THISDAY, January 15, 2005
Going through the
various National Conferences (SNC) in the Franco-phone countries that
successfully declared themselves “Sovereign”, in the early 1990’s, one comes to
the conclusion that the Nigerian politicians who are agitating for a Sovereign
National Conference are actually planning for a non-violent and a non-military
change of government in Nigeria that could take one of two forms.
One is that they are clamoring for a “civilian coup”. This was evident from
the plan of the leaders of the National Conference that assembled in the
Republic of Benin. They made it known that their intention was to achieve a
“civilian coup”. But they were cautious about it; they made sure that they did
not speak about it to the hearing of the President and his aides. But the
Nigerian advocates of the Sovereign National Conference have never been shy
about their intention unlike the advocates in the Republic of Benin. The
Nigerian advocates have been vociferous in the media and in the various
locations in Nigeria.
To the Nigerian advocates of SNC, the Sovereign National Conference has become
the “one thousand-diseases cure” for political ailments or for the resolutions
of all crises in policy implementation. To them inter-ethnic and
inter-religious conflicts should be solved through an SNC; an economic crisis
should be solved through the SNC!
The advocates of SNC are never afraid speaking about their political plan in the
presence of the current holders of offices. To them, the current political
order is illegitimate; to them the current government at the center should be
thrown out as if it is a military regime. They are saying so in so many words.
They should tell the Nigerian people that what they failed to achieve through
the democratic process they want to achieve it by the fiat of a National
Conference, an unconstitutional change of government.
The second interpretation of the advocacy for a Sovereign National Conference
has to do with the implication for the current tenure of the political order.
If the protagonists of a Sovereign National Conference were to have their way
and the President by an act of omission, commission or indiscretion allows a
Sovereign National Conference to happen, the end result ought to be obvious to
him and the political order. That would amount to an “abdication” of President
Obasanjo as President, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal
Republic of Nigeria.
Abdication is not provided for in the Constitution. This will be an addition
to the three ways under which a vacancy could be declared in the office of the
President. One would recall that a vacancy could occur if the President dies
in office, if he resigns or if he is impeached. Agreeing to a Sovereign
National Conference while still in office is an abdication not provided for in
the Constitution. The President should not be forced to this by fiat of an SNC.
This is not all.
If the President agrees to a Sovereign National Conference while still in
office, that would be a unilateral act that could have effect on the polity in
other ways. One his abdication would be seen as binding on the second elective
body at the national level (the National Assembly); two, it would be seen as
binding on other elective bodies at other levels in the Federation that have
different basis of representation.
In Nigeria the Presidential System that out of ignorance is interpreted as ‘the
government by the President alone’, a unilateral abdication by the President
would mean that the act of the President would amount to an end to the current
National Assembly, the State Governors, the State Houses of Assembly, the
Chairmen of Local Government Areas and Local Government Councils throughout the
These two implications that could arise if the President agrees to a Sovereign
National Conference would be contrary to the 1999 Constitution.
There is a third unanticipated consequence if the President should abdicate.
An abdication of the President would also amount to the dissolution of the
political parties and other bodies at all levels in the country. This will be
The foregoing are obvious issues, which I want to bring to the attention of the
President in particular and the political class in general that the nation
swoops in danger if care is not taken to avoid the evil plan of the advocates of
a Sovereign National Conference. There are some other obvious issues.
President Obasanjo used the term committee twice. The Committee that produced
the guideline would later hand over to another Committee for a later exercise.
The media so far ignored the two and called the latter a Conference. It would
appear that the country and commentators so far are looking forward to a
‘National Conference’ and not to a ‘National Committee’. There is a
difference. The President is insistent on a National Dialogue that would be
carried out in a Committee.
One generally calls a small body a Committee that generally engages in a
dialogue as distinct from a large body called a Conference that engages in
fierce debate. A Conference could set up many committees to dialogue on
various issues that may not be resolved in a Conference.
How large can a Committee be in the estimation of Mr. President? Will such a
Committee convert to a Conference at any stage and when? How will decision be
reached in a Committee that is different from a Conference? Can a Committee
My view is that a Committee may not be a respectable body for the purpose of a
National Dialogue. Since the term Conference never featured in the charge of
the President, one is of the opinion that the President has in mind something
less than a Conference.
