Brigadier General Idada Don Ikponmwen is a former Provost Marshal of the Nigerian Army. He is also the leader a non- partisan group called the Edo Think Group, which membership is drawn from the three senatorial districts of Edo State. In this interview, he says the proposed National Conference will be a waste of time if the delegates fail to come up with a new Constitution for the nation. While admonishing the Advisory Committee on the confab to adhere to its assurance that there would be no, no- go areas, Ikponmwen stresses the need to find lasting solution to the problems bedeviling the country even if it means disintegration.
Why do you think some Nigerians are sceptical about the proposed National Dialogue?
The truth is that Nigeria has had a long history of conferences either at the national or sectional level in the form of dialogue, trying to address problems. Regrettably, many of these conferences have hardly yielded results. The fact that we are where we are today, faced with problems of insecurity, improper alignment with the tenets of democracy, division occasioned by politics or religion, point to the need for serious discussions. I am not unaware of the reason some people, a good number of them, are doubtful about the new attempt at National Dialogue, it is not without justification because the people believe government cannot be taken seriously. Even now, despite the reform programmes of the present administration, not a few Nigerians feel that the administration of President Jonathan is lily livered and lacking the courage to take the bull by the horn. I don’t believe in undue cynicism though, having said that past governments’ lack of seriousness may justify some people being sceptical and not wanting to believe that any good can come from Jerusalem. I think that we must eschew scepticism at this point in time, we must feel that this country really needs to sit down and put the past behind us and embrace this opportunity for meaningful discussion of the nation’s problems with a view to charting a new direction. I believe that even though the decision to embark on this dialogue may be coming late, I think it is still feasible and I believe strongly that this dialogue which i consider inevitable must be given a chance. This dialogue that we are about to embark upon may well be the greatest legacy this administration can leave for Nigeria.
One part of Governor Oshiomhole’s criticism was lack of agenda for the conference. What is your take on that?
There are many and different ways of doing things and many people think differently and they formulate agenda and solutions differently. I think the important thing is to mean well, be sincere and forthright. It is not only Governor Oshiomhole who has expressed very serious reservations or who has condemned the idea of a conference. Perhaps we can say that his and that of the chairman of the APC have been the most unequivocal. But they are not alone in this belief that this conference will not work. Much as I believe that everybody has a right to his opinion, it is not good to be unduly sceptical and to allow people around to think that your objection is based on political differences. We want this country to continue as one strong and indivisible nation, but, be it as it may, nations survive, nations progress when the whole mechanics of governance is credible and the central government, the federating states and the people of the country are happy. But not withstanding that this decision of President Jonathan’s administration should have come earlier and many people have canvassed the idea of a National Dialogue much earlier in this administration and the obvious signals were that both President Jonathan and his government did not believe that there was need for a National Conference particularly a Sovereign National Conference in the effect that there were already some structures on the ground which represent the people, some of us have said in the past, and we mean it, that national sovereignty is the property of the people not of any structure within the system. To that extent, the existence of the National Assembly, State Assembly, government at the states, the Federal Government, cannot be substituted with the sovereignty of the people. It must be emphasized that when we come to issue of the Constitution and the details and technicalities of that sovereignty, it is not an all-comers affair. People must know that the business of Constitution making is not the same thing like the business of electing people to go and make laws for the country or do oversight functions. The idea in constitutionalism is that the Constitution must proceed from the people themselves. And in so far as, all along, we have really never had a Constitution that flows from the people without any embellishment, our Constitutions have always come from Britain or produced by the military. It is on this note that I must say that this conference is important; it is a must and i believe it must end with the production of a new Constitution for Nigeria. If we do not at the end of this dialogue come out with a new constitution that is acceptable to all segments of this country, then the conference would have been a waste of both material and human resources. I think the minimum that anybody should do is to believe, to give encouragement to this project not withstanding whatever has been the position in the past. I think the best test to assess the work of our President today will be the outcome of this dialogue. Nigerians should be patient and cooperate with this administration and put in their best to ensure that this conference works.
Talking about having an agenda for the conference, the President has agreed on the idea of convoking a National Conference, he has proceeded to appoint people to a Presidential Advisory Committee who will advise him on the modalities for the conference. I think that by time they committee goes round, they will be much more informed with the position of our people. Even after the committee has concluded its work and advised the government to formulate an agenda, that is not the end of it; when the conference is eventually convoked and the various delegates arrive, i think it behoves on the conference proper to come up with its agenda. At that stage, we will be able to look at the agenda government has given them and see where to make modifications and if necessary consult with the government that set it up. I think the final agenda should be made by the delegates, they should choose their leaders.
Where the final thing will go arises from this wrong notion that sovereignty resides in the National Assembly. Once we come to terms with the fact that that is not true, that sovereignty belongs to the people, then the whole basis of that argument collapses. Yes, the President said the report of the conference will be sent to the National Assembly for ratification, but I don’t think that all the President said was sacrosanct, that statement may have been made without giving full thought to the measures he has put on ground. We are also aware that the chairman of the committee said that the report should go to a referendum. I believe that peoples discussion undertaken by their delegates chosen for the particular purpose of this discussion and by extension a new Constitution must of necessity go for a referendum and when a referendum approves a decision it becomes imperative for the issues to be passed into law. So as far as i am concerned the decisions of conference after going for a referendum will go to the National Assembly for no more than promulgation into law.
