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Letter to my Countrymen: This National Conference Must Succeed By Atedo N. A. Peterside con

Back Page Article Published in THIS DAY Newspaper, 10 March, 2014

Every now and again I read Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, in the newspapers, where he is speaking in his capacity as Co-Chairman of the National Assembly Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution. Usually, he is making a spirited defence of some "important" positions on national issues which his Committee might be taking. I feel sorry for Senator Ike Ekweremadu because it appears nobody is really interested in joining issues with him on anything, including even his favoured six-year single term for a President and our 36 Governors. It is almost as if close to 170 million Nigerians at home and abroad have conspired to ignore him and his Committee.

Let me quickly exonerate Senator Ike Ekweremadu. He is probably a patriot and perhaps even deeply frustrated that the nation has chosen to ignore his every utterance, no matter how well intentioned. The problem he faces is the harsh reality that no idea can capture the imagination of my countrymen unless it has four important attributes: 1) Right Message; 2) Right Messenger; 3) Right Place; and 4) Right Time.

Nigerians know that the distinguished Senator is NOT the right messenger because he is one of 500 Federal legislators who each pay themselves more than President Obama and conspire to avoid disclosing exactly how much they each collect from the Federal Treasury under various guises. Turkeys will never vote for Christmas and so nobody trusts the National Assembly to properly address issues like the huge cost of governance which threatens to strangulate the Nigerian economy over time. Can anybody get up in Senator Ekweremadu's joint committee and advocate for a Constitutional Amendment which seeks to replace our existing unaffordable legislative arrangements with a part-time Federal Legislature, that will cost less than 20 per cent of what we presently spend, without being "lynched" by his colleagues? So, his message is also incomplete and/or lop-sided.

The foregoing sums up one of the essential differences between the soon to be inaugurated National Conference, where I am a delegate, and the National Assembly. If the National polity is dysfunctional it is because the National Assembly is an integral part of the problem. They have constrained themselves voluntarily and so, through a perceived combination of self-censorship and individual greed, the nation no longer expects progress on any serious piece of draft legislation, much less an altruistic constitutional amendment from them.

We have gravitated towards a two-party system that should ordinarily strengthen democracy. In our case however it promises only increased polarisation, as the same actors/characters now swing between both parties like a pendulum while instigating a stalemate/deadlock on all those items that can speedily improve the lives of ordinary Nigerians. Amazingly, this polarisation disappears mysteriously and is replaced by perfect bipartisan harmony on matters where their collective personal and/or pecuniary interests are affected. Hence there is no dissenting voice, from either side of the aisle, on the gigantic remuneration that the legislators pay themselves.

Our National Assembly is almost solely pre-occupied with annual budgetary matters - fighting over how to slice a cake today. It is as if the task of baking a bigger cake for the nation has been completely forgotten. Perhaps the House of Representatives will soon generate 200 more questions for the Coordinating Minister for the Economy, almost all of which border on slicing this year's cake?

Worse still, another bipartisan deal appears to have been struck in order to prevent the Executive from scrapping numerous "dead", irrelevant or duplicitous Federal Government agencies which were established under various statutes that were clearly designed for a different era. There are perverse incentives at work here - the more irrelevant an agency is today, the larger the percentage of their undeserved budget allocation that they can earmark to "incentivise" national assembly members to block the repeal of a law that will constitute a death knell for that agency.

According to the Oronsaye Report, close to N123bn (in the most optimistic scenario) can be saved annually by scrapping and/or merging some of these parasitic agencies, but it will not happen because these agencies have their "protectors" in the National Assembly, who hail from our two largest political parties. Who will save the nation from this unholy coalition of kleptomaniacs? Notice that there are no religious and/or ethnic differences when working together to "loot" the National Treasury?

There are only 24 hours in a day. If the National Assembly is pre-occupied 24/7 with the Budget and fighting over allocations to Ministries, Community "Projects" etc, what time is left for the serious business of helping to bake a bigger cake? If you only train for a 100 metre sprint everyday, can you realistically have a chance of winning the marathon at the Olympic games?

