•Says INEC wanted N25billion for delegates election
Since after the Presidential Advisory Committee on National Conference, led by Senator Femi Okuronmu, submitted its report to President Goodluck Jonathan, there have been accusations and counter-accusations. In this interview, Mr. Tony I. Uranta, a member of the committee, speaks on some of the issues surrounding the conference
By Adeola Adenuga
You were a member of the Presidential Advisory Committee on National Conference. How would you describe your experience in the committee vis-a-vis the desirability or otherwise of the conference?
It was an enervative and very educative experience that every member of the committee gained during the exercise of consultations, as we went round all the six geo-political zones; during which we found out, amongst other things, that we don’t know exactly how many ethnic nationalities are in Nigeria, that many people really thought that we were already conducting the National Conference per se, that there were expectations from government that were both unrealistic and not pragmatic, and that there was an overwhelming desire all through the nation for us to come together, as one people, to speak.
Even in places where there seemed, initially, to be apathy on the part of state governments or local governments not to participate, we realised that the people of these states and zones [and of Nigeria] have taken on the sovereignty that belongs to them, on their own and decided that they are going to decide whether to talk or not to talk; what they will talk about; how they will talk about it; and how it shall be reflected when it all comes out at the end of the day.
The committee almost ran into stormy waters in Edo State following the altercation between Governor Oshiomhole and Cd. Tony Nyiam (rtd), leading to the resignation of Nyiam from the committee. Did that not create the fear that the conference itself could really be volatile?
The conference will be volatile! The Yoruba say that brothers don’t go into a room to speak truth to one another and come out smiling all the time. It will be volatile because we are going to speak truth to one another, so we can resolve our differences, enhance our unity and build a true Nigeria premised on truth, equity and justice. But the incident in Benin was really less one of volatility, as much as one of intemperate reaction by both the governor and a member of our committee.
The people of that zone had apparently taken a position that they really wanted to participate in the National Conference. The governor had already told us in private that he was opposed to the National Conference, and had been so opposed from the beginning of the concept itself in the 1980s. We did not expect him to come out and try to talk his people into accepting his position as the position of the state or the zone; and when the people started booing him and clamouring for him to leave the podium, we least expected a member of our team to join in with the people to heckle the governor, especially since our team’s mandate was not to talk, but to listen, record, and later proffer advice.
Do the final guidelines agree with the recommendations of the committee, especially as they concern the ‘no-go-area’, and the fact that the final outcome of the conference will go through the National Assembly to be put in the Constitution?
I will say about 95 per cent or more of the recommendations of the committee [the initial recommendations of the committee] were published and have been announced as the modalities. There were very few departures from the original recommendations. For example, we had, initially, said that delegates should be chosen through elections/adult suffrage, so that there will be transparency and the ability for everybody to participate fully.
But when government got our report, it went through it, and realised that the Electoral Act does not allow INEC, which is the only body empowered to carry out elections, to conduct elections outside of the political elections that have been designated to it; and that for it to now process this election, there would have to be alterations to the Electoral Act, which we were not sure could be carried out even in the next one year or two knowing how slow our National Assembly can be on critical issues.
You know how long it took for the Freedom of Information Bill to get passed. A bill that was sent in, in 1999 only got passed in 2007. Apart from that, government now asked INEC to budget what it will cost and INEC budgeted N25 billion.
Now if people are complaining of N7 billion budgeted for this conference, can you imagine what they would have been saying if we were to have a N32 billion?
Therefore, government knew it was not a pragmatic decision to take. We were then invited back by the President, who was very unique in the way he went about dealing with both the committee and our report. Rather than setting up a White Paper Committee, he kept returning to us and saying to us, ‘review your recommendations’. We now reviewed them and concluded that there shall be delegates nominated by the people, through stakeholder groups and interest groups, so it will be a wholly peoples-driven conference.
As to whether the outcome of the conference will now return to the National Assembly for legislation; yes, every such outcome has to end up in the National Assembly for legislation. What the people of Nigeria do want and what they are adamant about is that there must be referendum. After the referendum, what they don’t want is for the conference’s outcome to be tinkered with by the National Assembly before it is passed into law as either a new Constitution, or as part of the 1999 Constitution undergoing review.
Now, you will notice that I have made a distinction as to whether the Constitution will be new or reviewed. This is because we recommended to the President, rather than he getting involved with all the imbroglio of the politics of should there be a referendum; should the National Assembly have dominance etc.; we said, simply, ‘let the National Conference itself decide whether Nigerians want a referendum? When the referendum is decided, do they want the outcome of the conference and the referendum to become a brand new Constitution?
Let the conference decide’. I am one person who want a referendum. I am one person who wants a brand new Constitution. But, I love this idea of giving it over to the people, via the conference, so nobody is imposing anything on the people of Nigeria. And when they decide, I want to see anybody, group of people or interest group that will stand up and say that what the people want is wrong, and that they are not going to give them what they want; and I want to see what will happen after that.
Was Chief Solomon Asemota opposed to any aspect of the report that could have led to the controversy of whether or not there was a minority report?
