United By Misfortune …Folly, Cacophony Of SNC Calls

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An unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French Operas sung by Swedish artistes should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.

–           Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence

For the past many weeks, Nigerians have had to feed on a tasteless cacophony forced down their throats by a section of the political class and some self-styled civil society activists. It is in form of fresh calls for a Sovereign National Conference (SNC), even as others call for a National Constitutional Conference (NCC) as distinct from a Constituent Assembly.

Like a broken record played on an ill-tuned, rusty and aged gramophone, the need, motive and necessity of such an SNC, seem either non existent or totally lost in the loud voices of desperation thus far blared by the SNC advocates. It has gone to such levels that have united former military President Ibrahim Babangida, and serving Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. And for good reasons.

Dismissing the calls as not merely diversionary and illusionary, President Jonathan matter-of-factly confessed that it was not clear to him what good such an SNC would serve, particularly now that the nation is grappling with a myriad of development needs and other sundry challenges, the same misfortune that united the presidents.

President Jonathan, instead, advised advocates of the SNC to take a second reading of the Justice Alfa Belgore’s Committee report which years ago, came up with far reaching recommendations about revenue sharing formula and devolution of power among other worries. That, at once earned the support of President Babangida who stressed that an SNC would only delay the progress of the nation which already has issues that need immediate attention.

Even so, the push for the conference has continued, unabated. In fact, the issue has so polarized the political class that the lower Chamber of the National Assembly, the House of Representatives almost witnessed a rowdy session, last week.

Chairman, House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Hon Zakary Mohammed (PDP/Kwara) in kicking against the renewed demands for SNC by the same self-styled political leaders toed the president’s line, saying it was not necessary, given the fragile state of the democracy in Nigeria.

But these are not the real  problems. What is, mainly, is the systemic abuse of the freedom of speech and of association in a manner that heats up the polity every once in a while. Another is the nature of the debate and the kind invectives being traded by key actors, using familiar African adages, believed to be very wise sayings, to anchor their lines.

It is normal that once in every while, dynamic members of a given community, could raise both issues and questions on existing rules, axioms, traditions or even conventions. Such could either be in total or partial surrender to the over powering pressures of the constance of change, human curiosity or sometimes merely for mischief moulding purposes for the aggrandizement of a few. The search for relevance should not be ruled out also.

Let’s reduce the horizon into questioning ageless African adages, considered wise saying that the users believe cannot be faulted and how such ‘truths’ have in the past weeks impacted on our political, economic, along with even cultural lives. These adages are many but only a few deserve mention along with a cursory probing for the purpose of the NSC debates.

One is the familiar adage, “The devil you know is better than the angel you don’t know; variously repeated by those in opposition to the SNC calls, another is ‘man is moved to action not by his intellect or reason but by his desires and appetites and a third is, ‘if the owl cried last night and the baby dies this morning, who killed the baby? This is easily the most vexatious because it rules out, in someway, the possibility of coincidence, fair hearing and even accident.

Within the context of calls, among some Nigerians, for either of two conferences, National Constitutional Conference (NCC) or Sovereign National Conference (SNC) along side opposing claims that most of these calls are coming from persons who, out of power, now seek the kind of relevance, which the political process denied them. Let’s probe a little.

The opposing group prefers the fallacy, “the devil we know is better than the angel we don’t know.’ The immediate defect of this is the sharp contrast inherent in both objects in comparison, an Angel and a devil. Is it really true that a known devil is better than an unknown angel? Perhaps, it is intended to magnify another adage which says ‘a bird in hand is worth two in the bush’. This may make some sense because, among other things, the objects are about the same and not in such strong contrast. Not so with the devil and the angel, two clear opposites.

Used in this context, is it true that the Nigeria we know today, can be better than the new Nigeria in Africa which many dream for the continent’s most populous nation? Can that dream be achieved without a Sovereign National Conference or with one? This comparison is even patronizing of the main axiom, for either way, Nigeria today is a nation-state, her future not to be a continent, but an improved model of a developed or a developing nation. How can this be likened to angel and devil.

