What Manner of Dialogue?


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What Manner of Dialogue?



culled from THIS DAY, January 16, 2005


At last, the Federal Government appears to have succumbed to pressures on the need to have Nigerians debate their collective future together. Indeed, agitations for a national conference have stuck like a sore thumb despite the long held aversion of the presidency to the idea.
But now that the government has demonstrated a relunctant compliance, its idea of the issue is turning out to be at variance with the expectations of many Nigerians. For now, two broad schools of thought on how the conference should be organized are identifiable: the one holding on to the catch word of 'sovereign' and insisting on a very minimal role for the government of the day, and the other already proceeding with an arrangement that seeks to exclude adherents of the 'sovereign' school as much as possible.
In this report, Tunde Rahman, Lanre Issa-Onilu and Oke Epia, examine both sides of the spectrum and highlight the issues of fundamental values particular to each of the two divides.


Background to A Dialogue

Throughout his first term in office, President Olusegun Obasanjo avoided the issue of convocation of a national conference like a plague. Every suggestion of the matter was easily interpreted as an attempted threat against the corporate unity of Nigeria and was shoved aside quickly.

Not even when ethnic and religious conflicts reigned freely from Sagamu to Kaduna to Aba and the rest in the early years of that tenure, was the presidency swayed in its decision not to consider the issue. Incessant cries about the political imbalances in the federation which manifested in cries for resource control, rise of ethnic militias, and more recently, the reinforcement of the settler/indigeneship dichotomy could make the Federal Government have a rethink. Just like the obvious volte face from anti-confab quarters especially from the North proved insufficient as reason to allow for the all important discussion among Nigerians on how they want to live together assuming that is the consensus.

However, what appeared to be a response to the unending agitations was a mandate laid on the National Assembly since the last dispensation to address the grey areas of the 1999 constitution. It became a convenient argument for those opposed to the idea of a sovereign national conference to say that since the legislature as the law-making organ of government was constituted by elected representatives of the people, it could as well appropriate such representative powers to work out an acceptable constitution for Nigerians. Accordingly, a joint committee of the National Assembly was put in place since the last assembly to perform a constitution review exercise. Indeed, there is yet such existing committee headed by Senator Ibrahim Mantu, Deputy Senate President of the Senate which is purportedly still carrying out its assignment.

But this arrangement sooner than later became dogged with allegations of pursuit of a hidden agenda that would usher in continuity of office for the President and other elected officers across various tiers of government. Incidentally, the recommendation at a time, of five-year term of office for the President and State Governors, gave credence to this thinking. Willy-nilly, the constitution review exercise was interpreted to mean a plot to prepare the grounds for a third term in office for Obasanjo and the governors of the 36 states.

And once this speculations gained currency among the populace, heavy doubts and suspicions began to trail whatever moves or intentions, however genuine they may be, of the National Assembly committees on the review of the constitution.
Connected in this regard, was a surreptitious committee of persons perceived to be Obasanjo's loyalists who were purportedly working on reforms for the political system. Yet again, speculations soon began to spread that the committee headed by Alhaji Mohammed Waziri and which was meeting every Wednesday at a location in Abuja, was allegedly out to thrust a third term agenda for the President on Nigerians. And once this became a matter of open suspicion amongst the populace, that was the end of that effort, at least on the surface.

It is perhaps out of the ashes of these half-hearted and unclear gestures to address the issue of a national dialogue that the President seems to have had a change of heart. At least this is the closest in the direction of accummulated agitations for confab whether or not it is at variance with popular expectations.
Last December in Aso Rock, the President inaugurated an eight-man committee on Political Reforms Agenda. Headed by Governor Ahmed Makarfi of Kaduna State, the committee was charged basically with the responsibility of preparing ground for what the Obasanjo termed a "national dialogue." Its brief chiefly was to produce a background paper that would guide the proposed national committee so as to avoid on a "wild goose chase" as well as fashioning out guidelines to determine participants at the ënational dialogue.

