Referendum, Not National Assembly

When the 2014 National Conference was inaugurated by Nigerian President Dr. Goodluck Jonathan on 17 March 2014 in Abuja, many Nigerians were skeptical about its necessity, and indeed about its possible success. Some said it was simply going to be a waste of the nation's scarce resources. They believed it would go the way of earlier such conferences which ended up as white elephant projects that never really achieved anything either for the government or for the masses of the country. Some Nigerians were even spiteful of the President's intention.

However, the Federal government was determined to find a lasting solution to the lingering issue of how the various ethnicities that make up the country can live together in harmony, especially after the first 100 years of its creation as one nation. Everyone underestimated the government's commitment to finding a lasting solution to the nation's challenges. Yet, the National Conference went ahead.

I am now beginning to think that President Jonathan, after all, accepted the challenge thrown at him by his mentor, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, to heal the wound that Nigerians inflicted on themselves after the civil war that was supposed to have ended in 1970. It was a precarious dilemma. It was saddening to reflect that despite the efforts previous governments had made in the past to contain security challenges that raised their heads like hydra-headed monsters in practically every nook and cranny of the country, the nation continued to experience a consistency of violent conflicts. The situation had nearly become a part of its history.

Nigeria attained self rule in 1960. Just six years down the line, the country experienced a secession attempt by a section of its populace. That was the first interruption the country experienced on its journey in democracy. That attempt culminated in a three-year fratricidal war that engulfed the country from 1967 to 1970.

The country had been enmeshed in a cold war between Northern military power blocks and Western civil rights activism – a cold war that resulted from what Western Nigerians saw as the Northern ruling cabal's unjustifiable annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential polls which threw up late Chief Moshood Abiola, a Western Nigerian, as winner of a presidential election that was locally and internationally accepted widely as free and fair.

Between the Federal government and ethnic minority groups of the Niger Delta region, disparity in the agreement of a formula for sharing revenue accruing from oil exploration gave birth to armed resistance in the Niger Delta area. Disputes over land ownerships in the Middle Belt region remained a great source of conflict in the country. Between the Hausa and the Fulani, an ever increasing conflict over land and grazing rights for cattle had become a headache for the Federal government.

In the South, the ceding of oil wells purportedly belonging to Abia and Rivers states to Bayelsa state was a source of political tension for years. So was the cession of some Nigerian oil-rich lands in Bakassi to Cameroon by the International Court at The Hague.

Dangerous religious clashes between Muslim and Christian communities, especially in the North, had become the rule rather than the exception in the everyday life of Nigerians. Daily, Christians were mowed down in their tens by the bombs, bullets and machetes of extremist Muslims who sometimes killed even their own fellow Muslims in suicide attacks that didn't care to know who was a Christian or who was a Muslim.

The nefarious Boko Haram insurgency continued to make the lives of Nigerians a nightmare in the Northern parts of the country while in the South, the menace of armed robbers, kidnappers, cultists and ritualists made many Nigerians sleep at night with their eyes wide open!

As I have said elsewhere, those challenges were there before President Jonathan was elected into office. It was the hope of many Nigerians that a President coming from the Delta region would be in a better position to effect a balance between the desires of the North to benefit from the enormous oil wealth that came from the Delta region and those of the Southerners in whose land the oil was situated.

Everyone had thought that President Jonathan's rule had not yet seen, and would probably not see, an end to the violent social conflicts that prevailed in Nigeria. For a while, tension appeared to have been on the rise, especially when12 more Northern states totally embraced Islamic Sharia laws in a robust attempt to contain the power shift manifested by the election of a Delta man as President.

In a spirited attempt to come to terms with the situation, such armed militias as the Oduah People's Congress, OPC, in the Southwest, the Movement for the Realisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra, MASSOB in the Southeast and Arewa People's Congress, APC, in the North sprang up in defence of ethnic interests. Even vigilante groups took it upon themselves to administer mob justice in various cities, towns and villages in the country.

