A nation in distress: Does Nigeria need another national conference?

By Chinedu Asadu
Posted on Tuesday, 20 July 2021 14:57

Demonstrators hold Nigerian flags as people take part in a protest at the Parliament Square in London, Britain October 21, 2020. REUTERS/John Sibley

It’s election season again in Nigeria, a time when almost everything in the newspapers, on TV and radio is related to how to help the country overcome conflicts and compromises that have become part of its social contract. In this regard, former diplomat Nnamdi Onochie has called for a national conference arguing that the Nigerian ship “may be currently adrift and requires concerted stabilisation and fortification”.

But this is not the first time Nigeria will be holding such a conference to tackle similar issues.

In fact, four such meetings have already taken place since Nigeria gained independence and each of them were concluded in more or less the same manner, to the point that some stakeholders see such gatherings as an attempt to distract attention from the very challenges they ought to address.

“If we are serious, we can sit down and go through the reports of previous conferences, all of which contain useful information,” says Emmanuel Waye, a spokesperson of the Arewa Consultative Forum, the apex sociocultural group representing the majority Hausa ethnic group.

“We’ve been holding conferences, but because of politics, people hold these conferences and throw their reports away without implementing them,” he tells The Africa Report.

Four conferences that have dotted Nigeria’s history

After gaining independence from British colonial rule in 1960, Nigeria had its first proper national conference in 1978 and has had three more since then. The latest was in 2014 when about 500 delegates met for five months to discuss the future of a country still searching for true nationhood more than 60 years after independence.

The constitutional amendment process has become a money-making adventure for successive national assembly leadership.

The last conference, whose final report was obtained by The Africa Report, passed more than 600 resolutions that touched on key issues including creating new states fiscal federalism, government revenue allocation and power-sharing formula.

But it appears to have been tarred with the same brush as previous forums whose recommendations have not been fully implemented.

The four conferences that have been held so far in post-independence Nigeria include:

  • The 1978 Constituent Assembly with a membership of 230 people lasted for nine months.
  • The 1995 National Constitutional Conference had 371 persons who met for 12 months.
  • The 2005 National Political Reform Conference, which was made up of 400 delegates, was held for five months.
  • The 2014 National Conference with a membership of 494 people lasted for five months.

However, unlike the 1978 and 1995 conferences, those of 2005 and 2014 – organised by former presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan respectively – were riddled with controversies that dealt a heavy blow to their goals.

Obasanjo was accused of using the conference in 2005 to push for his rumoured agenda for a third term in office, while northerners were against the one of 2014 alleging that its membership was tilted in favour of southern Nigeria.

Conferences have not worked. So, where will help come from?

Not much has improved in Africa’s most populous country since 2015, when over 15 million citizens voted President Muhammadu Buhari – a former army general and military leader – into power.

As a result, some Nigerians believe that the current arrangement, particularly the political structure and the system of government, is no longer tenable and hinders the country’s progress. There is growing demand for possible solutions such as devolution of more powers to the governors to better handle the economy and security of their states.

But the governors making such propositions are shying away from their responsibility, says Idayat Hassan, who leads the Centre for Democracy and Development, an Abuja-based think tank. Beyond restructuring and organising a national conference, Hassan tells The Africa Report that Nigeria has a “problem of constitution and constitutionalism” and that “if the true spirit and letters of the Nigerian constitution are implemented, I bet we will not have as many challenges as we currently do.”

We want to sit together and see what we can do to save our country. It is a people-oriented way of addressing problems.

In Abuja, federal lawmakers have been holding a series of meetings and public hearings as they launch the fifth attempt to amend the country’s 1999 Constitution, which some have argued is outdated and not representative of the citizens’ interests. But the process has been deemed ‘all motions and little movement’.

For instance, during these hearings, there is usually not enough time for people to make presentations on the most important issues. “I see the new constitutional amendment process as just another white elephant project; the body language and nuances [of the lawmakers] are not very serious,” Hassan says.

Inibehe Effiong, a Lagos-based lawyer, tells The Africa Report that the current National Assembly whose leaders and majority are from the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) lacks what it takes to “amend the constitution in a manner that will meet the yearnings and aspirations of the Nigerian people”.

“It is a National Assembly that is insulated from the feelings of the people, so it will be wishful thinking to expect the same parliament to live up to expectations,” he says. “The constitutional amendment process has become a money-making adventure for successive national assembly leadership.”

Priorities and the power dynamics

With the 2023 election for President Buhari’s replacement fast approaching, the ruling APC looks to be betting on finding a sustainable solution to some of the country’s biggest challenges with the hope that they will not lose popular support in the process.

Despite riding into power on the pedals of its promises to restructure Nigeria (by making it a truly federal state with powers less concentrated in the nation’s capital Abuja), the report of the APC committee to determine how the restructuring process will unfold has been lying idle since January 2018 when it was submitted.

In December 2020, amid threats from various indigenous groups that Nigeria could break up if not restructured, the presidency said such “unpatriotic outbursts” are “unhelpful and unwarranted”.

Prominent indigenous groups are turning to a dialogue where they hope to launch a last attempt to keep Nigeria united and peaceful before the 2023 elections are held.

“Repeat: this administration will not take any decision against the interests of 200 million Nigerians, who are the president’s first responsibility under the constitution, out of fear or threats,” presidential spokesman Garba Shehu had said.

“Why is it so difficult even for this present administration to implement its own report?” Hassan asks. No one knows for certain the answer. But its impact on slowing Nigeria’s progress is indisputable, according to Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the group representing the Igbos, Nigeria’s third-largest ethnic group.

“All the Igbos want is a restructured Nigeria,” says Alex Ogbonnia, a spokesperson for Ohanaeze, adding that beyond a national conference, Nigeria must begin to practise true federalism if it must make meaningful progress.

“Security architecture has collapsed [and] even INEC is not independent anymore both at the state and national levels. We all know electoral systems have a direct correlation with the economy of any nation because the economy cannot grow when good leaders are not elected,” he adds.

Bottom line

If a national dialogue is to hold, Hassan believes it must be people-centred, take place at all levels and be representative of not just ethnic nationalities but of young people, women and all relevant actors in the country.

In the meantime, as Nigerians await the outcome of the National Assembly’s constitution review process as well as the Buhari administration’s decision on a national conference, prominent indigenous groups across the country are turning to a dialogue where they hope to launch a last attempt to keep Nigeria united and peaceful before the 2023 elections are held.

“We want to sit together and see what we can do to save our country,” Waye said. “It is a people-oriented way of addressing problems, and we will bring our recommendations forward after the meeting”.

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