Nigerians from different ethnic and religious persuasions begin a three-month national conference in Abuja, Monday, March 17. The talk shop is supposed to lead to the restructuring of the country through consensus agreement on a number of contentious national issues
| By Olu Ojewale | Mar. 17, 2014 @ 01:00 GMT
THE much expected and talked- about national conference scheduled to take off on Monday, March 10 has been postponed for one week. It will now kick off on March 17. To put the conference on the right course, President Goodluck Jonathan on March 3, appointed Idris Kutigi, a retired chief justice of Nigeria, to chair the conference. Kutigi is to be assisted by Bolaji Akinyemi, a professor of international law and former external affairs minister, who was named as vice chairman. Valerie Azinge is to serve as the secretary of the conference.
Anyim Pius Anyim, secretary to the government of the federation, SGF, who announced the appointments on Monday night, March 3, disclosed that the appointees would move to the secretariat for the conference in Abuja on Wednesday, March 5. The choice of Kutigi and Akinyemi was said to have been influenced by their patriotism and independent mindedness on issues. They are also believed to be interested in the unity and stability of Nigeria. The appointment of Azinge was not only for gender balance but also for regional balance. Besides, Azinge has three assistants to work with. They are Akilu Idabawa, who will take care of conference proceedings; Mahmood Yakubu, a university don, to oversee finance and administration and James Akpandem, media and communications.
With those important appointments taken care of, the government released the list of 492 members to participate in the conference. Prominent among 37 elder statesmen appointed by government to take in the conference are Tunji Braithwaite, Richard Akinjide, SAN and former attorney general and minister of justice, Olu Falae, former secretary to the federal government; Olusola Obada, former minister of state for defence and Afe Babalola, SAN. Others are Ike Nwachukwu, a retired general; Josephine Anenih, Jim Nwobodo, former governor of old Anambra State; Mike Ahamba, SAN, Azu Agboti, a senator; Peter Odili, former governor of Rivers State; Alfred Diete-Spiff, a retired Naval officer and first military governor of Rivers State; Edwin Clark, former information minister and Daisy Danjuma, a former senator. The rest are Ibrahim Gambari, former Nigerian ambassador to the United Nations, Jerry Gana, former minister of information; Jonathan Temlong, a retired general; Jubril Aminu, professor of medicine and former minister of petroleum; Adamu Mu’azu, national chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party: Yerima Abdullahi, former governor and Tanko Yakassai, former senior adviser to former President Shegu Shagari, among others. Names of representatives of different segments of the country were also announced.
Prior to the conference, all the stakeholders had been busy articulating their programmes of action and defining their position on most of the issues affecting the corporate existence of the country. To help them arrive at a common position, all the sectional regions held pre-conference meetings to harmonise their agenda and demands to be tabled at the conference. As expected, the agenda and demands vary from one region to the other.
At its pre-conference meeting held in Ibadan in February, the South-West leaders adopted a 15-point agenda, which they would want their representatives to articulate at the conference. While reading out the summary of the 15-point agenda, Alani Akinrinade, a retired lieutenant-general and vice chairman of the committee, said: “When the conference holds from March 10, 2014, the Yoruba people will make a proposal for a new Nigeria, consisting of a central union/federal government and six regional governments based on the current six geo-political zones, including all other Yoruba outside the imposed artificial boundaries; that is to say, in Edo, Delta, Kogi and Kwara states; and operating federal and regional constitutions, respectively.” According to the agenda, the Yoruba would agitate for regional autonomy for the South-West within a united Nigerian federation.
The South-West agenda is similarly seeking to bring to an end the presidential system of government and the return to the parliamentary system, with the right to self-determination by each region, including the right to secede where necessary. Also at the regional level, the South-West wants a regional constitution, where there would be a governor and deputy governor; with the governor serving as the head of government business.
The South-West agenda reads in part: “The regional constitution will allocate functions to the three tiers of government in the Yoruba federation or region. States will be responsible for the creation of local government councils. However, any ethnic group or groups within a state wishing to align with any other state or to belong to a new region shall be allowed to do so if confirmed in a plebiscite by the affected people.”
The status of Lagos State is another issue that will be tabled by the South-West. According to the committee’s recommendation, Lagos State should be recognised as a mini-Nigeria, and because of the pressure on its infrastructure and the role it plays as the economic nerve centre of the country, the state should have a special budgetary provision that would be part of the first line charge in the federation account.
