National Conference: More questions than answers

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BY HENRY UMORU
AFTER weeks, months and years of shouts, intrigues, calls for the convocation of a National Conference to determine the future of the country, President Goodluck Jonathan as a prelude to the conference, Monday, 7th October, 2013 put in place a 13- member national Dialogue Advisory Committee with Senator Femi Okoruonmu as Chairman.

Other members of the Advisory Committee were Prof. George Obiozor, Prof. Ben Nwabueze, Senator Khairat Gwadabe, Senator Timothy Adudu, Col. Tony Nyiam rtd, who was later dropped, Prof. Funke Adebayo, Dr. Mrs. Mairo Amshi; Dr. Abubakar Sadiq; Alhaji Dauda Birma, Mallam Buhari Bello, Mr. Tony Uranta and Dr. Akilu Indabawa as member and Secretary.

Inaugurating the Committee, President Jonathan noted that he was sceptical in having another conference because there were already existing  democratic structures that were products of the will of the people as against the backdrop of views by some Nigerians that there was no need for people to sit down and dialogue over the socio- political challenges facing the country. However, he pointed out that in democracy, leaders must respond with best available strategies as challenges emerge to ensure that the ship of state remains undeterred in its voyage.

President Goodluck Jonathan flanked by Vice President Namadi Sambo and the Conference Chairman, Justice Legbo Kutigi  (4r) while the Speaker TIONAL CONFERENCE House of Representatives, Hon. Aminu Tambuwal (3l); Vice Chairman of the Conference, Prof. Boolaji Akinyemi (3r); Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Aloma Mukhtar (4l) and other dignitaries watched in a group photograph with delegates after the inauguration of the 2014 National Conference of the People of Nigeria at the National Judicial Institute, Airport Road, Abuja. Photo by Abayomi Adeshida 17/03/2014

President Goodluck Jonathan flanked by Vice President Namadi Sambo and the Conference Chairman, Justice Legbo Kutigi (4r) while the Speaker TIONAL CONFERENCE House of Representatives, Hon. Aminu Tambuwal (3l); Vice Chairman of the Conference, Prof. Boolaji Akinyemi (3r); Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Aloma Mukhtar (4l) and other dignitaries watched in a group photograph with delegates after the inauguration of the 2014 National Conference of the People of Nigeria at the National Judicial Institute, Airport Road, Abuja. Photo by Abayomi Adeshida 17/03/2014

President Jonathan while inaugurating the Senator Femi Okoruonmu committee  had said, “Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, let us remind ourselves of the gains from previous Conferences and Dialogues. The Conferences that were held before 1960 were designed to produce a political system and a roadmap to Nigeria’s independence.

”The Constitutional Conference of 1957 in ‘London, for example, effectively prepared Nigeria for Independence. The Eastern and Western regions were granted self- government in 1957, while the Northern region got its own in 1959. The Office of the Prime Minister was created and it was also decided that the Federal Legislature would be  Bi- cameral.

“Furthermore, the Constituent Assembly of 1978 gave us the 1979 Constitution and also created the current Presidential system with its attendant checks and balances and Fundamental Human Rights provisions. The 1999 Constitution we operate today, is a successor to the 1979 Constitution and records show that the 1999 Constitution also benefited from reports and recommendations arising from the 1994/1995 Constitutional Conference.

”Although not enshrined in the 1999 Constitution, the idea of the current Six Geo-Political Zones that have become one of the avenues for equitable distribution of projects and public offices in Nigeria was also a product of Dialogue that emerged from the 1994/1995 Constitutional Conference.

”The 2005 National Political Reform Conference produced a number of key recommendations that were sent to the 5thAssembly, which were however not perfected. In 2010, I reasoned that the outstanding recommendations from the 2005 Conference needed to be revisited.”

Soon after the inauguration, the committee immediately kick started, toured the zones where it collated the views from Nigerians, socio- cultural groups, associations, organised labour, the academia and all strata of  the society on the form, shape, format, content and structure of the proposed National Conference.

At the end of its three month exercise of brainstorming and cross fertilisation of ideas,the Okoruonmu’s Committee in January submitted its 69- page report to President Goodluck Jonathan. Part of the 38- point agenda set by the Presidential Advisory Committee on National Dialogue  if we must have a virile and all embracing Conference were that delegates to the Conference should note that issues that will divide Nigeria are  no-go areas;  Conference  should be managed by a 13-member secretariat under an Executive Secretary with two members from each geo-political zone.

Majority of delegates should be elected directly on the principles of universal adult suffrage.  Each Senatorial zone would send four elected delegates; each state government to nominate one delegate; FCT to nominate one delegate; President to nominate delegates for key interest groups and nominated delegates  should not exceed one-third of total number of delegates.

