Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN), the Akpakpavighivighi of Edo land, was recently honoured by the palace of the Oba of Benin with the chieftaincy title. In his joyous mood at his Benin City residence, he bared his mind on the proposed National Conference, saying that though President Gooduck must be commended, the conference will be another jamboree if several issues are not taken care off before the kick off.
How would you describe the modalities spelt out for the proposed National Conference by the Okuronmu Committee?
No matter the shortcomings of the National Conference as we have it today, we must give kudos to President Goodluck Jonathan for initiating the conference; for being able to brave the odds, to decide that Nigerians must talk. I am ashamed to see some campaigners for National Conference, even Sovereign National Conference turn their back to it because of political advantage.
But in congratulating Jonathan for having the courage to organize the conference, let me point out some problem areas that he needs to look at for us to have a formidable and successful conference, otherwise we may be treating a serious ailment like leprosy with medicine meant for eczema or headache. The first challenge, which is one major hurdle that the conference will have to cross, is that as at today, there is no legislative law backing the National Conference. The more rational thing would have been that there will be a bill before the National Assembly from Mr President which will give the structure for holding the conference.
The only thing Mr President has done (setting up the Okuronmu Committee which has submitted a report is strictly by him and on him alone as a person. It could be argued though, and I think this is the argument the advisers of Mr President has given to him, that Section 5 of the Constitution gives the executive powers of Nigeria to Mr President. Having a National Conference is part of the ingredients that will lead to peace, good governance and stability and security in Nigeria. That is hurdle number one.
The 2014 Budget challenge
The second challenge the National Conference will have is, where will the N7 billion for the project come from? The national budget is still before the National Assembly and with the tug of war of filibustering or not filibustering, numerical strength or no numerical strength, going on between the PDP and the APC, with the Labour Party, APGA being interested parties, nobody knows when the budget is going to be passed. And if it is not passed, where will Mr President get the money to carry out this confab?
But I want to believe, unlike many other people, that N7billion is a small amount for us to talk and bring about peace to Nigeria, after all, that is the amount that some Permanent Secretariats and some Deputy Directors have been found to have pocketed in Nigeria. So I do not have problem with that amount because it is from that amount that stipends will be paid to delegates for the three months that the conference will last and will have to leave their businesses to be in Abuja.
The third challenge is the duration of this conference which has been put at three months. From my experience, as a member of the National Political Conference in 2005, as the Chairman of the Sub- committee on Civil Society and Media , from where I was later elected as the spokesman of the South- south delegates, three months, which was also earmarked for that conference, was definitely not enough; we had to write for extension to Obasanjo.
Why? The conference is going to convene a plenary session, the first one to three weeks will be used at plenary session debating the modalities for the conference, what committees should be set up, what will be the object of each of the committees, you will need not less than one month for committees to sit down and do a clean job, two months already gone. Then the work of the committees will be brought back to plenary, each committees will bring out the items and each item will be debated one by one, and a conference that has about 496 members, each person will want to speak because any one who is not allowed to speak will say the conference has a hidden agenda.
By the time 496 people are debating several issues, you will need about one and a half or two months for that. After the debate and agreements are reached by these committees, they will again go back to the plenary for voting for each of the committeeâ€™s findings item by item. How do you spend three months to do all these? That is challenge number three. Challenge number four is the method of voting. Mr President said you must have a consensus on each subject matter. Consensus? Are we ever going to have a consensus on the issue of fiscal federalism , resource control, devolution of power from the center to the units? If we are not going to have consensus, how do we vote? Mr President and his people said 75 per cent of the people have to vote for each item to be agreed upon, that is a tall order.
Two problems with 75 per cent voting strength
There are two problems with 75, voting strength. One, some minorities from the Niger Delta who have been clamouring for resource control and who their northern counterparts have been telling to even show gratitude for the 13 per cent already given to them by way of revenue allocation, it will look like climbing Mount Everest for them to be able to get 75 per cent of members of the conference to vote that we should have resource control. I canâ€™t see it happening. Problem number two is that we may end up with having a radical minority, against a helpless majority.
Let us assume that 74 per cent has voted for an issue, that we want this issue resolved this way and the 74 per cent is one per cent short of the 75 per cent needed to pass this issue, it means voting on that issue has been defeated and if the voting is defeated, it means that 26 per cent, which is the silent but not tyrannical minority, has carried the day against 74 per cent majority just because the majority was one per cent less than the 75 per cent required. So head or tail, you are going to have a lot of injustice coming into play. The truth is that all Nigerians are equal stakeholders in the project or contraction called Nigeria.
