The 2014 National Conference: Looking back, looking forward
Being the 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.
THE oppositional pundits, arguing that all democratic elections always have low voter turn-out hence no reason for panic, are just being shameless in their extenuation or justification of the fiasco of an electoral commission that therefore sets out ab initio to pre-determine a lower level than tolerable in the circumstance of a closely fought election. Suppose the eventual winner scores two million votes more than the loser but undistributed voters cards run up to five million, how can the umpire justify handing the certificate to anyone. Clearly, only a fair distribution of voter’s cards which leaves the voters to decide whether to vote or not to vote meets the factor of freeness and fairness in the process. Otherwise the 2015 election must pass as not just rigged but cooked. Even without the intervention of the security chiefs insisting on being given time to fight the Boko Haram insurgents in the North East to a standstill, it ought to have been obvious that there is a clear security issue in so cavalierly disenfranchising millions. What could be a greater security issue than a virtual coup against the electorate? So why not let’s posit the self-evident: that a country in which such mal-distribution of voters cards may be argued as having security implications does deserve to have had a National Conference if only to to make a pitch for change. So to say, after the failure of the 2005 Political Reform conference, which President Olusegun Obasanjo flunked, President Goodluck Jonathan had no choice but to convene a National Conference. If he had failed to act, history would not have marked him down as clueless but downright irresponsible.
Now my third and last caveat before the discourse. Given the foregoing, Nigeria’s history from 1900, the beginning of British rule, may be viewed as one long transition to democracy that has not yet arrived but is endlessly on the way. Implicitly, it began with the notion of a civilizing mission which, in the specific department of the polity, covered forty-six years of struggle and negotiation between fractious natives and the colonial military ruler. It may well be noted that there have been two “civilizing missions”, one undertaken by the colonial military until independence in 1960 and the other by their step children, the native soldiers whom they left behind and who began to intervene extremely rudely in politics from the first coup of January 15, 1966. As it happened, the colonial ruler disengaged after enacting five different constitutions with the sixth becoming the Independence Constitution: Fredrick Lugards’ instruments of Amalgamation (1914), Clifford Constitution (1922), Richard’s Constitution (1945), Macpherson Constitution (1951), the Lyttelton Constitution (1954), the Independence Constitution (1960) and the Republican Constitution (1963). Counting from 1960, the country was having a fifth Post-Independence Constitution by the time General Abdulsalaam Abubakar’s transition reached the shore on May 29, 1999. Properly speaking, only the constitutions that came after 1963, the Republican Constitution, may be described as falling into the period of the second civilizing mission – the era of the so-called “corrective” regimes. All the same, a common view of the periods can be sustained which puts the civilizing mission and the corrective interludes – colonial and post-colonial – together in terms of attempted departures from regimes of force.
Either way, the umpires in the political space were military in cast, bowing now and then to dissent and open defiance but generally holding the aces. The corrective military regimes and their transitions in a sense have been no better than clones, if not handmaidens of the colonial ones. Worthy of note is that all the transitions followed a common format usually beginning with debates audited by specially created technical committees, special commissions or political bureaus which made recommendations around popular demands or trends that are then subjected to further supposedly non-partisan administration, ad hoc or Constitutional Conferences or Constituent Assemblies. The umpires shape the processes from local levels to more partisan regional and national levels. The watchword of the processes was usually that it be orderly. This implied that it be amenable to control. The reality of control ensured that whatever agenda emerged from aggregation of views and interests was revisable and usually had to go through revision by the colonial or military ruler. While it has always been the case that the authoritarian lawgiver was forced to be an exit-taker, there tended, always too, to be enough leverage and clout for the law-giver to determine the state of the negotiated outcome. As in the colonial era, the post-colonial law-giver, this time some kind of internal colonialist from the home-grown barracks, had a lot of impact on the progress of constitution-making, moving from a parliamentary to a quasi unitary, command-centred, constitution amenable to military dictates in 1979. The constitution which favoured a Presidential system, a mould-breaker, was rubbed in too hard however when the 1999 Constitution, which Nigerians did not see until after the transitional elections that it was supposed to guide, was touted, by a military decree, as having been enacted by we the people. It was and has remained a scandal. The agitation for a new constitution thereafter took on a fervent outlook after transition to civil rule. It yielded a demand for a sovereign national conference, disavowing the need for military guidance or overhang, with the people gathered as sovereign. Except that under an elected government, no matter how unfair the polls, it was difficult to press for a Sovereign National conference unless from the ambit of a coup de tat which would have no relationship to, but could annul an existing government. Quite brusquely, it was resolved by the establishment of the 2005 Political Reform Conference which had no pretensions to a democratic provenance. Unfortunately, that conference failed to deliver.
