The People's Voices Were Muffled


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The People’s Voices Were Muffled



Uche Chukwumerije




March  6, 2006


Transparency and democracy seem to be the mantras of the leadership of the Joint Constitutional Conference Review. How transparent and democratic were the public hearings recently concluded by JCCR? As a citizen, I am entitled to proffer an answer. I also have the extra advantage of being a participant in the exercise. I want here to review what happened in and around my duty post in South-West zone. From this “empirical” start, I shall attempt an appraisal of the whole national exercise.

Excellent Mobilisation

If the scoreline in public hearing is success in mobilising rallies of the faithful, maximum points must go to the organisers in the South-West zone. It was an excellent campaign rally. The expansive premises of the state Assembly were alive with drumbeats, praise songs and hoots of buses decked in Peoples Democratic Party colours and banners proudly proclaiming local government identities. The hall, venue of the public hearing, was a picture of choreographed hierarchy. If you took away the presenters and their aides, the audience was an enlarged state executive council, a combined session of state legislatives, party faithful and state executive councils. A well-packed gallery complemented the government command performance. Almost all the governors or their deputies were there. If there was more in this exercise than would meet the eye, the expansive humility of the host Governor, Col. Olagunsoye Oyinlola (rtd.) and the loud irrepressible humour of Governor Ayo Fayose of Ekiti State (Yess-ooh!) dominated the environment with a contrary message.

Presentations In The First Day

The first day of the public hearing was like a scene from Mussolini’s file-past of popular fronts. After ritual affirmation of their positions on desired constitutional amendments (with support of three-term agenda as the expected climax in a comedy) by the states, ostensibly non-government groups began to file out. The Chairman worked from a pre-qualified list of groups. On paper, that is. The deft moves on the ‘high-table’ and the orchestrations of the floor managers - a party big boss (sitting right behind me) and two governors - silently endorsed speakers or improvised appropriate substitutes from a reserve bench of faithful loyalists. For instance, the last two serial numbers in Chairman (Ifeanyi) Ararume’s list were blank. But, not to worry: names were invited at the appropriate time to read out pro-third term pronouncements! n orchestra would not have produced a better symphony. A few discordant notes - evidently, designed to provide the kind of tribute, which the vice of hypocrisy pays to the virtue of transparency - were allowed. Afenifere, for instance. But the sour note that went beyond allowed boundary was that of Barrister Bamidele Aturu, whose direct hit (the governors and Economic and Financial Crimes Commission) promptly drew the ire and hammer of the Chairman. It was like a red cloth before a bull.

Two Verdicts

Over twenty groups (made presentations) on the first day. How genuinely independent were most of these civil society groups? When were they established and where were they based? What was the extent of their consultations with their constituents? When government papers began with “we, the people of …… state”, was the basis of the popular verdict clarified? No! The Chairman did not allow members to ask probing questions for necessary clarifications, contrary to Rule 5 of the Procedure guiding our exercise. I reminded him of this duty on two occasions - 8.45 am in his hotel suite and later after the presentation of the National Association of Nigerian Students man. But for obvious reasons, he preferred his coaster-roller approach, speeding the hearing to a desired verdict. It was only when the session adjourned for break and we came outside the garrisoned walls of the venue that we saw the massive evidence of another verdict. Leaders of dozens of groups besieged some of us (Hon Idris and me) angrily protesting their forced exclusion from the hall. The official excuse, they complained to us, was that they did not make written applications. But this excuse was lame, because subterfuge of improvisations has enabled the Chairman to feature groups who were not pre-registered as I hinted earlier. Indeed, at least one speaker had no written memorandum. In any case, two of the excluded groups have in fact applied for registration and have submitted two copies of their memoranda. The excluded groups were over 25. This was more than the number that were allowed to present papers on the first day. There is also one noteworthy point about the excluded groups: All of them were against the third-term agenda. A tale of two verdicts in one zone: one from government hearing, and the other from public (un) hearing. If I dwelt too long on the first day, it was because the day was the high point of the two-day exercise. The Chairman of the first day merits the highest accolade. Someone should recommend him for a GOCN in next year’s Honours’ list!

Second Day

The second day began as an anti-climax. Weariness has set in. I went into our bus and took a seat at 9 am, waiting for scheduled departure at 9.15 for the venue. By 9.40 am, only three of us were in the bus. Where were the other twelve? One person volunteered an analysis: it might be that the others were bored, like invigilators assigned to supervise an examination session whose results have already been computed and announced!