On the tax system, the South-West region is proposing an ideal resource management system for a true federation with fiscal federalism and resource control, whereby a substantial part of the proceeds accruable from every region would be domiciled in the region while an agreed percentage will be contributed to the centre by the federating regions. For public order and security, the group is calling for the matter to be included in the residual list.
While it is calling for the establishment of a constitutional court to have jurisdiction over inter-government cases and election petitions, it also proposed for the creation of a regional policing system because the current structure and system have failed to guarantee adequate security of Nigerian citizens. Similarly, the region would want to discuss issues such as immigration, citizenship, defence and international affairs, among others.
In the same vein, the South-West says the current border delineation in the country is not favourable to the Yoruba in Kwara and Kogi states, and such, has resolved to ask for a boundary re-adjustment that would unite them with the South-West region. The Yoruba people in the two states include the Ekiti, Igbomina and Bolo in Kwara State; and the Okun and Yagba in Kogi State. Olu Falae, chairman of the three-man committee, which drafted the agenda, said his committee held several meetings with the people in the two states in order to reflect their wishes in the generality of the Yoruba agenda at the national conference. “We decided to visit our kith and kin, who are in what I call the domestic Diaspora in Kwara and Kogi states; they are all here. We held several meetings with the Yoruba in Kwara – the Ekitis in the two local governments, the Igbomina and the Bolo people; and in Kogi, the Okun people and the Yagba people. We held several meetings with them singly and jointly to ensure that whatever we put in the agenda represents their own wishes,” Falae said, adding that the Ijaws in parts of the South-West zone were at liberty to canvass to be united with their people in the South-South zone. But in the time being, the Itsekiri people of Delta State were said to have also used the occasion to restate their ancestral link to the Yoruba people. They were said to have declared that they were an extract of the Yoruba race and would want to work with the South-West people at the national conference.
Akinrinade stated that the conference would offer an opportunity for all the ethnic groups to actualise their agenda, especially with the “expiration of the amalgamation by mistake of 1914.”
The Northern agenda for the conference was decided by its governors recently. The 19 northern states articulated and endorsed a 30-point agenda which they intend to canvass at the conference. The agenda was the product of a two-day meeting held in Kaduna and finalised on Tuesday, February 25. The agenda, the governors said, would allow the region to speak with one voice on their expectations from the conference. Speaking in an interactive session on the national conference itself in Government House, Minna, recently, Governor Babangida Aliyu of Niger State, said the northern governors took a bold step at the just- concluded meeting in Kaduna on the points to be presented at the conference but assured that the points articulated would not in any way tamper with the unity and development of the country. “In our last meeting, we took a principled position to send our best and experienced people to the conference and this will include those who will be able to defend and discuss the issues without fear or favour but which will not tamper with the unity and development of the country,” Aliyu said.
The adopted points to be presented at the conference was reeled out by Idris Ndako, secretary to the Niger State government, who is also the secretary of the Northern States Governors’ Forum, include fiscal federalism, structure of government, state police, labour matters with regards to wages and salaries, with emphasis on whether salaries should be uniform or based on the financial capability of each state, electricity as a major weapon of economic growth, especially on whether states should be allowed to generate power independently.
Other points include tenure of president and governors, devolution of power, traditional institutions, immunity clause for governors and president, independence of the legislative arm and the judiciary, onshore and offshore dichotomy, resource control.
The rest are social security, including health, housing, electoral law which include how elections should be conducted, system of government – presidential or parliamentary, security, creation of more states and local governments and transformation of the agricultural sector as the mainstay of the northern region. To get adequate representation, a committee was set up by the NSGF to go round all the 19 northern states to mobilise and sensitise the people on the need to participate at the conference.
The South-East, on its part, said its programme was not different from the agenda it submitted to the Femi Okurounmu presidential advisory committee, PAC, on the national conference. Joe Nwaorgu, secretary general, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, an Igbo cultural group, said the Igbo would want restructuring, and reparation for incessant killings of its people. “We are prepared for the conference and we are determined to make it succeed. The issues we want resolved include: the structure of government-presidential or parliamentary, fiscal federalism, devolution of power, resource control, citizenship right, security of lives and property, and reparation over the continuous killing of our people and destruction of their property,” Nwaorgu said.
According to the document sent to the PAC, the Igbo had said there should be no ‘no-go’ areas. They said they would include but not limited to the following: political structure of Nigeria, forms of government/tenure, power of the tiers of government/devolution, revenue and fiscal federalism, derivation and distribution, citizenship right, structure of the armed forces and other security agencies to improve the security of life and property of Nigerians, judicature, population and census issues, religion and secularism and the place of traditional rulers and institutions and so on.
