National Conference: They Dared, They Failed, By Jibrin Ibrahim
It is shocking that they dared to end the National Conference on the note of tenure elongation. It is good for Nigeria’s political future that they failed. Delegates were surprised on the resumption of the Conference last Monday to see in their package a brand new 2014 Draft Constitution they had not discussed and had not been mandated to produce. They were not a constituent assembly and their terms of reference did not include giving unto Nigerians a new 2014 Constitution.
When challenged on the origins of his Constitution, the Conference Chairman, Justice Idris Kutigi confessed that he had been “mandated by President Jonathan to write a new Constitution” (Daily Trust, 14/8/2014). The question is if President Jonathan wanted a new constitution, why did he not include it in the terms of reference of the Conference. When some Northern Delegates threatened to walk out if Kutigi insisted on imposing a new constitution, he encouraged them to walk out, presumably so that he could fulfil his promise to give unto President Jonathan a new constitution.
The purpose of having a new constitution is known to all. Following the judgment by Justice Adesola Oguntade, when there is a new constitution, people who had held office previously could recontest without prejudice to their earlier office. With a new 2014 Constitution, President Jonathan would then have the right to not just one, but two more tenures. So would governors who are just about to finish, or have served two terms in office.
It was a vile, self-serving political move, which, like Ibrahim Coomassie said, was “capable of plunging Nigeria into another cycle of political chaos with potential of violence and anarchy”. It was the height of irresponsibility for the Conference leadership to have accepted to play this despicable role of trying to destroy our democracy. It was unfortunate that the presidency pushed them in that direction.
I salute the members of the National Conference who had the courage to scuttle the attempt to impose a new constitution. Their alternative proposal which carried the day was to call the document proposals for the amendment of the 1999 Constitution. This idea means we are not talking of a new constitution for tenure elongation. They have saved us the crisis that would have ensued had the Kutigi plan succeeded creating the basis for the next step which would have been trying to organize a referendum to pass the new constitution thereby by-passing the National Assembly.
The National Assembly of course has its own parallel constitutional review process which is being concluded currently. There is absolutely no time for the 7th National Assembly to take on board the numerous proposals for constitutional reform emanating from the Conference. This means that the proposal can only be considered by the 8th National Assembly which will be inaugurated in June next year. At that time, the legislature will ask hard questions about why they should waste their time on a document that emanated from a dubious National Conference created largely for the purpose of tenure elongation.
I have always argued that the National Conference should be supported as an opportunity for Nigerians to talk about our problems. I have always believed that just talking about our problems is therapeutic and will eventually lead us, at some future date, to try to solve the problems. It’s true that with an expenditure of over 7 billion Naira, its expensive chatting. I feel aggrieved that the tenure elongation plot has cast aspersions on the legitimacy of the discussions and decisions made. I have discussed extensively with many members of the Conference and its clear they have produced a comprehensive set of policy, legislative and constitutional proposals that should be taken forward. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that the proposals would have a future. Following the 2005 National Political Reform Conference convened by Olusegun Obasanjo, the baby was thrown out with the birth water because there was a tenure elongation plan. The same thing is likely to recur again.
The tragedy of the Fourth Republic is that we have had and have presidents who from day one have been pre-occupied with tenure elongation rather than what they could achieve within their legal tenure. This attitude has harmed the process of political reform. As I have argued previously, the Jonathan National Conference took off on the basis of an original sin, manipulating the composition to secure a pre-determined majority that would approve an agenda that is not in the terms of reference of the Conference. We all remember the debates at the beginning of the Conference about the numbers required for decision-making. When a compromise number for the decision-making was agreed to, the Conference leadership in their wisdom decided decisions will be taken by voice vote rather than voting in conformity with the requisite number agreed to in the rules established. This means that all the decisions of the Conference are not only illegitimate, they are also illegal. The poor leadership exhibited by the dual leadership of Justice Kutigi and Professor Akinyemi has really done a great disservice to Nigeria.
I am pained that my minimum expectation for the Conference – highlighting our traditional Nigerian problems and maybe engaging us on a line of reflection that could lead is to live with our problems if we cannot really solve them. Was dashed by the Conference leadership. Many specific decisions are incomprehensible to serious minded people. The proposal for the creating of 18 more states was for example senseless as we do not have enough resources to maintain the present 36 states. Many states are unable to meet their current obligations including payment of salaries and creating this huge number of new state would mean a drastic fall in the resources available to existing states and lack of money for the take-off of the new states.
The one positive message emanating from the National Conference is that many people of goodwill worked tirelessly to forge consensus when extremist demands and positions were proposed.
They tried very hard to forge agreements out of diametrically opposed positions. Their efforts were however often unsuccessful because they tried too much to go along the path of give and take. They did not seem to realize that when a demand is unreasonable, you have to reject it outright rather than try to do give and take. That was how the “do gooders” got into trouble over the question of revenue allocation. It was not possible to do give and take and reconcile the position of the oil producing states for an allocation of is ranging from a 100% to 21.5% and those from non-oil producing states ranging from 13% to 15%.
By trying to give 18% to the oil producing states, 5% for solid mineral development and 5% for a Special National Fund for Stabilization, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of areas affected by terrorism and insurgency in the North East, North Central and North West they set out to inflate the already serious problem of inequality in revenues. The proposal was not based on the equity principle, which is what provides for enduring federal solutions and therefore had to be set aside. What the National Conference demonstrated was that our political elite are still at the level of making maximalist demands. They have not yet arrived at the stage of maturity where principled negotiation aimed at promoting the interest of Nigeria would prevail over sectional and personal interests. The struggle for Nigeria however continues.
Dr. Jibrin Ibrahim, a senior fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Development, CDD, and Chairman of the Premium Times editorial board, writes a syndicated Monday column. Kindly follow him via his twitter handle – @Jibrinibrahim17