A People-Driven Constitution for Nigeria? Yes! Open-ended Dialogue? No! – Professor M. J. Balogun


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Prof. M. J. Balogun wrote on NOVEMBER 16, 2013.
President Goodluck Jonathan’s decision to establish the Presidential Advisory Committee on National Dialogue (hereafter referred to as the “Dialogue Committee” or “the Committee”) has generated a lot of reactions, some positive, others negative, yet others, somewhere in between. The Federal Government justified its action by highlighting the multiple challenges facing Nigeria as a nation, and arguing that only open dialogue offered a way out of the abyss in which Nigerians currently find themselves.
A number of Nigerians, among them, reputable citizens, civil society big-wigs, university professors, and, of course, discredited politicians, have also thrown their weight behind the decision. One politician was quoted as claiming that “The move for national dialogue is …based on a popular notion that ‘it is better to jaw jaw than to war-war’, especially in a democratic setting.” Another observer cataloged all the problems facing Nigeria and concluded that these problems would not go away until the Dialogue Committee got to work. Only enemies of progress, the observer continued, would object to a national dialogue at this stage in Nigeria’s history.
Unfazed by what appears a well-orchestrated plan to line the people behind the Dialogue idea,  critics of open-ended dialogue have dismissed the exercise as at best, a charade meant to divert attention from weighty political questions, and at worst, a cynical and calculated attempt to whip up mass hysteria and stoke ethno-regional antagonism. They find the timing of the dialogue particularly suspect.  Why, they pointedly ask, has National Dialogue suddenly become a panacea for Nigeria’s myriad afflictions? Why did the President of Nigeria not think about organizing a national conference immediately he took over the mantle of the country’s leadership in 2010? Why did he wait until dissidents within his own party, the People’s Democratic Party/PDP, began to raise troubling questions about the party’s record on internal democracy, and, more personally threatening, to demand that the President perish the thought of serving as the party’s flag-bearer in the 2015 presidential electionf?
True to form, attention of Nigerians has since shifted from substance to ad hominem and from rational contestation to plain name calling. Instead of focusing on the case for or against, and/or the options open to, another Presidential committee, the two sides of the dialogue divide have been raining curses and abuses on each other.  Advocates of national dialogue fired the first salvo. They labelled their opponents reactionaries, obstacles to change, pseudo-progressives, etc.
In the hurry to score a point, the Dialogue supporters curiously defined ‘progress’ to mean its exact opposite–that is, looking backwards and holding tenaciously to the past! This is my reading of the commentary by one commentator. Wondering whether the likes of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu should not stop parading themselves as progressives, this apologist for dialogue challenged the APC leader to reconcile his present opposition to the Dialogue Committee with his previous stand on the same subject. If Tinubu was a staunch advocate of dialogue under the Abacha regime in the 1990s, why is he now performing a somersault and opposing Jonathan’s Dialogue Committee? What kind of politics is that? Politics without principle, Tinubu’s critic lashed out.Since he and I have never met, I do not consider myself competent to hold brief for Tinubu or defend his views. Still, I cannot help wondering if his critics are not deliberately misrepresenting his position, or worse still, comparing the incomparable. Based on my, albeit, limited, knowledge of the history of the struggle against the military in Nigeria, I can say without fear of contradiction that what Tinubu and his contemporaries stood for decades ago was a Sovereign National Conference/SNC. They did so at a time when the SNC appeared as the most effective method of changing corrupt and dictatorial regimes. Whether it was in the Republic of Benin, the Republic of Congo, or Mali, the SNC was the mechanism adopted by leading opposition figures to wrest power from sit-tight rulers and, supposedly, to return that power to where it belonged—the custody of the People.However, the SNC, which worked in the 1990s–when constitutional methods of changing African regimes failed–is not in the same class as the National Dialogue Committee established by an incumbent President and for reasons that are not entirely clear. The critics of the dialogue idea fear that like its predecessors, the Dialogue Committee would go from one urban area to another listening to a vocal and politically engaged public, going through the motion of recording various shades of opinion, and submitting a report which would basically leave things as they have always been.
