The proposed national conference scheduled to hold in March is still being contested by opponents who regard it as a waste of time and resources while those in support believe it is a step in the right direction
| By Olu Ojewale | Feb. 17, 2014 @ 01:00 GMT
PRESIDENT Goodluck Jonathan appears to be mindful of his position in the history of Nigeria. Having succumbed to the popular demand that Nigerians should hold a national conference, Jonathan doesn’t want to be seen as the man who presides over the disintegration of the country. Hence, the unity of the country is not on the card to be discussed at the national conference slated to start next month. But even that has not absolved the president of criticisms over the modalities the government has adopted for the conference.
Anyim Pius Anyim, secretary to the federal government, announced the modalities for the national conference on January 30, saying it would tentatively last for a period of three months, and would have 492 delegates appointed by governments from federal to state levels and by other stakeholders such as professionals, labour, military and elder statesmen, among others. But that has, indeed, provided another fertile ground for the opposition to reinforce its suspicion of the Jonathan administration and accused it of having a hidden agenda. Invariably, the All Progressives Congress, APC, the main opposition party, has dubbed the proposed national conference as ‘Jonathan conference.’ According to the party, which threatened not to send delegates, the motive behind the proposed conference is to divert Nigerians’ attention from some of the salient problems facing the nation, while the government uses it to further its selfish interest.
Lai Mohammed, interim national publicity secretary of the APC, on Saturday, February 1, fired the first salvo when he said that given the modalities for the nomination of delegates to the conference, the exercise would not do the nation any good. He said: “I am happy to say that right now, almost all our fears are being justified and people are now calling it Jonathan’s conference given the fact that he alone is nominating about 90 delegates and even those who rallied round it at the beginning are now seeing what we saw right from the beginning. Our position on the national conference is now being vindicated. If you remember, we said that we did not believe that the convener was focused and that we were completely worried, why a convener who, all along, had been completely against the idea of a national conference would just now turn around in its favour. Besides, the kind of national conference we envisage is not the kind that will be ratified by the National Assembly. I am happy that what we saw is that this thing is just diversionary and that is what everybody is saying now. I wouldn’t want to pre-empt my party, but the whole thing looks very bizarre even from the beginning.” The APC’s position was further reinforced by Aminu Masari, former speaker of the House of Representatives, who said in an interview recently that the proposed national dialogue, being put together by the Jonathan government would not produce any positive result. He also ruled out the possibility of his party joining or recognising the national conference if the principles were not wholly acceptable to Nigerians.
If the APC is still apprehensive and reluctant to participate in the conference, the party may find itself isolated on the issue. The National Council of State, consisting of the president, former presidents and heads of state as well as serving state governors among others, has endorsed the proposed national conference. At a meeting hosted by President Jonathan in Abuja, on Tuesday, February 4, the council members were said to have queried the president on a number of issues including why delegates to the conference would be selected by nomination and not by election as well as why stakeholders would be responsible for nominating 282 of the 492 delegates. The president was said to have told the council that he chose nomination because the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, said it could not conduct two national elections within one year and besides, holding election for delegates might affect the timetable for next year’s general elections. The president was also said to have explained that state governors, professional bodies and all other organs to be represented would have to appoint or elect their own representatives to the conference. It was not clear whether the council was convinced that the conference would not be manipulated in favour of the Jonathan administration. However, members of the council were said to have cautioned President Jonathan not to use the conference for political patronage or hijack it to promote selfish interest.
Speaking with reporters at the end of the meeting, Governor Rochas Okorocha of Imo State and a member of the APC, said the national conference received the overwhelming support of the state governors because it was essential that Nigerians should sit and discuss the future of the country. He said although the APC was yet to come up with an official position on the conference, he promised that Imo state would send delegates. Similarly, Governor Gabriel Suswam of Benue State, said: “The president briefed us about a lot of things including the impending conference. There were a lot of contributions and the council approved it.”
