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Why confab is not sovereign — Obasanjo
By Bolade Omonijo & Emmanuel Aziken
Posted to the Web: Tuesday, February 22, 2005
*Lashes out at critics, says FG has no hidden agenda
*No-go areas: Federalism, presidentialism, multi-religiosity,
federal character, oneness of Nigeria
ABUJA — THE National Political Reform Conference got underway in
Abuja yesterday with President Olusegun Obasanjo throwing light on
why his administration opted for the conference as against the much
advocated sovereign national conference.
He told the 391 delegates that only countries whose structures of
governance have collapsed could afford a sovereign national
conference, and even at that such countries have not fared better
after the conferences.
He lashed out at critics and those that declined nominations to the
conference, sayings: "I call on all those who are yet to learn that
the military era is over, that we must begin to see the Nigerian cup
as half full rather than half empty and that the best way to express
maturity, patriotism and relevance is not to stick to the culture of
perpetual attacks, cynicism, aloofness, arrogance, egocentrism and
"Rather, it is more profitable to join the process, make
contributions, educate the public positively, and stop the unhelpful
culture of attempting to throw away the baby with the bath water.
"The country has grown far beyond these opportunistic grandstanding
strategies that rely on ideologies, methods, language and ideas of
the past that have been transcended all over the world."
Attempting to debunk the notion that the conference was a ruse, the
president declared that he had no hidden agenda in setting it
up. "The Federal Government has no hidden agenda in this exercise.
This effort is the product of widespread consultations with salient
stakeholders including the leadership of the National Assembly and
the National Council of State. We are not at war with any
constituency or interest group. Rather, we are laying bare,
opportunities for all Nigerians to be part of a historic process of
working for sustained democracy, positive change and enduring
Nigeria, he said, had achieved a lot in terms of socio-economic
policies and the political reform envisaged would complement the
National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategies (NEEDS).
Charging the delegates not to dissipate energy discussing issues he
regarded as settled, the president said they should concentrate on
other salient issues. Issues he regarded as closed for discussion
are: "The oneness of Nigeria, federalism and federal system of
government; presidentialism, multi-religiosity, federal character,
popular participation, the fundamental objectives of state policy
and separation of powers."
All the confab could do with regards to these issues is refine,
update or strengthen the institutions. With this, the speculation
that the country might switch at the end of the confab to the
parliamentary system might have been foreclosed.
Responding to the president's speech, the confab chairman, Justice
Niki Tobi, did not only seek to allay his fears over the possibility
of dismemberment of the country, he pledged that members would do
everything to justify the confidence reposed in them.
Justice Tobi promised to resign his appointment if at any time
issues arose that could threaten the unity and stability of the
country. He enjoined delegates to shun partisan politics during the
Significantly, the leadership of the National Assembly which had
withheld funds for the confab was present at the ceremony. Both the
Senate President, Chief Adolphous Wabara and Speaker of the House
of Representatives, Alhaji Aminu Masari, kept the president company
on the high table. Neither men betrayed any emotion as the president
waded through his 24-page speech. Except for occasional applause,
there was pin-drop silence all through the delivery of the speech
which ended at exactly 1.03 pm.
Others on hand to lend their support to the process were state
governors, ministers and other functionaries of government. The
National Secretary of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP),
Prince Vincent Ogbolafor was also in attendance in the absence of a
As early as 10.30 am, four former Heads of State, General Yakubu
Gowon, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, General Ibrahim Babangida and Chief
Earnest Shonekan, had arrived the Conference Centre with former
President Babangida stealing the show as he easily moved round
greeting delegates. As soon as he took his seat, delegation,
including state governors and leading politicians, flocked to him to
However, absent was General Muhammadu Buhari whose reserved seat
between Babangida and Shagari remained vacant.
Shoddy preparation forces hurried adjournment
Although the National Political Reform Conference kicked off on a
happy note yesterday with all delegates resplendent in their special
wears which showed at a glance the multi-cultural setting of the
country, the pre-conference undercurrents poisoned the atmosphere as
soon as the first plenary session was held.
In response to contributions on the time schedule and days for
sitting, delegates quickly pointed out the inadequacy of
preparations. The setting became charged when Second Republic
Minister, Alhaji Umaru Dikko, a delegate from Kaduna State, used the
opportunity to comment on whether there should be sittings on
Fridays to point out that it was preposterous to even make such a
suggestion when Christians would not have accepted even the
discussion of sitting on Sundays.
Christian delegates who had supported the motion to avoid sitting on
Fridays took exception to what they considered an unprovoked attack.
The Rev Hyde Onuaguluchi from Enugu State took on the former
minister, saying delegates should be more careful in their speeches
as such could easily lead to confusion.
