By Abubakar Jimoh
As part of the efforts to exhaustively brainstorm and address identified challenges in Nigeria’s constitution, in March 2014 President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan inaugurated a National Conference, consisting about 492 delegates that represented a cross-section of Nigerians including the civil society groups and professional bodies.
It would be recalled that President Jonathan said while inaugurating the conference that its outcome might be subjected to a referendum.
While some Nigerians suggested that recommendations from the Conference be submitted to National Assembly for further deliberation, others argued in support of referendum primarily to ensure decisions therefrom are binding on every Nigeria. It was in support of latter that a reproductive health activist and former Country Director of an International Non-Governmental Organisation, IPAS Nigeria, Dr. Ejike Oji, in April 2014, suggested that the outcome of the ongoing National Conference be subjected to a national referendum, primarily to legitimise the its outcomes.
He said: “A national referendum should rubber stamp the outcome of the National Conference, because already, some people are saying that the delegates went on their own business, but with a referendum, the decision would be binding on every Nigerian.”
Similarly, Barrister Ferdinand Okotote, a Sokoto-based lawyer said if the outcome of the National Conference was to be binding on Nigerians, the people must have a say in the final outcome, as such an action would legitimise the decisions of the conference.
Also, in April, 2014 a nationwide opinion survey of personalities conducted by the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) revealed that most respondents preferred ratification of conference decisions by referendum rather than Presidential or National Assembly endorsement.
At the peak of the Conference, Hon. Victor Ogene, the Deputy Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Media and Public Affairs raised alarm that the outcome of the conference might be an exercise in futility unless the 1999 constitution was further amended to make provision for referendum, as such was not provided for in the constitution.
“The only document we swore to uphold is the constitution. For any section to be altered, you need two third majority of both chambers of the National Assembly and two third of state assemblies. Unless this is done, the issue of referendum will not sail through, as there is nothing on referendum before the House,” he said.
Following the position by Hon. Ogene, many Nigerians were of the opinion that asking the National Assembly to ratify the conference decisions would be less expensive and bear no cost to the economy. According to them, the National Assembly is already an established institution; but conducting a referendum is like conducting fresh general elections, which would be more expensive and more cumbersome. In line with this, the Chairman of the Sokoto State chapter of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Steve Nwoke, was of the view that the resolutions of the conference should be submitted to the National Assembly for ratification. Just as a senior lecturer at the Niger Delta University (NDU), Mr. Ebipado Sapere-Obi, expressed uncertainty about a referendum, noting the absence of an enabling law for a referendum in Nigeria.
The conference, which lasted for five months was concluded in August 2014 with 22 volumes of reports and annexures totaling about 10,335 pages submitted to Jonathan. Receiving the reports, he assured Nigerians that it would not be a waste, stating that the quality of debate and the depth of contributions added to the ability of the delegates to resolve every argument without burying or suspending them was indicative of the fact that it was a new dawn in Nigeria and a new nation was at the door.
Jonathan disclosed that the report of the Conference would be sent to National Assembly and the Council of State for incorporation into the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The Council is made up of governors, former presidents or heads of state, former Chief Justices of Nigeria, Senate President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
“As I receive the report of your painstaking deliberations, let me assure you that your work is not going to be a waste of time and resources. We shall do all we can to ensure the implementation of your recommendations which have come out of consensus and not by divisions. 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,” he said.
As Jonathan promised, by October 2014, the National Assembly through the spokesman of the House of Representatives, Zakari Mohammed disclosed that it had received the confab report, adding that every member of the House was issued the “compressed” report to study in preparation for its consideration any time soon.
“When we circulate reports, members will study them. We’ll consider the confab report very soon, maybe next week. I’ve not conferred with the rules and business committee, but I do know we’ll look at it very soon. We got a more compact report. What we have is a compressed document that you can easily study,” he said.
In his contribution, Senate Leader, Victor Ndoma-Egba, said the National Assembly had no choice than to go ahead with the process of Constitution amendment since the process had been ongoing long before the setting up of the National Conference.
He said it was only President Goodluck Jonathan who had the prerogative as the convener of the conference to determine what use the conference report would be put to, stating that on the part of the apex lawmakers, they were going ahead to give the country a new constitution.
Ndoma-Egba said: “Well, if you recall, the process of amendment of the Constitution has been going on before the National Conference was set up by President Jonathan. He has the responsibility to decide how he wants the confab report to be handled. If he wants to keep it like former President Olusegun Obasanjo did with his own Conference report, there is nothing anybody can do about it. So the constitution review will go on up to the State Houses of Assembly until it finally becomes operational. We cannot wait for the report of the conference before we conclude the constitution review process. The National Assembly will go ahead with it not minding the conference report,” Ndoma-Egba stated.
