In recent months, against the background of severe challenges to the Nigerian state, proponents for the convention of a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) to discuss the fundamentals of continuation of the Nigerian project have apparently seized centre stage. SHUAIB SHUAIB and CHIBUNMA UKWU examine the composition and ideas of the pro SNC orchestra and also look at its resolute opponents.
Professor Pat Utomi and his National Summit Group have opened a debate on the need for a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) to draft a new constitution for the country and replace the 1999 Constitution.
The debate unfolding on television and radio stations, in newspapers and on social media has called into question, the ability of the National Assembly to make sweeping changes to the constitution in line with demands of Nigerians.
While some have suggested that it would be undemocratic for a handful of people to temporarily take over the constitutional duties of the National Assembly, others hold there is no other way out.
The debate is slowly turning into the constitutionality of a Sovereign National Conference with the country’s lawmakers stamping their feet that the conference can’t hold. Yusuf Ali, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria believes that there is no room for an SNC in the constitution. Ali, a ligation lawyer, also believes that it is of no significance that the call for an SNC is being made despite those organised by former Head of State, Sani Abacha and then Olusegun Obasanjo.
He said, “My consistent position is that SNC will be in view of the existing constitution. Nigerians likes to create confusion for themselves. We have democratic government in place. The constitution does not recognise SNC. If people have a problem with constitution, they should amend it.
The constitution does not recognise SNC, let us use what we have to get amendments. People just make calls for SNC because they want to get recognition. The fact that people are repeating this call does not make it right, they should use the constitution to attain whatever they want.
Those of us who believe in constitutionalism do know that it is not right.” On the right of the National Assembly to dismiss call for the conference, Ali said, “Are they not Nigerians? If some people have the right to make the call, then, the NASS has the power to deny the call.”
Dr. Cairo Ojougbo, was an adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan on National Assembly matters and after attending the conference held by the Pat Utomi Summit Group, he said in an article that, “I told the audience during my brief presentation that the issue of the SNC is belated.
I reminded the summit that there is a sitting National Assembly (NASS) as we speak, and that most of the issues raised about the challenges the country is facing now has been addressed by the 1999 Constitution as amended. The 1999 Constitution in Section 9, Sub-section 1-4, prescribes how the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, shall be amended.
“Therefore, for those calling for a new constitution, all they need do is to utilize the opportunity provided by NASS to submit to the latter, what they desire to be included in the constitution of the country. As far as I am concerned, an SNC is currently holding which is what the NASS represents as every nook and cranny of this country is represented by two persons, i.e a member of the Nigerian Senate and a member of the House of Representatives.
The constitution of the United States of America has been amended 27 times in about 200 years of its life. So to call for an SNC means discarding the present constitution. This, I feel, is wasteful and will achieve no purpose.”
But opposition parties believe that it is really the ruling People’s Democratic Party that is against convening the Sovereign National Conference. Osita Okechukwu, the national publicity secretary of the Conference for Nigerian Political Parties says he would be satisfied with minimal amendments to the 1999 constitution by the National Assembly but questions their willingness to embark on the amendment.
He said, “All it required is a minimal amendment; it involves more powers to the federating units. The federal government of Nigeria should concern itself with limited functions that deal on securities. My stand is that little amendment on 1999 can take care of the SNC because we do not have quality leadership, which is why it seems as though we need SNC.
But if we have quality leadership, there will not be need for SNC. It is not a regional thing, the leadership of the north and east are in support of the SNC too. In the 50’s, when Awolowo was pioneering education in the west, Ahmadu Bello also championed education in the north.
Those who are championing SNC are not calling for the disintegration of the country; all they are saying is that power is too heavy on the federal government thus, the need to cede its powers to the units. The ruling party, that is those who do not accept an SNC are running a philosophy of food is heavy and their motto is ‘share the money’ so that’s why they are against anyone who says there should be division of powers. “
Other than opposition political parties, suggestions are being made that politicians from the south west are the driving force behind the calls. Yinka Odumakin, a member of the Yoruba socio-political group, Afenifere and also spokesman to Gen. Muhammadu Buahri of the opposition Congress for Progressive Change is of the opinion that an SNC would resolve a number of burning issues. Odumakin said, “The agitation for an SNC started in 1989, but it got to hold in 1990.
I was part of the group to hold it in 1990. That assembly was dispatched by police men on the pretext that unity of Nigeria was a settled issue and a ‘no go area’, but in 2012, the issues we were running away from, are confronting us in forms of Boko Haram, etc.
Issues that the SNC would have addressed include; how do Nigerians want to live together and be governed? How do we handle the issue of millions of Nigerians who are living in poverty?”
Odumakin does not however agree that drafting a constitution is strictly the prerogative of the National Assembly. He said, “That is the mistake people are making. NASS are lawmakers and amenders of law in the country. What laws have they made beyond sharing money daily? It is only on same sex marriage that they were able to make solid decision on but it is not our problem. What practical approach have they done on Boko Haram? SNC is beyond them.
SNC lies with the people of Nigeria who have given a portion of it to the people who lead them for four years, so NASS cannot say they are better than the company of people they lead.
Dr Ojougbo, in his article said, “One of the most contentious issues at the conference is that of fiscal federalism and the derivation formula as being operated. For the avoidance of doubt, the 1999 Constitution did not pretend in any way and in fact the prescription could not be better.
Refer to Section 162, Sub-section 2 of the constitution, which states that ‘The President, upon the receipt of advice from the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission, shall table before NASS proposals for revenue allocation from the Federation Account, and in determining the formula, NASS shall take into account, and in allocation principles, especially those of population, equality of states, internal revenue generation, land mass, terrain as well as population density.
Provided that the principle of derivation shall be constantly reflected in any approved formula as being not less than 13% of the revenue accruing to the Federation Account directly from any natural resources.
From the above, it is clear that there is nothing wrong with the Constitution. The latter says 13% which is the minimum baseline and it is up to the operators of the constitution to keep it at any percentage i.e., 25, 30, etc as may be agreed upon by the operators of the constitution. I therefore submit that those clamouring for an improvement on the percentage should go to NASS and initiate dialogue to their satisfaction.
To further enhance fiscal federalism, one would have expected that the South-South nation should be clamoring for change in the royalty on crude oil to be paid directly to the concerned communities. And that VAT should be removed from federal tax to the states.”
The spokesman of the Arewa Consultative Forum, Anthony Sani does think that the calls being made have anything to do with resource control or the revenue sharing formula. He said, “I do not think so because we are already operating the resource control.
The money, which the Niger Delta region gets, is higher than that of other regions. Those who are promoting the SNC should tell us if the constitution backs it up because for me, I am not promoting SNC. We elected people in the NASS to amend our constitution and Nigeria is surely interested in what happens at in NASS, how would they control those who would coordinate SNC if they cannot control the NASS?” On the position of the ACF, Sani however said, “We are open to any discussion that will bring about unity and peaceful existence in Nigeria.
Nigerians say they wants true federalism because when compared to that of Canada and United States, you will not say that there is true federalism in Nigeria. In Nigeria, the constitution is just a book; we do not have high regard for our constitution.
In the United States, their constitution was written by a reverend yet they have high regard for it but here in Nigeria, where our constitution is just a few pages which were written by 27 people but there is no harm in discussing the issues in the country”.