‘Those in opposition are unrealistic idealists and unrepentant anti-Jonathan elements’
By Jide Ajani
In this interview, Senator Femi Okurounmu, Chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee on National Conference, clears the air on what he describes as misconceptions as well as deliberate and malicious criticisms of President Goodluck Jonathan’s person. The senator comes across as a very passionate individual. But who wouldn’t be, especially when the works of your hand are being assailed without remorse? Excerpts:
The challenge of representation
That is a function of our census in Nigeria.
While we were meeting, we had wanted that, but our census figures never captured ethnicity and, therefore, we couldn’t.
The only way to know is to capture it in the next census.
The only way to do it is through a census. There is no way we could have done that.
If we had all the information, that would have met popular demand but we didn’t have that information.
Yes, I would have been the staunchest advocate – that is to know the number of Yorubas, Igbos, Hausas, Ijaws and all that and to be sure that the figures are authentic.
Timing of the conference and the political activities
Even the most hardened critics of this conference agree that, for most time we have been having elections based on a fraudulent Constitution and that there is a need to have a new Constitution that is fair, just and guarantees equality. So, we cannot continue to have elections based on injustice, inequality and unfairness.
What this conference guarantees
Yes. That is the whole idea – to have a Constitution that would create those ideals.
A new Constitution before the next election
Yes. The modalities released show how they (Conference delegates) will come to agreements and how to implement their agreements would be left for them to determine. They are to advise government on how the conclusions of the conference would be treated.
President changing his mind
That was what the President said at that time.
But even before the President spoke, I had said the conclusion would go to a referendum but, at that time, many people were just giving their own opinions and suggestions.
After we went round the country, majority of the views was that it should go to a referendum.
But we also found that there was a significant body of opinion, on legalistic basis, that we cannot have a referendum unless our present Constitution is amended. They went as far as inviting scholars to come and lecture us about their position and we listened.
So, rather than take the risk of having the conference break up on that issue even before it starts, our committee decided that it was best to leave that decision for the conference to decide on its own. So, when Nigerians meet at the conference and they would know the rigours they would have gone through to get their decisions made, they would be in the position to determine how best that issue should be handled. They should decide what they want to do with their decisions.
Composition and politicians
I’ve heard people say there are more politicians going to the Confab and that politicians are not sincere.
Elder statesmen, 37 (delegates to conference); these are not necessarily politicians. Somebody like Emeka Anyaoku is not a politician but he has served Nigeria in many capacities. And there are many of them like that who are leaders but are not politicians.
Yes, there would be politicians, but they would be limited. The only category of politicians would number just 10 – two persons per party (and these are parties that have representation in the National Assembly)
Elder statesmen, retired military officers (they are relevant because they provide security), retired security personnel, retired police officers, traditional rulers, NLC, TUC.
This composition reflects Nigeria as it is. All interest groups and all shades of opinions must be represented – that is what gives legitimacy. If we shut out interest groups, they would claim that they were shut out and, therefore, frown.
Mind you, there is a tentative agenda for this conference, but we also admitted that our agenda is not exhaustive – it’s a 37-point agenda. The conference can remove or add to it.
Fear of cleavages
That is one thing that people who are clamouring for nationalities conference often overlook.
Every Nigerian belongs to one ethnic group or the other; we have 492 delegates and every one of them would belong to one ethnic nationality or the other.
But to go there and bond based on ethnicity and not on national interest would be unfortunate.
On federalism, for instance, I would expect delegates to discuss the issue in the national interest; just as I would expect them to discuss the issue of devolution in a nationalistic manner.
Vetting of the character of delegates
It’s good we have said the unity of Nigeria is not negotiable.
We are not going there to see how Nigeria will break up but to see to the enthronement of a nation based on justice and equity and that is also why we have left the selection of the delegates to the stake holders.
The stakeholders, for instance, in labour are the labour unions. Labour has 24 delegates – 12 each for NLC and TUC.
