From Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
Six years after the 2014 National Conference, its report and that of the All Progressives Congress (APC) True Federalism Committee, were the talking point in the House of Representatives last week.
The National Conference, which was set up by the President Goodluck Jonathan administration in 2014, with Justice Idris Kutugi as chairman, had come up with far reaching recommendations on how to address some nagging national issues.
The conference with 492 delegates drawn from various interest and professional groups, after sitting for several months, came up with about 620 recommendations “on how to build Nigeria into a more cohesive, viable, prosperous union.”
The recommendations touched on public service reforms, devolution of powers and political restructuring; national security; trade and investment; energy; public finance and revenue allocation; social welfare; politics and governance; electoral reforms, state creation, scrapping of local government authorities, rotation of the presidency and governorship seats among others.
However, the report, which had generated diverse reactions in the polity, was not implemented before the exit of the Jonathan administration on May 29, 2015.
Similarly, the APC, which had boycotted the 2014 conference, in August 2017 set up a 23-man Committee on True Federalism. The APC Committee, which was chaired by the Kaduna State governor, Nasir El-Rufai, was to interface with Nigerians and come up with recommendations on the restructuring of the country, in line with the ruling party’s 2015 campaign promise to ensure true federalism in the country.
After its assignment, the Committee came up with a 12-point recommendation, including the merger of states, review of the Derivation principle, Devolution of Power, Fiscal Federalism, Independent candidacy, judicial reforms, Local government autonomy, review of the Revenue allocation, Citizenship, Referendum, Public holidays and creation of state police.
But like that of the National Conference, the APC True Federalism Committee report, is yet to be considered, three years after.
However, last Wednesday, issues relating to the consideration of the two reports dominated discourse in the House of Representatives. The deputy minority leader, Toby Okechukwu, in a motion, sponsored under matters of urgent public importance, urged the House to mandate its Special Commitment on the Review of the 1999 Constitution ( as amended) to obtain the 2014 conference and APC True Federalism Committee reports, within two weeks, for consideration in the ongoing constitution alteration exercise.
Okechukwu said the two reports “will benefit the National Assembly in the discharge of its constitutional responsibilities, including the ongoing constitution amendment efforts.”
Nevertheless, the deputy speaker, Ahmed Idris Wase disagreed. Wase, who is also the chairman of the House Special Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution, said the motion is a breach of procedure and should be stepped down. The deputy speaker noted it is not the duty of the Constitution Review Committee to be shopping for reports.
According to him, “we have a procedure as to how our work is done in the House. He is asking us to commit ourselves to receive a report from a political party or any other agency of government. We have advertised for those who are interested to submit what will be of interest to us and the nation. Call for memorandum; that has been done.
“ It is the duty of those agencies and other interested parties to bring up. He is a member of the Constitution review committee, that is not the procedure. If he has anything of interest there, it is for him to bring through bill and proper representation. This is how it is done. I think it is a very wrong procedure that he wants to set. I want to beg that he steps down this motion .”
Regardless, the deputy minority leader disagrees. Okechukwu, while soliciting support for the motion, said: “I do not think the approach offends any of our rules. And more importantly, if we can affirm as advertised in the memorandum that the Constitution review committee is in custody of this document, then there would not be any need for this. But as a matter of fact, it’s adoption will enrich the literature , the knowledge we have. It is better for us to err on the side of excess, it is better for us. I am doing this because I am looking at the state of the union. And what I am seeing in the state of the union is not strong.’
Nevertheless, the speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, in his ruling, stepped down the motion, on the advice of the deputy speaker. Gbajabiamila noted that since there is a committee in place for this matter, Wase thinks it is procedurally wrong to circumvent the committee, that is already in place and bring a matter to the floor for the committee to do its work.
The speaker added: “I think secondly, what the deputy speaker is saying is that even this thing that you are asking for, they have already put it out there for them to submit. Those are important documents that will guide the deputy speaker committee and he has already put out there that they should submit those memorandum. There will be no need for the debate.”
