by Femi Aborisade
There appears to be widespread concerns that something fundamental is wrong with Nigeria as presently constituted, not only in terms of perceived political marginalisation, but also in terms of socio-economic exclusion and ensuring justice in all spheres. Few, there are, who maintain that nothing is wrong with Nigeria and that all that is required is attitudinal change on the part of the political leadership. For many, Nigeria simply needs a rebirth, a fundamental rebirth. While there appears to be widespread consensus about the need for a rebirth, there is a lack of consensus on the type of rebirth and the process of bringing about the desired change. Convening a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) has been advocated as one of the steps to be taken towards an attempt at fixing the problem with Nigeria.
At the background of President Jonathan’s recent setting up of a Committee to plan a National Conference, this paper seeks to examine the nature, character, prospects and limits of national conferences (whether National or Sovereign National Conference) in galvanizing socio-political change in Nigeria.
The stringent call for Sovereign National Conference in Nigeria may have been influenced, among other factors, by the 1989 Benin Republic’s National Conference. Here, a National Conference of civil society organisations successfully declared itself ‘sovereign’ in place of the then existing state power. The Conference overturned the Constitution, supplanted the authority of President Kerekou and spearheaded elections which brought in a new President. Similarly, the National Conference of Congo was organized at the convention centre of Brazzaville under the pressure of mass movements by the then President of the Republic, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, in February 1991. The 1100 delegates represented civil society organisations including political parties, workers’ unions, professional organisations, religious denominations, as well as government representatives.
Thus, the success of the Benin Republic’s experience henceforth became the battle cry of opposition forces in other African countries, mainly in French speaking African countries but also in Nigeria, particularly since the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election and the murder in detention of the acclaimed winner, Chief MKO Abiola.
TYPES OF NATIONAL CONFERENCE
National Conference may be broadly classified into three categories, namely:
- 1. (Non-sovereign) National Conference, which tends to be accommodative of the status-quo ante.
- 2. Sovereign National Conference, which tends to threaten the status-quo ante, and
- 3. Constitutional Conference
While the first type, that is, the (Non-sovereign) National Conference is subject to a higher authority and operates within limited scope, the second type, Sovereign National Conference, as the word, ‘sovereign’, suggests, is not subject to any higher authority. While the outcome of the first may strengthen the existing power structure, by rebalancing it on new but marginal basis, the second may supplant and sweep away existing order while heralding an entirely new order. The third type, Constitutional Conference, as the name denotes, has a single specifically defined limited scope – making proposals for constitutional changes within the existing constitutional framework. It is thus, in essence, akin to the first type of conference, and may in fact be a subset of the first category. The idea of a constitutional conference refers to building or rebuilding the nation-state on democratic constitutions which define or redefine the driving rules and principles of political pluralism, the role of the state, citizenship rights and duties, protection of fundamental rights, including socio-economic rights, and so on. Each of the three types of conference is examined more closely below.
As stated above, the Constitutional Conference is concerned with the sole project of developing the constitutional framework. Nigeria has had a history of constitutional impositions. The constitution was either imposed by the colonial powers or the indigenous military juntas. Military dictatorships tended to introduce the Constitution unilaterally, either by public declaration or through a process of appointing a Constituent Assembly composed by handpicked individuals who put up constitutional proposals along lines dictated by their military appointers. Altogether, since 1914, Nigeria has experienced eleven constitutional experiments, including those brought about through sham constitutional conferences. The eleven constitutional experiments are:
- The Nigeria Protectorate Order-in-council (22 November 1913) which amalgamated the Northern and Southern Protectorate effective from 1914. Sir Frederick John Dealtry Lugard operated the Constitution as the then head of Nigeria.
- The Nigerian (Legislative Council) Order-in-council of 1922. This Constitution was operated by Sir Hugh Charles Clifford.
- The 1946 Nigeria (Legislative) Order-in-Council, operated by Sir Arthur Richards.
- The 1951 Sir John Stuart Macpherson Constitution
- The 1954 Nigeria (Constitution) Order-in-council , otherwise called the Oliver Lyttleton Constitution
- The 1960 (Constitution) Order-in-Council, that is the Independence Constitution.
