By Levinus Nwabughiogu
In the beginning was crisis. It then reached the climax in the course of time, threatening the unity, peace and progress of Nigeria. The North and the South became virulently divided, holding each other at an arm’s length. Eventually, a truce was brokered. But at the National Conference twilight, tenure elongation fear played out and again posed grave threat to an envisaged success. But, on Thursday, the devil was collectively thrown to the evil forest. This is an account of the valedictory session of the 2014 National Conference, convened on March 17, 2014, in which the 492 delegates adopted the final report of the exercise.
The concept of a new constitution was completely lost on them. Their lot was to endorse the final report comprehensively knitted into one from various distinct submissions of the 20 standing committees. The submissions had passed through crucibles of heated debates and eventually had consensus reached on them.
But surprisingly, a document, which many considered strange, made in-road into the hall, staring them. As they got other voluminous books comprising Hansards and resolutions, they were also given the copy with a conspicuous inscription “Draft Constitution” on its cover.
Then, like those tortuous days of debate when the gathering was active, hell was let loose with many of them, especially from the North, fuming against the inclusion of the “Draft Constitution” into the resolutions made.
That was the atmosphere at the National Judicial Institute, NJI, venue of the 2014 National Conference in Abuja on Monday when it resumed after a long break.
Having concluded work on the various reports of the 20 standing committees, it became pertinent for the conference to adjourn on July 14, 2014. It was supposed to resume on August 4, but the leadership postponed it to August 11 to enable it make the copies of the final report ready for adoption.
But hardly had the conference resumed on Monday than criticisms, misconceptions and all manners of philosophical notions, right or wrong, ensued.
At the centre of the near imbroglio were northern delegates from all platforms in the conference. Their grouse was the introduction of a Draft Constitution by the conference leadership which they said was never part of their mandate. And so they threatened fire and brimstone, accusing the secretariat of the conference of playing out a script. In fact, it was a gamut of dramatic scenes as the delegates ultimately resolved to dissociate themselves from the entire process of the five months old conference.
Founded or unfounded, they entertained the fear that the inclusion, Draft Constitution, presupposed tenure elongation for President Goodluck Jonathan. To them, the development resurrected the feelings that trailed the third term agenda of former President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2005 when he convened a conference of similar stance, entitled, “National Political Reform Conference”.
The leader of the northern delegates forum and retired Inspector General of Police, IGP, Alhaji Inbrahim Coomassie, who, in a press conference, read the position of the North, said:
”Adopting a new constitution is, therefore, calculated to enable incumbent elective office holders, who are statute-barred from going for third term at both federal and state levels, to run for offices again, under the guise of running under a new constitution.
“This will also have the consequential effect of depriving aspiring politicians from all political parties, as well as all Nigerians, of their rights to choices and preferences as enshrined in the constitution. If not arrested, the third term agenda is capable of plunging Nigeria into another circle of political chaos, with potential of violence and anarchy.
“You are aware, by now, of the surprise, shock and disappointment with which not only delegates to the conference, but many patriotic Nigerians, have reacted to news of the sudden appearance of a new draft constitution 2014, among other documents distributed to delegates, when we resumed at plenary on Monday.
“We, northern delegates to the conference, wish to assure patriotic Nigerians and all lovers of democracy that we are neither privy to, nor were we accessory to the emergence of the controversial draft of a new constitution 2014.
”We, therefore, unequivocally disown it and emphatically disassociate ourselves from it. Accordingly, we will have nothing to do with it, for the following legal, moral and political reasons: Delegates to the conference were not elected and, therefore, lack both legal and moral authority to draft a new constitution for the Nigerian Federation.
“Rather, we were constituted to serve as an ad hoc advisory mechanism to the president, as representatives of broad interests across the federation and cannot, therefore, legally arrogate ourselves the far-reaching function of making a ‘new’ constitution for the Federal Republic of Nigeria. That can only be done by an appropriately constituted constituent assembly.
“The secretariat of the conference has indicated in Chapter Seven of the draft Report Vol.1 that the so-called ‘new constitution’ is to be brought into effect through a national referendum to be specifically held for the purpose.
“To this we say, without any fear of contradiction, that there is no legal provision in our constitution for the holding of such a referendum. The reference to a referendum, made by the president in his inauguration address at the national conference on March 17, was purely speculative, as it was predicated on the National Assembly introducing a provision in the constitution that will permit the holding of referendum ‘… if at the end of the deliberation the need for a referendum arises.’