At any rate, the demand for a sovereign national conference seemed at first to be merely a bargaining position from which to bid for military exit from power. It turned out to be so fervently taken to heart by sundry groups that a need arose to match the theory to the actual necessity to restructure the lopsided Federation. The controversial edge to the demand is that it was not only linked to the necessity for devolution of powers from the central government but based on a redefinition of federating units, not in terms of states created according to the whimsies of military dictators but ethnic nationalities and language groups as originally proposed by Obafemi Awolowo in the forties in his book Path to Nigerian Freedom and re-stated in the sixties in Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution, The People’s Republic and The Strategy and Tactics of the People’s Republic of Nigeria. True, restructuring for Ken Saro Wiwa was a drift towards the confederal while Obafemi Awolowo never shifted from his Federalist perspective. Both were agreed however that restructuring should return self-governance to carefully delineated ethnic groups in territorial formation whose pre-colonial mandates were dismantled by British guns; and whose post colonial dispositions have been assaulted by the internal colonialism of fellow natives in military gear. To have federating units which are states simply means, according to this argument, that ethnic groups and fractions must constitute states, local government and special autonomous units recognized by the constitution. The real news, and the proof of the patriotic inclination of the movers for restructuring is that like Awolowo, who never stopped demanding states based on ethnic affiliations, they have upheld the most insistent plank for linking all the nationalities together through common social welfare programmes. This was the basis of the insertion of fundamental objectives and directive principles in the 1979 Constitution which sundry groups have fought to make justiciable as now affirmed by the National Conference. Along this line of thinking, and in order to formalize a basis for a more equitable Federation, a virtual national movement of ethnic nationalities emerged in the nineties, which was boosted by champions of the June 12 struggle after the annulment of the Presidential election of 1993. The indeterminate possibilities of this movement, along the North /South divide, led to compromises on all sides that must explain why Olusegun Obasanjo was removed from prison to become President of Nigeria. All opinions agree that it was a sop for the aggrieved Yoruba over the June 12 annulment. By the same token, the Niger Delta was being placated when Goodluck Jonathan was nominated as the Vice President to President Umaru Yar’adua. It was a case of mollifying the much marginalized oil-producing Niger Delta which continued to account for more than 80 percent of the national income and was up in arms, in fervent militancy that was taking away the goose that laid Nigeria’s golden egg. The question was always hanging in the air: why do you have to have a Federation in which some parts are given sops and mollified instead of having direct civic rights on the basis of which they bid for and get their due? This question underlay what may be termed the Goodluck Ebele Jonathan Dilemma, or the GEJ Dilemma, for short. It is simply a factor of the lopsided geo-political architecture that has fractured national psyche and given rise to invidious manipulation by geo-cultural Mafiosi and cabals. It happens to be an architecture full of terrible imbalances and incongruities which has raised fear and distrust and frustrated many grand national projects. As so many watchers of Nigerian affairs agree, it has not been good for the North because it has not been good for the country as a whole. It has given rise to unheeded demands for mending; healing; recasting, and restructuring of the national frame. To no avail. Its markers have been particularly vicious: evident in attempts by one side of the country or state to catch up with the other, to halt, or simply destroy the advantages of the other, to even up. It has witnessed crude attempts at truly inane rotation of offices, barring people of the wrong regions, states or local governments from strategic political offices, or allowing the arrantly unqualified to overtake the truly qualified so long as it helps to maintain ethnic or regional security. Also, it has been quite a bone of contention in the negotiations within and between Nigerian political parties across the decades.