The Committee would thus go the way of its predecessors–the previous talking shops–with nothing to show for the amount of time and money expended on it.Even on the assumption that the Dialogue Committee is a reincarnation of the Sovereign National Conference dreamed of by Tinubu and other progressives in the 1990s—and I still hold that the two contraptions are different–it would be retrogressive, nay, irrational, to embrace the new arrangement blindly, obstinately, and without questioning its applicability to Nigeria’s current circumstances.
In any case, the SNC might have dislodged military autocracies and one-party regimes for a while, but its democratization energy ebbed over time where no conscious efforts were made to involve the People in the design, construction, operation, and oversight of key governance institutions. The SNC power fizzled out where the People did not play an active role in the constitution making process. One merely needs to follow the trajectory of two countries (Mali and the former People’s Republic of Congo) where SNC brought instant results but failed to anticipate other challenges down the road. In the two countries, the dialogue component of SNC lost steam as soon as soon as power changed hands. It took additional (in the case of Mali, drastic) measures to halt the drift to anarchy.When it comes to Nigeria, the marginalization of the People in the constitution making process is the issue that ought to be addressed. If truth be told, no Nigerian regime has ever allowed anything remotely similar to the SNC to take shape, let alone encourage the People to dictate broad constitutional directions.
As I point out in The Route to Power in Nigeria (originally published by Palgrave-Macmillan, New York in 2010, and soon to be released in Nigeria by Malthouse Press), the elite rarely trusts the People sufficiently to allow the latter to shape its own and the country’s destiny. The Dialogue Committee is a clear vindication of this position.
The establishment of the Committee represents yet another attempt at pre-empting a long-felt demand, the demand for a people-driven constitution.Right from independence, through the military era, to the current civilian dispensation, the terms of Nigeria’s ‘social contract’ have always been dictated by the elite, particularly, the ruling clique. It does not matter whether it is the series of London constitutional conferences preceding the attainment of independence, the Constituent Assembly convoked by the military in 1978 (albeit, with a fair cross section of the Nigerian society participating in deliberations), the national conference that gave birth to the Abacha regime’s ‘five leprous fingers’ and left the regime’s ‘self-succession’ dream undisturbed, or the national political conference established and carefully stage-managed by the Obasanjo regime in 2005.
The practice to date has been for a vocal public to have its say, leaving the elite to have its way. If President Jonathan had had his way on return to office in 2011, the presidential term of office would have stretched from four to seven years. Strange as it might at first sound, he might have had his way. If he had set up a committee or convoked a national conference to “advise” him on this ‘minor’ constitutional issue, he would have succeeded in elongating his tenure without much ado.And now the government has set up the Dialogue Committee to “advise” him on every subject under the sun. Beside encouraging the people “to keep talking”, the proponents of the National Dialogue idea have not explained how the latest experience would be different from the preceding ones—that is, how the Dialogue Committee would hand the People the opportunity they never once had, which is the opportunity to decide how they wish to be governed. Will the dialogue end with a constitution that the majority of Nigerians could rightly call theirs? Will that constitution provide for checks and balances in the true sense of the term, or would this be another case of checks/cheques repeatedly bouncing for lack of account balances? What safeguards can dialogue provide against ballot stuffing, box snatching, willful alteration of results, intimidation of opponents, and statute-barred litigation of polling outcomes? Will dialogue liberate public institutions from the over-powering influence of federal and state executives, political godfathers, and strong wo/men? When could Nigerians expect the Inspector-General of Police’s deputies to perform their constitutionally mandated functions without looking over their shoulders for partisan political ‘guidance’ or for ‘instructions from above’? How will the Dialogue hold corrupt officials accountable? Above all, is dialogue the cure for bigotry and intolerance—the type that Nigerians witnessed when Colonel Nyiam nearly assaulted the Edo State Governor just because the Governor exercised his God-given right to express an opinion?
