Wednesday, February 5, 2014

National conference or national confusion?

When President Goodluck Jonathan and Senate President David Mark, who were known antagonists of national conference, suddenly did a volte face and began to canvass for the much spurned confab, I smelt a rat.  I had earlier articulated my position on the conference in an article published in this column on October 16, 2013. The piece titled, “National Conference: The right thing at the wrong time”, articulated my support for the national dialogue but warned of the wrong timing for holding the conference. Well, unfolding events seem to be proving me right. There have so far been four important dates to note in this journey to national dialogue. October 1, 2013, when the President announced his intention to hold the conference; October 7, when the 13-member Presidential Advisory Committee led by Senator Femi Okurounmu was inaugurated; and December 18, when the Okurounmu committee submitted its over 4,000 page report to the President.
Another date to note is January 30, 2014 when the modalities for the holding of the conference were released by the Secretary to the Federal Government, Senator Anyim Pius Anyim. No sooner had this been made public than “confusion break bone” a la Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. About five critical points can be distilled from the cacophony of voices expressing their dissension to the government procedures for the conference. These are the composition, timing, duration, legal status, and what becomes of its outcome.
Before going to examine each of these points, let us take a look at the highlights of the framework. 492 delegates, representing all shades of opinion and interest groups nationwide, shall participate in the National Conference, and the nomination of delegates will begin from January 30 to February 20. It shall tentatively last for three months and shall discuss any subject matter, except the indivisibility and indissolubility of Nigeria; decisions at the conference shall be by consensus but where this is not achievable, it shall be by 75 per cent majority; the conference shall advise the government on the legal framework, procedures and options for integrating the decisions and outcomes of the dialogue into the constitution and laws of the country. An estimated N7bn has been set aside to bankroll the conference.
The modalities released by the Federal Government seem at variance with what the Presidential Advisory Committee proposed last December.
Thisday newspaper in a story published on December 23, 2013 said the PAC had proposed 545 delegates for the conference, 360 of them are to be elected based on equality of constituencies of the House of Representatives to allow for wider participation of the grass roots. In addition, the report allegedly recommended another 185 nominees who would comprise representatives of special interest groups and appointees of the federal and state governments as well as the Federal Capital Territory to reflect socio-cultural diversity.
With regard to the agenda of the national conference, the committee was said to have recommended, inter alia, that the delegates should examine the political structure and system that would best suit Nigeria given its complexity and whether or not Nigeria should adopt political federalism or fiscal federalism and what form the federating units – states or geopolitical zones – shall take. On the political system for the country, it recommended that delegates should decide whether Nigeria should operate a presidential or parliamentary form of government as well as whether the legislature would be unicameral or bicameral. The delegates are also to decide whether lawmakers would operate on a full-time or part-time basis.
Other issues to be discussed include state creation or merger of states; revisit the ceding of the oil-rich Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon; and whether or not Lagos, Nigeria’s former capital before the movement to Abuja should be conferred with a special status that would enable the Federal Government pay more attention to its development. The PAC also advised that the delegates should consider other issues like the secularity of the Nigerian state, federal character and virtually all other issues in the constitution.
Given the open cheque the conference had been given to discuss any issue with the exception of the disintegration of the country, one tends to believe that three months will be insufficient to do justice to all the volatile issues plaguing the country.
What then should be the upper time limit for the conference to deliberate, write and submit its report and still give sufficient time for the implementation of its recommendations ahead of the 2015 polls slated for next February?
This is where the booby trap lies. Elder statesman, Chief Olu Falae, has said there is nothing sacrosanct in holding elections on scheduled dates and if need be, the polls should be shifted by six months or a year. I disagree with this notion and the President should resist any urge to have the elections postponed. Why? Should that happen, it will confirm the hidden agenda haunch some of us have about the timing of this conference. Postponing the elections beyond April 2014 will be in clear breach of the extant constitutional provision which had given Independent National Electoral Commission power to organise polls not earlier than 150 days and not later than 30 days to the end of the term of office of the last holder.
Thus, to avoid constitutional cum political crisis, the 2015 elections should be allowed to hold as scheduled. Again, if the proposed national conference should be unduly elongated, the N7bn earmarked for the dialogue will become inadequate and sourcing more funds for the project, which may end up as a white elephant, if care is not taken, will become imperative.
On the nominations, the Nigerian Bar Association has kicked against the one slot given to it. The Conference of Nigerian Political Parties has also taken a swipe at the Federal Government for giving slots only to five political parties with representatives at the National Assembly when there are actually 25 political parties duly registered and operational in the country now. Other groups like the Concerned Igbo Leaders of Thought and the Pan-Yoruba Socio-Cultural Group,  Afenifere, expressed their preference for a conference of ethnic nationalities that will produce an entirely new constitution and not one in which the outcome will be integrated into the existing constitution as currently being envisaged.
Many human right activists and groups have also called for the National Assembly to give legal backing to the conference and for the outcome of the conference to be subjected to a national referendum.
The Federal Government, however, is not favourably disposed to this idea. It will be recalled the Jonathan had last October said the outcome of the confab will be sent to the National Assembly to legislate on.  Incidentally, this conference is being mooted after billions of naira had been spent by both chambers of the National Assembly (Senate and House of Representatives) on constitutional amendment exercises planned to end in July 2014. How I wish Jonathan had thrown his weight behind this project immediately after his election and inauguration in May 2011.
Whatever misgivings I and many other Nigerians may have about the composition, timing, duration, decision making process, legality and  utility value of this proposed conference, the government seems to have made  up its mind to go ahead.
So be it! However, beyond charting a course for Nigeria’s post-centenary, I strongly feel this conference, desirable as it is, should have held after the 2015 elections when politics will not be a major distraction and time will not be a pressure point.