Today, President Goodluck Jonathan will inaugurate his 13-member Advisory Committee for National Dialogue. In his 2013 Independence Speech to the Nation, he had reminded Nigerians that the 53rd anniversary is unique because it is the last one before we mark our centenary. On January 1, 2014, Nigeria will be 100 years old as a country, following the amalgamation of the Protectorates of Southern and Northern Nigeria in 1914. He admitted that Nigerians however are still divided in many ways – ethnically, religiously, politically, and materially and argued that the time has come to reflect on our long journey to nationhood and the progress we have made so far. I completely agree.
The Dr. Femi Okurounmu will chair the Advisory Committee of thirteen members while Dr. Akilu Indabawa will serve as the Secretary. The mandate of the Committee is to establish the modalities for a National Dialogue or Conference. The Committee will also design a framework and come up with recommendations as to the form, structure and mechanism of the process. The Committee will have one month to conclude its work following which the nation will be briefed on the nomenclature, structure and modalities of the Dialogue.
A dose of healthy scepticism has greeted the establishment the Committee. So may commentators have questioned the motivations of the President seeing the gesture as a diversionary manoeuvre by a President under severe political pressure with a galloping insurgency and a ruling party imploding from within? Clearly, one cannot but factor in the effects of the over-heating of the political system as political actors position themselves for the 2015 elections and the on-going constitutional review process. I believe however that civil society, political parties and the wider public should engage with the proposed dialogue positively so that the process, whatever Jonathan’s motivations are, can contribute to the deepening of Nigerian democracy.
There has been a long history of demands for a national conference but the reality is that there are different motivations and objectives behind them. While some of the calls for a national confab are conceived positively to address problems that have impeded democratic consolidation in the country, others carry within them an approach that will facilitate the disintegration of the country. It is in this context that it is important to engage the process to ensure that we remain on the path of issues that will favour national cohesion and democratic outcomes.
In defining the nature of the National Conference, it is important to realise that there are three are three different calls that can be discerned from what is being said. The first is the call for a sovereign national conference. This call is seeking the abdication of the President and the National Assembly from their powers and expecting the Conference to take over and exercise sovereign power on behalf of the Nigerian people. The second is calling for a conference of ethnic nationalities to establish that our “tribes” are the constituent sovereigns of the land and they should decide whether we should stay together as a country or go our separate ways. The third call is for a national conference to debate and propose solutions to contentious issues of national importance.
Moving forward, it is important that the type of conference we decide upon serves the interest of consolidating our democracy. The idea of a sovereign conference is extremely problematic, as it would require dismantling our current democratic institutions. Ii is important that we do not put forward the idea that the sovereignty of Nigeria is up for negotiation. There is also the feasibility question. It is difficult to see a serving President and National Assembly abdicating their constitutional responsibilities in the present context. Even if they agree to, they have been elected with a mandate, which they should not be expected to give up. Indeed, the members of the National Assembly see themselves as elected representatives of the people, who therefore embody the sovereignty of Nigeria. The best way of deepening our democracy is by maintaining and improving the rule of law and in so doing; the powers conferred by our Constitution on various offices cannot be compromised. Office holders must not be pressured to abdicate their constitutional responsibilities.
The second call is for a conference of Nigeria’s ethnic nationalities. There may be sociological justifications for arguing that the social components of Nigeria are its ethnic groups. It is however important to recall that Nigeria was not colonized through the subjugation of ethnic groups. The British defeated constituted political authorities. The Sokoto Caliphate for example was a huge multi-ethnic and multi-lingual political system that was subjugated as it was and sovereignty passed from the Sultan to the British Crown. So were the Kanem Borno Empire and the Oyo Kingdom and the other political systems in the country. The British did not look for ethnic nationalities; they identified constituted authorities and took over their powers.
There is therefore no historical basis to assume that the sovereignty, which was lost to the British, resided in ethnic nationalities. In any case, with over six hundred ethnic groups, and their number is growing every day, it is not even feasible to hold such a conference. The most important issue however is that we run a federal system in which the constituent parts are states and local governments, which therefore constitute the primary level of representation in the country.
What needs to be placed on the table therefore is a confab that will further institutionalise and legitimise the constitutive structures of our federal and democratic system. Of course representation at the conference should be inclusive and could include other vital components in the society including ethnic and religious groups, trade unions, professional associations, the youth and women’s movements.
The debate on the conference should therefore focus on developing a feasible agenda to guide us. The first issue to address is the famous question of whether there should be no “no go areas”. My view is that we should draw a red line on the dismemberment of the country. I cannot conceive of a serious conference seeking political solutions placing on the agenda the break up of the country. Nigeria and its peoples cannot benefit from disintegration. The beneficiaries will be a few members of the elite and foreign forces who are frightened of the very idea of a greater Nigeria in the future.
The Conference should focus on improving and deepening our political federalism. We need to look closely at the powers of the federal, state and local governments and work out levels of competence that can help consolidate and strengthen the political system. Secondly, the Conference should devote time to mapping out the principles and strategies for building national cohesion and addressing the question of citizenship and the indigene/settler syndrome. We cannot consolidate our political system if so many Nigerians continue to be considered as settlers with limited rights in the places where they live and work. The fourth issue is that of debating resource control and agreeing to a formula to guide fiscal federalism. The fifth issue for me is that of improving the integrity of the electoral system, the party system, zoning and principles to guide the Electoral Act. Finally, the Conference should devise mechanisms for a more inclusive democracy that has women and the youth getting better representation.
One of the key deliverables of the National Conference would be that of revamping the Constitution and creating legitimacy for whatever emerges from the process. It should be recalled that many Nigerians have a problem with the Constitution, which was brought about by the Military through Decree 24 of 1998. It is important that we address the issue of what it is in the Constitution that we do not like and what we can replace it with. It might well be that the National Conference is unable to reach consensus positions to replace most of the contents of the Constitution. If the Conference is well organized however, it can create bonding around a Constitution that has undergone review in a few critical areas.
Constitutional review is the prerogative of the National Assembly but a national consensus, including maybe a consensus not to carry out a profound constitutional review, can make the work of the National Assembly easier. I say this remembering the Constitutional crisis that confronted Canada between 1980 and 1992 following the agitation for independence by Quebec. The 1982 Constitutional Amendment Bill, the Meech Lake Accord of 1987 and the Charlottetown Accord of 1990 were all rejected but the twenty year dialogue finally created a country at peace with its Constitution which did not undergo any significant change. Its good to talk, let’s talk.