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The fears, realities at national conference

We cannot continue to fold our arms and assume that things will straighten themselves out in due course, instead of taking practical steps to overcome impediments on our path to true nationhood, rapid development and national prosperity.  —President Goodluck Jonathan
FACTS about Nigeria can be encapsulated in three words: riches and rags. It is a land full of opportunities and possibilities, yet the majority of the human population remains economically disadvantaged and politically marginalised. Whereas the country should be walking by now, it is crawling and fumbling to the surprise of the entire world.

All delegates to the ongoing national conference seem to realise the irony about the country. They are not just aware but conscious of this sharp and embarrassing contrast, given the abundant human and natural blessings of the pride of the entire Black race.

The architects of the conference say it is designed to fashioning a new Nigeria, where every opportunity could be turned into prosperity; where every citizen, regardless of his ancestral root, could be guaranteed of fairness, equity and justice. In the pursuit of these ideals, delegates to the conference have shown a mixed bag of slowness but steadiness, as well as impatience in the last few days. 

 From discussions on the floor of the House, they have consistently shown that they individually proclaimed what they think is wrong with Nigeria. But there is a sharp and undisguised division about how to go about fixing the country. Yet, they are optimistic there is a silver lining at the end of the tunnel.

The debate over the draft rules of procedure reinforced the division. Whereas there were disagreements over fundamental issues of the power and status of the conference, those ones did not evoke so much emotion and discord close to tearing the house apart. However, the issue of how to break logjam over matters that required voting by delegates became the veritable test for the conference, almost becoming a Pandoras box. Wisdom, wise counsel, maturity and statesmanship later prevailed. Thanks to the tact and diplomacy of the conference chairman, Justice Idris Kutigi and his deputy, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, whose interventions have always come readily when emotions run high.

Nearly all the stakeholders are at the conference with preconceived ideas and agenda. The groups they represent have varying preconceived objectives and goal and how to pursue them. Many of them have mind-sets which, in many ways, do not naturally tally. In the midst of such divergences, the stakeholders might need to seek a compromise, make concession. This perspective is being promoted by some delegates with reference to the inaugural speech of President Goodluck Jonathan. Of particular interest to them is his statement that, “This coming together under one roof to confer and build a fresh national consensus for the amicable resolution of issues that still cause friction amongst our people must be seen as an essential part of the process of building a more united, stronger and progressive nation.” He even listed some issues that many see as among those major obstacles towards national development and advised that the “conference is open for us to table our thoughts and positions on issues, and make recommendations that will advance our togetherness.”

The number of committees being proposed is 20 and the scope of each committee is spelt out. The bodies include Committee on Devolution of Power; Committee on Political Restructuring and forms of Government; Committee on National Security and the committee on environment. Others are the committee on Politics and Government; Committee Law, Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Reform; Committee on Social Welfare; Committee on Transportation; Committee on Science, Technology and Development; Committee on Agriculture; Committee on Civil Society, Labour and Sports; Committee on Public Service; Committee on Electoral Matters; Committee on Foreign Policy, and Diaspora Matters; Committee on Law Tenure Matters and National Boundary; Committee on Trade and Investment; Committee on Energy; Committee on Religion; Committee on Public Finance and Revenue Generation; and the Committee on Immigration.

Knotty issues
There are two distinct views on the status and power of the conference. From their contributions to issues on the floor, some delegates tend to equate the gathering as a quasi-parliament. There are others who think it is a parliament with all inherent powers and authority. This category assumes the body could midwife a new constitution. But some delegates, some of whom are lawyers and former principal officers of the National Assembly had pointed out what they perceived as the apparent lacuna in the setting up of the conference. A lot of them said it could not arrogate to itself the power of a legislature.

The controversy on the issue of referendum predated the conference and the discordant tunes on the matter only gained ascendancy with indications that the authorities meant business in its quest to initiate moves to convoke the conference with some stakeholders in the federation. The president had commended the legislative arm of government for taking steps to include provision on referendum under the current process of amending the extant constitution. 

Consensus versus two-thirds majority
These have constituted a twin turning matter since the conference began plenary session on Monday. The controversy took a dead end on Tuesday with the two camps that have crystallised on the subject matter being unable to reach a compromise on  the floor of the conference. Consequently, the chairman of the conference, Justice Kutigi decided to meet with leaders of the various groups to the conference on how to break the seeming logjam. The general assumption then was that the proposed meeting could hold next week, given the other pending issues before the conference for the outgoing week. However, the plenary for Wednesday was  barely 40 minutes when the deputy chairman, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi announced that the names of the leaders of the groups for the meeting with Justice Kutigi. The names included Chief Olu Falae, Chief Edwin Clark, General Ike Nwachukwu, Dr Iyorchia  Ayu,. The announced elicited curiousity from the other delegates as Akinyemi had then not intimated the house with what the meeting was all about. He quickly apologised and revealed the motive of the closed-door session. Thereafter, the chairman adjourned sitting from about 10.48 a.m. till 4 p.m. with the delegates heaving a sigh of relief.   As the conferees filed out of the chamber, most of them later gathered in cluster to discuss the emerging twists and turns in the house.

