(By Stephen Kola Balogun)

Democracy by essence means that the electorate can choose and remove their representatives.  It does not mean that political leaders can take over power from the electorate either because they are disappointed or they lack confidence in the manner in which the electorate may exercise responsibility for their own affairs.

ONE of the most disturbing aspects of the ongoing National Conference is the very manner in which it is constituted. The selection and composition of delegates to the conference makes one wonder whether there is some truth in the commonly expressed theory that Nigeria is afflicted with a national malaise so serious that no amount of wise leadership can bring the nation to its senses.  I have never really found this argument convincing but even if it were true, I cannot accept that the only remedy on offer is to limit the democratic process and hand over our future and that of ours youths to un-elected delegates, many of whom have had their own fair crack of the whip.

   Democracy by essence means that the electorate can choose and remove their representatives.  It does not mean that political leaders can take over power from the electorate either because they are disappointed or they lack confidence in the manner in which the electorate may exercise responsibility for their own affairs. Power and responsibility must necessarily go together and it is my argument that if people are supposed to lack responsibility, it is because they have had too little power in the first place. Perhaps the remedy lies in decentralising power by moving it down from those who wield it at the top instead of shifting more of it to the top. This, in many respects, has become the basic case for democracy in Nigeria today and it needs to be re-stated in our generation beginning during this period of the National Conference.

  The clamour for a National Conference stems from the realisation that it is about time that the people of this country took control of their own destiny and used the power of democracy to resolve the many pressing problems that afflict their daily lives.  The usurpation or denial of people’s rights in Nigeria has gone on for too long.  The Independence Constitution was the product of the departing colonial authorities.  The 1963 Republic Constitution was decided upon entirely by the Prime Minister and Regional Premiers of the day who merely amended the 1960 Constitution to make it conform to Republican status.  The 1966 coup usurped democracy by replacing it with military rule.  The 1979 Constitution was a missed opportunity for the people to adopt a Constitution for themselves, when the Obasanjo-led Military Administration amended several aspects of the elected Constituent Assembly’s deliberations. Of course our existing 1999 Constitution came into existence as a result of a Decree enacted by the General Abdulsalam Abubakar-led Military Administration. From all indications, this National Conference will most likely turn out to be yet another missed opportunity for the Nigerian people to prepare their own Constitution.

  This is because when a frame of government has been established, and a group of rulers elected to govern under it, the right to change the system under a new order or Constitution remains always with the people, just like the right to choose the rulers. It is a usurpation of powers for any government to assume to exercise that right, without a specific mandate from the people.  My argument therefore is that since we already have a system of government in place, it would be unconstitutional for a National Conference to attempt to usurp the Constitution without first receiving a clear mandate from the electorate the source and donor of all political power.  If the government and its organs are created by the 1999 Constitution, then it is logical that they can only have the power that is granted to them by the instrument from which they derive their existence.

   The National Assembly or the President has no specific or inherent power to convene a National Conference in order to change or prepare a new Constitution for the electorate neither can they alter the Constitution without first obtaining the support by resolution of at least 2/3 of the Houses of Assemblies of the 36 states of the Federation. That being the case, the electorate should have been given the right of direct consultation to convene a National Conference and prepare a new Constitution.     A referendum in my view is the only democratic instrument that can give the National Assembly or the President the mandate to convene a National Conference to change our existing order or Constitution. It is a mystery that no one has yet sued the Federal Government for initiating the National Conference without first having a referendum. How much we miss the late legal luminary, Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN). If he were to be alive, he would surely have taken on the Federal Government by taking them to court.  According to foremost constitutional lawyer, Prof. Ben Nwabueze (SAN) in his book: “The Presidential Constitution of Nigeria”, a Constitution is an act of the people if it is made by them either directly in a referendum or  through a convention or constituent assembly popularly elected for this purpose, subject or not to formal ratification by the people in a referendum.

