Jonathan: On the Threshold of Making History
By Mustapha Abdullahi
Reading through the address of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan during the inauguration of the on-going National Conference on 17 th March, 2013, one cannot but have a feeling of optimism that, at last, Nigeria will rise again. Not only is the address a message of hope, it also shows, clearly, that we have a President who understands the nature and complexity of the challenges facing our country; that he is an honest leader who openly admits to Nigerians the seriousness of our situation, and who has the political will as well as commitment to search for a solution. That is what will make this National Conference unique and different from previous ones.
Nigeria has held a number of Conferences since political independence, and most of them have been Constitutional Conferences. The ones that readily come to mind are the Constituent Assembly of 1978, the 1994/95 Constitutional Conference and, more recently, the 2005 National Political Reform Conference, held under the civilian administration of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo.
Unfortunately, neither the Obasanjo Conference nor any of the previous exercises recorded any major success in resolving the myriad problems that confront Nigeria. Explanations as to why they failed differ from person to person and there is hardly a consensus. It is claimed, for instance, that the 1994/95 Constitutional Conference failed mainly because it was intended as an instrument of transmutation of General Sani Abacha from a military Head of State to a civilian President. The case of former President Obasanjo was more obvious: he organised the Conference solely to promote his personal ambition of securing a third term in office.
As the search for solution eludes the country, so have the nation's challenges been mounting – material poverty, social injustice, inequality, stupendous affluence in the midst of object poverty, massive corruption, high unemployment especially among the youths, religious intolerance, political and social unrest, kidnapping, armed robbery, etc. The existing economic and political structures appear incapable of holding the Nigerian society together on a peaceful, orderly and just basis. Consequently, there have been increasing incidents of violent insurgency as a result of real or perceived injustice.
As more Nigerians become aggrieved and disillusioned, the agitation for a radical change in the existing social and political order continues to rise. Nigerians who agitate for a National Sovereign Conference believe that the country's Constitution was imposed on the people, either by our erstwhile colonial masters or by military juntas. They are, therefore, seeking a restructuring of the system.
Since the current democratic dispensation in 1999, the idea of a National or Sovereign National Conference has been accepted as a method of galvanizing political change in Nigeria. Naturally, a democratically elected government is not expected to adopt such a method for changing the political system. However, to the surprise of Nigerians, Jonathan, who was initially hesitant about talks of a National Conference, announced on 1 st October, 2013, that, indeed, he was interested in conducting what he called a National Dialogue. And, on 7 th October, he set up an Advisory Committee on the National Dialogue headed by Senator Femi Okurounmu.
At the inauguration of the Advisory Committee, Jonathan said that the proposed Conference was 'in response to the yearnings of our people' and that 'it is a National Project, a sincere and fundamental understanding … aimed at resolving longstanding impediments to our cohesion and harmonious development as a truly united Nation.' Thus, the emphasis of the Conference, as conceived by the President, was on the will and aspirations of the people as well as national unity.
It was the message of returning sovereignty to the people and promoting national unity that permeated the President's address at the inauguration of the Conference itself. He was emphatic: 'The idea of the Conference is not vitiated by the existence of an elected parliament and elected government. Sovereignty resides in the people and the voices of the majority must not be ignored … The National Conference is a very important avenue for the voices of the people to be heard.' The President referred to 'the inadequacies of the current situation … in which the prefix 'we the people is a misnomer.'
The sincerity of Jonathan's determination to give sovereignty back to the people was evident from his appeal to the 'National Assembly and Houses of Assembly to speed up the constitution amendment process, with regard to referendum.' What it means is that at the end of the deliberations by the Conference participants, it is the Nigerian people that will take a final decision on the recommendations made. This is the essence of democracy -a government of the people by the people and for the people. That is what Jonathan means when he speaks of the dawn of a new era.
Another important message that runs through the President's address is 'national unity.' Recall that Jonathan had earlier declared the 'indivisibility and indissolubility' of Nigeria as the only no-go area for the National Conference. He was passionate about the need for unity in Nigeria, and cautioned that 'delegates must not see themselves as ethnic champions … must strive at undertaking collective task in the interest of our nation and that ethnic and regional agenda must be put aside.'
Jonathan has been unique in taking the wind out of the opposition's sails. Over the years, the agitation for a National Conference has been championed mainly by the nation's opposition parties who claim to be doing so in the interest of the people. Now, Jonathan is set to offer the people what the opposition is unable to give to them. Indeed, the President is on the threshold of making history.
Abdullahi sent this piece from Abuja.