Confab: Jonathan didn’t interfere — Akinyemi, deputy chair

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It shows Nigerians can solve their problems themselves Nigeria must become more assertive with the successful deliberations and adoption of the resolutions of the National Conference by the 494 delegates, the leadership has made history by breaking the jinx that has often attended previous confabs.

In this interview, Deputy Chairman of the National Conference, Prof Bolaji Akinyemi, speaks on the factors that brought about the success and its implications for Nigeria and its future.

Soni Daniel, Regional Editor, North

Professor Bolaji Akinyemi and Justice Idris Kutigi

Professor Bolaji Akinyemi and Justice Idris Kutigi

What does the outcome of the National Conference mean to you as a person and as a member of its leadership?
The praise should go to several people and organisations. Number one, the wisdom of the president in not micro-managing the conference made it possible for us to succeed. I can attest to the fact that he never interfered with our work on any occasion. Part of the reasons why other conferences actually failed were all these unseen hands, who never left the delegates alone to take their decisions. So the president must take primary praise that he never sought to interfere, he never intervened  and he never sent anybody to the management to say this is the way I want this or that to go. Number two, the praise must also go the Chairman of the management of the conference, Hon. Justice Idris Kutigi.

Why do I say this? Nigeria is one place where office holders hold on to the office as if it is a personal property. Not that they are there to achieve certain purposes and therefore they should calibrate their style of leadership to enable them to achieve set goals; instead it becomes my birthright. That is why deputy governors are seen but not heard. And most of the time, it is the special assistants or the civil servants around the governors who often play up to the ego of the governor to sideline the deputy. And they think by sidelining the deputies, they build up their own influence.

Justice Kutigi did not suffer from any ego at all. I can attest to that. He treated me not as a deputy chairman but as a co-chairman. At our management meetings, I would say to him, ‘my Lord, what is your decision? And he would say ‘what is our decision?’  From day one, he had made it clear that he wanted to run an open administration where he sought the views of and encouraged the members to speak out their minds and let our decisions be a collective one. I doff my hat for him in respect for that because it means that his own views were enriched by those of other people in the management committee.

Of course, I ensured as his deputy, that he had the last word. There was no challenge to his authority. Second characteristic of Justice Kutigi, was his fairness to all: I did not see any trace of political leanings or any trace of ethnic jingoisms in the man; he was as straight as an arrow, steadfast and righteous. He was prepared whoever you may be to bring to book, if you are stepping wrongly, no matter which part of the country you came from. And that then empowered the rest of us, like when I had to preside, I made sure that nobody was made to overstep where they should be no matter which part of the country they came from, because I had seen Justice Kutigi do so and I know he would back me in whichever way I conducted myself.

It is not as if people did not attempt to drive a wedge between us but he never encouraged them to get away with it. If any caucus went to him, he would send for me and say Deputy, sit here and let us have the meeting. If other Nigerian leaders were to behave that way, that they cannot separate them and their deputies, they would make tremendous progress in whichever office it is.

A clash between us would have made the conference to lose focus. I testify to his righteousness and steadfastness. The third group that should be commended are the delegates because nobody walked out even though we had some disagreements, which were within acceptable parliamentary behaviour. That was very important and gave us the latitude to negotiate differences. If a group had walked out, we would not be able to say that we had a unanimous decision.

As the chairman said at the closing ceremony and as the president himself confirmed, that the report was unanimously adopted. The delegates themselves knew when to pull back from the brink. But this was also a reflection of their belief that management was fair. If people really thought that management had pitched its tent with one camp, the others would have left. So the delegates deserved some praises. Collectively, we should all be thanked for all this.

There were times that things were really tough with the management of the confab. Why did the management not solicit the intervention of the Presidency in resolving such knotty issues?
We did not seek the intervention of any group or agency in resolving our disagreements because we thought we could handle the situation at hand.  I mean a man who has risen from being a legal draftsman, high court judge, Appeal Court judge to being in the Supreme Court and the Chief Justice of Nigeria had certainly accumulated decades of wisdom. A man who has risen from being a university lecturer to Director General NIIA to Minister of Foreign Affairs, and I also had an activist past as a member of NADECO and also brought to my job as deputy chairman, diplomacy to achieve our goals. While my Lord was firm that whatever we do principles are sacrosanct and sacred, I brought into the leadership the belief that diplomacy-just dialoguing could resolve these differences and improve right. If you remember at the beginning we had this problem over the percentages and then we came up with the concept of the ’50 Wise Men’.

In diplomacy and international conference, voting does not resolve any problem; you would have resolved the issue there is nothing called true federalism. Each federal system is designed to address the peculiarities of the country.
That is why the Canadian Federalism is different from the Swiss one; the American is different from the French. Germany runs a federal structure. And there are peculiarities in each one of them. We did it now. We reversed what looked like not just a trend, the rush towards a unification that started in 1966 and that then built up over the next 50 years.

