The 2014 National Conference: Looking back, looking forward
Third Annual Dr. Abel Guobadia Memorial Lecture delivered by ODIA OFEIMUN on 5th February, 2015 at the auditorium of the Women’s Health and Action Research Centre, Benin City.
IT is a pleasure I will always cherish, that when Professor Friday Okonofua thought of someone to deliver the Third Annual Dr. Abel Guobadia Memorial lecture, I was the one he approached. I am an admirer of the prowess he has displayed in the health sector, and have loved every opportunity to identify with and celebrate the four-square groundedness of his establishment of the Women’s Health and Action Research Centre in Benin City. Womens’ Health is the health of society.
The high and rounded sense of effectiveness that this non-governmental assertion has brought to its coverage deserves praise for its unequalled performance. The fact of a public lecture series, in the name of the first Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Dr. Abel Guobadia, posits a consciousness-raising dimension, to this grand non-governmental undertaking.
It is an impressive task-making in pursuance of civic responsibility which truly needs to constantly remind us that those who engage the world aright on this side of the metaphysical divide should never be unsung. We do ourselves honour and empower ourselves with the aura of the goodness that they personified when we celebrate our heroes. A man with a doctorate in Solid State Physics whom our society could have deployed in solid state researches of a special kind, became Head of Department of Physics at the University of Lagos, joined the National Universities Commission, and rose from being Director of Academic Planning to become Executive Secretary of the Commission.
He had a penchant for setting things up. He established the Consultancy Services Unit at the University of Benin and was its pioneer Director. A commissioner of Education, and later Finance and Economic Planning in the old Bendel State, he was Nigeria’s first resident Ambassador to Korea. At his retirement, he floated the Advanced Educational Services Limited, which developed academic programmes for several universities and played a determinative role in the establishment of the first private university in Nigeria, the Igbinedion University in Okada, Edo State.
A member or Chairman of Several Boards, including the New Nigerian Bank, the West African Examination Council, and the Nigerian Standards Organization, he must be toasted as a great educator; if only for services on the Governing Councils of several universities, a Special Member of the Senate of the University of Benin, Benin City and Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council of the Edo State University (now Ambrose Alli University) Ekuma. To add that he was President of the Science Teachers Association of Nigeria, confirms a life dedicated to involvement in making things happen wherever he had presence. Of course, his most advertised role came when he moved from being Chief Electoral Officer and was confirmed by the inaugural Senate of the Fourth Republic as Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
It is a role that no Nigerian has managed to play aright, or could have managed to play aright, unless by throwing up hands in the air for exit-taking. I think, in this regard, one of the great bonuses for the Nigerian society is that he was able to write his book, the Reflections of a Nigerian Electoral Umpire, a testimony for which I am grateful as a lecturer in this memorial series, as will be clear, presently.
Here I stand because Professor Friday Okonofua, a very determined and diligent prime mover, likes turning work-a-day issues into grand fundamental projects. He did not give me a chance to decide whether I was, or was not going to be part of this lecture series. When we met at Ikolo Esan in November, he told me that I would be following an outstanding performer, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, former President of Nigeria, who, first as a military leader and then as a civilian comeback, has carved a niche for himself in the ranks of celebrated African Statesmen.
Obasanjo happens to be a leader whose progress I have followed with unwavering keenness. For good or ill, he is a veritable subject for any public debate before he is an intervener and wronger of rights or righter of wrongs. To follow his act is a humungous challenge because it is not only what he has said but what he has done that enters the discourse.
As the first deliverer of the Dr. Abel Guobadia Memorial lecture, he precedes Professor Adigun Agbaje, second lecturer in the series, who, quite rightly, I could call my student, my friend and co-worker, one of the brightest stars I met teaching a tutorial class at the University of Ibadan when I was much younger.
He is a solid academic and intellectual in whose company I am very comfortable. In effect, very heartily, I am glad to be delivering the third annual Abel Guobadia Memorial lecture.
I am doing it with a special sense of responsibility, genuinely enthused by the need to add value to the social connectivity that the Women’s Health and Action Research Centre has built up around the discussion of the great issues of our times. In particular, let me note, without any equivocation, that the topic of this lecture, The 2014 National Conference: looking backward, and looking forward, could be stretched and threshed from the theme, Nigeria’s Democracy and the Way Forward.