Faced with all these challenging developments, President Jonathan tended to overreact with heavy-handed crackdowns by security agencies – in an attempt to keep the country intact and united. He saw that the history of Nigeria and its destiny were intertwined. He saw that for the various ethnic components that fused into the country after their amalgamation in 1914 to cohabit harmoniously, there was a great need to redefine the terms of association in the interest of a united, indivisible, strong and populous nation. This was why every attempt by his detractors to discourage him met a brick wall.

On March 17, President Jonathan went ahead and inaugurated the Conference.

About 492 delegates represented a cross-section of stakeholders in the Nigerian Experiment and they included professional bodies, groups, royalty, trade unions, students and youths among other interested groups. The Conference which was headed by retired Chief Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi was broken into 20 committees. The main committees were Devolution of Power committee; Political Restructuring and Forms of Government; National Security; Environment; Politics and Governance; Law, Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Reform; Social Welfare; Transportation; Agriculture; Society, Labour and Sports; Public Service; Electoral Matters; Foreign Policy and Diaspora Matters; Land Tenure Matters and National Boundary; Trade and Investment; Energy; Religion; Public Finance and Revenue Generation; Science, Technology and Development and Immigration.

The idea of drafting a new constitution by the Conference was first muted by Deputy Chairman, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, around June when he tried to convince Northern delegates to accept the plan. After a heated debate at plenary session over the issue, it was agreed that no new constitution was to be drafted by the Conference. Delegates argued that Conference had no such powers and that evolving a brand new constitution would tantamount to overstepping their brief.

It was not easy coming to the point they did. There was need to tread softly. Even now, there is still the need not to shout “uhuru” at the top of our voices yet. No one knows what the Northern leaders may come up with. During the Conference, Professor Awwalu Yadudu had written an open letter to fellow delegates, alerting them to the fact that the secretariat had resurrected the idea of “writing a new constitution” as well as conducting a referendum on it, contrary to conference decisions. Delegates from the North rejected the document while many of their Southern counterparts supported it.

From the Northern position, Dr Haruna Yerima, a delegate from Borno State, had insisted that “the new constitution” would not be acceptable to Northern delegates. “We are not here to draft a new constitution. The Conference secretariat has no mandate to draft a new constitution. We are going to reject it. That is not why we are here. The secretariat has overstepped its bounds. That is unacceptable,” he had told journalists. Also, spokesman for the Northern Delegates Forum (NDF), Mr. Anthony Sani, had said "it is morally preposterous for a Conference of unelected delegates to give the nation a new constitution. This is democratically wrong and morally preposterous. It is unacceptable."

Ms. Annkio Briggs, a delegate from the Niger Delta who spoke the mind of Southern delegates, said a new constitution would be good and necessary for Nigeria. "Nigeria needs a new lease of life. We must accept the challenges. The current constitution which has been in operation since 1999 has failed us. We need to move on. A new constitution is what Nigeria needs now to address its challenges. We have been clamouring for a Sovereign National Conference. This Conference is an opportunity to solve Nigeria's problems. The new constitution will address just those challenges."

It appeared that the series of meetings Idris Kutigi held with zonal leaders just before the Conference ended actually paid off. Despite their differences,the delegates agreed on a unilateral position on the controversial draft amendment to the 1999 constitution. The Conference ended with a minor amendment to the third volume of its report by replacing what it initially termed “the draft constitution” to now read "Resolutions of the Conference as Draft Amendments to 1999 constitution."

Soon after, the Conference secretariat distributed the draft amendments to the constitution to delegates which came as a surprise to many of them who said the idea of producing such a document was never approved. Delegates also received copies of the Conference report, a bill on the proposed constitutional amendments, as well as records of proceedings. The National Conference has now ended its deliberations.

The draft constitutional amendment contains changes approved by the plenary during debates on committee reports in June and July. There is the listing of 18 additional states, the delisting of the former 774 local government areas, the creation of state police, the issue of independent candidates for elective offices, and limiting the number of ministers to 18. The new constitutional amendment also gives powers to state authorities to create and run their local government areas. The National Conference recommended the creation of 18 additional states to bring the number of states in the country to 54.