Composition of committees
There has also been anxiety over the composition of the proposed committees of the conference. The matter has been generating different views among the delegates some of who often bring it to the fore when other issues area raised on the floor. The initial proposal in the draft rules of procedure that the chairman and the deputy of the respective committee should be chosen by the house leadership was hotly debated and rejected by the delegates.
Nonetheless, the composition of the committees remained a thorny issue. There is agitation that the background of individual delegates should be given premium in giving out slots. There are fears among some delegates of the leadership favouring others regarded as established names or high ranking personalities in the society. The less than 20 delegates that are physically challenged they should not be sidelined or marginalised in the composition of the committees. They are actually asking that they should not be lumped together in a committee, as they possess the academic and intellectual capacity and background to fit into any of the committees.  This view was expressed by Barrister Ayodele Adekanmbi. To allay all the fears, the leadership has chosen to uphold the decision of the house that the committee chairmen and deputy chairmen should be chosen by the committee members. In addition, it promised to be democratic and fair in the entire composition of the committees. So, the delegates are free to indicate three committees they would prefer to become members as well as attach their curriculum vitae to the document.   

Groups at the conference
There are 33 groups. The major groups include elder statesmen, traditional rulers, retired civil servants, Labour, retired military, sate security and National Intelligence Agency, states, zones, federal government delegation, professional bodies, former lawmakers sand the academies.  Consideration of the Rules of Procedure at the conference holding in Abuja ended on Tuesday with far-reaching decisions taken to ensure a smooth conduct of affairs both at the plenary and committee sessions of the conference. It, however, closed for the day without adoption of the approved Rules of Procedure because members insisted on going through the clean copy of the approved issues before adoption.

In addition, the issue of how voting will  be conducted on crucial issues based on committee reports attracted heated debates, and based on suggestions by members, had to be stood down for further deliberation.

It was suggested that Justice Kutigi invite leaders of the zones for further consultation, deliberation and negotiation, and report back to the conference.
As soon as further debates on the issue came up on Tuesday, those who said all issues be resolved by consensus or at least 75 per cent majority vote refused to accept resolution through individual votes, arguing that those who favoured two-thirds majority seem to be more in number.

Chief Edwin Clark cautioned that the position of both parties must not be allowed to stall proceedings at the conference and that to get out of the situation, delegates should vote on whether to accept three-quarter majority vote or two-thirds.

This position was rejected by Dr Bello Mohammed from Kebbi State, who insisted that every decision must be reached by consensus, arguing that the conference was not about majority or minority but was about the Nigerian state.

Former Commandant of the Presidential Air Fleet, Air Commodore Idongesit Nkanga said the argument was a straight tussle between those who wanted change and those who wanted retention of the status quo. He concluded that two-thirds majority vote remained the only solution.

Bashiru Albasu, a retired police officer, cautioned delegates that, “if this issue is not handled carefully, it will break this Conference. I suggest that we refer this issue back to those who established this Conference.”

Matters came to a head when a delegate, Akin Arikawe, moved that further debate and decision on the issue be carried forward. The motion was adopted and passed.

In their contributions, Fola Adeola and Atedo Peterside moved that the conference chairman meet with leaders of delegates from the six geo-political zones for further deliberation on the issue and report back to the conference.

This position flowed from a contribution by Okon Osung (Akwa Ibom State) that, “we cannot discuss any other issue successfully except we are guided by our rules.” He was supported by Akin Oyebode from Ekiti State.

Tunde Bakare had earlier in his comments urged the delegates to ensure that “we do it right this time so that our report will not be kept in view.”
He was optimistic that every issue will be decided amicably, no matter how controversial “because North and South, we see ourselves as one.”

Another issue raised by Chief Shola Ebiseeni on who the conference should submit its final report to attracted extensive debate as members with diverse views rose to offer suggestions which were to form a section of the Rules of Procedure.

Ebiseeni had likened Nigeria to a patient requiring immediate attention and explained that the conference provides opportunity for “political surgeons” to diagnose the problems and apply surgical solutions.

He stated: “this conference is not about constitutional amendment because if that were the case, we will only be repeating what the National Assembly is doing and that if need arose, the Conference can draft a new constitution for the country”.

Olaniwun Ajayi from the South-West said the reason for the conference was very clear. “We are here to right all the wrongs of the past. If by any mistake, the decision of this conference is submitted to the National Assembly, then we are back to square one.”

He went ahead to suggest that the report of the conference should be submitted for a referendum: “we should amend the rules to state that our conclusions will be submitted to the people of this country for a referendum.”

At this point, the conference chairman, in an attempt to calm frayed nerves, suggested that further debate on the issue be suspended until the end of the conference, since it was premature to decide who to submit a non-existing report to.

However, Joe Okei-Odumakin of the Civil Society Group insisted that the decision should be taken immediately. She supported the previous speakers that the outcome of the conference be submitted for a referendum. She was supported by Dr Joe Nwaogu from the South-East zone.

Former President of the Senate, Ken Nnamani made persuasive inputs when he reminded the Conference that delegates lacked required legal backing to take such a decision.

