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President Jonathan’s Confab: What difference Will It Make?

*The hurdles, challenges

*It is dead on arrival – Masari

*Journey to save Nigeria has begun – Ezeife

Last Thursday, the Federal Government released modalities for the proposed National Conference, which immediately set the polity astir on account of the timeline, number of delegates, how issues will be resolved at the conference and what to do with the outcome.

The modalities have some similarities with former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s National Political Reform Conference (NPRC) held in 2005. In the Obasanjo conference, the Council of State approved a conference size of 400 delegates all to be nominated with Obasanjo nominating 50 including the Chairman. The time-frame was three months but could be extended if necessary. The unity of the country was a no-go area.

According to the template for the Jonathan dialogue, scheduled to last three months, the indissolubility of Nigeria is not negotiable and 27 categories of stakeholders were penciled down to nominate delegates, namely: Elder statesmen (37), military and security (18), traditional rulers (13), retired civil servants (13), Organized Labour (24), Organised Private sector (8), youths (18), women (24), political parties (10), Christian and Muslim leaders (12), Civil Society Organisations (24) and Nigerians in the Diaspora ((8).

The rest are People Living with Disability (6), Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (2), Nigeria Guild of Editors (2), Nigeria Union of Journalists (2), Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (2), socio-political/cultural and ethnic nationality groups (90), professional bodies (13), national academies (13), judiciary (6), former political office holders (24), Federal Government (20), state governments and FCT (109), former council chairmen (6) and chairman, deputy chairman and secretary to be nominated by President Goodluck Jonathan (3).

This is strikingly different from the late General Sani Abacha National Constitutional Conference (NCC) of 1994 where, of the 396 delegates, Abacha nominated 96 and the rest were elected. A common strand, however, is the unity of the country, which must not be discussed.

The outcome of the Abacha conference did not become law on its own. However, it was part of the ingredients that the General Abdulsalami Abubakar departing military regime used to cook the 1999 Constitution.
Agreements reached at the Obasanjo confab died with his alleged third term ambition as the National Assembly shot it down.

Currently, some critics, especially the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), are alleging that the President Goodluck Jonathan’s proposed confab is diversionary, wasteful and meant to boost his 2015 re-election ambition. They fear that the exercise may go the way of immediate past attempts.

The hurdles, challenges

Looking at the modalities, an avalanche of hurdles that must be surmounted before the confab can kick-off stares one fixedly on the face. And even when the dialogue begins proper, there is a litany of challenges that may make the exercise not to yield the desired dividends.

For instance, there is no enabling law yet for the exercise. Many stakeholders have been clamouring for a conference of ethnic nationalities or an exercise where the ethnic nationalities will produce two-third of the delegates. Only 90 delegates or 18.29 of the 492 delegates have been allotted to socio-political/cultural and ethnic nationality groups in the confab. There are over 380 ethnic nationalities in the country. How will these groups produce the miserly 90 delegates? This question is apt especially when the socio-political/cultural and ethnic nationality groups were not named.

Government expects the conference to begin late February or early March. This is premised on the understanding that stakeholders will nominate their delegates on or before February 20. It is arguable if this deadline would be met.

If stakeholders met the deadline for the nomination of delegates, funds for the conference may constitute another hurdle. The funds are provided for in the 2014 Budget, which is currently before the National Assembly. For the confab to kick-off as scheduled, the budget must be passed within the next four weeks.

Whether or not the budget would be passed speedily is difficult to tell on account of the power tussle between the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the National Assembly, especially in the House of Representatives. Matters are not helped by the directive of APC leaders to their federal lawmakers to shut down government by blocking the passage of the 2014 Budget until the Federal Government resolved the political crisis in Rivers State. Special Adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan on Inter-Party Affairs, Senator Ben Obi, said last week, that the president might not intervene in Rivers unless organs of government saddled with the responsibilities of handling such issues like the police and the DSS failed and asked for help.

Major proponents of the National Conference are clamouring for a restructured Nigeria, fiscal federalism and devolution of power to the federating units among other contentious issues which, they are argue, underpin the country’s stunted socio-economic and political development

Given the modalities, major contentious issues in the country may not be resolved at the conference because at least 369 delegates or 75 per cent of the 492 delegates must agree. In essence, such issues have a better chance of being resolved by the National Assembly where a two-third majority is needed. Two-third of 492 is 328, which is 41 persons less than 369.

