NIGERIA: Senate, Lawyers, Others Throw Weight Behind National Conference

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Reactions to President Goodluck Jonathan’s Independence Day broadcast announcing the constitution of an advisory body to work on the modalities for the convocation of a national conference continued yesterday, with the Senate, constitutional and human rights lawyers lending their support to the proposed conference.
The Senate; former Nigerian Bar Association President, Olisa Agbakoba (SAN); lawyer and rights activist, Femi Falana (SAN); constitutional lawyer, Professor Itse Sagay (SAN); and the National Legal Adviser of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Dr. Muiz Banire, welcomed the initiative and described it as a veritable platform for the resolution of various structural problems confronting Nigeria.
Abaribe, who is the Senate's spokesman, in a statement, however, added that the scope of the conference must not question the sovereignty of Nigeria.
While describing the move as a welcome development, Abaribe said the decision has fulfilled the yearnings of the Senate.
He said this position was clearly expressed by Senate President David Mark penultimate week as well as in his address at the last Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Conference in Calabar.
Furthermore, he said the Senate had always advocated the convocation of all ethnic nationalities of Nigeria to discuss all critical issues in the country with a view to fostering national unity.
“The Senate is happy that it is a conference that will hold with due respect to the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended. It has always been Senate's considered stand that there cannot be two sovereigns at a time.
“The Senate is therefore gratified with the development and see it as an opportunity to address all of Nigeria's structural problems that keeps agitating the mind of her ethnic nationalities.
“The Senate is confident that the conference's final outcome would go a long way to cement Nigeria's unity,” he stated.
In his reaction, Agbakoba, said it was a welcome development in the right direction for the country, noting that the clamour for a national conference started with the late Aka Bashorun, who had espoused the need for Nigerians to talk and chart a path for peaceful co-existence.
This, he said, was followed by the late Chief Bola Ige’s prognosis on the state of the nation when he said if Nigeria must move forward, two questions must be addressed.
The first, he said was: “Do we want to be together”; and second was: “If we want to be together, in what ways do we live?”
It is against this backdrop that Agbakoba viewed the presidential initiative as a right move to address “all these messy issues”, adding that while he would have preferred a holistic sovereign national conference where all the national questions would be thoroughly examined, the move by Jonathan was still welcomed.
He described the exercise as very challenging, given the sensitivity attached to the quest for a national conference by the people, but said it was important to wait and see what the committee would come up with within the four-week time frame before commenting on it again.
Professor Sagay also considered the presidential initiative as a positive move and consistent with the yearnings of the time.
“I view it very positively, given the fact that the federal group, by this I mean the presidency and the National Assembly, are always very reluctant to anything concerning the sovereign national conference because they would think it would take authority from them.
“I’m encouraged by what the president has said because for me, the way forward for this country is a national conference and I see it as a breakthrough of sorts and we just have to give it the momentum,” he said.
However, Falana expressed some doubts over the presidency’s move, stating: “In my Latin class in the secondary school, we were taught: ‘timeo danaos et dona ferentes’, which means ‘beware of the Greeks even when they bring gifts’.”
“Prior to the broadcast, the president had consistently kicked against the convocation of a national conference, be it sovereign or otherwise. It is curious to note that the president is now agitating for a national conference.
“At the last annual conference of the Nigerian Bar Association, which held in Calabar on August 26, 2013, the Senate President, Senator David Mark, was completely opposed to the idea of the SNC.
“But a month later, he became a champion for the national conference. I hope that the belated embrace of the concept is not a diversionary ploy from the mountain of problems plaguing the country.
“All the same, the ruling class should not be allowed to guillotine or water down the resolutions of the conference. Since 1999 that we have been agitating for a national conference, we have never asked for an assembly of ethnic nationalities but one of the Nigerian people.
“We want a conference of accredited representatives of the states, professional groups including trade unions, youths and women groups, as well as officials of the executive, legislature and the judiciary.
“The conference would be conveyed by the president while the constitution drafted by the conference will be enacted into law by the National Assembly.
“The emphasis should be about who gets what, when and how. It is not about rotating power without responsibilities among ethnic jingoists and irredentists,” he said.
Also sounding somewhat cynical, Banire, said whilst he ordinarily would have been excited by the news, he had his reservations about the exercise being an effort in futility.
He wondered if the exercise would address the pressing national questions which the leadership has been avoiding, adding that of utmost importance was the need for them to act on the outcome of the exercise, which is unlikely in the light of past experiences.
“Those really are my fears but let’s keep our fingers crossed,” he said.
But an elated former Minister of Works, Senator Adeseye Ogunlewe, described it as “a total breakthrough and watershed in the history of Nigeria, because everyone has been agitating for a redefinition of Nigeria.
“The imposed constitution, whether through the military or inherited by the civilian regime, to which we did not contribute has been a major source of our problem.
“It says ‘We the people of Nigeria’ but we did not participate in the writing. However, this is the opportunity to address this problem and more.
“We need the consent of everyone who is interested in the future of Nigeria to change the direction. We should not allow force, violence or violation to change it for us, which is imminent anyway. The capitalists have taken over the economy of this country; it’s a capitalist economy.
“There is no provision for the masses in the constitution and we must address these things. Thus, what is the fundamental objective of this government: is it welfarism or capitalism? So we must answer the question,” he said.
On its part, the National Working Committee (NWC) of the Peoples Democratic (PDP) said the national conference announced by the president is the agenda of the party to discuss issues of national importance and reduce tension in the country.
The party further said the national conference should not be taken as a sovereign national conference, as there is a National Assembly in place.
Addressing newsmen after the NWC, the National Publicity Secretary of PDP, Olisa Metuh, said the president had carried the party along in reaching the decision to summon a national conference.
However, he warned that the national conference should not be construed to a mean a “sovereign national conference because there is a National Assembly in place.”
He described the members of the advisory committee headed by Senator Femi Okurounmu as seasoned Nigerians that represent all interest groups, stressing, “The PDP is solidly in support of the national conference to discuss issues affecting the country and to strengthen national integration as well as reposition Nigeria.
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