Initially, some Northern delegates kicked against moves to create additional states apart from the one proposed for the South-East which was overwhelmingly supported. But after series of consultations by the leadership of delegations, the Conference unanimously adopted the recommendation for the creation of 18 additional new states. The newly approved states are: Apa from Benue; Edu from Niger; Kainji from Kebbi; Katagum from Bauchi; Savannah from Borno; Amana from Adamawa; Gurara from Kaduna; Ghari from Kano; Etiti from South East; Aba from Abia, Adada from Enugu; Njaba from Anambra and Imo; Oil River from Rivers; Anioma fror Delta; Ogoja from Cross River State; IJebu from Ogun; Ose state from Edo; and New Oyo from the present Oyo State.

The conference has now wound up and submitted its report to President Jonathan. It was well that the Northern delegates finally conceded to reason and endorsed the report with others. The North had always been suspicious of the intensions of Southerners whenever it comes to the matter of deciding how best to stay together. That was what happened when Biafra broke off. The key stakeholders went to Aburi and what came up after deliberations was a sort of Confederation. If that plan had been adopted then, Nigeria would have moved forward a long time ago and Nigerians would not have found themselves in the precarious position they now find themselves, with no water in the villages, epileptic electric supply, unaffordable medicare system, educational problems of teachers and students going on industrial crises half of the year and so on. Nigeria would have moved on. But General Gowon came home from Aburi, Ghana and reneged on the agreements. So, it wasn't surprising that the North would be at it again. But this time, reason and commonsense seem to have prevailed.

Despite this monumental achievement, such calls by people who should know better, like the Kano state governor, Musa Kwankwaso, for Nigerians to discard the report of the Conference which he sees as a design to perpetuate Dr Jonathan in power is quite worrying. How can a man in Kwankwaso's position ever think of, let alone, express such a misconception? Two time President Obasanjo wanted to do what Jonathan has done. Circumstances prevailed on him and the Conference he set up turned out to be a failure. But Obasanjo saw a potential and educated don who he believed, coming from Delta, could have the magic wand to bring the country together in harmony. He challenged Jonathan. He worked for Jonathan to become President. Then he challenged Jonathan.

Jonathan accepted the challenge and commissioned a former Chief Justice of the country and a renowned academic who had been Nigeria's Foreign Affairs Minister to come up with a solution. Every interested group was represented. Why would people like Kwankwaso try to pull the country back now? Why must he see the adoption of the Conference report as a recipe for trouble in the country?

Kano has 44 local government areas. With the current arrangements where governors are responsible for dispensing local government allocations from Abuja, it is obvious that Kwankwaso may feel he would not be getting as much as he used to, with the creation of additional states, of which Kano is in line.

So, he is uncomfortable with the new arrangement. But then what the Federal government is concerned with is that Nigerians should live in harmony with each other; that Nigerians should be free to travel to any part of the country unhindered to do their business, settle in any part of the country that favours them and help develop the village, town or city of their settlement.

The idea of convening the Conference was never to monitor or trail how much any governor collected from Abuja on behalf of the local governments in its state. So, please our politician should help make Nigeria work. Nigerians in Diaspora are tired of being ridiculed about the state of instability in our original country such as is implied in Governor Kwankwaso's call.

From what is on the ground, it seems evident that the outcry from some part of the North for the continued subjugation of Southern Nigerians to the hegemony of the Northern ruling class may still be desirable. Perhaps the North is waiting for Jonathan to send the report of the Confer­ence to the National Assembly for ratification. There, they would probably use their dominance of the legislature to destroy the good job the National Conference delegates did. That is why people like Kwankwaso do not want the government to call for a referendum which would see to the adoption of the Conference report.

They fear that the process could be manipulated by government.However, most Nigerians would like to believe that the President, who put the Conference together in the first place, did not do so for the fun of it. He must have accepted Obasanjo's challenge to create a better Nigeria. It seems pretty obvious now that if the North will influence the National Assembly to destroy the report of the Conference, the only meaningful option would be for Mr. President to forget the National Assembly and go for a referendum.

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of The Nigerian Voice. The Nigerian Voice will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

Articles by Emeka Asinugo