By Emma Amaize, Dapo Akinrefon, Charles Kumolu and Gbenga Oke

Should the National Assembly decide the fate of the National Conference soon to be held at the behest of President Goodluck Jonathan?  That is the question on the lips of many Nigerians against the backdrop of the suggestion in many quarters that the conference outcome should be subjected to a referendum.  Some eminent Nigerians share their perspectives among other issues.

Why National Assembly should not vet Confab report, by Senator Lee Maeba

Former senator representing Rivers South East senatorial zone in the National Assembly, Senator Lee Maeba, says the focus of the conference must be how to implement its report without passing through the National Assembly. His words, “We have had several committees in the past which include that of Karibi Whyte  and others which passed through the National Assembly but never saw the light of day.

“It must be stated clearly that there is no law that gives the National Assembly the mandate to work on the comprehensive opinion of people. So there must be an alternative way of implementing the report of the conference. “The form and focus will be better commented on when the Advisory Committee set up by the Federal Government has laid down the modality for the Conference”.

Cost of governance needs Confab’s attention — Peter Okocha

According to Mr Peter Okocha, a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) stalwart in Delta State, the conference should discuss the cost of governance. His words, “Let me state categorically that this conference must discuss the excessive cost of governance, resource control and regionalism. “When the Conference had been concluded and report compiled, there should be a referendum and not ratification by the National Assembly, else the report won’t see the light of day”.

Our case for referendum, by Yinka Odumakin

Mr. Yinka Odumakin is the National Publicity Secretary of the Yoruba socio-political organisation, Afenifere. Odumakin maintains that for the National Conference to succeed, the outcome of the confab shall be binding on all Nigerians.

Since the president has said the outcome of the confab will be ratified by the National Assembly, don’t you think it’ll be duplication since we have House of Representatives members from each state of the federation?

The President has put a view on the table but I don’t think that is the view. It is understandable that this type of lack of clarity may happen at this stage because this is a new turn for all of us in the country .We have never had a National Conference in 100 years that Nigeria was cobbled by the British.

House of Representatives during plenary

This is why it is good that the President has set up an Advisory Committee to guide us in a thinking through process before we get on the table. By the time the committee finishes its rounds with stakeholders,it would be clear to Mr President that the outcome of a National Conference is like what the Yoruba call the head of the elephant which can never be a play thing for an infant.

While the National Assembly needs to be carried along in the process it must be emphasized that  the mother’s breasts may be offered to placate a crying child but not the father’s balls.

It is not the business of the National Assembly to decide how we the people of Nigeria are constituted .They are only lawmakers who can exercise legislative functions within the purview of the Constitution we have given to ourselves. All the wasteful exercises they have doing over the years in the name of Constitution review have been useless because we have not given them the Constitution that they can amend.

The right approach is that once we finished a Peoples Constitution from the confab,the only authority that can vet the document is a referendum of the peoples of Nigeria after which the President will forward an Executive Bill to the National Assembly for promulgation only. They will not be able to add or remove a word from it. Their duty shall be only to repeal Decree 24 of 1999 upon which the present Constitution claims its legitimacy for the new Constitution to take effect. There is a precedent for this as the parliament repealed the Independence Constitution of 1960 in 1963 for the Republican Constitution to take effect.

The National Assembly members are agents of the Nigerian people and therefore can’t vet the decisions of their principals ,they can only implement . Good enough the President is a democratic President and not a military dictator whose words on issues like this are final. The essence of conversation is for us to be able to put points across. Nigerians are ready for this dialogue but would not want their decisions to be taken to those they hire for a term to tinker with their sovereignty.

What do you think is the difference between the Obasanjo regime confab and this one?

The Obasanjo regime confab was a limited discourse as it was  dubbed a Political Reforms Conference with all its no-go areas and hand picked delegates. A National Conference is an assembly of nations and interests within the country that would discuss every issue of our nationhood and decide on the best Constitution of a heterogeneous country in a manner to guarantee peace ,justice and harmony .The nationalities shall elect their delegates freely and the outcome shall be binding save for whatever is rejected at a referendum. There is a whole gulf of difference between a talk shop and a Peoples Conference.

Do you see the confab succeeding because some people opine that it won’t work?

The confab just has to succeed as this is the last ditch effort to pull Nigeria from the brink of disaster. If the Conference in Nigeria does not guarantee us a soft landing but fails and crash lands, then there would be trouble. It is quarter to midnight in Nigeria and conference failure means we are cascading to the abyss of the precipice. It is only the enemies of Nigeria that would want this conference to fail.

What areas do you think, the confab must focus on?

