National conference won't break up Nigeria - Okurounmu

By The Citizen
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The Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on the National Dialogue/Conference, Senator Femi Okurounmu, in this interview with Punch's FEMI MAKINDE, speaks on the conference

Many people believe that the proposed national conference is ill-timed; that it should be held after the 2015 election. Do you agree with this?

There is nothing wrong with the timing. This is what many of us have been asking for, for about 30 years and it is now thrown on our laps. Will you reject it saying it should be shifted to after election? Certainly not, this is an opportunity we have been asking for and it has come, we have to grab it.

To what extent does the President control your committee?

The President has asked us to suggest modalities for the conference. He has not tied our hands and we are the ones to recommend. The president has not indicated any intention of arm-twisting us.

Different group have been agitating that the conference should be one with sovereign powers, how do you react to this?

The President has not said that. I was also asking for a sovereign national conference before but that word 'sovereign' is making some people afraid, so it was dropped. But the good thing is that there is an opportunity to talk and we have to talk. People are free to make any demand.

How about the demand for regional autonomy?

Those are some of the issues we can discuss at the conference. There is nothing we can't put on the agenda. That is why we are asking Nigerians to come out and tell us those things they want to be on the agenda.

Are you saying there won't be any no-go-area?

There should be no no-go-area. People are free to talk about any issue they want to be discussed at the conference.  Yes, people are free to make any recommendation.

What impact do you think this conference would have on the people of Nigeria?

If the President accepts our recommendations, convokes such a conference and it is successfully held, all Nigerians will be very happy by its outcome. Even the sceptics will be happy by the outcome. We shall have a country where everybody will be happy and no one will feel cheated or marginalised. As somebody who has been at the vanguard of the national conference for more than two decades, the positive or negative reactions did not surprise me. There have always been positive and negative reactions to the idea right from the beginning. The reason for calling for the national conference is because there are strong forces who are against it. Even though, they are minority Nigerians, they control a lot of political influence; they have always been against it but majority of Nigerians are for it. That is bound to be reflected in every reaction you are getting now.   We are asking Nigerians to tell us what they want; that is part of the process of consultation.

What do you think are the likely fear of those that are opposing the national conference?

Their fears have always been imaginary; simply because they are not bold enough to come out with the real fears or reason for opposing it. They invent some reasons for opposing it, and some of their inventions are that it will break Nigeria. I think that does not make sense; to say that when people sit down and talk, it will break up Nigeria. In fact, that can only be a path to cementing the unity of Nigeria. I actually don't want to go to their real reason for opposing it because most Nigerians know the real reason why those opposing it are opposing it.

As I said earlier, majority of Nigerians are in support of the conference and majority of Nigerians have been asking for this for very strong reasons. Only the person that wears the shoe knows where the shoe pinches. The ethnic minorities, and other various ethnic nationalities in Nigeria make us believe that there is no enough equity and sufficient justice in the polity, and that to have justice, to have equity and to have a Nigeria where all of us can have a sense of brotherhood, where every Nigerian can regard his fellow as brother and sister, then we need to sit down and talk and look at our term of unity. We must come together as a country to operate harmoniously and have a peaceful national conference, which will put an end to Boko Haram today, kidnapping tomorrow, and crises here and there. To put a stop to all these things, we must sit down and talk.

How sincere is Mr. President on the national conference?

I don't want to go into that. A politician always goes after his interest. Even in international politics, you go after your nation's interest. If you are a president of a country, you go after your nation's interest, not after the motive of the man who is offering you your nation's interest. Those of us who have always wanted national conference; it is not for us to look at the motive of the President. All we need to do is to appreciate the President who gives us what we have always wanted. All we should do is to do what the people want.

So it is not about 2015 general election?

No, it is not and I don t want to speculate about it.

Who are the people you are inviting to the town hall meetings of your committee across the six geopolitical zones in Nigeria?