There is clearly a vacuum and a huge void which needs to be filled. Hence the clamour by many learned Nigerians for a National Conference. Before anybody mistakes this to be an attack on the National Assembly alone let me also turn the searchlight on the kleptomaniacs within the Executive Arm and also some of our corrupt Judges.

Some of us aim to use this National Conference to build a grand coalition against all of you and what you stand for. Politicians are not always visionaries. A good politician is one who quickly buys into an idea whose time has come. Perhaps that is why former opponents of the National Conference (including Mr President) have decided that it is better to quickly buy into this idea and make it happen, than to block a National Conference which credible opinion polls show is supported by 88 per cent of all adult Nigerians. The late MKO Abiola (of blessed memory) frequently reminded some of us that, at the end of the day, no sane person wants to stand in front of a moving train.

As expected, all manners of misguided "intellectuals" have been scrutinising the list of delegates for the National Conference and they have launched into the unproductive and seductive game of identifying the unrepresented and the under-represented. Complaints of religious and ethnic imbalance will always be there in Nigeria and the kleptomaniacs will always succeed in finding faults with the composition of any list of 492 persons that you draw up to represent Nigerians and, if you expand the list to 1,000, they will turnaround and say the Group is now too large and unwieldy and so it should be pruned down. Reason? Many of them want the status quo to remain because it suits them and/or their pay masters.

To those who feel unrepresented and/or under-represented, my plea to you is that you reach out to some of us. I do not have to hail from Zamfara State, nor do I have to be a Muslim before I take sides with you on illegal mining, lead-poisoning and/or the reckless and irresponsible poisoning of your ground-water. Nor do I need to be a Fulani herdsman to understand that our land tenure system threatens to leave you "land-less". Coming nearer home, I certainly do not need to be Itsekiri to understand your concerns and fears, nor do I need to work in the Petroleum industry before I understand that it makes far more sense to dispense a kerosene subsidy directly to the poor through vouchers or phone credits or some other direct cash transfer instead of dispensing same through thieving billionaires who get wealthier every week at the expense of the poor.

I once risked my life, my business and my career protesting against the annulment of the 12 June, 1993 Presidential elections. Many other Christians joined those protests which were about preserving a free and fair election victory recorded by a Muslim-Muslim ticket. It was about standing for the truth. For many of us, the ethnic origins and/or religion of the presumed winners was totally irrelevant. Some were protesting because they felt the results could still be upheld. My "head" told me that was highly unlikely, but my "heart" told me to join the protests because, far more important, was the need to mobilise Nigerians with a view to ensuring that no future President would commit a similar blunder.

To my fellow Conference delegates I plead that we leave no stone unturned in a bid to disprove all the cynics. Our work will gain even wider acceptance if, together, we insist that we will also champion the justifiable causes of  the unrepresented, the down-trodden and/or the under-represented, be they Traditional Worshippers, Stockbrokers, Ethnic Nationalities or the Youths.

We are blessed with a learned Chairman (Justice Kutigi) with impeccable integrity and we have a Vice Chairman (Professor Bolaji Akinyemi) with intellect and integrity. So let us confound all the critics. If it will cost N7 bn to fund this National Conference, we MUST ensure a payback to the nation that is several multiples of N7bn. If all that we achieve is to generate a groundswell of opinion that is so strong that it forces the two major political parties to dissociate themselves from the unholy thieving cartel, that is blocking savings of N123bn out of our annual budget by making us continue to fund "parasitic" Federal government agencies that should be merged and/or shut down, then we would have justified the expenditure of N7bn and "redeemed" ourselves. Notice that I did not even mention a new Constitution or a Constitutional amendment.

Finally, let us remember that if there are serious problems confronting a nation, a people or a society, there are only three things that we can really do about the problems:- 1) Get together and TALK in earnest with a view to finding a solution; 2) FIGHT each other (like Boko Haram would have us do); or 3) do NOTHING, as the pen-pushing and lazy elite in our midst would have us do. Given these three options, I would rather TALK. What about you: my sisters and brothers?

So help me God.