It is very much a theme after my heart. I have written two books in the past decade, Taking Nigeria seriously, and the other, This conference must be different, in which I anticipated the conference and have sought to approximate an old, quite ancient, spirit of advocacy and to merge it with modern projects of which the 2014 Conference turned a veritable terminus, a great expectation. I mean: to be upfront with it, I am taking liberties to abridge the arguments in the books for this lecture in the hope that, at the end of the ensuing interaction, we shall in some way be co-authors of pleasant consequences.
What I propose to do is to enter three caveats and a discourse before rounding the cape on where the 2014 National Conference, through its resolutions, may wittingly or unwittingly be heading. Of course, my understanding of its promise is that all the problems that Nigeria and Nigerians are facing have solutions buried in possibilities that a good Constitution can provide.
Problems of insecurity, corruption, poverty, ignorance, even unemployment, and ill-health can be solved or worsened by the nature of the constitution that a country has. Which is why for me it is such a sad loss that candidates in the 2015 General Elections are storming barns and buckets across the country without being tied down in a debate about what they think of specific provisions, or resolutions that the 2014 National conference has marshalled for moving Nigerian beyond the fiascos of previous constitutions.
It has reduced much of the speechifying and electioneering to grandstanding in vacuo about fighting corruption, unemployment, insecurity, and hunger without adverting attention to the precise prescriptions that will hold the doer down to the guiding constitutional principles or law.
The shopping list syndrome is so all pervasive in the campaigns, without a kitting out of implementation strategies after the usual fine phrases about democracy and good governance. The point is: the candidates do need to spell out what in the Constitution is or is not their goat, so that when we go to the polls, we shall choose aright. Now, to my first caveat.
Let me simply reveal that when President Goodluck Jonathan was still relatively an unknown quantity, just rising to be Governor of Bayelsa State, and still a long way to convening the 2014 National Conference in Nigeria’s Centenary year, I was on his trail. I was convinced that someone from the beleaguered oil state, if he must make his mark, would need to join in finding an endgame to the haggle for the right constitutional order for Nigeria.
After he became the President, I saw the only job he had ahead of him not as that of solving a specific problem like Ebola, or building 22 airports, or more roads than all his predecessors as he has done, or erecting 129 of the 150 promised secondary schools in the face of a Boko Haram-threatened North, and 14 Universities across the country for the necessary move to prepare Nigeria for a great leap forward.
Nor did I put much store by the kind of Agricultural push, quite expensive, I must say, that has materialized under his administration. True, I expected him to put some money down in proper investments for a future generation as in what is now called Sovereign Wealth Fund. I expected all the states in the Federation to adopt but refine it, not drown it.
I expected, but made it not the big deal, that he would build at least three more public, not private, refineries and six mega power stations across the country to link, by rail, everyone of the old colonial provinces, each purring with farms linked to factories, as we really hope should happen, now that he has put the rails back on track after more than 25 years in hibernation.
Also, I entertained the possibility, but did not much worry, that if he was letting the farm and factory spirit ride the rails across the country, with a brand new line linking Kaduna to Abuja, he would enter into a lot of grating problems with countries that are today denying Nigeria fair trade, and refusing to share research or security information, or sell ammunition to the country in the face of grave threats.
I could have sworn that, as he has done, he would refuse to sign the modern day instrument of slavery, the Economic Partnership Agreements, EPA, handed down by the European Union which sentences African countries that sign it to buy from Europe rather than produce for, and trade between, themselves. All of that amounted to doing good deeds without touching the heart of the matter.
The heart of the matter and one job I truly expected President Goodluck Jonathan to do, if he did nothing else, and even if he would die doing it, was the job of convening a National Conference. I did not expect it to be a Sovereign National Conference. There was no chance of that, and no road that could lead there, in the hurry that many strong-voiced Nigerians wanted.
But a National Conference? Yes, skill-driven, and threshing a path for the discovery of the real sovereignty of the Nigerian people. Not to forget, because of the freedom and bonhomie needed to make all Nigerians comfortable with such a period of search and debate, I expected him to be a President who could be spat at, slapped and pushed, as Boko Haramists and sundry tacklers have so far done, but who even if he would be part of the shoving and pulling, would not lose pace and focus.
