Jonathan, National Assembly and confab recommendations

Posted On 31 Aug 2014
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  • Guardian News
  • Written by Akpo Esajere

SITTING for about five months, the 2014 National Conference touched practically most of the issues that Nigerians in general feel strongly about. However, apart from general policy matters meant for Executive treatment, the fundamental constitutional recommendations continue to evoke deep concerns.

  These ones have to be approved by the National Assembly, and by at least two-thirds State Assemblies; that is, 24 States out of the country’s 36.

  This constitutional requirement, with good intentions to ensure spread and wide support is, however, viewed as a booby-trap, more likely to bring out the worst than the best of the country’s complex political, economic, historical, social, religious and cultural differences. It is sure to kill both good things and bad things.

The 2014 National Conference

IT set out in the midst of suspicions and controversies. Those who benefit from the current set-up wanted things to remain as they were.

  Much of the anti-conference agitations were, however, against the convener, his real intentions and the timing. What was he up to? Was it not some re-election ploy?

  The 492-delegates conference failed to hack a deal on derivation/allocation, arguably the most problematic of the troubles facing the country. They pushed it over to the Executive to tackle it using a technical committee.

  Still, theirs is a story of reasonable success although much still depends on what will be the final output after processing for approval, particularly by the National Assembly.

  Many of the confab conclusions and recommendations are good. A number of them are ridiculous. The good thing, however, is that they were negotiated and agreed; so, they were majority decisions. Now, Nigerians know that something can be done about their many crises.

   But there is a veiled caution for everyone that has one thing or another to do with the final outcome to be careful, especially with the ones viewed as volatile. Though unsound at first glance, they, nonetheless, convey the concerns and wisdom behind the conclusions.

Jonathan makes a mark

BY setting up the body, and ensuring it pulled through, the President Goodluck Jonathan administration has made a mark. And this, whether or not the recommendations are wholly carried, partially carried or cynically set aside.

  In any case, the 2014 conference output, unlike other immediate past conference reports, could never be set aside.

  It is irrelevant that the 2015 general election, scheduled to begin in only five months on February 2, is round the corner. Or politicians are already hustling and so, the report can only unwittingly be in abeyance for now.

  It doesn’t matter, too, whether Jonathan, the convener, who is obviously seeking a second term in office, gets re-elected or not. Indeed, the talks and its reasonable success could only help his case.

  If he runs — he apparently will — and be defeated, it could not make much difference to the conference product. For, whoever takes over the reins of the presidency after him would sooner than later find himself under heavy pressure to promptly bring out the report and proceed, at once, in addressing the recommendations!

  Doing otherwise would mean that the country, already afflicted by deep crises, will be plunged into extremely low morale, and there is no knowing what follows after. No new entrant would attempt to ignore or sideline this report without causing more national upheaval.

  It doesn’t end there. Were any newcomer to decide to set up a conference of his own, as Nigerian leaders are wont to do on succeeding an older regime, it would be an exercise in futility, a hugely crisis-ridden gambit that would never work, unless the country veers into “discussing” the “no-go” issue of her disintegration!

  As one notable source at the just-concluded conference put it, “it was a Nigerian conference and not a Goodluck Jonathan conference. What the President has done is only to provide the enablement. He could have discarded the whole idea, knowing how weighty the issues were, and the temper of opposition and, indeed, tension in the country. His genuine intentions were very clear.”

  If, on the other hand, Jonathan is re-elected, there is little doubt that the report would serve as take-off point for his second and final term in office.

  A minority President from the small minority Otuoke community of the exclusively Ijaw-stock Bayelsa State in the South-South, his commitment to working towards implementing much of the recommendations can be expected to be strong.

  For now, he would rather give attention to re-election campaign. Time has become too short for him to be genuinely expected to send a bill to the National Assembly on the constitutional matters.

  The Assembly itself is on recess. Even if he did, at their resumption in September, only four months to election and just about one month to nominations, the legislators wouldn’t go into it. They are more likely to push it aside for now in favour of political campaign. They are already immersed in the campaigns anyway.

  Meanwhile, the President is in a position to make the report a campaign issue. But here again, he has to tread warily. He had better not unnecessarily antagonise those who are unhappy that he wants to run for re-election or uncomfortable with some aspects of the report — something that could cost him useful votes among some sections of the electorate.