In any case, according to the modalities announced by the government, those to be nominated by stakeholders are retired military/security personnel (18); traditional rulers (13); retired civil servants at one per zone (six); organised private sector (eight); Nigerian youth organisations (12); women groups (24); political parties (10); Muslim and Christian leaders (12); civil society organisations (24); Nigerians in the Diaspora (eight); people living with disabilities at one per geopolitical zone (six); Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria, Nigerian Guild of Editors, Nigeria Union of Journalists and Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (eight); socio-political/cultural and ethnic nationality groups (90); professional bodies (13); national academies at one per academy (six); and former political office holders(24).
Some political analysts, however, said when properly studied, more than 200 of the delegates to the conference would have the seal of President Jonathan stamped on their nomination. Indirectly, there are those, when carefully studied, would have their nomination linked to the president; people and organisations that many analysts classify as stooges to the Presidency.
With regard to the conference agenda, the Presidential Advisory Committee, PAC, on whose report the proposed conference is based, was said to have recommended, that the delegates should examine the political structure and system that would best suit Nigeria given its complexity and whether or not Nigeria should adopt political federalism or fiscal federalism and the kind of the federating units, states or geopolitical zones to adopt. On the political system for the country, the PAC recommended that the delegates should decide on whether Nigeria should operate a presidential or parliamentary form of government as well as whether the legislature would be unicameral or bicameral. The delegates are also to decide whether lawmakers should operate on a full-time or part-time basis.
Among other issues the PAC mentioned in its report were whether there should be state creation or merger of states; reconsider the ceding of Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon; and whether or not Lagos, Nigeria’s former capital before the movement to Abuja, should be conferred with a special status that would enable the federal government to pay more attention to its development. The PAC similarly wanted the delegates to consider other issues like the secularity of the Nigerian state, federal character and all other contentious issues in the constitution. Although the PAC was silent about the cost, it is estimated that the conference would cost the nation about N7 billion.
Since the modalities for the conference were made public, many Nigerians and stakeholders have expressed divergent opinions. For instance, the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, has kicked against the one slot given to it while the Conference of Nigerian Political Parties has also condemned the federal government for giving slots to only five political parties with representatives at the National Assembly when there are 25 dully registered political parties in the country. By implication, it means only the PDP, APC, All Progressives Grand Alliance, APGA, Labour Party, LP, and Accord Party, AP, will be required to send two delegates each, to the conference.
Groups like Concerned Igbo Leaders of Thought and Afenifere, a Pan-Yoruba socio-cultural organisation, have expressed preference for a conference of ethnic nationalities that would produce an entirely new constitution and not one in which the outcome would be integrated into the existing constitution as currently being envisaged.
Olisa Agabkoba, SAN, and one of those who participated in the nationwide town hall meetings, said he, along with other civil society organisations, had canvassed for an ethnic-based representation. “At the meeting which I participated in, I and the civil society organisations made it clear to the committee that representation be based on ethnic nationalities. I and other civil society organisations are shocked over some of the major recommendations made by the committee,” Agbakoba said. He also described most of the recommendations for the conference as ridiculous.
Similarly, Ebongabasi Ekpe-Juda, a security analyst, said he learnt that it was David Mark, president of the Senate, who advised President Jonathan to organise the national conference, which might make the president a little bit hesitant in his commitment to it. “But one thing I don’t like there is that government will select a lot of people to the conference. They are going to nominate like-minded people to take part in the conference. I would have loved a situation whereby those who are going to take part in the would have to be elected to reflect the mandate of people,” Ekpe-Juda said. Based on the bias, he said the outcome of the conference would be tailored to reflect the thinking of the people in government. “I can assure you that nothing much will be achieved through the conference. Its outcome is going to reflect the minds of people in government and nothing new would come out of it,” he said.
Chekwas Okorie, former national chairman of the APGA, is of the view that the modalities of the proposed conference fell short of what Jonathan promised on October 1, 2013, when he proposed it. He faulted the Okorounmu’s committee’s recommendations on the selection of credible Nigerians to attend the conference. Okorie said that 50 percent of the delegates should have come from the geopolitical zones that would bring their best to the conference. He also faulted the modalities that required the conference decisions to be taken by consensus or by 75 percent agreement of delegates, describing such arrangement as the tyranny of the minority over the majority. He explained that what the recommendations means is that once 26 percent of the delegates reject an idea even if 74 percent agrees with it, the conference would discard such idea. “What is being proposed looks more like a constitution amendment than an overhauling of the constitution which Nigerians are clamouring for because the government said that its outcome would be incorporated in the constitution,” Okorie said. But Anyim in his address, said what the government had done by setting out the modalities was a new thing. “It means that the people will own the conference. It will strengthen the unity and peaceful coexistence of the country,” he said.