- The 1963 Republican Constitution pursuant to the Act of Parliament No. 20.
- The 1979 Constitution made pursuant to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Enactment) Decree No. 25 of 1978, signed by General Olusegun Obasanjo. In October 1975, the Obasanjo military regime appointed a 50-member Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC). Another handpicked body, the Constituent Assembly, CA, was later appointed to approve the work of the CDC. The 1979 Constitution was based on the work of the CDC/CA.
- The 1989 Constitution made pursuant to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Promulgation) Decree No. 12 of 1989 to take effect from 1 October 1992. It was never operated given the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election.
- The 1995 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This Constitution was brought about following the 1994/1995 National Constitutional Conference convened by General Sani Abacha. The Conference was composed of handpicked individuals. The outcome of that Conference was introduced as a Constitution on 27 August 1995 but was actually not promulgated into law before the head of the junta died in June 1998.
- The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. It was brought to public notice for the first time on 15 May 1999 but made effective from 29 May 1999 by the authority of the military dictatorship of General Abdulsalami Abubakar.
What is of paramount interest in this paper is that in all the constitutional experiments, the generality of the people were usually excluded. In other words, the constitutions have always been imposed. In addition, it is contended that a Constitutional Conference will be relevant where what is at stake is a mere constitutional lacuna. But in reality, the social crises in society require much more than mere marginal constitutional changes. The socio-political challenges tend to reflect deep contradictions which suggest the need for a completely new social order.
NON-SOVEREIGN NATIONAL CONFERENCE
An example of the Non-Sovereign National Conference in Nigeria’s history was the February – July 2005 National Political Reform Conference, NPRC, also referred to as the National Dialogue, which was established by President Obasanjo, without legislative consent . It comprised about 400 delegates who were handpicked by the President. The agenda of the Conference was delimited by the regime and included the following:
- Reform of the political party system
- Electoral reforms
- Judicial and legal reforms
- Civil Society reforms
- Police/Prison system reforms
- Intergovernmental relations
Indeed, there were also no-go areas or non-negotiable issues, which the Conference was ordered not to debate. They included:
- unity of the country;
- its federal character;
- separation of powers, and
- fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy.
The Conference was merely consultative in nature. The Report of the Conference was submitted to the President. The President was to submit the Report to the national legislature, which could have used it as part of its sources of literature for legislative activity, if found useful. Indeed, the national legislature, at a stage, distanced itself from the Conference on the ground that it was put up without its consent.
The 2005 Conference was organised by President Obasanjo in the attempt to undermine the popular call by the opposition and pro-democracy movement for a Sovereign National Conference.
But it is not only the State authority that may organise the Non-Sovereign National Conference. A Non-Sovereign National Conference may also result from the efforts of civil society organisations, even though they may label their conference ‘Sovereign’. Magnificent as the efforts of the PRONACO forces might have been, what they put in place in April 2006 could not be called a Sovereign National Conference. A conference is not ‘sovereign’ just because it has no government involvement or lacks prescribed limits to the scope of its agenda. What qualifies a conference to be sovereign is the capacity to take effective and effectual decisions relating for instance to the tenure, survival and/or limits of power of the existing regime. Where the outcome of a conference lacks such effects, it is simply a non-sovereign national conference, which the incumbent powers may ignore without any serious consequences to its survival or continued existence.
The coalition of opposition groups under the aegis of Pro-Sovereign National Conference
Group (PRONACO) validly rejected the President Obasanjo conference for lacking popular support and falling short of popular expectations. Being appointed by government, the delegates at the Conference could neither claim to represent the people nor their aspirations. Indeed, delegates were paid a sitting allowance of N20,000 (equivalent then toUS$154) per day apart from the non-pecuniary benefits such as free accommodation and feeding in one of the first class hotels of Abuja, as well as a plentiful supply of daily newspapers and magazines. All this at a time when the minimum wage (per month) at the Federal government level was N7,500. The PRONACO thus organised an alternative conference, which the sponsors claimed to be sovereign, with powers to deliberate on all issues without ‘no-go’ areas. Organisations and ethnic groups were required to appoint specified number of representatives. The PRONACO conference produced a report, including a model constitution containing progressive provisions. But as it turned out, it lacked the capacity to implement or enforce its decisions and recommendations. There is therefore a wide difference between the Nigerian PRONACO organised Conference on one hand and the Benin Republic and Congo Conferences, on the other. This identified shortcoming in the Nigerian PRONACO-organised conference shows that the concept of sovereign national conference is only relevant under certain contexts. It is to the context and relevance of the sovereign national conference that we now turn.
