President Goodluck Jonathan inaugurates the much-talked about national conference on Monday, March 17, with many members expressing optimism about its outcome. Can it bring about a new Nigeria?
| By Olu Ojewale | Mar. 31, 2014 @ 01:00 GMT
THE 492 delegates to the national conference are to begin the process of redefining Nigeria on Monday, March 24. The conference which was inaugurated by President Goodluck Jonathan on Monday, March 17, had to go on a one week break to allow the delegates to sort out some logistics problems, especially accommodation and mobility as well as to enable the secretariat roll out the rules to guide the conference. As expected, Nigerians, especially those who are in support of the conference have high hopes about its outcome. But much is dependent on the delegates themselves who are representatives of the larger society. From all indications, fiscal federalism, resource control, regionalism, devolution of powers, state creation and state police are likely to top the agenda of the national conference.
But there are also contentious issues not related to the conference that may overshadow the dialogue if not carefully handled. One of such is religion which has reared its ugly head ahead of the commencement of the conference plenary.
The Jama’atul Nasril Islam, an apex body for Islamic organisations in the North, is not happy with the composition of the conference and has accused President Jonathan of having a hidden agenda. The JNI, led by Sa’ad Abubakar, Sultan of Sokoto, claimed that the president had, through the conference composition short-changed the Muslim community. Khalid Aliyu, secretary-general of the Islamic body, at a news conference on Wednesday in Kaduna, said the process of selecting delegates to the conference negated the spirit of democracy as majority of delegates to the conference were Christians. Aliyu claimed that 62 percent of the delegates to the conference are Christians while the remaining percentage is shared by Muslims and other religions. “We find it a great disregard and disrespect to the conscience of the Muslims that of the 20 delegates of the federal government, only six are Muslims. No Muslim is deemed fit to make the list of the Nigerian Economic Summit. In fact, in the representation of the security agencies, Muslims have been so unimaginably short-changed with only one Muslim out of the six retired military and security personnel. What is most disturbing is that the Muslim leadership and Islamic groups have called the attention of the president to this matter but he has paid no attention to the concern of the Muslims,” he said.
Besides, the Islamic leader said no amount of conferences would solve the myriads of problems confronting Nigeria, except “when our leaders lead with justice and equity in the country.” Aliyu, who also spoke about the state of insecurity in the North, appealed to Nigerians, irrespective of their religious and ethnic affinity, to come together to address the problem of insecurity in the country in order to safeguard the future of the nation. Although opinions are divided about whether the alleged inequality should be allowed to distract the conference, what is not in doubt is that it appears it is too late to do anything about the complaints. Some analysts said the conference should not allow religious sentiments to distract its larger goal.
Religion apart, it appears that some of the delegates are more concerned with their own comfort than making sacrifice for the good of the country. Reports said that some of the delegates had approached the federal government to pay the salaries and allowances of the personal aides they would use at the conference. But they were rebuffed and asked to pay them from the N12 million they are to receive for the three months’ exercise. According to an analysis of the pay, the delegates are to pay for their own accommodation, transportation, feeding (the delegates are to be given free lunch at the venue of the conference) and some other domestic matters from the N12million. At the inaugural sitting on Tuesday, March 18, delegates were said to have asked the conference officials the number of aides they should engage and whether the government would be responsible for their salaries and allowances. But in her response, Valerie Azinge, secretary of the conference, said there was no provision for personal aides of the delegates. Rather, she told them that the government had monetised their accommodation, transportation and sitting allowances. “You will all receive your pay slips at two weeks’ intervals and we won’t disclose what is paid to you in the open. Each one of you is, however, free to divulge it, but that will not come from us,” Azinge said.
However, there are also some delegates who have said publicly that they were not interested in what government would pay them as salaries and allowances. Tunde Bakare, pastor, Latter Rain Assembly Church and leader of Save Nigeria Group, told a congregation in his church on Sunday, March 16, that he rejected the allowance to prevent insinuation that his participation at the conference was motivated by financial gains and not for services to the country. “I do not need the money they are paying. I am here to render my service to the country. If it becomes very important, I will give the money to charity,” Bakare, a nominee from Ogun State, said.
Following in the same path, Olisa Agbakoba, SAN and a former national president of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, on Tuesday, March 18, announced that he would not collect the allowances set aside for delegates to the national conference. Agbakoba, who was nominated to the conference by civil society organisations, argued that the conference “is a call to service and an opportunity to chart a new course for our country… Regrettably, I will not be able to accept any form of remuneration/financial benefits from the conference.”