As a security expert, do you think the confab will help solve our security challenges?
A lot of Nigerians are very disenchanted about the state of affairs in this country. That is not to say that the President does not mean his reform agenda. By and large, there are still a lot of areas that we need very tangible differences: The security area, our attitude to democracy, the level of corruption, the undue emphasis that we place on religion. I don’t mean to undermine the position of religion in our lives, but we have always opted for a secular state and that has been the situation in this country. This is not a Muslim or Christian state, it is secular state and the major thing about secularism is that religion should be personal. But there is obviously too much emphasis on religion and unfortunately politicians have tended to use religion and tribe as a means of pursuing their personal agenda. Today we are witnessing the fact that the military has come out to be the major law enforcement organ in this country, it is an aberration but i have seen that the average Nigerian is looking not at the form but at the substance. And the substance seems to be who can provide the relief and the security that is so desired in a country where we can no longer sleep and have our eyes closed. So people are saying these military people are the only ones that have the wherewithal to fight these criminals. Even governors are asking for the military but it is not like that in America or Britain where the primary business of providing security is the police. We should know what role for the military and other law enforcement agencies. For now that is why we have the predominance of military presence in our law enforcement and as we do that definitely the primary role of the military will tend to suffer. And what is even more dangerous, the things we accuse the police of, that they take bribe, they compromise, supposing the army the last hope in security begins to imbibe those things, what do we do? Then we will resort to Boys Scouts which i don’t think is the option. Much as i do not want to slam the present tactics, this dialogue is another avenue for us to revisit the structure of our security, defence and our law enforcement system; to draw a line as to what job belongs to who, so that, by and large, there will be better efficiency which will be encouraged by the fact that every knows where his own duty begins and where it ends.
I am particularly glad that government has said there is no, no- go areas, which means that everything will be discussed in this dialogue. Even those who believe that Nigeria is too large, too amorphous full of inconsistencies and differences that we cannot live together, that it should be divided, so be it, so that we can go peacefully. And those who think they can work together can work together. Other countries who have similar problems, some of them have resolved their problems by breaking into parts. I am an advocate of a strong Nigeria but that is not enough; in fact, that is one of the things that worry me. Those who come out to say Nigeria is indivisible, one nation under God are people who had the opportunity before to advance this cause and failed to do so, either by corruption or insincerity, they are still the same people who shout Nigeria is indivisible, I think that is all grandstanding. The truth is that everything must be discussed. If we are going to work together as a country and get stronger, harness our major differences; if we are going to go on as one corporate entity; that is the feeling of a good number of people who mean well. But meaning well, rhetorics are not what we are concerned with now, we are concerned with what is desirable. If somebody says the whole marriage is not working from amalgamation till now, then we must look at this issue from a different angle. It is not senseless to say so. Instead, I think those who have been paying lip service to indivisibility and indissolubility and doing so more in a hypocritical should have a change of mind. If all the powerful people who have been in government have really embraced the need to have a nation that is strong, united and peaceful, we won’t be where we are today. There can be no peace in the absence of justice and there can be no peace in the absence of equity. Let the society be good to everybody. A society where the rich flaunt their wealth, to the anger of the great majority incapable of eating one good meal, it is hypocritical to talk about unity or peace. It is hypocritical to talk about unity and progress in a society where majority of youths have no employment. It is hypocritical and unjustifiable for us to think we can have a strong nation when the difference between the poor and the rich is so pronounced, and where the resources of this country are perceived to be plundered by a few to the disadvantage of many. It is unrealistic to think that there can be strength in a country where some people work and they do not get result, some people are highly experienced and qualified, they do not get good pay in the same system where some people who are obviously not as qualified, not as experienced are earning far more than those who deserve to earn that amount.
My only problem with the conference is the time. Do we have all the time for this programme to be fully implemented? To go to a referendum will definitely take some time, then to the National Assembly. All these will not take few days or few months; if we say six months, that in fact will be minimal. So this exercise must take time and this is why some people believe that it is coming too late. But it is better late than never. And we must ensure that we don’t play into the hands of those who predicted that 2015 may be the end of Nigeria, God forbid that that should come true. But for those who said so, they did not just say so for no reason. They must have considered a couple of things, they are not nitwits. America came to that position through one of their agencies and, for such position to have been reached, it is a clear warning. We must sit up, we must discuss, we must redirect the focus of this country.
Structure of confab
Representation should mainly be on ethnic nationalities. Ethnic nationalities, which have been the major factor in all the discussions about Nigerian nationhood, have always been the basis and the idea has always been that we recognize their differences. And I believe that if the delegates are well chosen, all other interest groups will naturally subsume. I believe that delegates should also come from interest groups. We must be careful to ensure that the number of delegates should not to be unduly large. In my view, anything from 300-500, maximum 600. Equal representation at the zonal levels is very important for the conference.