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Still on the National Dialogue

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Presidential Advisory Committee on National Dialogue
Presidential Advisory Committee on National Dialogue

By Eze Onyekpere

I had earlier written in support of the national dialogue proposed by President Goodluck Jonathan. Today, the National Advisory Committee on National Dialogue is traversing the nation gathering the opinion of Nigerians on how to proceed with the conference. The President latched on to popular views and sentiments to call for the convocation of a national dialogue. But when he indicated that the deliberations and resolutions of the dialogue will be subject to the approval of the National Assembly, the President seems to have missed the point. The fact that the President did not allow the committee he established to finish its work and submit its recommendations before announcing that its resolutions will need the approval of the National Assembly, to a large extent, took the sail out of his proposal. Beyond this, the timing of the so-called national dialogue with the benefit of hindsight looks suspect.

To the first point, the presidential proposal of submitting the resolutions of the conference to the National Assembly seems to gloss over Section 14 (2) (a) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999. Specifically, the section unequivocally provides that sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria from whom government through the constitution derives all its powers and authority. There is no other section of the 1999 constitution which defines the locus of sovereignty in Nigeria. Thus, it is a wild and untenable claim for the legislature or the leadership of the executive to claim to be sovereign in the Nigerian context. The powers of the National Assembly to make laws are merely powers delegated to them by the people. As such, their functions and powers cannot override the powers of the ultimate sovereigns, the people who are the principals – legislators being mere agents. Common sense and legal parlance dictate that the agent cannot be greater than the principal and the agents powers are subject to the overriding authority of the principal.

The second point is the poser: What would be the difference between the proposed national dialogue and the ongoing constitution amendment if its resolutions will be subject to the whims and caprices of the legislature? Already, the National Assembly through the constitution amendment process has indicated its preferences and what it wants to see as changes in the Nigerian political firmament. Any new ideas put forward to it will likely be thrown overboard. As such, the conference will be a mere waste of time and a debating club that will fritter away public resources. It will only shift attention from current challenges which we need all the energy to focus upon. The presidential idea about the conference makes pedestrian a very serious issue and reduces it to a ridiculous exercise in futility. Many Nigerians for instance may vote for a unicameral legislature; how will the federal legislature react to such a proposal? Pray,  will we be asking the National Assembly members to declare their seats vacant and make themselves redundant? The National Assembly as presently constituted may have the legal authority to make laws but it suffers a huge deficit of legitimacy. The National Assembly is reputed to hold views and have made decisions contrary to the declared wishes of the overwhelming majority of Nigerians. The basic proof of my assertion is the incredible N150bn which it allocates to itself every year despite the cries of the majority.

The third issue is also a poser: Why did the President not allow the 13-man Femi Okurounmu-led advisory committee to finish its work and come up with recommendations before making his own position known. It seems the President never believed in the idea of a national conference and threw it as a bait to take attention away from grave national challenges. But when he saw that we took it seriously, he then quickly moved to douse our expectations. It appears that the President has a blueprint about a conference which he plans to unveil gradually over a period of time. The President should have gone ahead, without wasting time and constituting a committee, to tell Nigerians all his views and how he plans to organise the conference and handle its resolutions. This would have enabled Nigerians to begin the debate on the modalities of his national dialogue rather than running round in a circle when he already knew the answers the committee was set up to provide.

The fourth point is that there seems to be a preponderance of views among Nigerians in support of a national conference. But the modalities of organising it are where the differences come in. However, considering the need to build a consensus over a period of time and engender confidence among the various classes, nationalities and representatives of all social groups in Nigeria, the conference is not an event that can start and be concluded within a year. The conference will likely witness a lot of horse trading, agreements and disagreements, walk-outs, threats and counter-threats until some order and consensus is reached which will accommodate the divergent views and our unity in diversity. To that extent, organising a national conference within a year to federal and state elections may not produce the right results. Elections in Nigeria have been sensitive, sometimes violent, targeting our known fault lines, especially of ethnicity and religion. The country has found it difficult to organise a world class election that is above reproach. Even the improvements recorded in 2011 took a lot of time and resources. To combine the  2015 elections with the national conference which will also require a lot of mobilisation along the known fault lines will be a mixture of fire and gunpowder. It will not work. It will produce disorder, chaos and further drive us apart.

It is therefore my considered view that for a new Nigeria, we need to have an all-inclusive conference whose outcome will not need any legislative approval but will be approved by the sovereigns, being, “We the people”, who the 1999 Constitution falsely asserted as the authority behind it. It is only then that it can be rightfully and truthfully stated in the preamble to the Constitution that we took a decision to provide for a Constitution for the purpose of promoting the good government and welfare of all persons in our country, on the principles of freedom, equality and justice, and for the purpose of consolidating the unity of our people. The second part of my conclusion is that due to time constraints, the present administration cannot organise a national conference that will produce the desired results before the elections in 2015. Time is too short and the logistics necessary for the conference have not even started. The convocation of the national conference should therefore be left to the government that will emerge post 2015 elections and the process should commence within six months after the elections and swearing in of officials.

Finally, since the idea of a national conference is widely accepted, let all political parties and social groups sign up an accord to be part of the process and to actively support same immediately after the elections. The preparations, debates, memoranda, etc, can continue coming in but a concrete action will only start after the 2015 elections.

•Follow me on twitter @censoj

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