Membership of the committee include Governor Segun Agagu of Ondo State, Senator Udoma Udo Udoma, Prof. Jerry Gana, Prof. Aliu Yahaya, Chief Cornelius Adebayo, Prof. Okwudiba Nnoli and Prof. Joy Ogwu.
Said the President at the inauguration: "The committee is expected to produce a background paper that will form the basis for dialogue by a broadly composed national body seen to be constituted to produce a sound political reform agenda for Nigeria. "To ensure public ownership of the envisaged reform process, the proposed national committee will reflect the various social forces and interests, community interests and political tendencies within the nation."

Realising the need for the country to take a second look at its political framework and practices for it to move forward, Obasanjo said the committee's work will include determining what reforms are necessary and expected to complement government's reform programme being prosecuted under the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS).
The proposed reforms, according to him, must achieve the following objectives: Deepen, widen and strengthen the structures, institutions, principles and processes of democratic good governance; produce, through a review of the 1999 constitution, a sound, relevant, coherent, consistent and well-articulated constitution that would strengthen national unity and stability, promote democracy, facilitate good governance and ensure human rights within the rule of law with citizenís obligations;  how best to enforce party discipline and supremacy, while giving ordinary party members legitimate avenues for seeking opportunities and seeking redress; the process of constitutional reforms, taking into consideration the ongoing exercise at the executive and legislative levels; how to thoroughly refine the electoral system so as to ensure credible elections, with substantial reduction of cost of elections to both the government and individual contestants; how to strengthen neutrality and independence of electoral commission; how to effect judicial reforms in order to promote quick dispensation of justice, with fairness, equity, and integrity.and refine the electoral system for the purpose of ensuring the conduct of free, fair, and credible elections that are cost-effective and ensure level-playing ground for all political competitors.

Others include to build highly principled, sharply focused, well-organized, effectively-managed, value-oriented and disciplined political patrons to sustain democracy; provide a harmonious-system of checks and balances based on the separation of powers, with transparency, integrity and accountability; how to effect vital reforms of the structure of governance and relationships between the various organs and tiers of government, so as to produce rapid development and service delivery with efficiency, effectiveness and transparency; how to effectively deal with the hydra-headed issue of corruption at all levels and in all shapes and forms nationally; how to reorientate Nigeria from politics of patronage and materialism to politics of service; how to ensure that politically elected officials and political appointees are held accountable for corruption and criminal offences while still in office; how to inculcate enduring values and virtues in the Nigerian society; how to ensure internal party democracy so as to produce high quality candidates for elective offices and party leadership;and any other important issues that would contribute immensely to good governance, human rights and social justice, and sustenance of unity, stability, security, democracy and development at all levels of governance.

Shortly before the Christmas celebrations, the committee submitted its report wherein it proposed seven items on the agenda for a National Dialogue. According to Makarfi, the key issues identified include: constitutional, political parties, electoral, judicial and civil society reforms as well as reform of the structures of government and consensus building.
The committee which noted that reforms could only be successful if power was decentralised within the society recommended that the devolution of power should be done in such a way that political activities are not monopolised by few individuals and cliques since "ownership of political institutions such as parties must be corporate not private."
The Kaduna governor told newsmen that state power should be appropriated along functional lines to ensure balance of power among the three arms of government, adding that the committee also recomended the restructuring of power along special lines at the national, zonal and local levels.

He also said a liberalised political system that would minimise "the enormous weight of state power" was advocated and stated citizens would be given the opportunity to participate in public decision making process. And as if there was some sort of hurry about the whole exercise, the National Council of State (NCS) last week, approved the convocation of the proposed national conference along the line of the Presidency's national dialogue, even though with unseemly decisions on its composition and duration.

The Council which was meeting for the first this year at the State House resolved that the proposed confab be named National Political Reform. A total of 400 representatives, either to be elected or appointed, are expected to participate in the dialogue with President Obasanjo empowered to choose about 50 of them from the 36 states and Federal Capital Territory (FCT). Each of the six geo-political zones would also be expected to ensure balance in ethnic composition. The meeting, which was chaired by Obasanjo, had in attendance Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, former President Shehu Shagari, former Heads of State, Chief Ernest Shonekan, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar and governors while  Generals Muhammed Buhari and Ibrahim Babangida did not attend the meeting which lasted over four hours.

Briefing newsmen after the meeting, Makarfi said the council approved the terms of reference for the conference as well as its composition and time frame and that the duration of the conference was put at three months but this could be extended, if need be.