Curiously, Kamoru Olalere, a senior member of the AP, has agreed with the modalities set out by the government. He told Realnews that he was in support of the conference because it would allow Nigerians to look critically at the problems facing the country and also proffer solutions. “The essence of being in the assembly is to iron out the points being raised at the conference for the benefit of the whole nation,” he said. Olalere similarly supported the idea of nomination of delegates to the conference because he felt that asking the INEC to conduct two elections within a space of one year would be too strenuous and time wasting. The AP leader warned those who had been threatening not to send delegates to the conference that they would be the big losers. “People who don’t attend the conference have no moral right to condemn its outcome. When people don’t attend a meeting, they have lost the opportunity to make their own contributions, and so they cannot criticise the decisions reached,” Olalere said.
Frank Odita, a retired commissioner of police, is equally optimistic about the conference. Speaking to Realnews in his office in Lagos, Odita said there was nothing wrong with the modalities for the conference. Apart from the current security challenge facing the country, the retired police officer said he would expect the conference to make “Nigerians to believe in themselves and to accept to live together. That is the essence of the conference. The areas of the constitution that are not in consonance with the thinking of many Nigerians should be amended. And that is my impression about the conference.” (See Cover Box)
Some human rights activists and organisations have also called on the National Assembly to give legal backing to the conference and for its outcome to be subjected to a national referendum rather than ratification by the National Assembly.
Many Nigerians have kicked against the proposed N7 billion which is to be spent on a national conference that is to last tentatively for three months whereas former president Olusegun Obasanjo’s 2005 National Political Reform Conference gulped only N1 billion. A lot of Nigerians prefer that such money be used for development projects in the country. However, Odita has disagreed. He told Realnews: “It is better you have a surplus than having a shortfall. That is my opinion. Look at the number of people coming for the conference, they will be accommodated, they will eat, after which there will be a referendum and you cannot go back to ask for money to do all that. So it is better that enough fund be budgeted for the conference. Such funds are to be accounted for.”
Femi Okurounmu, chairman of the PAC, whose 4,000-page report submitted to the president on December 18, 2013, forms the basis for the conference modalities, said the committee did not recommend any cost for the conference. Speaking on a television programme recently, Okurounmu said that the conference would discuss every other relevant thing except the unity of Nigeria. “Unity of Nigeria is not negotiable. People should not quarrel about a no-go area. This conference is not about breaking up Nigeria. People should go to the conference to espouse their views. In all our tours around the country, nobody said I want Nigeria to break up. There is a consensus about Nigeria that they don’t want it to break up,” he said. According to Okurounmu, the whole idea about the conference is to talk about the nation’s unity and the issues affecting the country and discuss a better structured Nigeria. “Many people have argued that the present constitution is unfair to some people while it favours others,” he said.
Okurounmu dismissed the idea that the president was going to nominate majority of the delegates to the conference, adding that people were fond of telling lies because of politics. He explained that of the 492 delegates to the conference, the president would only nominate 37 elder-statesmen and six outstanding youth role models, making a total of 43 people. He also said that his committee recommended that all professional bodies should send one delegate each, adding that there were 13 professional bodies in the country. He argued that the NBA, which had been protesting that it was given only one slot was not superior to other professional bodies. “The conference is not about legal issues but about politics. No matter the kind of political view point you have, you will get a lawyer to draft it. The issue of a referendum is left for the conference to decide. It is not a conference of legalities but about taking a political decision and those taking it should reflect the composition of the nation. Thereafter, the recommendations would be sent to lawyers to draft the constitution,” Okurounmu said. He confirmed that the committee recommended that two delegates each should represent each of the five political parties that had members in the National Assembly. Also, he said 12 delegates would represent the NLC and also 12 from the TUC. According to Okurounmu, there are two categories of criticisms trailing his committee’s recommendations namely those who are out-rightly malicious because they don’t like President Jonathan, and those who said the outcome of the conference should not go to the National Assembly. “The conference is about the future of the country. The second group of critics are the unrealistic idealists who argue that the three-month tentative duration which was recommended for the conference is very shot. It is possible to have the conference in three months and finish it before the election season begins,” he said.
