Missing from the (National) Conference

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Guardian

March 3, 2005

Missing from the (National) Conference
By Opeyemi Agbaje

AT last some sort of National Conference is
on-going in Abuja! Actually the “conference” started since June 12, 1993. Since
that unfortunate episode, issues like power rotation, zoning, devolution of
powers, revenue allocation formula etc acquired fresh prominence in national
discourse. Since the return to civil rule in 1999, the North has staked its
claim to Sharia, the “South-South” talks about “resource control”, the
Afenifere
and OPC seeks a revived Western Region, the
Ijaws are actively creating their own “nationality” with a “Governor-General”
and the Ohaneze and MASSOB frequently appear to
reminisce about “Biafra”. All in all, it appears more sensible to gather all
these interests in one venue and stimulate a controlled ventilation of these
agenda in the open, rather than each group trying to foist a
fait accompli
on Nigeria.

The National Political Reform Conference (NPRC) is of course not the ideal.
Members were nominated largely by the president and the state governors most of
whom are his colleagues (or rather subordinates) in the PDP. Others were
nominated directly by civil society groups, political parties (again with the
PDP providing the bulk), labour groups etc, yet in spite of these limitations,
the outcome is rather gratifying. Quite frankly, no system of elections under
our present environment could have produced the quality and substance of
delegates now assembled in Abuja.

A conference at which Emeka Anyaoku, Arthur Nwankwo, Afe Babalola, Adamu
Ciroma, Umaru Shinkafi, Adams Oshiomole, Fola Adeola, Kimse Okoko, Professors
Sagay, Idachaba, Alkali, Musa Yakubu, Joe Irukwu and Auwalu Yadudu are delegates
is not to be looked upon with contempt. A gathering where our Awujale, Oba
Adetona and Oba Olagbegi are present along with Ebitu Ukiwe, Obi Achebe of
Onitsha, Gen Jemibewon and Chief Akinjide is a worthy assembly. Clearly this is
one instance in which the outcome is superior to the process adopted. Is the
system finally trying to redeem itself? Or will the promise again be defeated?

Issues have been raised about the absence of legal backing for the NPRC
ironically by the same persons who typically insist on a “Sovereign” National
Conference (SNC). The irony lies in the fact that seeking a legal backing from
the existing National Assembly and the President amounts to a concession that
sovereignty lies in those institutions and therefore the SNC cannot really by
definition be sovereign. Moreover any law to convene the NPRC as a quasi
law-making (or constitution-enacting) body will easily be declared
unconstitutional as been in conflict with the 1999 Constitution which clearly
lays out the process of law-making.

Chief Anthony Enahoro, Prof Wole Soyinka and their allies in PRONACO have
insisted on proceeding with a parallel “Peoples National Conference” (PNC), the
result of which they propose by some mechanism to submit to a referendum of the
Nigerian people. This requires them to in some way “overawe” the Government and
secure national participation in a popular referendum. In other words, the only
way in which you can have a truly sovereign conference is either if the existing
legal order has broken down or by revolution. The presence of Chief Enahoro and
our Nobel Laureate will add to the completeness of the NPRC and it appears to me
that their minds are not yet set on not attending. Will some means be yet found
to secure their attendance?

Apart from securing a very high quality of participation, the Government has
also procured a strong leadership for the gathering in the persons of Justice
Niki Tobi and Reverend Father Mathew Hassan Kukah. Justice Tobi’s work as the
architect of the 1999 Constitution and his experience as a Law Professor and
Supreme Court Judge as well as Father Kukah’s role in the Oputa panel will be
excellent preparation for this assignment. A valid criticism of the Conference
is the poor representation of women and youths reflecting the reality of the
relative political marginalisation of these groups. This confirms also that
power is never voluntarily transferred to a weaker group by the stronger. Women
and youths have to create strong platforms for their own participation in
political affairs and not seek tokens from the political class.

Some voices I would have liked to have at the conference are unfortunately
missing. Col Abubakar Umar should have been at the conference along with Rear
Admiral Ndubuisi Kanu given their close interaction with military politics and
their progressive participation in national affairs. Pat Utomi certainly should
have been there. Ahmadu Abubakar, the Nasarawa lawyer who caused a stir at the
Abacha conference should have been there. Joe Igbokwe should have been there.
Lamido Sanusi will have been an articulate Fulani participant. Olisa Agbakoba
should have been a part of the civil society delegation. Prof Jadesola Akande
and Ayo Obe ought to have been there. Prof Bolaji Aluko would have been a worthy
representative of the Diaspora. And I would have wished Hafsat Abiola was there!

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