Please, because this is very important, let me take it slowly. There is a sense in which a President who has refused to go by any rule of thumb and has chosen to throw the matter of constitutional reforms into the boil of a national conference in an election year, is a risk taker. Since he once opposed a more draconian version of such a conference, he may well be seen as having a genuine dilemma. It meant that there was a dire necessity to be served that he knew he could not postpone. In essence, those opposed to the holding of a National conference could not, in fairness, be accused of far-fetching when they claimed that the President is seeking to use the holding of the National Conference to get out of a logjam. It was too evident for words that he was face to face with a logjam, for instance, in his own political party.
At the core of the logjam in the party, PDP, loomed a private arrangement which its supporters consider to be superior to the provisions of the Nigerian constitution. It touches on President Jonathan’s presumed signing of an agreement that zoned the Presidency of Nigeria to the North; at least for eight years. It is argued, in line with the zoning formula, that he was not supposed to take the slot allotted to the North in the family arrangement under which he emerged as Vice President to Alhaji Umaru Yar’adua, a northerner from Katsina, who unfortunately died without completing his term of office. President Jonathan has insisted that he never signed any such agreement but Governor Babangida Aliyu of Niger State, Chairman of the Northern Governors’ Forum, claims he signed. Jonathan’s presence at the meeting where the zoning formula was agreed upon is taken as the imperative of his commitment to it. Although the national constitution allows the Vice President to succeed the President in such circumstances, his northern opponents raise the family arrangement above it to the effect that only a Northerner should have emerged to complete Yar’adua’s term. After the cross-country uproar, fired by the Save Nigeria Group, which induced the so-called doctrine of necessity that enabled him to become President, they claimed he was not supposed to attempt to run on his own steam. But he ran and won. The error of running in that election which he was not supposed to run for, or win, was compounded in the eyes of the defenders of the zoning formula, by his seeking to have a second term as President.
Seven Governors out of 23, threatened to leave the PDP, and five actually left, because President Jonathan would not abdicate his right to run again. Incidentally, the five who carried out their threat including Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State, a Governor from the south south zone where President Jonathan hails from, have since joined the All Progressive Congress. They have taken with them a host of legislators: going from 135 to 172, one above the ruling party’s 171, in the House of Representatives. With the APC in what seemed an unstoppable barn-storming across the country, and with sundry defections to it from the PDP, President Jonathan obviously needed a secular wand that could halt what was threatening to be a runaway victory for the APC opposition. How could he stem the revolt in his party and confront the larger national constituency that was being made to believe that he was incapable of delivering the dividends of democracy? President Jonathan had an even more discomfiting challenge. This one from former President Olusegun Obasanjo who sided with the supporters of the zoning formula. Obasanjo, his illustrious mentor and predecessor, first PDP President in the 4th Republic, declared that President Goodluck Jonathan was allowed to do only one term and no more. An intriguing element was added by the fact that in his eight years in office as President of Nigeria, Obasanjo, an Owu from Abeokuta in the Southwest, was also constantly berated for signing an agreement with the North that he reneged upon. As President, Olusegun Obasanjo claimed that he refused to sign the secret agreement that required him to bow to the wishes of the hegemonists who cornered him. Professor Jubril Aminu, stalwart of the Arewa group that negotiated with him, has insisted that he signed the agreement. The odd part is that no one has said that Obasanjo was not presented with such an agreement to sign. The question is: why should there be a secret agreement, supposedly to make a Nigerian President perform only as one part of the country wishes. How talk about living in one united country if we are hedged in by such underhand manipulation in favour of a geo-cultural cabal? These are rhetorical questions. But they dredge communal memory in the face of events, such as the annulment of the June 12, 1993 Presidential election which was won by MKO Abiola, in what is generally described as the freest and fairest election in Nigeria’s history. The annulment of that election was carried out under the military dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida, and his presumed Khalifa, or successor, General Sani Abacha, pursuant to the interests of northern echelons within and outside the army. Although Ernest Sonekan, an Egba Chief was inserted in an interim capacity as Head of State to mollify outraged Yoruba groups, it was with the death of General Abacha, Sonekan’s nemesis, and Obasanjo’s jailor, that the northern establishment found the man that the North could trust enough to hand over power to. Obasanjo fitted the bill in the course of General Abdusallaam Abubakar’s minding of the transition to civil rule in 1999. In like manner, Goodluck Jonathan was supposed to have fitted the bill. A mild-mannered denizen of the oil-rich Niger Delta, he was supposed to serve as Vice President to a northerner and help to douse the flames of militancy spurting from guerrillas who were fighting against what Ken Saro Wiwa, the judicially murdered writer and Ogoni leader, taught Nigerians to describe as internal colonialism.