SOVEREIGN NATIONAL CONFERENCE
This paper conceptualizes Sovereign National Conference, not as a tool to stabilise an existing system or regime, but as a transitional phase in the process of mass struggles to carry out fundamental system or regime change. Thus, as far as this writer is concerned, it is conceptualized that resistance struggles under capitalism represent incapacity of the capitalist system to take society forward and reflect a striving, consciously or unconsciously, to carry out a socialist transformation of society. Within this understanding, in a revolutionary situation, the demand will not be for the convocation of a Sovereign National Conference; the challenge will be to goad the working masses to set up independent organs of political and economic control of society. While political empowerment of the masses for a socialist reconstruction of society is the ultimate goal, that goal cannot usually be attained overnight. It will generally be necessary to raise democratic demands that can exhaust the democratic limits of the existing regime or system. Based on their own practical experiences, the masses may then come to the conclusion that their interests can no longer be protected unless and until they seize state power. The slogan of the Sovereign National Conference is thus useful in a semi-revolutionary situation in which the existing regime is incapable of solving economic and political problems and is too weak to assert its authority; but the democratic opposition forces are equally not strong enough to effect instant regime or system change. The Sovereign National Conference is a demand suitable in such a dual-power situation.
It was such a dual power situation in February 1990 that compelled Kérékou to convene a Sovereign National Conference to reconsider the country’s political future. The Sovereign National Conference became the instrument for political transformation to a new, multiparty regime, which became the model for all of Francophone Africa. A similar context played out in Congo Brazaville. Sassou initially resisted the convocation of a conference. When he finally conceded, he sought to keep the Conference under his control. But opposition forces succeeded in wresting control from Sassou’s supporters. The Conference established an interim government, developed the framework for a new pluralist constitution and drew up a timetable for elections under a new regime.
The foregoing shows that the nature, character, capacity, competence, relevance and legitimacy of the Sovereign National Conference to chart a new course of history depend on concrete contexts in individual countries. Just as a competent physician may hardly make a single prescription for all ailments, the Sovereign National Conference is equally not an idea that is automatically suitable in all political situations and at all times, contrary to the impression being created in certain circles within the opposition and pro-democracy movement. The relevance of the Sovereign National Conference depends not only on the state of the economic crises from time to time, but also on the balance of political forces – that is, the ripeness or otherwise of the subjective and objective factors.
In the Nigerian situation, opposition and pro-democracy forces may justifiably, from time to time, resort to the call for Sovereign National Conference to take the Nigerian society forward. The existing economic and political structures appear incapable of holding the Nigerian society together on a peaceful, orderly and just basis. Constitutions have always been imposed on Nigeria; the people have never had any input in constitution-making. Things appear to perpetually fall apart in Nigeria as presently constituted. Material poverty, stupendous corruption in the midst of abject poverty, opulence of a few in the midst of stark starvation, high unemployment levels, religious intolerance, political and socio-economic Boko Haram, kidnapping for ransom, armed robbery, frequent bomb explosions as a product of disaffection and disillusionment, pervasive insecurity, all indices of a breakdown in the social fabric of society have attained unprecedented degrees. In the face of these realities, there appears to be every justification for a platform such as the Sovereign National Conference that will bring together elected representatives of the fighting working people and the poor to deliberate on the future of the country.