What to do with the outcome of the conference is another issue. The modalities did not state this. Some proponents want the decisions arrived at the dialogue table to become Nigeria’s new Constitution after a referendum.

President Jonathan said recently that the outcome would be sent to the National Assembly for consideration, a statement that elicited strident criticisms in the polity. In essence, if the National Assembly is opposed to the confab, its outcome would be thrown away. In the alternative, the decisions may be included in the ongoing amendment of the 1999 Constitution. A host of speakers want the 1999 document mid-wived by the military jettisoned because it did not emanate from the people as wrongly claimed in its premise.

At the beginning, the President assured Nigerians that there would be no no-go areas at the confab, that they would be free to discuss all issues. However, the government has back-tracked on this assurance by insisting that the unity of the country is a no-go area.

Litany of questions

Given these challenges, a litany of questions is trailing the move. The questions include: What difference will this conference make compared to past similar exercises? In the long run, won’t it amount to a jamboree and waste of tax payers’ money? Since it may be difficult to resolve issues at the confab, is it not better to allow the National Assembly effect the desired changes through on-going Constitution amendment? Isn’t the confab too close to the 2015 elections? Is three months not too short for delegates to discuss and reach consensus on the gamut of contentious issues in the polity? As things are, what is the way out?

Assessing the modalities, eminent Nigerians are divided on whether or not the confab would make a difference in the affairs of the country. They also differ on whether or not we should proceed with the exercise.

It won’t make any difference – Masari Former Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Hon. Aminu Bello Masari, said the conference should be aborted because it is dead on arrival.
His words: I do not see the confab making any positive difference for the following reasons among others: It has no legal base; as such, its decisions are mere recommendations to the President; representatives will not be chosen by the people; in our Constitution, there is no provision for 4th Assembly; if the President has an agenda of any kind, let him send it to the National Assembly and not waste our resources.”

Having sub-optimal confab is postponing the evil day – Ugwu-Oju

President of the South-East, South-South Professionals of Nigeria (SESSPN), Mr. Emeka Ugwu-Oju, picked holes in the modalities, warning that the problems of the country may persist and we would be postponing the evil day by holding a conference that is below par.

Speaking on the view of the SESSPN on the modalities, he said: “There are millions of professionals in the SESSPN. Our executive will meet to discuss the modalities and address the nation, accordingly, next week. But, personally, the modalities do not meet the expectation of my people because of our previous stand and there are fundamental issues that should be addressed for Nigeria to work. Ethnic nationalities should meet to discuss the basis of continuing to stay together. So, most of the nominees should be from the ethnic nationalities. But that is not the case according to the modalities because most of the delegates are nominees of the Federal Government and state governments. Ethnic nationalities should have been two-third but they were given 90 slots which do not reflect that.

“Again, giving the confab three-month time-frame and 75 per cent majority for decision to be made do not really add up. It might take time for people to reach consensus. The duration should have been determined by the conference. Besides, the conference should have been broken into two—a mini conference of the six federating units to have their constitutions after which they will meet at the centre to have the National Conference.”

Asked if something could be salvaged from the confab the way it is structured, he said: “Our intervention as professionals has always been that we try to be the best we can be. We should not be going for sub-optimal conference for the sake of it. If we are going to have a conference that will produce result, we should not hold it as presently planned. If we hold elections without a genuine conference this country, will be heading to destruction.”

Nigerians need conference – Agbakoba

A former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Dr. Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), urged continuation of the dialogue because Nigerians need it.

“The modalities are okay except I would have preferred more representation for the Bar and the National Judicial Council to nominate judges by themselves. It is clear this conference is needed and I am hopeful the outcome will make our nation a better place,” he said.

It’s national call to duty –Mbadinuju

A former governor of Anambra State, Dr. Chinwoke Mabadinuju, urged Nigerians to see beyond the shortfalls and make the best out of the confab to reshape the country.

He said: “There is an Igbo proverb about bone, which says that both the dog and the spirit each wanted to eat a bone thrown away by a child. As long as the child has thrown away the bone, it is up to the dog or the spirit to consume it. So the dog and the spirit must fight to get the bone. None can help any of the two. The interpretation is: as long as President Jonathan has set in motion a process for the National Conference to take off, that is all that the President could do. The rest will be up to Nigerians to rise to the occasion and take this singular opportunity to restructure our federal system to live at peace with one another. It should entirely be up to us. I support the President’s initiative for the National Conference as part of his Transformation Agenda. This should go beyond partisanship and we should see the whole exercise as a national call to duty.”