Also, ahead of the conference, the South-South geo-political zone, the chief revenue generator for the country, has also harmonised its position for the conference. In accordance with its resolution, the region wants restructuring, fiscal federalism and 50 percent derivation. Currently, derivation is a mere 13 percent. But most participants at the one-day South-South zonal conference on the national conference held at the Cultural Centre in Calabar, the Cross River State capital, recently insisted that local communities and states from where natural resources are exploited should control their wealth by, at least, 50 percent. They argued that if this singular issue was resolved by the conference, there would be peace and harmony in the country. The summit similarly decided that the South-South should ask for the domestication of the United Nations Laws on the protection of the environment to protect its states. The region also wants issues such as power sharing, state creation, local government creation, fiscal federalism to be tackled by the conference. It promised to demand for equal number of states in each political zone of the country and that local governments should be the creation of the state government.
Governor Liyel Imoke of Cross River State, who was represented by his deputy, Efiok Cobham, said: “On derivation, our position aligns with the that of the entire South-South states to the effect that the constitution be amended to read that a state on whose territory oil (or other natural resources) are extracted or found be entitled to not less 50 per cent of the entire proceeds from the exploration and exploitation,” adding that: “Solid minerals should be exploited by states where such minerals are deposited. Compensation should be paid on a monthly basis for game reserves and forest conservation as the owners have lost their means of livelihood which is predominantly farming.”
The meeting similarly decided that the outcome of the conference should never be subjected to the scrutiny and review of the National Assembly as proposed by President Jonathan. By giving the decisions of the national conference to the National Assembly to review, the pre-conference delegates said, would defeat the essence of the national discourse because members of the National Assembly would surely alter the resolutions of the conference that do not favour them. Instead, the South-South people proposed that the outcome should be an Executive Bill to the National Assembly to enact into law so as to give it necessary legitimacy.
The South-South would also want devolution of power to the federating units and making the central government more accountable to the federating units over the handling and management of the nation’s financial outlay. “Powers should therefore be devolved even as the executive legislative list be reviewed in order to transfer certain matters to the concurrent list,” the region said.
Florence Ita-Giwa, former senator, and former special assistant to the president on the National Assembly matters, would want compensation for Bakassi people for the loss of their ancestral homeland and another deeper look into how the Bakassi Peninsula was ceded to Cameroon. She also advocated for 50 percent affirmative action for women. Some ethnic nationalities and pressure groups at the meeting included the Ijaw National Congress, Oron Ethnic Nationality from Akwa Ibom State, South-South Peoples Assembly, South-South Peoples Forum, Efik Eburutu and Ethnic Nationality.
As being articulated by the regions, it is clear they all have their different positions on how the country should be structured. But there are also common threads that run through some of their demands. All the regions want devolution of power, fiscal federalism and adoption of a suitable system of government, among others. For now, only the South-West and the Northern regions are interested in regional policing. While the South-West is advocating for a parliamentary system of government, other regions are not specific on the system of government they would prefer. Political analysts feel this may make the issue of political restructuring difficult to achieve especially going by government’s modality which specifies that 75 majority vote is required for each decision to be adopted by the conference on any constitutional issue.
From the pre-conference positions articulated by the various geo-political zones, there is every likelihood that the conference may be explosive unless there is a spirit of give-and-take by the delegates on issues tabled for discussion. Tony Uranta, a member of the PAC on the national conference, said Nigerians should expect the conference to be explosive because of the nature of the issues to be discussed. “The conference will be volatile! The Yoruba say that brothers don’t go into a room to speak the truth to one another and come out smiling all the time. It will be volatile because we are going to speak the truth to one another, so we can resolve our differences, enhance our commonalities and build a truly united Nigeria premised on truth, equity and justice,” he said.
Besides, Uranta also noted that some people who had already seen the conference as ‘Jonathan’s conference’ would like to be assertive and avoid being dictated to. “I have heard claims that this will be “Jonathan’s Conference” and that he has put it together so that he will manipulate it. My friend Lai Mohammed, (interim national publicity secretary of the All Progressives Congress) has stated it over and over again, and I want to ask Lai, what should we call that conference? Lai’s conference? No, it will be “Jonathan’s conference”! That’s how it will go down in the annals of history, “The Jonathan National Conference.” That is going to be its name, but the federal government is going to nominate only a total of 71 members (including 36 elder statesmen), six role models and outstanding youths, 20 former civil servants, six former jurists, six former members of the Nigerian Armed Forces and so on. These are critical interest groups of the nation and it won’t be pragmatic to say all elder statesmen in Nigeria should come together to nominate 36 representatives, will it be? Therefore, it is only sensible to say let the president nominate them. It is only normal and sensible to say let the president nominate these youths. Jurists will be nominated by the NJC and the military will nominate its own representatives, but the president will announce them. These nominations do not mean that the president will have dominance as stated above. Therefore, only 71 out of 492 delegates (being less than 15 per cent of the 492 delegates!) will be nominated by the president. How can 15 per cent dominate 85 percent?! I find that incredible arithmetic!”
