ABRUPT end has now become the trade mark of recent constitutional talks in Nigeria. In 1978, the Constituent Assembly set up by Olusegun Obasanjo, then a military head of state, and chaired by Sir Egbert Udo Udoma, an eminent Supreme Court justice, ended abruptly because of the inability of the delegates to agree on a constitutional provision for a Sharia Court of Appeal. Again, in 2005, the National Political Reform Conference set up by Obasanjo, then a civilian executive president, and headed by Adolphus Godwin Karibi-Whyte, an eminent Supreme Court justice, also ended abruptly after the South- South delegates staged a walkout because of the pigheadedness of some northern delegates to shift ground on their demand for an upward review of the derivation fund.
On Monday, July 14, 2014, there was another abrupt end of the National Conference which President Goodluck Jonathan inaugurated on March 17, with Idris Legbo Kutigi, retired chief justice of Nigeria, as chairman. This time around, the delegates failed to agree on some contentious issues among them derivation, national intervention fund and the formula for sharing allocation from the federation account among the three tiers of government. The acrimony that characterized the debate on these issues at the plenary session, compelled Kutigi to announce a forced end to the conference, which normally should have folded up on Thursday July 17. Before it ended abruptly, the conference had recommended that the federal government should set up a technical committee to determine appropriate percentages to be attached to the three issues and advise it accordingly.
That the conference had lasted that long is still a surprise to many who had closely followed the pattern of debate at its plenary session especially during the first two weeks of commencement. There was a lot of grandstanding by some delegates, an indication that most of the delegates had came to the conference with selfish agendas. For instance, the northern delegates came with an agenda to scuttle the conference if the clamour to restructure Nigeria had any chance of success. As far as they are concerned, the status quo must prevail.
The South- West delegates came with their own agenda to press for regional autonomy, true federalism and state police or nothing else. For the South-South delegates, their agenda was to push for resource control or increase in derivation fund and fiscal federalism while the South-East delegates came with an agenda to push for an additional state in the zone and also secure a constitutional provision for rotational presidency. This, therefore, explained why debate on issues such as devolution of power, resource control, revenue sharing formula, fiscal federalism, state creation and state police, created a lot of political tension at the conference.
That notwithstanding, the conference was able to come up with some useful recommendations which would go a long way in tackling some of the nation’s multi-faceted socio-political challenges if they are faithfully implemented. But the big worry now is: what happens to the conference recommendations thereafter? Should they be endorsed by the people in a referendum or be sent to the National Assembly for adoption and incorporation in the ongoing constitutional amendment process? Either way, there is a problem. The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria does not provide for a referendum. For this to happen, the National Assembly has to start a specific constitutional process to accommodate a referendum. And because of the closeness to the 2015 general elections, the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, which already has its hands full, cannot organize a referendum even if the National Assembly is able to complete the constitutional amendment process before the general elections.
If President Goodluck Jonathan forwards the conference deliberations to the National Assembly as he earlier indicated, it is most likely that some of its revolutionary recommendations that are unfavourable to its members, would die naturally on the floor of the legislature. Besides, time is not on the side of the lawmakers as the Senate has already gone on a long break which will last till the later part of September. The House of Representatives is sure to do likewise. When they resume, it will be time for party primaries to pick flag bearers for the various elections which start in February next year. It is therefore not likely that the conference recommendations would serve any useful purpose if they are not treated by the sitting Seventh National Assembly. These are some of the issues examined by Olu Ojewale, general editor and the author of our cover story for this week entitled “National Conference: Talk Shop of Selfish Agendas.” Do you also share our fears? Happy reading.
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— Jul. 28, 2014 @ 01:00 GMT