Surely, against such a background, and the opposition by a northern group to his candidacy, who would not agree that President Goodluck Jonathan had a personal dilemma! Except that the dilemma has an evident northern coloration which some readings of the ongoing Boko Haram violence in the North East of Nigeria actually see as a source of escalation; a way of giving President Jonathan a virtual hammer to swallow for breaking the power code in the ruling PDP. True or false, the fact is that five of seven Governors who successfully carried out the threat to cross from the ruling PDP to the newfound All Progressive Congress, APC, openly advertised their open commitment to the search for a Northern candidate for 2015. They were not in search of a Nigerian President. Their movement from the People’s Democratic Party had the logic of transferring the zoning hamper in the PDP to the APC, implying that strategic offices in the new party, especially the Presidency, would be reserved. Indeed, without self-consciousness as to the parochialism underlying their cause, the Governors made the President’s commitment to the family arrangement within the PDP appear the standard by which the whole country should go. As they criss-crossed the country in search of allies, they seemed, wittingly or unwittingly, to be insisting that their aggrieved sense of entitlement was superior to the constitution of the country. It has become a challenge to many Nigerians who loathed the PDP zoning formula but now must confront it in the alternate ego of the party, the APC. The logic is that the APC, the new mega party, also has it as a primary dilemma to deal with the same zoning conundrum. And one of the great occlusions of the work of the National conference, if I must anticipate myself, is that it bought into the mania of imagining that once you sequester the country into zones and rotate offices you are dealing with the problems, diversity, regionalism and national unity. It is based on a very unprogressive reasoning which fails to explain why a North South Rotation and a zone by zone rotation across six geopolitical zones as in the defunct Yugoslavia always manages to dissatisfy everybody without making anyone truly better off. What is not considered is that the absence of such a rotation and the risk it contains for every leader to have a map of the country nation in his and her head from day one is actually a better means of bringing people to coalescence. That is, for those who truly want a country to eventually coalesce.
As noted, already, even the APC mega party that has just been put together is saddled with it as a birthmark, a primary dilemma, the harshness of which the leaders have been able to ameliorate by de-emphasizing re-structuring as a party pursuit. The point is that a cultural philosophy, which so far has only been patchily taken care of by a religious compromise, is needed to stem the reality of the myth which says that if the southern leader agrees with a northern leader, he has to worry about placating the masses of ‘his’ people who have always demanded different standards of public provisioning. And, if the northern leader submits to pleas by the southern suitor, a large segment of the northern electorate will need to be mollified against seeing it as a betrayal. A grand social welfare philosophy which can remove the zero-sum nature of the myth demands emplacement beyond the glaring religious assertion that is so brazenly displayed by the structure of the party hierarchy. It is not clear how much of the old commitment to restructuring can still be formalized within the APC, especially after the open disavowal of the necessity for a national conference that seems to have overtaken the party. The urgent task that stares the party in the face, however, is to distance itself from the jinx of organized groups, like the Arewa Forum which extra-legally arm-twists political leaders to take only regional security agendas to the national table, while openly bragging about watering down the mandate of every Southerner that becomes President.
In essence, it follows that what appeared a Goodluck Ebelo Jonathan dilemma was actually not such a personal one but an impersonal exposure of the existence of a fractured national psyche which he could heal not only for his party but for the whole country. Whatever his presumed ambitions for the 2015 Presidential elections which opponents regarded as his underlying rationale for pushing for a national conference, the real challenge is to meet the ambitions of a Federation, which many, including his opponents always wished to construct on the principle that no side ought to be so powerful as to possess an over-bearing veto over others. The more serious question concerns how to approximate national sovereignty, restructure the political system to allow for a more balanced order in an environment in which there is no fair population census, no proper electoral roll, no determinate principle for the creation of states or local governments. To talk of sovereignty in such a country is merely to turn the mob, the rabble, into revolutionaries, as the Arab spring proved so well. It was largely in appreciation of this that opponents of the National conference remained so sure of its predictable failure. The real plebiscite, however, was wreaked by the grouse of many marginalized minorities and disadvantaged majority ethnic groups in both the North and the South, who voted for the National conference and agreed to participate in it.