The basic agenda of the conference should be to ask the nationalities within Nigeria of they still want to cohabit. Once they answered in the affirmative the next thing is to decide how they want to be constituted. For we federalists, Nigeria must embrace federalism in its truest form as that is the only way its constituent units can get out of this lockdown and fulfill their manifest destinies in a positive competitive environment. There is no way all universities in Nigeria would have been shut down at the same time as is currently if they are managed at zonal levels.

Confab timing suspect, but … – Sen. Femi Lanlehin

Senator Femi Lanlehin represents Oyo South senatorial district. He wants Nigerians to give National Conference a chance. Excerpts:

Mixed reactions are trailing the setting up of a National Dialogue Committee. What is your take on it?

The mixed reactions are not unexpected given the importance and the fundamentality of a National Conference. National Conference connotes the basis of the existence of a country.

Do you support it?

I support it. Although the timing might be suspect, let us give it the benefit of the doubt and a trial. I don’t think we can lose anything by talking. To that extent, it is something that we have all craved for. There have been different approaches to it; some have asked for a Sovereign National Conference, while some have asked for a National Conference, but, basically, one fundamental thing is that we should talk.

How do you differentiate the conference organized by former President Olusegun Obasanjo and the one being organised now because people are suspicious?

It is a matter of sincerity of purpose. The fact that somebody does something and failed does not mean  another person will do it and fail or that it should not succeed.

I believe Nigerians have discovered that there is a need for all of us to come to an agreement, to have a common purpose, a fundamentally agreeable frame work within which we will all work to attain a good life for our people. As it were, people lack confidence in the system probably because they felt they were not part of it. For whatever reason, there seems not to be total support for the present system that we are operating.

What do you think this conference should focus on?

The focus essentially should be a system that is workable, a system that Nigerians believe in, a system that is equitable in terms of political and fiscal framework. It is so fundamental that the conference should have no-go areas and that is why when people say they want a new Constitution and not an amendment, my answer to that is that an amendment can be a new Constitution.

There are fears that the conference might lead to the disintegration of the country. Do you share the same fear?

I do not depending on how it is handled. It can only come to being if that conference is sovereign. Somebody must referee the whole thing no matter how little the interference is, somebody must midwife it. The fear of disintegration of this country lies in that conference being sovereign.

Conference is a step in the right direction —Gani Adams

Otunba Gani Adams, the National Coordinator of the Oodua People’s Congress, OPC, believes the conference is a step in the right direction. He said, “I want to commend the action of President Goodluck Jonathan over his decision to convene a National Conference to discuss the issues that have combined to stunt the growth of our country. I believe the conference will proffer solution to most of the problems that have prevented the country from developing. I am also convinced that most of the problems that we are going through as a nation can be addressed by the conference.”

Adams, however, expressed optimism that the conference would go a long way to address most of the problems besetting the country.  “At the conference, issues like Boko Haram insurgency, how we would live together and how to move our nation forward would come up for discussion. For instance, the conference would avail all the component units that make up Nigeria to state their cases, why they are angry, their demands and how to actualize the dreams of our founding fathers. The bulk of the problems besetting us have their roots in the mistrust among the ethnic nationalities. So, these ethnic nationalities will have the opportunity to state their cases, hoping that the problems would be addressed.

Adams

“More importantly, I want to advise the committee to learn from the mistakes of the National Political Reforms conference set up by former president, Olusegun Obasanjo in 2005”.

Nigerians don’t trust N/Assembly to act on Confab report – Victor Umeh

National Conference is very popular programme initiated by the President and should be supported. At the Conference those troubling will know that they need other parts of the country to survive. We do not agree to the idea of the President sending the report to the National Assembly because it is constituted on the faulty structural arrangement of Nigeria. Those against change are in the majority in the National Assembly. They are taking advantage of the structural imbalance in the country.  If the report is sent there it will be killed. But the conference will lead to a new Nigeria and you can not expect those who are benefiting from the present structure to create a new one.

Jonathan is diverting attention – Abubakar Tsav

The conference is a deceitful idea. It is being convened to deceive us and divert attention. I said it before that it is a waste of time. On what basis are the people who will be at the conference be chosen? The President should focus on basic things like corruption. He should reposition the police and the judiciary for a better Nigeria.

We must be careful —Chukwuemeka Ezeife

A former governor of Anambra State, Dr. Chukwuemeka Ezeife, calls for caution on National Confab.  His words: “The outcome of the conference should not be sent to the National Assembly. What we are doing might save Nigeria but we have to be careful the way we go about it. When we talk about National Conference, we are not talking about constitutional amendment. I want to make it clear that the idea of sending the report to NASS is faulty. For instance, if the conference resolves to do away with the House of Representatives or Senate, do you expect the NASS to comply? You don’t expect the Assembly to favour any report that wants a unicameral legislature instead of bicameral”.

