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National Confabulation: Jonathan’s redemption ride

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*The bumpy road ahead for a nation in distress

*Lessons for Mr. President and Nigerians

By Jide Ajani

Because of his demure demeanour, some people have refused to grant Goodluck Ebele Jonathan the needed respect and accord as President and Commander-in-Chief of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.  Yet, with flickers of brightness and good sense, he comes across, to the sometimes embarrassing astonishment of his critics, as an individual who could be at once calculating and deliberate in his actions – and in actions.

In the wake of the near-deafening clamour for a National Conference (mind you, this clamour had always been on just before and immediately after the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election), President Jonathan, penultimate Tuesday, announced the decision of his administration to set up an Advisory Committee that would work out modalities for a National Conference.  The offer is tempting and irresistible.  There have been applause and knocks. However, this report examines the genesis of President Jonathan’s decision to convoke the conference, the challenges ahead and how he can leverage on the genuine potentials of having such a conference with a view to charting a clear departure from past cosmetic engagements and leave behind a legacy that both he and the Nigerian nation can build on.

Have you ever been with Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, President and Commander-in-Chief, privately?  If you have not, as tens of millions of Nigerians have not, here is a tip. Most times, especially when he has many personal and state challenges to deal with, he wears a demure demeanour – which some have come to describe as his signature look.  But beneath that veneer, he is deep, very deep in thought, joggling options and pondering how best to handle the challenges of governing the state.  An encounter in 2006 while he was governor of Bayelsa State produced this revelation. Those who work with and are close to him now insist that President Jonathan has not changed.
Indeed, Aso Rock Presidential Villa insiders disclosed that it was during one of those deep moments of meditation and sober reflection some six months (yes, six months) ago, that he was said to have made up his mind “about the convocation of a National Conference”.

According to a Sunday Vanguard source – and contrary to a publication two months ago that the President “was likely to agree to a national talk shop” – it was during one of those moments that
“President Jonathan invited one of Nigeria’s brightest minds to the Villa and held very frank talks with him. “The talks”, the source went on, “centred on how to go about the convocation of a National Conference”. Between President Jonathan and the egg-head, it was resolved that a position paper needed to be prepared, weighing the options, the overriding imperatives and the possible backlash, “especially in a country where interests clash with the speed of light”, the Aso Rock source said. In fact, it was learnt from another insider that a prominent, no-nonsense religious leader was also privy to the thinking by President Jonathan.

Between President Jonathan and the egg-head, correspondences were exchanged. During this period, Sunday Vanguard was made to understand that President Jonathan “bounced” the idea off a few confidants without necessarily betraying the inner workings of his mind. Interestingly, when some weeks ago, Professor Ben Nwabueze, the octogenarian professor of constitutional law, visited Aso Rock and told President Jonathan, in no unmistakable terms, that he should not seek re-election but act the statesman, convoke a National Conference and make that a legacy, the latter simply took it with equanimity. Therefore, when, during his October 1 national broadcast, Mr. President revealed that his administration had set the machinery in motion for the convocation of a National Conference, it jolted critics, sent supporters into a frenzy and set many tongues wagging.

Sunday Vanguard gathered that before the President made the announcement, he had, in collaboration with some very key members of his administration, engaged in wide consultations. The matter was hugely debated as to whether the National Dialogue or the conference would be able to sufficiently address and come up with solutions to the present socio-economic, religious, cultural and political challenges on ground in a manner that the National Assembly has not been able to. The discussions were sometimes very animated, especially given the fact that the President made it clear that he was determined to have a credible exercise.

And whereas there were those described as the hawks in the Presidency who attempted to choreograph a repeat of the former President Olusegun Obasanjo-style National Political Reform Conference, NPRC, which was solely set up as a vehicular means for the objective of a constitutional amendment to pave the way for a Third Term in office, President Jonathan was said to have shot it down. “That was why at some point Mr. President ensured that the correspondences were kept tight”, an Aso Rock source disclosed “Bad as the level of skepticism is, the situation would be made worse should Nigerians discover that the conference was another road show, a stage-managed affair.  But it was generally agreed that even if it was merely to provide a platform for honest ventilation of views by
Nigerians from different shades of opinion, it would be better than just shouting at each other on the pages of newspaper.  In a structured debate or discussion, especially one that is on a face-to-face basis, many would discover that a natural platform for the engagement of contending views is likely to moderate the sentiments that would ordinarily run overboard”, a presidential aide said last week in Abuja.Upon private inquiries, Sunday Vanguard learnt that the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SGF, where former Senate President, Anyim Pius, holds sway, was instrumental in the lastminute consultations which led to the final announcement.

Before the final push to make the announcement, it was discovered that the televised presidential chat, held just 36hours earlier, was set up in such a manner that the issue of a National Conference would not become topical.  It was not discussed.

