Political Conference of Hope!

GUARDIAN APRIL 1, 2014

Now that Nigerians are talking let us give hope a chance. “When hope is taken away from a people, moral degeneration follows swiftly after,” Henry Wadsworth Long-Fellow (Tales of wayside inn, 1886) said.

Let us remember Edgar Waston Howe when he said, “there is nothing so well known as that we should not expect something for nothing — but we all do and call it Hope.”

There had been varied opinions about the possible outcome of the National Conference, which members were inaugurated on Monday, March 17, 2014. While some expressed the belief that the three-month exercise was just a jamboree of sorts, others argued that the mere claim by the President that the result of the conference would be subjected to the Senate for ratification and approval showed that nothing good can come out of the exercise.

For the latter set of people, the Senate is the wrong place to send the outcome of the conference. They reasoned that many of the members of this topmost legislative house are self-serving and not worthy enough to handle this aggregation of approved opinions of the Nigerian people, as should be represented in the conference.

They further argued that the outcome of the conference should, instead, be subjected to a referendum and then, tucked into the Constitution as the true decision of the people.

There were also those who argued that the conference was not necessary since the country has elected representatives both at the state and the federal levels. They said it would be a waste of time and efforts since the country paid the representatives, elected by the people.

While all these arguments, back and forth, continued, with some criticisms, President Goodluck Jonathan maintained a courageous stand on his optimism that the conference would not only yield the targeted result, but that Nigerians would take the glory and testify that it was a worthy idea at the end he announcement by the President, during the inauguration of the members, that Nigerians should prepare for a referendum on the outcome of the conference; now seems to have changed the previous impressions.

Like everyone knows, the President stressed that Nigerians have discussed and argued over various issues concerning the country’s national existence and wellbeing for many years. Much of this national discourse, according to him, has been conducted through the mass media, both print and electronic and more recently, through social media.

For those Nigerians who argue that this is a jamboree, what has become of all these discussions? Groups purportedly involved in the fight for the rights of the people have, in most cases, allegedly had their hands soiled at one point or the other and history has some of them.

Lagbaja, the popular musician, in 200 Million Mumu, described Nigeria as a country where her citizens speak “big, big grammar” and know how to analyse on television, but after that, what happens? Nothing.

So, sincerely, who loses with all these analysis and big grammar? Is it those claiming to fight for the people, who they always describe as the downtrodden or the alleged downtrodden people themselves who look up to the government for a direction?

This country has become too big for a few to reap where they have not sowed at the expense of the masses. Once one is a citizen of this country, one is supposed to have the same rights as every other person in the same country. Nobody has two heads, and where a human being develops two heads, it becomes abnormal, a monster.

Must the people therefore continue to fold their arms despite these realities staring at us in the face? Must we continue to wallow in poverty and keep lamenting every passing day?

Now, let’s look critically at our lives, as Nigerians and how we have evolved over time. We are bound to see that there has been no such conference that did not bring some good to Nigeria.

The bringing together of the northern and southern protectorates of what is now known as Nigeria did not come unplanned. So many activities must have come up leading to the amalgamation. Today, we are rated positive in so many areas and pride ourselves as the most populous black nation simply because of that singular event. This is part of the reason I support the President in his statement that the country’s amalgamation was never a mistake, as some people would think.

Again, in 1922, the Sir Hugh Clifford Constitution came into being. But the constitution was not just established. It passed through a silhouette of conferences and the result was that for the first time in the history of Nigeria, the country introduced the elective principle for legislative houses, thus bringing in the Legislative Council, a 46-member council, which became a replacement for Lord Lugard’s Nigerian Council.

Historians remember the Richards Constitution of 1946 for its peculiarity in the introduction of an objective for the promotion of the unity of Nigeria and securing greater participation by Nigerians in discussing their own affairs. It also brought into focus and cares for the diverse elements within the country, with the constitution of a Council with representatives from all parts of Nigeria.

Apart from this, the constitution sought the abolition of the official majority in the Council as it created Regional Councils made up of a House of Assembly in each of the Northern, Eastern and Western Provinces; it established House of Chiefs in the North. For the first time again, the country got a constitution that touched every citizen through a constitutional conference. These were among many other sound sides of the constitution that emerged in that period.

As good as the constitution was, however, it did not last for the nine years it was marked for as a result of the protest from some parts of the country that not all Nigerians were consulted before its creation. To therefore resolve the grey areas put up by Nigerians, the Macpherson Constitution came into existence in 1951. The making of this constitution brought many Nigerians together unlike in the previous ones. The constitution conference even brought Nigerians from the village level.

Following its successful establishment, it stipulated a provision for a 145-member House of Representatives with 136 of these members elected. It also instituted a bicameral legislature for both the Northern and Western parts of Nigeria. One of them was the House of Chiefs while the East retained the unicameral House of Assembly. It established the Public Service Commission as an advisory body for the Governor.

It should be known that between 1951 and 1954, two important constitutional conferences were held in London and Lagos between the colonial masters and the Nigerian politicians.