But it is important that the Sovereign National Conference is not conceived as an assembly of ethnic nationalities. The Sovereign National Conference should be conceived as an assembly of elected representatives of organisations in which people are actively engaged, economically, politically, socially, culturally, and so on, to ensure and influence their continued existence and social interaction. In modern day, hardly could an ethnic group organise purely as an ethnic group. Members of an ethnic group are divided into classes with antagonistic, irreconcilable interests. What has been happening is that few individuals from a particular ethnic group organise in the name of the ethnic group of their origin and undemocratically proclaim themselves as leaders, self-appointed leaders, of the particular ethnic group, without attempting to convene any conference of the ethnic group. Indeed, in some cases, there could be several cultural groups competitively laying claim to be the valid organisation speaking for the entire ethnic group. Therefore, it could be problematic, confusing, misleading, and unrealistic to attempt to convene the Sovereign National Conference on the basis of such ethnic representation.
Multiple nationalities are a reality of the Nigerian society. But so also are other realities such as economic categories or class stratification, gender, religion, age, vocational and professional variations. All of these factors ought to be considered in the convocation of the Sovereign National Conference. Where the Sovereign National Conference is convened on the basis of communities in which people live and on the basis of organisations in which they are actively involved for social, economic and political existence, all ethnic groups, including minorities will be effectively represented. To avoid domination of the Sovereign National Conference by a single force, organisations ought to be proportionately represented, based on their numerical strength. But it should be appreciated that in order to prevent the Sovereign National Conference from being weighed down by retrogressive forces supportive of the status-quo, only active democratic forces or organisations that are fighting for social change should enjoy a space in the Sovereign National Conference.
The tasks of the Sovereign National Conference could include determining the political, economic, judicial, legislative and security (internal and external) structures; the components of fundamental rights, which should include socio-economic rights; the fundamental principles governing the coming together of different parts of Nigeria as a Federation, and so on. The work of the Sovereign National Conference would inevitably lay the framework for a new Constitution, which will be subject to a popular referendum.
The question of who convokes the Sovereign National Conference is already implicitly answered in the analysis above – balance of forces determines who convokes it. The active opposition movement has to take the lead while the regime will have been so weakened to ignore or resist it to its own peril. Alternatively, the regime may be compelled to call it, hoping to thereby control it. What is certain is that the Sovereign National Conference can only be borne as a product of protracted mass struggles arising from economic discontentment and leading ultimately to the consciousness that the old economic and political order must be smashed, if the interests of the masses are to be protected. The extent of changes that can be effected through the Sovereign National Conference will be determined by the class character, program and perspectives of the active forces at the head of the movement.
The duration of the Sovereign National Conference cannot also be mathematically determined. It all depends on the active interaction of factors. Depending on the balance of forces, the Sovereign National Conference could terminate the life of a regime and introduce a new order; it may alter, minimally or fundamentally, the constitution and structure of governance within the existing order.
The funding of the Sovereign National Conference is also a question of the nature and character of the particular Sovereign National Conference. The forces and organisations calling the Sovereign National Conference may fund their representatives. The regime may be compelled to fund it. But funding by the regime carries the danger of representatives being compromised by the comfort and privileges of such funding by the existing state power. Funding support may be raised internationally by the civil society organisations individually and/or collectively. International funding also has the possibility of a corrupting influence as the funders may want to dictate the ideological direction of the Sovereign National Conference. The most reliable and sustainable funding is the contribution by the members of the fighting organisations themselves. What should be borne in mind is that the demand for Sovereign National Conference is a direct product of daily bitter class struggles involving strikes, street protests, processions, rallies, and so on.
Sovereign National Conference is not an automatic solution to the problems facing Nigeria. It is only a rational transitional demand, to which ordinary people can relate, as a basis for attaining the broadest involvement of the majority in determining their political life. Sovereign National Conference cannot be realised through mere press conferences. It can only be realised through intensified stubborn mass struggles. Historically, Sovereign National Conference represents two contradictory strivings – the striving of the masses to wrest significant control from the ruling class and the striving of the ruling class to use it to rebalance its hegemony on new but marginal rules. While the danger exists that retrogressive forces could still use the Sovereign National Conference to take society backwards, there is also the opportunity that radical transformation of society into a new order could occur through the Sovereign National Conference, depending on the programs of the leading organisations, the lessons drawn by the masses in struggle, the momentum of struggles and the unfolding developments on the international level.
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