North/South divide

AT the conference, while the anxiety of the delegates from Southern states to seek protection from an aged, enslaving, bloated and overbearing centre cut through much of the their posturing and submissions on the country’s structural defects, the desperation of the delegates from especially the core Northern states, to ensure that the status quo is maintained on the same set of issues, was very much in evidence.

  And so, the age-old, North/South squabbling, over who gets what and where, was very much on display at the talks. This, indeed, culminated in derivation/allocation being inconclusive. What the conference did was a delicate balancing act. And what it means is that any attempt to unduly re-write, frustrate or abort what has been agreed under such terms is guaranteed to cause more controversies and crises.

  Inevitably, this shifts attention to the National Assembly, a body, though so important as one primarily designed to speak on behalf of the people and check the excesses of the government to ensure that things are done right, lacks kudos, for often failing to do so.

The National Assembly

IT is an unsettling prospect. The composition of this body gives a clear majority voice to the North. It is like other structural advantages of the North over the South, as in number of states, local governments and constituencies.

  With the constitution of the House of Representatives based on constituencies, the Northern representation far outstrips the South. For example, Kano State alone has 27 Reps based on its 44 local governments while representation for the seven states of the Northwest alone is almost equal to those of the entire South.

  In the Senate, which is constituted on equality of states (three per state based on three senatorial districts each), the North, with more states than the South, also has the majority. This is behind the endless calls for a referendum, rather than sending the conference recommendations to the National Assembly. Lately, there have been renewed calls for the setting up of a Constituent Assembly.

  Indeed, at the beginning, pro-national conference campaigners called for representation to be based on ethnic nationalities. That way, the voices of the country’s 370 and more ethnic groups could be better felt. How could there be fairness and equity, it was argued, when population and landmass and other political considerations determine representation?

  However, one of the arguments against ethnic representation is that the majority ethnic groups, even at that, would still emerge with their larger representation; that is, the North and South or their respective zones will still come through with the existing gaps.

  Following this, and given the crises in the country in virtually every facet of her life, the government went for appointed delegation. Nomination, by the President and state governors, could never satisfy everybody. But the government seemed to have concluded that it was the safest thing to do.

  In retrospect, it can be argued that the 2014 conference was a good assemblage in terms of quality and representation and, ultimately, its conclusions and recommendations.

  It can also be conjectured that, at least, 60 per cent of delegates to the conference would still have made it to an ethnically-constituted conference, especially among those nominated by state governors.

Northern tentacles at the National Assembly

OVER the years, the North had jostled for political and structural control of power, particularly under the military. Under the current set-up in which the country depends on oil, which the North doesn’t have, it is left using the acquired “power” as much as it can. It is a hard sell at the National Assembly, whatever the North does not desire or is not in her best interest.

  And so, this body is more likely to re-enact some of the North/South explosions at the confab over the recommendations.

  Specifically, all matters involving sharing are doomed at the Assembly. These include derivation or resource control, as in re-adjustment of revenue allocation and introduction of fiscal federalism — all intended to reduce the powers of the Federal Government and empower the states. They are most likely dead on arrival.

  Recommendations concerning creation of additional states and taking out the management of local governments from the federal list and placing it under the state legislature may get the red card.

  If the states were allowed to create and manage their own local governments, it would save the country a lot of troubles. It may better unleash the potentials of the states and their local governments.

  But the North doesn’t see it so. Access to oil money by federal allocation is through a number of states and local governments.

  The North, with a larger number of states and local governments, gets a fair deal by always politicking hard towards a situation in which the Federal Government or the central distribution channel collects and keeps all the money.

  In effect, the more money the Federal Government collects, the more it has to distribute, and, of course, the more the North gets. For example, while Bayelsa, the largest offshore oil-bearing state, goes to Abuja with its eight local governments (8 lorries, apologies to Godini G. Darah), Kano, with 44 local governments, arrives with 44 lorries.

  Derivation (sharing) is usually a bitter war between the North and oil-producing South-South while the other two Southern zones (Southwest and Southeast) go for support.

  Even in the North, the Middle-Belt minorities (North Central) that would rather go with the South on many issues, often teams up with the Northern majorities (Northwest and Northeast) on derivation. It is a fight that will never end until oil finishes or the rest of the world quits buying Nigeria’s oil.

Other touchy matters

IT is now clear how the Assembly may go about an issue like rotation of offices. The conference advised that the President be rotated between North and South, and that it should float from one zone to another in each region at each rotation.