One thing is certain here; all the previously mentioned constitutional conferences were an opportunity for Nigerian leaders then to learn the act of governance. Therefore, when it was time, in 1954 for a Federal Constitution, it was not difficult to get the inputs of and participation of Nigerians.

The outcome, according to some analysts, was great as it separated Lagos, which was the country’s capital, from the Western Region. It also created a Federal Government for the country comprising three regions — the North, West and East — and further made provisions for the regions to be headed by Governors, but with a Governor-General at the centre.

The popular Exclusive Federal Legislative List and the Concurrent List, which have become part of every constitution in Nigeria since independence, began at this stage, just as it established a strong central government and weak regions, as well as the expansion of the Judiciary and of the public service. It was operational till independence.

THE Constitutional Conference of 1957 was the last before independence in 1960. It took place in London from May 23 till June 1957, and was chaired by the then Colonial Secretary with 10 delegates and five advisers from each of the Regions of Nigeria and five delegates and three advisers from the Southern Cameroons, according to historians.

Others who attended the conference included the Federal Government as represented by the Governor-General, the Regional Governors, the Commissioner of the Cameroons, two Federal Ministers, the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives, two delegates representing the Federal Capital and the United Kingdom Government, which was represented by 10 delegates, nine experts and a legal adviser.

The decisions reached at that conference included the call for self-governance. It was agreed for the Governor to appoint the person who commands a majority in the House of Assembly as Premier, who would recommend two ministers.

It also provided for the Northern Region of the country to become self-governing in 1959 while the Federal Legislature should run its full course until the end of 1959 after which it should consist of 320 members elected on the basis of one member for approximately 100,000 citizens of the country.

It was through this conference that the establishment of the Senate came into existence. Today, we have the House of Representatives and the Senate where even some of the critics now represent their people. If not for such conferences, Nigeria would not have such a blessing.

One major recommendation at the conference was for the division of the country into 320 single-member electoral constituencies and the appointment of a permanent electoral commission to supervise preparation of the Federal Electoral Register and to conduct all Federal elections. Today, we have the Independent National Electoral Commission, a metamorphosis of this decision. Who then would think a conference is a curse upon the land rather than a blessing?

One thing that should be certain is that no such conferences ever came into being without a consideration of the situation of the country. Nigerians could remember the Aburi Conference held in Ghana between January 4 and 5 1967, aimed at addressing the crises that befell the country in 1966 and improve unity and national growth and progress.

Though the Aburi Accord came with controversies, the agreement reached at the conference, which came just after a failed attempt at a constitutional conference in September 1966, included that “all the decrees passed since January 15, 1966, and which detracted from previous powers and positions of regional governments, should be repealed if mutual confidence is to be restored.”

In 1975, the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) was inaugurated by the late General MurtalaMuhammed, and chaired by the late erudite lawyer, Chief Rotimi Williams. This led to a Constitutional Assembly in 1977, which delegates were elected and some appointed. This further led to the 1979 Constitution enacted by Decree 25 of 1978.

One could therefore see that apart from the conference organised by former President OlusegunObasanjo, which never saw the light of day, every other such event had added one positive mark to the growth and development of our country.

The current National Conference did not just come because the President wanted it. Before his emergence as the elected president of the country, Nigerians had clamoured for it. The country had begun to witness signs of disintegration with nepotism becoming the order of the day. It got so worse that once one was from a minority ethnic group, one automatically became an outcast of sorts in his supposed country.

We do not need to even belabour the issue of insecurity. Even the blind man knows what the country is facing currently. The uniqueness of Nigeria’s own terrorism is that it is politically inclined. I do not know how other Nigerians would see it, but this is my opinion about Nigeria’s insecurity.

Then there is this issue of corruption. People complain that the nation’s anti-graft agencies are not as effective as they should be and I wonder how many people the anti-graft body would arrest and prosecute in a country where everyone is corrupt in one form or the other — financial corruption on the one hand and moral corruption on the other.

There are also many challenges giving rise to fear that the country is on the brink of total collapse. Can we continue like this? The simple answer is NO!

Now, the President has told us that he would not tamper with the outcome of the conference. We can recall the day he first made the announcement and installed the Femi Okurounmu-led committee for feasibility on the conference.

I would not further agree with those who complain about the timing of the conference. There is no better time than now that the 2015 general elections are fast approaching. If the result is subjected to a referendum, then 2015 would be a whole new beginning for every Nigerian.

I am very sure that this optimism is part of the reason even states governed by the opposition party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), sent representatives to the conference even though the party has continuously maintained its pessimism. That should tell every Nigerian that inwardly, there is a general support for the conference.

Moreover, a conference that has delegates like Femi Falana, Pastor TundeBakare and other well-meaning Nigerians (however radical their views may be considered by many who do not agree with them) cannot be considered a charade.

Nigeria will not disintegrate. Our population, our diverse religion, our languages, our traditions, our culture, our diversity should and must be our strength.

*****

Prof. Azaiki, OON, is the National Coordinator, National Think-Tank.

The Guardian: April 1, 2014