I for one do not expect the Dialogue Committee to accomplish a tiny fraction of what is expected of it. In other words, I am not the one imposing all those impossible obligations on the National Dialogue Committee. It is its supporters who are using the mechanism to promise Nigerians what they know the Committee cannot deliver—which is heaven on one of the most hate-filled corners of the earth. The way the Dialogue Committee backers are going about it, one could be forgiven for assuming that dialogue is answer to Nigeria’s myriad problems–the magic bullet that the country needs to survive and prosper in an environment characterized by hate, distrust, and widespread cynicism. Just come to think of it, talking randomly is the last think that Nigeria needs to bounce back to sound health from what is, to all practical purposes, an advanced stage of malignancy. What the patient needs is the physician’s honesty of purpose, not another talking shop, much less cynicism.   And cynical is what the dialogue formula is.
The initial composition of the Dialogue Committee betrays the sponsors’ underlying cynicism. A committee which is established for the purpose of promoting cross-fertilization of opinions should not, at any time, include those who are not genuinely committed to two-way dialogue.
A member that has already made up his mind who belongs in Nigeria as against who should be ‘expelled’ should never have been shortlisted for, much less appointed to serve on, such a committee. Yet it took a public outburst to draw attention to the presence of the dogmatic committee member, Col. Tony Nyiam. The Colonel might have tendered his resignation in deference to public opinion, but the damage has already been done. His confrontational attitude became the lightning rod for all that is perceived to be wrong with the dialogue idea—or the smoke signal which the Dialogue Committee’s opponents gleefully cite to make and strengthen their case. Rather than vindicate him and help the dialogue cause, the Colonel’s letter of resignation made things worse. The letter confirmed his bigotry.
It is legitimate to ask what is the alternative to the Presidential Advisory Committee on National Dialogue?  In my humble opinion, Nigeria’s interest would be best served if the latest in the litany of presidential committees is totally de-linked from the Presidency. Instead of a committee advising the President, it should, with appropriate changes in composition, be reconstituted into a Constitution Review Commission. Preferably, members should be duly nominated at the local government level. Those elected at the local government level would constitute an electoral college to vote for one of them to serve as their state’s representative on the Constitution Review Commission. Each state electoral college would further collate submissions from local government for onward transmission to the Commission.If the present constitution has no place for plebiscites, the Constitution Review Commission’s first order of business would be to recommend that the National and the State Assemblies debate a motion for a constitutional amendment shifting the center of Nigeria’s constitution-making gravity from the government to the People. Thereafter, the Review Commission should be mandated to work with the People of Nigeria on a new constitution. The Commission should enlist the services of experts in constitutional law, political science, public administration, policing in federal jurisdictions, and federal finance. These experts should assist the Commission Secretariat in analyzing submissions received from local government, state, and national interlocutors.If the Constitution Review Commission is to answer to the People and not just to the Presidency, its report and recommendations should be submitted to the People for ratification. In plain language, any draft constitution produced under the Commission’s auspices should not be deposited on the President’s desk but be tendered for public debate prior to its approval/rejection at multi-level plebiscites—that is, plebiscites conducted at the local government, state, geo-political, and national levels.To entrench the idea of citizen participation in governance, any revised constitution should contain provisions for the conduct of periodic referenda on sensitive issues—e.g., remuneration of political office holders, revenue allocation formula, state creation, excision or merger of local government areas, privatization of state enterprises, leasing of public facilities/assets to private concessionaires, Nigeria’s participation in “coalitions of the willing” to effect regime change in other African countries, stationing of foreign bases on Nigerian soil, and public private partnership contracts.
As I argued when commenting on the Yoruba Assembly convened in Ibadan in August 2012, a viable social contract is one which affords the People the opportunity to indicate how they wish to be governed, and contain provisions on how to hold the state Leviathan accountable for the exercise of sovereign powers. The message is thus clear: the future of Nigeria hinges on the active engagement of the People in the constitution making, legitimization, and review processes, not on endless talk.
Professor Balogun is based in Canada. He is former Director-General, The Administrative Staff College of Nigeria and former Senior Adviser at the UN Headquarters, New York.Follow me on twitter @balogunjide1