The National Conference Debate: Between President Jonathan and Asiwaju Tinubu, By Mohammed Haruna

Mohd Haruna new pix 600Two days ago President Goodluck Jonathan used occasion of his goodwill Eid el-Kabir message to Muslims in country to respond to those have dismissed his decision to hold a national conference as diversionary and self-seeking. “Those continue to say our initiative is diversionary or aimed at promoting certain political agenda,” he said, “are in error.”
Of all critics of president’s new conversion to holding a national conference – until his announcement of initiative during his October 1 Independence Day speech, the man had been decidedly cool, if not completely hostile, to the idea – the presidency seemed to consider Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, former governor of Lagos State, putative leader of the South-West and leading chieftain of the new opposition party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), as the most intolerable.
On arrival in Lagos last week fresh from his extended medical trip abroad, he had dismissed president’s initiative as impractical and insincere. “Where,” Asiwaju had asked, obviously rhetorically, “is capability, where is the sincerity?” The president’s initiative, he said, was a “Greek gift.”
the president probably had the Asiwaju foremost in his mind of all his critics became apparent when his bellicose spokesman, Dr. Doyin Okupe, singled out the Asiwaju for his now characteristic diatribe within hours of the president’s Sallah message.
“The APC leader,” he said at a press conference he addressed on the issue, “as usual, is completely off target. Desperate politicians and self-seeking political leaders tend to their quest for power or insatiable appetite for wealth accumulation through politics is superior to the genuine desires and innate aspirations of ordinary Nigerians.”
The “Bola Tinubus of this world,” he said, are concerned only with the 2015 elections whereas “most patriotic ordinary Nigerians” were more concerned with how to build a united Nigeria “based on equity and justice to all component parts…” This, presumably, was the president’s motive for agreeing at last to holding a national conference.
So instead of criticizing the president, Okupe said, the man should be praised not just for acceding to what most Nigerians, he claimed, have always demanded. His principal should be praised because for the first time in the country’s History a leader has said he will hold a national conference “without the obnoxious ‘no-go areas.’”
As usual, Okupe’s defence of his oga was pure wind. First, every Nigerian, except the big man himself and his handlers like Okupe, knows that the man had long ago made up his mind to contest and win the 2015 presidential elections whatever it takes. The evidences stare us in the face daily from the cloak and dagger games that have been going on over the control of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party () between him and the internal opposition.
However, the dead giveaway was his denial in his September 29 Presidential Media Chat that he signed any paper or said he would not contest the elections. “I did not,” he said, “say that I will not contest in 2015. In Addis Ababa, that was when I advocated single term of seven years…I said if Nigerians agree to that I may not be involved. I did not say I will contest or not. Those said I have signed an agreement should show the agreement.”
Because of the double-speak obvious from these words – you cannot say you may not be involved in a thing and at the same time insist you have not made up your mind on the thing one way or the other – and again because Nigerians have rejected his condition of a seven-year single term presidency for keeping out of the elections, it is not unfair to conclude that he has since felt obliged to contest and will do so.
Second, the president’s timing – less than 18 months to the 2015 elections – raises questions about his motive. Never mind the insecurity situation in the land, or the incredible oil theft going on in spite of – some would say indeed because of – the multi-million-dollar contract he gave to a favoured clique of former Niger Delta militant leaders, or the on-going ASUU strike, etc, the president has enough work before him organizing credible, free, and peaceful elections in 2015.
To add a national conference to all this against the historical background of a general lack of sincerity by our leaders in summoning similar conferences since 1967 cannot but raise questions about the president’s own sincerity.
Going back to February 1966, Major-General J. T. Aguiyi-Ironsi set up the equivalent of the president’s panel on how to organize the conference under Chief FRA Williams but before the late legal giant could sit down to work, the head of state, apparently at the prompting of his narrow-minded clique of advisers, went ahead to enact the ill-motivated Unification Decree.
