SNC Notes: The present Nigerian Constitution is neither owned by the people nor is it really federal – Ladipo Adamolekun

October 19, 2013

Iju Public Affairs Forum

Being paper presented at the Ondo State Roundtable:  Setting Agenda for the National Conference


I would like to thank the Governor for inviting me to this Roundtable.  I accepted to be a participant because I’ve been a supporter of the movement for the convocation of a Sovereign National Conference since the early 1990s.  Two of my statements on the subject are provided as an Appendix to this preamble to my participation in the Roundtable.  Strikingly, one of the two statements is from the Inauguration Lecture that I delivered in May 2011.


Following the incendiary exchanges between self-appointed spokespersons for the South-south and the North between May and August whilst many advocates of SNC persisted in asserting that it could help tackle our governance crisis, I reconsidered my position on the subject.  I revisited the phenomenon of SNCs in several francophone African countries in the early 1990s and noted that the only success story was that of Benin Republic.  SNCs failed in the other countries: Chad, Comoros, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo (called Zaire at the time), Gabon, Mali, Niger and Togo.  The crucial unusual success factor in Benin Republic was a collapsed state and economy and a leader who admitted failure.  Participants comprised prominent intellectuals (including a few from the Diaspora), representatives of political parties and of civil society groups, notably labour unions, media and youths. The following summary of the Benin experience has been provided by a Beninese academic who is currently the country’s ambassador to Nigeria:


… the two-week frank and critical deliberation led to a broad national consensus on the adoption of principles of liberal democracy, respect of fundamental human liberties, rule of law, separation of power with checks and balances, multiparty system, competitive choice of political leaders through free and fair elections, good governance, etc. it was this broad national consensus that was later on enshrined in the constitution that was adopted through a referendum on 11 December 1990 (Mouftaou Laleye in Ideas for Development, 2011).



Without exception, incumbent leaders in the other countries who considered themselves in effective control engineered the failure of the SNCs in their respective countries.  Two notable examples were Bongo of Gabon and Eyadema of Togo. Several other reasons for the failure of SNCs in those countries – some generic while others were country-specific – are not highlighted in this brief Preamble.


In Anglophone Africa, the experience of Kenya has relevance for Nigeria.  Constitutional review efforts undertaken over two decades prior to the governance crisis of 2008 were only partially implemented by successive governments that cherry-picked from proposed reforms: they implemented only reforms that did not threaten their hold on power. Following the killings and chaos that accompanied the 2008 crisis and the external peace-building intervention that helped to restore peace, the subsequent constitutional reform exercise was a root and branch affair: all political, economic and social issues that were dodged or skirted in the past were addressed and the national consensus that emerged were incorporated in a new constitution. The new constitution with an implementation plan and timeline was adopted through a referendum.  Today, Kenya is one of a few African countries with a constitution that is owned by the citizens (three other notable examples are Benin, Senegal and South Africa) and the constitution is being faithfully implemented.  Two notable features are: (a) quasi-federal provision that has resulted in the election of county governors who exercise devolved powers (with prescribed resources) from the centre and (b) significant social protection rights for women, children and other vulnerable groups that are justiciable.  


In Nigeria, the Constitutional and Political Reform initiatives embarked upon by the executive and legislative arms of the government since 1999 (at least two by each arm) have made no dent on the constitution that the outgoing military foisted on the country. The constitution has two major faults: (a) it is not owned by the people and (b) it is more unitary than federal, a reflection of its military origin, given the unitary and centralised features of military organisations. The military-turned-civilian president between 1999 and 2007 was comfortable with this arrangement because of his military culture.  President Yar’Adua’s stint was brief and he did not embark on constitutional reform. 


Against this backdrop, I would like to end with three observations regarding President Jonathan’s National Conference cum constitutional reform initiative.

1.      The crucial success factor (a collapsed state and economy and a leader who admitted failure) in the case of Benin and a governance crisis of Kenyan proportion are absent in Nigeria today.  Therefore, the steady progress towards good governance recorded in those two countries is difficult to envisage in the case of Nigeria.