He said on the composition: "Six persons will be elected from each state so that, as much as possible the ethnic composition from each state could be covered," adding that various interest groups like religious bodies, civil society, Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) and religious bodies, among others, would be included.
The Governor also noted that participants would be nominated based on political parties, senatorial districts and religious groups with each state nominating its representatives. But in Lagos Thursday, representatives of ethnic nationalities began a crucial meeting expected to agree on modalities for their convocation of a "Peoples National Conference" with elder statesman, Chief Anthony Enahoro proposing 480 delegates for the conference.

And just the next day also in Lagos, proponents of a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) under the aegis of Pro-National Conference Organizations (PRONACO), met and restated their opposition to a Federal Government organized dialogue. The group led by Enahoro and nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, stated that it would mobilize Nigerians enmasse to participate in its own organized SNC.   Said Soyinka: "We are mobilizing all Nigerians so that they can see this conference as their own and rise up and defend it in such a way that, without carrying guns, they will overwhelm whatever disruptive actions the government might wish to take. Everybody is speaking about 2007. The programme of PRONACO will become the basis for that election. It will be a document that those seeking election in 2007 will have to sign before being chosen because we are returning power to the people."

But touching directly on issues expected to be discussed at the conference, Enahoro suggested that the present revenue sharing formula be reviewed to increase derivation fund to 50 per cent as against 13 per cent in the existing formula. The elderstatesman also allayed fears that the conference would not result in the break up of the country.
The conference proposal which was submitted by the Movement for National Reformation (MNR) headed by Enahoro, identified 12 mono nationality groups in Nigeria which it said, should have 20 representatives each totalling 240 delegates while the six multiple nationality groups should elect 40 delegates bringing the number to 240 delegates.
The identified groups are Ibibio, Igbo, Edo, Nupe, Gbagyi, Fulani, Ijaw, Urhobo, Yoruba, Tiv, Hausa and Kanuri. The six multiple nationality groups, however, would be drawn from Cross River and Akwa Ibom states, Rivers and Bayelsa states, Delta State, West Middle Belt, Central Middle Belt and East Middle Belt.

The MNR also suggested that 144 delegates or 30 per cent of the 480 delegates should be women while stating that delegates would consider reducing the current 36 states structure to the old four regions, or the present six geo-political zones or 18 regions as earlier proposed by the MNR.

Other items listed on the agenda include power sharing among all tiers of government and fiscal federalism, while decisions reached at the Conference would form draft constitution that would be ratified by Nigerians in a referendum.
Those present at Thursday's meeting included Senator Ayo Fasanmi, Deputy National Leader of Afenifere, the pan-Yoruba socio-political organisation, Dr. Beko Ransome Kuti of the Citizens Forum, Prof. Jadesola Akande, former Vice-Chancellor of Lagos State University (LASU), Dr. Frederick Fasehun and Mr. Gani Adams founder and leader of Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC) and Chief Sunny Uche Momah, President General Igbo Speaking Community Lagos.
Others are Chief (Mrs.) Remi Adiukwu Bakare, Lagos State Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, the Middle Belt Forum, the Ijaw National Congress, the National Association of Nigerian Students, and the United Action for Democracy (UAD) among other organisations.


 ...Faced with Selection Hurdle

As in the past, when this kind of conference was organised, the process through which members of the National Political Reforms Conference are to be determined is bound to create fresh problems.
The National Council of State had midweek approved that over 400 Nigerians are to participate in the proposed conference.
The president will select about 50 of these members, while each state will pick about six members. The Council of State also approved the recommendation of the Kaduna Governor Ahmed Makarfi committee on political reforms that all elected or appointed persons currently in government, whether at the national , state or local government levels will not be eligible to participate in the conference.

The essence of this on one hand as Makarfi noted is to give other Nigerians the opportunity to point out what is wrong with Nigeria, with the hope that those currently in government might find some useful outcomes to pick from the conference.
The other reason is to ensure that as much as possible, ethnic composition of each state can be accommodated at the conference.

Beside the fact that this arrangement falls far below the expectations of agitators for the national conference, there is the obvious problem that may emanate in the process of selecting members.
For instance, the president is expected to select 50 members, probably from political parties, religious groups, student bodies, professional associations, civil societies, special interest groups like manufacturers association and the disabled. the critical issue here is whether these groups will be asked to send their own nominations or the president will take it upon himself to choose for the groups.