Whatever misgiving anyone may have about the national conference, it is now obvious that the Jonathan administration is going ahead with it. But whether its outcome would meet the yearnings of Nigerians is another matter altogether.
Reported by Maureen Chigbo and Anayo Ezugwu
Frank Odita, retired police commissioner, speaks to Anayo Ezugwu, Realnews reporter, on the proposed National Conference. Excerpts:
Realnews: What is your impression of the modalities of the confab?
Odita: There is nothing wrong with the modalities. The modalities are OK. They reflect the thinking of the government. They are not the thinking of the people. Whatever the government says, it is a government organised conference. So, it has the responsibility to turn out the modalities.
Realnews: From what is going on in the country, do you think that this confab will address the problems of the minorities in the country?
Odita: The truth is that we cannot pre-empt what the conference will produce, since it has not taken off. When the conference takes off, then those of us who are going to be sitting on the bench watching will be able to know the direction it is going; and of course we will also raise our voices and that will further give the delegates the need to rethink. That is my impression.
Realnews: From the security point of view, do you think that the confab will solve the security problems in the country?
Odita: I am of the impression that the conference is not about addressing the issues of security of this country alone, but getting Nigerians to believe in themselves and to accept to live together. That is the essence of the conference and those areas of the constitution that are not in consonance with the thinking of many Nigerians should be amended. And that is my impression about the conference.
Realnews: The APC has said that it will not participate in the confab, what is the implication? Does that have any security undertone?
Odita: It is a conference, like I said organised by the government. The party will be anti-people if it takes the position it is taking. If I were the APC, I would not for any reason shun the conference. I would attend it and make my own points known because if you are not part of something you cannot contribute to it. The reasons for your rejection will not be known, so it is, as far as I’m concerned, out of place for the party to say it does not accept the conference and does not believe in what government is doing.
Realnews: How do you see the number of elder-statesmen the president is going to nominate for confab?
Odita: If the president is nominating 37 elders, elders are not children, they are not boys, they are elders in the sense that they have seen Nigeria, the good, the bad and now the ugly. So they will be able to bring their experience and knowledge into play at the conference. It is possible that if they were to be nominated by politicians, the elders may not be nominated. So, I see it as a wise thing to do, to bring in elders so that everybody except those who have excluded themselves will not say that they were not part of it or they didn’t know.
Realnews: How do you want the outcome of the confab to be treated?
Odita: For me it can only be best decided through a referendum because if you say it should go to the National Assembly, why are we having the conference? Because the National Assembly is already representing Nigerians so they should have allowed the National Assembly to go ahead with the review of the constitution. It is because Nigerians will not believe that their representatives are either not their true representatives or that they don’t have confidence in their ability to deliver. The cry was for a sovereign national conference that would be convoked by Nigerians not by the government. But this time it is the government that is saying: ‘I have listened to the people, I have accepted the cry of Nigerians and I want to believe that since Nigerians want a conference, let us have a conference organised by government, funded by government and modalities provided by government.’ So let us see how it goes. In my own opinion, I want to believe that we are not going through another Oputa Panel or Abacha’s vision 2010 or Yar’Adua’s vision 2020, that all the reports are gathering dusts in some offices. It is my wish that the conference should produce a document that will be presented to Nigerians through a referendum and after which it goes to the National Assembly for passage.
Realnews: You made mention of funding, do you think that the N7 billion budgeted by government is not too much?
Odita: It is better you have a surplus than having a shortfall that is my opinion. Look at the number of people coming for the conference, they will be accommodated, they will eat, after which there is going to be a referendum and you cannot go back to ask for money to do all that. So it is better that a fund is presented after which it should be accounted for.