President Goodluck Jonathan flanked by Vice President Namadi Sambo (4th right) and the Chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee on the National Conference, Dr. Femi Okurounmu while other committee members watched shortly after the inauguration of the Committee at the State House, Abuja. Photo by Abayomi Adeshida.
President Goodluck Jonathan flanked by Vice President Namadi Sambo (4th right) and the Chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee on the National Conference, Dr. Femi Okurounmu while other committee members watched shortly after the inauguration of the Committee at the State House, Abuja. Photo by Abayomi Adeshida.

It was disclosed that in the build- up to the announcement, it “had been anticipated that some critical segments of the society may not welcome the idea as a genuine confabulation with national interests being the overriding consideration”“In fact”, a source said, “the opposition was not expected to
immediately embrace the idea because it would be described as diversionary”. In addition, “the groundswell of opinion preparatory to the acceptance of government in setting up a talk shop pointed in the direction that majority of Nigerians would likely support the move.” So, when a cacophony of voices began to pooh-pooh the sudden announcement, “government was decidedly unperturbed because the negative reactions had been anticipated”, the source said, a seeming reference to the statement credited to Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a former governor of Lagos State who said the National Conference was no more than ‘diversionary, a Greek gift’.

Part of the strategy put in place by thinkers, in collaboration with President Jonathan, was to ensure that the advisory body didn’t suffer any form of character deficit. Therefore, in selecting members for the committee, certain factors were considered. Firstly, just as it was during the heady days of the General Abdulsalami Abubakar transition programme when the Presidency was all but conceded to the Yoruba-speaking South-west zone of Nigeria, the virulence, mobilization and clamour for a National Conference, which was spearheaded by the likes of the late Alao Aka-Bashorun in the late1980s and early 1990s, especially in the wake of the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, was a key consideration. Not unconnected to that, the choice of the chairman of the Advisory Committee was made with full cognizance of the sentiments of the South-west zone. In addition, some members of the committee are known proponents of the restructuring of the Nigerian federation albeit – in an extreme fashion. According to one of those who worked very closely with President Jonathan on the conference papers before it was announced, “the mere fact that the list contained the name of Professor Nwabueze, who had, some months ago, counseled the President not to seek re-election, demonstrates the open-mindedness of the Presidency and its response to criticism.  In any part of the world – even in the developed world – such an individual would be described as anti-President, anti-system and would not even be brought close to any engagement of the government.  But here we are, the professor was named as one of the members but for his explanation that the rigours of the conference would not be friendly to his age, the thinking was that since his twilight mantra had been the convocation of a national conference, it would be nice to have him on board.

Whereas it would be politically intelligent to read meanings that are far from the altruistic to the sudden change of heart by President Jonathan on the issue of a National Conference, the need for a talkshop cannot be said to be unintelligent. And that is why the words of JFK on the need “not to negotiate out of fear and never fear to negotiate” are apt for this season. However, there are some bumps ahead. Firstly, how would the Advisory Committee handle the issue of representation?  In the instance of the late General Sani Abacha Constitutional Conference, an election was held to fill some seats while the maximum dictator nominated members, too – though the mass boycott of that election proved to be its major, nay most critical downside.  The outcome of that conference, despite the massive boycott, gave birth to the 1999 Constitution that is in use today. Can the cost of an election be added to the economic burden of the Nigerian state today? Though the Advisory Committee chairman, Senator Femi Okurounmu, has said President Jonathan has not provided “no- go” areas, that in itself would pose a challenge of some sort.

The lessons of 1990 Peoples Republic of Benin are there for people to learn from. After running a racket disguised as democratic governance, Mattieu Kérékou was re-elected as President in 1980. “That year”, according to reports, “in the course of an official visit to Libya, he converted to the Islamic faith in the presence of the Libyan leader, Col. Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, and accordingly took the first name Ahmed. During the visit, the two countries signed a major bilateral cooperation agreement.”

The reports continued, “In February 1990, after weeks of unrest and economic disorder, Kérékou convened a National Conference of Active Forces of the Nation to discuss Benin’s future. It became a public critique of Kérékou’s 17 years of rule. On 2 December 1990, a new Constitution was adopted by
popular referendum. Members of the National Conference simply paid a discourteous visit to Kérékou and forced him to turn over effective power to a transitional government, which held presidential and
parliamentary elections on 10 March 1991, and runoffs on 24 March. It has been called a ‘civilian coup.’ The conference also changed the name of the country to the Republic of Benin.” In the instance of Nigeria, one of the challenges President Jonathan would have to contend with is how the conference would not be hijacked by some political forces and turn it into a trip-wire for him and his administration.

Mercifully, the structures of democracy in Nigeria (and though unimpressive) as enshrined in the 1999 Constitution would make it very difficult if not impossible for a “civilian coup” to occur. All said, Sunday Vanguard was told, last week, that another committee would be set up. That committee would be saddled with the planning of the conference proper. However, it could not be determined, at press time, whether the Planning Committee would be empanelled even while the Advisory Committee is setting out modalities or whether the Presidency would wait for the Okuroumu Comm ittee to finish its work first. No matter. The words of JFK in 1960 should guide President Jonathan and Nigerians.

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