4 September 2014

Nigeria: Jonathan's Conference Report


When the leadership of President Goodluck Jonathan's "national conference" wound up its final session and presented the report to him, the president pulled no punches in tongue-lashing the many critics of the forum.

At the same time, he extolled what he said had been achieved as a significant development in Nigeria's march towards a better future. It was an upbeat assessment. Unfortunately this was marred by the revelation that as the president was touting its outcome, the secretariat was in fact yet to conclude work on the final document. The disconnect between the photo-opportunity of the formal ceremony and the apparent tardiness of the secretarial only added to a string of suspicions that the entire conference had been a wasteful charade, designed to buy time and achieve a pre-conceived agenda that has nothing to do with national objectives.

Delegates had expected, as conference chairman, Justice Idris Kutigi pledged, that copies of the report would be made available to them for perusal and possible comments before a clean copy is adopted and presented to the president. This did not happen. Instead, as explained on the day the president got the copy, the secretariat was described as "working assiduously" to complete corrections on the document. If there were errors in the draft document that needed 'corrections', the question then is which copy is in the possession of the president? Is the president aware that the document handed to him had not been seen, let alone ratified, by the delegates to the conference? Given the conference's antecedents, and the rather murky details that have trailed its proceedings since, there is concern, legitimate it would seem in the circumstances, of the possibility that copies of the document that eventually would get to delegates could vary in significant details from the version submitted to the president. At a time when legal experts and majority of members of both chambers of the National Assembly have dismissed the forum as a futile exercise, the last thing conveners of the conference need is more cloud of doubt. For instance, the "new constitution" that was roundly rejected by the delegates, and thereafter reduced to proposals to amend the existing Constitution may in fact have retained its original status in the president's copy. The National Assembly has already expressed its aversion to the document; but the president said he would liaise with its members to see what constitutional aspects of the conference's outcome to send to them to deal with. But which version of the report would the president send to the legislature?

To get legal backing for every item in the report, the National Assembly will have to play a critical role. Prospects for that are limited, particularly when the House of Representatives seems to have already taken a position of not 'legitimising' proceedings of the conference. The Speaker, Aminu Tambuwal, said only that the chamber would "do justice" to the report. Dr Ali Ahmed, Chairman of the House committee on Justice declared that lawmakers would not "waste their time" deliberating the draft proposals for a new constitution and, if presented, the document would be thrown out.

There is also the conflict between what the people desired and what the conference recommended. For example, the issue of state police was rejected during consultations; but the proposal found its way into the recommendations. It was clear also that most Nigerians wanted local government as a tier of government closest to the people to be empowered; the conference recommended their abolition.

Clearly therefore, there are issues that need clarification regarding the true picture of what the outcome of the conference is; and in that scrutiny, whether the exercise, on which more than eight billion naira was spent, was a worthwhile one for the nation as a whole. The president believes so; most Nigerians don't.


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