Here one would say that Mr. President is carefully trying to avoid the
likelihood of a Conference that would be used to bring about a ‘civilian coup’
that people like Chief Tony Enahoro, Alhaji Balarabe Musa, Dr. Beko Ransome Kuti,
Dim Emeka Ojukwu and others desperately want after failing to achieve their
purpose through the democratic process.
CONSTITUTES THE COMMITTEE?
One may ask if the country is looking forward to such a ‘broadly composed
national body’ to be appointed by the President? Or would the country be
looking forward to just a ‘representative national body’ elected by the people
or chosen by the people? The news media that were speculating that part of the
President’s New Year Message would consist of a list of the members of the new
Committee must have been disappointed, as the speech did not give a list or a
clue as to how the body would be constituted.
The President tried to address this issue by adding another element of confusion
when he said as follows:
That the proposed National Committee will reflect the various social forces and
interests community interests and political tendencies within the nation.
This is from the
Are these ethnic nationalities, zones, political parties, states, and religious
bodies? Some of the advocates of a Sovereign National Conference want ethnic
representation and others talk of zonal representation. Both as bases of
representation are not provided for in the Constitution. The two bases of
representation provided in the Constitution are individuals and states through
the political parties. How the President goes about this will determine the
end sought by the President.
In the Republic of Benin, the term ethnic or terms that evoked the past
divisions in the Benin society were avoided and instead, the term “political
tendencies” was used. The 484 delegates attending the conference represented 52
What would be the bases of representation at the Committee and who determines
them and their representatives?
WILD GOOSE CHASE!
The notion of “wild
goose chase” when it comes to a body that is meant to discuss political issues
is misplaced. The attempt to prevent it gives the impression that government
or the President can. He or the government cannot, even if it tries to do so.
The nature of an assembly of Nigerians consisting of many politicians itching
for limelight and boiling with many unresolved issues since 1993 especially
since 1999 makes the outcome unpredictable. The President would be saddled with
many ‘fishing expeditions’. Let me resort to memory lane.
One would recall that
President Babangida set up the Constituent Assembly in 1988 with a charge that
there were some issues that should be considered settled that only required some
improvements here and there and not wholesale change. President Babangida was
accused of imposing some “No Go Areas” for the Assemblymen and Women even though
the term ‘no go area” was never used by President Babangida in his address of
caution to the Assembly. What were these issues?
I can recall some of them as the Presidential System, Federalism, and
Non-adoption of any religion as a State Religion, Human Rights etc., to which
could be added, by you and past leaders including General Gowon and OBJ dub
One would recall that
one of the byproducts of the June 12 was the craze for a Sovereign National
Conference. One would recall that the plan of the defenders of the June 12
rightly or wrongly was to embark on a Sovereign National Conference with a view
to renegotiating Nigeria. The leaders of the Afenifere and the NADECO in
Diaspora had perfected their plan for renegotiating the Nigerian project if and
when the Sovereign National Conference were agreed post 1993. In 1998 they
could not have their way as a result of the divine intervention that eventually
provided for the emergence of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo.
It should therefore be noted that when politicians especially in the southwest
talk about ‘fundamental restructuring’ and ‘true federalism’, these were
euphemisms for something less than what other Nigerians who believe in Nigerian
as an indivisible entity believe in as “national unity”.
It should be further
noted that when the people of the southwest canvass for a Sovereign National
Conference, they have in mind the right of any ethnic nationality to secede from
the Union. They could not understand why their son was not allowed to be
President in 1993 and they still see the current fact that their son is
occupying that seat as an aberration because he is not occupying that office in
There are documents on the need for ethnic self-determination from the various
meetings of some ethnic nationalities canvassing for the right to
self-determination in the Nigerian Constitution. Cases of this abound in the
daily papers. Some of the leaders of the Niger-Delta are thinking in this
direction that true Federalism means the right of any ethnic sections to secede
if the resource control is not adequately handled.
My fear is that these
issues will surface under one guise or the other. The leaders who are demanding
that Sovereignty should be conferred on the National Conference are actually
saying that they would want to commence the process of dismantling the union as
inherited by the Nigerian political class from the colonial ruler in 1960.
How does Mr. President hope to deal with the manifestations of this? Would a
strongly worded statement on the unity of Nigeria as a No Go Area help? It
will not help. They would try all gimmicks that would bring that right to
self-determination to the fore. This is why the President’s fear of a wild
goose chase is real and unavoidable.
EXAMPLES OF WILD GOOSE CHASE
Let me bring to the readers’ notice two events from the nation’s history where
the body set up took certain actions that were unanticipated by the regime.