With particular reference to Boko Haram, frankly, I expected him to refuse to play the role of that leader who enters a house in which a child is crying, bends and folds the child into his arms, dances round the room, distracts the child to quiet, and hands the child back to the mother or nurse. Goodluck Jonathan preferred the role of the other leader who walks into the same house and moves close enough to the child to find out whether the child is hungry, ill, or discomfited by a handler.
Only then, issuing instructions for the problems to be solved, does he get on his way. Roundly, by setting up 150 Almajiri schools, out of which 129 have been established, President Jonathan was definitively meeting the challenge of Boko Haram’s hatred of western education.
A feat of responsiveness, objectively apt, before the public relations savvy of the Malala handlers. It would have been quite some great public relations to reach out post haste to embrace Chibok on the loss of the 200 school girls but that would truly have been out of character with the need not to become a marionette in the hands of terrorists whose first victories are scored by getting opponents to jump when they say jump and dance when they say dance.
The first law in counter-insurgency operations is not to become a marionette in the hands of terrorists, especially terrorists whom the political opposition openly identifies with up to the point of claiming that a clampdown on the terrorists is a clampdown on a part of the country, the North. Those wishing that their country’s President should behave like changeling in the hands of a visibly schizoid character as Shekau has proved to be on television, may have good and solid public relations credentials but not a rationality that can be relied upon to meet the irrationality of terrorism.
Especially, at a time when the state had no wherewithal to engage in effective search and apprehend strategy in pursuit of terrorists! Nor would it have made tactical sense to start haunting and hounding those infiltrators within Federal ranks who were suspected of dumping sophisticated weapons for the insurgents to pick up in the war fronts, or sending poorly armed soldiers to engage terrorists already apprised of those on their trail. Splitting the ranks of the national army, by allowing ethnic, regional or religious division to creep into the military would have been a plus for the insurgents.
Goodluck Jonathan, in spite of the baying of the opposition, refused to be distracted while bidding for hard-to-get weapons in the international market place and seeking the cooperation of neighbouring states whose initial indifference and shoulder-shrugging neighbourliness was beginning to embarrass. The skill and tough-skinned sense with which Goodluck Jonathan bore the high-voltage disparagement of his style and the charges of insensitivity against him, at home and abroad, proved he knew what was required to get it right.
He got it even more right in the face of the opposition to, and even ongoing derision directed at, the National Conference. The truly good part is that he pulled it all off, not without rough edges, in a Boko Haram infested environment in which the opposition, without a programmatic sense of occasion, turns a ritualistic mis-description of the country, into implacable embrace of the detestable zoning formula that he was over-riding in his own party, the People’s Democratic Party.
This included a shocking abandonment of true Federalism and the long-fought restructuring of the Federation, which was one defining modality of progressive politics in the country. Having pulled off the 2014 National Conference, the next stage was to consider turning the jaw-jawing and rather un-streamlined resolutions into formats for hard implementation. Now that members of the 2014 National Conference have handed in their report, by choice, to the National Assembly which has reached out to, and has received the joint report of the State Houses of Assembly, the road appears open to implementation strategies.
In a normal run of events, it ought to be a hurrah for a new constitution. But can there be hurrahs until after the General Elections? This is the question! And why the candidates in the current elections, including those who opposed the 2014 National conference, ought to be telling the country what they think of the Constitution which Nigerians expect them to go by, or change, in their bid to make all the transformations they aver on the rostrum.
But I digress if I fail to add that I did not expect President Goodluck Jonathan to be stuck, for more than eighteen months, with the undertaker economists, and World Bank fair weatherists, who led President Olusegun Obasanjo down the garden path, until he thought he needed a third, unconstitutional, term to recoup.
Of course, we can see that Ngozi Okonjo-Nweala has done better under President Jonathan than under his illustrious predecessor who was led to counting cents and dollars in foreign reserves while crying tasks were being abandoned at home until the crash of the world economy wiped out the dream acre of reserves that the former Governor of the Central Bank, Dr. Chukuma Soludo turned into some kind of religion while the real sector was suffocating. Poor Soludo, he had spent his term bunching up paper monies in so-called consolidated banks while the economy was virtually screaming for the real sector to reduce the humungous massing of dollars in foreign reserves that the speculators would go after like termites. My hunch on the question of the reserves, has been quite good, as we have all seen, haven’t we, during these 2015 electioneering campaigns, as a distracting and even insulting confrontation has emerged between the super gurus of the World Bank charade in Nigeria.
