The fireworks have already started at the National Conference and more drama is expected in the coming days. But we should not lose sight of the opportunities that the confab presents for the future of our dear country. The first disagreement was on the voting majority for decision making. The media reports indicate a sharp divide between the North and the South; while the North wants 75 per cent majority, the South proposes 66 2/3 per cent. A committee of 50 “wise men and women” was set up by the leadership of the National Conference to resolve the problem and reports in the media indicate that a midway point of 70 per cent has been reached and will be presented to the plenary upon reconvening this week.
So, even before the issues are tabled for discussion at the conference, the traditional fault lines have emerged. This preliminary disagreement on voting procedure creates doubts in the minds of right thinking persons on whether there would be meaningful resolutions coming out of the conference. The first point to note is the there would have been no need for the conference if things were working well to the expectation of the majority of Nigerians. Virtually every section of the country has one claim of marginalisation or grouse against other sections of the country. Therefore, the country needs positive change for it to reclaim the track of progress and development.
Essentially, setting the voting majority required for change too high will ensure that the status quo remains thereby defeating the aim of the conference. And the question will be: Who benefits from the status quo? On the other hand, setting the voting majority required for change too low will trivialise the outcome of the conference and make it difficult to sell to Nigerians who will ultimately be called upon to approve the same. It is doubtful if there is any contentious issue in Nigeria where anyone can muster 75 per cent majority in support. Insisting on 75 per cent or even the proposed 70 per cent will ensure that nothing will be achieved. The conference can as well be disbanded at this moment because it will not likely come forward with a single resolution. The two thirds majority proposal is even in accordance with the demands of the 1999 Constitution and cannot be said to be a low voting threshold.
It has been hundred years since Nigeria came into being. As a social and human entity, we should use the opportunity of this conference to do a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis of Nigeria with a view to building on our strengths, reducing our weaknesses and vulnerabilities and forging a stronger union where individual and group rights will be respected. Since independence, the 1960 and 1963 constitutions were the only ones negotiated by the representatives of the Nigerian people. All the other constitutions were products of military dictatorship and were promulgated by military fiat. Interestingly, the said 1960 to the 1963 era saw real development in all facets of our national life and the founding fathers of our nation who we eulogise everyday were the leaders of the negotiations that led to the two constitutions. Thus, what did the founding fathers and the constitutions they set up provide? What model and framework of government did they bequeath to us before the military intervened? Are we satisfied with the present framework and scheme of things? If we are not satisfied, what can we do to change the situation? A few suggestions will be proffered.
The challenges we face today are directly linked with the structure of our federation. We should seriously consider a return to regionalism; not the regions of old but the six geopolitical zones which we have recognised under various laws. The zones should take over from states which may become divisions in the zones. The second issue is that the long list of items in the Exclusive Legislative List should be pruned down leading to decentralisation and devolution of powers to the regions. This will make the centre less attractive and the quest for federal power will reduce its’ “do-or-die intensity”. The Federal Government should concern itself more with foreign relations, defence, currency, etc, while the regions take over the day to day issues of education, health, housing, infrastructure, etc. Essentially, we need to ensure a high level of regional autonomy which will ignite a healthy competition for development. Indeed, we need a confederation of regions to form a Nigerian union where every region will be allowed to develop and move at its own pace. Any region that wants to create more states or local governments will be free to do so without let or hindrance and at no extra cost to the centre.
The third issue is that by the agreement of our visionary founding fathers, derivation under Section134 of the 1960 Constitution and reproduced in Section140 of the 1963 Constitution was pegged at 50 per cent. Following the said constitutions, the continental shelf of a region was deemed to be part of the region. Subsequent changes were by military fiat and not the product of any negotiation or agreement by the people. Now, we are ready for negotiations; we need to go back to that formula because it worked well. Secondly, restricting derivation only to natural resources is unfair because whether resources are natural or “other resources”, they are derived from a certain state or location. Therefore, derivation should not be limited to natural resources but to any resource from which there are accruals to the Federation Account. In the alternative, regions should control their resources and pay not more than 50 per cent tax on the proceeds of those resources to the Federal Government
The fourth issue is the return of parliamentary democracy. Our current experimentation with the presidential system of government is too expensive and is a virtual winner-takes-all approach to governance. It has inbuilt tensions and little or no conflict resolution mechanisms. We seek a return to the parliamentary system of governance, unicameral legislature and ultimately, the reduction of the cost of governance. The fifth issue is the rotation of federal power. We seek a constitutional provision which will ensure that leadership at the federal level rotates among the six geopolitical zones of the country. This is necessary to cement the unity of the country and give a sense of belonging to all constituent parts of the Federation.
The sixth issue is the guarantee of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: There should be a minimum guarantee of the enjoyment of economic social and cultural rights across the federation. Nigeria has ratified a number of international standards on the ESC rights. The ESC rights will include the rights to education, adequate housing, health, water and sanitation. The federal constitution will provide for the minimum core obligations of the state. But the fuller details in terms of the full extent of the protection will be detailed in regional constitutions. Essentially, every Nigerian will be entitled to the minimum provisions in the federal constitution while regions will be at liberty to exceed the minimum obligation. However, no region will be allowed to contract out of the national minimum standards. Finally, the conference should agree on the right of the constituent regions to self determination under certain conditions. The conditions will include the perpetuation of genocide against the population of a region.
First published in the Punch on 31/03/04