MID-WEEK ESSAY BY MOBOLAJI E. ALUKO, PH.D
On the Important Matter of the National Conference (NC)
October 9, 2013
[This essay is an UPDATED version of an April 2000 essay, taking into consideration new political and social realities.]
The age-old campaign for convoking a Popular National Conference in Nigeria subject to the sovereign will of the Nigerian people (shorthand name: Sovereign National Conference SNC) has now gained tremendous impetus following President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan's setting up, in his October 1 2013 speech, of an Advisory Panel in respect to a yet-to-be-properly-defined National Conference/National Dialogue, under the chairmanship of ex-Senator Dr. Femi Okurounmu. Five important questions now arise as follows:
1. What should be its outcome?
2. How do you choose delegates to this SNC?
3. What will be discussed?
4. How will voting be done?
5. What happens if consensus is not reached?
The main subject of this article is to offer a few suggestions to these questions, not necessarily seriatim. In the process, we will outline the RATIONALE for an SNC, and allay some FEARS.
At the outset, we wish to state that at the end of the day, what is desired is a new Constitution, a Peoples Constitution arising from a maximally-inclusive exercise of multi-level mini-discourses, producing a minimal contract within the Peoples of Nigeria, and between them and their elected leadership, that emphasises justiciable individual rights over group rights (but does not ignore the latter), and that is voted upon in a referendum and outlining how they wish to live together as well as to be governed, a periodicially-reviewable document that truthfully starts with "We the People of Nigeria..." Such a document will be radically different from the current 1999 COnstitution, but even God forbids it ends up with the same constitution, then the PROCESS of endorsement would have re-legitimized that flawed quasi-military, quasi-unitary-quasi-federal Constitution once and for all.
One cannot presume of course that the five questions above are being asked by people who GENUINELY are interested in a national conversation, and who merely need some assurances as to its "modus operandi." That is NOT necessarily so, because there are in fact many Nigerians who are OPPOSED ab initio to an SNC or even a mere NC, either because
1. they seek PATIENCE with the present "democratic" dispensation;
2. they FEAR the outcome of ANY (S)NC and
3. they are SATISFIED with the status-quo.
To those people, no amount of re-assurance may do the trick - but that does not mean that one should not try.
My response to those people are also as follows:
First, we must all thank God that the military is no longer in power in Nigeria. The civilian rule conditions that spurn the next military regime must have to be QUITE BAD, and that next military regime will have to be quite brutal indeed to keep itself in power in Nigeria for more than 6 months. However, that assurance must not lull us into complacency. All of our legislatures and our Executives from local government right up to the Federal level must also NOT be lulled into complacency by dealing with each other and the Nigerian people with impunity, because the "impossible" does happen.
Secondly, many also seek patience with the present post-military civilian dispensation, but I wish to categorically state that what we have is not really a "democratic" dispensation yet, rather "a political civilian twilight zone" between military rule and that democratic dispensation which must be PERMANENTLY stamped with democratic legitimacy by the people. No constitution is perfect, but all our constitutions lack LEGITIMACY, which cannot be conferred merely by line-by-line amendments.
The fact of the matter is that 1999 Constitution, unlike the 1960 Independence Constitution or the 1963 Republican Constitution, is too full of non-consensus issues among our people, resulting in serious tension that threaten the sovereignty of the state and unity of the people. While a MILITARY government would try to impose such by fiat, a civilian government should try to get the people once and for all to LEGITIMIZE a Constitution such that we have a confident nation. Those who delay that legitimization actually delay the day when that will no longer become an issue.
You do not hear in the USA for example, people arguing that "The sovereignty of the US is non-negotiable." A confederacy flag up the pole in the South Carolina legislature or along a highway recently is merely treated as an irritant to ethnic sensibilities and does not THREATEN the sovereignty of the US - and president Obama does not lecture anyone on treason thereby. US sovereignty is GIVEN, is a SETTLED issue. However, let a Biafran flag be raised in Awka by MASSOB, and everyone starts to get jittery, and some people get arrested for treason.
There are those who fear the OUTCOME of the SNC, and have in their minds chosen to FOCUS on two of the possible outcomes that frighten them:
(i) confederacy and
(ii) outright break-up.
In fact, those who belong to Option (ii) invariably believe secretly or overtly that confederacy is the last bus-stop to a break-up, and hence there is really no difference between the two options.
These very fears are an admission that there is SOMETHING fundamentally wrong in the country, that lack of national confidence that I referred to earlier. Choosing an option will not be AT THE BEGINNING of an SNC but at its end, when an architecture that confers the greatest good for the greatest number of Nigerians is agreed. It will be AT ITS END, when we are almost sure that Nigerians will choose to remain united, but under new terms, but if negotiated confederacy or break-up is the end-point, so be it.