Alhaji Femi Okunnu, a delegate from Lagos State; Chief Paul Unongo
from Benue State; and Chief Barnabas Gemade who introduced himself
as an elder statesman from Benue State argued that it appeared the
leadership was not adequately prepared for the deliberation.
Alhaji Okunnu said: "For us to proceed, there is need to have the
working papers that the president promised in his speech and others
such as the Electoral Act, not just the Bill. It would be nice to
have even the previous Electoral Acts. We need the 1960 and 1963
Constitutions if we are to proceed. From the look of things, it does
not appear that the secretariat is really prepared. May be we should
go on a short adjournment till tomorrow so that these things can be
Another elder statesman, Chief Solomon Lar from Plateau State wanted
a longer adjournment to enable the secretariat sort out issues
relating to papers, allow for consultations and enable state
delegations come up with position papers.
At that point, the proceedings became rowdy as members began to
press the chairman for provisions for their welfare. Mr Ebohomian
from Edo State was concerned that government made provision for
hotel accommodation for two days. "Given that we have to move out of
the hotel tomorrow (today) morning, I will like to know what happens
after that. How much is being made available and when? This is my
primary concern now," he said.
The complaints led to general confusion, as all delegates got
interested at that point and wanted to know what would follow. Those
who had been raising issues related to the absence of Rule of
Procedure were outnumbered and the leadership momentarily lost
The secretary, Rev Father Matthew Kukah, intervened, explaining that
he was as much in the dark about the situation of things as the
other members. He aligned with the suggestion that there should be
an adjournment to enable the secretariat take off properly.
Justice Tobi consequently, ruled that the meeting stood adjourned
till Monday, February 28. This did not go without protests from some
delegates who felt that the chairman ought to have subjected the
length of adjournment to democratic decision-making process.
As the delegates filed out, there were indications that the
suggestion that a Business Committee comprising representatives of
zones and prominent platforms might be set up when the confab
resumes next Monday.
Some prominent members were making efforts to meet to discuss the
way forward with a view to saving the confab. One delegate from the
South-West told Vanguard that he was encouraged by the position
taken by Dr Ibrahim Tahir from Bauchi who said he saw himself as
representing a universal Nigeria. A similar view was expressed by
Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe (rtd). Chief Lar also echoed the same
sentiment that he had come with a blank mind, ready to negotiate
with Nigerians from other parts.
If this enthusiasm is sustained when the confab resumes, the
confusion that enveloped the hall might be a mere passing phase.
Conference, an Aberration, Says Fawehinmi
By Ndubuisi Ugah, 02.21.2005
Human rights activist, Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN) weekend, advised
Justice Chukwudifu Oputa (rtd) to have a rethink over his plan to be
part of the over 400 delegates to the National Political Reform
Conference as he described the confab as an aberration.
The conference would be declared open today by President Olusegun
The human right activist said the need to warn the former Justice of
the Supreme Court was informed by the antecedents of similar
conferences held by past administrations, which had neither
contributed nor advanced the yearnings of the people for which it
was conceived in the first place.
Fawehinmi, who noted that he had waited in vain before now thinking
that Oputa would decline the membership of the conference, added
that he had wondered how Oputa was going to reconcile the various
anomalies which characterised the conference's idea and objectives,
knowing fully well that Nigeria is under a democratic dispensation.
"As an acclaimed activist jurist, avowed philosopher and respected
humanist, how can you reconcile yourself to numerous fundamental
aberrations that characterise the Obasanjo Constitutional
Conference?" He asked.
Fawehinmi, in a letter entitled: "Re: Your Nominated Membership of
The National Political Reform Conference," is the latest after he
had some three weeks ago written a similar one to elder statesman,
Chief Anthony Enahoro and Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka,
equaling warning them of the danger inherent in accepting to be
members of the conference, said in as much as he held sacrosanct an
individual's freedom of expression and opinion over issues, there
was however the need for him (Oputa) to critically re-examine the
modus operandi of the conference.
According to him, "I cannot dictate to you but as one of those who
hold you in the highest esteem in this country I am worried. By
conceding to be a member of this spurious constitutional conference,
you may be confusing your legacy and our understanding of your
While advancing reasons for his position, Fawehinmi recalled that
from June 14, 1999 to May 28, 2002, Oputa was made the chairman of
an eight-member board of the Human Rights Violations Investigation
Commission otherwise known as the Oputa Panel with a six-point terms
of reference, which he said the commission pursued with such
He said the commission submitted its detailed report including the
recommendations to Obasanjo but close to three years now no major
pronouncement has been made on the report.
