President Jonathan announced on October 1, 2013 his intention to convoke a national conference at which there would be no issues excluded from discussion. He then inaugurated on October 7, 2013 a committee he charged to come up with a framework for the conference. To those that assumed they understood the president, this committee should determine among other things the composition of delegates to the conference, the timeline for the conference, whether the outcome of the conference should be submitted to a national referendum (and how such referendum should be conducted, and how long the referendum should last) or referred to the National Assembly and state houses of assembly. In approaching its assignment, the committee is expected by Nigerians to collate views or submissions from Nigerians and attempt to meld them into a certain firm position that should be submitted to the National Assembly for passage into an act that should give some legal backing to the national conference.
On Tuesday, October 15, 2013, only 8 days after the inauguration of the conference committee, and less than 5 weeks to the conclusion of the assignment of that committee, President Jonathan was reported to have said that he “would forward the outcome of the national conference to the National Assembly so that it would form an integral part of the on-going Constitution amendment.” It is amazing! Has the president not pre-empted the committee already by his reported comments? Does he truly understand what he has undertaken to do? A national conference of the magnitude and importance the president should be contemplating at this point in the history of Nigeria should not be one whose outcome is to “form an integral part of the on-going Constitution amendment.”
President Jonathan’s National Conference committee’s main task is to provide the president with a conference bill to be passed into law by the National Assembly in order to give legal strength to the outcome of the conference. And in working out such a bill, the committee should do a careful reading of sections 8 and 9 of the 1999 constitution in order to frame a bill that gives some order for the expected national referendum.
1. The first consideration is to alter section 8 in order to create a pathway for the outcome of a National Conference toward a brand new people’s constitution via a national referendum. Section 9 (3) states that:
An Act of the National Assembly for the purpose of altering the provisions of this section, section 8 or Chapter IV of this Constitution shall not be passed by either House of the National Assembly unless the proposal is approved by the votes of not less than four-fifths majority of all the members of each House, and also approved by resolution of the Houses of Assembly of not less than two-thirds of all the States.
2. Section 8 (1) (b), (c) (3) (b), (c) makes references to approvals by at least two-thirds majority of the people in reference in a referendum with respect to creation of new states and creation of new local government areas. Relevant amendments should be proposed by the National Conference committee in order to accommodate the outcome of a national conference.
3. PROPOSED AMENDMENT TO SECTION 8:
An insertion of subsection 7 should read as follows:
(a) In the event of a National Conference to determine any national questions called by either the President of the Federation via a published gazette or the National Assembly by a resolution passed by a simple majority of members of each House, the conference shall last for not more than twelve months. A national referendum shall hold not later than one year after completion of conference proceedings, and the referendum shall be conducted by the National Electoral body over a period of not more than one week, during which the result shall be declared.
(b) The proposal of the conference shall not become law except approved in a national referendum by at least two-thirds majority of all Nigerians of voting age that shall participate in the referendum, which shall be observed by the United Nations.
(c) The approved conference proposal shall become law and supersede all sections of the existing constitution that stand in conflict with any of its provisions.
President Jonathan should not presume to hold a national conference unless he has first taken both legislative and legal steps to ensure that the conference pregnancy is not aborted or the foetus is not inchoate. With regard to the proposed amendments above only 85 senators and 288 members of the House of Representatives are required to start-off the process. We must not wait for the outcome of the conference before providing the legal scaffold to attain a more perfect union. And considering that there are less than 18 months to the end of the present federal administration and much less that time to the conduct of the next general elections, the time remaining should be used to effect the relevant amendments I have proposed above while the national conference should commence after May, 2015. If this is done, candidates for the next general legislative and executive elections should be made to make their positions on the contemplated conference well known to their electorate. Meanwhile, ethnic nationalities and civil society groups should begin holding pre-conference discourses across the country in order to filter through their positions and expectations in a new Nigerian federation. In the end, a national conference should achieve seven things. Its outcome should:
1. Remove wastes from governance;
2. Remove weakness from the constituent parts of the country and return economic competition;
3. Recover wealth for the host communities that host productive industries with only environmental devastation as the reward;
4. Restore fiscal federalism and devolution of relevant powers to the regions;
5. Re-define Nigerian citizenship by birth in a way that is more inclusive;
6. Register a bill of rights for citizens; and
7. Restore national and local security through local or regional policing and justice.
I would not want a national conference that resembles the Amnesty that was granted the militants of the Niger Delta by President Yar’Adua and facilitated by President Jonathan, which has not improved on the quality of life of the people of the region. Rather, a few rogues have been made super rich enough to afford private jets while their environment remains devastated and polluted. The amnesty was simply a bribe to the “militants” to stop fighting for their people; and they fell for it for their nauseating greed for pecuniary benefits. These were not real freedom fighters, for their people are not yet free even though they have got free money to buy private jets in the midst of their people’s pitiable living conditions and squalor. What a corrupt generation! I am not expecting a national conference that shall fail at the start. If President Jonathan and the national assembly have not been able to complete work on the Petroleum Industry Bill for passage into an Act of the National Assembly, how can they pass the necessary National Conference Act? Maybe President Jonathan will surprise us all and do the right thing this time.