“We want to say, with authority, that such a proposal has since been turned down by the National Assembly. Inquiries at both the Senate and House of Representatives have since shown that efforts at tabling the case for referendum, through private member-bills, were rejected twice, and cannot, therefore, be reintroduced in the life of the present Senate. “From the foregoing, it is now abundantly clear that the conference has been infiltrated by fifth-columnists whose goal is to subvert democratic processes and plunge the country into deeper, but avoidable political crisis.”
Wednesday was yet another day that produced apprehension. Nobody was sure whether the lid would be broken. But the day turned out to witness the shortest session ever held by the conference since it convened as it lasted only 14 minutes.
While nerves appeared frayed, the Chairman of the conference, retired Justice Idris Kutigi, adopted diplomacy which paid off. Upon his entry into the hall, he cleared the fog on the Draft Constitution, announcing that it was prepared with due diligence and in all honesty. He dismissed the insinuation that someone had any hidden agenda and maintained that the document contained nothing but certain amendments that followed the alterations made by the delegates at the plenary. He urged the delegates to study the report and make necessary observations in writing by Thursday.
”The Draft Constitution contained the various alterations and amendments proposed by you”, he said.
His explanation prompted thunderous applause from some delegates who felt convinced. But some northern elements wound not bulge.
They subsequently turned in a letter announcing their withdrawal from any process that would promulgate the Draft Constitution.
But yet again, in a dare need to broker truce, Kutigi summoned a meeting of leaders of delegations from the six geopolitical zones to discuss “critical issues”.
As at 10 am on Thursday, the leadership of the conference was not sighted at the podium. So, the delegates once again approach each other’s seat to exchange banters and pleasantries.
At exactly, 10: 48, Kutigi and his entourage came in and then proceedings began. While many watched with bated-breathe to see what the day would bring, the most peaceful happened.
Against all odds, the delegates adopted the final report in an atmosphere devoid of rancour and bitterness.
The report did not, however, pass without minor alterations of the title from “Draft Constitution” to “Draft Proposals to Amend the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999”.
The alteration followed an amendment by Alhaji Adamu Waziri, a former Minister of Police Affairs, to a motion co-sponsored by High Chief Jerry Okwuonu and former governor of River State, Dr. Peter Odili, but presented by Okwuonu, asking the delegates to empower the secretariat of the conference to effect all necessary corrections on their behalf using the various submissions made by the delegates.
According to him, the action would save the time of the conference.
The motion read: “Whereas the secretariat has done a very marvelous job of compiling the report of the conference and presenting same to us in easily readable and cross-checkable format; and “Whereas delegates have perused all the reports and submitted in writing all items of omission or incorrect addition to the final report; and ”Bearing in mind the dual necessity of bringing the conference to a close for purposes of not unduly over-reaching the logistics provision of the conference and not unnecessarily prolonging the continued conglomeration of people in contradiction to the prescription of health authorities especially as the country tackles the Ebola crisis. “It is hereby moved that the secretariat be mandated to vet all the written submission by delegates and make necessary correction thereby providing the final draft of the conference reports.”
But just before the motion was seconded and adopted by the delegates, Waziri announced an amendment to the motion. He said: To cultivate a conducive environment for delegates to validate and adopt the final report of the conference, we the undersigned delegates hereby offer and endorse the following observations and recommendation that seek to facilitate the process and lead to amicable ending of the conference proceedings.
“We note that the secretariat of the conference, on August 11, 2014, tabled before delegates a draft report contained in three volumes that are broken down in seven chapters
“In particular, we observed that volume III, entitled Draft Constitution, conveys an attempt to insert various resolutions and recommendations of a constitutional nature that were adopted by the conference as proposed amendments to the appropriate sections of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999.
“We recall and welcome the clarification and confirmation offered by conference Chairman at plenary on August 13, 2014 that indeed volume III contains proposals for the amendment of the 1999 Constitution.
“We urged the leadership of the conference, in collating the final report to, more appropriately, designate Volume 111 as: Draft Proposals to Amend the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999.”
Put to a voice vote, the amendment was overwhelmingly supported. With that, the report was unanimously adopted by the delegates thereby marking the end of the 2014 National Conference.
Spontaneously, all the delegates, who felt fulfilled, stood up and enthusiastically sang the old National Anthem, “Nigeria We Hail Thee”. Chants of labour solidarity songs also rent the air.
Speaking to Sunday Vanguard on the outcome of the conference, some delegates, who expressed happiness, said reason and understanding prevailed.
A new Nigeria has emerged — Chief Dan Nwanyanwu, National Chairman of Labour Party
”I feel happy. I feel elated, honored and privileged to be part and parcel of this conference that ended harmoniously with every body clapping hands, hugging, singing ‘though tongues and tribe may differ, in brotherhood we stand’. People expected turbulence. People expected fight. But you can see Nigeria is a country put together by God. And I will say welcome to a new Nigeria.”
