Now That National Conference Is Over - by Jide Ojo

The discourse reflected our latest challenges. We shall send the relevant aspects of your recommendations to the Council of State and the National Assembly for incorporation into the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. On our part , we shall act on those aspects required of us in the Executive.”

President Goodluck Jonathan made the above remark while receiving the report of the National Conference from a former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Idris Kutigi, on Thursday, August 21, 2014.

From October 1, 2013 when Jonathan announced to the nation his intent to set up a national confab to the inauguration of the Senator Femi Okunrounmu-led National Advisory Committee to the March 17 inauguration ceremony of the 494 “wise men and women” down to August 21, 2014, when the conference wound down, one of the most trending news were snippets from the conference. For the delegates, it was a tortuous journey. There were disagreements, stalemates, suspicions, resolutions and statesmanship on display. One of the early controversies that beset the conference was the issue of legality or otherwise of the conference. A school of thought, particularly among the lawyers, said that the conference needed legal backing for its decisions to be binding. I recall Dr. Tunji Abayomi was in court over this. Others believed that since there was no legal backing for the conference, the redeeming factor would be to subject its outcome to a referendum to be conducted by the Independent National Electoral Commission.

From the opening statement of this piece, Jonathan is not treading that path as he has said that he would send the outcome of the dialogue to the National Assembly and the Council of State.

Another controversy that fraught the confab was over the voting formula. Decisions were to be reached by consensus or 75 per cent as recommended by the President during his inauguration speech. However, some delegates believed many good proposals would be killed if this voting method was adopted as it would be difficult to muster such high number of delegates around contentious issues. After a lot of negotiations, particularly with the “50 wise men” among the conferees, it was agreed that 70 per cent would be the threshold for the adoption of any proposal.

There was also the mutual suspicion between the northern and southern delegates. There were allegations of a “draft constitution” which the northern delegates believed was beyond the scope of work of the committee and an attempt to give President Jonathan a third term in office. Even when that was resolved by a change of name given the “draft amendment bill”, the conference could not resolve the issues of derivation and sharing formula among the three tiers of government.

Really, congratulations are in order to the 494 delegates and six conference officials for navigating the landmines to come up with laudable recommendations even though I do not agree with some of them. The most poignant of which is the proposal for the creation of additional 18 states in Nigeria to bring the number of states from the present 36 to 54. For goodness’ sake, how could the delegates believe that the solution to Nigeria’s problems lies in further balkanisation of the country when in actual fact many of the existing states are ailing and are over dependent on the Federal Government for survival?

While submitting the 10,335-page report, Kutigi said that all issues were arrived at by consensus. The ex-CJN said the work of the conference remained the most tasking in the history of national conference in the country. He was quoted as saying, “The 1978 Constituent Assembly had a membership of 230 people and met for nine months. The 1995 National Constitutional Conference had a membership of 371 people and met for 12 months. The 2005 National Political Reform Conference was made up of 400 delegates and met for five months. We are 494 in membership and you made us do all this work in four and half months.” The conference chairman added that the conference approved over 600 resolutions, some dealing with issues of law, policy and amendment to the 1999 Constitution.

In all sincerity, I am not excited with the outcome of the conference. I have previously commented on the conference and stated that it was a right thing being done at the wrong time, I still maintain that.

While the conference was going on, the National Assembly was marching ahead with its constitutional and Electoral Act 2011 amendments. Both houses have passed different versions and have set up a conference committee to harmonise their two differing positions. Now, comes the National Conference report making recommendations for constitutional amendment or writing of a new constitution. I ask, is that forward or backward movement? Will that not make all the resources spent on constitutional amendment since 2012 or thereabout to go to waste? How sure are we that many of the bills proposed by the National Conference will be passed by the National Assembly? If what happens to the much celebrated 2008 Justice Uwais Electoral Reform Committee report is anything to go by, I am not optimistic that the present crop of federal lawmakers will do justice to the National Conference report when it gets to them.

Secondly, we know the snail pace at which government works. A White Paper committee may soon be inaugurated to distil the over 10,335-page report and come up with recommendations on which of the over 600 proposals to take. I can assure the reading public that we would be lucky to have the White Paper committee report in the next six months to one year. It took government White Paper committee more than two years to come up with its report on the Oronsaye committee on merger and acquisition of government Ministries Department and Agencies proposals. Should government want to fasttrack the implementation of the Kutigi conference report before the end of the year, it will likely impact negatively on the planning for the next general elections which are slated by the Independent National Electoral Commission for February 14 and 28, 2015.

The point being made is that the conference could have been held after the inauguration of the winners of the next general elections in May/June 2015. That would have been tidier, neater and cost-effective as the new administration will see through the implementation during the lifespan of its regime. What President Jonathan can do and should do in the immediate period is to start the implementation of the policy recommendations while leaving the issue of constitutional amendment, new constitution or referendum on the report till after the next general elections.