Since I first made known my initial reaction to President Jonathan’s proposed National Dialogue/Conference, the daggers have been out against me. The paid public relations gangs of the administration and some sympathizers have gone into overdrive in the media and public fora to denounce me for the position I have taken. I thought I ought to enjoy the same right they have exercised by supporting Jonathan’s conference to also reject it and make my reaction known. Unfortunately it does not seem so.
But I have news for them. I will not take anything I have said back on the proposed National Dialougue by this present administration. I insist that the planned national dialogue is a ‘Greek’ gift and public deception. I say beware of the Greek gift; let us first of all, ask a series of questions.
The government's proposal is a walk down a back alley that leads only to a dead end. It has the same empty taste as sitting down to dine after all the food has been eaten and the table cleared.
I intend to raise fundamental questions/interrogations in the following response. I am known to have always reviewed the message or policy action of government after which I simply proceed to respond to the message and not the messenger. But this time around, my focus and response is to the messenger and not the message essentially. Questioning the messenger and his motives is my mission here as a Nigerian and a political leader. Also, in warning against Jonathan’s proposed Conference, I will put forward a few practicable suggestions.
The core questions to ask here is how credible, reliable and capable is the current President to be able to midwife a critical conference such as this? Will this President be sincere enough to let all the issues that are on the agenda be exhaustively discussed at the conference? Will this President have the guts to implement fully all final resolutions of the conference without fear or favor or any pandering?
This is an administration that has been known to have flip-flopped on so many critical issues of national importance. President Jonathan was part of two issues of national importance in the recent past; Amnesty and the Uwais Panel on electoral reform. We all know what has happened to these two issues. The Amnesty conceived from inception has been corrupted and hijacked by the President’s clique. It is one of Nigeria’s drain pipes. A slush fund for political expeditions and a conduit to siphon money to the boys.
The Uwais Panel report gathers dust and suffers from constant cherry picking. What about the much-publicized SURE-P initiative of this administration? Another ill-conceived and fraudulently implemented program of this administration. Billions of naira have so far disappeared into private pockets and the treasury still bleeds. I can go on and on. Is this the leader we want to trust with organizing a National dialogue or is it conference they call it? Where is the capability? Where is the sincerity? Where is the presence of mind?
Recent Nigerian political history bears me out in this instance. Recall the call for a Sovereign National Conference began in earnest in the latter phase of the political transition programme of military president Ibrahim Babangida. Claiming that it was laying a solid foundation for a democracy that will endure, the regime turned Nigeria into a laboratory for all manner of political stunts.
Nigerians came to conclude that the regime was pursuing a not-so-hidden agenda of self-perpetuation and called for a Sovereign National conference to replace a transition programme that had clearly lost its momentum and its direction.
Next door, in Benin Republic, a Sovereign National Conference was being staged to chart a new course for a country that had virtually come to a standstill. Its crisp, bold and purposeful proceedings resonated in Nigeria, and Nigerians yearning for such a conference embraced the Beninoise model.
The military regime seemed at a point to embrace the concept, too, and even tried to enlist some prominent citizens to translate it into practice. But when it appeared those citizens had taken the regime more seriously than it took itself, the regime scuttled the idea and decreed jail sentences for anyone purporting to stage a national conference.
Then came the presidential election debacle of June 12, 1993, and with it, renewed calls for a Sovereign National Conference. The election crisis swept out the military regime, but not before it had planted a surrogate, the so-called Interim National Government, a clueless outfit that lasted three months but drove Nigeria to the edge of ruin, until it was overthrown by General Abacha.
To win public acceptance, Abacha promised to stage a National Conference with “constituent powers.” This was another act of bad faith, for Abacha packed the assembly with his hand-picked nominees. Those who were not his nominees were products of an election that was widely boycotted, persons who could hardly be described as authentic representatives of their constituencies. The conference exercised nothing close to the “constituent powers” Abacha had promised. The five political parties that emerged from the constitutional framework designed by the Assembly all ended up endorsing Abacha as their presidential candidate. Abacha’s death ended the charade. Knowing that Nigerians were no longer prepared to put up with military rule, Abacha’s colleagues hastily put together a constitution to serve as the legal framework for the civilian administration inaugurated in 1999.
