Abati National Conference

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January 23, 2005

Civil Society and Obasanjo’s Conference
By Reuben Abati

President Olusegun Obasanjo
makes it increasingly difficult for Nigerians to respect his decisions and
intentions. Even when he means well, and ought to be supported, and encouraged,
every gesture of his is received with great skepticism. The root of his dilemma
is his style of doing things. And so it is with the proposed National Political
Reforms Conference, which he is offering Nigerians, in place of the demand for a
Sovereign National Conference. Since his volte- face on this subject, and his
decision to set up the Makarfi committee to manage the conference and the
announcement of the structure and format of the conference, Obasanjo has been
the target of attacks from the civil society.

Understandably, the conference has been tagged “Obasanjo’s
conference”, for it seems obvious that the President is determined to influence
if not dictate the outcome of the discussions. He gives the impression that he
knows what Nigerians should want for themselves. He wants to nominate 50 out of
the 400 delegates to the conference, in addition to supplying the bureaucracy
for the process. And where does Obasanjo derive this power from: nowhere, other
than the fact that he is Nigeria’s ruler. The suspicion, as expressed so far, is
that his 50 nominees would be in a position to intimidate other nominees; they
will act as his spies, reporting on other delegates and generally compromise the
process. Obasanjo’s influence becomes almost total in the proposed conference
when we add the fact that other delegates will be nominated by the state

The PDP, the President’s party, controls 28 states, and
the Federal Capital Territory. The President is at the moment in the process of
establishing complete control over the party. Anyone who stands in his way, he
pulls down, and anyone who thinks that there will be a ceasefire after Ogbeh’s
removal should take a second look at the President’s style. With Obasanjo in
effective control of the PDP, many of the state Governors would only send as
delegates to the Conference, persons who will act out an official script. Thus,
the proposed conference will be an Obasanjo/PDP exercise. The problem is that an
exclusionary conference at an ideational level defeats the expectations and
aspirations of Nigerians. It is further discouraging that the Obasanjo
government is talking about no go areas whereas Nigerians are asking for an
opportunity to deconstruct the nation, ask questions about the basis of the
union, re-do the constitution, and forge a fresh consensus in the light of
historical and contemporary experiences.

The opposition to the Obasanjo conference is deepened by
the fact that nobody knows exactly what the President wants. Nobody has an idea
of the kind of vision of nationhood that he is projecting. If he has any ideas
about the future of the state on the basis of his experience in the last five
years, those ideas have not been properly articulated and communicated to
Nigerians. What looked like great ideas in his initial contract with Nigeria,
spelled out in campaign documents and commissioned studies have since been
overtaken by events as the government moves from one episode to another,
managing sundry crises. What the public is left with therefore is a ready and
formulaic tendency to suspect the President at every turn. This point must be
underlined: that Obasanjo has become the issue, whereas the future of Nigeria
ought to be the issue. This is so because this government is power-based, rather
than ideas-based, and hence every effort generates power tensions and

A typical justification for the distrust that is being
expressed can be found in the example of the Oputa panel on human rights. When
President Obasanjo set up this panel, soon after his assumption of office,
Nigerians were excited. They saw it as a genuine opportunity to put a fence and
a closure around years of military misrule, to address the fears of abused and
aggrieved persons and communities and to ensure expiation if not justice. But
the Obasanjo government has refused to release the report of the panel; it has
refused to justify the huge amounts of money spent on the process; it has failed
to offer a convincing reason for its waste of public time and resources. Civil
society groups have published the report in protest but this lacks the potency
of a government white paper. Similar processes in the past five years have been
carried out merely to impress the public and create impressions of activity in
government. There is no guarantee that the proposed conference will not end up,
to borrow Professor Wole Soyinka’s words, as a “tea party” or at worst as
another job for the boys. But what should civil society do?
This is a critical question in the light of reactions to the aforementioned
issues. For now, I have been able to isolate two tendencies, representing the
protest against Obasanjo’s conference. One position is that a parallel
conference should be organised comprising credible civil society representatives
who will look at all the issues germane to the national question, without any
restrictions whatsoever. The coalition of civil society organisations led by
Chief Anthony Enahoro is working on a conference of 1, 000 delegates as an
alternative to the official effort. Some members of the House of Representatives
are also setting up their own conference. There may well be other parallel
conferences in the making. The second position articulated by a faction of the
Afenifere is that it is best to boycott the Obasanjo conference, something akin
to the late Chief Bola Ige’s “siddon look” posture. I find no merit in these two
positions. Of what use will a parallel conference be? It may come up with the
wisest ideas, but of what use will those ideas be if they are not fed into the
official channel and process?
The anti-Obasanjo coalition wants to produce its own people’s constitution, but
what kind of constitution would that be if it exists outside due process?
Protest is useful but only when it is tied to specific results. By the same
token, boycotting the Obasanjo conference would amount to leaving the field open
to those who may not necessarily defend the people’s interests. Those
considering the boycott option are toying with the view that this will reduce
the legitimacy of the proposed exercise. I don’t think so, because the delegates
would still be Nigerians, and they would speak as Nigerians. One lesson that is
now obvious is that the National Conference can always be hijacked by whoever
sets his mind to doing so. The clamour for a conference did not quite take this
into consideration before now. The challenge before civil society is to make
sure that those who want to hijack the process do not succeed in doing so.