We reversed it as the just-ended conference by a more structured federalism. So issues were taken from the federal government, powers were taken from federal government and sent to the states. Number two: we sought to address in a critical way, issues dealing with the youths, the disabled. This conference recognised them as critical partners in the Nigerian nation and that they had their peculiar problem, which were addressed. We dealt with the issue of unemployment in a structured way, the contribution by labour and the youths in the recommendation that they put on the floor. We sought to address this question of impunity that comes from immunity of office holders, which was introduced into the constitution in 1979. Before then you could sue premiers and prime ministers and everybody.

Now, we have recommended that the immunity be removed. We have recommended that the office of the Minister of Justice be separated from that of the Attorney General of the Federation, recognising that one is really political and the other is professional and should be insulated from politics and we have taken a look at the security structure and created two new institutions: the Border Patrol as a separate line of command and the Coastal Guard because we want a  blue  sea navy, we want a navy that is really a navy and not one that patrols the creeks and calls itself navy. We felt that the navy has no business in the creeks.

They should be at the high sea and protecting our fisheries up to 250 miles Isobaths. So really, we allowed the states to have their own constitutions. We strengthened the judiciary structure in the state by allowing them to have their own courts of appeal and a lot of these things are taking us back to the independence constitution and correcting the aberrations that the military created. We passed over 600 resolutions during the conference.

During deliberations there were many stormy sessions and many feared that the conference would end up in disaster as the previous ones. What was your greatest moment of fear during the conference?
I am a human being and I have fears and there were times that I had doubts that we would be able to manage the conference successfully. I knew we were doing our best, I knew we were being fair but human beings are irrational beings.
And at times, I wondered whether we would succeed. But in those trying moments, I want on my knees and prayed to God Almighty to help us to overcome our challenges. I also then knew that prayer warriors, whether Christians or Muslims were praying for the success of this conference.

Professor Bolaji Akinyemi was Foreign Affairs Minister

Professor Bolaji Akinyemi

There were delegates who came to us and said to me sir, we are praying and fasting and asked us to remain steadfast and I will go to the chairman and tell him that people were praying for us that we should be steadfast. They were also delegates and some traditional rulers who were sending notes to us and asking us to be steadfast. But in spite of all that there were times I had my doubts as to the success of the conference.

Looking at all the resolutions adopted by the delegates, which of them excites you most?
There were several fundamental resolutions taken that are so exciting to me. For instance, look at the return to the old National Anthem, in fact to me we were sending out an important signal to the rest of the world that we are de-militarising our system and going back to the adoption of the old National Anthem means a psychological fulfilling moment. And we should learn to read signals: Do you realise that in the President’s closing remarks, he president uttered the first two sentences of the old national anthem: Nigeria we hail thee, though tribes and tongues may differ….

Did the President do that unconsciously?
No, no, no, I am sure he knew. I think it was a signal to us that he got our message. ‘I hear you loud and clear’ and we clapped because we also got his message. Just like saying hey guys, I get your message loud and clear.

That was on Thursday?
Yes, that was so. It was like saying yes I am with you on that score.

Given your pedigree as a diplomat and political scientist, what major challenge do you think that Nigeria has to overcome fast in order to become a great nation?
Look, Nigeria must learn to be more assertive and stop being apologetic about its human, economic and human size. Nigerian needs to stop being apologetic about that. I mean, a country like Cameroun has been so hostile to Nigerian over the years and yet we just say alright we don’t want to be seen as a bully. I think the time has come when we should say hey we are not going to be apologetic anymore about our size; if you are hostile to us, be prepared for the consequences. I think this is just the way I could wrap it up because there are countries that vote against us internationally and then in the middle of the night they come crying to our president asking for assistance and they get them because when they come here they are preaching African brotherhood. But when they get back over there, they start hostility towards Nigeria. To me, I want more self assertiveness by Nigerians. We are a robust vibrant people, who should have a robust vibrant foreign nation and a robust vibrant foreign policy.

Finally sir, there are fears in certain quarters that the recommendations of the National Conference could be killed at the National Assembly by Nigerians who are uncomfortable with them. Would you be disappointed if the resolutions do not see the light of the day at the National Assembly?
Of course, I would not be disappointed and disappointment would be a very mild word. I have just invested five months of my life in this conference but I don’t blame those who feel that since they could not achieve their aim at the confab they can do so through the National Assembly. That is legitimate. That is why those who feel that the conference has achieved its set goals should also go to the NASS and lobby and fight for the implementation of the resolutions. They should not just go back home to relax and put their feet up. To me what the opponents of the conference are doing is legitimate. The fault would be if those who believe in the vision of these resolutions that would give birth to a Nigeria of their vision, if they now give up and think that the war is over. They have members of parliament, they should go to them and use the press to educate Nigerians that the outcome of the National Conference is in Nigeria’s best interest.

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