Other issues raised in the agenda set by the Advisory committee were that the  Conference should hold for at least three months and not more than six months; Conference should hold between February and July 2014; President should send a bill to the National Assembly for an enabling law. Alternatively, President can convene conference via provisions of  section 5 of 1999  Constitution. Emergence of delegates should be based on any of four options; Option A (Representation on the basis of equality of geo-political zones.

This will give conference size of 349 delegates with each zone having 45 delegates); Option B (Representation on the basis of senatorial districts, with each district producing three delegates. Total delegates will be 502 with 364 elected through Electoral College made of five electors from each local government area; Option C (Representation on the basis of equality of constituencies of House of Representatives with total delegates being 536)and Option D (Equality of senatorial districts with four delegates per senatorial district and total delegates size of 500 with 436 elected).

Barely two months after the submission of the Report, President Jonathan in his determination to prove critics wrong, to shame his seeming detractors and to tell the world that he was ready for business nominated Retired Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi as chairman of the national Conference, former Minister of  Foreign Affairs, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi as Vice Chairman and Dr. Valerie Azinge as Secretary, followed by the appointment of Dr. Akilu Indabawa as Assistant Secretary, Conference Proceedings; Prof. Mahmood Yakubu as Assistant Secretary, Finance and Administration and Mr. James Akpandem as Assistant Secretary, Media and Communication.

As a follow up and in preparation of the Conference, the President rolled out 492 names as delegates.

The list was made up of 37 Elder statesmen, one each from the thirty- six states and the Federal Capital Territory and nominated by the president; retired Military and Security Personnel from each of the Armed Forces, the Police, the State Security Services and the Nigeria Intelligence Agency; traditional rulers, two per zone and one from the FCT; retired Civil Servants, one from each of the geo- political zones and the FCT; NLC and TUC whose nomination must reflect the  geo- political zones and gender balance; the organised Private sector with two nominations from NECA, MAN, NACCIMA, NESG; the Media, Professional bodies; women organisations; Youth Organisations, people with disability, among others.

Some of the big names serving as delegates include the South South leader, Chief Edwin Clark; Dr. Tunji Braithwaite; Chief Ayo Adebanjo;  Chief Richard Akinjide; Chief Olu Falae; Erelu Olusola Obada;  General Ike Nwachukwu; Achike Udenwa; Chief Olusegun Osoba; Nduka Obaigbena; Chief Raymond Dokpesi; Senator Jim Nwobodo;  Chief Mike Ahamba, SAN; Senator Azu Agboti; Chief Peter Odili; King Alfred Diete Spiff; Prof. Jerry Gana; Gen. Jonathan Temlong; Prof. Jubril Aminu; Alhaji Ahmadu Adamu Muazu; Arc. Ibrahim Bunu; General A. B. Mamman; General  Alani Akinrinade (rtd); former Senate Presidents Adolphus Wabara; Iyorchia Ayu; Ken Nnamani; Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN;  Commodore Olabode George, rtd; General  Zamani Lekwot (rtd); Gen Jerry T. Useni (rtd); Sen Daisy Danjuma; and  Ambassador Hassan Adamu, among others.

President Jonathan on Monday, 17th March at 5.05 pm, formally inaugurated the National Conference  at the National Judicial Institute, Jabi, Airport Road, Abuja, with a charge that as delegates, the interest of Nigeria must be above any other interest and they must be ready to re- launch Nigeria, just as he urged the delegates to engage in intense  introspection about the political and socio- economic challenges confronting the country, adding that the interest of Nigeria as one indivisible, stable and a united nation was not negotiable.

President Jonathan  pleaded with delegates that as citizens of the country, all must strive to do away with harbouring negative biases against one another, stressing that there  must be no room for what he termed selfish considerations, divisive cleavages and ethnic jingoism, but only national interest and said that yesterday’s prejudices must die with yesterday.

He urged  delegates to patriotically articulate and synthesise the peoples’ thoughts, views and recommendations for a stronger, more united, peaceful and a politically stable Nigeria; focus strictly on the Nigerian agenda as well as ensure that the winner at the end of the day was Nigeria.

President Jonathan who reiterated that he has no personal and hidden agenda in putting in place the National Conference, said that the Conference was about the people of Nigeria against the backdrop that elected public officers were holding the office in trust for the people as sovereignty belongs to them, adding that their voices must be heard and factored into every decision taken on behalf of the citizens of Nigeria.

