Analysis: What did Nigeria's National Conference achieve?

 
Delegates at the start of the conference in March

Some 500 Nigerian delegates have just finished five months of deliberations about the political system and future of a country which has seen bitter conflicts between its numerous ethnic, religious and linguistic groups. Analyst Abdullahi Tasiu Abubakar looks back at what the National Conference achieved.

As the Nigerian government begins moves to implement the conference's resolutions, many Nigerians are asking if the exercise was worthwhile.

Experts question the viability of some of the decisions and the feasibility of their implementation.

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We came in, we came out and we conquered”

End Quote Chief Edwin Clark Conference delegate

The delegates, drawn from all parts of the country and representing diverse interests, debated issues ranging from the contentious revenue-sharing formula to the divisive political structure of the nation.

They passed more than 600 resolutions and produced a 10,335-page report, which has been submitted to President Goodluck Jonathan, who promised to implement them.

"We shall send the relevant aspects of your recommendations to the Council of State and the National Assembly for incorporation into the constitution," he told the delegates' leaders.

"On our part, we shall act on those aspects required of us in the executive."

'More united'

Their chairman, former Chief Justice Idris Kutigi, said fears that the conference would lead to the disintegration of the country had been dispelled.

"We have held a National Conference and we are more united today than ever," he said.

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Main recommendations from the National Conference:
  • Scrapping the current system of 774 local authorities - this is intended to save money and reduce corruption. States would be able to set up their own local systems
  • Creation of 18 new states - equally spread around the country. Also suggested that states wishing to merge can do so if certain conditions met
  • Revenue allocation - proposes reducing share of national income going to the federal government and increasing share for the states
  • Modified presidential system of government that combines the presidential and parliamentary systems of government. The president should pick the vice-president from the legislature
  • Power should be shared and rotated at all levels of government. Presidency should rotate between north and south and among the six geo-political zones of the country. Likewise, the governorship post should rotate among the three senatorial zones in each state

Viewpoints on 100 years of Nigeria

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Head of the northern delegates Alhaji Ibrahim Coomassie said that whatever they did, they "did so for one Nigeria".

His southern counterpart Chief Edwin Clark said: "We came in, we came out and we conquered."

Mr Jonathan seems delighted by their words: "It is now very clear that as Nigerians, we have devised a way of addressing and resolving our differences amicably: We dialogue and dialogue until we agree."

But while the president and the delegates revel at what they see as the success of the conference, critics dismiss it as a diversionary tactic and waste of resources.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan (C) accompanied by Nigerian Government Secretary and Senator Anyim Pius Anyim (L) and conference chairman Justice Idris Kutigi arrive to attend the inauguration of the national conference to tackle the country's burning issues in Abuja on March 17, 2014 President Jonathan (c) and conference chairman Justice Idris Kutigi (r) are pleased with the results

They argue that conducting it just a few months ahead of general elections due next year and in the middle of a crippling Boko Haram insurgency was irrational.

Reports about the insurgency and the Ebola virus that hit the country in July often overshadowed the conference.

The outcome of the conference provides even more ammunition for the critics.

They say it neither meets the expectations of those who want a restructuring of the country, nor does it satisfy the yearnings of those who prefer reform of the existing system.

'Lofty intent'

There is also a question of legality raised by some of the delegates.

Many of them, including Auwwalu Yadudu, a professor of law, have openly rejected an attempt to turn the resolutions into a draft constitution.

Mr Yadudu said the conference "cannot discharge or exercise a mandate not conferred on it by law".

University of Lagos lecturer Wahab Shittu concurs, arguing that the absence of a legal framework has "made the lofty intent of the National Conference to be illusionary".

And even if legal backing is retrospectively provided for those issues that require it and others integrated into government policies, as seems to be the plan now, there are still issues of acceptability.

Some of the fundamental changes proposed by the conference, such as scrapping the country's 774 local authorities and creating an additional 18 states, were roundly rejected by many Nigerians.

Screen grab from Boko Haram video showing fighters The conference came as Boko Haram militants intensified their attacks

These changes - like several others such as altering the revenue-sharing arrangement and proposing a modified presidential system of government - require amendment of the constitution, which legal experts say is a long and tedious process.

It is impossible to do it under the current government which faces elections in the next few months, senior legal practitioner Tahir Shehu told the BBC.

"Constitutional amendment must be endorsed by the National Assembly and two-thirds of the states' houses of assembly," he said.

"You can't get that on any issue that has no clear national consensus. Scrapping local governments will not be one of them — nor will creation of additional states."

These are perhaps some of the issues envisaged by those who dubbed the conference a "jamboree" to underline what they regard as wastefulness.

Right from the onset, the reported 7bn naira ($43m; £26m) budgeted for it - it is still unclear how much was actually spent as the tenure was extended to enable delegates to complete their work - was criticised by many Nigerians, including President Jonathan's main rival in the last presidential election, former head of state General Muhammadu Buhari.

"I do not think that at this time when governments are finding it difficult to pay salaries of workers, it can afford about 7bn naira to waste on a conference," he said.

Mohammed Haruna, the veteran columnist and former managing director of the New Nigerian Newspapers, has reviewed various post-independence conferences and concluded that "virtually every constitutional conference in this country has come with a hidden agenda by its convener and virtually all of them have come to grief".

Many feel this one will be no different to its predecessors.

Nigeria: A nation divided

Despite its vast resources, Nigeria ranks among the most unequal countries in the world, according to the UN. The poverty in the north is in stark contrast to the more developed southern states. While in the oil-rich south-east, the residents of Delta and Akwa Ibom complain that all the wealth they generate flows up the pipeline to Abuja and Lagos.

Nigeria's 160 million people are divided between numerous ethno-linguistic groups and also along religious lines. Broadly, the Hausa-Fulani people based in the north are mostly Muslims. The Yorubas of the south-west are divided between Muslims and Christians, while the Igbos of the south-east and neighbouring groups are mostly Christian or animist. The Middle Belt is home to hundreds of groups with different beliefs, and around Jos there are frequent clashes between Hausa-speaking Muslims and Christian members of the Berom community.

Southern residents tend to have better access to healthcare, as reflected by the greater uptake of vaccines for polio, tuberculosis, tetanus and diphtheria. Some northern groups have in the past boycotted immunisation programmes, saying they are a Western plot to make Muslim women infertile. This led to a recurrence of polio, but the vaccinations have now resumed.

Female literacy is seen as the key to raising living standards for the next generation. For example, a newborn child is far likelier to survive if its mother is well-educated. In Nigeria we see a stark contrast between the mainly Muslim north and the Christian and animist south. In some northern states less than 5% of women can read and write, whereas in some Igbo areas more than 90% are literate.

Nigeria is Africa's biggest oil producer and among the biggest in the world but most of its people subsist on less than $2 a day. The oil is produced in the south-east and some militant groups there want to keep a greater share of the wealth which comes from under their feet. Attacks by militants on oil installations led to a sharp fall in Nigeria's output during the last decade. But in 2010, a government amnesty led thousands of fighters to lay down their weapons.

 

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