That notwithstanding, many of the delegates have expressed high hopes that the conference would usher in a fresh agenda for the country. Richard Akinjide, SAN and a former attorney general of the federation and minister of justice, said he agreed with President Jonathan that the unity of Nigeria should be non-negotiable. He said the Nigerians participating in the conference were there for real business. “The leadership of the country is committed to this initiative. The report will see the light of the day,” he said. Yusuf Mamman, former Nigerian ambassador to Spain, who is representing the Arewa Consultative Forum, a Northern cultural and social pressure group, said the national question would be brought to the front burner. ‘We are here to discuss the contentious issues. I am representing the ACF here,” Mamman said.
For Ken Nnamani, former Senate president, the issue of true federalism is the minimum outcome he expects from the conference. He said it was unfortunate that inequality among various zones in the country had been allowed for so long, pointing out that the South-East had been marginalised in the distribution of states. “The zones should be equal. That is why we are asking for two more states in the South. They have more states in the dry land than where we have vegetation. The South-East is densely populated. It is not only one state, we need more; we need two states,” he said, adding that he expected the conference to meet the yearning expectations of Nigerians.
Speaking in the same vein, Diette Spiff, former military governor of Rivers State and king of Opobo Kingdom, said: “What we need in Nigeria is true federalism or what you call resource control. We also need to debate this presidential system of government and parliamentary system to know which is better. Our founding fathers practiced parliamentary system and there was a role for traditional rulers. We need a House of chiefs for traditional rulers.”
Olusegun Osoba, former governor of Ogun State, said he was optimistic about the outcome of the conference because of the calibre of personalities attending it. He said the experienced personalities in the conference would help to provide historical background that would help to channel a new course for the country. According to Osoba, the current presidential system is too expensive and provides a lot of avenue for corruption and that the conference would have to consider parliamentary system of government as well as devolution of power to regional governments. He said only true federalism whereby all the federating regions or states would be allowed to develop at their own pace, would be good for the country.
But Rashidi Ladoja, former governor of Oyo State and leader of the Accord Party, said the clamour for regionalism had its own limitations. He argued: “They are calling for regionalism. Will Ondo State share its oil with Oyo State under Western Nigeria? This is the issue we should look at.”
Yinka Odumakin, former publicity of Afenifere, a Yoruba socio-cultural group, said the conference should be able to make suggestions on how to curb corruption in the country. He also spoke on the mode of ratification of report, saying that a referendum would be the best option. “The main issue is that federalism has been bastardised and the solution is that we should return to true federalism. There is the need for devolution of power. Unitarism has led to a strong centre to the detriment of the component units,” Odumakin said.
However, the delegates in expressing their expectations from the conference also have divergent views on who should rubber- stamp its outcome. Some said since they were not elected, it would be difficult to take the outcome to the Nigerian people. Ghali Naa’ba, former speaker of the House of Representatives, supports the ratification of the conference report by the National Assembly, which he described as the custodian of sovereignty. “Nigeria did not elect us as delegates. The National Assembly is elected by the people. Therefore, it is good to subject the report to the National Assembly,” he said. But Chukwuemeka Ezeife, former Anambra State governor, disagrees. “I don’t support the submission of the report of the conference to the National Assembly. The people of Nigeria should receive the report,” he said.
On the labour front, Abdulwaheed Omar, president of the Nigerian Labour Congress, NLC, said labour representatives would canvass for the retention of labour matters in the exclusive legislative list to prevent untoward hardship in the hands of the governors. He promised that the NLC delegates would insist on the unity of Nigeria by all means. “Something good will come out of the conference and Nigeria will move forward. This is a conference with a difference because of the way the delegates were selected. It may not be a perfect selection, but, it is a deeper form of selection and representation. Labour representatives will canvass the unity of Nigeria at the conference. We will also canvass the need for improved security, freedom of expression and the need to review this form of government.”
Indeed, President Jonathan, during the inauguration of the conference, said the convocation of the national conference had become necessary so as to avail Nigerians the opportunity of charting a way forward for the country. “Let me repeat what I have been saying that Goodluck Jonathan has no personal agenda in convening this national conference. Dear compatriots, my administration is convening this national conference today because we believe that we must assume responsibility for ensuring that the long-running national debate on the best way forward for our country is not in vain.
“It is our expectation that participants in this conference will patriotically articulate and synthesise our peoples’ thoughts, views and recommendations for a stronger, more united, peaceful and politically stable Nigeria, forge the broadest possible national consensus in support of those recommendations, and strive to ensure that they are given the legal and constitutional backing to shape the present and the future of our beloved fatherland… Let us do that which is selfless, purposeful and patriotic so that history will remember us for having served our nation well,” he said.
Justice Idris Kutigi, former chief justice of the federation and chairman of the conference, who spoke on behalf of the delegates, described the inauguration of the national conference as historic. While commending the president for initiating the conference, Kutigi said it had provided the country an opportunity to strive for an equitable nation, especially with the calibre of delegates attending the conference. “Today is an important day in the history of Nigeria. This is part of our drive for equitable nation,” he said. But whether the conference will live up to expectation and help the country to move ahead as a new nation, time will tell.