By Chido Onumah
I didn’t imagine I would return to this column, although temporarily, so soon after I decided to take a long break three weeks ago. But that was exactly what I found myself doing when I received a call from a friend last week informing me that Nigeria’s Senate President, Brig. Gen. David Bonaventure Mark (retd.), had voiced support for a “national conference” as a way out of our current political morass.
I was elated, even before I had the chance to explore the details of Mr. Mark’s position. I must confess I am not a fan of Mr. Mark. He is one of the most loathsome figures in Nigeria’s tortuous road to democracy and nationhood. Mr. Mark is a survivalist. For him, expediency is the name of the game. He once vowed to go on a shooting rampage if the winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, Chief M.K.O Abiola, was sworn in. A few years later, he would go on exile and lend support to pro-democracy groups during the dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha.
Mr. Mark has moved from assuring us he would put on his camouflage and fight another civil war rather than “negotiate” Nigeria to now acquiescing to a national conference “to confront the perceived or alleged structural distortions which have bred discontentment and alienation in some quarters”. So, it wasn’t much of a surprise when I finally got the opportunity to review Mr. Mark’s latest proposition. It was dripping with survivalism. But this is one issue I am ready to ignore the messenger and focus on the message.
Of course, there is nothing new about Mr. Mark’s current position other than the fact that he is the highest official in the present administration to publicly make a case for a “national conference”. Mr. Mark’s latest move, its shortcomings notwithstanding, is commendable. It is heartwarming that after years of denial, Mr. Mark has found the chutzpah to come out of the closet.
I crave the indulgence of readers to quote him extensively. During his September 17, 2013, speech to senators, Mr. Mark said:
“(On) the renewed calls to convene a national conference, let me counsel that we make haste slowly, and operate strictly within the parameters of our Constitution as we discuss the national question. We live in very precarious times, and in a world increasingly made fluid and toxic by strange ideologies and violent tendencies, all of which presently conspire to question the very idea of the nation state.
“But that is not to say that the nation should, like the proverbial ostrich, continue to bury its head in the sand and refuse to confront the perceived or alleged structural distortions which have bred discontentment and alienation in some quarters. This sense of discontentment and alienation has fueled extremism, apathy and even predictions of catastrophe for our dear nation.
“A conference of Nigeria’s ethnic nationalities, called to foster frank and open discussions of the national question, can certainly find accommodation in the extant provisions of the 1999 Constitution which guarantee freedom of expression, and of association. To that extent, it is welcome. Nonetheless, the idea of a National Conference is not without inherent and fundamental difficulties.
“Problems of its structure and composition will stretch the letters and spirit of the Constitution and severely task the ingenuity of our constitutionalists. Be that as it may, such a conference, if and whenever convened should have only few red lines, chief among which would be the dismemberment of the country. Beyond that, every other question should be open to deliberations.
“However, I hasten to add that it would be unconstitutional to clothe such a conference with constituent or sovereign powers! But the resolutions of a national conference, consisting of Nigeria’s ethnic nationalities, and called under the auspices of the Government of the Federation, will indeed carry tremendous weight. And the National Assembly, consisting of the elected representatives of the Nigerian people, though not constitutionally bound by such resolutions, will be hard put to ignore them in the continuing task of constitution review. But to circumvent the Constitution, and its provisions on how to amend it, and repose sovereignty in an unpredictable mass will be too risky a gamble and may ultimately do great disservice to the idea of one Nigeria”.
There are many things wrong with Mr. Mark’s position. First, the military decree which passes as the 1999 constitution – a constitution which had no input from Nigerians, one which Mr. Mark and his colleagues didn’t see prior to taking over from the military in May 1999 – is not worth the paper it’s printed on. As a mark (no pun intended) of its worthlessness, it ought to be publicly shredded. Second, sovereignty lies with the people. Mr. Mark would do well to dispense with the delusion that the chair-throwing, do-nothing National Assembly should be vested with the powers to define the “new Nigeria” we envisage. It would be tragic to say the least.
It is not for nothing that “political jobbers, sycophants, and hustlers have prematurely seized the political space, and are being allowed to set the tone of national discourse”. That is the nature of politics in Nigeria. Political office is not an opportunity to render service, but an avenue to plunder. It is a pointer to the fact that the last thing Nigeria needs now are elections.
That brings me to the question of the 2015 election. I propose a moratorium on the next general election slated for 2015. As a country, we’ll be deluding ourselves going into any election without resolving, or at least understanding and confronting, many if not all the fundamental issues of our nationhood.
For the edification of Mr. Mark and others who now accept, albeit grudgingly, the inevitability of the SNC, I shall paraphrase the salient points of the SNC – points that have been made popular overtime by many writers, including Prof. Ben Nwabueze, Dr. Tunji Braithwaite, Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), Femi Falana (SAN) Jaye Gaskia and, of course, Edwin Madunagu.
While it might be difficult for Nigeria to disintegrate into ethnic republics (I don’t know of any “ethnic nationality” that is willing or ready to go to war), the “Somaliazation” of Nigeria is a “clear and present danger”. While in principle the “unity of Nigeria” is beneficial, that unity can only be meaningful if it is founded on justice and equity.
The SNC is meant to prevent a one-sided, or unilateral and, therefore, violent, resolution of the current crisis. It is the only viable historical option, (though not at all times), but precisely at those points in a nation’s history when a crisis, signifying the bankruptcy of a social order or an existing political structure, cannot be resolved either by the existing state or by any other coalition of forces.
The SNC need not aspire to address all questions. It should limit itself to the fundamental question of our national existence. Other questions will be taken up by an elected Constituent Assembly or Constitutional Conference when the terms of our continued existence have been agreed upon by the SNC.
The SNC should not be conceived as a gathering of Nigeria’s ethnic nationalities, because Nigeria is not, and has never been, the arithmetical sum of ethnic nationalities. The SNC is not a Constituent Assembly or Constitutional Conference, and must not be confused with it. A Constituent Assembly or Constitutional Conference is normally put in place by an incumbent government under its own rules. Whatever form it takes, a Constituent Assembly or Constitutional Conference comes into being only when a basic direction of national renewal has been agreed upon, or imposed.
I am tempted to argue that in the planned SNC there should be a few “no-go areas”, but that would be presumptuous and reckless of me. A Sovereign National Conference proceeds with no assumption whatsoever; it is national in the truest sense of the term; it is pragmatic; it is self-constituted and, while it lasts, it is superior to any other political institution in the land, including the incumbent government. Only a referendum can alter even a single word in the decisions of the SNC.
Two weeks ago, The Guardianreported that President Jonathan was considering the option of a “sovereign national conference to douse political tension ahead (of the) 2015 presidential elections”. Now is the time to make the SNC a reality. Rather than investing on a doomed second term agenda, the president should summon the courage to push the SNC agenda.
Nigeria is in dire need of statesmen and patriots, not vacillating politicians. As Edwin Madunagu has noted, a nation in crisis, like Nigeria, can advance in one of three directions: Either it degenerates into anarchy (Liberia and Somalia) or disintegrates (Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union), or the whole nation meets to save itself. The way to national recovery and renewal lies in the third direction.