On the national conference By Jide Osuntokun

The calling for a national conference by the President in his recent independence broadcast has generated a lot of comments. Some have wondered why the sudden conversion of the President and the president of Senate to the idea of a national conference when for the past three years he has resisted the idea. Critics of the President have suggested that this is a political move on his part to manipulate the politics of Nigeria towards his re-election in 2015. Some even see some sinister move on his part to grant resource control through the conference to the oil-producing South-south where he comes from. On the other hand, some have hailed the action of the President on the grounds that it is never too late to change. After all, Saul who was a persecutor of Christians later became Paul the Apostle. Those who have called for conference for many years to decide and determine the future of Nigeria have also hailed the President for acceding to their request. The situation unfortunately, has now been complicated by the APC’s decision to boycott the conference. I’m totally against this call for boycott. It is better to discuss our affairs and to try and find ways and solutions to complex political situations than bury our heads in the sand and think that the problems would go away. This may not be the intended purpose of the boycott but the result will tend to validate that intention.

I personally believe that we must explore and exploit all ways and avenues to force the hands of government to change course in this country or we would all be consumed by the Fire Next Time. I believe a conference can develop its own internal dynamics just like any revolution and those with secret agenda would not be able to contain it. This should be the tactic all those who want something concrete from the conference should adopt. Of course, critics are right to say that whatever is decided should not go to the National Assembly whose members were largely rigged in, but that it should be subject to a national referendum and that whatever “we the people” decide should become the supreme law. The question of two sovereigns at the same time should not arise. Once the referendum has passed, the President through a presidential proclamation would bring the resolution into law and call for new elections into the various organs that the conference would have decided upon. If the APC sticks to its guns that it would not participate, what we would then have is a document produced not by the first eleven, but by people on the reserve seats. This would not be in the interest of the country. I think the APC should think all over it again and go to the conference determined to take control of the discussion rather than standing outside the conference and expecting things to go wrong.

Beatrice and Sydney Webb of the famous Fabian school believed that “it is better for revolutionaries to permeate political bodies from within rather than to stand outside them shouting at the deaf”. I have always been guided by the Fabian theory and practice and I think all political animals should be guided by them. Our country can be a great country. The economic fundamentals of this country are solid. We’ve got the resources and the people. What is lacking is leadership and determination on the part of leadership to force our nation to realise its full potentialities. We should not wait until this house of Nigeria has fallen before we begin to salvage it. We now have an opportunity in the national conference and I believe we should seize the moment.

Events in other parts of the world should show us that there is no point sitting on the fences. We should look at countries like Greece, Egypt, Pakistan, which are collapsing into irrelevance and chaos. We are just too many, 170 million of us for experimentation, because if our country were to collapse, where would 170 million people go as refugees? Prevention is better than cure. We have an opportunity to prevent sure political debacle and economic disintegration through this conference and deciding to take necessary precaution to avoid tragic end to the Nigerian project. This is not the time to play politics; it is the time for statesmanship. All Nigerians should support discussion at the national conference and taking positive decisions to change the course of our national development. If after we would have given our support, the political leaders in government today decides to subvert the wishes of the people, then the consequences and the blood of our people would be on their heads.

Choosing those who would represent the people may be problematic, but I think we should use the current population to decide the representation of the states. Critical stakeholders like labour, universities, and even students should be represented by their leaders. Government in its wisdom may also want to select some leaders of the two main monotheistic religions of Christianity and Islam to represent special interest. This idea of people representing ethnic and tribal entities is totally unnecessary because after all whatever ethnic or tribal groups that Nigeria may have are already represented at state levels.

One of the issues that this conference should be seized with would be the whole question of revenue allocation, fiscal federalism or resource control as it is popularly known. There should be discussion on consumption and value-added taxation. There should also be discussion on the system of government itself. It has become obvious to many Nigerians that the present presidential system of Nigeria is too expensive and concentrates too much power in the hands of government executives at local, state and federal levels. We should also raise the issue of devolution of power and resources from the federal to the states and local governments. We must also settle forever that it is the states coming together to form the federal government and not the federal government creating states. In other words, there can be no room for federal intervention in local government creation and financing. That should belong to the states’ jurisdiction. So the talk of three-tier system of government is an aberration. We can only have states and the federal government relating in a mutually beneficial way. We should also be discussing whether to go back to parliamentary system of government and cabinet government of collective responsibility and where members of the cabinet would also be members of the house and the President or Prime Minister would be the leader of the majority party in the house and would be subjected to routine questions and enquiry about reasons for government action by a virile opposition in the house. This is of course a cheaper system of government, and the disconnect which currently exists between the executives and the legislatures would be done away with.

The present concentration of power on a presidential Poobah, which makes our president the most powerful of all presidents in the world would undergo radical transformation. The jurisdiction of each level of government would also be discussed and agreed upon to eliminate the anomaly of a federal Ministry of Agriculture when the federal government has no land of its own apart from Abuja. The starting point of the discussion should be the independence constitution of 1960 which was the only constitution that our political leaders agreed upon without guns pointing to their heads. These are the issues which must be discussed and agreed upon so that the energies of our people can be released for positive development of the sciences and the arts and so that we can stop talking about constitutions while other countries of the so called developing world are already sending probes to Mars.

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