Nnamani referred to President Jonathan’s speech at the inauguration of the conference which urged the National Assembly to fast-track the amendment of the 1999 Constitution to create room and give legal backing to issues of referendum if required.

“At present, we do not have any legal backing to do it,” he emphasised to the attentive delegates, adding that Nigeria is governed by the rule of law that is anchored on the 1999 Constitution.

He said further, “we are not here to draft a new constitution. We can make suggestions towards constitutional amendment. Let us only do those things that we are capable of doing. We were not elected to this forum, we were appointed. This is not a Constituent Assembly.”

His position was supported by Robert Awudu who said that the job of the delegates would have been done when decisions are taken and the report submitted to the President.

Dr Magayi Danbatta in his contribution said as faulty as the process that brought it about could be, members of the National Assembly are elected representatives of the people.

“But we were not elected. We are not representing anybody. We were appointed by the President. Ours is to report back in a manner that is consistent with our mandate.”  A former Minister of Education, Professor Ruqayyatu Rufa’l said the powers of the delegates should begin and end with the conference. “Let us simply recommend to the President. We should stop where we are supposed to stop.” In a brief contribution, Musa Elayo Abdullahi said though the conference could advise on what should be done, “this body was set up by the President; it has no place in law. At the end, we report to the President.” A newspaper publisher, Nduka Obaigbena, reminded the delegates 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 acceptance of the people, no National Assembly can stop it.”

Thereafter, based on a motion by Bisi Adegbuyi, it was resolved that the provision in the Rules of Procedure touching on the final report be left to read: “Should the final report lead to the drafting of issues of law and policy, 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.” Obaigbena later demanded that a section of the rules that sought to take action against journalists covering the conference on the basis of offensive reports should be expunged from the rules book. He said it was impossible and unacceptable to “ask journalists to report or not report what we do not like.” His position was accepted and the provision was expunged.

At the beginning of the day’s deliberation, a delegate, Mahmud Aminu, had complained about a publication in a national newspaper showing pictures of delegates sleeping during the plenary session on Monday.

He was countered by Yinka Odumakin who said there should be no attempt to gag the media at the conference, and that journalists should be allowed to report what they see responsibly. Dan Nwanyanwu of the Labour Party also kicked against attempt to stop journalists from doing their job adding, “We are here to do the nation’s business. If you have any reason to have a nap during plenary, the press will get you and they have a right to do their job.”

When a suggestion by Orok Duke from Cross River State that the proposed 22 Standing Committees were being overloaded with work and should be restructured, Professor Akinyemi, replied that the conference would not be able to adopt the suggestion because it was faced with shortage of Committee Rooms.

To avoid hanging on one issue for too long, Senator Adefemi Kila suggested that the conference chairman should guide the conference to consider each clause one by one and that when an issue had been considered and passed, it must not be revisited under any guise.

Former Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Gambo Jimeta spoke against wasting time on issues which he said, “do not have direct bearing on the outcome of the conference, and urged the chairman to apply “the doctrine of necessity to get us moving.”

A delegate from the North, Dr Mohammed, who argued in support of three-quarter said, “What we are here to do is to look at issues that militate against the progress of this country. We have the opportunity to sit down and decide on the issues on which direction we want the country to go. We should look at this conference as that of Nigerians. Those who put the three quarter majority thought it out.

“If we were told that this conference was going to be about majority or minority, we would not have come here. We know the composition of this conference. Because some groups feel they are more in number, it will not work. If some people think they are going to use their number to intimidate us, then this conference will fail.”

Another delegate from the South-West, Mr. Fola Adeola, who expressed fears over the direction of the discussion, appealed to the chairman to allow for further consultations on the matter. He observed that the issue was already creating a crisis of confidence among the delegates. Meanwhile, a delegate from the South-West, Mr Odumakin, has assured that the conference was totally on course.

In his submission to the Secretary of the conference, Mrs Valerie Azinge, titled, “Notice of motion on Order 6 Rule 4 of the Procedure Rules,” he stated that the above rule “is against a cardinal principle of democratic order that majority should have their way while minority have their say.” She added that, “If this rule is sustained, Nigeria will be exporting a new order to the world where majority have their say and minority have their way. This defeats the whole essence of consensus which this provision seeks to build. A minority that is against an issue in focus does not have to persuade the majority.

Fear of the Republic of Benin option
In the 190s, the Republic Benin held its national conference. It took far-reaching decisions that led to a new constitution for the country. But one of its major decisions shook that the Francophone country to its very foundation. The Benin episode has become a mantra and appears to linger in the memories of many stakeholders t at the ongoing national conference in Abuja, in view of their frequent but necessary interventions in controversial issues on the floor of the conference.

External forces
The role of external forces in events in the conference is not being ruled. Delegates have been involved in a chain of meetings and consultations with leaders of various groups comprising major stakeholders in the six zones. Such consultations were intensified on Tuesday night following the stalemate occasioned by the rancorous debate over the referendum and voting issues. But many of them have been confined to representatives from different zones to re-strategise ahead of the meeting held on Wednesday afternoon by their delegates with the conference chairman.


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