  In the case of governor, it is the conference’s opinion that rotation should be among senatorial districts (three) of each state.

  Indeed, much of this is already informally in effect in most states. But it may spark a heated debate at the National Assembly. Federal legislators see it as giving undue advantage to state governors.

  It is noteworthy that in the dying days of the conference, key leaders of geo-political delegations attempted a balancing act to pull through 18 per cent derivation for oil-bearing states, which had been 13 per cent since 1995, by awarding 5 per cent to the Northwest and Northeast over security ravages and 5 per cent for solid mineral development.

  The 5 per cent awarded specifically to Northwest and Northeast was doomed even before they came up with it. For, shorn of all pretences, the murderous/country destruction insurgency/terrorist mayhem, being waged by the Boko Haram sect in parts of the North, is widely seen as part of a veiled political war to avenge an election loss and make the country as ungovernable as possible. In the South, it (5 per cent) was considered as amounting to rewarding terrorism.

  Predictably, the northern delegates (read North), getting nothing from that bargaining, blocked it. Hence derivation was deadlocked. Maybe, the way out, as some have said, is reduce the northern package to 1.5% and give 3.5% to solid minerals.

  On the question of oil, the country ought, by now, to avert its mind to what happens if oil finishes or buyers no longer buy Nigeria’s oil.

  The political class shouldn’t display crass insensitivity to the problems of oil, both for the country’s economy and future, and the plight of oil-producing communities. Duelling on figures and statistics misses the point altogether.

New States

WHAT the confab came up with on creation of additional states may look ridiculous, especially their recommended 18 new states to achieve parity among the six zones, where the Northwest alone has seven states, while four zones (Southwest, Northeast, South-South and North Central) have six each and only Southeast has five. This increases the country’s 36 states to 54 — an unsustainable prospect.

  But the recommendation to create one additional state in the Southeast is something to consider dispassionately. As the conference reasoned, this would, at least, bring every zone, except Northwest, at par.

  After all, over 52 demands for new states were lodged with the National Assembly, according to Ike Ekweremadu, Deputy Senate President and chair of the Assembly State Creation Committee, during their constitutional amendment Pubic Hearing.

  The conference did not name the additional state for the Southeast, although it approved two more for the zone on its list of 18 new states.

  Evidently, the delegates didn’t want to dabble in naming the additional state for the zone — a wise move. A “local” plebiscite organised for the zone by both the National Assembly and the Assemblies of the states in the zone can solve that.

Security and elections

IT may not be a mission-impossible for the National Assembly to uphold most of the recommendations in these areas. The conference, for example, recommended State Police, but with a proviso: only states that can fund and manage its establishment should do so.

  A highly controversial proposal, which may not pass the crucibles of the National Assembly, as the North is against such establishment; the confab, however, endorsed greater empowerment of various forms of state-sponsored security units for their own use, to complement national security agencies. The Nigeria Police was left intact.

  On its part, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was cleared to conduct all elections. It would be interesting how this plays out at the federal legislature.

  The body may come under strong lobby by state governors, who have considerable influence over their state representatives to maintain the status quo; that is, retain the existing arrangement in which state INECs conduct state elections.

Harmless issues

THE conference wisely turned down matters like unicameral legislature and part-time sitting. No serious mention was made of parliamentary government during the talks unlike the strong campaign for the system during pre-conference debates.

  The Assembly would have overthrown them. Here is how, in an interview, the Senate Leader, Victor Ndoma-Egba (SAN) (Cross River), in January, well before the commencement of the conference, assessed unicameral, as opposed to bicameral legislature:

  “We have bicameral legislature where you have a pluralistic society, where there is a divergence in tribe, culture, religion and everything. If you research, the only society that is near homogeneous is Korea.

  “Where society is diverse, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural; where you have majorities and minorities, the strategy of bicameral legislature is to accommodate the fears and anxiety of everybody.

  “If you look at most plural societies, they are operating bicameral legislatures because where you have two Houses, elections to the lower is usually based on population. Election to the upper House is usually based on the equality of the federating units; in our own case, equity of states.

  “If we had a unicameral legislature, a minority man like me from Aparabong would never be in the Senate, not to talk of being a Senate Leader because election to that unicameral legislature would be on the basis of population.

  “Upon that basis, you don’t stand the chance. The bigger tribes, the bigger components of my constituency, would always swallow up…”

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