Neither a boycott nor a parallel conference would achieve this objective, which
is why I recommend a strategy of participatory engagement. Civil society must
set for itself the task of moving the conference away from power-contests to the
ideas plane; it must seek to involve itself in the process of nominating
delegates. It must set in the public sphere and on the floor of the conference
an agenda that is beyond the ambitions of the power brokers. It must constitute
itself into a powerful ideas lobby group, articulate and determined, loud and
pro-active, such that the conference delegates would have no option but to
become mouthpieces for the preferences of the constituencies that they
represent. When this momentum is activated, inside Obasanjo’s own structure, the
process would have been taken beyond and away from him. But to limit the
involvement of civil society to complaints about Obasanjo and his motives, and
then turn this into a big event, robs civil society of the energy to establish
the power of ideas.

I am aware that various groups in civil society are
already meeting and preparing draft documents for the conference. This must
become tools for active lobbying. Those to be lobbied are the Governors and
their delegates. The ideas that must be presented at the conference must be made
available to them. Delegates in each region must be brought into the broad
canvas of the politics of the people. This must be done so vigorously that even
if a goat is sent by a Governor, that goat knows that on behalf of the people
that he is supposed to be representing, he can only defend, push and insist on
certain positions. If that goat then speaks out of line, civil society groups,
acting as monitors of that conference can promptly demonise that goat. The same
pressure can be mounted on Obasanjo’s 50 delegates. Beyond this, the coalition
of civil society forces can even influence the choice of delegates at the state
levels by lobbying the Governors and helping them to understand the issues at
stake. It is not impossible that some Governors may see nominations to the
national conference as just another board appointment. And in every state, there
is no short supply of useless people. The duty of civil society is to keep out
that bench-warming, rent-seeking set out of the conference.

The task of the civil society is easy because Nigerians
know what they want. The issues to be discussed at the National Conference are
already in the public domain. The various ethnic nationalities and other
stakeholders are not just about to define their positions in the Nigerian
federation. Those positions have existed long before now, but they have been
disallowed due to the limitations of the Nigerian state. The work of civil
society in the proposed conference is to make sure that those positions,
representing the voice of the people are given full expression.

The work of civil society is to make sure that the
Conference does not become a replica of the National Assembly where
representatives are more interested in allowances rather than the welfare and
happiness of the people. President Obasanjo may well discover that he has set in
motion, the beginnings of the change that Nigerians seek. But that change must
be based on values and the common good; on no account must the conference become
a platform for ethnic acrimony. Civil society can play a mediating role to
ensure that this does not happen. And for it to do this successfully, it should
constitute itself into a formidable network on the people’s behalf, not into
disparate cells, and also sensitise the people to become true owners of the
process of debating their future and affairs.

However, the problem with Nigeria goes beyond a National
Conference. The thinking that after a National conference all our problems will
be solved misses the point. The way some people agonise over the fact that the
Federal Government has refused to use the word “sovereign” conveys the
impression that the conference is meant to be a deus ex machina. There is no
country where it has served such a purpose. The conference, like an election,
cannot be the end of problems but the beginning of new challenges.

This is why a lot will depend on a country’s value system
and social culture. Culture is at the heart of it all, and by this I am
referring to a cocktail of issues including the culture of leadership, business,
social relations, politics, and even the attitude of the people in relation to
themselves and the state. As a country, Nigeria still has a long road to travel;
civil society must not abandon the journey at any point, or keep its eyes of the
target, just because the man in power is unfriendly. The goal at the end of the
journey, for him and for the rest of us, should be a better Nigeria.

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