A first question one should ask is how important a National Conference is to the progress of Nigeria. Over several years, many groups and individuals have agitated for such a gathering to negotiate or renegotiate the polity. I think this is very important and can never be said to be late if done now. Unity can be forced, especially when the gun is the article of enforcement. However, when the gun is rusty and broken, there will be an implosion, the kind we have witnessed in countries where force has been used as a tool to maintain peace. Lasting unity is one that is negotiated and agreed on. Humans and their groupings are interest-driven, making it inevitable for such collective aspirations to be the interfacing nodes with other individuals and groups. Nigeria is no different and in many ways a case in point on the need to bring all parties to the table for a more commonsense consensus.
I commend this government for taking this Bull by its horns and hearkening to the several voices of interests around the country. It takes real courage to initiative a process for which you cannot predetermine its outcome, even when you assume you can control all variables involved. However, I have noted with care the absence of the word ‘Sovereign’ from the proposed National Conference. This is critical because it informs us that the agreements produced by such a conference will not be binding on the active institutions, seeing that these decisions will not be made by a sovereign. This makes one very suspicious that this whole episode will be a charade and at best a cosmetic treatment to a festering sore. For this reason, the process is already limping from the start and commitment of the government is yet doubtful.
Although no government wants to be the one to summon a Sovereign National Conference, someone, at some point will have to get it done. The reality with a SNC is that even the government in place will be subject to the SNC since we cannot have two sovereigns at the same time, in the same geopolitical expression. This is tricky for any government. The SNC might as well decide that the present constitution be suspended and government dissolved, and that will be final. So it is understandable when governments push aside or away the responsibility for such policy finality. A simple National Conference places the weight of such critical decisions on a system whose measures are questionable. Let us however see how we make use of this opportunity to get the best of what this government has chosen to do.
The first step in setting up a committee to work out the modalities for the National Conference is a positive one, and the selected actors are in no doubt of proven ability to set things up. I will therefore suggest the following to this committee in implementing the conference.
- Let the people in each local government through their traditional rulers decide who will represent them. There should not be a regulated process to how each local people decide who stands for them. It is pertinent to begin the process by recognizing the rights of indigenous people to decide how and who represents them. The only requirement I would suggest is for a timeframe to be given and that the selected representatives be people of means, people who will not use this as an opportunity to seek personal profit. The latter is important considering the third point below.
- A defined start-to-finish time should be given for the conference. This should be so for the purpose of funding. We are at the point where every naira matters to every Nigerian, so transparency in allocating resources to this process should be paramount. In this light, the conference should hold in the year 2014, so the presidency can make budgetary provisions in the 2014 Appropriation Act as approved by the National Assembly.
- Also in funding the National Conference, only the transportation, hotel, feeding and general administrative bills should be covered by the budget. No allowances or stipends should be paid to any of the representatives. This answers to selecting people of means who will not be busy waiting for sitting allowances to be paid before they carry-out their duties.
- The current constitutional review process should be put on hold and preference is given to the National Conference, as the results of this will be less political as in the case with the National Assembly’s attempt at reviewing the constitution.
- Although I would have preferred that such a conference be held in a place (such as neighbouring country) far from any influence and control of the government, pressure groups and media, I recognize that this might be costly to implement. So efforts should be put into situating the conference in a place with minimal outside noise and interference. Also, external observers should be engaged to sit in through the process to verify the quality of the conference and to objectively validate or discredit the outcomes of the conference.
It is very significant that this discourse between Nigeria’s people be done in the year 2014. This is because it marks a hundred years since external powers amalgamated the North and South to form one political administrative unit. Like Babatunde Raji Fashola, governor of Lagos State aptly stated, Nigeria was not born in 1914. No! Amalgamation is not the same thing as a union. Amalgamation suggests the activity of a third party, while a union indicates the agreement between parties directly involved. If we go down this road, the very question of a Nigerian state can be totally questioned. For this reason we must not shy away or deride the chance at negotiating our togetherness so we can determine a common destiny as a country; a destiny which every part subscribes to.
I therefore support the National Conference and believe that it has the potential to begin a process of national healing. As an individual, I have opted to find ways to make the best of current circumstances, or use the present resources to achieve my intended goals. I think this is what we must do as a country rather than constantly discredit any government initiative due to our dislike or distrust of the government officials. So what we should be looking at is how do we make this conference deliver value to us, rather than kill it on arrival.