The American Constitutional Convention of 1787 And The CONFAB of 2014: Parallels And Lessons

Confab

Introduction

Following the American Revolution, the thirteen states, which then constituted the United States of America, were governed under the provisions of the Articles of Confederation put together by the Second Continental Congress. After wobbling and fumbling under this constitutional arrangement for about ten years, the American states had to sit at the table of dialogue to renegotiate their destinies. In the current Nigerian context, since 1999, with the end of military dictatorship, the country has been governed under a constitutional arrangement decreed into existence by the military. Having staggered under this constitutional arrangement for fifteen years and with the polity far from being stable, the Nigerian nationalities have an opportunity, courtesy of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan GCFR, to sit at the dialogue table. Parallels can be drawn between the American experience and the Nigerian opportunity. More importantly, lessons can be learnt from the American experience to make the most of the Nigerian opportunity.

Parallels

First, as is the Nigerian case, the structure and form of governance were the main issues in the American context. In this regard, although there appears to be a contrast, placed in perspective, the parallels are clear. Whereas the background to the ongoing Nigerian constitutional conference is a bloated centre with relatively enervated federating units created or maintained by the 1999 constitution, the background to the American Constitutional Convention was a loosely joined confederacy with a centre so weak that not only was it unable to hold the units together, it was virtually unable to sustain itself. It could not maintain a common currency and had neither taxation powers nor a standing army. The result was that the central government could not manage the conflicts that arose among the states. Discontent among the populace particularly among the poor, the farmers and debtors against the creditors gave rise to rebellion in Massachusetts, a situation that portrayed the new nation as unable to govern itself. To salvage the situation, a convention was called for,  with a view to discussing possible improvements to the Articles of Confederation. In the Nigerian case, the bloated centre has retarded the growth of the units, in the process fueling poverty, perpetuating discontent and igniting rebellion across the nation from the insurgency in the North to organized banditry and kidnapping in the South. Despite the concentration of powers in the centre, things are falling apart and the centre cannot hold, very much like the American experience.

Prelude to the American convention, although everyone knew that government had to be fixed, the question was, “how?” Much like the current Nigerian national conference, the mandate given to the convention was to merely make recommendations for the amendment of the Articles of Confederation. Consequently, as has been the case with delegates to the Nigerian national conference, most delegates to the American convention came expecting to merely make recommendations for the revision of the pre-existing constitution.

Although the quality of delegates to the American convention was high-powered, some did not realize what they were getting themselves into. Going by the level of dissonance among their respective constituencies and the apparent cluelessness of some of the delegates regarding the possibilities ahead of them, the convention did not seem to hold any much promise. While Rhode Island refused to send delegates, delegates from Virginia and Maryland sat at the conference fully aware that their respective states were almost at war with each other a few months back. The delegates from Delaware threatened to leave the convention if they had to give up power to strengthen the centre. The delegates from New York argued among themselves over empowering the centre and, eventually, two of the New York delegates pulled out of the conference. These are reminiscent of the refusal by the All Progressives Congress (APC) to send delegates to the conference, the initial threat by northern Nigerian delegates to walk out of the conference and the actual non-participation by the Nigerian Bar association (NBA). Again, just like many delegates to the current Nigerian national conference, the delegates to the American convention came to the conference, not as Americans, but as Virginians, New Yorkers, Pennsylvanians, and so on. They came wanting sovereignty for their respective states.

Furthermore, at the beginning of the 2014 Nigerian National Conference, there was much furore over the pictures of some delegates sleeping in plenary. It provided grounds for skeptical Nigerians to further question the worth of the national conference and the seriousness of the delegates as well as its chances of producing any meaningful outcome. The 1787 American constitutional conference that produced the American constitution, which has been much celebrated and emulated over the centuries, had worse than a sleeping delegate! It had a drunken delegate in the person of Luther Martin of New Jersey!  Therefore, the American Constitutional Convention, which held for four months from May 25 to September 17 1787 and became the reference point for America’s governmental history, did not start out looking like it could produce what it eventually did.

It is important to note also that when the convention delegates changed course towards producing a new constitution for America, they were embarking on what they had no constitutional authorization to do, as it was not permitted under the Articles of Confederation neither were they mandated so to do. This is reminiscent of the admonition by conservative delegates to the Nigerian national conference, to fellow delegates who are optimistic about the opportunity provided by the conference, that the confab has not been mandated to write a new constitution for the country.

What made the difference?

At least, two factors may have contributed to the turnaround. These include the few delegates who came to the conference determined to change the status quo and the resolution of the congress to keep their deliberations absolutely secret.

From the onset, a small group of delegates believed that the Articles of Confederation had to be completely scrapped. These delegates, mostly from Virginia, believed that upon them rested the responsibility of millions yet unborn. Of course, this included George Washington who was the only American then known to every American and was easily elected president of the convention. However, while many delegates came to the convention with shortsighted expectations and without a sense of where America should be going, only one delegate came with a clear blueprint, as he knew what America ought to do. He was James Madison.

