About 20 years ago, precisely on June 25, July 2, and July 9 1992, this column carried a three-part article on Sovereign National Conference (SNC). Each of the three parts dealt with a different aspect of the subject and carried a different title: For a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) (June 25); SNC and flashpoints of discontent (July 2) and Organising the SNC (July 9).
I started the first part of the article, For a Sovereign National Conference (SNC), with revolutionary optimism and high morale: “Now that the convening of a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) for Nigeria can be regarded as historically inevitable, we turn part of our attention to its historical basis, justification, status, composition, structure, mandate, agenda, tenure and relation to the incumbent government. We must turn attention to these questions so that the conference, when it finally comes, does not descend on us unprepared, as historical anti-climax”.
Clarification: By “we” and “us” in this opening paragraph I meant, not “all Nigerians”, but specifically, the Radical Movement, that is, the aggregate of Nigeria’s socialists, labour unions, popular-democratic formations and radical patriots. I am today aware, more than I was in 1992, that there are genuine democrats and radical patriots who are only opposed to “Nigerian capitalism” and “Nigerian system” and not to capitalism in general. The federation of “we” and “us” has spaces for all such compatriots.
The opening paragraph was restrained, so to say, by the second paragraph, from going over the roof. And this was the restraint: “I hasten to add, however, that the actual historical point at which this conference – that is, the SNC – will be convened cannot be predicted. We cannot say if it will come before the end of the present transition or after it. Since I am not a soothsayer, I cannot say whether it will come peacefully or not. What is abundantly clear is that the way forward passes through a National Conference and no where else”. The phrase “whether it will come about peacefully or not” appears to introduce a contradiction into this advocacy because a national conference, sovereign or not, was - and is - supposed to prevent a one-sided, or unilateral and therefore violent, resolution of a fundamental political crisis. So how can it come about violently? In other words, how can a “peaceful alternative” be conceived as a project which may be brought into being by violence? I now see that my 1992 formulation in this instance was too dry. I ought to have added two notes by way of illustration: One, that an actual armed confrontation can force a Sovereign National Conference on the nation; and two: that, generally and historically, a violent action, or actions that threaten to use force, may be inevitable in laying the foundation of a system that is envisaged as peaceful.
In the third paragraph of the article I said: “A Sovereign National Conference becomes the only viable historical option, not all times, but precisely at those points in a nation’s history when a crisis, signifying the bankruptcy of a social order or an existing political structure, cannot be resolved either by the existing state or by any other coalition of forces. At those points, the nation in crisis can advance in one of three directions: Either it degenerates into anarchy (Liberia and Somalia) or disintegrates (Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union), or the whole nation meets to save itself. The way to national recovery and renewal therefore lies in the third direction.”
The only comment I should make today on this arguably idealistic formulation is that I was - and I am - interested in the question of Sovereign National Conference principally because of the role I believed - and believe - my “constituents”, that is radical patriots, genuine democrats and leftists, would play in such a gathering and the specific weight of the interests of Nigeria’s popular masses in it. Otherwise, I would not be talking politics. I may however add that neither in 1992 nor today would I conceive a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) as a gathering of Nigeria’s ethnic nationalities, however articulated. Nigeria is not, and has never been, the arithmetical sum of ethnic nationalities.
In the fourth paragraph, I attempted an implicit definition of a Sovereign National Conference by differentiating it from a Constituent Assembly: “A Sovereign National Conference (SNC) is not a Constituent Assembly, and must not be confused with it. A Constituent Assembly is normally put in place by an incumbent government under its own rules…Whatever form it takes, a Constituent Assembly comes into being only when a basic direction of national renewal has been agreed upon, or imposed. The Assembly then works out the mechanisms or details”. I would today replace “Constituent Assembly” with “Constitutional Conference” to correspond with our own political lexicon.
On the other hand, a Sovereign National Conference “proceeds with no assumption whatsoever; it is national in the truest sense of the term; it is virile; it is self-constituted and, while it lasts, it is superior to any other political institution in the land, including the incumbent government. This is the type of conference I consider now inevitable in the country”. I do not see the need for any modification of this formulation, although I admit that it is “extremist” and “maximalist”. But that is it. If you are not comfortable with this, you may talk of another conference, but not a Sovereign National Conference. I may also add, for completeness, that only a referendum can alter even a single word in SNC’s decisions.
In the sixth and seventh paragraphs I argued that a Sovereign National Conference (SNC), as I had conceived it “is a social revolution, regardless of the fear which conservatives have for the term. There are two types of social revolution: the national but radical; and the class-based. A Sovereign National Conference is a revolution of the first type. The Conference need not aspire to address all questions. It should limit itself to the fundamental question of our national existence. Other questions will be taken up by an elected Constituent Assembly when the terms of our continued existence have been agreed upon by the SNC and the foundations of a New Nigeria have been laid”. My comment here is by way of clarification. By “national existence” or “continued existence” I did not mean-and do not mean - ethnic cohabitation”. I meant - and I mean - the prevention of a Somali-type situation. We all know that, today, Somalia simultaneously exists and does not exist.
This first part of the three-part article ended with a “distillation” of what I had called the “fundamental question of our national existence”. I listed four elements of this “fundamental question” and added a fifth one in the second article. They may be summarized. The first element is the national question and structure of national unity. “Under this, the SNC should deal with the question of relationship between the various nationalities that constitute Nigeria. It should make a choice between confederalism, federalism and unitarism. It should deal with the nature and elements of the choice that is made”. My hope here was - and is - that my “constituents”, as I defined them above, would fight for either the retention of states as constituent units of a Nigerian federation or the empowerment of the current geopolitical zones. But not restructuring along ethnic lines.
The second element of the fundamental principle of our national existence, as I saw it in 1992, is Fundamental human rights. Here the SNC should “agree on a list of enforceable and justiciable human rights to be enjoyed by all Nigerians with immediate effect, not at an unspecified future”. The third element is State and religion. “Here the terms of relationships that should exist between organized religions and the Nigerian state should be stated in clear terms”. I added that “there should be no ambiguity here”. The fourth element is the Philosophy of government and political system. I now believe that the fifth and last element, Economic system and property relations, sounds too suggestive for the type of conference that is envisaged. It may come under fundamental human rights.
I would like to end with the obvious: Just as nothing guarantees the victory of a revolution before it is launched, or even as it is launched, the SNC, as conceived above, is not guaranteed of victory. In fact, it can hasten the advent of the “doomsday”, as some people now warn - honestly or dishonestly. For instance, there may appear irreconcilable disagreements on the composition of the conference, on the agenda or on the mode of taking decisions. There may also be threats of, or actual, extra-SNC interventions in the course of the proceedings.