By Akintola Benson
President Goodluck Jonathan
In proposing to convene a National Conference or Conversation, President Goodluck Jonathan is not attempting anything different from what past and now-discredited Nigerian leaders have done. Former Military President, General Ibrahim Babangida did it; Former Military Head of State, General Sanni Abacha did it; and Former Civilian President Olusegun Obasanjo did it. President Jonathan is now carving a place for himself among the failed and deceitful Nigerian leaders.
To the discerning mind, all the conferences and talks had striking similarities. First, it is no longer debatable that all the conferences referred to above were convened to further hidden and anti-democratic agenda of the convening incumbent. In the case of General Babangida, it was to create booby traps that would ensure an inconclusive transition Programme.
In the case of General Abacha, it was to create a seeming legitimate cover for his ambition to transform from a military Head of State to a Civilian President. In the case of President Obasanjo, it was to promote and legalise his much-sought after (though often-denied) third term ambition in office. (In the case of Obasanjo’s conference, it is almost hilarious, if it were not a serious matter, to note that once the conference would not agree on a third term for the President, he lost all interest in the conference he convened and never again referred to the work of the conference.)
Second, the conferences and talks were convened by incumbent leaders who, having denied the need for, and benefits of, a Sovereign National Conference to discuss Nigeria and the fundamental issues that silently but poignantly threaten our unity, peace and progress, suddenly fell in love with the idea of convening these conferences and did a 90 degrees-turn on discovering the potentials of a conference to divert attention and legitimize their ambitions.
Third, none of the conferences referred to above had the force of law or the force of the will of the people. The reports and resolutions of the conferences were submitted to other persons and authorities who had the powers to alter them and thereafter give the force of law to aspects found suitable to the agenda of that ratifying authority.
Thus, President Jonathan is merely playing an old hand as his proposal shares all the dubious features of the conferences gone by. Is he not the President who, barely one year to general elections, is desperate to turn attention away from his colossal incompetence and failings that has led to unprecedented break down of law and order, tension in the polity and thievery of prized natural resources?
Is he not the President who, not so long ago, described the idea of a National Conference as dead and buried? And has he not, from the very outset, hinted that the conference or conversation will have no binding force at all and will be subjected to his and the National Assembly’s ratification?
Should we then not be angry and deeply offended? We should be offended that this administration is attempting to play on our collective intelligence. Why has the President waited for this long to convene a conference and why convene a conference that has no power to do anything except submit a report that will be subject to the whims and caprice of a discredited President?
If what the president wants are optional pieces of advice, or a gauge of opinions to guide him, he can achieve that by holding widespread consultations with the different segments of the society without wasting the Nation’s time andresources and diverting attention from urgent tasks rather than attempting to insult our collective intelligence by taking us all on a wasteful jamboree.
We should be offended that this is another attempt to waste our resources and hard-earned tax payers’ money. We should be angry and offended that the President has, by this laughable attempt, demonstrated his failure and inability to appreciate the enormous fundamental problems that affect and afflict this Nation.
We should be angry that he is not aware that the anger and violence on display are outlets for deep-seated distrust for and disaffection with the current structure of Government? We should be angry that he has failed to grasp that the development of this Nation has been held back by the failure to truly give the people a voice by convening a Sovereign National Conference backed by law to give a truly legitimate constitution to the people of Nigeria??
I have always been an advocate of the need to convene not just a National Conference but a Sovereign National Conference because I realise thatinstead of denying our differences and attempting to force unity through a central government, we ought to discuss how the different ethnic and tribal nationalities will co-exist or if they want to continue to co-exist at all.
This is because, Nigeria, like most African countries, is an artificial creation and this artificial creation will only work if and when the federating units are given the opportunity to sit down to talk and agree on the rules for their co-existence. The keyword is that the people should decide.
Any conference that falls short of allowing the people to decide without interference should be rightly regarded as a ruse designed to further some hidden agenda. To be credible and different from past deceptions, President Jonathan must demonstrate as follows:
That there is ample and sufficient time for the conference to achieve anything meaningful and to implement the resolutions of the conference between now and the 2nd quarter of 2015 when the term of the current administration must constitutionally end. Realistically, it is now too late for that.
That the conference will be all-inclusive and that the participants will be democratically chosen.
That, the elections scheduled for 2015 will not be affected and that those elected into offices under the present constitution will not be eligible for election into those same offices under any new constitution emerging from the conference, if any.
That the conference will not be barred from discussing any matter and, in particular, these four fundamentals: devolution of powers from the Federal Government; entrenchment of fiscal federalism, restructuring of the control of the Police Force and extensive electoral reforms.
That the budget for the conference will not be profligate and capable of being used to ‘settle’ interests in favour of the ruling political party ahead of the 2015 elections.
That the resolutions of the conference will not be subjected to ratification by the President or any other authority but subjected to ratification by a popular referendum.
Without satisfying the conditions above, President Jonathan would merely be playing an old hand, consulting an old magic book and attempting to adopt a use-worn method to further his own agenda. Time is precious, resources are fleeting and there are so many urgent tasks begging for attention than to leave the all-important task of charting Nigeria’s future to an incompetent and opportunistic administration.
If President Jonathan succeeds at convening this jamboree and at wasting our time and diverting attention until 2015 when we will have to conduct elections in the midst of spiraling violence and refereed by an unprepared INEC (all conditions necessary for this incumbent to win), it will not be because of his political acumen or dexterity, it will be because, once again, Nigerians have allowed themselves to be fooled and to be led down the same old, dusty road that leads to nowhere. We should not allow him!
Dr. Akintola Benson is a lawyer and a seasoned political scientist. He lives in Lagos.
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