On A Nigerian Sovereign National Conference And The Permission Of The National Legislature
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There are facts that only a few Nigerians, against the unrelenting witness of their conscience, can either ignore or dispute:Fact number 1: Not all ethnic nationalities are represented either at the state level or national level. And there are some ethnic
nationalities that have no elected or selected representatives at even the local level. Take, for instance, the Etulo people of Benue state, where I proudly come from. That great ethnic group faces the threat of extinction, not least because they are subsumed within a Tiv-dominated local government area, Katsina-Ala. They have no voice at the local, state, or national level. Almost all Etulo people speak Tiv language without an accent. There are many such ethnic nationalities in Nigeria. I am a Tiv man, but it is saddening to see a situation such as I have described. If members of Nigeria's national assembly claim that they are the only ones that can approve or write a new constitution for Nigeria, what about representatives of ethnic groups such as the Etulo (who may emerge through any process of their choosing)?
Fact number 2: Nigerians did not approve the decree 24 of 1999 that created the 1999 constitution, which set up the bicameral legislature that is so expensive, unwieldy, and very ineffective (one evidence is that for more than twelve years the national legislature has not been able to effect amendments that will bring about social justice and prudence in government expenditure). The national assembly does not possess either the courage or capacity to carry out the 'amendments' that it may claim it is their responsibility to do. For instance, can the national assembly make an amendment to scrap the Senate, leaving only the House of Representatives, composed of all ethnic nationalities, and whose members will serve part-time and be paid accordingly? Can the national assembly amend the constitution to scrap the huge number of government departments wrongly called States that cannot even pay their workers' salaries without allocations from the federation account? Can the national assembly either scrap local government areas in some parts of the country and create some in other parts of the country or remove local governments from the list of levels of government that can partake in revenue sharing in order to bring about social justice? Can the national assembly bring revenue derivation to at least 50 per cent in order to provoke productivity at the state level and competition among states?
Fact number 3: The second chapter of the 1999 constitution, entitled Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy provides great benefits for citizens of Nigeria even as it encourages waste through provisions such as the requirement that at least one minister from each state of the federation should be appointed into the central government. Unfortunately, section 6 of the same constitution absolves government of responsibility in the failure to provide those benefits to Nigerians. Can the national assembly correct this? For instance, can the national assembly either reduce the number of states to about six (according to geo-political zones) while increasing derivation to at least 50 per cent for local communities and the six states [See my article-Re-Engineering Nigeria, part 1, 2010; available online]?
Fact number 4: There are 68 items on the 'Exclusive Legislative List' of the 1999 constitution which inhibit rapid development at the state level. For instance, the Odua rail line was to be built between Lagos and Ibadan and completed in 2006 (Odua consists of the Yoruba states of the south west of Nigeria). The Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC) stopped this because the matter was and still is on the exclusive legislative list (item 55). The chairman of the NRC (he died shortly in a plane crash in 2004) stood against this, relying on the 1999 constitution, which in more ways than one is a document that has impeded development in Nigeria rather than facilitate it. Yet, we have a national legislature that has refused, failed, and neglected to amend such chimerical provisions that are deleterious to Nigeria's development.
Fact number 5: Many of Nigeria's legislators have deliberately made themselves inaccessible to their constituent members. At the risk of sounding immodest, if someone in my position cannot reach my supposed representatives on phone then what is the argument that a legislator such as Senator Abaribe (Chair of the senate committee on information) making when he urged Nigerians on Channels TV to rather send their views about constitution amendment to their legislators than insist on a sovereign national conference? I looked up the phone number of my senator, Chief Barnabas Gemade on his website during the fuel subsidy protests; I could not find a single contact phone number to use. And Mr Gemade is not the only senator that has placed himself in an island of isolation. In 2010 I wanted to reach a senator, Suleiman Nazif (a former student of mine) to discuss with him some ideas I had about national renewal. I tried to use a phone number he listed on his website as a constituency office contact phone number. It was a dead number! I even sent him an email using an address I found on the website of the national assembly; I have not received any responses since then, not even an acknowledgment from a secretariat staff or an automated message. How can the national assembly accord itself the sole responsibility of writing a new constitution as the 'representatives of the people' when it is not accessible to the same people it should represent? I am not a registered member of any political party in Nigeria. But does any Nigerian need to be a party member to have access to their 'representatives'?
I must state unambiguously that we the people do not derive our powers from the national assembly; rather, the national assembly exists by our grace. When we talk of the people, technology has afforded us a simple way of gauging the mood and mind of the people. Our social network sites and the numerous responsive comments made by Nigerians on websites of our newspapers provide clear evidence that the Nigerian people do not have confidence in the ability of the national assembly to lead in the efforts towards national renewal or rebirth. With more than 112 million Nigerians reportedly living below the poverty line and the ineluctable continued state of insecurity in Nigeria, the national assembly should be careful about their continued resistance to Nigerian people sitting and talking about methods and principles of forging a more perfect union. Legislators should not mortgage the future of Nigeria on the altar of their limited mandate and selfishness.
We the Nigerian people are not begging the national assembly to allow a sovereign national conference; we are demanding and we shall have it. Has power ever conceded anything without unrestrained demand? If the national assembly continues in its state of unbridled obduracy and self-confessed knowledge of what is best for the country, very soon they shall have neither the luxury nor safety to sit in plenary at Abuja . And failure to sit for at least 181 days as required in section 63 of the 1999 constitution shall lead to a state of emergency that must call for a sovereign national conference willy-nilly. So, a sovereign national conference, whose decisions shall be subjected to a national referendum item-by-item, is a truth no one can stop. President Jonathan cannot stop it. By the way, is the Niger Delta not clamouring for a sovereign national conference? A man must have questions to answer when he returns home soon having ignored and even frustrated the central issue agitating the minds of his people.
We of the Middle Belt Alliance are in support of a sovereign national conference. We are not afraid to sit and talk with our Nigerian brothers and sisters across the aisle. We do not believe that a sovereign national conference shall precipitate the dissolution of Nigeria; rather, we are of the view that the fear to talk is ominous.
Leonard Karshima Shilgba is an Associate Professor of Mathematics with the American University of Nigeria and President of the Nigeria Rally Movement (www.nigeriarally.org). He is also the Chairman of the Middle Belt Alliance (MBA).