Why I changed my mind on national conference, by Jonathan•Okurounmu Panel gets six weeks to submit report
The Federal Government pressed further yesterday its attempt to convoke a national dialogue by inaugurating in Abuja its appointed panel of planners.
President Goodluck Jonathan told those who contend that Nigeria’s integrity would be compromised by such a conference that it would not lead to the nation’s disintegration.
He said although he was opposed to a national conference, a new reality changed his position, adding that he pandered to the yearnings of the people.
Of the 13 members of the panel, 12 attended the inauguration, including its chairman, Dr Femi Okurounmu.
The members are: Alhaji Dauda Birma, Prof. George Obiozor, Sen. Khairat Gwadabe, Sen. Timothy Adudu, Col. Tony Nyiam (rtd), Prof. Funke Adebayo, Mrs Mairo Ahmed Amshi, Dr. Abubakar Sadiq, Mallam Bukhari Bello, Mr. Tony Uranta and Dr. Akilu Ndabawa, who is the committee’s secretary.
The 13th member, Prof Ben Nwabueze (SAN), opted out of the assignment on health grounds. The octogenarian recommended another member of his elders’ club, The Patriots, Mr Solomon Asemota (SAN), to replace him.
At yesterday’s inauguration, it was not clear whether his suggestion was approved by the government or not.
Unlike the one month period he announced in his Independence Day broadcast, the President yesterday gave the panel six weeks to submit its report.
Dr Jonathan described the Okurounmu panel as “a child of necessity to midwife this Conversation”, saying they are “Nigerians with wide experience from various disciplines to facilitate a most acceptable process that will bring our aspirations to fruition”.
He said the committee’s work would set the stage for developing a harmonious and truly united nation.
His words: “Today, we are taking historic and concrete steps that will further strengthen our understanding, expand the frontiers of our inclusiveness and deepen our bond as one people under God.
“In my address to the nation on the occasion of our 53rd Independence and Golden Anniversary as a Republic, I announced that in response to the yearnings of our people, we had decided to take on the responsibility of decisively and genuinely exploring the option of a National Conversation.”
The conference, the President said, will “review the foundational principles that drive our action, and also address a few matters arising.
“This is a national project, a sincere and fundamental undertaking aimed at realistically examining and genuinely resolving, long-standing impediments to our cohesion and harmonious development as a truly united nation.”
He faulted those claiming that there was no need for another conference after many conferences had been convened.
Dr. Jonathan said each era and season had its own challenges and that leaders in a democracy must respond with the best available strategies to ensure that the ship of state remains focused in its voyage.
“I was one of those who exhibited scepticism on the need for another Conference or Dialogue. My scepticism was borne out of the nomenclature of such a conference, taking into cognisance existing democratic structures that were products of the will of the people,” the President said, adding:
“However, we are in a democracy and in a democracy, elected leaders govern at the behest of the citizenry. As challenges emerge, season after season, leaders must respond with best available strategies to ensure that the ship of state remains undeterred in its voyage.”
Reviewing the past attempts, he said: “Let us remind ourselves of the gains from previous conferences and dialogues. The conferences that were held before 1960 were designed to produce a political system and a roadmap to Nigeria’s independence.
“The Constitutional Conference of 1957 in London, for example, effectively prepared Nigeria for Independence. The Eastern and Western regions were granted self-government in 1957 while the Northern region got its own in 1959.
“The Office of the Prime Minister was created and it was also decided that the Federal Legislature would be Bi-cameral.
“Furthermore, the Constituent Assembly of 1978 gave us the 1979 Constitution and also created the current Presidential System with its attendant checks and balances and Fundamental Human Rights provisions.
“The 1999 Constitution we operate today, is a successor to the 1979 Constitution and records show that the 1999 Constitution also benefited from reports and recommendations arising from the 1994/1995 Constitutional Conference.