Trading tackles, the top flight economic stalwarts, harbingers of Bretton Woods heinous crimes against the Nigerian economy, are charging and counter-charging about who lost Nigeria the humungous amounts of money.
They all did in their unconscionable world bank monafiki and folly until the bubble of monetarism across the world proved how they caused Nigeria to take all the wrong turns while they made good, got super star prizes, and gained top flight availability in a jet-setting world of undertaker economics. The pity is that they have only competing tragedies to present to Nigerians, confusing the electorate with phantom ideas as if counting the farms and factories that they should have built for the country.
On all sides, they still brag that it is not the business of government to be in business. If Okonjo-Nweala listened to that suasion too much, I wonder which market forces they would be invoking to explain the roads and railways, the agricultural renaissance, and the talk of giving jobs beyond the counting of roadside sellers of re-charge cards as proletariat or entrepreneurs. I reckon that it takes diligence and some intellectual stamina to pry underneath the flatulent blame-gaming at each other, concerning how they gave away, for peanuts, the family heirloom to smart alecs at home and abroad and trashed gilt-edged assets in spurious privatization deals, while withdrawing subsidy from the poor to help the irresponsible rich of the world. To think of it, the truly responsible stalwarts of the real sector, sweating it out in the dry season of the many cabals in the Nigerian public space, went as-sorrowing while Professor Soludo was engaging in bare-faced money-laundering that any Central Banker should have been sacked and disgraced for.
What is there to choose between gurus who go counting paper money in foreign reserves that soon get eaten up by the termites of speculators and their Undertaker Lords, while the real sector that should make the difference was lumbered with fine stories about inflation-targetting? They all went admiring and sucking up to Barrack Obama for his super-star fine suits but failed to see the hard-headed suasion that made that smart American to tell the people of his father’s continent: I won’t buy your oil. Obama was simply saying: I am going to defend my country before I come back to you: do likewise. But Soludo and his teammates wanted to defend their futures as individuals, not Nigeria’s future.
I can tell you that although there is so much election gimmickry in the ongoing attempts at rabble-work between Ngozi Okonjo-Nweala and Chukuma Soludo, what should matter to the rest of us is how not to bow to the consequent libelling of Nigerians in the non-debates with which they have draped good, normally hard-working Nigerians with hurting terms like indiscipline, incompetence and corruption, all gleefully inflicted after monies have been burnt in speculative ware-housing and off-shoring in the name of not allowing plenty of money to pursue few goods across the domestic economy.
We are expected as voters to be entertained and to allow ourselves to be whipped into line behind this one or that one when the best of neither could have done too much better than the other. The word for it is undertaker economics! Am I required as a voter, no matter how I may dislike President Goodluck Jonathan, to join Chukuma Soludo, in refusing to put proper weight on the deserved praise that made Okonjo-Iweala shift from monetarist monafiki to fiscal redress of sundry infrastructural deficits? The joke is on those who in the name of economic liberalization doomed job-creating possibilities across the economy and left only 419 for the expression of talent by daring Nigerians.
Such poor consolation it is now to be told that because of the monetarist sinkhole that the egg-heads in government have been committed to, and their deference to friends in high places across the globe who needed a piece of the Nigerian action, they allowed factories and farms to close down, with no hope of new ones germinating, while they counted monies being lost in bureaucratic muddles that the Central Bank was created to uncover and block.
By the way, you will notice that I am deliberately repeating myself in different ways. The truth is that across Nigeria, so many factories were turned into churches where former factory workers – I was one of them – now pay tithes and pray for the Governors who ride private jets with their pastors.
This is fact, not fiction. And while every state in the Federation bids for another Shoprite franchise to teach Nigerians how to shop without strain, you want to ask how many of the goods that would be sold in them will be sourced from factories that our Governors-to-be ought to be promising in these electioneering times? These are the questions that stare us in the face whether there are elections or not. They are questions that Nigerians used to know how to answer and answer well as the old man Professor Samuel Aluko proved so well even while he worked for a very unpopular government. The questions can still be answered well.