After him General Yakubu Gowon had his own ad-hoc constitutional conference which eventually ended in a fiasco in Aburi, Ghana. After the civil war which followed ended in 1970, he promised to go in 1976. In 1974, however, he said 1976 was unrealistic and tried to elongate his stay in office. He was overthrown in July of 1975.
The next regime under General Murtala Mohammed promised to leave in 1979 and kept word even though the man was assassinated in an abortive coup in February 1976. The Constitution Drafting Committee he had set up under Chief William suggested a change from the Parliamentary democracy of the Second Republic to an American type Presidential system.
The mostly elected Constituent Assembly accepted the change but sitting ended in a near fiasco. Then General Olusegun Obasanjo succeeded General Mohammed made 17 amendments to the CA draft before he enacted it into the supreme law of the land in 1979.
The Second Republic which started in October 1979 under President Shehu Shagari was overthrown in December 1983. Between then and the beginning of the current dispensation in 1999, we’ve had four military heads of state – Generals Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha and Abdulsalami Abubakar. Except for Buhari, all of them summoned a constitutional conference whose outcome received mixed reactions mainly because of widespread suspicions that the leaders were in succeeding themselves, in the case of Babangida and Abacha, or in imposing another general on the country, in the case of Abdulsalami.
The Third Term Agenda of General Obasanjo who took over from Abdulsalami is too fresh in our memories to waste space dwelling over.
Clearly President Jonathan is merely treading the familiar paths of past leaders who tried to remain in power by the subterfuge of a manipulated constitutional conference. Virtually all of them failed. However, the lesson seems clearly lost on President Jonathan as he tries to use the same strategy.
Still on the issue of sincerity, it is evident to all but Okupe who says his boss should be praised for summoning a national conference without “no-go areas” for the first time in the country’s history that this is fiction. The fact is that what the president is summoning is anything but sovereign. Not only did the president not use the word sovereign anywhere in his speech, everything he said took the unity of the country for granted. His conference, he said, other things, is to provide a platform that will “reinforce the ties that bind the country’s many ethnic nationalities and ensure that Nigeria’s immense diversity continues to be a source of strength and greatness.”
There may be many people who doubt his commitment to the country’s unity unless he remains its president beyond 2015 but anyone who thinks the man is ready to surrender his sovereignty to any conference would surely be in for a big surprise.
Thirdly, as Tinubu has said, apart from the question of sincerity there is also that of the capacity of the Jonathan presidency to hold a national conference when so far he has failed to demonstrate the capacity to resolve the nation’s myriads of problems.
Fourth and lastly, but most importantly, flawed as our Constitution is, it is the least of the country’s problems. The fact is that there is sufficient good in it to make our country great if only our leaders will keep good faith with its provisions and with the good but suffering people of this country.
This lack of good faith explains why we have had about 12 constitutions since the first one in 1922 and we are still blaming them for our problems. As the English would say, it is bad workmen who always quarrel with their tools.
Compare the American constitution, which is 226 years old and which we have copied, with ours and it’s easy to see that that the difference between the two countries is the good faith the Americans have, by and large, kept with the provisions of theirs.
Compared to ours, it is concise and brief; the copy I have is all of 34 pages with an average of 27 lines each and eight words line. A simple arithmetic gives you less than 7,500 words including all the 27 amendments to the constitution the last of which was ratified in 1971.
Ours is 235 pages with an average of 29 lines page, each line having an average of nine words. This comes to over 61,000 words! Yet we still think we have not captured enough in it to serve as a guide to good governance.
From all this it should be clear that our Constitution with all its flaws is the least of our problems. The sooner our politicians accept the fact they and not our Constitution are the main problem with our country, the sooner we will begin to solve those problems.
I promised last week that I will reproduce the last of the lengthy but thoughtful reactions I received on my column on the Emir of Suleja. I am sorry I am again unable to do so for lack of space. I hope to do so next week.

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