Over lunch at the Ocean View restaurant on a humid July afternoon in Lagos, my good friend Yinka Odumakin sought to add a little spice to our dismal discussion of “Project Nigeria”: he had it on good authority, he said, that President Jonathan would soon surprise and confound the forces arrayed against him by acceding to the call for a national conference. It was not a matter of if but when, he said. Thus, when Senate President David Mark spoke last month of the urgent need for a national conference, I heard the voice of Jacob but saw the hands of Esau. Retired Brigadier Mark, leader of the Babangida Boys, life-time public servant reputed to be wealthy beyond belief — a reputation he may have confirmed now that he is about to build and name a university after himself in his hometown of Otupko. Mark, who until now had been vociferous in dismissing a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) as “not workable under the 1999 constitution,” who to me is a poster-boy of everything lamentable about Nigeria.
But as the old saying counsels, one must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. And soon enough Jonathan would announce in his Independence Day speech an Advisory Committee to prepare the grounds for a talkfest. If there was any doubt that Mark had been flying a kite for Jonathan, it was promptly erased. Both men have studiously avoided the all-important word “sovereign” in every reference to national conference. Indeed, Jonathan seems unsure what to call it, so he has settled for “National Dialogue or Conference.” Perhaps the advisory committee to be chaired by Dr Femi Okurounmu, an SNC stalwart, will help the president decide but we should be clear: what well-meaning Nigerians have been demanding as far back as 1989, when progressives began to suspect a “hidden agenda” in Babangida’s never-ending transition programme and worry seriously about Nigeria, is not an ordinary conference.
“What is in a name?” some might ask, and add that a “conference of the people by any other name called sounds as sweet.” Yet if the tragic fate that Shakespeare assigns Juliet despite her magical thinking that things and what we call them are two essentially different things is anything to go by, then we must insist on the proper name for this conference. After all, it matters that Satan and Archangel Lucifer do not mean the same thing though they refer to the same being. Against the guns and bombs speaking the language of bloody violence and dismemberment, words offer us the only peaceful weapon for winning the battle for Nigeria and we must choose them carefully. This is even more important given that power tends to accede to the people’s demand only when sure of turning it into a means of perpetuating the status quo under a different name. It shouldn’t be forgotten that, first Abacha, and then Obasanjo, convened constitutional conferences. Mark’s senate may be eager now to back a national conference, but how willing will it be to abide by the people’s earnest wishes and desires? This is the same senate, we must remember, that twice voted down Okurounmu’s bills for an act to convene an SNC; a senate that was denouncing proponents of an SNC as anarchists just last year.
Opponents of a sovereign conference fall into two broad camps. The first consists principally of federal legislators tortured by the dangerous illusion that the sovereign will of the people resides in the national assembly. Thus, for them an SNC would tantamount to a divided sovereignty. Then there is the camp of entrenched interests tied inextricably to the perpetuation of Nigeria as a structurally deformed polity, the bastion of reaction served by every government in power from independence till now. Lacking any convincing argument against the most feasible option for correcting “the mistake of 1914,” as Ahmadu Bello summed up Nigeria, they brandish the bogey of disintegration at every turn. To them, Nigeria is inseparable from their narrow, selfish interests.
To the first group, the answer is a lesson in civics: Sovereignty belongs to the people, as acknowledged even by Abacha’s militarily imposed 1999 Constitution: “sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria from whom government . . . derives all its powers and authority.” Government is only a means of exercising the sovereign will of the people, which means that presidents and legislators are their agents. An agent enjoys only a delegated or limited version of the principal’s full power and authority. In any case, it is the people who establish parliaments and elect legislators, then delegate powers to them, and not the other way round. To members of the second camp, we need only point out that Nigeria is already crumbling, though perhaps unbeknownst to them since they are too busy looting and raping her.
Well, then, let all who fear the unfettered will of the people to self-determination be informed: a sovereign national conference means no more than that it be autonomous, and that the constitution to embody its decisions be subject not to the whims and caprices of the president or the national assembly, but only to ratification by the people through a referendum. If Jonathan deems this goal too high, then perhaps he had better not raise false hopes. To salvage Nigeria, only an SNC will suffice. That is Jonathan’s test of sincerity. And that is the only way he can redeem his rather catastrophic tenure in power so far and transform himself into a hero of the Nigeria of our dreams.