NBA has one because it is a professional body and all professional bodies have just one, so it’s not just the NBA alone – there is the Nigerian Society of Engineers, there is the Nigerian Medical Association, there is the Chartered Institute of Bankers (I think there are about 13 of them). The NUJ has two and it is under a different category. And all this talk about NBA, is it that the NBA is superior to the other bodies.
The President has two categories of nominations to make: 37 elder statesmen and six outstanding youths. So, the President is going to directly only nominate 43 people to the conference..
Meanwhile some people have been criticizing the President that he is going to nominate majority of the delegates – 43 out of 492, is that majority?
Yes, we know the importance of law but this conference is not about lawyers, it is about Nigeria as a country.
President Jonathan’s earlier position
President Jonathan may have said earlier that the outcome of the conference would be returned to the National Assembly, but we have submitted our report and, based on our report, he changed his mind.
Don’t forget that the lawyers who argued that, unless the Constitution is amended, we cannot subject the outcome to a referendum, we also had some who disagreed. And whatever political viewpoint you hold, you would have lawyers, backing
Legalities over referendum
The legalities people talk about are legalities raised on both sides of the divide by those who wanted a referendum and those who didn’t want it.
This is not a conference over legalities. It is a political conference and people will take political decisions. We must get the priorities and sequence right.
Firstly, people will take political decisions.
Those taking the decisions must reflect the Nigerian nation.
After that, you refer those decisions to lawyers to go and draft that Constitution.
Whatever you want them to do with it, you can mandate them as lawyers to do that for you. The decisions to be made are not lawyers’ decision but decisions as Nigerians.
There is more to this conference.
Some people say the result of a conference or a new Constitution would not instruct a state governor to build roads or provide infrastructure, but the truth is that there is more to living in a good society than just good roads.
A good society is where everyone has confidence in the basic laws, the Constitution that guides us.
Many have argued that the Constitution we operate today is unfair to some sections of the country while it favours some. Now, you do not redress such injustices by building roads. There are more important things. People must have confidence in the Constitution that guides them.
The issue of the ‘no-go area’, which is the indivisibility of Nigeria, is in order.
No government arranges a conference and says it wants the break-up of its country.
This conference is not to break-up Nigeria.
People should go to the conference and express their views.
They should not be afraid to express their views.
Throughout our tours, we did not get anybody who came forward to say that (we should break-up). There is a consensus among Nigerians that they don’t want a break-up.
The whole idea of the confab is about the nation’s unity.
You see, Nigerians are free to express their views on this.
President Jonathan has showed himself to be a listening President.
If Nigerians believe that 75% is too high for decisions to be agreed upon, they can make their views known even before the conference starts.
And the President, being a listening President, would listen to all their views
Understanding the criticisms against confab
There are two types of criticisms, against this confab and some of the things that are being said are not correct.
The first category of criticism is just malicious based on the fact that they don’t like Jonathan and, no matter what Jonathan does, they would always find something to criticize about it.
And that is the largest group. There are people who say the President would appoint the majority of delegates even when he is only appointing 43 out of 492. These people are the ones saying the outcome of the conference is going to the National Assembly when it is said that the decision about that is left to the conference itself. It is just because they don’t like Jonathan.
But this conference is not about Jonathan. This conference is about Nigeria and the future of our children.
The second category is made up of unrealistic idealists.
They are the ones who say three months is too short for the confab and they criticize Jonathan for that.
And if Jonathan had said nine months they would say ‘this man doesn’t want to go and he doesn’t want us to hold elections’.
So no matter what Jonathan says or does, they are ready to criticize.
If he says three months tentatively, that means it is not cast in stone – that is what tentative means.
And these are the same people who have been saying the President wants to use the conference to create distraction, that he doesn’t want to hold elections. But now he says ‘lets have it in three months before the election season begins’, they are still criticizing him.
•This interview was first aired on Channels Television