The constitution was not published until it came into effect. It was not debated. Those who took office swore an oath to defend a Constitution they had not seen, and the provisions of which they did not know.
Soon, it became clear that it was riddled with grave defects. Despite its portentous preface, “We, the People,” it was not a people’s constitution. The people played hardly any role in its writing. It did not reflect their yearnings. Some legal authorities even went so far as to call the document a forgery.
And so, demands for a Sovereign National Conference broke out afresh, to design a new constitutional order for Nigeria, one anchored on the core principles of federalism and warranted by the preface, “We, the People.”
Then came the Obasanjo’s constitutional review process by the National Assembly in the twilight of his administration. The process came up with 118 recommendations most of which were far reaching and dealt with critical and contentious issues of nationhood. It became ill-fated due to the failure to smuggle in the third term tenure extension provision. The rest, as they say, is now history.
Now, we are about to embark on a similar futile exercise. And here is why. Until some two to three months back, our demands for a sovereign national conference found little sympathy in the Executive and Legislative branches of government, until some three weeks ago when Senate President, David Mark, issued a qualified endorsement. Then, in his National Independence Day Broadcast, President Jonathan Goodluck, announced to everyone’s surprise that the Federal Government would indeed sponsor a National Conference, at which Nigeria’s ethnic nationalists would discuss and negotiate the terms of continued association.
Within days, Dr. Jonathan named a chairman and members of a committee to advise on modalities for staging the conference and submit a report within one month.
I, like other well-meaning Nigerians, must welcome this shift. It is an admission, at last, that the wide cracks in the national fabric can no longer be papered over, and that the time has come for fresh thinking on fundamental problems, the existence of which has for too long been denied.
Yet, President Jonathan’s epiphany–if epiphany it is and not an expedient calculated to enhance his 2015 reelection bid – should be subjected to searching questions.
It is difficult to lay aside the suspicion that his sudden conversion is all about 2015. Otherwise, why the sudden endorsement of a National Conference, not merely in principle, but with a rush toward some form of implementation? What has happened that was not already in play in all those years during which the authorities rejected demands for a National Conference?
Second, it is also difficult to lay aside the suspicion that the government is now embracing the idea with a view to watering it down, if not smothering it altogether. What its proponents have been canvassing is a Sovereign National Conference organized by the sovereign people of Nigeria, not one staged by the government. Government will figure in that Conference only as a facilitator, not as organizer.
Many of the ethnic nationalities clamouring for a Sovereign National Conference are contesting nothing less than the legitimacy of the Nigerian State as presently constituted. It cannot be an answer to their misgivings that the Federal Government, the agent of that state, is set to take charge of a Sovereign National Conference designed to chart a new path.
Third, Dr. Jonathan did not indicate whether the Conference will be sovereign or exercise constituent powers. That omission is not reassuring. What Nigerians have been demanding is a Sovereign National Conference whose decisions can only be ratified or rejected by the people in a national referendum. There is no room for a Government White Paper or Blue Paper or Paper of any colour whatsoever in such a scheme.
Fourth, it must be asked whether this is an opportune moment for the conference, when the ruling party is in disarray, a large portion of the country is convulsed by Boko Haram violence and killings, and permutations over a general election have already taken centre stage in the affairs of the nation two years ahead of schedule.
Would staging a National Conference in such a setting not overheat the polity? Would it not be better to defer the Conference until after the general elections? There is still so much to do to ensure that the election is free and fair, conforms to the best practices, and represents the true will of the people.