The 380 ethnic groups in Nigeria must be made to feel to be stakeholders, some of them should not be made to feel that they are clappers and members of the audience, Nigerians, for too long, have been made to stand on a tripod. A tripod is a three-legged creature, you all know that a three- legged creature is never balanced. You need four legs to stand and be balanced, could that be why Nigeria has been fumbling and wobbling? If you always take the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria, the Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba, what happens to the other 377 ethnic groups?
Are you saying that Ozekhome, because he is a minority within a minority, God, in His infinite wisdom, is foolish to have created me to come from Iviukwe village in Etsako and not from one of the major ethnic groups? Now, if all of us must be given a sense of belonging, we should see ourselves as equal partners, not to do so is to treat equal unequally, or to treat unequal equally, either of them is major injustice. For too long, we have been having what (the late Chief MKO Abiola) will call a peace of the cemetery, of the grave yard, it is not peace.
Peace devoid of transparency, of justice, of equity, of mutual respect is, at best, peace of the grave yard. I disagree that the Federal Government said there is no-go area. We have passed the stage where we can say we cannot discuss Nigeria in all its ramifications; we even discuss God and how He created the world, it is in Genesis. Why are we afraid of discussing ourselves? Why are we scared of discussing where we are coming from, where we are and where we want to go to? Who said we cannot discuss the problems of Nigeria? We have never agreed to live together as a nation.
There was a time when the late Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, once described Nigeria as a piece of historical mistake. Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the late sage, once described Nigeria as a piece of geographical expression. We were coupled together by the British. Even the name Nigeria was given to us by Flora Shore, the daughter of a British General. That lady was later married to Captain Lord Lugard, the man who, in 1914, forcibly amalgamated the Northern Protectorate, the Southern Protectorate and the Lagos colony to found an amorphous contraption called the Federal Republic of Nigeria. We were never united.
Before 1914, we had different nationalities in Nigeria, we had the Benin Empire and it was then that the British killed Oba Ovonranwen. So we never negotiated to stay together and that is why till tomorrow, Nigerians believe more in their ethnic groupings. And you cannot blame anybody because, before the 1914 amalgamation, we were already recognized ethnic nationalities in this country, and how can you now give 90 slots to ethnic nationalities out of 380 while Mr President alone is having over 90 delegates, 25 per cent each? Nigeriaâ€™s unity is negotiable.
The so-called indissolubility and indivisibility are mere rhetorics that cannot stand the test of time. Nigeriaâ€™s unity is negotiable, because failure to negotiate it is to postpone the evil day. India and Pakistan were once one country, but where are they today. Already in Nigeria you have some separatist movements, Boko Haram has already planted flags in some communities in the North. MASSOB is craving for Biafra. OPC wants Oduduwa Republic. Arewa wants Northern hegemonic domination.
The Middle Belt feels they are different people. Now, how do you say that these people who want to leave cannot negotiate the unity of Nigeria? What about Ethiopia and Eritrea, one country before? The truth is that not to negotiate the unity of Nigeria has underpinned and undermined Nigeriaâ€™s development. While we donâ€™t have confident in one another, while we are suspicious of one another, while we believe more in our ethnic nationalities, not to negotiate our unity is to continue to postpone the evil day.
We must discuss all the issues from how Nigeria came to be, how we are now. That we are using about 75 per cent of our national budget to service recurrent expenditure and 25 per cent for capital expenditure is sickening. No nation can develop with that kind of meager allocation, we need to discuss it.
That is going to bring us to the other issue, who do we submit the report to. Mr President said we are going submit the outcome of the conference to the National Assembly so that they will put it in the Constitution, which Constitution?
The 1999 Constitution that has shown it is fundamentally flawed being a military impose constitution, imposed on the people of Nigeria by 28 members of the Provisional Ruling Council headed by Gen.Abdulsalami Abubakar. Which makes the Constitution to lie when it says, in its preamble, that, we the people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria have deiced to give ourselves the following Constitutionâ€.
We never gave ourselves that Constitution. Now the National Assembly, under Section 9 of that Constitution, is only empowered to amend the Constitution and promulgate ordinary laws; no where in Section 9 are they given powers to promulgate a new Constitution. In fact, it is the Constitution that gave birth to the National Assembly. The National Assembly does not give birth to the Constitution, in the same way that it is the dog that wags the tail and the tail cannot wag the dog.
See the problem area, if you say the decision of the conference should be subjected to the National Assembly, what if the people of Nigeria have decided, in their wisdom, to abolish a bicameral National Assembly, that we want just three lawmakers per state? That means only the Senate will stay and the entire House of the Representatives will go. Will they agree to self destruct? They will reject it. That means a small clique of people that are not really the true representative, of the people would have rejected the entire decision of the people of Nigeria.