James Madison arrived at the convention early with an already developed blueprint. He then began to build a coalition with his fellow Virginian delegates. Another delegate, Charles Pinckney from South Carolina also had a plan but lacked a coalition. With the support of the Virginian coalition, Madison’s plan became the first proposal on the table. This gave direction to an otherwise directionless convention.  Madison’s plan highlighted the fact that the major issue was the question of the degree of authority the central government would have over the states. Convinced that a strong federal government was necessary but aware that the smaller states would particularly resist any plan to surrender part of their sovereignty to the centre (raising fears over minority rights), Madison proposed a system of separation of powers that would guarantee checks and balances and maintained that “only in a large democracy with an extensive system of checks and balances will the rights of minorities be protected from the tyranny of the majority”.Against this backdrop, on the third day of the Convention, Edmund Randolph, a Virginian delegate, announced the Virginia Plan: to do away with the Articles of Confederation and make a new constitution for America.

The Virginia Plan was debated heatedly with opponents raising concerns over such issues as proportion of representation in Congress. While the plan implied representation in both houses of congress in proportion to size, the smaller states demanded equal representation irrespective of size. To resolve this stalemate, Roger Sherman, a Connecticut delegate proposed a bicameral legislation where states would have equal representation in the Senate while representation in the House of Representatives would be size-determined. After much debate, the Connecticut Compromise helped resolve the contentious areas of the Virginia Plan.

Another turnaround factor was the privacy accorded the Convention, as the first resolution of the Convention was to keep deliberations secret, not in the sense of a conspiracy, but in order to ensure a no-holds-barred and honest discussion among delegates. Consequently, despite suspicions, reporters were blacked out from proceedings and delegates swore not to reveal the content of their debates. Four months later, the Convention had created a new constitution for an entirely new government!

Lessons for the Nigerian National Conference

First, from the transcripts and reports of debates at the plenary of the confab, there are too many issues being raised and scattered in too many directions. There is the need for a blueprint that will set the agenda for debates. Such a blueprint must be specific in highlighting the main issues and proposing practical solutions. It’s called “keeping the main thing the main thing”.

Second, the blueprint must anticipate the fears and concerns of interest groups and create appropriate frameworks and buffers to deal with genuine concerns. For instance, an unspoken fear of northern Nigeria towards calls for restructuring and true federalism is the expected loss of allocated oil revenue. This was one of the major causes of the failure of the National Political Reform Conference, 2005, as the South-South demanded 50% derivation on oil revenue. Although proponents of true federalism rightly maintain that each region has resources that can guarantee self-sustenance, the neglect of non-oil sectors over the years has ensured a relatively greater infrastructural deficit (human and material) in those sectors than in the oil sector. Therefore, an acceptable plan would have to take this reality into consideration perhaps by making provision for a transitional period of targeted resource-specific infrastructural development across regions through some sort of infrastructural development fund side by side a progressive hand-over of control of resources to the federating units. This compromise could forestall a sudden incapacitation of some regions or states and might cause otherwise intransigent regions to reconsider their opposition to restructuring.

Third, from the foregoing, there is no gainsaying the importance of compromise and trustful give and take. This lesson is obvious in the Connecticut Compromise.

Fourth, the few delegates who, like the Virginian Coalition and much like the Biblical sons of Issachar, know in this context, what Nigeria ought to do, must take up the challenge of providing leadership – such leadership that defies convention. Those few delegates who perceive that this is an opportunity to write a new constitution for the country despite the fact that the national conference has not been mandated to do so must rise up to the task. Like the delegates to the American constitutional convention, they must rise up to the challenge knowing that they have upon their shoulders the responsibility of generations yet unborn.

Fifth, those few delegates must take responsibility for creating the blueprint that will provide direction to the conference. It appears that many of the delegates are content at simply revising aspects of the constitution or even aspects of the documents handed over to delegates such as the Report of the National Political Reform Conference, 2005 and the Report of the Political Bureau, 1987 as they might not have the patience to consider drafting a new constitution for the country. The “Virginia coalition” and, in particular, the James Madisons among delegates must rise up to do so even if they glean ideas from these past reports. To achieve this, they must build the necessary coalitions and make the necessary compromises. It is noteworthy that unlike the voluminous 1999 Nigerian constitution, the American constitution produced from the 1787 convention was a 5-paged document containing less than four thousand words.

Sixth, although the need for media coverage has been much touted, the conference should seriously consider minimizing media coverage and creating an atmosphere for no holds-barred discussion or plain talk until a thorough document is produced. This may commence once delegates move into committees and it may extend later into plenary. With that, all grandstandings will stop and delegates can focus on the more serious task of nation building with trustful give and take.