Though I remain an unrepentant supporter of a genuine Sovereign National Conference, I am suspicious of this present concoction because it is half- baked and fully deceptive. Government's sincerity is questionable, the timing is also suspect. Now that this government is sinking in a pool of political and economic hot water of its own making, it seizes hold of the national conference idea as if it were a life jacket.
This government habitually puts the wrong leg forward. In the face of debilitating terrorist attacks by Boko Haram, kidnappings across the country and a general insecurity, this government wants to open up another political front by hurriedly organizing a national conference. This rankles the brain.
This government has not the honesty, foresight, tolerance and objectivity to hold a National Conference of any type. This government is so partisan and parochial, it can’t even hold its own party together. How dare it even think it can organize a national conference that lives up to its name by being truly representative of all the nation's constituent parts! At most, all they can conduct is a conference comprised of one section of their party and those shell, artificial civil society groups that purport to reflect the public's mind, yet do nothing but spew government propaganda and get paid good naira for their service. This government cannot hold a National Conference anymore than a comatose man can stand and hold up a candle that the rest of us might see our way to a better Nigeria.
Before embarking on new public relations ploys to whitewash its tarnished record, the government should treat some long outstanding issues and matters. This government cannot give what it does not have.
If the conference must be held now, we must return to the spade work already done by the Obasanjo government in the aspect of constitutional review. Let the Jonathan government bring it out, remove the third term toxic component and set up a technical review committee to examine the 118 recommendations therein. We must continue from where we disagreed. Nation building is a progressive work and to totally jettison the considerable spade work already done is to set back the hands of the clock. Time is not on our side.
Secondly, this government should implement the Uwais recommendations on electoral reforms. That report was the work of imminent Nigerians and it was done after widespread consultations to constituencies far and wide. We all know that our electoral system is broken and unfair. If the President has done nothing to fully implement this corrective report that would fix a system so blatantly broken, why would he implement recommendations of national conference if those recommendations do not suit his narrow purposes? The government should first implement this important work in order to demonstrate to Nigerians that it can hold and honor the outcome of a National dialogue.
This government should do so to show that it has nothing to hide and is willing to engage in the upcoming electoral contest on a level playing field.
This government must first show good faith for Nigerians to believe them. President Jonathan is not the man to give Nigerians a true National Conference. He can only give us a “Jonathan Conference” as bitter icing on the sour cake his government has become. This government lacks the presence of mind and the decency to implement a national conference.
This administration has not achieved any tangible transformation because it has no concrete goals. Now it tilts and staggers under the weight of insecurity. Claims of transformation and of building an economy that is robust and institutions of democracy, by the President shows someone who believes fiction is more important than fact and imagination is more genuine than reality. While I would not mind such a person to be a leading figure in our Nollywood film industry, I am frightened that he is the chief resident in Aso Villa.
Both in timing and in style, previous administrations adopted the same tricks of National Conference as a framework to structure their agenda to which people presented memoranda and attended plenaries before realising it was a trick. This government's offer of a National Conference is a wingless bird. It will not fly. The advisory committee set up to design a framework and come up with recommendations as to the form, structure and mechanism of the process will soon find out they are on a journey with no destination save the wall of futility.
Yes, we need to talk. However, we need a national conference that is truly sovereign and not one dictated by the reactionary and regressive elements of the ruling party. This is not the way to clear Nigeria from danger. This is a selfish ploy that will place the nation deeper in darkness and indirection.
Nigeria is adrift and unless we start a discourse aimed at updating and improving our political economy and its structures, we might wake up one day from a night devoid of dreams because we have turned into a nation devoid of hope.
However, an imposed national conference by individuals who have shown total disdain for anything nationalistic that does not unduly benefit them and who have demonstrated lack of respect for the opinions of others because they are in “Power” will have little success. It will be an empty and expensive futility with no true dividends for a people wanting their leaders to show them a way out of the pit and not a way deeper into it.
Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu
He's the former Governor of Lagos State and National Leader of opposition party APC.