As delegates settle down to work, the presidency insisted that there were no go areas as they must not touch on issues that could lead to the dismantling of Nigeria, but the President tasked the delegates to address issues relating to form of government, structures of government, devolution of  powers, revenue sharing, resource control, state creation, state police and fiscal federalism, to indigeneship, gender equality and children’s rights, amongst others, adding that as Nigerians, they must be open- minded and work to achieve what was best for Nigeria.

President Jonathan who started his speech at 4.46 pm and stopped 5.05 pm, however  explained that the National Conference was not designed to usurp powers of the National Assembly, but to complement the legislature, adding that both the National Assembly and the State Houses of Assembly should speed up the Constitutional amendment process especially the Referendum aspect that would be required at the end of the National Conference.

President Jonathan said,  “I am delighted to welcome you all to the inauguration of this historic National Conference which promises to be another significant landmark in our efforts to strengthen national unity and consolidate democratic governance in our beloved country.

”I also believe that this National Conference is coming at a very appropriate time. Having just celebrated the first centenary of our country, the most compelling task before us, as we move ahead and contemplate what our nation will be at the end of  it’s second century, is to lay a much stronger foundation  for faster development.

” This we can achieve by building a more inclusive national consensus on the structure and guiding principles of state that will guarantee our emergence as a more united, progressive and prosperous nation. In our  history as a political entity, we have experienced highs and lows but have always forged ahead. To my mind, the fact that we have weathered  all storms and continued with the mission of evolving a truly national identity signifies that we are going in the right direction.

”The strongest nations in the world today also went through their own formative stages; some for decades and others for centuries. We must learn from them that nationhood will not happen overnight, especially given the  circumstances of our birth as a nation. History also teaches that nation-building is a journey of dedication, commitment, diligence, perseverance and patriotic vision. To  be successful, nation-builders must continually strive to evolve better and more inclusive societies in which every citizen is proud and committed.”

President Jonathan continued, “ It is our expectation that participants in this conference will patriotically articulate and synthesize our peoples’ thoughts, views and recommendations for a stronger, more united, peaceful and politically stable Nigeria, forge the broadest possible national consensus in support of those recommendations, and strive to ensure that they are given the legal and constitutional backing to shape the present and the future of our beloved fatherland.

” In inaugurating this national conference today, we are not unmindful of the argument of those who say that we do not need such a conference since we already have an elected parliament and an elected government in place. As cogent as that argument may sound, I have chosen to act on the sincere conviction that  in the truly democratic nation we  are striving to build, we must never ignore the loudly expressed views of the majority of ordinary Nigerians.

“ I have heard that majority say, that we need to rebuild trust by involving them in the process of developing a guiding document of our national political relationships which is more acceptable to all sections of the country. I have heard our people say that we need to openly and frankly discuss our problems and seek acceptable solutions instead of allowing them to fester and remain sources of perennial conflict.

“I have also heard them say that, as the elected representatives of our people, we must  never arrogate to ourselves all knowledge and wisdom regarding the development of our country.

“And I am in full agreement with our people. The power we hold is, without question, in trust for the people. Sovereignty belongs to the people. Their voices must be heard and factored into every decision we take on their behalf.

“This National Conference is a very important avenue for the voices of our people to be heard. Our people have yearnings and desires that need to be discussed. Their representatives at this conference are neither usurping the role of the National Assembly nor the Executive. They are complementing us in our march towards a greater and stronger union.

“Over the years, well-meaning Nigerians have drawn attention to inadequacies in our current constitution. Some have described it as a military-inspired document which does not take into full consideration the genuine desires and wishes of the people.

“The phrase in the preamble that says “we, the people,” have  been variously criticised as being misleading because, according to the critics, the constitution was not written by the people.  There are also those who believe that the constitution is not our problem but the political will to faithfully implement it for the peace and progress of Nigeria.

“While opinions on the matter can be as diverse as rain showers, I believe that irrespective of our personal views on the issue, no one can deny the fact that every constitution is a living document that needs to be revised and improved upon from time to time. The United States, which is the model democracy in the eyes of many, has amended its constitution 27 times since it was first adopted in 1787.”

Barely twenty- four hours after the President inaugurated the National Conference, the Chairman, Justice Idris Kutigi  on Tuesday convened the first session where he  urged delegates to the National Conference to work as a team if the set goals for the conference and the country must be achieved, just as delegates were assured of fair hearing in the presentation of issues.

The first meeting was informal as logistics, how  to settle down to work, the environment, materials to work with, method of getting the allowance, among others were tabled, but  Kutigi asked Delegates to use this week in acquainting themselves with the new environment, the National Judicial Institute, venue of the Conference, announcing that adjournment of sitting  till Monday 10am to enable  delegates have enough time to study the various documents the secretariat provided  them with which will give them deeper understanding and insight into the issues they will be deliberating on at the conference.