Is that not the purpose of government - the greatest good for the greatest number? The history of Nigeria, in particular the military government history, has been the greatest good for the tiniest minority of Nigerians however you describe that minority, whether by ethnicity or by class. That dynamic has to be changed IN THE EARLIEST TIME possible.
Those of us who are advocates of the purpose of government being ensuring the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens believe that it is best done in an SNC, and that any other method might take such a much longer time that could imperil the Nigerian state as we know it.
To those who are satisfied with the status-quo, we have but one message:
- there were those who were satisfied with the status-quo in slavery;
- there were those who were satisfied with the status-quo under colonialism;
- there were those who were satisfied with the status-quo under the military.
We simply disagree with them.
Choosing the delegates
It is again to be re-iterated that the Sovereign National Conference is a PROCESS, not an event, and that participation should be from the grass-roots upwards over a period no less than (say) one year, non-threatening to the status of the present legislatures and executive, and much preferably under constitutional authorization, as initiated by Executive President Jonathan, with some voice of personal support by Senate President David Mark that must as soon as possible be concretized into full National Assembly support for the process via a vote.
The delegates that we refer to here are to the FINAL NATIONAL CONFERENCE SUMMIT (FNCS), having had sub-conversations/sub-dialogues/sub-conferences of:
- the Sub-Conference of Elected Legislatures SCEL (the National/State/Local Government Assemblies) - ie all or a subset of the present NA/SA/LG members. Naturally, these are on a partisan basis.
- the Sub-Conferences of the Masses (SCOM) - ie on a ward/local government basis, and filtering up to state and ZONAL basis.
- the Sub-Conferences of Civil Society (SCCS) - lawyers, labour union, women, youth, religion, traditional rulers, other professional organizations.
- the Sub-Conferences of Ethnic Nationalities (SCEN)
Note that SCOM, SCCS and SCEN are all on a non-partisan basis, and all may have (say) 100, 200, 300 but not more than 400 delegates EQUAL-in-NUMBER each to the FNCS, with each group being given its own opportunity to choose its own delegates in its own way. Also, the task of the sub-conferences is to BRING up issues (ia first-level electoral-college-like voting) to be considered in a Constitution which a Constitution Drafting Committee will concretize into a Constitution, for a Referendum by all citizens of Nigeria and enactment into law by the existing National and state assemblies.
Let us, for the sake of argument, assume 100 delegates each:
SCEL - 100 delegates: 15 (s)elected out of the 109 from the Senate, 30 out of 360 from the House, 30 from the House of Assemblies and 25 from Local Government councils composed of roughly the same proportion as the political parties have in each chamber. Convener: Senate President and Speaker of the House
SCOM - 100 delegates: 2 per state, 4 per zone and 4 from Abuja, but elected in such a way that each delegate represents one-third of the number of grouped wards in each state. There are 774 local governments and 8,800 wards in Nigeria, so this amounts to a delegate representing about 8 local governments and 90 wards. Convener: Council of School Principals and Headmasters
SCCS - 100 delegates, made of 4 delegates out of 25 groups identified or 2 delegates out of 50 identified. Conveners: Presidents an Secretary-GEnerals of those groups.
SCEN - 100 delegates, made up of 4 delegates out of 25 groups identified or 2 delegates out of 50 identified. Conveners: Presidents and secretary-Generals of identified Ethnic Nationalities associations.
Consequently, the National Conference delegates will not be SOLELY from any one group eg Ethnic Nationalities or Elected Legislature, as some fear.
One final point here: if from all the above sub-conferences, not as many as one-third of all the delegates are women, then the total NUMBER of delegates should be ENLARGED, and the balance filled SOLELY by women to make up the one-third. For example, if only 100 of (say) 400 delegates are women, then the total number of delegates should be enlarged to 450, and the Women Caucus of the SCCS asked to supply the additional 50.
Choosing the Delegates of the SCEL: The Ethnography of Nigeria Re-visited
Being the most delicate sub-conference, with the occurrence of quite some ethnic tensions in the country, we will now focus on the choice of delegates TO THE FINAL NATIONAL CONFERENCE SUMMIT (FNCS) from the Sub-conferences of Ethnic Nationalities (SCEN) to illustrate some larger points which might be adapted to/adopted by the other sub-conferences. Ultimately the choice of issues and delegates at the local and to the national level should be UP to each sub-conference.
Although Nigeria has the reputation of anywhere from 250 - 380 ethnic groups, the ethnographic distribution of Nigeria from previous censuses shows that the Hausa, the Fulani, Igbo and the Yoruba make up about 70% of the (say) 150 million population. When you add about nine more ethnic groups - the Ijaw, Tiv, Nupe, Edo, Ibibio/Efik, Urhobo, the Kanuri, the Annang, the Gwari, you would have gotten about 90% of the population. Add twelve more ethnic groups, and the top 25 ethnic groups (in terms of population) would yield about 95-98% of the population.