In the heat of 2015 presidential campaign, implementation of the National Conference reports took a difference dimension as it became a reference point following the visit of Jonathan to Ondo State as part of state wide campaign to shore up support for his second term ambition. Publicity Secretary of the Afenifere, a Yoruba socio political Organisation Organisation and delegate at the National Confere, Yinka Odumakin made a public disclosure of the group support for Jonathan because he convoked the National Conference and was ready to implement the report. Odumakin said the group was convinced about the commitment of the president to the National Confab and the implementation of the report.
Also speaking, Ondo State Governor, Dr Olusegun Mimiko said what Afenifere did was an unequivocal endorsement of the president. Dr. Mimiko said Afenifere expressed believe in the transformation agenda of the president describing it as systematic and strategic for the development of the nation.
Against this backdrop, a former Chief of Defence Staff, General Alani Akinrinade has bemoaned the endorsement of President Goodluck Jonathan by Afenifere noting that it was wrong. He said while members of the organisation might have their political leanings, it was wrong for some Yoruba leaders to use the platform to canvass for votes for a particular candidate. He said the Yoruba agenda brought before the National Conference failed.
The General also faulted the pro-Jonathan Yoruba leaders who said that the implementation of the report would benefit the people. He noted that the recommendations of the confab were below Yoruba’s target and wondered why the leaders would base their endorsement on that.
He said, “When the Yoruba sent their delegates, the cardinal points that can make a federation were practically not given to us. I can assure you, we missed all the targets. It will be preposterous of us now to expect that by the time that report is executed, we will end up with true federalism. We want to set the record straight that there are major things that have to be done before we can have a true federalism. It cannot be done by one President alone. Unless you change the rule now, you will need all the national and state assemblies to agree with you.”
He further noted that Ondo State Governor, Olusegun Mimiko, who has been holding several post-confab conferences, was only pushing the agenda of the Peoples Democratic Party. “By the look of things, it appears that they (Afenifere) were set up principally to canvass votes for Jonathan so that he might execute all the decisions reached at the last national confab,” he said.
Dancing to the tune of the moment, following the Federal Executive Council (FEC)’s approval of the modalities for implementation of the report as recommended by the conference at its meeting in March 2015, Jonathan ordered the immediate implementation of aspects of the national conference report, particularly policy matters that do not require constitution amendment, stating that other aspects would then be vetted and sent to the National Assembly.
“The national conference report came to the council today. You will recall that barely one year ago, Mr. President inaugurated the conference and at the end of their sitting, the conference came up with a report and submitted the report to him,” Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Senator Pius Anyim disclosed while briefing journalists after the meeting presided over by President Jonathan.
He continued: “… today, we are taking steps towards implementing the resolutions of the national conference and we believe in the vision of Mr. President in setting up the conference and the wonderful work done by eminent Nigerians who attended the conference in producing the report, the resolutions and recommendations, and we believe our country will benefit immensely from the work of this conference.
Step to implement the report has been met with prompt objection when a member of House of Representatives representing Ikole Ekiti/Oye Federal Constituency (I), Hon. Bimbo Daramola, who said President Jonathan’s campaign promise to implement the report of National Conference was misleading and belated, saying that the President has no constitutional power to implement the report, but only the National Assembly has the powers to implement the reports.
Conversely, Human Rights Lawyer, Mr. Tunji Braithwaite said, the National Assembly could never approve the resolutions of the National Conference because most of the resolutions did not favour corrupt politicians. He maintained that Jonathan goofed by not subjecting the resolutions of the conference to a referendum.
On related development, the decision by President Jonathan to implement the report has been supported by Senate President, David Mark, who recently assured his Benue South senatorial district of the creation of Apa State following the determination of President Jonathan to implement conference report. Mark while appealing to Idoma people during the grand finale of his re-election campaign in Otukpo stressed the need to re-elect Jonathan so that the long awaited dream state can become a reality. He however, said the report which would pass through the senate had already been received by the president who would implement the content if given a second term opportunity.
Also, commenting on the imperatives of implementing the report, Dr. Joe Nwogu, Secretary General of Ohaneze Ndigbo noted: “Amongst the fundamental flaws of the polity to be re-jigged include the devolution of political power away from the bloated centre to the states, fighting corruption, presentation of annual budget, revenue sharing, state creation and legislative structure. Other areas include pensions and gratuities for political office holders, state of government-acquired schools and the status of people living with disabilities.
“…For instance, with it each state will have their own constitution; its own police force, prison service and create their own local governments. The added benefits also include the freedom to own their sea ports, air ports and railways. Solid minerals that have been the exclusive preserve of the all-powerful Federal Government have been moved to the concurrent list for state government to also exploit.”
Moreover, the recent developments in the nation’s political atmosphere such as the emergence of General Muhammad Buhari as President-elect and observed high turnover in the national legislative chambers, present a fresh challenge to the implementation of the report. That is, will General Buhari implement the report? Will upcoming legislature vote for referendum or subject the report to deliberation? Only time can tell.