By BEN AGANDE & LEVINUS NWABUGHIOGU
Futile or fruitful? That’s the big question one week after the National Conference began in Abuja. In the real sense, the confab is supposed to be two weeks old having been inaugurated on March 17. But it deferred the commencement of technical session by one week. The adumbration started on March 24.. Seated in the auditorium of the National Judicial Institute, Abuja, venue of confab, were the 492 delegates drawn from various distinct groupings in the country.
For three days, Monday through Wednesday, the conference had not just some deliberations but heated debates that apparently pitted the South and North against each other. Like in an action-packed movie, there were tension-soaked scenes that characterized the three days with the Chairman of the conference, Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi (rtd), providing comic relief that reduced tensions in the hall.
Traffic hitches/administrative bottlenecks
Monday morning was simply difficult for almost all the delegates. From the threshold of the venue to getting into the hall, life was made hard for them. Time was 10 am, the rush time. There was huge security in and around the hall. And so, whether highly placed or lowly placed, everyone went through the gamut of security checks. Consequently, the human and vehicular checks prompted a serpentine queue that took members up to two hours to scale through.
After the gate screening, delegates again faced SSS checks and scanning machines at the entry point of the hall. They were also made to document their personal data. Eventually, it was Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), a delegate from the South-west who, in between proceedings which had already started inside the hall, brought the excruciating experience of his colleague-delegates outside to the knowledge of the Chairman. His submission was echoed by Comrade Isa Aremu of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), among others. They pushed for a halt to the proceedings to enable many trapped outside to join the plenary. The Chairman, Kutigi, called for a 10-minute wait.
Debate/adoption of rules
The conference had hardly got underway when Kutigi called for adoption of the rules. But Falana told the Chairman that it was unconventional to adopt the procedural rules without debating them first. With that, the debate on the rules opened.
The delegates failed to reach a common ground on Order Xi (1) and (2) of the Procedure Rules of the conference which says,” All decisions of the conference at plenary and committee stage shall be reached by consensus, or in the absence of that, the Chairman shall, at his discretion, adjourn proceedings to allow for further consultations.
In case of failure to reach a resolution on the matter by consensus, it shall be decided by vote of three quarter majority.” They had successfully deliberated on all other matters on Tuesday except the voting pattern when they proceeded for lunch break. After the break, Kutigi called for the adoption of the rules. But members objected. A Federal Government delegate, Mr. Mike Ozokeheme (SAN), questioned the wisdom behind adopting an inclusive matter, forcing a debate.
While some delegates favoured the presidential proposal of reaching consensus or three quarter majority, many advocated the two-third majority, stressing that it was more conventional and reasonable.The issue stalled proceedings.
The delegates were split along North/South lines. While many northern delegates wanted decisions taken by three quarter votes when the conference is unable to decide by consensus, many from the South wanted two third.
An elder statesman from Gombe State, Ambassador Yerima Abdullahi, told Sunday Vanguard the North’s fear that inevitably led some delegates from that part of the country into asking for three quarter voting pattern. Abdullahi said: “If you analyze the membership of this conference, you have 492 outside the officials. But going a little further into the demography of this country, about 55 percent of the population is from the North, but Mr. President, in his own wisdom, decided to nominate 290 people from the South, his area and nominated only 200 from the North.
Automatically, that gives the South a serious advantage of two third majority without even any contribution from the North. And I don’t think this is what Mr. President wants. Because, if that is done, then it will not be a Nigerian decision. It will be a southern Nigerian decision which is not healthy for Nigeria. Now, I think that sanity should prevail and, therefore, in view of the practical situation on the ground, we should take the three quarter decision and stand there”.
A delegate on the platform of elder statesmen, Chief Edwin Clark, cautioned his colleagues not to further associate President Goodluck Jonathan with the 75 per cent clause, emphasizing that issues of rules and order should not stop the conference from progressing.
He said: “Consensus should be the order of the day, but where we disagree, are we going to stop this meeting? We should not allow rules or orders to stop us from proceeding. All over the world, the practice is two third majority. No one here should deceive us that, that is the mindset of Mr. President. This matter has come to an end. We should decide it. So, Mr. Chairman, let’s put Nigeria first. Whether we are talking about two third majority or 75 percent, we are all Nigerians. Let’s put it to vote if we cannot decide.”
Also speaking, another delegate from North, Alhaji Mohammed Bello, said that the issue of majority or minority does not arise.
“We have opportunity now to look at the issues and decide on which way to go. The conference is not about majority or minority. What we are talking about is consensus. Before the President thought about consensus, he must have thought about it seriously. If it is about majority or minority, we would not have been here. Let us forget about our sentiments. If we insist that people will use their numbers to intimidate others, it will cause problem in this country,” he said.
Air Commodore Idongesit Nkanga, a delegate from the South-south, lent a voice to the debate saying two third majority was the answer.
He said: “We were here when the President spoke to us. He said the interest of the conference is Nigeria, not your tribe. The President said we are re-launching Nigeria. We want two third so that we can move along.”
Another delegate on the platform of retired state security and NIA officers, Chief Jerry Okwuonu, challenged the confab leadership and insisted on two third majority.