A conference that includes such a high percentage of Nigerians cannot be condemned as being exclusionary, and the usual charge that there will be too many ethnic nationalities on the table is a red herring.
Let us take the ethnic nationality representation sensitivity one step further: 25 ethnic groups into 150 million people means on average 6 million people per ethnic group at a conference.
We then state that ANY ethnic group that has anywhere greater than 200,000 to 400,000 people upwards (we can project this from the 1963 or 1991 census, whichever has the numbers, since later censuses have inscrutably eschewed finding out about ethnicity) will be at the conference table. We really do not expect more than fifty (50) of them.
Having decided on the LIST of ethnic nationalities, we have many choices about composition of ethnic delegates: we can require
- each ethnic nationality; OR
- each state; OR
- each political zone (ie group of states)
to produce EXACTLY the same number of delegates - say 50 or 100 each - with a proviso that the sub-delegation represents the diversity of the ethnic (or even sub-ethnic) groups in each state or zone according to the list.
How each chooses its 50-100 sub-delegates should be worked out WITHIN each caucus, which must first be convoked to discuss what AILS them, and to float their issues UP to the next level until they arrive at the national level. Those who wish only their kings and queens to represent them are free to do so. There will be those who wish to choose theirs via elections - INEC is not necessarily needed, but can be called in if requested by the caucus - but the principle of AUTONOMY OF CHOICE and EQUALITY OF NUMBERS and NON-PARTISANSHIP between the sub-nationalities should be strictly adhered to.
These three principles by themselves will ensure a different set of representation from the present National Assembly.
Note that this method, particularly if done by states (36 states + Abuja) or zone (six to ten zones) - by zones is my preferred choice because it is less unwieldy, but any method agreed will serve reasonably well - will allow ethnic groups that cut across states or zones or who have migrated in large numbers to other parts of the country (eg the Fulanis or the Igbo who live in various zones) to have their say in those subdivisions.
The final clincher of course is the question of VOTING on whatever political or social issue that has been tabled for decision. In order for minority rights to be protected to the largest extent, that voting should be done by PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION. This could work as follows:
- each sub-delegation votes within itself for an issue, tallying the votes.
- On the general floor (where its votes are to be added to other sub-delegation votes), it assigns its votes depending on the fraction of sub-delegates that voted for the issue. If the issue is a YES or NO, and half voted YES and half voted NO, then on the general floor, that sub-delegation will be assigned 5 votes for YES and 5 votes for NO - and so on. This applies to ALL sub-delegations on all issues.
Now, on the general floor, there can be several permutations as to voting pattern:
- unanimous votes are automatically carried and are to be included in the Constitution.
- super-majority votes (ie 2/3 majority for or 2/3 majority against) are AUTOMATICALLY carried or rejected accordingly.
- simple majority votes for or against are voted for a second time. A vote that wins a simple majority twice is carried accordingly, but may (or may not) be put in the National Constitution, but will be allowed in the regional or state constitutions.
- a simple majority vote that loses in a second vote, or a losing vote that wins a simple majority on a second vote, is tabled for further discussion. After a third vote, it is PERMANENTLY TABLED, and will not be put in the National or regional/state Constitution, if it loses. They are EXPUNGED if already in the Constitution.
Some may already think that this voting is COMPLICATED, but proportional representation is a well-known avenue of taking minority concerns into consideration. Consensus and super-majorities show excellent support for a particular cause - particularly in a constitution which as much as possible should include issues MOST GREATLY agreed to. Voting once after a simple majority might either make people change their mind to yield a simple/super-majority, or defeat a cause.
It is important to note that what I have outlined above are suggestions for choice of delegations WITHIN the ScEN. How the SCEN chooses delegates to the FSNC (where FSNC = SCEL + SCOM + SCCS + SCEN) is up to each sub-conference, provided they each send the same number of agreed delegates. I would hope, however, that proportional representation is adopted as often as possible, coupled with consensus and supermajority decisions.
These suggestions above are being offered with the hope to counter the usual red-herring refrain that the advocates of (S)NC have not thought through their proposals. Where there is a will, there is a way.
If there any of the proposals that need modifications, then those suggestions should be made, rather than revert to the notion that an SNC is unfeasible.
What are the issues to be ACTUALLY discussed at the FNCS and how will the Peoples' Constitution arise from there? Let the people decide - via a Referendum.
Finally, I leave you with the notion that Nigeria is currently on a rickety bridge from colonial 1914 to a future of shared-value nationhood. We need an SNC to strengthen it such that the bridge does not fall.
A word is enough for the wise.
Best wishes all.