How Confab’ll succeed – Prof. Ijomah

Prof Benedict Ijomah says unless the people of Nigeria revisit the Independence Constitution, which was the consensus reached by their founding fathers, any tinkering with the Constitution cannot save the nation.

The academician, who pioneered the defunct South-South People’s Conference, SSOPEC, in a statement, entitled, ‘The Proposed National Conference: Notes of Caution’, said the conference would fail if delegates come, wearing the toga of ethnic champions, instead of thinking as Nigerians. Commending President Goodluck Jonathan, however, for his boldness in agreeing to initiate the confab, he said, “My advice is that we must realise that the suspension of the Independence Constitution, its replacement with so many others produced by the military governments, cannot keep this nation united.”

The statement in part: “I have written in several papers that unless we return to the agreement which our forefathers reached, on the basis of which Nigeria agreed to be a nation; unless we return to the agreement which our forefathers accepted at independence; no tinkering of the Constitution can save this nation. “The South-South has seen a lot of deprivation, a lot of its resources have been used to keep Nigeria one. I have always believed, and I have said so in my book, ‘Nigerian Nationalism and the Problems of Socio-Political Integration’, that unless we return to the Independence Constitutional arrangement, we will be deceiving ourselves by believing that new arrangements can keep this country together.”

“Therefore, President Jonathan must think very seriously. It is not enough to gather people to start fighting at a Constitutional Conference, because they will fight, because micro-nationalism has become so entrenched, and Nigerian nationalism has been sacrificed. “What can we do to think as Nigerians? That is a big question, because we do not think as Nigerians anymore.

We think as Ibos, as Hausas, as Fulanis, as Ijaws, and as other micro-ethnic identities. If, therefore, we want a united Nigeria, President Jonathan must seriously think of conveying a conference in which members will think as Nigerians. “My advice to Mr. President is that regardless of what people say, he has a responsibility to call a conference of Nigerians, a conference of people who still believe in one Nigeria, a conference of people who will sit down and articulate the problems of Nigeria and how to solve them.”

“I do not want to see delegates who come in to articulate Yoruba interests or Hausa interests or Fulani interests or Ibo interests. If delegates are invited to the conference on ethnic basis, then we must have failed before we started,” he added. He stated, “I am aware that people will want to be elected on the basis of various interests. But I think that what will hold Nigeria together is not a group of delegates selected on ethnic basis, but a group of delegates who first and foremost agree that Nigeria must remain united, a group of delegates who agree to return to the agreement our forefathers had that made us one Nigeria.

“If we go back to the constitutional conferences, especially the events of 1953 – 1954, the President will agree with me that the qualification for coming to this Jonathan’s conference will be, first and foremost, acceptance that Nigeria must remain one and united. And therefore people coming to the conference must be people who will agree to keep Nigeria one.

“Let me also point out for those who probably did not follow the constitution of the country, that the Constitution of 1951 had envisaged a closely knit federation. But as a result of the disturbances in the North, especially the Kano riots in which many southerners were killed, it was then concluded that the envisaged 1951 Constitution was not workable.

The colonial government decided to agree on a flexible federation that will grant regional autonomy”. “The northerners had threatened that they would not return to Lagos again for any discussions, and announced an 8-point programme, which if implemented would imply that they would secede from Nigeria. The northern threat to secede was a very serious threat to the existence of Nigeria.

“The colonial office then modified its envisaged 1951 Constitution, and therefore worked for greater regional autonomy for the country. Consequently, during the meeting of the parties in London between the Nigerian government and the colonial office from July – August 1953, a flexible constitution was agreed upon, what you may call the Regional Constitution of 1954.” “The Western Region on its part had also threatened secession if Lagos was not allowed to remain in the Western Region.

So it would appear that the threat of secession has been with us ab initio. “Therefore Jonathan must ensure that in this conference, delegates are not allowed to put the threat of secession as an issue. Delegates must come to discuss one Nigeria. I believe that if this conference fails, it is capable of saying goodbye to Nigeria, and that will be a very serious and dangerous situation”.

Dialogue or diatribe, by Isa Aremu

A deputy president of Niger Labour Congress, Comrade Isa Aremu, expresses, in this piece, concern over National Conference

William Isaacs in 1999 did a seminal work entitled “Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together”. I share his perspective of dialogue as “a conversation with the centre, not sides”. Many thanks to the respected columnist, Segun Gbadegesin, for mainstreaming my side talk or “off-the-cuff remarks” (in his words), on the controversial National Conference following my media interaction with some correspondents recently in Ilorin.