It is an intriguing issue because members of the opposition party who were once strident about a sovereign national conference, not only repudiated the necessity for any sovereign national conference, but through Asiwaju Bola Tinubu indicated that they preferred adopting the report of the political Reform Conference of 2005 which was organized by President Olusegun Obasanjo. Whether it was a case of adopting an old conference report or not, whoever was conversant with Nigerian affairs knew that whichever choice would lead to bringing Nigerians together for a dialogue, was all the rave. At any rate, even if Jonathan meant to avoid it, the very problem that haunted the country was now so much his personal problem that he could not fail to accede to the demand for restructuring that President Umaru Yar’adua, a keen man of northern extraction, had begun to address so pointedly and fervently, before his demise! It was time to look at the structures that always permitted such a sense of entitlement which made a self-appointed cabal believe it could have a non-constitutional arrangement that would outpoint the national constitution. It made President Jonathan more right than wrong in bidding for a national conference that could give northerners and southerners a sense of a common/shared future. In the face of a raging war in the North East and the fractious developments in his party, and the rising profile of the political opposition that was very well primed to overcome the pursuit of the idea, the National conference was convened in March 2014 after the cross-country testing of the ground by the Okunrounmu Committee
Let me note at this point that there have been very strong opinions expressed by strong-voiced Nigerians about how prepared the President and the country was for such a conference. Even if it is very much conceded that the President had problems personal and national that he had to contend with, there is good testimony to the fact that he was meticulous and highly skilled in preparing for it. The authoritative voice on this as I have argued in This Conference must be different is Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the leader of opposition who has been most categorical about his misgivings and who must be thanked for unwittingly rousing a virtual national movement behind the idea of the conference. The former Governor of Lagos State and national leader of the All-Progressive Congress, has acknowledged in a backhanded sort of way that he was indeed following the steps being taken by the President although he never expected those steps to be well-meant or pursued to logical conclusions. In the statement that he made on his return from recuperating abroad, he averred that the President opted for the “wiser and more cost-effective line of action when, in November 2011, he inaugurated the Justice Belgore Presidential committee on the Review of Outstanding Issues from Recent Constitutional conferences”. The President, according to him, appointed many eminent personalities to the Committee. After the Committee’s report on July 11, 2012, the President constituted a Cabinet committee, with the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Mohammed Adoke, as the Chairman, to report within three weeks. Then: “Under the President’s watch and directive, a presidential retreat was held for civil society organizations and professional groups at the Banquet Hall, of the State House, Abuja”. The Deputy Speaker of the house of Representatives, Mr. Emeka Ihedioha, the Chairman of the House Committee on constitution Review, stressed the fact, at that retreat, and in the presence of President Goodluck Jonathan, “that the target of the legislature was to complete the constitution amendment process by June 2013.” When that process was actually completed, all the principal drivers in the National Assembly began to deliver reports to the public in a way that was, agreeably, parliamentary. This means that even while so many were talking about the cluelessness of the President, so much was actually happening that was being kept at arms length by those who should have been most enthused by, even if critical of, the process. Although the public has been kept in the dark about the Belgore Report, the minders of the amendment process in the Senate and in the House of Representatives kept faith with the public. So much work they have done to enable any concerned citizen to follow the pattern of the reconstruction of a new constitution in the light of the old! The usually unbowed and proactive media across the country have performed admirably, in my view, and have enabled all who are genuinely interested in the process to know how different is the work that has been done by the sitting National Assembly. Because of the kind of education I have received from their reports I owe a special deal of gratitude to my favourite reporters: and I want to acknowledge my indebtedness to the journalists who have done interviews and features on the basis of which I have garnered pictures of the various conferences and their reports. In particular, A Tale of Two constitution amendment Reports, written by Vincent Obia, for ThisDay, the Sunday Newspaper on July 24, 2013; the PRONACO REPORT: Can Okunrounmu committee learn from the past written by Musa Odoshimokhe for the NATION on October 24, 2013; Where is Abuja conference’s Report by NATION political editor, Emmanuel Oladesu, published on October 30, 2013: and Sunday Vanguard interview with Emeka Ihedioha, Deputy Speaker and Chairman of the Ad-Hoc committee on Constitution Review on March 9, 2014. It is true that no one has followed with much diligence the reports of either the National Conference itself or the job of synchronizing the reports of the Senate and the House of Representatives which has been done and to which the Houses of Assembly have responded in a conjoint report. But I am for now simply interested in the work done by the National Conference.
