•‘Recommendations designed to ridicule Mr President’
As controversy continues to trail the proposed National Conference, Fred Agbeyegbe, a lawyer and President of Movement for New Nigeria and Itsekiri National Congress, in this interview, expresses disappointment with the recommendations of the Okurounmu Committee which, according to him, fall short of using national dialogue to correct the master/servant relationship among ethnic groups in Nigeria.
By Hugo Odiogor
It would appear that the Movement for New Nigeria is not satisfied with the modalities laid down by the Okurounmu Committee for the conduct of a National Conference?
At no point were we in the Movement for New Nigeria (MNN) interested in National Conference, and we will not allow any confusion between what we wanted and stood for, and what some people are surreptitiously using to replace it. We never wanted National Conference; we want Sovereign National Conference (SNC) and there is a big difference between the two.
What difference is there?
The difference between Sovereign National Conference and National Conference is that the people who would appear in a National Conference – as the committee has now brought out – are completely different from those who would appear in a Sovereign National Conference.
Those who will appear in a Sovereign National Conference are the owners of the land mass that make up Nigeria: The ethnic nationalities – the Yoruba, the Igbo, the Hausa, the Itsekiri, the Ijaw, the Tiv and the Edo.
They are the ones who have the sovereignty. They have primordial sovereign and the inalienable right which nobody – by whatever form of legislation, coercion, intimidation or blackmail – can take away.
The effect of it is that when they have spoken, they speak with the authority of those who can cede part of that sovereignty that they have or all of it, if they choose, to some other person or entity. As you can see, the committee report did not talk about ethnic nationalities because they were not talking about Sovereign National Conference.
Now that what you wanted is not offered, what do you do next?
We have never been in any position to do anything as such. We are a mere organisation, but we are an organisation that has developed from the realisation of the rights that the ethnic nationalities of Nigeria have, and the case that we make is the case of the ethnic nationalities. In terms of doing anything, it is our duty to point out to the peoples whose interests we represent what is going, so that they don’t make this mistake of thinking that what is going on, as it relates to the National Conference, is the same with what they have clamoured for over the years. Whatever they then do, as a result of that realisation, is going to be of their own choosing.
The report we have is an indication of the waste of time that that whole exercise has been. The irony of it is that President Jonathan came out – changing his mind about the position he took before – wanting to have a National Conference, although I admit that between him and us, there is this difference on the type of conference he wants and the one we want.
The report in effect did not do him any good whatsoever. Perhaps to start with, through his own fault, even though he desired that Nigerians should come and talk about how best to hold a National Conference by his own terminology, the membership of the committee was an indication of what he wanted; it was an indication of people not wanting the change that they pretend to be talking about.
What went wrong with the committee?
That committee was made up of so many past holders of public office, representing a Nigeria as constituted by the 1999 Constitution, which document every right-thinking Nigerian has been saying is an embodiment of the slavery – master/servant relationship – that has been instituted in Nigeria. It then means that all those people can come up with what they already knew, which they have served, and had, on different occasions, taken oaths to support, to defend, and to implement.
So it is not surprising that that committee did not come out with anything anywhere near what the generality of the Nigerian public, particularly the ethnic nationalities, want. It is obvious from the pages of that report what the ethnic nationalities want, which was spelt out in Calabar, in Benin, in Owerri, in Enugu, in Akure, in Minna, in Jos, and in Lagos. Majority of the demands made were ethnic nationalities based.
So how did the report arrive at all these things they were talking about that include local governments and senatorial districts? All those terminologies created by those who are in that master/servant relationship of the generality of the ethnic nationalities of Nigeria whom they chose as slaves. And it was obvious from all the requests that were made that what they wanted was that the ethnic nationalities are to be the ones deciding the codes and conduct of how to live together in this place called Nigeria, and particularly that they wanted to go back to what was the basis of setting up Nigeria, which is true fiscal federalism.
That is to say, if that is what the committee had presented, it would not have been talking about the long-list of items that they wanted to discuss, particularly at the level of representation of the discussants. This is because if the ethnic nationalities had their way, they will first and foremost talk to each other and come from the base with federating units that have agreed to live together because they have land contiguity before; at another stage, the units are federating themselves into a federal republic.
That is the only thing that would have at least resembled what we had before, where there were four Constitutions, and a fifth overriding Constitution that took its position and powers from the Constitutions of the federating units.
Some people have argued that Nigeria has expired. What is your position?
Well, that is a matter for legal argument. Some people believe Nigeria remains intact in spite of the expiration of the 100 years of amalgamation, but others have countered that there is no such thing. I even read one Emeka (Chijioke) saying the ground norm of Nigeria remains the 1999 Constitution and that it is legal and that there is no such thing as expiration of the amalgamation.
Well, I am sure you how lawyers behave. At the end of the day, it is not a shouting match. It is not he who shouts louder or loudest in a crowd whose views are accepted. Unfortunately, no legal argument can be settled until both parties appear before an adjudicator who says this one is right and that one is wrong. The process as you know it may not even stop in one court; it goes up until it gets to the most superior court.
So, I don’t think that is a matter really for public consumption in terms of how it would be understood. I am replying that particular article in which I hope to present argument’s contrary to the one that Emeka deployed. But for a fellow lawyer to tell me that Abdulsalami sat up one day and made a Constitution saying “we the people” and that that Constitution is unassailable beats my imagination.
You are talking about master/servant relationship in Nigeria’s political configuration, many people will not agree with you. Can you explain further?
Is it not a master/servant relationship, when I as a Christian sit down in my part of the country, worshiping my God the way I know how, and, as bad as it is, the 1999 Constitution says there will be nothing like state or national religious adoption and practice in Nigeria. But my head of state declares that Nigeria is a member of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC)? And so it is, whether anyone likes it or not.