“I come from a part of the country where even before the white men came, we had reached consensus. But time has changed. We are taking two third so that we can have something to take to Nigerians.”
Chidinma Uwajumogu, an Imo State delegate, said, “Three quarter will not suffice. Two third, sir.”
When it became obvious that reaching a compromise was almost impossible given the number of hands that indicated interests to speak on the voting pattern issue, a northern delegate, Yusuf Garba, advised against a division that may derail the conference.
“I pray that we will not look for division in this hallowed chambers. Whatever, let’s go back to Mr. President and do something that will give us a name,” he said.
Setting up of 50-member committee
In resolving the voting pattern impasse, the Chairman set up a 50-member committee to look into it. The committee members, later on Wednesday, later went into a closed-door session with the conference leadership. While hopes were alive that by 4pm that day, the outcome of their deliberation would be announced, it was rather astonishing to hear Kutigi at resumption of plenary say that the committee was inclusive on the issue. He subsequently adjourned the conference till tomorrow (Monday).
Meanwhile, the committee was said to have reached a consensus position which is expected to be submitted to the conference for adoption tomorrow.
A member of the committee, which sat on the matter, on Thursday and Friday, told Sunday Vanguard that the body made far reaching decisions that would resolve the voting pattern impasse.
The member, who did not want to be named because he was not authorised to talk to the media, explained that those in the committee had frank and serious discussion before arriving at the compromise position.
”At the end of the day, we recommended that decisions on issues would be taken when 70% of members vote on it if they are unable to arrive at consensus after three attempts. This is less than the 3/4 some delegates, mostly from the North, insisted on and more than 2/3 that others, mostly from the South, insisted on. It was a decision that every member was satisfied with”, he said.
According to him, members of the committee were mandated to meet with the various caucuses in the conference today evening to appraise them of the development before the delegates reconvene tomorrow.
”We believe that by the time we meet with all the caucuses today (Sunday), we would be able to persuade members to accept the new position and allow the compromise position to hold National interest is greater that the interest of individual members those of groups,” the member said.
Hours of session
Delegates had a tough time reaching a consensus on hours of the session. This happened on Monday. While some delegates agreed with the status quo in the rules book of the conference which provides for session to run from 10 a.m to 6 p.m with two hours in between for lunch, many others argued that the time was too much.
The followed a motion by a former governor of Ogun State, Aremo Olusegun Osoba, who suggested that closing time should be 4 p.m and lunch time reduced to one hour.
According to him, the adjustment in time would enable the media ensure a better coverage of the conference by filing their stories on time. Besides, he said the idea will also enable delegates to have fruitful deliberations.
A former governor of Anambra State, Chukwuemeka Ezeife, supported Osoba. He said flexibility should be allowed to dominate proceedings.
Chinedu Obasi, representing students association from South east, also insisted on reducing the break time.
But the Senate President in the aborted Third Republic, Dr. Iyorchia Ayu, from Benue State, disagreed with Osoba and Ezeife, saying the time provided in the rules book should be left as it is.
Senator Adolphus Wabara, another former Senate President and delegate from Abia State, argued that the time provided was enough, urging a clear demarcation between the presiding officers and other principal officers. “If quorum is formed, we should demarcate between the presiding and principal offers. The time provided is enough,” he said.
A monarch’s pain
Alhaji Muhammadu Barkindo Mustapha, the Lamido of Adamawa, stirred the hornet’s nest, on Wednesday, when, out of apparent anger arising from many times of microphone denial and attitude of delegates over the voting formula, said that he was directly or indirectly a Cameronian.
“Mr. Chairman, I want to sound a note of warning. I have been sitting here for three days now watching and listening. We should not take cue from the so-called civilized people of western countries because they are always after their own interest and they can use anything including coercion to protect that interest,” the monarch said.
“Listening to the debates and behavior of some of the delegates here, it beats my imagination why a gathering of people like us will behave the way we are.
“The President delivered an address and laid down what we are supposed to discuss and what not to discuss. But many people here, some of them elder statesmen, who claim to be strong loyalists of the President unfortunately, these people are in the forefront to contradict what the President has said.
“In the long run, if we are not careful, this conference will flop. God forbid. If it flops, the resultant effect will not be imaginable. If anything happens and the country disintegrates, God forbid, many of us who are shouting their heads off may not have anywhere to go.
“My people and the people of Adamawa have got somewhere to go. I am the Lamido Adamawa and my kingdom extends to Cameroun. The larger part of my kingdom is in Cameroun. Part of that kingdom is today called Adamawa State in Cameroun. You see, if I run to that place, I will easily assimilate.”
This prompted mixed reactions among the delegates some of whom resorted to booing the monarch. For instance, Professor Chinedum Nwajiuba from Imo State, South-east zone, who spoke on the issue, said, “It’s straight forward. We now know there are people who don’t have as much stake as we have in the unity of Nigeria. Most of us have only Nigeria. Some people have told us they actually have other countries after Nigeria and may not be as committed to the future the well-being of Nigeria. Our duty is to convince them to remain Nigerians totally and not partial Nigerians.”