Even though the current six geo-political zones for equitable distribution of projects and public offices in Nigeria was not enshrined in the 1999 Constitution, he noted that it was a product of Dialogue that emerged from the 1994/1995 Constitutional Conference.
Jonathan continued: “The 2005 National Political Reform Conference produced a number of key recommendations that were sent to the 5th Assembly, which were however not perfected. In 2010, I reasoned that the outstanding recommendations from the 2005 Conference be revisited.”
“It was my view that government is a continuum and that we must find ways to strengthen the foundation of our Union. I proceeded to set up the Justice Alpha Belgore Committee with a mandate to review the report for possible implementation, especially the areas where there was a common agreement. The committee worked hard and came out with its report that included a number of Bills, which were forwarded to the National Assembly.
“The urgency of a National Conversation in the present therefore, need not be over emphasised.”
Apparently explaining why the conference is necessary, the President said: “As we continue to strive to build a strong and virile Nation, especially in the midst of agitations and tensions, we cannot deny the fact that sitting down to talk is one right step in calming down tensions and channelling our grievances, misgivings and suggestions into more positive use for the good of our Country.”
He thanked the Senate for its support for a national dialogue.
“The concept of participatory democracy is such that even after the people have given their representatives the mandate to make laws and act on their behalf, there is also a space for the governed to make further input into the political processes, without undermining the authority of the statutory bodies,” Dr. Jonathan said, adding:
“Sovereignty continues to be with the people even as the people evolve strategies and tactics to strengthen its foundation for the benefit of successor generations.”
“I will therefore like to allay the fears of those who think the Conference will call the integrity of Nigeria into question. This National Discourse will strengthen our union and address issues that are often on the front burner, and are too frequently ignored,” he said.
Urging the members of the committee not to disappoint the nation, the President urged them to consult widely before sitting down to develop the framework that will guide and guard the proceedings of the discussions.
“In the task before you, no voice is too small and no opinion is irrelevant. Thus, the views of the sceptics and those of the enthusiasts must be accommodated as you formulate this all-important framework. This Conversation is a People’s Conversation and I urge you to formulate an all-inclusive process that protects the people’s interest.”
He gave the committee the latitude to decide on the appropriate name it should be called.
Okurounmu thanked the President for the confidence reposed in them.
He said: “It can be argued that no committee in our polity today is more sensitive or carries higher expectations from the peoples of Nigeria than this committee.”
He noted that there had been calls from many sections of Nigerian Public Opinion, for over two decades, for the convening of a National Conference in one form or the other.
“Advocates of such a conference were prompted by what they perceived as the injustices and inequities prevalent in the polity, all of which they attributed to the inadequacies of the constitutions foisted upon us by successive military regimes since 1966.
“To this clamour for a National Conference, there has also always been a strong resistance from other sections of the public who, while they may not have been as loud and numerous as the advocates of a conference, nevertheless have much political clout. These two conflicting pressures have always put our leaders in a very precarious position, making them reluctant to endorse the convening of a national conference or dialogue.”
He praised Jonathan’s “sincerity and commitment”, which “are further buttressed by the fact that he has not established any so called “no go” areas for this committee.”
Okurounmu promised the president “that we shall not let him down. We shall not fail the nation”. “We shall not be another case of failed expectations. We shall not betray the confidence which the president and over 160 million Nigerians have reposed in us.”
In an interview with reporters later, Okurounmu said he believed that the position of a leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, that the conference is a “Greek gift” must have been misquoted.
He said Tinubu had been an advocate of a conference, adding that the Pro National Conference (PRONACO) held in the past was sponsored by Tinubu.
Former Head of State, Gen. Abdusalami Abubakar (rtd.), yesterday backed President Goodluck Jonathan’s planned national conference.
He told State House correspondents after making a presentation as the Board Chairman of the proposed Centenary City that it was better to dialogue than to go to war.
“It is better to jaw jaw than to war war.”
On the proposed centenary celebration, he said Nigeria has many reasons to celebrate its 100 years of amalgamation.