Bobby Traps Of The Confab

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Bobby Traps Of The Confab

 

By

 

Kunle Sanyaolu

 

 

culled from GUARDIAN, February 13, 2005

 

Easily, it was a rigorous exercise for the Federal Attorney General and justice minister, Chief Akin Olujinmi to defend the National Political Reforms Conference being organised by the Federal government. The more Olujinmi sought to justify government actions so far on the conference, the more he exposed the fact that so many things are wrong with the idea as conceived by President Obasanjo. To my mind, the problems of the conference are not matters that should be explained away simplicita. That will amount to undermining its essence and building a shaky foundation. Yet, if the foundation is not right, the whole conference will be wrong no matter how much government embellishes it.

Going by the recent history of this country, I do not agree that we should dismiss with a wave of the hand, those who are calling for a legal backing for the conference. Sure, it is a project desired by all Nigerians, President Obasanjo himself being the last person to concede its necessity. Unfortunately, the government started on a wrong footing by constituting a pro-establishment committee headed by Governor Makarfi of Kaduna State, to formulate principles of the dialogue, as it was then called. That measure looked like an attempt to sideline, pre-empt or undermine pro-conference parties.

Ideally, these people should have been part of the foundation group of the conference. If that had been done, some of the hitches staring the conference in the face would not have surfaced. Government of course is quite entitled to decide whom it wants to work with. But it would be kidding itself if it pretends as if the national dialogue was its original dream, meant to be nurtured to fruition by government. No. The simple fact is that the national dialogue was foisted on government apparently when it got tired of attempting to debunk superior logic. Those who have been canvassing for a national conference based their position strictly on recurring events in the country. The events range from problems emanating from perceived marginalisation by ethnic groups, problems of religious conflict and how to secure harmony, issues of ethnic nationalities, complaints of minorities, matters relating to the Niger Delta, resource control, power devolution, rotation, and security of lives and property just to mention a few. Each time a problem crop up in any of these areas, a divergent of views and opinions usually accompany it. At the end, there is no solution, but the issue is patched up and packed for explosion at the next available opportunity. It therefore sounds reasonable that Nigerians should sit down and try, once and for all, to resolve these conflicts.

Talking about recent national experiences, the Sani Abacha Constitutional Conference, which has quite a few inputs in the 1999 constitution we are using, has legal backing. From the word 'go', everyone who participated had a clear view of what he was expected to discuss and what the possible outcome of the discussions would be. Granted that the late Abacha had his own agenda and was probably playing for time and opportunity, he at least never gave anyone a chance to seek a judicial bar to the conference or its final presentation. Largely, that national conference died with Abacha because the delegates were thought to be Abacha's cohorts and the deliberations were not basically designed to be in the national interest. The few 'progressives' who attended the conference with the hope of making an issue of what they considered real national questions never had a chance to talk. Some of them were reported to have walked out of the proceedings in anger. Many of them eventually kept quite and became contended with the free money and paraphernalia of office they were given.

Olujinmi believed that comparison of government's conference with the Oputa panel was erroneous. This was a panel that sat for close to three years and toured every corner of the country, only for someone to go to court and obtained a declaration that the panel had no legal basis. At the end, government decided in its wisdom that it could no longer follow up the recommendations made by that panel. The question now is, if it happened to Oputa panel, why can't it happen to the National Political Reforms Conference? There is nothing on ground to suggest that the proclivity of Nigerians for litigation, even abuse of court process, has waned in any way. One can say therefore that a major problem of Obasanjo's conference is that it is combining the lack of acceptable representation of the Abacha conference with the absence of legal basis of the Oputa panel. The result is anybody's guess, but more likely a combination of the fates that befell Abacha conference and the Oputa panel report. So far, the Federal and State governments are not helping matters in the calibre of people they are nominating for the conference. Brilliant guys, yes. But mostly establishment people, and without the energy they possessed 20 or 30 years back. Many believe those people cannot stand the rigour of a national conference scheduled to really discuss Nigeria's problems. The chances are high therefore that having been handpicked by government, they will take briefings from government and defend official rather than national interest. Like in the Abacha conference, the pro-government delegates will form the majority of Obasanjo conference. They are therefore in a position to do deals and reach compromises that may render the country back to square one long after the conference.

It is true, as Olujinmi observed, that the Constitution allows PRONACO and other parallel groups to discuss freely their views on national issues. However, what point is going to be made by such parallel conference other than to lower the esteem and acceptability of government conference? Despite Olujinmi's optimism that no conflict will thereby be engendered, government cannot feel comfortable with the possibilities. Olujinmi ought to admit that the bottleneck of PRONACO (Pro National Conference) could also have been avoided had government genuinely sought to carry along the original proponents of national conference. Obasanjo's style of seeking to stamp authority on the national conference by administrative fiat is not going to be helpful. Neither will Olujinmi's caveat that government will not disturb PRONACO as long as its discussion does not threaten national stability. Such a description is rather nebulous, and open to many interpretations that may indeed bring to the fore the inherent conflict between the two conferences.

Opposition to government's political reform conference is real. A good chunk of the opposition is even coming from an arm of government, that is the National Assembly that has so far refused to approve the N931million appropriation being sought by the President for the conference. If that is the least of Obasanjo's problems, what about the legal hurdle being placed along the conference's path by 57 or so members of House of Representatives, on the ground that the conference is illegal and unconstitutional? Yet, these are the people Olujinmi hoped to present the conference report to, with a view to formulating a new constitution. To me, the differences appear to be irreconcilable, except of course some people are simply playing politics of self-enrichment through blackmail.

Isn't it sad that for years, the whole nation clamoured for national conference? Yes, with difference perception, but a conference all the same. And for years, President Obasanjo opposed it. And then, he capitulated and decided to support it, only for the foundation to be so haphazardly assembled as to promote the prevailing confusion. I believe however that it is not late for government to rearrange its thoughts and possibly go back to the drawing board. It is not impossible to reach a consensus on whether or not the conference will be sovereign. That to me, is the most major conflict between government and PRONACO. It is also not impossible to fuse PRONACO'S conference with that of government. But the President will need a large heart to accept that he has a crucial, leading role to douse the current tension. If he doesn't play his part, he will have a large portion of the blame for failure of the national conference. And he will not have an opportunity to organise another conference.

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