Like the deputy speaker, the House leader, Alhassan Ado-Doguwa, in an interview with journalists, said while Okechukwu’s motion is in order, the House should not be expected to pass a resolution for members of the civil society to live up to their responsibilities.
Okechukwu later told journalists that he is convinced that the House should obtain the 2014 conference report, as it has addressed most of the problems plaguing the country
“There isn’t anything in that conference report that cannot address the myriad of challenges we are facing in our union.
“From revenue generation to devolution of power to state police and so on. That document has become a document of the presidency and it should be made an official document of the parliament,” the lawmaker stated.
Recall that the Jonathan administration had set up the 2014 national conference in response to repeated calls by stakeholders for a national dialogue to proffer solutions to the myriad of problems plaguing the country.
Incidentally, the issues that precipitated the setting up of the 2014 conference and APC committee, and the recommendations, therefrom, are still largely unresolved. Pundits say this has made the consideration of the conference very imperative.
Some stakeholders have repeatedly argued that instead of the National Assembly to be embarking on endless constitution review exercises, it should adopt the 2014 National Conference report and use it to fashion a new constitution for the country.
Former Enugu State governor, Okwesilieze Nwodo, who is one of those championing this argument, had told Daily Sun in a recent interview, “ I do not even think that the piecemeal arrangement that the National Assembly does from time to time is enough. A lot of work was done by the last national conference. And what we need is implementation; how to take what was agreed by all Nigerians at the national conference. Let the National Assembly formalise it. Let us adopt a new constitution based on that conference.”
However, if the stance of the House is anything to go by, the report may not be considered in full by the Green Chamber, not to talk of being the basis of a new constitution, except formally submitted to the Constitution Review Committee by the Presidency.
Ironically, the Senate, had earlier announced that it will obtain the 2014 conference report for consideration in the constitution alteration exercise. The deputy Senate President, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege had stated while the Senate Constitution Review Committee will use the report of the National Conference and the report of the APC Committee, it will not be bound by it.
Analysts say even if the Senate adopts any part of the reports, and the House does not consider it, it is likely to be an exercise in futility as both chambers are expected to be on the same page for the matter to scale through in the parliament. The implication is that the country will be denied of the benefits of some of the recommendations of the 2014 National Conference, which many have hailed as a panacea to some lingering national problems.
However, Okechukwu said he would not allow that to happen. According to him, “if at any point in time at the Constitution Review committee, it is evident it is not there. I will represent it. I will make sure by Section 88 and 89 of the Constitution, we can compel any documents to be provided to parliament. So, if there is any doubt to the fact that it will not be provided, we will make sure that it is provided.”
Pundits say the motion places a heavy burden on the House leadership, especially as it has committed itself to addressing knotty national issues through the current review of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).
Recall that Wase, while speaking at the inauguration of House Committee on the Review of the Constitution, stated that the ninth assembly, in its quest to ensure that the current efforts to amend the constitution is successful, is determined to look into critical national issues that have been ignored for too long.
Also, Gbajabiamila had stated, during the inauguration of the House Special Committee on the Review of the Constitution that the current efforts to alter the constitution places a greater burden on the lawmakers.
He said: “we are commencing this constitutional review process at a time of great and ongoing upheaval in our country. New challenges emerge daily from every corner.
“Some of these challenges are of our own making, and others, we could not have foreseen or been prepared for. Whichever may be the case, the Nigerian people look up to us as government to proffer solutions that work, to do the heavy lifting of writing new constitution, one better suited to our current aspirations and reflecting our vision of the future.”
Consequently, analysts say for a parliament that has pledged to address national concerns through the Constitution alteration, the Green Chamber ought not wait for the Presidency or any person or group to make available to it any document that will aid its assignment.
It is expected that rather than wait for documents and memoranda to be submitted to it, the House should go all out to source for all relevant reports and literature that will help it fashion out a better Constitution for the overall benefit of the country. Whether or not the parliament does this, will define the current constitution alteration exercise.