But before the close of day on Tuesday, issues that will be expected as delegates reconvene on Monday reared their heads, with one of them as religion, that divisive and contentious matter that has for long pitched Nigerians against one another came up.

As delegates begin serious business on Monday with discussions on the President’s inaugural speech, it is hoped that they will remember the good counsel of Mr. President that Nigeria first and not anything personal or tribe or ethnic colouration or region; it is also hoped that delegates will remember that President said it was not about him and no personal agenda, but about Nigeria; it is also hoped that delegates have the opportunity to re- launch Nigeria and not to play to the gallery or just talk for talking sake or shout for shouting sake because you want your people to see you as garrulous, then use it as a vehicle to contest for House of Representatives,  the Senate like most delegates to previous ones and panels like Oputa panel.

As delegates settle down on Monday, it is hoped that they will remember what the former Special Adviser to the President on National Assembly Matters, Senator Florence Ita- Giwa said that most of the delegates were architect of Nigeria’s problems; it is hoped that delegates will remember that this is the time to correct past problems and mistakes; it is hoped that most delegates will note that this may be the last opportunity for them to help solve the problems of Nigeria especially considering the age of some persons and against the backdrop that students of history have been reading about them since after Nigeria’s Independence as being around the scene.

Though they may still live for another twenty years, but their shock absorbers will be very weak then to participate in an event of this kind.

It is also hoped that some delegates will note that they have been recycled in many governments and they are still around. This is the time to help save Nigeria from its woes.

It is hoped that as delegates begin the process of nation building and discussing issues, we do not have any other country to run to, it is hoped that delegates will note that many Nigerians are suffering and may not have  transport  fare to travel from one village to another, but they can afford to do that through their private jets; it is hoped that delegates as they sit down for serious business would understand that amidst poverty in the land, government will spend over N7 billion on the Conference; it is hoped that delegates will reflect on what happened last Saturday where some young Nigerians in search for job died during the test organised by the Nigeria Immigration Service, NIS.

As delegates settle down, issues of infrastructure, how the systems will work, marginalization of some sections of the country, issues of equality, issues of getting to administer a country like Nigeria and states by all irrespective of the area one comes from, issues of how power must rotate among the three  Senatorial Districts of a state, among others  should be on the top burner during the discourse.

Delegates must be frank to themselves because minority groups will stand  up for their rights in the affairs of the country, but we must respect the views of others. Groups like South South, South East, South West, North East, North West, North Central, Middle Belt, Midwest, the Itsekiri, the Afenmais, the Banchamas, Moslems, Christians, Northern minorities, Southern Kadunas; the Idomas, Southern minorities, among others will express their views, their plights, predicaments, among other problems.

At the conference, we expect to see the South South leader, Chief Edwin Clark spearhead the talk as he is to be supported by the leading South-South political leaders who already have a kind of working relationship with the South-East and South-West in realising their goals. Clark, former Vice President  Alex Ekwueme and Rev. Emmanuel Gbonigi are pushing the position of the South South, South West and South East under the aegis, Southern Nigeria Peoples’ Assembly, SNPA, where they had before now listed a 31-point agenda for the national conference.

The  group had listed the issues to include: the unity and indivisibility of Nigeria, structure of the federation, true federalism (devolution of powers), fiscal federalism, status of geopolitical zones, form of government and resource control.

Others were local government issues, state creation, regional/state police and other internal security agencies, land tenure system, status of Lagos, Port Harcourt and other historical cities in Nigeria, political and electoral process, revenue allocation and the judicature.

Also on the group’s agenda are issues of  federalised judiciary, corruption, anti-corruption agencies, armed forces, single legislative list in the constitution, tri-cameral  legislative system, role  for traditional rulers, equal representation by geopolitical zones/ federal character principle, indigene/settler relationship, Bakassi peninsular as part of Nigeria, population and census, religion and secularism, tenure of government, immunity clause, gender equality and justiciability of  fundamental objective and directive principles of state  policy.

As delegates begin, the major focus of the South-East would be the demand for the creation of an additional state for the zone and the enthronement of  justice and fair play in the management of the nation’s resources.  South-West delegates will be involved in calling for the emergence of true federalism and a return to regional government as practised in the First Republic. The preponderance of opinion of the zone is hinged on the need to reconfigure the nation in a bid to offer all components of  the state an opportunity of realising their full potential.

Amidst the security challenges in the country, the South-West is set to be in the forefront of calling for state police to ensure the protection of lives and property, just as the north will also discuss the issue of security, the federal structure, control of the nation’s resources, among others.

We watch as events unfold at the 2014 National Conference  to know if the conference will take us there or back to where we are coming from.

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