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The latest effort by President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration to resolve Nigeria’s lingering constitutional crisis appears to be dead on arrival. To many critics, it would require more than a miracle for the ongoing national confab to produce a basic norm that would meet the yearnings of the nation and its people, writes Olisemeka Obeche.
Not many Nigerians were surprised when the main business of convening the national conference failed to commence in the first two weeks of its inauguration by President Goodluck Jonathan. The 492 delegates attending the conference had spent the first fortnight prevaricating and squabbling over almost every issue that came up for discussion, culminating in several adjournments.
Although President Jonathan had in his inaugural address to the National Conference appealed to the delegates not to approach issues on the front burner with suspicion and antagonism but with open-mind and work to achieve what is best for Nigeria, it soon became obvious from the first session that polarization and grandstanding would remain a regular feature of the three-month conference.
For instance, Alhaji Muhammadu Barkinindo Mustapha, Lamido of Adamawa, one of the delegates who almost caused commotion when he declared that he and his people could secede to Cameroun if Nigeria disintegrates. “If something happens and the country disintegrates, God forbid, many of those who are shouting their heads off will have nowhere to go. But the people of Adamawa including myself and many others have got somewhere to go. The larger part of my kingdom is in the Republic of Cameroun and a part of that kingdom is in Chad Republic. So, if I run to that place, I will easily assimilate,” he said. His outburst ruffled feathers because many had interpreted it to mean that rather than propagating unity of the country, a traditional ruler like Mustapha was sowing the seed of discord.
Indications that the conference will not be a smooth-sail emerged shortly after its inauguration when the issue of voting pattern came up for deliberation. Also, there was intense debates on whether the conference should stick to the ‘75 percent of majority’ votes as contained on the draft ‘Order and Rules’ paper prepared by the secretariat or adopt the conventional ‘Two-thirds majority’ as voting pattern. While most delegates from the south pushed for two-thirds majority, their northern counterparts insisted on the 75 percent or ‘three-quarter’ option. Although reprieve came on March 31, when delegates finally settled for 70 per cent majority as the voting procedure, observers view the initial stand-off over the voting formula as ominous. “If a simple matter like choosing a voting format for the conference could cause such controversy among delegates, then there is cause for concern, especially in the light of the contentious issues slated for discussion. It certainly sent a wrong signal to people following the conference”, declared Mr. Kingsley Ekundayo, a civil society activist.
But Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN), a constitutional lawyer and a federal delegate at the conference, views it as a necessary challenge the conference must face to fulfill its task. “I want to plead with Nigerians to be patient with the conference because in building a house, you need to lay a very solid foundation”, he said.
Professor Aniette Okon, a delegate from Cross River shares Ozekhome’s view. According to him , the discordant tunes clearly indicates that “there are some glitches in the way the country is set out and organized; and therefore, those areas are soon to be removed so that we can have a country in which there is equality of opportunities for everybody.”
However, for Mr Okey Elioku, a lawyer, the drama was not unexpected because of the accumulation of grievances over the issues of marginalization and resource control. “When you have an amalgam of people from different ethnic, religious, professional, political and gender backgrounds coming to a conference of this nature to discuss issues that are considered germane to the future of the country, you are bound to witness disagreements and polarization,” he said.
While the Presidency has maintained a straight face in the wake of the dramas and intrigues that delayed the commencement of the exercise, the question many are asking is whether the national conference will provide the much needed solution to the country’s constitutional challenges or end up as another jamboree.
To many, the prospect of producing far-reaching and credible recommendations that could address the country’s constitutional lacuna at the ongoing conference remains slim. “We must realize that it is a talk-shop. Its functions are merely deliberative and advisory,” Professor Ben Nwabueze, a renowned constitutional lawyer said.
Nwabueze who led the delegation of ‘The Patriots’ to Aso-Rock Villa last August to persuade President Jonathan to organise a national conference, insists that its recommendations would not lead to the adoption of a new constitution as many Nigerians expected. “The reason for this is that the conference is not established by virtue of any law enacted by the National Assembly. It is established entirely by virtue of the inherent powers of the President under Section 5 of the constitution. And such a conference not established under a law enacted by the legislative authorities of the country cannot adopt a constitution as it lacks the capacity to draft a constitution that will be binding on everybody as law,” he said.
Beyond the issue of legitimacy of the conference output, other factors generating ripples in many quarters are; the process of setting up the conference, the method of selecting delegates and their composition. For Yerima Shettima, national leader of Arewa Youth Consultative Forum (AYCF) and a prominent member of the Pro-National Conference Organization (PRONACO), the ongoing national conference would be worse than any of the past failed conferences in Nigeria.
His reasons: “Nigerians were not duly consulted before this exercise, not even some of us who had been at the fore-front of the agitation for national dialogue. And most of the delegates attending the confab were hand-picked and do not represent the people. For instance, we in the north have not sent anybody. Those delegates attending on behalf of the north were not elected by the people, and so they are there on their own. They don’t even have an agenda of the north to present at the conference.”