2.       Will this initiative become a futile exercise like the preceding efforts initiated by the executive and the legislative arms of government?  In the specific case of President Obasanjo, his Political Reform Committee (his second initiative) was merged with a “Third Term” Agenda that public outcry and the Senate aborted.  Would President Jonathan’s initiative be merged with the on-going debate on his putative candidacy in the 2015 presidential elections that has generated the incendiary exchanges mentioned above?

3.      Given my strong conviction that a devolved federation is the only route to achieving federal democracy and economic prosperity in Nigeria, any constitutional/political reform initiative that does not make a devolved federation its primary objective will be a futile exercise.  The key features of a devolved federation are summarised in Extract A in the Appendix to this Preamble.





A.        Extract from “Nigeria Federation at the Crossroads: The Way Forward” in

Publius: The Journal of Federalism (2005)


To keep Nigeria one, federalism is a necessity, not a choice.  The challenge is to accommodate the ethnic, linguistic, religious, cultural, regional and geographical divisions within a federation that is at the same time democratic and capable of advancing socioeconomic progress…

Convocation of a Sovereign National Conference:  The kind of political restructuring and autonomy that are required for a new devolved federal system would include significant reduction in the powers of the National Assembly.  Therefore, it would be asking too much to expect the Assembly to preside over the diminution of its own powers.  And the record of the Assembly to date does not inspire confidence that it would act decisively on the re-assignment of functions and resources and provide a road map for achieving decentralized economic policy and management.  Therefore, the only viable alternative is the convocation of a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) [bold and italics added].  Even an older federation, Canada, organized three national conferences between 1987 and 1999 to review the state of their union.   Extensive suggestions on the modalities and expected outputs and outcomes of this conference have been provided in many of the published materials on political restructuring and autonomy.  Perhaps the one big problem that remains to be satisfactorily tackled is how best to reconcile SNC with the legitimacy of the incumbent federal powers (the executive and the legislative).  A possible solution would be to hold a referendum on the new constitution to be produced by the SNC…  One final word on the desirability of a Sovereign National Conference is its potential usefulness as a trust building mechanism… it is important to stress that the enduring unity of the Nigerian federation cannot be assured through military-style centralism and uniformity.  Persistent fears about the fragility of the federation after almost three decades of strict application of that approach, and over eight years of imitations of the same approach, constitute a strong justification for adopting and implementing a different approach.  The desirable new approach, I suggest, is a devolved federal system with the characteristics that are spelled out above.  It is only devolution that can unleash the forces for consolidating democracy and achieving accelerated socioeconomic progress in Nigeria.  The alternative to devolution, I fear, might be the death of the federation.


B.        Extract from “A Transformation Agenda for Accelerating National Development”, Presidential Inauguration Lecture (May 2011)


Assuring peace and security within the territorial area of a state is an incontrovertible precondition for development and it is also the case that there can be no peace without development…The other dimension to the challenge of peace and security in Nigeria is the threat posed by a combination of ethnic-religious conflicts and inter- and intra-elite struggles for political power and the vast opportunities for accumulating wealth through unearned generous salaries and mind-boggling renting-seeking activities… In these circumstances, tackling the root causes of the politico-ethnic-religious conflicts in the country appears to be the most viable route to finding lasting solutions. Is there a role here for the Sovereign National Conference that some opinion leaders have advocated since the early 1990s? This is a challenge that the president needs to address as a priority.

[Ladipo Adamolekun, an Oxford University D. Phil., is  one of Ondo State’s Nine (9) of Nigeria’s Sixty-Seven (67)  National Merit Awardees.  A former Dean of the Faculty of Administration at Ife and a former Lead Public Sector Management Specialist at The World Bank, Adamolekun is now an Independent Scholar.]


SATURDAY, OCTOBER 19, 2013.  9:55 p.m. [GMT]

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