Is it not a master/servant relationship when some states up North declared that they are now Islamic states, again against the dictates of that Constitution, and nothing happens? And pursuant to that, there is an organisation called Boko Haram which says that what they are practising is Islamic religion which entitles them to kill other people and that they do not want to have anything to do with any place where there is a Church and they will bomb it at will.
Is it not a master/servant relationship that there is a Taraba jetty in my backyard in the Niger Delta? Is it not master/servant relationship that the oil wells in the Niger Delta where I come from are owned by those who come from the desert? What other proof of a master/servant relationship do you want? Is it not a master/servant relationship that after so many years of northern rule in Nigeria, one person, by the accident of Obasanjo’s chess-playing, becomes the head of state; and everybody up North is saying it is their property, he must get out of there at all costs?
Is it not a master/servant relationship that they said to me that Nigeria is a marriage made in heaven which cannot be dissolved when I, in the exercise of my rights, am saying the structure of this country is wrong, it is hard on me, and let us bring about some amelioration of the hardship, and people object?
Is it not a master/servant relationship that for once an Igbo man becomes the Chief of the Army Staff, and, in exercise of the natural functions of his position, certain actions are taken which are nowhere near all the things that have happened before, and Ango Abdullahi and his so-called northern leaders come together to say they are referring him, in person and not the Nigerian government even, to the criminal court? What else do you need to know that it is a master/servant relationship?
With the recommendations that the Okuroumu Committee has made, and the criticisms that have been following it, what would you tell the President if he calls you to advise him on the matter?
I quite frankly don’t think it is necessary for him to call me to advise him. He has in his wisdom set up a committee, and all I should tell him is that the content of the report that his committee has given him is wrong; it is not correct; and will not do Nigeria any good; and that the people whose conference we are talking about are the ethnic nationalities of Nigeria. They are those people who Fredrick Lugard, without regard, put together in his amalgamation.
They are the ones who have never been given the opportunity before, the ones who have the primordial rights to put up a Constitution. A Constitution is the affair of the owners and sovereignty and rights. So he does not need any more advice than that. But if we want to emphasise it, that if he goes with that report, he would not be doing any justice. So, he should look for a way to shelve it and do the needful.
From the kind of knocks the report is receiving, would you say that Okuroumu Committee has failed the people?
I wouldn’t say Okuroumu has failed the Nigerian people. He and his committee were not put there by the Nigerian people. They were not put there by the ethnic nationalities. I cannot believe that if the ethnic nationalities want to set up a committee like that, Okuroumu is the one they will appoint. For one thing, he has not let them down; he has only let down President Jonathan who put him there.
The committee has let down President Jonathan, and if the President does not know it, at the end of the day, the committee has bowed out, he is the one who is still sitting there and he is the one who has their report.
The question now is: what is he going to do with it to make what his critics have been saying become untrue? We all heard what his opponents and those at the other political fronts have been saying, that he has an ulterior motive, that he is doing it for reasons other than wanting Nigeria to benefit, and that he is insincere. Of course I don’t believe any of these, I believe that he was well intentioned when he did what he did. The only question is, will this report give him want he really was looking for?
Do you have any specific grievance against the recommendation?
True, the thing is that this criticism of the report has been wholesale, but have they really been specific so that Jonathan himself can know why people are complaining about that report? I want to try: There are many things wrong with that report, and I want to say with all due respect to Okuroumu and his wise men that were put together, that everything in that report is useless.
I will start with the list of the items that they have put in that report because you cannot put any part of the report in isolation of one to the other. In as much as it was made to be a scheme of work that is followed, I choose a particular one. They want elections to elect those who are going to attend; they want it to start in February; today is January 24, eight days to the end of the month. February is like tomorrow, and they want the conference in February. When is that election going to take place?
They want it to be concluded in three months to discuss the unnecessary long list that they have put there, which only repeats the contents of the useless 1999 Constitution. They think they are involved in an exercise of amending the 1999 Constitution; that is the only reason there could be that long list. But we are talking of a Sovereign National Conference.
So you have a long list that is unnecessary and you have to debate it, there is no time; they want to elect people into those places, there is no time, they want a Constitutional Conference – an exercise that give Nigerians a new Constitution – to take place within three months. How realistic is that?
As I go along, you will see that each and every one of the things they put there is to ridicule President Jonathan, because those things cannot be done. Now, they want four members to be elected from each senatorial district. In some senatorial districts of this country, there are some five, six, seven, eight, nine ethnic nationalities. When you have picked four, you are effectively saying that the views of other ethnic nationalities in that senatorial district are not necessary. They are throwing controversy at the feet of President Jonathan.
There are some senatorial districts that have three ethnic nationalities like my own – Itsekiri, Ijaw, and Isoko – and you want four. When you have given each one representative, to which ethnic group will you give the remaining representation? Are you not going to exhume all those differences between the Ijaw and the Itsekiri that have been boiling over the years to come to the fore all over again so that they can start killing themselves? So they can all be running to Abuja to complain, meanwhile the problem started from Abuja. Is this not another idea of divide and rule? Is that what the committee was supposed to be doing? So, how do you relate all of these things?
What is the need to go the bodies and institutions created by, and I repeat, those who were practising master and servant relationship, to go and solve the problems created by the policies of those masters in the first place? And then, even before you go and start talking about it, you go to the National Assembly, again an institution created by the 1999 Constitution, which is in fact the number one exhibit of master/servant relationship, to go and obtain permission to go and have a National Conference – an enabling law they call it.