I hope for a good outcome – Azike

Mr. Ziggy Azike, a lawyer and public affairs analyst, said: “Nigeria is on the march again. I am an incurable optimist. So, I pray that this conference will lead us somewhere better than where we are now.”

Representation is broad-based—Adegbuyi

A lawyer and a chieftain of the Afenifere Renewal Group (ARG), Mr. Bisi Adegbuyi, said the modalities are “broad based and representative of critical stakeholders.” Adegbuyi continued: “Our would have wanted more representation for ethnic nationalities, conferences are work in progress and all issues cannot be addressed in one fell swoop. Let us achieve as much as decentralisation and autonomy as possible and then wait for another opportunity. The task ahead is to get delegates that understand the dynamics of the issues at stake to attend and, hopefully, the arduous task of nation-building would have commenced.”

The journey to save Nigeria has begun  – Ezeife

Third republic governor of Anambra State, Dr. Chukwuemeka Ezeife, backed the confab, saying it is capable of saving the country.

He enthused in a text message to Sunday Vanguard: “President Ebele Jonathan has taken a step that can immortalise him in the polity of Nigeria. Future generations of Nigerians will credit him with the permanence of one Nigeria. They will call him blessed as they reap from the transformation of Nigeria from a failed state to a country where things work.”

It ‘ll yield positive results –Uwazurike

President of Aka-Ikenga, the Igbo intellectual think tank group, Dr Goddy Uwazurike, threw his weight behind the exercise, saying: “The guidelines are apt for a conference that is intended to produce positive results. The President swore to uphold the Constitution and cannot be a party to any gathering where the indivisibility of the country will be questioned. The mode of representation is okay as it cuts across all strata of the nation.”

It’s a jamboree –Ekujimi

A human rights and pro-democracy activist, Comrade Nelson Ekujimi, said the modalities fall short of expectation, adding that the outcome would go the way of past failed exercises.

He said: “It is far below the expectation of not only me but also millions of Nigerians. One expected, if the government and its confab committee were serious, a genuine confab composed of only representatives of ethnic nationalities making up the geographical expression called Nigeria. This impending jamboree will go the way of previous ones.”

It falls short of expectations – Chekwas Okorie

The National Chairman of the United Progressives Party, UPP, Chief Chekwas Okorie, said the modalities for the National Conference fall short of the expectations of most Nigerians.

His words: “It is the expectation of all well-meaning Nigerians and groups that the delegates to the conference shall be dominated by representatives of ethnic nationalities drawn from the six geopolitical zones of Nigeria on the basis of equality of the zones. Instead, what we have as a National Conference is largely dominated by persons to be appointed by government, government agencies, associations and professional bodies where government still has overriding influence. This country is made up of ethnic nationalities, which were clobbered together by the British colonial masters without any form of consultation. The National Conference that will restore people’s confidence in a united Nigeria ought to have been convened around the ethnic nationalities as major and critical stakeholders.

“I am worried at government’s approved method at arriving at decisions at the conference. Government approved that where there is no consensus on any particular issue, 75 per cent of the delegates to the conference shall be the required number to pass such issue at the conference. This is not satisfactory. What this means is that if majority of the delegates want a particular decision adopted by the conference, that majority will lose out to the minority simply because they do not number up to 75 per cent. We shall end up having a situation where the dissenting 26 per cent of the delegates will have their way while 74 per cent of the assenting delegates will only have their say.

“I am thoroughly disappointed that government intends to have decisions reached at the conference incorporated in the Constitution. This is deceiving the Nigerian people who welcomed the President’s initiative for a National Conference with great excitement and expectations. Nigerians expect nothing short of a brand new Constitution that will go through referendum as a pre-condition for it to be promulgated into law. To incorporate that outcome of this convention into the flawed 1999 Constitution will amount to an exercise in futility because it would only mean that a N7billion will be spent on mere proposals for constitutional amendment.

“The President in his October 2013 independence day broadcast promised Nigerians that there will be no no-go areas in the conference. What we have seen is that, that commitment to Nigerians has been reneged on. This is really unfortunate.

It is a pity that this government is unwittingly playing into the hands of its detractors on the matter of the proposed National Conference.”

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