The session of the second day, managed by co-chairman Hon. (Bawa) Bwari, Chief Whip of House of Representatives, was a more credible act of transparency, even if the big guns had already been rolled out and the battle had been lost and won on the first day. Too little medicine, too late. There was still a pre-qualified list, but some of the scheduled speakers did not show up. The Chairman did grant time to panel members to ask questions for clarification, in accordance with our rules. But the most glaring cases of doubt have come and gone on the first day. There were awkward attempts to counter the few discordant (anti-third term) notes allowed on the previous day. The last speaker, Sheikh Olayinka Ajisafe, was obviously drafted to counter the anti-third-term stances of two Muslims bodies which had earlier made presentations. The Sheikh who spoke in Yoruba had no memorandum. Earlier, one leader of an Igbo association had appeared to counter the submission of Lagos State that 15million people approved the state’s proposals. (The Igbo leaders came straight from Chairman Ararume’s breakfast table and promptly returned to the suite after the hearing). However, the co-dominion of the first day (the chairmen shared the high table with two governors) did not work on the second day. The co-Chairman, I can reliably reveal, rejected all irregular requests.

The public hearing in the South-West zone underlined some points: The two-day exercise was basically a government outing. The governments have spoken. Most of the presentations were what Bola Ige (in whose honour the complex of the Osun State Assembly was named) would dismiss as the fingers of the same leprous hand. Te second was the fact that the people, kept at bay behind plice lines, have not spoken. For the two days,the Assembly fortress hosted more armed plicemen than constitution amenders. Bagdad could not have been better fortified. The third was that the arguments on third term have become unfortunately personalisd as “for or against Obasanjo” ultimatum. The loud hurray that followed every support of third term agenda had a familiar ring of ‘carry go” pesidential campaign.

The National Scene

So far for the South-West zone. Osogbo is a metaphor for the charade that was attempted throughout the country - with uneven results. True, there were differences in zonal management - different attitudes in interpretation of rules of procedure (some were open, others manipulative), different attitudes in deference to local authorities (some established co-dominion with state governors while others maintained the independence of the JCCR panel), different configurations of the weight of local priorities (some emphasised third term while others were concerned with other issues). But it is difficult to avoid the general conclusion that if the results in certain zones did not turn out as neatly computerised as in the South-West, it was not for lack of trying.

Many factors - ethno-religious predispositions, cultural peculiarities, proprietary sways of political buffs and varying levels of local political awareness and popular mobilization - combined to feed in varying degrees the dynamics of popular resistance to the pre-packaged deals being sold them via political surrogates, in the name of public hearing. Therefore, any self-congratulation by any third-term zealot who would pretend that the overall defeat of the proposal by the masses is a vindication of transparency is at best untutored insensitivity of a low-grade propagandist.

What are the remarkable similarities that run through all the exercises? The first is the proprietary arrogance of the state governors. The illusion that every governor - whether for or against third term - can and has become the royal “we” capsuling the position of the people is so apparent that it has almost been accepted as conventional wisdom. A cynic, on the contrary, may quip that the governors are indeed prisoners in a gilded cage: some of the governors who were compelled by the force of crowd hostility to murmur incoherent pseudo-intellectual ambiguities at the witness stand quietly submitted memoranda which are unequivocally pro-third term. The second is the greed and cowardice of the elite groups. Submissions of most of the pro-third term groups were inspired by greed and fear. Their new battle song: if you can’t beat them, join them. The third is the inchoate un-mobilised state of the Nigerian people. If the third term proposal failed in many states, it was not because of the level of mass awareness but mainly because of the stubborn strength of local and primordial resentments.

Dangers Ahead

The dangers ahead are real, potent and imminent. The first comes from the determination of the spin-doctors to force their plan on the nation. Before the public hearing, this agenda was a rogue proposal. It tried without success to smuggle itself through the backdoor into the national agenda. The public hearing offered it visa. Now, it has made a valid entry into the national agenda. The spin-doctors, midwives to deformities, will be encouraged to take their fraud to a higher level of refinement. Their game plan is still unfolding. The second is the treachery of written memoranda. Whenever government hearing ran into collision with people’s anger during the public hearing, it sought an escape route in ambiguity. In at least half dozen instances, government spokesmen and apologists, frightened by the strength of public opinion, quickly and loudly said into the microphone something different from what they quietly wrote in submitted memoranda. This is dangerous.

As JCCR now enters the ‘technical’ phase of computing the number and weight of proposals, will admissible data include both oral and written positions? How will admissible data compute the transparently dominant preferences of the masses themselves, so evident in their spospontaneous loud ovations for proposals in support of retention of existing constitutional provision on executive tenure? Response to this question will pose the greatest challenge to the intellectual and moral integrity of the megaphones of transparency. It is another ambush laid by the spin-doctors. The battle line is now drawn: third term agenda has entered the affray. The popular forces must continue to watch out. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

Notes of Senator Uche Chukwumerije from the South-West public hearing in Osogbo, Osun State.



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