By Ochereome Nnanna
I am a strong advocate of a national conference to redefine the foundation of Nigeria. That much is evident through my humble efforts on these pages. So, how come I am being skeptical when President Goodluck Jonathan grants an opportunity for a conference?
It is a psychological problem, perhaps. How would you react when you clamour for something and the person who is keeping it says he will not give you? You reason, plead, threaten, cajole, heckle, boo, weep, laugh and stomp and he gives you a million reasons not to give it to you.
Just when you are about to look elsewhere for solution; just when you have given up hope of getting it from this man, he suddenly turns around and dumps it in your laps. What would you do? Won’t you be suspicious? Won’t you want to know what his motives are? Won’t you want to find out the factors behind his sudden change of mind before you accept the gift?
Do not blame any Nigerian for being leery of President Jonathan’s offer of a national conference(which he dresses in such iffy terms such as “National Dialogue” and “National Conversation”). We are used to being deceived by our presidents and governors, so we protect ourselves by being distrustful of their words.
We saw what former President Olusegun Obasanjo did to us. We asked him for a national conference to right the wrongs of the polity. He told us to go to hell, saying that the presidential constitutional order he imported from America in 1979 as amended in 1999, was good enough. He even sounded like he would beat us up if we did not shut up about a conference.
Then, suddenly, from the proverbial blue, Obasanjo decided to call what he dubbed “National Political Reform Conference, NPRC”, in 2005. He had only two years to end his eight-year tenure. It was obvious that Obasanjo was just beginning to enjoy being president after six years in his second coming to the presidency.
It turned out that his sudden enthusiasm for a conference was to negotiate a third term (or removal of tenure restrictions) for himself. Nigerians decided to dump the Constitutional Amendment Bill, product of the NPRC, on May 16, 2006 on the floor of the Senate. All the efforts and money spent making it went down the drain.
And when Jonathan became president, we started another clamour for a conference that would make Nigeria work. Just like Obasanjo and the pro-Establishmentarians, GEJ told us to forget it. He said the call for a Sovereign National Conference showed we were not serious, since the National Assembly, which he said, was the custodian of the sovereignty of the Nigerian people, was in session.
The Assembly believed him. They started yet another round of wholesale amendments of the 1999 Constitution. To help them, the President empanelled the Justice Alfa Belgore Panel to look into all the constitutional efforts Nigeria has ever had and crunch all their reports and send recommendations to the National Assembly to improve the 1999 Constitution. Belgore’s Panel on the Review of Outstanding Constitutional Issues submitted its report on Mach 6, 2012, recommending 52 alterations to the 1999 Constitution!
This proved our point that the 1999 Constitution is seriously flawed, quite apart from the fact that the foundational principles of our political system are simply unviable for the purpose of nation-building. After jetting out and splashing all over the place, the urine has come back to its source.
Suspicion is being raised on GEJ’s motive for calling for this “national conversation”. It is being made to sound like a time-buying device: “Let them talk while I recover from the internal crises of my Peoples Democratic Party, PDP”.
A newspaper report a fortnight ago had warned that the President was under pressure by close advisers to call this conference and use it as a culvert to climb over the fissures created by his party’s internal rebellions. If that is the case, then, it is no different from Obasanjo’s NPRC, which was created for the selfish purpose of pilfering an extra political term of office for himself.
The conference we are asking for is a national project to save this country from a violent, bloody end and help us design a viable nation with rosy prospects for ourselves and future generations.
GEJ’s “conversation” is also coming 18 months to the next general election in April 2015. The Obasanjo NPRC was inaugurated on February 21, 2005.
The Constitution Amendment Bill based on its recommendations was checkmated on the floor of the Senate on May 16, 2006. The process took 15 months, and this did not include the period for the pre-conference work and the fact that the envisaged constitution had a long way before it would become a reality. The “national conversation” must end in a new constitution to correct the wrong of the 1999 Constitution. Otherwise, it is a waste of time and will not mollify those of us calling for it.
Nothing has also been said of what will be the fate of this administration within the purview of the “conversation”. Clearly, this regime (President, National Assembly, state governors and state assemblies) cannot benefit from any provisions of a constitution that emanates from the “conversation”.
Or can they? I do not think they should. It would be immoral to write a constitution and become its beneficiary as an incumbent. It will encourage the regime to have a self-serving constitution written for them.
Let me re-emphasise it: The conference we seek is one that will remove inequities, sectional domination and feelings of marginalisation from our polity. It is a constitution that encourages good governance and opens up opportunities for Nigeria to actualise its arrested potentials.
It is a constitution that will enhance nation-building and make Nigerians proud to belong to one united, progressive family, putting behind the past 100 years of ethnic rivalry, religious bigotry and runaway corruption.