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2014 National Conference And The Partisan Intrigues

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IN October 2013, when President Goodluck Jonathan made known his intention to organise a National Conference for Nigeria’s constituent units to deliberate on ways out of the many issues affecting the country, mixed reactions greeted the move. 

  While optimistic supporters praised the President for summoning the courage to call a national gathering of ethnic, political, economic and cultural leaders to engage in robust conversation about the future of the country, there were those who frowned at the idea. Those who affirmed the importance of the conference were quick to point out that the objective of restructuring promised by the conference, was the most important thing Nigeria needed. 

  Naturally, these men and women who threw everything into the battle to make the Confab acceptable, tried as much as possible to galvanise their own constituencies to back the meeting.

  On the other hand, there were those who had fundamental objections against it, saying everything to shoot it down. The anti-conference agitators tried to shoot down the meeting on the basis of distrust for the Jonathan government. They argued that the President was not sincere in pushing for a National Conversation with the 2015 elections not so far away. The opposition to the conference sensed that the President could get some political capital from the exercise. 

  After all, all those who would participate as discussants at the event would naturally be appointees of the President, the opposition reckoned. Those delegates would as such become loyal to the man who gave them this huge national platform to get their voices heard. 

    The political opposition was therefore averse to the implications of a Jonathan National Conference, which if successful would give the President coveted political mileage. So, using the weighty voice of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, those on the opposing side of the National Conference debate ensured they did all they could to rile at, and discredit the conference. 

     The protestations of the naysayers notwithstanding, the 2014 National Conference went ahead, with many from the constituencies that had opposed it surreptitiously navigating their way to be a part of the conversation. There was no doubt that right from day one, those who opposed the conference had an uphill task to convince the rest of the nation that the dialogue of Nigerian peoples was not worth the stress.  

 The National Conference of statesmen, opinion and civil society leaders was supposed to chart a way forward for Nigeria in the face of many existential challenges. It did deliberate for close to four months, and voluminous recommendations have been made, which many Nigerians expect would be further subjected to a thorough process of appraisal by the partisan camps as the 2015 electioneering process continues to gather steam. 

   However, the reality of 2015 politics has created a cold trail for the recommendations of this body, which gulped a substantial chunk of taxpayers’ funds. 

  Before the general elections were postponed to March 28 and April 11, the recommendations did not feature much in the political discourse apart from the President promising at a lagos rally that he would ensure implementation of the Confab report. It was only two weeks ago that a group of Yoruba leaders decided to resurrect this recommendation and essence of this crucial gathering to create more stakes in the battle for votes. The refrain at the gathering was that since it was President Jonathan who envisioned the conference, he should logically be the man to push through the far-reaching recommendations aimed at restructuring the entity called Nigeria. It was on that basis that they, therefore, decided to throw their weight behind the candidature of President Jonathan.

  However, since the recommendations go beyond the confines of partisan political strategising, the fundamental question revolves around how other Nigerians, both on the other side of the partisan divide and those not so politically active, see the outcome of the conference in the light of these push for power at the centre. So far, the information matrix of the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) does not seem very interested in being drawn into any sort of debate on the outcome of the conference. 

   Back in October 1, 2013, when President Jonathan announced plans for the convocation of a National Conference, the opposition did everything it could to take the wind of the sail of the confab. In the feverish debate about the goals, opportunities and challenges presented by such a meeting, the opposition, which was at the time still grappling with the realities of its own formation as a merger of parties, dismissed the exercise as a waste of precious time and resources. Even though the view of the majority carried the day, the political opposition has tended to assume the exercise as a futile venture. Interestingly, the opposition to the conference, even within the camp of the opposition was not as monolithic as they would have wanted Nigerians to believe.

   Ironically, the forces of history and politics seem to have forced a reversal of roles with regards to the National Conference and its far-reaching recommendations. The clamour for a talk shop to resolve Nigeria’s many intractable issues had always come from the South West, and from a good number of the voices that have now gone quiet with respect to the very issues they once clamoured tirelessly for. 

    In fact, the South West was once the hotbed of the agitation for a grand scale discussion about the future of the country. There is, however, no doubt that the high stakes in the 2015 general elections made it too tactically dangerous for the opposition to concede any good intention or positive accolade to the incumbent on the basis of the building blocks created by the conference for repositioning Nigeria. The devolution of powers, which had always been a recurring theme in the discourse to reposition an over-centralised Nigeria was addressed by the conference. 

   But the nature of the brinkmanship suggests that if the opposition were to openly endorse the efforts by the President, it would imply a belief in his qualities as a statesman and somebody capable of piloting the ship of state beyond May 29, 2015, when his first term expires. The natural thing to do, therefore, from an opposition point of view has been to paint the conference in an unflattering light in order to further define the President as a leader who lacks the capacity to grasp the great issues facing the country.

 Now that the existence of the conference and its many recommendation have been inserted back into the political space, there are many who would want to hear how the two major parties in the contest would navigate in terms of restructuring the behemoth called Nigeria. While the ruling party can boast of a roadmap even though it has not been implemented, the opposition will have to explain why it has to offer a different set of ideas from what was essentially a pan Nigerian conference recommendation.  

     It is, however, true that since the conference report was concluded and submitted, no one has seen any bold new ideas on how to implement the outcomes. It was the same issue that was pointed out when the initiative was launched to push the conference through. There seems to be a curious hurry by die-hard proponents of the event to push through the talks, without correspondingly thinking through what would become of the decisions reached during the deliberations. 

  When, for instance, in 2013 President Goodluck Jonathan announced that the recommendations would be presented to the National Assembly for integration into the 1999 Constitution, many were not so convinced that it was an effective way to go. Talks of a referendum did not also fly, as legalese was used to explain why Nigerians would not be allowed to affirm or distance themselves from the outcomes. The ball is therefore in the court of the political parties to say what they would do or wouldn’t do with the conference outcomes. 

  Ample lessons from the 2005 political reforms conference, which recommendations never saw the light of day pin-point the road not to travel on with efforts like these. Similarly, the National Assembly has continued with its amendment of the 1999 Constitution, in spite of projections that the recommendation of the conference will be integrated into the same grund norm.   

   However, the thinking of the Senator Femi Okurounmu-led Presidential Advisory Committee on National Dialogue is instructive. It advised that the Executive and the National Assembly should cooperate as partners “to put in place an enabling law that should lead to a successful and hitch-free National Dialogue.”

  The committee recommended that the President should either send an Executive Bill for the purpose of the National Conference to the National Assembly, which shall enact it into the enabling law or exercise his inherent powers under Section 5 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999 as Amended), to convene the Conference. 

   In the end, the issues addressed by the 2014 National Conference go beyond partisan posturing and positioning. It is all about addressing the wobbly structure of Nigeria and ending its continuous disorder. It is about addressing the annoyances of the many constituent units who are so unhappy about the way the Nigerian State treats them. 

   Effectively, the conference outcomes and the push for their implementation would be one step towards reversing the age-long talk of Nigeria being a mere “geographical expression,” where might is the only right. The result: a national space of too much extreme resentment against the decades-long institutionalisation of injustice.


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