The snag is that a country rived by do or die battles arising from regional vetoes and unsolved ethnic Arithmetic cannot find the way to answers. We are getting hair-raising talks about post-election violence and an end-game for the Federation called Nigeria in 2015 as some doomsday dirty jobbers have gamed it. The truth is that we cannot find solutions unless we bid within a common morality. Not a benign one for you and yours, and a pernicious one for others.
Assuredly, we can change Nigeria into a liveable space of happy, unafraid, determined, free, loving and creative people instead of having a world that is flat, one-dimensional; a world of only one colour one kind of music, one religion or ideology, in which people have to act against their better selves in order to survive the debilities of so called market forces that have forces but no markets for jobs acceptable to honest citizens.
It is such a space that the idea of a National conference was always fishing and bidding for beyond political immediacies. It had always been rightly believed that, if skilfully convened, it could eliminate the fear of the future by different Nigerian nationalities and enhance conversational civility between diverse fractions and factions.
The short of the matter is that an unusually gifted collection of nationalities, ill-informed to a most disabling degree, without affective access to one another that truly links hearts and minds through exposure to a common morality, how could they solve simple economic problems while each is thinking of how to overcome the other’s advantages instead of going for the goal that puts all and sundry as winners? Where would empathy come from as a defining ethic to humanize dreams and put them to work for the whole society when the grandest ideals, even divine injunctions are being subverted against genuine cooperation that we all need to heal the existential plagues that our lives are becoming? So I come to my second caveat: In accepting the invitation to deliver this lecture, I was intrigued, I must say, by it being in memory of a man whom I never met in his lifetime but whose output as a public figure I had several occasions to respond to on newspaper pages.
I shall not make any references to those occasions for reasons that will soon become obvious but I want to acknowledge the fact that it fits quite primly into the pattern of the other memorial lectures I have delivered almost as a matter of ritual in Edo State in the Fourth Republic. The first of the lectures, the 2003 Egharevba Memorial Lecture was titled In search of Ogun – Soyinka, Nietzsche, and the Edo Century, which forms the spine of my latest collection of essays titled In search of Ogun, Soyinka In Spite of Nietzsche.
It was a celebration of the great historian of Benin, within the genre of cultural philosophy, but specifically to engage his sensational presentation of the personage of Ogun Ewuare, the fifteenth century king of Benin who gave the name Edo to his nationality.
This personage has fascinated me from the standpoint of his very secular, world-changing acumen, which makes many of our modern Governors appear like apprentice mechanics fiddling with social engineering.
Indeed, I have been enthralled by the savvy of this long-ago monarch whom many enemies described as Ogun the wicked but only in the sense in which one of our founding fathers in the 20th century was once berated for arguing that people can be forced to be free, and that those who hated being forced to go to school would sit down some day to thank their presumed traducer.
True, Ogun Ewuare burnt down and then rebuilt his city on a grand scale that attracted different occupational groups, domiciled in quarters, factory-style, as we can still see five centuries after. It says something, very clearly, to modernity which I think requires us to develop a sense of community and a proper capacity for communal creativity and goal-orientation deserving of fixtures in the literatures for school children.
I must say, in this connection, that using Ogun Ewuare’s practice as a standard, was like setting a mood for my other memorial lectures in honour of Chief Anthony Enahoro, Justice S.O. Ighodaro, Festus Iyayi, and even the straight-out communal celebration for Ikolo Esan in November titled We must change the way we live. In general, I have sought a Promethean profile in the lives of these great men, people of quality, who deserve to be celebrated for the purpose of fashioning a common morality to drive descriptions of the future into which we wish to move.
I have, quite frankly, always been in search of such exemplars, with a code of performance that can yield more than mere business as usual. Or to put it differently, it has been a case of looking for ways of linking creative people across time and place, across geography, professions and other existential inclinations who need to be made to see that it is because good people do not meet or engage themselves in regular conversations that their own foibles become obstacles helping the real world to defeat them in their quests for a better world.
Which is why, in the case of Anthony Enahoro, it was about his youthful zeal for political and cultural advocacy, retained throughout his life. On the other hand, I needed to show deference to Ighodaro’s impregnable sense of public service unsoiled by compromise and moral deviations. For Festus Iyayi, it was for his unfailing commitment to the cause of lifting the poor and disadvantaged, and organizing a knowledge-driven will for socio-economic liberation.
