The report of the Steering Committee for the 2014 National Conference has been largely accepted by the Federal Government. We now know that the conference will happen in the second quarter and will last three months. The number of delegates and how they will be selected or appointed have also been indicated by the federal government. This aspect seems to have attracted a lot of interest and comments. Also the federal government has made a budgetary provision of 7 billion naira ( up from the 1 billion naira provided for the 2005 Political Reform conference). That also has been criticised by many as being wasteful, but that is hoping that the National Assembly would approve the budget in full( unlike the situation in 2005 when the National Assembly refused to appropriate funds, forcing Obasanjo to make extra-budgetary provision).
Of a truth, 7 billion is much money especially in Today's Nigeria where our capital expenditure is so paltry at 26% of the entire National budget, where there is suboptimal provisions for infrastructural development and where we have been running deficits over the years.But that will not be the total cost to the Nation. The loss to the economy of the man hours that will be invested in the conference by the creme of the Nigerian Society will be enormous, reaching multiples of the sum to be spent by the Federal government. We have not even factored the amount to be spent by State Governments and other Stakeholders to support their delegates. It is therefore going to be an expensive project for the Nation. I am therefore concerned that the Nation should receive commensurate value for the anticipated huge investment. Unfortunately our Nation is not reputed for being cost conscious when government funded projects are being implemented. Of a truth, we hardly get the best value for our expenditure and since no body is essentially held responsible,motivation for cost efficiency is minimum,irrespective of all the song and dance of "un(due) process" in public sector procurement.

To measure the efficiency of any expenditure, the anticipated outcomes must be predetermined and then the actual is measured against the predetermined or projected. So what are our anticipated outcomes and will they justify the expense? May be I have not seen it or read it, I am not quite clear that I know what our National expectations for the conference are. Some people have called it a talkshop and think nothing concrete or beneficial will come out of it. Some see it as an opportunity to go and get more revenue allocation for their states or regions. Others see the opportunity to campaign for more States to be created in their regions. When people speak of going to renegotiate the basis our unity as a Nation, I am not sure, I know what we are expecting. Are we expecting to come out with a new structure for the Nation, like returning to the old regional structure,and abolishing States?. Do we hope to produce a new constitution from the conference? My point is that we must determine the deliverables before the start of the conference, so that our discussions may be directed and fairly focused, so that we can finish in 3months. Otherwise, we will end up asking for more time and thereby increasing the cost. It is also critical that those who will manage the conference must be adept in managing group dynamics. The Chairman and his deputy must command presence,and be focused on the deliverables. They must be good time managers and must ensure that timing discipline is vigorously pursued.They must do a lot of home work and should determine how many people can contribute on a particular matter and summarise the discussions and state the adopted resolutions at the close of each debate. They must be wary of story tellers and the 'know it all delegates' who must contribute to every debate. They must not yield the floor to rouble rousers and trouble makers who may have ulterior agenda.

From the release, it is clear that the designers of the conference have taken pains to ensure a fairly all-inclusive participation, though my professional association, The Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria(PSN) is unhappy, that it was not mentioned specifically as a stakeholder group with nominating rights, whereas the Nigerian Medical Association(NMA) and the Nigerian Bar Association(NBA) were mentioned, and yet the PSN is one of the oldest professional associations in Nigeria. I have tried to reassure them that I believe that it was an unintentional omission and that it could be remedied. I hope that I am right!. But that is really not my point, because, I am conscious that it may be practically impossible to accommodate all qualified stakeholder groups. The number is already high enough!
My worry is that, we may populate the conference with too many ' men of yesterday' with their baggages. This conference is about the future of Nigeria and I am afraid that those who are focused on the past may not be the best to define Nigeria's future. Those who designed our present system, to my mind should not be at the centre stage of designing our future. Their circumstances are quite different and if the conference focuses too much on the past( which will happen if geriatrics dominate the conference), the accomplishments may be limited, if not severely imperilled. Beyond taking specific measures to ensure the dominant participation of the younger generation of Nigerians at the conference, we must resist the urge to send ethnic and tribal jingoistics to the conference. The nominating stakeholder groups especially the federal and state governments must take deliberate steps to appoint patriotic young people to the conference, just as some effort is being made to mainstream gender diversity.While I fully appreciate that we are a nation of many ethnic groups, we need People who realise that no ethnic group can make it alone, that we need each other to build a prosperous Nation. We do not need ethnic warlords but we need Nigerians from different ethnic backgrounds who can appreciate the strengths of each other and fashion unique ways of collaboration, with the overriding need to ensure equity and fair play. For me that is the central issue. How do we implement our constitution and other laws in a manner that no one or no group is marginalised or discriminated against. Let us build a nation where everyone shall be an equal shareholder.
Let me also caution that we must have very few people if at all who hope to compete for political office in the forthcoming elections. Even the political parties must ensure they do not send political contestants to the conference, else they will turn the place to campaign grounds with plenty of political rhetorics and grandstanding. This people may not resist the temptation to play to the gallery and thus will lose focus of the objectives of the conference.

I wish to advise that we avoid setting up a complex bureaucracy to manage the conference. The administrative and support staff should be lean and must be made of adhoc staff, essentially drawn from the MDAs and Private sector Organizations. We must not spend huge sums of money buying project vehicles and cars for all kinds of officials who will use the vehicles for taking madam to the markets or doing school runs while the delegates move about with taxis. Since it is designed to be an intensive programme, delegates must be mobilised to cater for themselves. No hotel bookings or hiring of any thing. Let delegates take care of themselves at agreed rates,rather than encourage usual contract bazaars at inflated prices. If possible, members should be given allowances to buy kola nuts and sweets. Any attempt to buy centrally will result in providing the most expensive kola nuts and bitter colas in Africa! We know our weaknesses and must try to tie our 'itchy' fingers.

If this whole exercise and the anticipated huge cost will not be in vain, we need to plead with the National Assembly to show unparalleled patriotism and love of the Nation by cooperating with the People of Nigeria. I believe that this conference is in response to the unrelenting demand by many Nigerians. And when the representatives of the Nation come with certain recommendations, then it behoves the National Assembly to give legal backing to what the People want. They must not be seen to be competing with the people on their rights to decide on how they want the country to run.
I make this plea with a lot of pain in my heart. The recommendations of the 2005 Political Reform conference were robust and far reaching and had most of them been adopted, there may not have been the continued strident call for another National conference, at least not so soon. Firstly, the National Assembly refused to appropriate money for the conference and therefore that they rejected the recommendations wholesale was predictable. Never mind that they used the proposal for a single six year tenure for the President and state governors as excuse. Though, it was widely believed that, the provision was going to be exploited by President Obasanjo to seek tenure extension( 3rd term), that to many of us who laboured at that conference was not tenable. If they were opposed to that provision as they still seem to be today, why could they not decline that provision or section and then continue to review and approve the other far reaching recommendations. In stead they choose to throw away the 'dirty 'bath water with the baby!
Luckily, the 7th National Assembly lead by the urbane Senator David Mark has shown extraordinary statesmanship and has sided with the people of Nigeria on critical National issues. I am praying that the more effervescent House of Representatives will follow in tow. I am also praying that APC will not give directives to its legislators to oppose or block the approval of the recommendations of the National conference, giving that the leaders of the Party have openly opposed the holding of the conference, even against their previous stands on the need for the National dialogue( sovereign or not). My only hope is that it will be 'anti progressive' to work against the people, giving that the party claims to be progressive.

Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa OFR


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