24th February, 2014
By Samuel Akpobome Orovwuje
Since the announcement of the proposed convocation of a national conference by President Jonathan Goodluck there has been a mixed bag of reactions and expectations in the minds of Nigeria from all divides. Nonetheless, the conference should be seen as a strategic move to a robust people-driven democracy parley. Additionally, it should be noted that national conferences all over the world are broadly inclusive forums for the renegotiation of contentious state-people relationships and Nigeria should not be an exception in its quest to discuss its future based on its political antecedents particularly on the account of the reality that confront it as a nation today.
National conference ought to be generally peaceful and in my view, is intended to launch national reconciliation and rebirth efforts or processes that will help to stimulate the intense political activism for a nation in search a true federal state devoid of frustration and suspicion from all groups and interests.
Indeed participants at national conferences or dialogue usually claim sweeping sovereign powers to rewrite constitutions and election laws in order to promote political pluralism and guarantee better protection of human rights and political freedom. Although national conferences in Nigeria in the past might have seemed frenzied or unending, but as an ordinary Nigerians, we should take advantage of this initiative as a rare opportunity for us to re-define our own rules of political engagement and to take full ownership of our political future.
This article look at some of the fundamental issues that the national conference should discuss, amongst others, governments should move away from the extremely centralised and expensive presidential and governorate systems inherited from the 1979 Nigeria Constitution to more balanced semi-presidential or semi-parliamentary systems that should institutionalise the position of prime minister and provide for the holder of that office to be backed by a legislative majority. This proposed arrangement should also include any opposition parties, civil society, market women and community associations to be elected on yearly basis. In addition, this will close the existing gaps between the democratic aspirations of Nigerian citizens and the manoeuvres by incumbent political leaders to preserve their stay in power.
Nigeria’s political experience over the last five decades or so has been characterised by lack of genuine democratisation. Genuine democratisation in my view should entail a deliberate broadening of the political space, an expansion of opportunities for political participation and mobilisation, and the establishment of credible processes and institutions that allow for the change or renewal of political leadership through people-driven elections from communities’ representatives on part- time basis. This would also allow citizens to enjoy greater rights and freedoms. Furthermore, Nigeria’s constitution should be a direct result of the government deliberately pursuing a policy of ethnic or regional democracy. Ethnicity has always served as the foundation for Nigeria’s political parties since independence. In addition to the national government, there should be regional states whose borders trace ethnic lines for national development aspiration purposes.
Admittedly, over the last twenty years or so, myriad nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) have played a vital role in promoting political participation and good governance in Nigeria particularly at the grassroots level. National associations or associations for human rights, associations of retired jurists, and politically activist bar associations, with independent journalists and other civil society groups would act as crucial watchdogs within the new structures to safeguard rights and freedom and to foster further democratisation and development. Increasingly, civil society and community associations should become an accurate barometer for the people and political leaders. Community organisations should find the space to conduct advocacy activities for their respective communities, develop better channels of communication with the executive and legislative branches of government at the local, state and national levels, and provide input into the governance process based on the community development aspirations and needs.
The judiciary to a very large extent has played a unique role as an independent arbiter for political issues in Nigeria. The Supreme Court in particular tended to hold final jurisdiction over administrative, criminal, constitutional, civil, and commercial matters. However, there is need to create constitutional and people’s courts to handle litigation pertaining to the constitutionality of laws or acts of government. The proposed courts should assume jurisdiction over election-related disputes and the conditions of eligibility for public office. The eligibility criteria to public office should be at the centre of the debate in the conference.
Elected officials, party leaders, and, in many cases, ordinary citizens of voting age also may petition constitutional courts. Allowing citizens access to institutions that can pass judgment on the executive branch acts or omissions is likely to curb flagrant abuse of state resources and power. The conference should also introduce another important level of oversight regarding budget and expenditure and state-community relations mechanism to enhance accountability and community development.
Advocacy for a constitutional provision and requirement calling for 85 percent of its members to be elected by their peers and associations throughout the country and by extension, at the end of the dialogue, should be made as constitutional mandate for representation in parliament from local, state then to the national levels of governance.
Furthermore, the electoral systems should moved away from closed party and Godfather structure to other forms of proportional representation or to multi-member constituencies, elected representatives must live and resides with the people they wish to represent, so that they can be more responsive and accountable to their constituent needs and should push for loose relationships to party hierarchies and supremacy. These developments in my view would empower communities to quarterly legislative parley and meetings to initiate hearings, legislative inquiries, budget debates, and motions to censure governmental policies and inactions that would not be beneficial to the people or constituents. Communities’ legislative and budget debates will help to tone down executive branch bills and the reckless spending by governments and its agencies.
Also, the recalcitrant and bogus bureaucracies must also be renegotiated to favour ordinary citizens. The civil service remains in my opinion, conservative and heavily indebted to the patronage and rent-seeking system that encourages profligacy and contract through over invoicing. This is especially evident in the jurisdictional conflicts that have emerged between agencies and ministries, and in the reluctance of presidential and governorate appointees and auxiliaries, such as governors and their cronies to respect the rule of law and due process in the management of the people resources. The challenge lies in the national conference persuading the bureaucratic elites to embrace people’s aspirations and to tie their performance with community driven projects.
Finally, it is instructive to note that Ethiopia in 1991 conducted a national conference and came out with a far reaching people’s constitution in 1994 with a clause that creates a two-tiered federal structure, which, at least in principle, emphasised ethnic groups’ rights and the right to self-determination which are necessary ingredient for a stable democracy and on the other hand, Nigeria should not also be in a hurry forget the case of the former Yugoslavia in Europe with similar historical trajectories like us disintegrated in 1992–1999 respectively.
Therefore, the national conference should facilitate a deep-rooted and inclusive democracy where all minorities are protected. Irrespective of the outcome, a referendum that would provide for a thriving and inclusive local democracy is necessary to secure the interests of all local peoples and not only the political elites and representatives of the people at the discourse.
•Orovwuje, is founder, Humanitarian Care for Displaced Persons, Lagos