Return of the National Conference Debate
The debate over the National Conference has resurfaced recently. The dismissive comments of the Secretary to the Government that it was merely “jobs for the boys” irritated many Conference supporters who would like to see the recommendations adopted. The angry response of Professor Bolaji Akinyemi that they were not “boys” but serious, experienced and committed Nigerians was in order and made the point clearly that the Conference outcome should be taken seriously. It is the unwillingness of the Buhari Administration to take the Conference seriously that is partly fuelling the current debate. Of course recent activities on the revival of the Biafran agenda and resurgence of militancy in the Niger Delta have all placed the question of political restructuring back on the table. The Brexit vote provided further fillip to the demands.
The House of Representatives Special Ad Hoc Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution last week adopted the 2014 report of the National Conference as one of its working documents. It appears that the decision by the Committee is in defiance of the opposition of the Buhari Administration to the implementation of the report. It would be recalled that the APC and its candidate, Muhammadu Buhari had objected to the convening of the Conference just months before the general elections and questioned its composition. All the 53 members of the Constitution Review Committee of the House of Representatives are expected to study the report and make recommendations of what elements within it should be carried forward. There are certainly useful elements of the work to pick and carry forward.
My basic view however remains that on the whole, the National Conference lacked legitimacy. At the end of the Conference, I had published my column of 17th August 2014 with the title: “The National Conference: They Dared, They Failed” I was shocked at the fact that they tried to conclude the Conference with an agenda of tenure elongation. It would be recalled that delegates turned up on the last week of the Conference to find in their package a brand new 2014 Draft Constitution they had not discussed and had not been mandated to produce. They were not a constituent assembly and their terms of reference did not include giving unto Nigerians a new 2014 Constitution. When challenged on the origins of his Constitution, the Conference Chairman, Justice Idris Kutigi confessed that he had been “mandated by President Jonathan to write a new Constitution” (Daily Trust, 14/8/2014). The question that was posed then was if President Jonathan had wanted a new constitution, why did he not include it in the terms of reference of the Conference. When some Northern Delegates threatened to walk out if Kutigi insisted on imposing a new constitution, he encouraged them to walk out, presumably so that he could fulfil his promise to give unto President Jonathan a new constitution.
Everybody knew the slimy purpose of having a new constitution. Following the judgment by Justice Adesola Oguntade, when there is a new constitution, people who had held office previously could re-contest without prejudice to their earlier office. With a new 2014 Constitution, President Jonathan would then have had the right to not just one, but also two more tenures. Of course at that time, no one had told him that Nigerians were fed up with him and there was no way he could have won one, not to talk of two elections.
The leadership of the National Conference carried out vile, selfserving political manoeuvres, which, like Ibrahim Coomassie said at the time, “was capable of plunging Nigeria into another cycle of political chaos with potential of violence and anarchy”. It was the height of irresponsibility for the Conference leadership to have accepted to play this despicable role of trying to destroy our democracy. It was unfortunate that the people in power at that time pushed them in that direction. The current attempts to whitewash the work of the Conference should therefore be contested.
Nigeria was saved because many members of the National Conference resisted the process of political manipulation that was organised. We must not forget that many people who have been recently exposed as recipients of Col Sambo Dasuki’s $2.1 billion largesse received the money to organise late night meetings where they were sharing out money to facilitate the Jonathan Agenda. Luckily, there are many Nigerians who could not be bought with money who rejected the offers they received and fought for the edification of democracy.
I have always argued that the National Conference should be supported as an opportunity for Nigerians to talk about our problems. I have always believed also that just talking about our problems is therapeutic and will eventually lead us, at some future date, to try to solve the problems. It’s true that with an expenditure of over 7 billion Naira, it was expensive chatting. Precisely because it recorded ideas by Nigerians talking about our future, it is useful to review it to pick what is useful and throw out the rubbish. The proposal for the creation of 18 more states was for example one of the senseless propositions made by the Conference. At a time when so many States were unable to meet their obligations, including payment of salaries, it was clearly irresponsible to have made that proposal. Following the 2005 National Political Reform Conference convened by Olusegun Obasanjo, the baby was thrown out with the birth water because there was a tenure elongation plan. Essentially the same thing recurred with the Report of the National Conference.
The tragedy of the Fourth Republic is that we have had presidents who from day one have been pre-occupied with tenure elongation rather than what they could achieve within their legal tenure. This attitude has harmed the process of political reform. As I have argued previously, the Jonathan National Conference took off on the basis of an original sin, manipulating the composition to secure a predetermined majority that would approve an agenda that is not in the terms of reference of the Conference. We all remember the debates at the beginning of the Conference about the numbers required for decisionmaking. When a compromise number for the decision-making was agreed to, the Conference leadership in their wisdom decided decisions will be taken by voice vote rather than voting in conformity with the requisite number agreed to in the rules established. What this meant was that the entire decisions taken at the Conference were not only illegitimate, they were also illegal. There is therefore no obligation to carry the decisions forward. The quality of the general membership of the Conference was however high and some of their proposals are good. It is on this basis alone that I accept it is still useful to look at the report and pick cherries.
The one positive message that emerged from the National Conference was that many people of goodwill worked tirelessly to forge consensus when extremist demands and positions were proposed. They tried very hard to forge agreements out of diametrically opposed positions. Their efforts were however often unsuccessful because they tried too much to go along the path of give and take. They did not seem to realize that when a demand is unreasonable, you have to reject it outright rather than try to do give and take. Yes let the debate about the Conference continue but let’s not forget that it was a very problematic National Conference without legitimacy.