I think that is one of the tragedies of Nigeria’s reality at the moment. I have so much respect for Chief Asemota (SAN) and, prior to our interactions on this committee, I held him in very high esteem, but so far as I am concerned, he let himself down, he let the peoples of my zone (South-south) down and the people of Nigeria down. Of course, what Chief Asemota, as an extension of Professor Ben Nwabueze, a respected constitutional lawyer and elder statesman, was intent on doing was foisting upon Nigeria, and Nigerians, and the conference, a pre-decided agenda.
Professor Nwabueze had stated at the Eminent Peoples Summit, convened by me in January 2012 in Lagos [when he walked out because the majority of the people present wanted a National Conference to debate every issue under the sun] but he wanted a National Conference to debate certain issues in the draft Constitution which The Patriots had drawn up under the late Chief Rotimi Williams [and we are talking about ages ago!], that we don’t discuss anything else except that document and that he would then go about turning that document into a new Constitution and you will agree with me that proviso would be restricting and limiting Nigerians.
There is nothing that stops us from discussing that document because it is a critical document; but we could not be limited by Chief Asemota, Professor Nwabueze and their co-travellers.
As to whether there was a minority report, Chief Asemota was the Chairman of the Committee’s Sub-Committee on Legal Processes; which was to decide whether there should there be a referendum, whether the outcome of the conference be subjected to the National Assembly, whether there should be a bill legislating the conference into being ab initio etc..
It was this sub committee as the most senior lawyer on our committee, that came with the recommendations in our report. We accepted the sub-committee’s recommendations hook, line and sinker! It was, therefore, disconcerting that at the point of our signing, Chief Asemota was nowhere to be found. For hours, we were calling, sending cars all around looking for him only to find out that he was, all the time, in the parking lot sleeping right outside the committee’s meeting hall and that he wished, at that belated point, to take a position saying that he had a memo [because that is what we saw it as being!] to submit.
He erroneously call the memo a minority report. That memo, in fact, had been submitted already by The Patriots both during our consultations trips, and by Professor Nwabueze privately to the Chairman of the committee and to the President. So it has been incorporated in our report. There was nothing new in the memo and the President rightly said that the memo could be called a minority report after Chief Asemota had gone into all the papers shouting, mendaciously, about the President having refused a minority report.
What happened on the day the committee submitted its report to the Presidency?
The day we went to submit our report, our Chairman specifically said there was no minority report; and then paused for about two minutes…that was enough time for any member to protest to the contrary. Chief Asemota sat there, supposedly in silence, he didn’t protest, he didn’t offer any alternative…and then we got out of the Council Chambers and he said to journalists that there was a minority report!
He attempted to impugn the integrity of the committee, attempted to impugn the integrity of the Presidency and to impugn the integrity of the conference; and since then, he has refused to participate further in the activities of the committee even though he is still a member. We have not been disbanded, but he has not been a participating member for some time now.
On the aspect of whether there is no ‘no -go-area’, there was no ‘no go area’ according to what Mr. President said in his speech announcing the birth of the committee on October 1, 2013. On the day he accepted the report, he said there would be a no ‘no-go area’. However, government is privy to certain security information that we do not know of. So government now says there’s a no-go area….that is the area talking about the indivisibility of the Nigerian state. So far as I am concerned, nothing is wrong in that. Government can list one million no-go areas.
When the people come together, they will decide what they want to decide. Nobody is going to come in there like SSS, or soldiers to say, “hey you have started discussing topic A; so you are hereby disbanded”.
What people must realise is that people need to participate in this process. This process is going to change Nigeria. I’m not saying it will be the cure-all for all Nigerian problems, but it’s going to put us on a course that will eventually bring us virtually to an Eldorado.
Some people are of the opinion that the conference will be at President Jonathan’s behest to manipulate. What is your take on this?
I have heard the claim that this will be “Jonathan’s conference” and that he has put it together so he will manipulate it. My friend Lai Mohammed (opposition APC spokesman) has stated it over and over again, and I want to ask Lai, what should we call that conference? Lai’s conference?
No, it will be “Jonathan’s conference”! That’s how it will go down in the annals of history, “The Jonathan National Conference”. That is going to be its name, but the Federal Government is going to nominate only a total of 71 members [including 36 elder statesmen, six role models and outstanding youths, 20 former civil servants, six former jurists, six former members of the Nigerian armed forces and so on].
These are critical interest groups and it won’t be pragmatic to say all elder statesman in Nigeria should come together to nominate 36 representatives, will it?! Therefore it is only sensible to say let the President nominate them. It is only normal and sensible to say let the President nominate these youths. Jurists will be nominated by the NJC and the military will nominate its own representatives, but the President will announce them.
These nominations do not mean that the President will have dominance….as stated above, only 71 out of 492 delegates [being less than 15% of the 492 delegates!] will be nominated by the President. How can 15 percent dominate 85 percent?! I find that incredible arithmetic!
I am forced to conclude that most people who have been lying about this tend to be myopic, and this is nothing but calculated dissemblance, to lead this nation further into confusion. Certain folk, are using misinformation, dis-information, agit-prop tactics to misguide Nigerians.
Interestingly, I can say that even political parties that had said they won’t participate in the conference will participate. I am saying this confidentially because of intelligence report available to us that no party, no state government will abstain! Whether overtly or covertly, they will all participate. This is in the best interest of Nigeria!