The pitfalls in the president selecting for the groups are too apparent. And it is almost certain that such cannot be acceptable to them. In the first place, several civil societies are already dissociating themselves from what the Federal Government is doing. Given the option of choosing their own representatives themselves, these groups are not likely to respond.
The allocation of six participants to each state is bound to create a different kind of complications. Contrary to Makarfi's position that the six members from each state will allow for as much representation as possible among the various ethnic groups, the obvious pitfalls are many. The role of state governments in the whole exercise is not well spelt out. What is known from the proposed arrangement is that state governments are going to be involved in the selection r election of these members.
This would have defeated the impression the Federal Government is trying to create that government will play little role in the selection of participants to the conference. The fact that the 36 state governments are still going to determine the methods of selecting these six people may make a nonsense of the promise that people that are currently in government will not be part of the conference.

If the state governments will play this kind of role, it is believed, will lead to the selection of government people who are though not holding political office.
Another fear being expressed by people is about the influence the PDP will have on the conference. With the party controlling 28 of the 36 states in the country, it feared that most of those who will ,eventually be selected may be members of the party, but from different ethnic groups. There is the possibility that most of these people may end up represent the position of the PDP or Federal Government or even the state government that nominate them. This it is believed will jeopardise the interests of the ethnic groups they are supposed be representing.

Another implication of the arrangement for the selection of participants is the lack of clear guideline on selection process. The fact that each state is expected to determine its own method will leave room for manipulation of minority ethnic groups within the state. Interestingly, Kaduna State, whose governor chairs the committee that worked on this arrangement presents a good example of this kind of problem. Kaduna State is variously divided into two or three politically depending on which side the pendulum tilts.
For the minorities in the Kaduna South, Kaduna State is divided along Kaduna North and Kaduna South, but the Hausa-Fulani who reside in the northern part of the state often classifies the state along the three senatorial districts. This is one problem Makarfi will have to face in selecting or deciding in the method of selecting the six participants from Kaduna State. The other side to the Kaduna problem is the complexities in the Kaduna South where there are not less than 11 ethnic groups. Each of these groups will prefer to send its own representative to the conference instead of one vocal or influential ethnic group representing them. Now that there will not be an opportunity for all ethnic groups to send representation, it is doubtful if Makarfi will be able to satisfy all the interests in Kaduna State.

This same scenario applies to several other states where there is bound to be difficulty in balancing the interests of the various ethnic groups. The obvious trend may be for some smaller minorities losing out in the selection process. Then the possibility that the conference will produce a nationally acceptable result doesn't look real.
The process of picking the six members from each state may be one big hurdle that may make the smooth composition of the confab a lot difficult. This in itself may further erode the credibility of the conference.
The problem of selection has always been the undoing of similar conferences past governments had established. For instance, in 1988-1989 when the former military president, General Ibrahim Babangida organised a national conference, of the total membership of 563, the Federal Government nominated 113, while 450 were elected via electoral college. But the credibility lied in how fair the elections were across the state.

Similarly, the regime of the late General Sani Abacha in 1995 staged another national conference with a total membership of 380. The Federal Government again nominated 94 members, while 273 were elected by secret balloting. The problem again was in the Federal Government denying the conference the free hand in reaching decisions for the country.
It is in this light that the present effort of president Obasanjo administration is being viewed. And the cumbersome method to be used in picking the about 400 participants for the conference is one sure way of nailing the conference to failure before it takes off.

Why Do We Need to Talk?

It is an idea whose time has since come. Not today but since yesterday. Many discerning minds have continued to say that Nigeria will surely come to that inescapable conclusion some day. They insist that Nigerians sooner than later will have to sit down to discuss their future, to discuss how they intend to be governed. President Olusegun Obasanjo has always been opposed to the idea of a conference of any sort whether sovereign or just national conference. He has always said the elected representatives of the people are there on ground to discuss the problems of Nigeria.

