Again, the political temperature of Nigeria has changed. The President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan in his Independence Day speech, bowed to the agitations from a cross-section of Nigerians and set up a 13 member Advisory Committee to work out modalities for convening a national dialogue/conference to resolve some issues that he believes pose challenges to the people of Nigeria.
The President has inaugurated the Committee and the Committee has issued guidelines and modalities for its assignment. Curiously, the President has stated that the outcome of the conference or national dialogue or conversation will be forwarded to the National Assembly and that the dialogue or conference will not be given “no-go areas”.
Prior to the setting up of the Committee, there were renewed agitations and (or) clamour for the Nigerian people to sit and deliberate on some of its contentious and controversial national challenges. Some of the proponents or agitators for dialogue called for a national conference or national dialogue or conversation. Others called for a sovereign national conference, while some called for a conference of ethnic or linguistic nationalities.
The common denominator in all the calls is that the Nigerian people must sit down and carry out an honest dialogue on some fundamental national issues and challenges. This they believe is necessary, given the suspicion and mistrust relating to some of the issues at the heart of the Nigerian federation.
However, disagreements and confusion persist relating to the contents of the dialogue, the mechanisms of the dialogue and those that should attend the said conference or dialogue. There have also been fears that the proponents of the dialogue mask their real or true intentions and that their ultimate goal is to cause disunity in the country and if possible dismember it into ethnic enclaves. Others see the calls as diversionary meant to keep the Nigerian people talking while the leaders of the country carry out political jamboree and economic bazaar. This fear persists and no concrete efforts have been made to allay the fears of those that oppose the convocation of any form of conference, other than glib talks about motive and patriotism.
My take-off point is that there is nothing intrinsically wrong or inherently obnoxious in convening a national dialogue or national conference. Serious countries continuously and continually renew themselves through robust dialogues and contestations meant principally at putting their countries on a sound political, economic and social footing and projecting ahead and having a headstart on future and futuristic challenges. Such countries pay attention to the changing realities and dynamics in their countries and fashion mechanism and avenues of dealing with germane issues that may likely face their countries. Such countries understand that governance is all about dialogue, disagreements and consensus and do not play to the gallery in dealing with the issues, as the fate and future of their countries depend on it.
The current national obsession for or against a sovereign national conference or national dialogue is hinged on the fear of the unknown and the true intentions of the major actors and players in the conversation. My understanding is that there are basically two types of national dialogue or national conference. The first is a national dialogue or conference with limited autonomy, while the second is a national dialogue or conference with sovereign powers.
My understanding is that Nigeria and Nigerians can only have a national dialogue or conference with limited powers and limited autonomy. This is based on the fact that Nigeria is a sovereign entity with different organs of government, exercising powers on behalf of the sovereign. You cannot therefore have two sovereigns in a sovereign state, where a sovereign is already in place.
Furthermore, the preamble to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999(as amended) (which is the fundamental law of the land), clearly states that the Nigerian people have affirmed to live in unity and harmony as one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign nation. Section 2(1) of the Constitution also affirms what is contained in the preamble by declaring that Nigeria is one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign state to be known by the name Federal Republic of Nigeria. In the same vein, Section 1(1) of the Constitution asserts its own supremacy and states that its provisions shall have binding force on all authorities and persons throughout Nigeria and on the basis of all these, Section 4(1) of the Constitution vests the legislative powers of the Federation on the National Assembly.
As at today, it is immaterial whether the Constitution tells a lie about itself or proclaims what it is not. It is immaterial whether the Constitution was given to the Nigerian people by the military or the Nigerian people gave themselves the Constitution. The truth of the matter is that the Nigerian people have operated the said Constitution since 1999 and some of those advocating for the convocation of a sovereign national conference have operated the Constitution and derived benefits from it. The Constitution does not claim to be perfect. To the contrary, Section 9 of the Constitution makes elaborate provisions for its own alteration.
In the case of Nigeria, the State and National Assemblies are the manifestations of institutional mechanism for dialogue. They are the tribune of the people. Being a creation of the Nigerian Constitution, they embody the legislative powers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. It is on the basis of this that the Constitution which is the fundamental law of the land invests it with the powers of constitutional alteration. This means that the National Assembly can amend or alter any provision of the Constitution to respond to changing realities and exigencies of national life. This, the National Assembly has done on three different occasions. If the current amendment goes through, it will be the fourth time the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria will be amended. This, however, does not preclude the Executive or the National Assembly from designing new mechanisms for dialogue so long as the said dialogue is conducted within the framework of the existing institutional structures.
The crux of the matter is that the renewed agitation for a form of dialogue means that there are certain things and variables that have not been properly addressed and some Nigerians believe that some of them are at the root of Nigerians underdevelopment, skewed development, challenging internal security, lack of national cohesion, suspicion and bad governance. Hence, the need for some form of national dialogue.
While I support the present efforts at national dialogue, it will be dangerous to romanticize what the national dialogue can achieve. We must not unnecessarily raise the expectations of the Nigerian people and at the end dash such expectations. We must never give the impression that a national dialogue is the panacea to all the problems and challenges of the Nigerian nation. We must be realistic and explain to them that in the agenda for a national dialogue, there are no go areas.
It is my understanding that there are issues that the fundamental law of the Nigerian nation has settled and those issues cannot form part of the issues and agenda for the said national dialogue/conference. Section 2(1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999(as amended) has boldly stated that Nigeria is one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign state and the issue of division of the country or dissolution of the country cannot form part of the agenda of the said national dialogue.
For me, the national dialogue should focus on how to reduce poverty in the land, create wealth and move a large majority of angry and frustrated Nigerians off the labour market. It should focus on the challenge of internal security and the negative activities of those that are called militants/insurgents. Coterminous to this is the challenge posed to the Nigerian federation by the activities of ethnic and religious irredentists. The Dialogue/Conference must also define and redefine what a Nigerian citizenship means, in fact and in law. The issue of inter-ethnic contestation over power sharing and resource control should also be on the table. The place of local governments in Nigeria’s constitutional matrix should be on the agenda.
While looking towards the national dialogue with cautious optimism, it is apposite to caution all those engaged in the management or initiation of the national dialogue/conference to act in the national interest. Using the dialogue/conference for partisan political purposes will undermine its essence and empower divisive political, ethnic and religious forces that have held this country hostage. In other words, the composition of the dialogue must never give pre-eminence to ethnic and religious irredentists. The dialogue/conference must never showcase, glamorize or project militants and insurgents, as so doing will send a wrong signal that unless you carry arms against the Federal Republic of Nigeria, you will never be recognized.
The dialogue/conference must give priority to Nigerians and groups with patriotic democratic credentials. The dialogue/conference must be populated by groups like the Nigerian Bar Association, the Labour Movement, the Nigerian Medical Association, the Catholic Bishops Conference, the Jammatu Nasrul Islam, youth and student groups, women’s groups and organizations, the members of the security agencies and possibly some nominees representing special interests.
The national dialogue must aim at healing the nation rather than polarizing the country further.
Barrister Festus Okoye is the Vice Chairman, Human Rights Institute and the Former Chairman, NBA, Kaduna Branch.