Shettima also criticized the age composition of the delegates which has majority of elderly people than youths, arguing that it shows that the government is not ready for genuine change. “We know that elders are important in this kind of conference, but about 80 percent of the delegates ought to be youths who are the major stakeholders on the future of this nation. We have in abundance eminent youths with better ideas on how to make this country better, but they prefer to recycle the same set of (old) people who are actually part of the problems we are having as a nation,” he said.
Ex-Vice President Atiku Abubakar is also not comfortable with the timing and over-all goal of the conference. According to him, the conference ought to have been convoked a long time ago so as to give enough time for the agreed outcomes of its deliberations to have the force of law, especially as some may require the arduous process of amending our constitution. “The government’s goal and the legal framework of the conference are also not clear to me. However, I want to assume that a new and improved Nigeria is the goal,” he said.
But considering myriads of socio-political problems facing the country which are largely linked with faulty constitution, the government believes that the ongoing conference will make meaningful impact. “We cannot continue to fold our arms and assume that things will straighten themselves out in due course, instead of taking practical steps to overcome impediments on our path to true nationhood, rapid development and national prosperity”, declared President Jonathan.
Despite the pessimism in some quarters over the ability of the conference to achieve set goals, Chief Olaniwun Ajayi, a delegate from the South-west geo-political zone believes that the parley will live up to expectation. “I believe the intention behind the conference is to see that the worse is prevented from happening and we should try to see to it that the best is our lot in this country,” he said.
Among the issues delegates are expected to discuss and find amicable resolution to include; best form of government and structures suitable for the nation; devolution of powers, revenue sharing, resource control, state and local governments creation, boundary adjustment, state police and fiscal federalism. Others are; local government autonomy/elections, land ownership, indigeneship, gender equality and children’s rights.
Conference fate hanging in the balance
While the possibility of generating credible resolutions from the ongoing conference remains a matter of conjecture at the moment, the fate of its output is also enshrouded in mystery. Although, President Jonathan hinted in his inaugural speech on the possibility of the use of referendum in ratifying the outcome of the conference, latest investigation shows that the National Assembly is not yet ready to grant the Presidency such powers.
For instance, an attempt by the Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu on April 2, to inject a clause into Section 3 (b) of Clause 2 of the Fourth Alteration Bill dealing with how a new constitution can be processed, to make provision for the President in addition to the National Assembly to initiate the process of a new constitution did not enjoy a smooth sail. After a stormy session, most senators rejected Ekweremadu’s proposal.
Apart from the division the proposed plan to include the Presidency in initiating process of constitutional amendment caused in the Senate, analysts view it as a deliberate ploy by the Presidency to obtain a power to subject the outcome of the constitutional conference to a referendum at the end of the day. This development, according to the Conference of Nigerian Political Parties (CNPP), is tantamount to putting the cart before the horse as “the insertion proposal could have been on the table before the conference.”
“We are at a loss why Senator Ekweremadu and his cohorts did not initiate this proposal in July last year when they came up with the view that Section 9 did not make provision for how a new constitution comes into being, therefore placing the cart before the horse”, it argued in a statement signed by its National Publicity Secretary, Osita Okechukwu.
According to CNPP, such a clause, if inserted into the constitution runs foul of the doctrine of separation of powers as well as checks and balances. “The proponents of the proposal to include the president in the initiation process and not ratification process of constitutional amendment or new constitution are unwittingly constructing an imperial president, hence, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” the CNPP submitted.
While the possibility of the presidency obtaining a legal backing that can allow the outcome of the conference to go through a referendum remains slim, the question is; can Nigeria afford to spend N7 billion on another fruitless conference? For, Mr. Paulinus Offozor, an insurance expert, government shouldn’t have embarked on the national conference project if it was not sure that its outcome would be adopted through a referendum. Describing the ongoing conference as a charade, he queried: “why the waste of time and money (N7 billion) on a conference whose recommendations will eventually be doctored and killed by the PDP-led government if it is not in their interest?”
Miss Chioma Gabriel, a political analyst argues that President Jonathan may have deliberately opted for a national conference to distract from his bid to actualize his second term ambition. “The lines are falling for him in pleasant places going by the direction of this confab. With the limited time given for it to wrap up, nothing conclusive would likely come out of it if the delegates continue on the same page they have started”, she said.
This is not the first time Nigeria is organizing a national conference. In 1994, the late General Sani Abacha organized a Constitutional Conference and in 2005, former President Olusegun Obasanjo also organized the National Political Reform Conference (NPRC) which had Justice Niki Tobi as chairman. However, both conferences were deadlocked. Will the 2014 National Conference which has Justice Idris Kutigi, a former Chief Justice of Nigeria as chairman and Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, a former Foreign Affairs Minister as vice chairman turn out to be yet another jamboree? Only time will tell.