will take a decision possibly in collaboration with the National Assembly and then implement those decisions.
Allied to the security of implementing those decisions I have just read of the cheering news that the National Assembly has, of its own volition, initiated a bill proposing a referendum on the resolutions of the conference. I feel elated by this news for a number of reasons. First it is the more legitimate option of amending or issuing a new constitution; certainly more participatory and mandatory than the procedure of the two thirds majority of the National Assembly and the states houses of assemblies. Second is that, to the extent of the direct plebiscite, it will mark out the constitution resulting therefrom as distinctly autochthonous —more authentic than previous exercises in constitution making. Third is the insulation of the process from the politics of the vested interests of the National Assembly. Fourth and of immediate consequence is that it will specifically tie the hands of successor governments.
The non-salutary background to this conference is the recurring Nigerian experience of the futility of national conferences. In other words, those precedents have made little or no difference to the quality of governance and a positive sense of Nigerian citizenship and nationhood had not thereby been engendered. From this background, it is plausible to raise the spectre of doubt on the fruitfulness of another attempt. Must we then, on account of the experience of these previous failures, seek to discountenance the idea of making progress altogether? For emphasis, let me suggest that we should very well brace up for another National Conference should this one equally fail. In the womb of that possible failure is embedded the seed of a future conference until we get it right.
The issue here is this — Nigeria lost its political balance and equilibrium in January 1966 and no constitution making conference had, ever since, seriously adverted itself to this fundamental departure point. Those who were in a position to do so namely the wielders of hegemonic power of control and coercion simply had no incentive to do so. Their position was strengthened and complemented by the sequence of events following upon the coup and counter coup of 1966. The civil war syndrome, the longevity of military rule and its unification ethos came to supplant and distort the constitutional evolution of Nigeria in a manner that almost criminalised the political inheritance of federalism as practised in the First Republic.
The regent royal of the abortive January 1966 coup, General JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi, formulated the problem of Nigeria as the bane of regionalism against the aspirational ideal of Nigerian nationalism and thereby abolished the regions and unified the governance of Nigeria under a central military command. After the initial revolt against Ironsi’s formula of a unified political structure, which culminated in the counter coup of July 1966, the victorious military-led Northern regional political power bloc rediscovered the utility of political and governance unification as a tool for securing its Pan Northern region vision of Nigeria. In addition to the civil war syndrome and the unification ethos of military rule; the fiscal federalism shattering effect of the oil economy came to play a decisive role in the progressive centralisation of Nigeria’s political structure.
The logic of the prosecution of the civil war and its outcome was not consistent with the practice of federalism as enunciated in the Independence constitution. As a matter of fact, there was a movement of Nigerian intellectuals who simultaneously theorised the civil war as resulting from regionalism and argued that the regions had become a competitor and rival (against the centre) for citizen loyalty and allegiance hence they should be broken down. Meaningful discussion of a true federalism-based political structure was deemed politically incorrect and was quickly supplanted with sloganeering — to keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done. Who in 1970 wants to be seen as making an issue of decentralised federalism in Nigeria? All these could not have better suited the prevailing military dictatorship, which defined its priority role as policing Nigeria against any iota of relapse to status quo ante 1966.
The sudden catapult of Nigeria into the club of oil rich nations in the early 1970s rendered the idea of fiscal federalism a non-starter and snuggly fitted into the programme of political unification. The oil economy affluence fostered a soporific feel-good effect among Nigerians and lulled us all into political complacency.
The constitutional conferences authored by Murtala-Obasanjo, Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha and Abubakar Abdusalami suffered a common signal defect. They were, at least to those we can ascribe good faith, not so much constitutional conferences as they were military disengagement contrivances. The military pro consuls were ready to leave and the subordinate civilian politicians were expectedly eager to take over; too eager as to prioritise military disengagement over the workability and durability of the constitutional framework they were going to inherit. In all the instances, people were just sick and tired of military rule and if what it took to ensure their departure is a make-do constitutional document then so be it.
The point was poignantly made in the internal debate within the NADECO-Yoruba political caucus over how best to respond to the invitation to participate in the Abubakar military disengagement programme. The most intellectually articulate albeit politically idealistic position argued that participation should be predicated on a comprehensive constitutional overhaul as condition precedent. The more politically realistic protagonists argued for unconditional participation in the understanding that the presidency was conceded to the Yoruba and would therefore enable them to push through their political agenda from inside. This is the sort of compromises and contingencies that rendered those constitutional making conferences inconclusive and evasive of the fundamental issues begging for resolution.
And there are those we know whose objective has nothing to do with the good of Nigeria and directly fomented the debilitating crisis Nigeria experienced between 1993 and 1998. All these constitute the short lifetime experience of national conferences by Paul Unongo and their failures are self-explanatory. In no time, the reality of failed expectations soon set in and a renewed agitation for another attempt at constitutional redress resurfaces.
It is a platitude to suggest as the nay-sayers to National Conference are wont to do that leadership failure is the problem of Nigeria and not the constitutional and political framework. It is a platitude because leadership failure is potentially the case for every society. It is in this assumption and anticipation that polities are structured and restructured to insulate governance against the depredations of probable leadership failure. Science works from the assumption of the worst not the best case scenario. The world is long way gone from the age of Hellenic antiquity where expectations of good governance are predicated on an existing and available pool of philosopher kings.
A little while ago, Adewale Maja-Pearce wrote an opinion piece for an American publication-New York Times, I think, in which he concurred on the imperative of a National Conference in charting a path forward for Nigeria. More significantly, he highlighted the point that the politically disadvantaged antecedence of President Jonathan in the Niger Delta regional constituency should serve as an incentive for him to be wholly committed to seeking panacea in the National Conference. This identification underscores the predisposing uniqueness of this moment. And for this conference to be meaningful, two attributes are of the essence. It has to satisfactorily address the military misbegotten political and governance structural imbalance and duly seek and secure the voluntary consent of Nigerians in a referendum.
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