Certainly a conversation with my main thoughts on the issue, not necessarily with a reported side talk would have been more fruitful. Whatever it is worth, Segun Gbadegesin came out as a chieftain of a boring monologue. He is definitely NOT a promoter of conversation. Witness his posted “NLC v. The people” of 4th of October in The Nation. He generated more heat than light in his unhelpful hysterical commentary and a “reload” of a predictable old position.

It is unacceptable for him to mischievously pitch my constituency, NLC, against “the people” on account of what he terms my “off-the-cuff remarks”. With  millions of organized members, NLC and “the people” are certainly not mutually exclusive. The received wisdom has it that those who demand for equity must at least come with some clean hands. If you espouse dailogue (or is it conversation?) from the roof top, kindly lift those of us below out of polarization and channel our energy towards some better understanding.

The bane of the modern proponents of SNC with its ever altered and distorted variants is their aversion to the very principles of dialogue. The late Aka Bashorun, my mentor, lawyer and one time NBA President initiated the demand for a National Conference in the mid-80s. It was then not as fashionable. It was even riskier. Under the military dictatorship ala IBB, Aka courageously envisaged genuine conversation as part of the broad progressive strategy to ease out authoritarianism.

Today with a Constitution and its imperfections, over 50 political parties, 35 state Assemblies, Senate and the House of Representatives, Aka Bashorun would have opted for deepening democratic process through improved elections rather than parroting the present day fashionable mantra-dialogue already discredited over the years by embattled regimes of varying persuasions and their uncritical supporters. The problem of Gbadegesin is also the age of his ideas.

My legitimate concern is that President Jonathan’s latter day embrace of a National Conference is an opportunistic and indeed belated diversion from the surmountable governance challenges he elected to solve. I stand to be convinced to the contrary through greater persuasion not a  feverish dialogue-phobia, unhelpful polemics and a smear as promoted by Segun Gbadegesin and his co-on-line mob text supporters.

Happily President Goodluck Jonathan was more measured in his response to the concerns of the cynics like me than the pen warriors of dialogue. In his address while inaugurating the 13-man National Dialogue Advisory Committee, ,Jonathan assured that `no voice is too small and no opinion is irrelevant’. He reassuringly observed that `the views of the cynics and those of the enthusiasts must be accommodated”.

It is part of conversation too to express doubt about the so-called National Dialogue as the likes of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Bishop Matthew Kukah and Professor Ishaq Oloyede audaciously did. It would amount to literary terrorism to say APC is against the people, just because Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu said the proposed Dialogue is diversionary, a “Greek gift”. To say the church and Supreme Islamic Council are against “the people” just because Kukah and Oloyede (one-time co-chairmen of similar failed project under OBJ) respectively expressed doubt about National Dialogue, would amount to dictatorship of monologue.

The critical question begging for answer; is National Dialogue a genuine governance imperative or another unbudgeted diversion?

As measured and conversational the President was in his address, he was still not convincing. We must first hold President Jonathan accountable for his electoral promises made without pressures before we can consider new issues he latched on under duress mid-term in office. I search in vain for a National Dialogue, National Conversation or National Discourse at his inaugural address in 2010. On the contrary, I read about  ”our total commitment to good governance, electoral reform and the fight against corruption”.

Indeed the President promised “ensuring the sustenance of peace and development in the Niger Delta as well as the security of life and property around the entire country…” . Also in equal measure we had presidential  ”pledges ….. to improve the socio-economic situation …..through improved access to electricity, water, education, health facilities and other social amenities”.

High sounding “National Dialogue”  at this hour is not just a diversion from the above pledges. It also unacceptably adds to already high costs of governance. For as long as this new debate continues the President’s full time report on all these issues that affect the working class and Nigerian people in general may also suffer with all the implications for the development of the country.

Are we a debating society or a functional productive republic? We promise to be part of the 20 leading economies in seven years. Are the other 19 economies agonizing through a wasteful divisive conference of ethnic nationalities or working tirelessly to combine growth rates with job creation and poverty eradication? President Goodluck Jonathan was very upbeat about the gains of the previous conferences.

Labour’s experience is not as encouraging. The latest constitution review actually set to deform labour when at the behest of some self serving governors, labour was whimsically removed from the exclusive list by the senators thus eroding labour gains and standards.  I think the President needs genuine SWOT analysis of these past conferences. The weaknesses might very well outweigh the strengths.

Even now the threats are higher for Nigeria. With the likes of Segun Gbadegesins  exhibiting a nostalgia for the lowly trademarks of ethnicity and language (not even class) and getting romantic with failed state projects like Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union, we may very well be convoking a dangerous diatribe in place of useful dialogue for a better Nigeria and a greater Africa.

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Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.