Now to the discourse. I might seem to be getting personal, if I return to my earlier revelation that I had an agenda of my own which made me write a number of articles, a few published in the newspapers, which anticipated the outcome of the National Conference. If I wasn’t going to be there at the Conference, it was no reason not to let myself be felt or heard. I sent an advance copy of the two books, Taking Nigeria Seriously, and This conference must be different to the Secretariat of the conference and watched and ticked off what I considered the touchstone of the whole exercise. There was nothing brilliantly original in what I had written. I made no claim to special knowledge. As I saw it, a “constitution that will outlast its makers must derive its rationale from collective ambitions that are not driven by immediate, or merely alimentary, concerns! Unity is not enough. Nor welfare. A good constitution must seek a shared future, based on justice and a common, benign morality…. as a syllabus of ideals into the next Nigerian Century. And beyond”. And, there was no reason in my view to try re-inventing the wheel. I merely relied on the “good work” that had been done in the last century which required us to take our country very seriously. Hence, in asserting that this conference must be different, I had no reason to engage in far-fetching. The cumulative goodness of preceding creativity and hardwork from various constitutional conference reports, civil society soirees and special commissions already had empowering visions from tapping into the best that the Nigerian mind had framed in pursuit of a handle for our collective aspirations. I merely extracted what I called asterisked items many of which I had argued for in Taking Nigeria seriously and When does a Civil War come to An End in the form of one citizen’s plea to fellow citizens: to appreciate the necessity for a National dialogue, the insolvency of a sovereign national conference; and the imperative of facing up to the challenges of the national question with creativity. Whether or not the Secretariat of the National Conference bothered with my submissions, I decided to line up the asterisked items which I believed could be consensually agreed upon by Nigerians who had given some good thought to them. There is a personal statement I wish to make here about the faith I began to have in my fellow countrymen and women when I discovered that many of the resolutions of the National Conference chimed with what I had proposed as asterisks. If you hear the timbre of a brag in my voice as I reel out the asterisked items which coincided with the resolutions of the National Conference, it is because, as I have argued, there is really no reason to re-invent the wheel. The good work already done by preceding searchers for answers came handy. Nor is it a matter of raising one conference over another in a partisan pursuit of kudos.
I arrived at the asterisked items by simply comparing the reports of the various national conferences to the positions taken by many constitutional experts whose arguments merely needed to be cleaned up, from sentimental dredges in order to be making them serviceable for lasting purposes. My asterisks were the items that, I thought, a fair and proper constitution, able to deal with the problems of our times could not afford to occlude. “In my well-considered view, we are, as Nigerians, inheritors of great debates, marvelous precepts, and well-honed constitutional provisions – loaded asterisks – that are answers to our much-vaunted National Question. In over one hundred years of trying, we have arrived at principles that are true to our needs and ought now to be harnessed with the integrity of self-motivated people. In no particular order, the principles cover but are not limited to the following:
– A Presidential system with a four year, renewable, term for chief executives who shall be elected on the basis of universal adult suffrage by the whole constituency over which they seek governance.
– A bicameral legislature based on universal adult suffrage
– A judiciary entitled to a first line draw on the Consolidated Revenue Fund
– A post-office pension for past chief executives and officers of the legislature so long as they were not impeached.
– The withdrawal of immunity from criminal liabilities for Chief E