When I was informed of my membership of the National Conference, alias Confab, two thoughts hit me: the constitutionality of the Conference and participation to what end?
The constitutionality of the conference has been justifiably questioned. We have elected Parliaments, both at the State and Federal levels constitutionally put together, so what qualifies the National Conference to sit over matters affecting the State. This school of thought posits that the conference is illegal, without constitutional backing and therefore unnecessary.
I must say as a lawyer, I found this line of thought very persuasive from the legal point of view.
Question however is, is the National Conference all about law and legality? Was it set up to resolve issues from a legal perspective?
That Nigeria is a country not defined in terms of values, nationality, nationhood and feelings of one people is not in doubt. We often have expressed and it is getting louder by the day, what Nigeria means to us, our family, ethnic groups, etc. is very disconnected terms fed by feelings of alienation. The raw truth is that we are a nation only in name, as our loyalty lies either with our various ethnic groups or some other affiliation but hardly with the entity known as Nigeria.
There is a need to talk. Nigeria must go back and redefine or renegotiate our values, nationhood, etc. and these cannot be achieved within the confines of the laws. This is probably why Nigerians have always clamored for a conference, a Sovereign National Conference, that will discuss all that is Nigeria, agree to agree or to disagree, but at least come out with a feeling of being heard, or listened to. A sense of belonging or accommodation as the case maybe. This probably informs why the President in his Inaugural speech to the Conference spoke of decisions based on consensus.
The question of legality or legal backing for the Conference therefore, while it makes for a persuasive argument, in my opinion becomes shaky against the exigencies and the needs of the people that these laws were made for.
Even at that, a School of thought cites Section 5 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as coating the President with the powers to set up the National Conference. The section is herein reproduced.
(1) Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, the executive powers of the Federation:
(a) shall be vested in the President and may subject as aforesaid and to the provisions of any law made by the National Assembly, be exercised by him either directly or through the Vice-President and Ministers of the Government of the Federation or officers in the public service of the Federation; and
(b) shall extend to the execution and maintenance of this Constitution, all laws made by the National Assembly and to all matters with respect to which the National Assembly has, for the time being, power to make laws.
Scholars have relied heavily on the (b) part of the law to justify the legality of the Conference by making the case that executive powers vested in the President by the Constitution, extend to matters of executing the Constitution, to all matters which the National Assembly, for the time being, has powers to legislate on. The National Conference is cited as one of these.
Notwithstanding the merits or demerits of either of these arguments, I am of the opinion that this is a matter that goes to the roots of our feelings of being together as a nation, one that Nigerians have long clamored for, and to that extent, making it happen for our people is the most important thing, if only to reflect deeply on our “union” as a nation.
Granted this is not a Sovereign National Conference, yet it is a conference that is put together to discuss EVERYTHING wrong with Nigeria save for a break up. It is as close to a Sovereign National Conference, as a conference can be. The reason Nigerians have always demanded and prayed for a Sovereign National Conference is essentially to discuss most of the same issues now discussed: devolution of power, resource control, as well as mode and type of governance, in all terms, to be TOTAL and ACCEPTABLE to Nigerians.
This issue of term totally acceptable to Nigerians is the reason for the first real heated argument at the conference. The question of voting on recommendations was what percentage of votes would be required for an agreement on issues.
While some delegates favored the global standards of 2/3 as the acceptable percentage in settling an issue, most Delegates, including me, were for 75% or 3/4 of total delegates in coming to an agreement on decisions.
The thinking of most of us on the issue of 75% stems from the fact that if we are talking consensus, taking everybody along and enhancing the feeling of inclusiveness, then we should step to as near a position as possible of consensus. If we were to settle for 2/3 which the National Assembly uses in resolving issues, then we might as well leave these issues to the National Assembly! Our role is principally to jaw jaw in a unique way to provide the nation with recommendations which most Nigerians would identify with, and not just a small majority of Nigerians.
Of course in resolving the above issue, passions were raised and abusive words exchanged etc. This to my mind merely exhibited the sincerity of purpose Delegates came with. You can hardly agree on such sensitive issues without passions being stirred especially if people are sincere in terms of emotions. 70% was eventually settled on.
There is also the thinking that the National Conference, will go nowhere in terms of the recommendations coming to fruition and also the unnerving but highly palpable suspicion that it has been put together to actualize a President-Jonathan agenda and nothing else.
Again these are all valid concerns. We have seen three past conferences of this nature with their recommendations purportedly chilling in the trash basket. Why should this be any different? So why engage in it when it most probably will yield nothing?
Firstly, on the issue of a President Jonathan agenda. If the President truly has an agenda, then he did not go about it smartly. It is extremely difficult to bring together 492 persons for three months, allow them set their rules and discuss everything for this period and imagine you can control the entire chain of events.
The delegates at the conference are being closely watched by Nigerians, putting some form of citizen pressure on us; the press is covering the entire proceedings live, with the dynamics of conversations and alliance building going on, some form of freedom is perceived; and believe me, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan cannot control this body for long, if at all he is controlling it.
If his thinking is to control and set an agenda, he might very well have opened up a Pandora’s box, over which he has no control. This conference cannot be guided or controlled. History has shown this to be the case. Ask Obasanjo and his third term project, which he mistakenly threw to the parliament. From that moment on, he lost control. I guess he regrets that to this day (or with the benefit of hindsight, maybe not. Who is to say?).
On the issue of where the conference is going or what will happen to the recommendations, without doubt this is a tricky ground. At the inaugural speech of the conference, the President had expressly opined that a section on Referendum had been inserted into the amended Constitution. This he stated, might be an entry point for the adoption of resolutions or recommendations of the Conference by Nigerians. This is interesting, worthy of applause, yet the feasibility is not very encouraging.
Given the rather frosty relationship between the National Conference and the National Assembly, will the National Assembly be minded to allow the issue of a Referendum in the amended constitution see the light of the day? Even if the National parliament successfully inserts a clause on Referendum, can the state Parliaments come to the table to also agree on the same? Even if they all do, what about the issue of time? Remember we have just about 9 months to the next elections.
The above are the challenges. Yet assuming these challenges are all successfully navigated, how will the resolutions and recommendations of the conference be tabled to Nigerians and by which body?
Be that as it may, my conviction and thoughts are that, with so much money being spent on the conference, with the conference being the most representative in the annals of our nation, with citizens pressure and media attention, we may well come away with the most acceptable recommendations to Nigerians and it will be a huge shame to have all these wasted.
This is therefore appealing that we collectively lobby our Senators, Representatives and Assembly members to insert the clause on referendum in the amended constitution, for the possibility of eventually giving some teeth to the Conference’s resolutions.
It is my considered opinion that it is wiser and more probative to engage with and contribute to the Conference. Staying away owing to the assumed eventual failure or whatever other reasons may lead to regret if the conference’ resolutions eventually see the light of the day, and we failed to add some value or quality to it, though the opportunity was presented.