The next is “man is moved to action not by intellect or reason but by desires and appetites”. Isn’t this an unfair generalization? Are all human actions actually propelled by greed? None engendered by patriotism? In Nigeria are there any? Which? Which are not?

Again, within the context of calls either for an SNC or not, which is patriotic and which is self-serving? And who are those that fit the description of persons seeking fresh relevance denied them by the democratic process? Or is it a veiled approval of the dictum of the owl crying at night and the baby dying next morning? Such is the nature of the cacophony. If you find this less than comprehensible, so do I.

Put in context, many of those calling for a conference of any kind are actually either those who could not enjoy control of government after the May 2011 general elections and would seek to get from the constitutional review that which their electoral mis-steps denied them. How? Those opposing such calls hold that such calls would not have been necessary if the callers had been in control of the National Assembly, constitutionally empowered to work on the constitution.

Again, can the 1999 Constitution, as amended, be considered as a truly people’s constitution? Since it was imposed on Nigerians by the Nigerian military? But which constitution is ever produced by all the people? Or are the calls for a Sovereign National Conference different from that, for ages, canvassed by the oppressed minorities in the land, particularly the Niger Delta people, and denied?

Wait! Are they the same Niger Deltans still calling for an SNC or some others who were presently against SNC but who now fear that the years of political monopoly by some sections of the country might well be over, in view of prevailing political realities? What has changed? What is indeed new?

Frankly, the clamour for an SNC has the colouration of the same contradictions embedded in the three ‘wise sayings’ and together make the calls wear the cloak of a committee, a group of persons who singularly can do nothing but will meet to decide that nothing can be done, and the callers, a bunch of busy-bodies in search of what to do.

It is indeed fascinating, to some, even laughable that the calls for a sovereign national conference should take such a centre stage to the extent of dividing the lower chamber of the National Assembly, the House of Representatives.

Curiously, no political party, prior to the 2011 elections promised to give Nigerians a people’s constitution, neither did any of them find it politically expedient to promise the electorate a sovereign national conference to address, as many today clamour, the partial federalism Nigeria operates. Is this why like President Jonathan, leadership of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) considers other issues like security, fuel subsidy removal, power, infrastructural development and the economy among others as of weightier concerns? Is it also why those who are in favour are treated as bad losers who, unable to get the people’s mandate through the ballot seek to change things through the conference door?

The last time a Constitutional Conference was convoked under former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s watch, it turned out to be a veiled attempt at helping the incumbent enjoy tenure extension. With that agenda collapsing like a pack of cards, all other ordinarily loafty amendments to the constitution were also jettisoned because, as it turned out, the tenure elongation was a condition for such changes.

Unfortunately, that realisation came a little late, and after supposedly honourable Nigerians had fed fat on the nation’s scarce resources, in hotel accommodation needs, travels and the like in the name of thinking for their country. The outcome of that experience turned out to be as wasteful as the tenure elongation attempt itself.

This is why those making the fresh calls should, as President Jonathan and IBB advised, return to the Belgore report, and if necessary channel their needs through their elected representatives who after extensive inter-face and consultations with their constituents could then do what is expedient and right.

To do otherwise is to attempt to get the kind of relevance the political process denied them.

My Agony is that those calling for a Sovereign National Conference in order to balance a shaky federation and thereafter produce a truly people’s constitution have said very little or nothing on how to effectively involve the people in such a process, without doing so through their elected representatives.

That is why it appears to me that what is being canvassed is at best another political circus show, a thirst for another all expenses paid national jamboree and a shouting match in which the loudest automatically nominate themselves, members for another round of backslapping and clicking of glasses at the nation’s expense, in the name of thinking for others. No, not now.

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Soye Wilson Jamabo