Mr. Tony I Uranta was a member of the Presidential Advisory Committee on National Conference. In this interview with Ayodele Samuel, he argues that the proposed national conference will be volatile but would put Nigeria on track and provide answers to many national questions. He however faults Chief Solomon Asemota over his self acclaimed minority report. Excerpts:
You were a member of the Presidential Advisory Committee on National Dialogue, how would you describe your experience vis-a-vis the desirability or otherwise of the conference?
It was an enervative and very educative experience that every member of the committee gained during the exercise of consultations, which saw them moving round all the six geopolitical zones. During that period, we found out, among other things, that we didn't know exactly how many ethic nationalities there are in Nigeria; that many people really thought that we were already conducting the National Conference per se. We also found out that there were expectations from government that were both unrealistic and not pragmatic and that there was an overwhelming desire, all through the nation, for us to come together as one people to speak. Even in places where there seemed, initially, to be apathy on the part of state governments or local governments not to participate, we realised that the people of these states and zones, and of Nigeria, had taken on the sovereignty that belongs to them and decided that they were going to decide whether they talk or not; what they would talk about; how they would talk about it; and how it would be reflected when it all comes out at the end of the day.
But the committee almost ran into stormy waters in Edo State, with the altercation between the governor and Tony Nyiam, leading to hisresignation from the committee. Did that not create the fear that the conference itself could really be volatile?
The conference will be volatile! The Yoruba say that brothers don't go into a room to speak the truth to one another and come out smiling all the time. It will be volatile because we are going to speak the truth to one another, so we can resolve our differences, enhance our commonalities and build a truly united Nigeria premised on truth, equity and justice. But the incident in Benin was really less one of volatility, as much as one of intemperate reaction by both the governor and a member of our committee. The people of that zone had apparently taken a position that they really wanted to participate in the National Conference. The governor had already told us in private that he was opposed to the National Conference, and had been so opposed from the beginning of the concept itself in the 1980s. We did not expect him to come out and try to talk his people into accepting his position as the position of the state or the zone. And when the people started booing him and clamouring for him to leave the podium, we least expected a member of our team to join in with the people to heckle the governor, especially since our team's mandate was not to talk, but to listen, record, and later offer advice.
Do the final guidelines agree with the recommendations of the committee, especially concerning the 'no-go-area' and the fact that the final outcome of the confab will go through the National Assembly for it to be incorporated in the constitution?
I will say about 95 per cent or more of the recommendations of the committee [the initial recommendations of the committee] were published later on and have been announced as the modalities. There were very few departures from the original recommendations. For example, we had initially said that delegates should be chosen through elections/adult suffrage, so that there will be transparency and the ability for everybody to participate fully. But when government got our report, it went through it, and realised that the Electoral Act does not allow INEC, which is the only body that is empowered to carry out elections, to conduct elections outside of the political elections that have been designated to it; and that for it to now process this election, there would have to be alterations to the Electoral Act. But we were not sure that the alterations could be carried out even in the next one year or two knowing how slow our National Assembly can be on matters of certain national and critical issues. You know how long it took for the Freedom of Information Bill to get passed. A bill that was sent in 1999 only got passed in 2007.
Apart from that, government now asked INEC to budget what it will cost and INEC budgeted N25 billion.
Now, if people are complaining of N7 billion budgeted for this conference, can you imagine what they would have been saying if we were to have N32 billion?
Therefore, government knew it was not a pragmatic decision to take. We were then invited back by the president, who was very unique in the way he went about dealing with both the committee and the report of the committee. Rather than setting up a White Paper Committee, he kept returning to us and saying to us, review your recommendations. We reviewed them and concluded that there shall be delegates nominated by the people, through stakeholder groups and interest groups of the people. So it will be a wholly people-driven conference. As to whether the outcomes of the conference will now return to the National Assembly for legislation; yes, every such outcomes have to end up in the National Assembly for legislation. What the people of Nigeria do want and what they are adamant about is that there must be a referendum. After the referendum, what they don't want is for the conference's outcome to be tinkered with by the National Assembly before it is passed into law as either the New Constitution, or as part of the 1999 Constitution undergoing review. Now, you will notice that I have made a distinction as to whether the constitution will be new or reviewed. This is because we recommended to the president that rather than getting involved with all the imbroglio of the politics should there be a referendum; should the National Assembly have dominance and so; we said, simply, he should let the National Conference itself decide whether Nigerians want a referendum. Let the conference decide. When the referendum is decided, do they want the outcomes of the Conference and the referendum to become a brand new Constitution? Let the Conference decide. I am one person who wants a referendum. I am one person who wants a brand new Constitution. But, I love this idea of giving it over to the people, via the Conference, so nobody is imposing anything on the people of Nigeria. And when they decide, I want to see anybody, group of people or interest group that will stand up and say that what the people want is wrong, and that they are not going to give them what they want; and I want to see what will happen after that.
Was Chief Solomon Asemota opposed to any aspect of the report that could have led to the controversy of whether or not there was a minority report?
I think that is one of the tragedies of Nigeria's reality at the moment. I have so much respect for Chief Asemota (SAN), and prior to our interactions on this committee, I held him in very high esteem, but so far as far as I am concerned, he let himself down. He let the peoples of my zone (South-South) and the people of Nigeria down. Of course, what Chief Asemota, as an extension of Professor Ben Nwabueze, a respected constitutional lawyer and elder statesman, was intent on doing was foisting upon Nigeria, and Nigerians, and the conference, a pre-decided agenda. Professor Nwabueze had stated at the Eminent Peoples Summit which I convened in January 2012 here in Lagos (when he walked out because the majority of the people present wanted a National Conference to debate any and every issue under the sun) that he wanted a National Conference to debate certain issues in draft Constitution which The Patriots had drawn up under the late Chief Rotimi Williams (and we are talking about ages ago!). He urged that we don't discuss anything else except that document and that he would then go about turning that document into a new constitution.
You will agree with me that that proviso would be restricting and limiting Nigerians. There is nothing that stops us from discussing that document because it is a critical document; but we could not be limited by Chief Asemota, Professor Nwabueze and their co-travellers. As to whether there was a minority report, Chief Asemota was the chairman of the Committee's Sub-Committee on Legal Processes which was to decide whether there should be a referendum; whether the outcome of the conference be subjected to the National Assembly; whether there should be a bill legislating the conference into being ab initio. It was this sub-committee, headed by him as the most senior lawyer on our committee, that came to the recommendations in our submitted report. We accepted the subcommittee's recommendations hook, line and sinker! It was, therefore, disconcerting that at the point of our signing, Chief Asemota was nowhere to be found. For hours, we were calling, sending cars all around looking for him, only to find out that he was all the time in the parking lot sleeping right outside the committee's meeting hall and that he wished, at that belated point, to take a position saying that he had a memo (because that is what we saw it as being!) to submit. He erroneously called it a minority report. That memo in fact had been submitted already by The Patriots both during our consultation trips, and by Professor Nwabueze privately to the chairman of the committee and to the president. So it has been incorporated into our report. There was nothing new in the memo and the president rightly said that the memo could not be called a minority report after Chief Asemota had gone into all the papers shouting, mendaciously, about the president having refused a minority report.