One was in 1977/78.
President Obasanjo would recall that he led the country through the 1977/78
Constituent Assembly. As a member of that body I can recall vividly what
happened that was detailed in my book, Beyond the Tripod in Nigerian Politics.
One would recall that some of us in the Constituent Assembly set the agenda in
the absence of a tightly scripted program from the then military junta. This was
why and how some of us undertook many issues that led the Supreme Military
Council to delete many provisions from the final draft Constitution. This was a
painful thing to do. But today the country would be in uproar if the work of
the National Dialogue or Conference or a Committee is reversed.
The second was in 1994/95. One would recall that under the most tightly scripted
National Constitutional Conference under General Sani Abacha, the Conference was
still able to take a decision that the Military should pack out after a given
date. This was one of the crimes of the late General Shehu Musa Yardua of
ORIGIN OF SNC
With these two events in mind, one would recall the way the idea of Sovereignty
came about in the lexicon of the use of the National Conference in resolving
political issue in empirical cases.
I was a consultant to a US group that produced a teaching material in video on
democratization in six African countries. I still have access to the
transcript on the Republic of Benin, which is dubbed the ‘prototype’ of what a
National Conference that declared themselves “Sovereign” should be.
One would like to
remind the Nigerian political class especially those who still believe in the
Nigerian federation that what happened in Benin and in other French Africa
states are good examples of the “wild goose chase”. Why wouldn’t the Nigerian
political class wait like the other African cases that seized sovereignty after
the convocation of the National Conference?
What seems obvious is that the Nigerian advocates of a Sovereign National
Conference do not have confidence in themselves and they do not trust their
ability to do what others in Benin, Congo, Niger, Zaire and Chad did by
declaring themselves “sovereign” after convocation.
The plan therefore of
the Nigerian protagonists of the Sovereign National Conference is to extract the
term “sovereignty” from the President before they meet. They in effect want the
President to abdicate before they commence the deliberations in the National
Conference. This poses certain critical questions for the political class:
• Why should they unlike the cases of Benin and others that declared themselves
“Sovereign” after the commencement of the Conference want President Obasanjo to
grant them with Sovereignty before they commence their session?
• Are they aware of the implication for the political order if President should
do so before the commencement of the National Conference or Dialogue as the case
• Do they know that if they succeed in extracting “sovereignty” from the
President, they would by implication be bringing about a “civilian coup” or
bringing about a change of government through a non-violent and a non-military
method not provided for in the Constitution?
• Do they know that if President Obasanjo grants the National Conference
sovereignty before the commencement of the Conference, he would by implication
be abdicating his reign of power?
• Do they know that by this act the President’s abdication would be tantamount
to an abrupt change of the existing political order that would extend to the
National Assembly and other levels of government?
One would urge the
advocates of the Sovereign National Conference to level with the Nigerian people
and tell them the truth as to what they have in mind. May I use this medium to
counsel the Nigerian political class that it is how the term “sovereignty” came
about that is crucial to the current debate? They should follow the
development in Benin and others. This was how and why it was called a
“civilian coup” that General Shehu Musa Yar Adua was said to have toyed with in
One hopes President Obasanjo is aware of the possibility of a “civilian coup”.
There are people who could experiment with that. One hopes the President is
aware that there are many anti-government elements itching to use one reason or
the other to raise question about the legitimacy of this political order.
For the attention of readers, the definition of “Sovereignty” is contained in
the discussion between President Mathieu Kerekou and Professor Robert Dossou,
the Chairman of the Planning Committee and the Dean of Law of the University of
Cotonou. According to Dossou,
When the debate began, Kerekou called me and asked, “What does it mean,
According to Dousou, I told him whatever the conference decides, no one can
overrule this decision. This is from the transcript of the video on Republic of
Benin. Underline is mine for emphasis.
This type of question will arise, as some protagonists of the Sovereign National
Conference would want to face President Obasanjo and the country with a threat
of violence if the President Obasanjo should change any of their decision. How
would the President prevent this?
I support the idea of a National Dialogue if and only if it would address some
thorny issues arising from the crisis of governance. I can identify three such
as the mode of organizing elections, the mode of articulating and aggregation of
interests through the political parties and the inter-governmental relations.
The conditions that led to National Conferences in Benin and in other
Franco-phone states in Africa did not exist in Nigeria today, hence the option
of a National Conference did not arise.