The Lagos lawyer expressed regret that despite the commission's
admirable and tireless efforts, "your reports including your
recommendations and observations are now gathering heavy dust in the
obscure shelves in the President's office," adding that "no aspect
of your reports have been officially published and no single aspect
of your recommendations have been accepted and/or effected."
He noted that "today for all practical purposes as far as President
Olusegun Obasanjo is concerned, the Oputa Panel never existed and
Nigerians have been deprived of the product of the genius of Oputa."
Fawehinmi expressed regret that "the same President Obasanjo has now
constituted a national conference based wholly on nomination of
members where your state government, Imo has asked you to be at the
conference and you have accepted the membership as a State Nominated
He stressed that the spurious nature of the conference was evident
in the fact that "at the end of the conference, the reports
including deliberations, contributions and recommendations will be
submitted to President Obasanjo."
Fawehinmi went on to ask "why do you (Oputa) think that the reports
of this conference will not suffer the same fate as the reports of
the Oputa Panel? What is the assurance given to you by President
Olusegun Obasanjo and your state governor that the reports of this
conference will not gather the same dust as your panel's reports
have gathered for the past three years? This is a matter of
credibility, trust and confidence."
He queried what has become of the age-long axiom that "once beaten
twice shy," saying "you have always been a wise man long before your
present age of 81. The Nigerians who hold you in high esteem will
like to know why you have decided to trust the President again or
put it another way, why you have refused not to trust him."
On the National conference, Fawehinmi said his grouse with the
organisers was that it was "not predicated on any enabling law."
According to him, there was nothing wrong if "one is right to see it
as either an administrative or executive body to advise the
President with regards to (political reforms) a euphemism for
constitutional reforms. And nothing more."
He stated that "if it is so, under the Constitution of the Federal
Republic of Nigeria 1999, it runs foul of the federal structure of
Nigeria for Mr. President to command each state government to send
nominated representatives to its executive conference and for the
governors to sheepishly respond to the command."
He wondered if "we are in a unitary system of governance," arguing
that "if the President is acting within his executive authority
which does not include the executive authorities of the governors in
respect of their respective constitutional authorities, why should
you (Oputa) lend credence to this abnormality?"
Obasanjo to confab: Build, don't destroy
Niki Tobi threatens to resign if...
Conference begins prayer, fasting today
By Akpo Esajere (Lagos), Martins Oloja and Emmanuel Onwubiko (Abuja)
YEARS of agitation for the convocation of a debate of their plight
by Nigerians ended yesterday as President Olusegun Obasanjo
inaugurated the National Political Reform Conference in Abuja.
Remarkably, the chairman of the conference, a serving Justice of the
Supreme Court, Niki Tobi, threatened to resign if issues that
threaten the corporate existence of the nation are raised by the
The Federal Government has no hidden agenda in setting up the
National Political Reform Conference, President Olusegun Obasanjo
Rather, the talk-shop is a historical opportunity for Nigerians to
work for sustained democracy, positive change and an enduring polity.
Inaugurating the 391-member conference in the nation's capital,
Abuja yesterday, the President who read a 24-page speech to
conferees who listened with rapt attention, said the exercise was
the product of widespread consultations with "salient stakeholders",
particularly the leadership of the National Assembly and the
National Council of State.
Also, the exercise, the President said, was borne out of his
administration's deep concern for future generations. There was
need, he said, to lay a lasting foundation.
He spoke for about 40 minutes, interjecting with jokes as he is wont
to do, has come to be his style, to which the gathering of senior
federal officials, former heads of state, state governors, service
chiefs, traditional rulers, members of the diplomatic corps gave
Largely because Obasanjo is a latter-day convert to the need to hold
a national conference, especially the Sovereign National Conference
variety, critics had expressed reservations about his motives.
There had been speculations about a third term agenda, which had not
been helped by the manner the delegates to the conference were
constituted through selection and nomination.
Stakeholders and other interest groups such as the Pro-National
Conference Organisations (PRONACO) decried the absence of an
enabling law and mode of selection which did not offer the populace
the opportunity to choose their preferred representatives through
Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, rejected his nomination to
the conference over these issues.
But Obasanjo yesterday cautioned against what he
termed "opportunistic grandstanding," stressing that: "Of course,
not all segments, constituencies and individuals will be or can be
totally satisfied. This is normal. I call on all those who are yet
to learn that the military era is over, that we must begin to see
the Nigerian cup as half-full rather than half-empty and that the
best way to express maturity, patriotism and relevance is not to
stick to a culture of perpetual attacks, cynicism, aloofness,
arrogance, ego-centrism and bad politics."