Conclusion

In the words of Senator Femi Okurounmu (a south west delegate and the chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on the National Conference) – during his contribution to the debate on the Presidential address – he said “Finally I   wish to advise this conference not to clamp itself under constraints that were not imposed by the President. The outcomes of our deliberations need not to go to the National Assembly. To send them there will defeat the goal of building a new, just and equitable society because the National Assembly itself is one of those institutions which, as presently constituted, is heavily skewed in  favour of some sections of the country against others”. This is spot on.

Finally, if the delegates to the 2014 National Conference consider the WISDOM OF GOD anything to go by in rebuilding our nation and making it an inclusive society of our dream, the ancient story of reconciliation of two brothers (ultimately two families and nations) at the place called MAHANAIM (Two Camps) should guide us in our present assignment. (Genesis 32: 1&2)

The two brothers were raised in the same home but theirs was a classical case of unhealthy rivalry, cheating, manipulation, deep seated mistrust and spiteful cynicisms. But after some 21 years of doing things in their own different ways, the day of reconciliation came. At first, it appeared that it was a time of revenge and settling old scores. Esau showed up with 400 men – a number that naturally overwhelmed the company of Jacob. Consequently, genuine and palpable fear filled the air as one brother decided to send gifts ahead to appease the seemingly aggrieved brother.

Here is the story in its original form without any paraphrase:

“1 Now Jacob lifted his eyes and looked, and there, Esau was coming, and with him were four hundred men. So he divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maidservants. And he put the maidservants and their children in front, Leah and her children behind, and Rachel and Joseph last. Then he crossed over before them and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.

But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. And he lifted his eyes and saw the women and children, and said, “Who are these with you?”

So he said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” Then the maidservants came near, they and their children, and bowed down. And Leah also came near with her children, and they bowed down. Afterward Joseph and Rachel came near, and they bowed down.

Then Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company which I met?” And he said, “These are to find favor in the sight of my lord.”

But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.”

10 And Jacob said, “No, please, if I have now found favor in your sight, then receive my present from my hand, inasmuch as I have seen your face as though I had seen the face of God, and you were pleased with me. 11 Please, take my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.” So he urged him, and he took it.

12 Then Esau said, “Let us take our journey; let us go, and I will go before you.”

13 But Jacob said to him, “My lord knows that the children are weak, and the flocks and herds which are nursing are with me. And if the men should drive them hard one day, all the flock will die. 14 Please let my lord go on ahead before his servant. I will lead on slowly at a pace which the livestock that go before me, and the children, are able to endure, until I come to my lord in Seir.”

15 And Esau said, “Now let me leave with you some of the people who are with me.”

But he said, “What need is there? Let me find favor in the sight of my lord.” 16 So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir. 17 And Jacob journeyed to Succoth, built himself a house, and made booths for his livestock. Therefore the name of the place is called Succoth.  (Genesis 33: 1 -17)

There are four additional vital lessons for all delegates from this Biblical story:

Lesson #1
One brother bowed while the other ran to meet him, embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they both wept. For old wounds to be healed, there must be trustful give and take – not my way or the high way. (Verses 3&4 above).

Lesson #2
Both brothers said “I have enough”. Truth be told, there is no part of Nigeria that is not endowed. Before the discovery of oil, there were groundnut and cocoa pyramids as well as palm oil and rubber plantations. If today the Niger bridge is shut down and tomatoes, potatoes, onions not to mention cows do not come to the south anymore, I wonder how the Southern states will survive. We must embark on cross-country capacity building that will ensure that both sides of River Niger can say again “we indeed have enough”. (Verses 9 – 11 above)

Lesson #3
Herein is the spirit of true federalism in action, each part developing at its own pace. Nothing stops Nigeria from developing 6 – DUBAIS from our present 6 geo – political zones 20 years down the road. To do this we must focus on harnessing the resources of each zone for the development of each zone as against the entire nation trying to survive largely on a mono -product economy. This is killing us while creating the filthy rich amongst our elites who have managed to corner the resources of our nation for themselves. (Verses 12 – 14 above)

Lesson #4
The final lesson is decentralization of security apparatus, in our own case, the decentralization of the police. With our present security challenge, there is no point posting policemen from Kaura-namoda to Calabar or from Port – Harcourt to Kafanchan if we are serious about effective policing. Apart from language barriers, officers who are not familiar with the terrain of their posting can hardly do their jobs effectively and satisfactorily. (Verses 15 – 17 above)

The 2014 National Conference provides Nigeria with the opportunity to re-write her constitutional and governmental history. In this regard, lessons can be learnt from the Word of God and from the American Constitutional Convention of 1787. It is said that those who do not learn from history either  repeat the blunders of history or become history themselves.

May God Almighty guide us aright. Amen.

In the pursuit of a united
and progressive Nigeria,
Pastor Tunde Bakare
Convener, Save Nigeria Group and
National Conference 2014, South West Delegate. 

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