By Dayo Benson
Before the Federal Government accepted that convocation of National Conference was imperative, there had been strident calls from various quarters to that effect.
Indeed, the twin issue of political restiveness and the yawing monster of insecurity across the land threatening to consume all made the need to talk more compelling. Obviously, the voice of Senate President, Senator David Mark gave a fillip to the calls when he also acknowledged that Nigerians needed to talk.
It was against this backdrop that President Goodluck Jonathan set up the Presidential Advisory Committee on the national conference October last year. Led by Senator Femi Okunronmu, the committee which aggregated the views of geo-political zones and other interest groups to guide the conference submitted its report December 2013.
Among other things, the committee recommended mode of representations at the conference and its duration. According to the committee “the National Conference itself shall have the responsibility of setting out the said legal procedure and options for integrating its decisions and outcomes of its deliberations into the constitution and the laws of the nation.”
The import of this recommendation is to ensure that the conference does not turn out to be an effort in futility at the end of the day. This is hinged on general sentiment; that the ultimate aim of the national conference is to produce a brand new people’s constitution that contains inputs of various interest groups and one that is acceptable to all.
Unlike the subsisting 1999 Constitution which many describe as a document that tells lie against itself in its preamble, when it says, “We the people”. Whereas it is a military imposition. While inaugurating the national conference March 17 in Abuja, President Jonathan articulated the basis for the exercise, issues to focus on, skepticism expressed by some and expectations of most Nigerians.
His words “. 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.
He stated further: A deeper look will reveal that the challenges we faced before each of the preceding national conferences were different. The challenges of 1956 are certainly not the challenges of 2014, and definitely not the challenges that the nation will face in years to come.
It makes sense, therefore, that as the challenges before us evolve, we must be constant and proactive in our search for fresh solutions. We cannot continue to proffer yesterday’s solutions for today’s problems. “ The phrase in the preamble that says “we, the people,” has 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.
“This conference is open for us to table our thoughts and positions on issues, and make recommendations that will advance our togetherness.
The issues range from form of government, structures of government, devolution of powers, revenue sharing, resource control, state and local government creation, boundary adjustment, state police and fiscal federalism, to local government elections, indigeneship, gender equality and children’s rights, amongst others.
President Jonathan added, “ Some of our compatriots also believe that because we have held several conferences in the past, we do not need to hold another one. I do not share that view at all. I know the task before you is onerous; but there must be only one winner, and there can only be one winner if we do everything right, and that winner must be Nigeria.”
Even as the duration of the conference had been extended by four weeks, its committee had since gone to work and some of them have been submitting their reports which would be debated at the plenary.
One of the committees that have gone through stormy session is the committee on devolution of power. The controversial issue before it is a suggestion to turn geo-political zones to regions and the need to devolve more powers from the centre to the regions.
Additionally, existing states are to remain under the regions which are expected to develop at their own pace. Ancillary to this is the recommendation of only two tiers of government that is, Federal and states only.
If the recommendation sails through, local government areas will exist under states. Equally contentions is the issue of control of natural resources. Earlier, the north had demanded a reduction of the current 13% derivation to 5%. However, there is the recommendation that states where mineral resources are found should be partaking in exploration of such resources. But those who are opposed to it insist such a venture is the exclusive preserve of the federal government citing the 1999 constitution as the basis of their position.
In a reaction to this, a delegate at the conference, Dr. Tunji Braithwaite said some people are arguing at the conference that certain resources do not belong to the zone where they come from.
“They are arguing that the resources belong to the country as a whole. And when you ask them how they come to their conclusion, they will cite the 1999 Constitution. I responded that this conference to our understanding is called to bring about a people’s constitution.
“We have come to the conference to tear the 1999 constitution because it does not reflect the aspirations of the people of the country. It is not a constitution that was agreed upon by the people, it is a military imposed constitution. You can now see the serious flaw in their argument…..
The reason for convoking this conference is to produce a new constitution that reflects the genuine aspirations of the people. There are certain negative influences that might defeat the altruistic and desired outcome of this conference.”
Other issues that may bring about a new constitution include call for removal of immunity clause for president and governors, existence of one legislative chamber at the centre and making legislative duties part-time and sanitise the judiciary and make it independent.