We invite all Nigerians who have something to say about the national conference, anything to say along the line of our term of reference. At this point, we are not calling for papers on the issues themselves. We are consulting Nigerians on terms of reference, and we are consulting widely. If you look at our terms of reference, the first one deals with consulting widely to let us determine the feasible agenda for the conference. We want Nigerians to tell us what issue should be put in the agenda, so that we can take all the issues that Nigerians want us to table for discussion, that is very important. I can tell you what the issues are but that is not my assignment. My assignment is to listen to Nigerians, let them tell us the issues, what they want, what the issues are and how the conference will be. And of course, we want to hear how to choose the delegates to the national conference. We want to hear what should be the duration, what should be the legal frame work for the conference  and so on. We want to hear how our decisions and findings will be incorporated in the constitution from Nigerians. We want to give every Nigerian an opportunity to make his views known. You can come and present a memo to us as a representative of an ethnic group; you can come to represent yourself, a civil society group, a professional body, an association. Everybody has the chance to come.

Is the national conference not a duplication of function of the National Assembly?

For instance, you mentioned the idea of no-go-area; our own conference has no no-go-area. The National Assembly has plenty of no-go-areas. They take the 1979 constitution which was more or less transformed to the 1999 constitution; that one is given. They can only amend it. Ours is different from just bickering on a given constitution. We are not working with the constitution that has already been given. Ours is to collect the views of Nigerians on our nation. We want to hear from Nigerians what the issues are, what the grievances are. At the time we come with our recommendations, if it tallies with the 1999 constitution so be it. If it does not, then we will not hesitate to recommend a new constitution all together.

At the end of the day, what will be the role of the National Assembly?

That is not part of my term of reference. The National Assembly members are Nigerians, we are going to hear from them too. They are Nigerians and they will also have an input.

My committee is just to recommend to the President the procedure for setting up a national conference. It is the national conference itself that will come up with findings and recommendations on the real issues in the country. The findings and recommendation of the committee are subject materials for the constitution. Whatever the findings and recommendations of the committee would be subjected to national referendum by the people. And what the people have approved in the national referendum, no other person has power above the people; the people are the ultimate power.

It is a week now that your committee was inaugurated, what are your findings so far?

As soon as we were inaugurated, we started working. We mapped out a programme of actions covering the period given to us. You would have seen our tour programme. After the tour, we also have a retreat where we will invite eminent Nigerians and scholars- people who have actually studied the issues which are relevant and pertinent to the national conference to come and discuss, talk to us, address us, and address Nigerians. After that, we shall go back to look at all the submissions in form of memorandum and issues made at the retreat in line with our terms of reference and then make our recommendations.

What was your reaction when this assignment came your way, did you nurse any fear or restraint?

With all sense of modesty, I saw it as something I could handle because it is something I have been thinking about for more than 30 years. This is something that has occupied my mind, my conscious and sub-conscious. I have been talking about national conference for more than thirty something years, ever since I became a politician in 1978 when I was in UPN. This matter has never left my conscious and sub-conscious mind. Therefore it is not a new area at all. It is a responsibility that I was glad to accept, and I was happy that in my life time, the thing I spent years agitating for actually came to me. It is not a new area to me at all. I was glad to accept that responsibility.

Are you comfortable with the time frame for your committee?

We are not complaining about it. The President himself realised that four weeks was too short and he extended it to six weeks. We have also seen that six weeks will not be enough. As we continue with our work, if we find that we will not be able to complete our job within that time, we will not hesitate to ask for more time.

What will you say to Nigerians to make sure that they have more confidence in the national conference?

Already, I know so many of them have confidence in the committee and the national conference. I will only advise the few sceptics to please have full confidence in the committee. If you look at the members of the committee, you see that none of them is likely to be a sell out; none of them is likely to compromise basic principles. These are men of honour, men of repute, men of integrity with respectable antecedent. These are men and women that can be trusted.

What is going to be your stake at the end of the national conference?

My stake is to do everything I can see that our committee comes out successful and does not disappoint Nigerians. Nigerians are putting a lot of hope on us, a lot of faith and confidence that we can do this job and we don't want to let them down. We want to recommend to the president the conference that will actually strengthen the unity of Nigeria, if the president accepts our recommendations. Punch