But the agitation for a National Conference to address the perceived imbalance in the Nigeria federal structure has simply refused to go away. Some vocal Nigerians have been talking about the need for the various ethnic nationalities to sit down and negotiate their stake in the Nigeria project since the early 90ís.The call for the convocation of a Sovereign National Conference however became strident after the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election by the General Ibrahim Babangida military junta.
That election was adjudged free and fair and was believed to have been won by the late business mogul, Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola from Abeokuta in Ogun State. Since then, the demand for SNC has been on auto gear. The more the authorities show their disdain for it the more strident the agitation becomes. In fact, the rank of those agitating for SNC has continued to swell. Prominent elite in the North have also joined the fray. The more audacious Nigerians however have been giving vent to the agitation through other means including the perpetration of violence.

This is perhaps why some say the rise in the number of ethnic militia in the country is due to the prevarication of the authorities over the convocation of a National Conference so that Nigerians can discuss their future. Indeed, there have been more ethno-religious conflicts resulting in deaths of hundreds of Nigerians and destruction of valuable properties under the Obasanjo regime than under any other government before it.

Nigerians indeed love to talk about their future. Their leaders have been the ones that have always taken them for a ride. In spite of the debauchery of the Abacha period, Nigerians still embraced the Constitutional Conference foisted on it by that regime. Even though the Abacha military government nominated more members than the elected delegates, debate at that talks held between 1994 and 1995 was sometimes passionate and electrifying. Some of the delegates perhaps felt that that constitutional talk would resolve some of the knotty issues of the Nigeria federalism. But since the agenda of that military junta was completely different, the whole thing ended the way it ended. Just like the other talks, the 1988/89 Constituent Assembly, convened by the Babangida regime that came before it.

Even now, despite the fact that the Political Reform Conference proposed by the Obasanjo regime fell short of the expectations of most Nigerians, preparations towards it in some quarters have been feverish, perhaps if only for the opportunity to let out some steam that it will provide. After all, the elected representatives at the National Assembly in Abuja, as some say, are only busy paying lip service to the need to address the perceived lopsidedness in the federal structure. The proposed conference has also help in reawakening calls for the convocation of an SNC. Only last Thursday, some pro-democracy activists under the aegis of Pro- National Conference elite rejected the Federal Government's Political Reforms Conference and agreed to go ahead with its own planned SNC. The arrowheads of the group included elder statesman, Chief Anthony Enahoro and Dr. Beko Ransome- Kuti.
In a communique which emerged after a two-day session of the group in Lagos, PRONACO said the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) led government had no legitimacy and therefore lacked the moral authority to organize a conference that would make fundamental changes in the country.

What are these areas that require fundamental changes? What are the fundamental issues that the National Conference or what have you should address? In other words, why do Nigerians need to talk?
The demands of those canvassing the convocation of an SNC are legion. But there is one chord holding them all. True federalism.
Nigerians are yearning for true federalism where the country will be restructured in such a way that the various constituent units will have their autonomy; where there will be proper devolution of power to the units. The center as presently constituted has too much power and that is why there is always a titanic battle among the Nigerian ruling elites to occupy it. There is therefore a need to make the centre less attractive and make the other constituent units centers of power.

This was the situation in the First Republic where the three regions of that time had full autonomy. That explains why those clamouring for true federalism have always called for a reversal to the 1963 constitution that was operated in the First Republic with some modifications. The constituent units should have full autonomy in matters relating to the control of their resources, finance, Police and security, etc while the Federal Government should be confined to areas like the defence of the country against external aggression, foreign policy and internal affairs among others.

A member of the planning committee of PRONACO, Mr. Edet Uno put the demands of those clamouring for the convocation of SNC succinctly last week while welcoming delegates to the group's meeting.  According to him, "the journey since Nigeria's formal independence in 1960 has not propelled our country into the level of development to which our founding fathers aspired.
"To achieve the objectives of our founding fathers, our nationalities have to covenant in a constitution, the form of federating units and a federal authority suitable for multi-national democratic states.

"Devolution of power, fiscal federalism and a whole gamut of rights will be fundamental constitutional requirements of the new and stronger association we all dream of," Uno said.

But what is at issue is the basis for representation at the proposed SNC. How will the delegates to such talks be picked? Is it on the basis of the various ethnic nationalities in the country or on the present states structure that is said to be defective? If its on the basis of ethnic nationalities, how many ethnic nationalities does the country have? Who will do the picking of the delegates, who will preside at the conference? Questions, questions, and more questions.



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