Nigerian history, like the history of the United States of America, which Nigeria mirrors in extant constitutionalism, is full of historical epochs of regional tensions and the conflicts of powerful political interests.
On many occasions when the interests of the power blocs, which were in control in Nigeria, sought to break the union to attain their goals as free agents, conferences have often been used to broker a rapprochement, which often left asymmetrical power relations after the conferees had concluded their deliberations.
The pre-independence conference of 1957/1958, at Lancaster House, for instance, left the nationalist agitators for independence in an asymmetrical power position, where the colonial forces enacted a constitutional arrangement that left much of the control of governance at the behest of the center, with the regions straining under its yoke.
This led to regional tensions with the power centers continuously seeking the overbearing power at the center to control other regions and their developmental aspirations. Although engagements were to become fiercer!
During such periods in Nigerian history, the moderating voice of skilled administrators, who had a helicopter view of the big picture, always guided the discourse to moderating outcomes. After independence, for instance, the sagacious moderating voice of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and several other statements led to the constitutional amendments of 1963 which de-concentrated the constitutional arrangement of the independence constitution leading to the 1963 republican constitution.
The agreements between the Nigerian interest blocs for the moderating intervention of the 1963 constitutional arrangements led to faster growth and development, and would have endured if the unitarist tendencies that sought to overly control regional politics did not sour the republican understanding of 1963 as they used proxies in turf political battles to infiltrate the different regions. The impact of the latter regression on the political development of Nigeria was worsened by General Ironsi’s unitarist enactment which deepened the natural suspicions of control that preceded the military crisis of 1966.
It led to developments of discombobulating proportions. To see the parallels of these developments in American political history, when the American constitution was in the making, nationalist voices strained the process with regional interests. It took the moderating voices of John Dickinson, and other American statesmen to broker clever rapprochements that led to a more workable American federal union.
Dickinson, who entered the Pennsylvania State House in May 1787, as Delaware’s delegate to the Constitutional Convention, was one of the most knowledgeable and experienced statesmen to attend the Grand Convention. His contributions to the convention were monumental – it was he who first proposed that the Senate be elected by the state legislatures; and he influenced the manner of electing American presidents. That was not all.
More significantly, his was the voice of moderation and prudence throughout the Convention which produced a middle ground constitution that minimized the influences of the extreme nationalists on both sides of the American political divide. His voice strengthened other pro-ratification exponents, such as George Washington, Benjamin Rush, Tench Coxe, David Ramsey and others, who, in their separate endeavors built upon the thematic frame of the necessity of a union, an energetic but limited government and the civic virtues.
In the same way, as the forces which strained the Nigerian state following first the annulment of the June 12 election and then later the unfortunate demise of the late President Yar’adua in office led to deeper cries of regional loyalties, many voices for division and administrative fission of the state grew. In some instances they were supported with actual violent actions with the sprouting of many tribal organizations and proxies.
In the din of these developments, the cry for a national conference or dialogue was reborn. Many feared its consequences while some intensified these fears with sabre rattling. In the end after intense political and social debates and upheavals, President Goodluck Jonathan repressed the regional fears by convoking a broad based national conference.
Like the Federalist Papers and the Fabius Letters which preceded the making of the American constitution, the convocation speech of the President at the national conference touched upon the common interests of all parties, and the need for a federal union, the strengths and gains it confers on all rather than for a few. This was enunciated in paragraph after paragraph of the speech, a better more inclusive union, but even more important a more enduring union.
In inaugurating the conference President Jonathan showed courage in braving an issue fraught with uncertainties, in stressing on inclusiveness and union, despite the many maligning and sectional goading and carping of individuals, he showed uncommon grace under pressure, but his most enduring attribution which will forever be emblematic of his place in Nigerian history is in finding the political will to implement the resolutions as drafted by the conferees, and in recommending same to the legislature.
The conference report, which is the output of the many days of difficult negotiations and speech-making by the conferees did not come easily, not to the conferees or the jarred sensibilities of the already distraught Nigerian citizens. The conferees glared and flared at one another, they jeered and cheered at speeches, and positions, but in the end they came up with a significant document of national understanding to inform future constitutional, policy and statutory engagements, a middle ground between extremes, a major step-forward from the constitutional foraging which produced several mangled constitutions produced through military fiats and civilian “panel-beating”.
Just like Martin Luther king Jnr’s speech seeking common ground, they found common understanding in the national aspirational values for policing, local governments, the agenda for exclusive and concurrent listing, the unbundling of the processes of conducting elections, monitoring political parties and punishing electoral offences, they encoded better ways to deliver on technical issues such as banking, agriculture, science and technology, power and energy, health and education amongst others and gave directional resolutions on common sense approaches to implement their suggestions.
The over 600 Resolutions of the CONFAB which were reached by the 492 Delegates through consensus touched most, if not all the, critical issues that had been listed as encumbrances to Nigeria’s rapid development and attainment of nationhood. Among several other things, the Resolutions included: the practice of true federalism; devolution of powers; creation of additional states; adoption of modified presidential system of government that integrates the parliamentary and presidential systems; creation of State and Community Police; the introduction of independent candidates for election and in the economic domain; solid minerals that had been the exclusive preserve of the federal government since independence, would now move to the concurrent list. States can now create employment and develop at their own pace.
With all that, it liberates everybody, it opens up the political space.
These letters suggest a definitive national road-map, mid-wifed by a just and wise man, Justice Kutigi, ably supported by Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, carefully chosen by President Jonathan as someone who was a co-traveller in the national calling for moderation. This moment of courage will serve President Jonathan well in Nigerian history.
It is said that good leaders build great physical structures for nations, but great leaders build a good society from a nation. Many will lead Nigeria and in their time they will build great structural edifices, but only a few will lead and have the insight and courage to create enduring legislative frameworks that will guide generations. By taking these steps from agenda setting to inauguration, and later policy formulation to policy approval and implementation with regard to the national conference, President Jonathan has taken the important steps which differentiate good leaders from great leaders in the future reckoning of the history of Nigerian leaders.
Whoever is sworn-in on May 29, 2015, must push the engagement further with alacrity. Curiously, and for whatever interests were meant to be served, some of those who had shouted the most about the need for restructuring boycotted this noble cause.
That is why Nigerians must choose a president in whom they believe the guarantee for real change would not just be a mantra for winning votes.