The inability of National Conference delegates, for two consecutive days, to reach a consensus on whether votes by three-quarters or two-thirds of participants should pass the resolutions of the conference yesterday led to the suspension of further debate on it till next week.
The suspension would give room for further consultations on the issue and for the secretariat to meet with leaders of various groups at the conference.
During a debate on the issue on Monday, the delegates had argued along regional lines, with those from the North calling for the adoption of three-quarters of the votes for any resolution, while their counterparts from the South pushed for two-thirds.
Another issue that divided the delegates yesterday was whether or not there was any need for a referendum to ratify the report of the National Conference. Though the conference adjourned at 5.28 pm, its Chairman, Justice Idris Kutigi, said the adjournment was necessary for tempers to cool down.
As at the close of proceedings yesterday, the conference was still unable to adopt and approve the sets of rules that will guide its deliberations.
In adjourning the conference until today, Kutigi said the delegates would go ahead to discuss the work plan and no longer the rules.
The delegates, before lunch break, had continued debate on the voting pattern, with Senator Ita Giwa from Cross River State, giving indication that the consensus debate would be revisited after the break.
When the delegates resumed from their lunch, the chairman called for a motion to pass the rules.
He asked a delegate, Mr. Orok Etuk Duke from Cross River State, to move the motion for the adoption of the rules, but Chief Mike Ozoekhome (SAN) from Edo State moved a counter-motion that the rules could not be adopted without the resolution on the two-thirds and three-quarters consensus controversy.
In his contribution, Chief Edwin Clark argued that since only the chairman and his team had proposed the three-quarters voting pattern, a majority of the delegates has the right to adopt the two-thirds option, if they so desired.
He wanted to know: “If we are here to build a strong Nigeria, and in that regard whatever we are doing here, we should reflect one Nigeria. Though we have agreed that consensus should be the order of the day, where we disagree, what do we do? Are we going to close this meeting?
“We have all come here to discuss very serious issues. We all listened to Mr. President’s address, he talked about so many things; he talked about a new Nigeria. We should not allow the rules or orders to prevent us from taking those decisions.
“There would have been no reason for us to come here if there were no problems with Nigeria. We are here to address these problems but if we cannot agree on a voting arrangement, then there is a problem. All over the world, the two-thirds majority is invoked.”
Other speakers who canvassed for the two-thirds voting pattern included Air Commodore Indongesit Nkana; Jerry Okwuonu, representing security groups; and Dan Nwanyanwu, representing the Labour Party (LP).
But Dr. Mohammed Bello from Kebbi State countered them, saying that voting at this moment on the two-thirds vote will divide the country. He urged his colleagues to eschew sentiments and vote for issues that would unite Nigeria.
Al-Bashir Albasu from Kano State and Musa Elayo from Nasarawa State also insisted on arriving on a consensus based on the three-quarters voting pattern.
At this stage, Justice Kutigi adjourned the debate until next week, but most delegates refused to vacate the plenary after his ruling.
Okon Osu from Cross River State said it was not necessary to adjourn the House until the issue was resolved.
At this stage, Senator Saidu Dansadu reminded the chairman that he had ruled for an adjournment.
But the chairman ignored his contribution and called on Mr. Fola Adeola from Ogun State to address the issue at stake.
Adeola urged leaders of the delegates from the zones to discuss the controversy in order to resolve it. He was supported by Atedo Peterside who urged the conference to concentrate on issues that will unite Nigerians and cautioned against killing ideas that would move the country forward.
At this stage, the conference deputy chairman, Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi, urged the delegates to ponder on what Adeola and Peterside had said by allowing the chairman to discuss with the various leaders of the delegates.
Based on the various submissions, Justice Kutigi adjourned sitting until today to commence discussions on the work plan.
Earlier, the delegates had also squabbled over whether the conference report should be subjected to a referendum as suggested by President Goodluck Jonathan in his speech at the inauguration of the national discourse.
Also moves by some delegates to gag the media and introduced “executive or closed-door” sessions failed as the conference ruled that the media should be given unfettered access in the coverage of the proceedings.
Meanwhile, the delegates have begun lobby for membership of what some have considered first grade committees, as the secretariat of the conference prepares to announce membership of the 22 committees tomorrow.
Chief Olaniwun Ajayi from the South-west during the second day of debate on the National Conference Procedures Order 13 Rules 3, had asked that the conference should take a categorical stand on the outcome of the discourse.
He said delegates should decide whether the report should be subjected to a referendum for ratification and not to the whims and caprices of the National Assembly.
According to him, “The outcome of the National Conference should be tagged ‘We the people of Nigeria’, and therefore subjected to the people to decide through a referendum.”
He therefore called for the retention of Order 13 Rules 3 which says, inter alia, “The conference shall in consultation with the six principal officers of the conference advise the government on the legal framework, legal procedures and options for integrating the decisions and outcomes of the National Conference into the constitution and laws of the country.”
Other delegates who backed his arguments were Joe Okei-Odumakin, representing civil society group, and Joe Nwogu, representing the South-east.
But Senator Ken Nnamani called for caution and drew the attention of the delegates to the president’s speech where he appealed to the National Assembly to expedite action on the passage of a bill on the proposed amendment to the 1999 Constitution that will allow the conference recommendations to undergo a referendum.
He explained that the conference, as it is presently constituted, does not have the legal backing to amend the constitution and as such should not get into any contest with the National Assembly.
In his contribution, Mr. Nduka Obaigbena, representing the Newspapers Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN), told his colleagues that any conference “is as good as its report and the ideas that come with it”.
“Not every report of a conference of this kind goes to become a part of the constitution. Let us be guided by strong ideas because when we have strong ideas and the acceptance of the people, no National Assembly can stop it,” he said.
He added that there were recommendations of the 1994 conference, which though were not automatically made part of the constitution, but were adopted in the operations of governance.
He gave the example of the six geopolitical zone structure and power rotation as some of the outcomes of the previous conference that have now become an integral part of national life. Also, the former Minister of Education, Prof. Ruqayyatu Ahmed Rufa’i, said the conference should concentrate on the powers given to it and submit its recommendations to the president to decide what to do with it.
At this stage, Justice Kutigi stepped in and directed that the matter be stepped down for debate another day.
On the attempt to restrict the coverage of the conference to the media, Obaigbena and Festus Okoye cautioned against it.
Okoye said some people came to the conference with preconceived perceptions without considering that all the delegates were at the conference to chart a new future for Nigeria.
Justice Kutigi, after the debate, ruled that the provision of Rule 7 be deleted.