Rather, he continued, "it is more profitable to join the process,
make contributions, educate the public positively and stop the
unhelpful culture of attempting to throw away the baby with the bath
water all the time. Our country has grown beyond these opportunistic
grandstanding strategies that rely on ideologies, methods, language,
and ideas of the past that have been transcended all over the world."
The President said representation was organised to engender as much
participation by communities and constituencies as possible.
Pointing out that it is no longer possible in modern times to get
everybody directly converted as was the case in the Greek City-
States of old, Obasanjo said selection took into consideration parts
of the state in the interest of "State Character."
His words: "We have even gone beyond that to look at specific groups
and interests in civil society and socio-cultural groups. We know
that unless we call all Nigerians to a conference, which is not
possible, we may not be able to cater for everybody's interest or
every group. But we believe that the composition of this conference
as designed, should be representative enough and views and ideals
can be made available for consideration to the conference by any
individual or any group."
Obasanjo does not want a self-determination clause in the
Constitution that allows all component parts to work together and
for any part that feels aggrieved to invoke the clause in seeking to
The President does not share the idea even if such an action will
require the consent and agreement of other Nigerians through a
He said: "I believe that this line of reasoning is emanating from
the same idea of "if you want peace, prepare for war." I have always
believed that whatever you want is what you prepare for. It is best
to avoid self-fulfilling prophesy in such a situation. It is best to
always work for peace, harmony and love."
What the people of this country want, said the President, is "unity,
cohesion, equity, togetherness and collective commitment to our
progress and to the Nigerian project."
He also stated that what the reform conference is all about as well
as what it is not.
On what it is, he said: "We want a united, stable, secure,
equitable, progressive, prosperous and great country."
The President added: "The conference is not to dismember or
disintegrate Nigeria, encourage underlining and organise protest or
subterranean political activities."
The conference, he said, is for designing appropriate institutional
mechanisms for managing our diversities, our differences. However,
he added: "It is not about opposition politics but about Nigerian
today and tomorrow. It is not a tribunal or court or arbitration
panel. It is not a substitute for the executive or legislature but a
path to assist the executive, judiciary and legislature to grow,
become more dynamic and more accountable to the populace."
Obasanjo said: "This conference is not established to pull down, but
to build, it is a gathering to uplift, enhance and strengthen,
nurture and cultivate the best, most enduring, most ideal and
lasting values that are central to our national growth, development
and progress. This conference is not an opportunity for it to insist
on absolutes, one-way or nothing. Rather, it is designed to
consolidate, solidify, and give more life to how we conceive,
organise, structure and practice."
Conference chairman, Justice Tobi yesterday threatened to resign his
appointment if issues that would threaten the unity and
indivisibility of Nigeria were adopted by the delegates to the
Rev. Fr. Mathew Hassan Kukah, the secretary of the national dialogue
and other delegates like Mike Ozekhome and Mike Nkwocha expressed
optimism that deliberations a the conference will consolidate the
Tobi who gave his acceptance speech after President Olusegun
Obasanjo had inaugurated the conference also declared today as a day
of fasting and prayer by the delegates.
Tobi also applauded the idea behind the convocation of the confab.
He stated: "This is a noble and unique conference. We thank Mr.
President for appointing us to serve the nation in this very
important assignment. There is no single assignment given to
Nigerians for a long time now that is more challenging and enduring
than the National Political Reform Conference."
Tobi ranked the conference as the best which has no precedent in
political history. "Since we have no precedent to fall back on, we
hope to fall on God as our precedent", he said.
According to him, if the recommendations of the conference are
adopted and implemented, the country would be transformed for old
Nigerians to live in a new Nigeria.
The jurist ruled out the possibility of the conference deliberating
on issues that would result in the dismemberment of the nation.
According to him, as a judge who is a minister in the Temple of
Justice, he will not be part of a group of people that will abuse
the provisions of the 1999 constitution.
For Ozekhome and Mike Nkwocha, who were selected to represent the
nation's civil society, it is better to dialogue in whatever guise
than to be confrontational.
Ozekhome who spoke with The Guardian said: "I believe in the
national conference because any opportunity to dialogue, no matter
how tenuous, no matter how laborious, must be seized with both hands
and even both legs. The reason being that dialogue is always better
than monologue. Secondly, I believe we should be at this conference.
Although we have clamoured for sovereign national conference, there
is nothing to suggest that we cannot pass resolutions that will make
it a sovereign national conference. It would be sovereign in the
sense that we are going to pass a resolution that whatever decisions
we reach here will be binding only to be subjected to national
referendum of the people whether they agree with us or not."
Nkwocha praised the President's speech and Tobi's and promised that
he would not be a party to any deliberations that would lead to the
dismemberment of the country.`