REJECTED THE IDEA IN 1989
In conclusion one would like to review the genesis of the idea of a National
Conference in the Republic of Benin in 1989 and why President Ibrahim Badamasi
Babangida rejected the idea in 1989.
One would recall that
IBB decided in the past that Nigeria should not embark on the National
Conference as a means of bringing about democracy to Nigeria. He used the
Republic of Benin to illustrate that the two developments that provided the
environment for the easy introduction of the National Conference, as a model of
political change did not exist in Nigeria. He alluded to the internal and the
external environment that were not present in Nigeria in the early 1990’s.
On the internal development, the Republic of Benin was aptly described as
follows: Almost the entire nation was on strike. All normal activity ceased, as
demonstrations became daily events. Then Benin protesters took strength from
This is from the transcript of the video on Benin Republic. Underline is mine
Despite all the political problems afflicting this country since 1993, nothing
in Nigeria in 1989 and especially since 1999 up till today could approximate
what Benin went through in the late 1980s and in the early 1990s to warrant the
hue and cry over Sovereign National Conference in Nigeria. What one could
surmise is that those who are advocating it such as Chief Tony Enahoro , Alhaji
Balarabe Musa and others who are talking of ‘fundamental restructuring’ of
Nigeria are itching for “a civilian coup”. They want to achieve what they
could not achieve through the process of election despite the fact they were
given money to found political parties and compete in 2003.
On the external event, one could recall the fall of the Berlin Wall and the
uprising in Europe that eventually led to the collapse of the Communist states
and unplanned democratic transition in Eastern Europe. Professor Doussou aptly
described the phenomenon as follows: On the 9th of November 1989, when the
Berlin Wall fell, I was in Brussels. Alone in my hotel room I drank a bottle
of Champagne. So when I returned home, I dropped my suitcase and ran to see
Kerekou. I told him President; you have seen that the Berlin Wall has
fallen. Why are you hesitating about my proposal? Unless we act quickly,
there will be a civil war. And he said, ‘Drop it! Drop it! I am thinking about
a National Conference.
This is from the transcript of the video on Benin Republic. Underline is mine
Nothing like the fall of Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Communist states in
Eastern Europe could be repeated in the world today to warrant an enabling
environment for the convocation of a Sovereign National Conference in Nigeria.
The international environment of Nigeria politics is not conducive to the kind
of environment that warranted the convocation of the National Conference that
converted itself into a Sovereign National Conference in Benin and elsewhere in
Africa in the early 1990s. The President of Nigeria is well respected
internationally compared with the run of the mill political class in Nigeria.
He is an acknowledged peacemaker to different parts of Africa. No one in the
developed democracies would conceive of a situation in the world that warranted
the call of a National Conference in the Francophone countries in Africa.
The foregoing analysis is meant for the President in particular and for the
political class in general. From my study of empirical cases where political
changes had been brought about through non-violent and non-military methods, it
should be obvious that the pro-democracy forces in Nigeria since 1993 do not
possess the characteristics of a virile civil society that successfully led to
political changes in the US, the Philippines, the Republic of Benin and Republic
of Georgia. I am referring to the ‘Southern Christian Leadership Conference’
in the US led by Dr. Martin Luther King; 2. the ‘ peoples power’, organized by
the people of the Philippines; 3. the ‘National Conference’ organized by the
Students, Professors in Benin; and 4. the ‘Rose Revolution’ in the Republic of
One could add the
fifth, the ‘Orange Revolution’ from the recent political change in Ukraine.
In all these cases the leaders were clear as to what they were looking for.
The Nigerian advocates of the SNC are yet to level with the Nigerian people as
to what type of ‘revolution’ they are gunning for. Can men and women in
their 70s bring about a revolution? I’ll leave this to future essay. In my
view an advocacy of a Sovereign National Conference by old people in search of
relevance should not be allowed in Nigeria today. If they are allowed to have
their way, the end is one of two things:
A Civilian Coup through a non-violent and non-military method for the changing
of a government of today outside the Constitution; and 2. An abdication of
reign by the elected government headed by President Obasanjo that would extend
to the other elective bodies at the national and other levels of government
outside the Constitution.
Both of them are unconstitutional method; they are not necessarily illegitimate
means of changing government. But they cannot take place in Nigeria today as
Nigeria lacks a virile civil society. A word is enough for the wise! A
stitch in time saves other stitches! This essay is to sound some warning.
• Omoruyi, former Director-General of the defunct Centre for Democratic
Studies, contributed this piece from Abuja.