By Awa Kalu, SAN
Our President, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, GCFR, recently approved a list comprising eminent and illustrious Nigerians who will sit down (or stand up even in fisticuff) to determine the future of our very great country.
The realization of the list is a major triumph having regard to the level of dispute concerning modalities for the conference. The first point of disagreement arose from what name to attach to the conference. Would it be a National Conference or a sovereign National Conference?
Would it be referred to as a National Dialogue; or a Constitutional Conference? What is in a name, you may ask. Of course, experience has shown that there is a lot in a name.
For instance, had this conference been styled a sovereign National Conference, the implication would be a capitulation to the idea that the conference would without more, metamorphose into a legislature wielding extra-constitutional powers of legislation which perhaps, would include the powers of supplanting the constitution itself.
At least, our dear President has avoided that deeply controversial word, ‘sovereign’ and has chosen a name that will not prove divisive.
The National Conference is a simple name, easy to understand and uncomplicated in its intent as a vehicle for generating discussion and to encourage a healthy dialogue on matters that will create a visionary path for a new Nation, a nation where no man is oppressed.
The reader must also be familiar with the helmsman of the conference and his able Lieutenants. The conference is to be chaired by a former Chief Justice of Nigeria, a Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger, Hon. Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi, a man whose appointment has not stired the hornet’s nest.
His deputy, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi is another man of distinction, experienced in the management of the affairs of the larger world and a Pan-Nigerian.
The conference secretariat will be manned (or is it ‘womanned’) by a lady of substance, well trained at home and abroad and definitely suited to the navigation of the borders of gender sensibilities.
It has already been hinted in some quarters that the President’s choice of a Chairman, the Deputy Chairman and Secretary of the National Conference is a gentle master stroke designed to douse the usual anxieties generated by our primordial sentiments on ethnicity and gender.
Thus, while the Chairman and his Deputy will warm the heart of the larger North and the West respectively, the Secretary will equally warm the heart of the South-East and South-South respectively. For the avoidance of doubt, the secretary as a woman will of course stand in for the teaming female population in Nigeria.
As an Igbo lady by birth, Nigerians of Igbo extraction cannot grumble about being left out in the higher echelon of the conference and of course, being married in the South-South gives her the standing to make the zone ‘comfortable’ in the management of the affairs of the of the conference.
Even at that level, those who see not only ethnicity but religion as a potent factor in the management of our affairs will feel confident that the two major religions have been accommodated at the conference.
Of importance is the technical skill that was deployed in the choice of conferees. Accordingly, apart from choosing the managers of the conference, the President has cleverly allowed different groups to assemble those who will represent them.
There are delegates from the States, from Professional Associations, Civil Society Organizations, the Labour Unions and even the political parties especially those that have presence in the national Assembly. As would be expected, not all are satisfied with the manner of representation at the conference. A recent survey by the Ishekiris of the Niger Delta alleges that they have been excluded from the conference.
What about the blind, the deaf, the dumb, the deaf and dumb, autistics, those suffering from Down’s syndrome, the national association of masquerade owners and association of the unemployed? A friend of mine who is diabetic lamented that those living with that disability have ominously been left out.
Significantly, another friend of mine whose blood pressure is perennially high on account of the fluctuating fortunes of our country is angry that the association of high blood pressure sufferers is not represented at the conference, at least officially. I only calmed him down by assuring him that of the nearly five hundred members of the conference, at least a hundred members must bear the traits of that ailment.
Farmers have also remonstrated with our President for not reaching out to that group as conferees. This is only a hilarious way of noting that Nigeria has a massive population and that so many not so significant segments may have been omitted or over-looked in constituting the conference.
A question which may arise from the lamentations of those who feel that they would be cheated on account of not being accommodated in the conference is whether the conference will only be successful if it is populated by all the identifiable interest groups in Nigeria.
Put in another way, is there a realistic platform for capturing the problems of one-eyed people or of those living with innumerable disabilities at the conference? Will the conference focus on the problems of individual Nigerians or will it dwell on those indices that will emphasize ‘the greatest good of the greater number’?
If the good of the greater number is the mantra of the conference, it follows irresistibly that there will be no political gymnastics, no ethnic posturing, no gerrymandering and no grandstanding.
This conference is timely and coincides with an incisive examination of “What’s gone wrong with Democracy and how to revive it” by The Economist (March 1st-7th 2014). In the sub theme, ‘Getting democracy right’, The Economist, (page 51) posits that the “the most striking thing about the founders of modern democracy such as James Madison and John Stuart Mill is how hard headed they were.
They regarded democracy as a powerful but imperfect mechanism: something that needed to be designed carefully, in order to harness human creativity but also to check human perversity, and then kept in good working order, constantly oiled, adjusted and worked upon”. In addition, it is argued that
“Even those lucky to live in mature democracies need to pay close attention to the architecture of their political systems. The combination of globalization and the digital revolution has made some of democracy’s most cherished institutions look outdated”.
“Established democracies”, it is said, “want to update their own political systems both to address the problem they face at home, and to revitalize democracy’s image abroad. Some countries have already embarked upon the process”.
The Economist advises those who are anxious to reform their democracies that “… the best way to constrain the power of special interests is to limit the number of goodies that the state can hand out.
And the best way to address popular disillusion towards politicians is to reduce the number of promises they can make. The key to a healthier democracy, in short, is a narrower state- an idea that dates back to the American Revolution”.
It is our view that what has been said above is sufficient to set an agenda for the conference. For the avoidance of doubt, the conference will be confronted with so many issues including what opinion leaders call ‘true federalism’.
Pray, what does the chiché, ‘true federalism’ require? Will it require the collapse of our thirty six state structure to six regions (coinciding with the six geo-political zones)? Will it require a revision of the revenue allocation formula which is the source of so much discord?
Will true federalism require fresh devolution of powers in such a way as to downsize the legislative powers of the government of the federation in the exclusive legislative list and even the concurrent list in favour of strengthening the federating states?
Will it also coincide with resource control or fiscal federalism? The conference will discuss the human rights regime and so many other issues that are on the front burner. But the bottom line is that the conference ought to “limit the number of goodies that the state can hand out”.
The problem with Nigerian is that since Independence the number of goodies have not been adequately limited. What Nigerians expect is that the National Conference is a great opportunity for the repositioning of our democracy, for the restructuring of our nascent constitution, for fashioning a new direction for Nigerians and it ought to be seen as the last Bus Stop to enable Nigerians dismount from years of uncertainty and marching into a new dawn.