National dialogue: When president stirred dust of controversy

Culled from Saturday Mirror

by TEMITOPE OGUNBANKE on Oct 26, 2013 |

When President Goodluck Jonathan publicly declared his intention to organise a national dialogue, many people, especially advocates of national conference received the news with joy and they showered encomiums on him for a wise decision. It was to them, yielding to the yearning and aspirations of the people of Nigeria.

This, is however, not to say that many others are not in the least impressed by the action of the president. While some people see the inauguration of the Senator Femi Okurounmu-led Advisory Committee on National Dialogue as the beginning of a process and sincerity of the current administration to bring Nigerians to a round-table to discuss and proffer solutions to the myriad of problems facing the country, some consider it a mere diversionary tactics.

The mixed reactions were yet to abate when the president declared that the report of the conference would be sent to the National Assembly for consideration. The president made the declaration while receiving the Muslim community in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), led by Vice President Namadi Sambo and the Minister of State for FCT, Oloye Olajumoke Akinjide, on the occasion of the traditional Sallah homage at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, last Tuesday. According to the president, the visit would be sent to the National Assembly for consideration and for possible inclusion in the constitution since the legislature was in the process of constitutional amendment.

His words: “This National Dialogue is critical and is coming at the right time because the National Assembly is thinking about how they will amend the constitution. So, the results of the discussion of course will be passed to the National Assembly.

“It is only left for all of us who are Nigerians to impress it on our representatives, those in National Assembly and State Houses of Assembly because our state and federal parliaments must work together to ensure these are properly enshrined in our constitution so that as a nation, we will hand over a country that is better than what we have met to our children.” If there was anything the president’s declaration achieved, it was stoking the fire of controversy.

To some Nigerians, the decision of the president to send the conference report to National Assembly, is justifiable since the National Assembly is saddled with the responsibility of making laws and amending the constitution, but some believe that doing so would make nonsense of the National Dialogue, since the major aim of the conference is to provide a platform for Nigerian people to determine their faith and how they want the country to be governed. Some political analysts, lawyers and human rights activists have argued that the outcome of the national dialogue should be subjected to a referendum by the people on the account that sovereignty lies on the people.

Many are also of the view that what Nigeria needs is a Sovereign National Conference (SNC), which report cannot be tinkered with without subjecting it to a referendum. Therefore, the decision to send the report to National Assembly is seen by many as a departure from the main goal of the conference. Former Governor of Anambra State, Dr. Chukwuemeka Ezeife, believes that the report of the national confab should not be handed over to the National Assembly.

He said if the conference would not be sovereign; there would be no need for it. Ezeife, while speaking at the maiden Ikenga Award for Excellence held last Saturday in Enugu noted that subjecting the report to the National Assembly’s endorsement would ultimately take the shine off the original intention of the conference.

He insisted that Nigerians must be allowed to have a final say over the conference. “My stand is that whatever resolution is taken at that conference should not be returned to the National Assembly; it should end with the people; the sovereignty rests with the people not with their agents. A tenant can maintain some part of his residence but the only person that can rebuild the house is the owner,” he said.

Constitutional lawyer, Prof. Itse Sagay (SAN), while condemning the decision by President Goodluck Jonathan to forward the outcome of the national dialogue to the National Assembly for ratification, said that any plan to send the report to the lawmakers will amount to insincerity or ignorance.

He said: “We are talking of a conference, which will result in a new Constitution, which will then be approved by plebiscite, by referendum, so that it becomes a Constitution made by Nigerian people. What we are saying is that this cannot be a proposal for the amendment of the Constitution. So, in my view, either the president doesn’t understand what he is doing by convoking a conference, or he is deliberately putting poison into the process to kill it from the beginning. “To say you are taking it to the National Assembly, which doesn’t have the capacity or the jurisdiction or the authority to make a new Constitution, is to say you want to kill it. The House has a vested interest in the status quo. What we are talking about now is a wholesale new Constitution, which only the people themselves can make. Any reference to the National Assembly is an attempt to kill the conference before it takes off. So, it is lack of sincerity or ignorance.”

A human rights activist and Executive Chairman of Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders (CACOL), Comrade Debo Adeniran, in a statement made available to Saturday Mirror stated that the conference may not be necessary if its outcome would be subjected to the whims and caprices of the National Assembly. “Sending the outcome of the Sovereign National Conference to the National Assembly for ratification defeats the purpose completely.

The final decision should rest with the people. If the conference must hold, its outcome must be ratified by Nigerians through a referendum, as anything short of this is no longer a conference of the people, but an imposition.

Sending the outcome of the conference to the National Assembly to incorporate in the constitution amendment project would amount to a great waste of resources, time and effort and will make it just a conference,” he stated.

Those who see the development from a different perspective believe that President Jonathan’s decision to send the conference to the legislative arm of government is a right decision. Governor Muazu Babangida Aliyu of Niger State, while receiving officials of the Niger State chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) led by its chairman, Reverend Musa Dada, last Thursday in Minna, said that; “The president is right that everything discussed at the forum must go to the National Assembly.”

Governor Aliyu, who is the chairman of the Northern States Governors Forum (NSGF) said that sending the report of the dialogue committee to the National Assembly would be in line with the prevailing political arrangement in the country where there is presently a sovereignty. He added that there cannot be two sovereignties in a country.

He was of the opinion that the final document that will emerge from the national and states houses of assembly after the dialogue would be what he called ‘a Nigerian constitution made by Nigerians.’ Kicking against the idea of an SNC, the Deputy Senate President and Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, described the agitation for the convocation of a Sovereign National Conference as a clear invitation to anarchy.

Ekweremadu, while playing host to members of the Okurounmu-led Presidential Advisory Committee on National Dialogue at the National Assembly on Tuesday said it would be out of place to convoke an SNC when there is a constitutional government in place in the country and in the absence of a proper legal framework in place. “If we say that we are a country that believes in the rule of law, we must be ready like others to obey the laws and not the rule of the thumb.

So, when we hear people talk about SNC, referendum and all that, there must be a legal framework for it. “You don’t wake up when you have a constitutional government in place and say you want an SNC, you impose the will of the people on the rest of the people without a legal basis, that is absolutely difficult. Other countries that have had this kind of challenge, what they did first, was to provide the necessary legal basis for it, legal basis for what they are doing. Otherwise, you are calling for anarchy.”

He therefore pledged that the National Assembly would on its part provide the necessary legal framework that will support whatever outcome of both the advisory committee and the committee that will come after it. “For us in the National Assembly, the most important thing in this exercise is to provide the necessary legal framework that will support whatever outcome of both your own committee and the committee that will come after it,” he said. The Presidency has kept mute over the matter in spite of the controversy that followed.

It is not unlikely that the president would, like he had promised, leave everything about the national conference in the hand of the Okurounmu-led panel or else, anything he says would continue to count against him.

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