Indeed, after the initial discordant tunes in some quarters, stakeholders in all the geo-political zones are now poised to take part in the conference. Even the main opposition party, the All Progressives Congress, APC, which initially dismissed the proposed conference as diversionary, a waste of resources and an avenue to boost President Jonathan’s re-election chances, has also decided to participate in the dialogue. Bola Ahmed Tinubu, an APC chieftain, was part of the pre-conference delegation that decided what the South-West region should table before the conference. Although the names of APC delegates to the conference were not known as at press time, all the APC states said they would be sending their delegates to take part at the national dialogue.
But there are also unrepentant opponents of the dialogue such as Matthew Kukah, Catholic bishop of Sokoto . In a recent interview, Kukah dismissed the whole conference as a waste and a political jamboree. “The critical question is to cut off the waste that is governance in Nigeria… If we are going to continue to service profligacy, then that should not be the subject of a conference. So, there is nothing I see on the agenda that warrants our coming together to talk. The rest of the world must be laughing at us. This is not how to run a country. Most of the things we are talking about are things that research institutions, the university community and a much more serious intellectual community should be dealing with and be servicing agencies of government. You are bringing people together whose only credentials are political connections. You are also bringing together others who are redundant with the intention of servicing them and making them relevant. You are making them to add to their curriculum vitae so that they can show-off that they served as delegates in a conference.”
Towing a similar line, Sam Omateseye, a newspaper columnist, said in an interview that he did not expect any groundbreaking achievement from the conference. According to him, the dialogue would turn out to be nothing but a jamboree and those in attendance would form the bulk of politicians in power in 2015.
Nevertheless, Akinrinade has faulted the number of seats allotted to ethnic nationalists participating in the conference, arguing that the dialogue was supposed to be mainly for them because it would decide how Nigerians would live together as a nation. The retired general also said there should not have been a ‘no-go area’ for the delegates. “The unity of Nigeria is negotiable and we must create a country where each region is happy in its own separate way and not by oppression,” he said.
Kayode Samuel, a political scientist, recently admonished the Yoruba to be ‘forward thinking’ because they were fast losing their competitive edge with other regions. He said that restructuring the country would enhance a healthy competition among the regions as it was during the First Republic and “nobody will be labelled a parasite by owners of oil. We will move away from being a consuming economy that oil has turned us into,” Samuel said, adding: “We must anticipate anything at the conference,” but advised Yoruba delegates to the conference to champion issues such as restructuring of the country and better taxation among other issues because “it is only when people are taxed properly that they will ask their leaders questions as seen in Fashola’s Lagos.”
Whatever the expectations or misgivings of Nigerians, President Jonathan appears to have high hopes about the dialogue. In a nationwide television broadcast on Thursday, February 27, the president urged Nigerians to seize the opportunity of the national conference to build a country that would, in due season, lead the great re-awakening of Africa. “My call for the national conference in this first year of our second century is to provide the platform to confront our challenges. I am confident that we shall rise from this conference with renewed courage and confidence to march through the next century and beyond, to overcome all obstacles on the path to the fulfilment of our globally- acknowledged potential for greatness.”
Jonathan also called on Nigerians to use the conference to further strengthen the unity of the country. “I am hopeful that the conference will not result in parochial bargaining between competing regions, ethnic, religious and other interest groups but in an objective dialogue about the way forward for our nation and how to ensure a more harmonious balance among our three tiers of government,” the president said.
But given the time frame for the conference, and the fact that if all the issues brought before the conference by the various geo-political zones are to exhaustibly discussed and thrashed out, the three months allotted for the dialogue may not justify president’s high hopes. Besides, it is also difficult to see what the proposals of states would look like on fiscal federalism, considering that some of the states are used to looking forward to getting money from the central purse instead of harnessing their potentials and using their God-given resources to develop their areas. But one thing is clear though, if the sincerity of the participants at the conference is genuine, Nigeria is in for a monumental restructuring that would cement the unity of the country. But will there be a fundamental change in the attitude of the political leaders in the way the country is governed? No constitution anywhere can work if the country’s political leaders do not see governance as a public service.