On the contentious build-up before the final adoption of the report, he said: “It was expected. You see some people take things very high to get something better. But when you discover that it will not fly, you have to respect yourself. You saw people condemn the document that contained nothing other than our decisions. But they had opportunity to read it yesterday and their position changed in the interest of Nigeria.”
On the change of the title of the report, Nwanyanwu said it was necessary in the interest of peace.
”Nothing changed because myself who stood for that document knew that the appellation, the nomenclature given to it was wrong and I was to move that it be expunged and I am happy the leadership saw it and took action even before we raised it. So, it is a draft amendment to the 1999 Constitution and that is what it is properly called,” he said.
We now have renewed faith in Nigeria—Chief Victor Umeh, National Chairman, APGA
Nwanyanwu’s view was not different from that of Chief Victor Umeh, the National Chairman of All Progressive Grand Alliance, APGA.
”I feel happy and completely satisfied that this initiative has not been a waste of time. Nigeria needed the conference very much and some people came here with a mindset to stall the conference but we have been able to navigate the critical, important national issues. They were addressed and resolutions were reached. During plenary, it was obvious that some people wanted Nigeria to remain the way it is. But Nigerians rallied round in this conference to ensure that what will come out will address the problems that are nagging the nation. So, we are happy that when we came back yesterday, the title of the constitution, there was an attempt to use it to scuttle the adoption of the report of the conference and we looked at it and said what is there?
”You call it Draft Constitution or you call it Proposed Amendments to the Constitution, they remain the same thing. Once all the resolutions of the conference were captured in the document because we don’t have two documents, it is the same document that has been retitled to propose to the 1999 Constitution. So, they are all wonderful resolutions of the conference that needed to be reflected in the constitution.
”So, by just retitling the Draft Constitution, those who came here came here today to prevent the adoption of the report got disappointed and it was overwhelming accepted by everybody. So, to that extent, you can see that Nigeria has received a new lease of life. People are going back to their respective corners of Nigeria with a renewed faith in the nation. We congratulate the president.”
Mr. President, National Assembly should take the recommendation seriously—Senator Adolphus Wabara, former President of the Senate
”I will say to God be the glory. Most of us did not expect that it would have ended the way it did particularly with the sensational headlines we saw in the dailies. In politics, we say that one minute is too long in political decisions and I think that was exactly what happened here. I also want to thank the North through my very good friend, Adamu Waziri, for amending the motion which really doused the situation because talking about a brand new constitution would have torn the conference. But he came up wisely with the fact that there were proposals to the amendment of the 1999 constitution as amended.
”So, that really doused the situation and it ended up on a very sound note as far as I am concerned. And I want to beg the National Assembly and Mr. President to take the recommendations very seriously and not just locking it up in locker and the National Assembly should forgive and forget the bad words used against them during this conference. They shouldn’t throw away what this conference has done.
Conference has brought victory for Nigeria, Sola Ebiseni, delegate and Commissioner for Environment, Ondo State
”The conference ended as victory for the Nigerian state, pride of the African continent of the back man. It shows that in dialogue, we can achieve so much as a people. There is no doubt that in the last one week or so, the impression to the Nigerian public and to the whole world was that the conference was going to end in fiasco. But we have demonstrated our maturity as a people, as Nigerians that when we are gathered, the best in us can always come out.”
On the controversial title of the report, Ebiseni said “In content and quality, the final draft is the same. In form, yes, those who are passionate about the 1999 constitution for whatever it means to them, those who are jittery innovations and new ideas,of course, it is a compromise between moving forward and those who would have given an impression that the conference ended a stalemate or was inconclusive. At the end of the day, nothing changed from the content of our decision. In form, yes, those who want to still romanticize with 1999, let them have but at the end of the day, we have been able to sell the Nigerian public the new idea for the new Nigerian nation.”
With the adoption of the final report on Thursday, the conference has closed on its formal sessions. But according to Kutigi, the closing formalities and a Chairman’s dinner would hold on Thursday, August 21.
Indeed, prior to now, it would pass to say that the delegates came, debated and disagreed. But having successfully weathered the stormed produced by very turbulent and contentious national issues, one can safely say that they came, saw, debated and conquered. This is all in the bid to place Nigeria on a speedy developmental pedestal. Now concluded, the convener, President Goodluck Jonathan, and his government have been be put on the spotlight. All eyes are on him now as to what and when the report will be implemented. Would it be swept under the carpet as most of the previous ones appear to have been? Or will it be implemented soonest? These questions will find answers in the passage of time.