Mixed reactions are trailing the modalities announced by the Federal Government for the convocation of the proposed national conference, with some stakeholders faulting the delegate composition, timing and duration of the conference while others expressed cautious optimism about its prospect.
The federal government had on Thursday approved 492 delegates, representing all shades of opinion and interest groups nationwide, to participate in the proposed national conference. Of the 492 delegates, President Goodluck Jonathan will nominate 46 while the 36 state governors will nominate 108 delegates. The modalities also provided that the five major parties with representation in the National Assembly – Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), All Progressives Congress (APC), All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), Labour Party (LP) and Accord Party (AP) – would send 10 delegates, comprising two nominees each.
Thirteen professional bodies, including Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), will also nominate one delegate each. Apart from the delegates composition, other modalities released include a three month timeframe for the conference, indivisibility and indissolubility of Nigeria as a no-go area, and arrival at decisions by consensus, or by 75 per cent majority where consensus is not achievable.
But NBA yesterday rejected the single slot allocated to it on the ground that there was no way the body could make any impact with one representative at the conference.
The association’s President, Okey Wali, SAN, in a protest letter to the Secretary to the Federal Government, Anyim Pius Anyim, said that asking NBA to nominate a single delegate was disappointing.
Wali, in a letter to Anyim, said, “The Nigerian Bar Association received with utmost disappointment the statement credited to you on behalf of the Federal Government of Nigeria, requesting the Nigerian Bar Association to nominate one delegate to the upcoming National Conference.
“We write to place on record our dissatisfaction with the list of conference delegates, particularly, when put against representations from some other organizations and bodies.”
He pointed out that other associations with fewer membership compared with the NBA were allowed to nominate more than one delegates to the confab.
He said out that in view of the fact that so many legal issues would be addressed at the National Conference, “it is only fitting and proper for the umbrella association of all lawyers in Nigeria, the Nigerian Bar Association, to have more than one delegate at the National conference.”
Also, the Conference of Nigerian Political Parties (CNPP) has described as “unfair and gross under-representation,” the modalities released for delegate composition saying, “It is very unfair, that only five out of the 25 registered political parties were allocated 10 delegates; while the president is to nominate over 25 per cent of the total delegates”.
A statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Osita Okechukwu, wondered why 20 political parties that represent various tendencies in the country were denied the opportunity to contribute their quota in a national conference.
Spokesman of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF), Prof. Ango Abdullahi, described the composition of delegates as unacceptable, declaring that the conference was for President Goodluck Jonathan and his government, and not for Nigerians.
In a telephone interview with THISDAY in Kaduna, Abdullahi, a former Vice Chancellor of the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, maintained that this was not the kind of conference Nigerians were expecting.
“These recommendations that led to the announcement yesterday must have been tailored by the President to pursue certain predetermined objectives of his government.
“The recommendations that was in the first draft was that delegates should be elected by Nigerians from their various constituencies as agreed so that people that will participate will be people representing their various constituencies based on election. This was what was recommended but was rejected”, he said.
He regretted that it was unfortunate that government adopted modalities that would make it achieve its agenda by selecting most of the delegates.
Abdullahi said, “from all indications, this is a conference belonging to the President, not belonging to people of Nigeria. We wanted a conference for Nigerians and that is why we agreed with him that the committee he set up should go round the country and measure the reactions of people, not just on the conference but what sort of things they want to discuss at the conference.
On its part, the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) said the forum had no problem with the conference as long as it could strengthen national unity, but added that it did not believe that the conference would address the problems facing the country.
“Though ACF does not believe that the solution to our national malaise lies with the national conference, as long as they said it is possible for the national conference to further the cause of a united Nigeria, there should be no qualms.
“Let the deliberations in the conference calm down people’s nerves. But we wonder whether the three month will be enough for thorough and robust deliberations needed for the desired results to come to pass,” its National Publicity, Mr. Anthony Sani, said in a statement.
But the Southern Kaduna Peoples Union(SOKAPU), a socio cultural umbrella for ethnic Nationalities in the southern part of Kaduna State, commended President Jonathan for providing a platform for Nigerians to sit down and discuss the future of the country.
Concerned Igbo Leaders of Thought led by Prof Ben Nwabueze, on its part, expressed reservations about the modalities noting that the frame-work was completely at variance with the kind of conference Nigerians desired.
Briefing newsmen at the end of their meeting in Enugu, the Secretary of the Concerned Igbo Leaders of Thought, Prof Elochukwu Amucheazi, said despite the group’s reservations and disappointment at the modalities, they would not expressly discourage Nigerians from participating in the exercise.
“We are concerned about repositioning the country; renegotiating the continued existence of the Peoples of this country who were brought together by the British government. We made it clear to the president that what we want is a conference of ethnic nationalities not a conference of interest groups as they have recommended. We also told the government that we want a conference that will produce an entirely new constitution but today, they are telling us that the conference will now recommend to the government how the outcome will be integrated into the existing constitution.
“The framework we saw is quite different from what we demanded but it has dawned on us that that is what the government wants. We however cannot expressly say the conference is dead on arrival. We are only but a think-tank, we will also not ask anybody not to attend. If you are nominated, we will give you our position papers,” he said.