   This definition highlights yet another flaw in the National Conference. Apart from the fact that the delegates were not popularly elected, how can the deliberations of the conference ever be actualised or brought into effect?  If for instance the delegates at the conference recommend that our system of government should change from Presidential to Parliamentary or perhaps suggest that we begin to operate on a regional basis, can such fundamental changes ever be brought about by a constitutional amendment?  Surely our Constitution will have to be jettisoned if such fundamental changes were to be brought about.

  It is for these reasons that the above issues are viewed by many as forbidden areas of debate at the National Conference. The National Assembly may be continually empowered to amend the Constitution, but does it possess the power to dispense with it?  In any case, would the National Assembly even agree to subject the ongoing deliberations to a referendum at the end of the national conference when it is quite obvious that if they do so their own position as legislators would be threatened? In any case subjecting the deliberations of the National Conference to a referendum at the end of the exercise would be like asking the electorate to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea. After all, what would happen if the electorate is dissatisfied with the outcome of the conference in much the same way as they may be disillusioned with the 1999 Constitution and our present structure/arrangement?  It would mean that the electorate would be left with no choice at all.

  This is why we ought to have conducted a referendum on this important issue at the beginning. A referendum at the onset would have determined what “We the people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria” really want.  A referendum would have served as a barometer indicative of what various sections of the country, particularly the youth, want.  So far, only perceived leaders of thought (not necessarily representative of the people and the various ethnic groups) have given their views on this issue.  Nigeria we know is made up of more than 250 ethnic groups on the average.  If we take about 50 of them to deliberate upon issues at a National Conference would this be fair?  If you Google the official statistics on the composition of Nigeria you will find that those Nigerians aged between 1–14 make up roughly 43.9 per cent of the population.  Those between 15–24 make up 19.3 per cent while those between 25-54 make up a total of roughly 30 per cent.  In total Nigerians between the ages of 1-54 make up about 83 per cent of the population yet how many of these Nigerians in the above age brackets will be participating at the National Conference also bearing in mind that the parents of the Nigerian child aged between 1-14 which makes up 43.9 per cent of the population are likely to fall within the Nigerian youth age bracket. Power must be given back to these people by enabling them to exercise responsibility for their own affairs.

   A simple question asking whether or not we want to re-write our Constitution and/or re-structure our polity would easily have sufficed.  Thereafter, if the yes votes carry the day, the National Assembly would have been mandated to pass a bill to constitute a National Conference or organise elections into a Constituent Assembly for this purpose as the case may be.  Most importantly a referendum would have done away with the Government’s claim to sovereignty if the electorate had voted yes. Perhaps herein lies the difference between a National Conference and a Sovereign National Conference. Once the people express their opinion by a referendum, any conference that follows can only be a Sovereign National Conference.

   Referendums as democratic instruments are readily available all over the world and are a common model in most democratic countries. They serve as a form of direct democracy. Countries in the European Union for example are making effective use of these instruments to ratify the E.U. Constitution. Likewise, Britain, our former colonial ruler will be conducting a referendum later this year to ascertain whether or not Scotland wants to continue to remain part of the United Kingdom and fairly recently, a referendum was conducted in Ukraine to determine whether or not Crimea wants to remain part of the Ukraine or join Russia. There are several other countries in Latin America making appropriate use of referendums.  There is no particular reason why Nigeria should be any different in its own endeavors.  Bearing in mind that we have a national general election next year February, would it not have been far more practical and convenient for us as a nation to place the referendum question next to the Presidential ballot box so that we can vote for both the presidential election and the referendum at the same time?  Would it not be a good form of debate leading up to the Presidential election in the country in 2015?

  The only conclusion that can be drawn from the ongoing National Conference is that real power to shape our own destiny has once again eluded us and it is now so important that we take up the struggle for democracy once again with renewed faith and vigour.  Leaders, however wise, can never change Nigeria unless we the people as a whole bring ourselves to realise that we alone have the capacity to shape our own destiny. Until we do so, nothing real can be achieved. But when that realisation spreads among the people and we resolve to build a different future, no power on earth can stop us.

• Kola-Balogun is the Commissioner for Youth, Sports and Special Needs, State of Osun.