And just like that, President Jonathan took the wind out of his own sails! With his Independence Day announcement, and subsequent empanelling, of a National Conference Advisory Committee, his floundering presidential ship of state seemed set to sail out of troubled waters. I was, and remain, cautiously optimistic about his decision to convene a national conference. Frankly, at this calamitous point of our life as a nation, I would be delighted by any chance of airing out grievances, real or imaginary, sitting face to face with the “enemy other,” before we all go mad. Thus, I offered a tentative endorsement of the national conference in my last column, “Salvaging Nigeria: Only a Sovereign National Conference Will Suffice!” (9 October 2013).
For me, the qualifying word “sovereign” is the litmus test of Jonathan’s sincerity, foretells whether or not his national conference will be a transforming event or just another bloody waste of time. Precisely in the same way that his combative refusal to publicly declare his assets has been a test of his so-called “zero tolerance” war against corruption. Now that he has said he would forward the proceedings of the conference to the National Assembly for ratification, I feel even more confirmed in this view. More than mode of representation (ethnic or across the varied strata of civil society) or agenda, the question of sovereignty strikes me as the most important. Lest it be forgotten, especially by the self-serving individuals (with very few exceptions) known as our national legislators, a sovereign conference means no more than that its proceedings be ratified only by referendum.
This would be a straightforward enough proposition in any sane polity, except in ours of the most expensively paid parliamentarians. With a straight face, our legislators insist that sovereignty resides not in the people but in them, the mere agents sent on an errand of executing the people’s will. Their arguments in defence of this outrageous claim are so patently disingenuous a secondary school student would beg to debate them on television. Since our return to civilian rule (not to be confused with democracy), I have had cause to dismiss the majority of our “honourable” legislators as illiterates. By which I mean not the inability to read or write but lack of the requisite cultivation of mind to fit the citizen for service to his society and humanity at large. But after the arguments advanced by a gaggle of senators and representatives in support of their contempt for the people, I am beginning to think that perhaps they are functionally illiterate. For what do they not understand in the clear provision of Section 14(2)(a) of the Constitution: “Sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria from whom government . . . derives all its powers and authority”? Perhaps, that government includes the legislature? In what world does the agent ratify the principal’s act?
Well, then, suppose the nine villages of a clan — let’s call it Umuofia — resolve, after protracted deliberations on the root causes of incessant conflicts among them, to set up a Council of Elders with a representative from each village. And this council’s duty is to make subsidiary resolutions towards the implementation of their decision on ways of settling their differences and ensuring lasting peace. Suppose that four years after, relations among the villages have not only failed to improve but have degenerated. And that, consequently, they decide to rewrite the original resolution. For which purpose, they constitute another body to draw up better principles of co-existence for the clan. Would President Jonathan and our legislators insist that the new body’s recommendations are to be ratified by the Council of Elders and not by each of the nine villages?
I should hope not. The best one can say for the National Assembly is that it is the “custodian” of the sovereign will of the people. But a custodian is only a caretaker. His powers are subject to, and determined by, the over-riding powers and rights of “the owner” or “beneficiary.” If Jonathan and our federal legislators do not understand this principle, then they confirm the fears of those who suspect a hidden agenda in the sudden conversion of hitherto sworn enemies of a (sovereign) national conference. After all, in what democracy do public servants hold their masters, the people, in such utter contempt? Oh, I know: one in which politicians have perfected the art of rigging elections and so do not need the electorate.
Still, I remain cautiously optimistic about the conference for the simple reason that it is better to “jaw” than to “war,” particularly at this ominous juncture of our national life. But I have no confidence in Jonathan or the National Assembly. All my hope is in the people. And to some extent, on the Okurounmu Committee whose members, I pray, will choose to be patriots by taking the side of the people. If the goal is to salvage Nigeria and set her on the path to self-actualisation in a free, fair and genuine federation, then only a sovereign national conference will do. Which means that its final resolutions may only be ratified by referendum and adopted into law wholesale by the National Assembly. That is the only way the resultant Constitution can claim to have been made by “We the people.” Anything else would be a travesty.