Problem number two, assuming the people of Nigeria say we donâ€™t even need presidential system of government, it is too expensive, we want to revert to the Westminster parliamentary system of government, which, of course, will abolish the entire National Assembly and bring about a new form of government, will members of the National Assembly agree to engraft that into the Constitution? That again is no. So for us to have a home grown Constitution, the people of Nigeria must have the final say in a plebiscite or referendum after the National Conference would have ended their debate.
Since the 1922 Clifford Constitution, up to the 1999 Constitution, apart from the Constitution of the Midwest Region of Nigeria, which was subjected to the plebiscite of the people on the 9th of August 1963, to make the Midwest to break away from the old Western Region, no Constitution of Nigeria has ever had that advantage. The process by which a Constitution comes into being is even more important than the content of the Constitution, that is what gives it legitimacy, credibility. To run away from that is to merely postpone the evil day and make the National Constitution a merely cosmetic jamboree for people to go and rest for three months.
The National Assembly is not legally authorized to tamper with the decision of the people of Nigeria after their discussion because the truth is that many of them did not even go to the National Assembly through free and fair election. Many of them were imposed and many rigged themselves in. We cannot therefore run away from the fact that only the people can give themselves a Constitution that will be acceptable to all.
Although I do not agree with critics that the President has hidden agenda in inaugurating the National Conference, as it is now, it is more or less sub optimal, it is not optimal, it is not fully made; we may find ourselves going for another constitutional conference in future to discuss the issues that are outstanding. I now come to the issue of representation on the basis of ethnic nationalities. Let me tell you that in 1994, the Abacha conference had 396 delegates, Abacha single handedly nominated 96, the rest were elected across the country. Which is better than when you nominate people.
But let us concede to the President that it is because of the time frame, due to the coming elections, to talk about electing people to go to the conference, a lot of people may go to court and stall the entire process and it will never see the light of the day. Probably that was what informed his nomination. And it is also good that the committee allows each segment of the society to be the people to nominate and elect their members like the civil society will now decide who will represent them.
In other words, the President is not choosing the representatives of these people for them. In 2005, the Obasanjo National Political Reform Conference had about 400 delegates. Obasanjo single handedly nominated 50 while others came from groups. But I want to say that it is unfair to say that all the political parties in Nigeria, out of the registered political parties in the country, you are giving them only five slots for five parties whose members are in the National Assembly. The PDP, the APC, Accord Party, APGA and Labour.
What happens to the other twenty parties? You are again going to make it a do-or-die thing to win election at least to have one person in the National Assembly in the next election. I think for fairness equity and justice, we should give those political parties one slot each because they represent a group. And that is why I also said it is ludicrous, laughable to say that you are giving one slot to Nigerian lawyers who are more abreast of the legal frame work that this conference should take.
That means you are not giving regard to the monumental issues of law. Because you are going to see the plenary session debate, the first one week debate will be devoted to whether the constitutional conference is even legitimate or not. The egg or the chick, which comes first, law establishing us or we establishing a law, which comes first? So the ethnic nationalities are the real stakeholders, there is no Nigeria if you remove the ethnic nationalities. So to give them only 90 slots is not enough.
The reason is that, who are these ethnic groups you are going to give it to because, even within the ethnic groups, we have different groups or tribes. A lot of people donâ€™t even know that the North has more ethnic nationalities than the South. In Adamawa alone, you have more than 20 ethnic groups, the same in Sokoto, Niger; so who are you going to give the slots to?. I think therefore that that 90 slots should be looked into. But, in all, I want to say that the President has taken the bull by the horn and has done what Napoleon Bonaparte could not do.
Confab should be five months
So I want to suggest five months for the conference. Three months cannot be enough but I know delegates will have to write the President about that,I can see that coming.
But donâ€™t you thing that will affect the 2015 elections time table?
I donâ€™t think so because the political parties will nominate people that will represent them and the political parties will not be giving their own ideas to the conference; that is why I said the marginalization of the other political parties is not enough because what you have done is to cut off their voice because they cannot speak through the five dominant political parties.
I do not see synergy between the campaign for political parties and these conference members who are going to Abuja. I had the opportunity of attending the 2005 National Political Conference and, also in 2009, I was also a delegate to the Vision 20:2020, all the beautiful reports of those two bodies were set aside. And that is my great problem with this same conference; where we are going to know whether Jonathan has an agenda or not is whether he will be able to ruthlessly implement without alteration the agreement reached by Nigerians after three or five months