I have, very heartily, identified with their exemplariness, and the high standards of public performance that future generations could miss unless roaded along inspirational lines, along the programmatic zeal of that patriarch who, so many centuries ago, challenged his people to civic creativity of a special kind. My tack in this lecture is to take off from their reality to what Dr. Abel Guobadia did for the Women’s Health and Action Research Centre, which is why we are here. But I am absolutely intrigued by his contribution to public service as a boss of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, in the Fourth Republic.
A brief engagement with the latter is actually, in my view, a fair way to enter into the theme of this lecture. I call it an entry, because anyone may be forgiven who thinks that a memorial lecture in honour of a former Chairman of an electoral commission, a man who was in the very cockpit of nurturing our nascent democracy as a manager of national elections, is a fit and proper place to discuss a national conference organized for the purpose of crafting a new constitution for Nigeria.
At any rate, there is no way of discussing how to create selectorates, or why we could not build up an electorate for the purpose of raising or recruiting leaders to craft such a constitution, without thinking of an electoral commission that subsists on muddling through. Its organization, its minders, in and out office, alive or not, deserve more than a rite of attention if only because how we know and engage such people, as performers in our annals, can determine how much we can correct of the self-forgetting that is the bane of our history. In this connection, I am enthused by the fact that Dr. Abel Guobadia did not just do his job and go home.
As I have noted, he wrote a book, Reflections of a Nigerian Electoral Umpire, a testimony to his hard experience which can be taken as social capital, crucial to appreciating, navigating and mastering the contentious territory that elections and electioneering have always been in our pursuit of democratic goals. It is good to know that he who stood in the very cockpit to pilot the electioneering binge in our nascent democracy did not just tell stories about the Independent National Electoral commission but proposes ways to reform the organization. Which is why, for me, it is important to go into it.
Some of his experiences can be fleshed from proposals that he makes, such as his demand for a new INEC, informed by the recommendations of the Electoral Review committee, with a new register of voters to eliminate the “many bogus and strange names” of earlier exercises. Ten years after Guobadia’s exit as Chairman of INEC, the organization is still battling to have the permanent voters’ register that he made a commitment to, and had carried to an advanced stage before the end of his term.
It does matter that we continue to his look at his charge. We need to re-appraise its value as a necessary feature of the integrity of an electoral commission. This could be a good way to prime the efforts of the current Chairman, Professor Attahiru Jega, as he confronts the problems of the 2015 General elections and beyond. In this regard, one great problem Guobadia notes for special appraisal is the common practice in INEC of subordinating “highly qualified and highly-rated experienced staff” to or replacing them with “ill-equipped favoured lower level staff and hurriedly recruited staff of doubtful political leaning and with no prior training for their new job”. In an era, of do or die politics, which had damaged the possibilities of reforms and left so many issues to be treated with levity and licence, it is understandable that he should have worried about this and the standards that could give integrity to the organization.
The hard reality is that, the predilection of the political bosses to intervene through zanny personnel deployments, had made it trite to haggle over the pre-requisites for free and fair elections while all the formalities of standard bureaucracies were being made hostage to sheer political alchemies. The INEC that Guobadia presents to us is one in which the political bosses could and actually changed all ten of thirteen members of the Board, in one fell swoop, without minding that incoming members would be too green to know their left from their right. It was done in a manner that suggested a lack of interest in the institutionalization of structures and programmes.
Once the old members were gone, the new simply had to muddle through or bungle it. These days, as we witness the giddy movements towards the 2015 General Elections, it is apposite that we have an opportunity to gather for one whose role in this contentious territory can still be weighed in to see how far and how well we are travelling. Sometimes, as we see genuine conversations becoming truly impossible, and shouting matches in the name of electioneering overcoming the civic space, with no one listening to no one in the jam of the social media, it is some bonus point for our communal health that we can have time for some honest interaction while truth goes falling as a banal casualty on the rostrum. Don’t get me wrong. I do not imply as some people are proposing that it is darkness visible. Not for our country. The need to honour a man like Abel Guobadia whose most advertised public role centred on a most modern institution, an electoral commission, a means f