Amucheazi further noted that the meeting agreed to go ahead to complete its work concernnng the content of the envisaged constitution and make it available to the Igbos and Nigerians.
On why the group refused to emphatically reject the modalities released by the government, Onyensoh who joined the Secretary at the briefing said “we are elders and leaders of thought. We are not rebels or dissidents. We’ve passed the age of revolution, we know how to manage problems. No doubt, what has been released doesn’t meet our standard but we can’t run away. We’ll lend our support to those going, if it succeeds, good but if it fails, nobody will hold us accountable”.
But, the apex Igbo socio-cultural organisation, Ohaneze Ndigbo, led by Chief Gary Igariwey, commended the modalities, explaining that outside the need to subject the outcome of the conference to a referendum, the modalities were in tandem with the group’s presentation to the Senator Femi Okoroumu’s Presidential Advisory Committee.
“In the document we submitted, we talked about equal representation of the zones and that is what the modalities said. Also, we recommended that it should be concluded early enough so that it doesn’t conflict with the next election. In fact we commend the template they have released. We also hope that later on, the outcome of the conference will be subjected to a referendum for it to be incorporated into the constitution,” he said.
On who possessed the right to send nominees to the conference from the South-east in view of the leadership crisis and battle of legitimacy facing the Ohaneze Ndigbo, Igariwey made it clear that the body remained the only recognised apex Igbo socio-cultural group and as such was not in competetion as to the nomination of Igbos to the conference.
He said he would soon convene a meeting of all Igbo organisations with a view to harmonising their views preparatory for the conference.
National Leader of the Pan Yoruba Socio-Cultural Group, Afenifere, Chief Reuben Fasoranti, said the president should not just sit in Abuja and nominate for people wherever they are.
Fasoranti, who spoke to THISDAY on telephone, said what the group canvassed in its memorandum was a conference of ethnic nationalities where delegates would be elected by the people and not delegates that would be selected by the president.
The Afenifere leader said if there was going to be any nomination, it has to be in consultation with stakeholders who know who to nominate. He said what was on ground now was arbitrary but what was advocated was a conference of ethnic nationalities.
Fasoranti however agreed that the unity of the country must not be accommodated.
“The unity of the country is sacrosanct. What will threaten the unity of the country must not be accommodated. We must continue to exist as a nation”, he said.
Fasoranti also said that the outcome of the conference must be subjected to a referendum of all Nigerians.
.Former presidential candidate, Chief Olu Falae, said the conference should not be done in a hurry because of the election, adding that it should take precedence over the 2015 general elections.
To this end Falae said “if it requires that the elections be extended by six months or one year for us to have a new constitution produced through the National Confab and be used for the conduct of the 2015 poll, so be it.”
To the elders statesman, the present system was based on an unfair political and constitutional arrangement which only the conference could address if properly handled.
He said; ’’Afenifere position is that this National Conference is more important than an election, including the Presidential Election because the present system is based on an unfair arrangement – political and constitutional arrangement. And so, we need to correct that. That is more important to us than the outcome of an election which is likely to be rigged, in any case. So that’s our take.
‘’Therefore if it is necessary to postpone any election by a few months to have this conference successfully concluded, so it should be. It’s more important to most Nigerian to have justice and fairplay and be happy within Nigeria and reduce tension in the polity than to rush to election.
“l am not in any office, so it cannot be said that it’s because I’m holding an office, I want an extension. But if extension of six months, one year is the price we have to pay for the restructured polity that will be fair, that will bring stability and peace and progress, that is a very small price for us to pay.”
He further said, “The entire election programme can be shifted by some period to let us have a new constitution, the next election should be based on the new constitution. So, if that means postponing elections, so be it .What do I do with a rushed and early election?”
Commenting on the modalities, Afenifere leader, Chief Ayo Adebanjo, expressed his dissatisfaction with the fact that the outcome of the conference would not be subjected to a referendum, arguing that efforts would be made to persuade the President to rethink his position on the issue.
“We are not satisfied that we are going to give the outcome to the National Assembly. We believe we can convince the government that we should go for referendum. How can we sit down and discuss a problem and you now tell us to give the solutions to the cause of the problem? Just as we convinced him (President Jonathan) to hold the conference, we will continue to persuade him to convince him on why what he is doing is not the best”, he said.
In his reaction, Ekiti State Governor, Kayode Fayemi, said, “Again, the composition brought many questions than answers. Though it recognises civil societies, labour, traditional institutions, but the devil in the details is who chooses those people. I read in the paper that the president nominates 48 delegates and that the governors nominates 108. But from my analysis, the president would not nominate less than 200 delegates.
“And there are two other issues; people have said that any National Conference that does not give room for a referendum cannot produce anything close to a people constitution. It would just be a reflection of the idea of those selected. This would only enhance the position of the National Assembly.”
Mr. Yinka Odumakin of the Afeniefere Renewal Group on his part said “in the circumstances we have found ourselves, it’s a good start for the National Conference – for the way the delegates have been put together.
Really, we cannot afford two elections in one year. And aside that, some people will go to court till the end of the conference over the delegate election.”
He also said that by allowing ethnic nationalities significant proportion of the delegates was a clear departure from the previous attempts.