Senator Femi Okurounmu was recently appointed Chairman, National Advisory Committee on National Conference by President Goodluck Jonathan. The Committee’s job is to articulate modalities for Nigerians to engage the national question. He paid a courtesy visit on Chief Adebisi Akande, protem National Chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in his country home, Ila-Orangun, and thereafter held an interview with Journalists, including Osun State Correspondent, Gbenga Faturoti.
Okurounmu, who was former Secretary of the Pan-Yoruba socio-cultural group, otherwise known as Afenifere, allayed fears expressed by some Nigerians that the confab will break up Nigeria. He also spoke on what the committee has done so far and plans of the committee to have successful debates as well as to have its recommendations implemented. Excerpts:
Senator Femi Okurounmu
What is your take on the controversies that greeted the proposed National conference?
As somebody who has been at the vanguard of or crusade for the national conference for more than two decades, the reactions being positive or negative did not surprise me. There have always been positive and negative reactions to the idea right from the word, go. The reason for calling for the national conference is because there are strong forces that are against it. Even though they are in the minority they have always been against it but majority of Nigerians are for it. That is bound to be reflected in every reaction you are getting now. There are very strong reactions, positive and supportive reactions, on the national conference.
What do you think are the likely fears of those that are opposing the national conference?
Their fears have always been imaginary; simply because they are not bold enough to come out with the fears or reason for opposing it. They invent some reasons for opposing it, and some of their inventions are that it will break Nigeria. I think that does not make sense; to say that when people sit down and talk that will be a path to breaking up Nigeria. In fact, that can only be a path to cementing the unity of Nigeria. I actually don’t want to go to their reason for opposing it because most Nigerians know the reason why those opposing it are opposing it.
Do you think the national conference will favour those people that are optimistic about it?
It is not only that those people are optimistic, they are also hopeful and enthusiastic. As I said earlier, majority of Nigerians are in support of the conference and majority of Nigerians have been asking for this for very powerful reasons. Only the person that wears the shoe knows where the shoe pinches. The ethnic minorities and other ethnic nationalities in Nigeria make us believe that there is no enough equity and sufficient justice in the polity, and that to have justice, to have equity and to have a Nigeria where all of us can have a sense of brotherhood, where every Nigerian can regard his fellow as brother and sister, then we need to sit down and talk and look into our terms of unity. We must come together as a country to operate harmoniously and have a peaceful nation, which will put an end to Boko Haram today, kidnapping tomorrow, and crises here and there. To put a stop to all these things, we must sit down and talk.
What of the sincerity of Mr. President on the national conference project?
I don’t want to go into that. As a politician, a politician always goes after his interest. Even in international politics, you go after your nation’s interest. If you are a president of a country you go after your nation’s interest, not after the motive of the man who is offering you your nation’s interest. If your opponent or your enemy offers you something which you believe is your nation’s interest, you will grab it immediately.
When America wanted to go to war or wanted to start striking Syria, and they were negotiating trying to get Russia to come on board, it was just a casual remark from Russia that why don’t you let Syria destroy its chemical weapons. That is what America sits upon. After Syria must have destroyed its chemical weapon, there is no need to go and bomb them, and that became the centre of negotiation. So, you sit upon your own interest; you protect your interest, you pursue your interest. Those of us who have always wanted national conference, it is not for us to look at the motive of the President. All we need to do is to appreciate the President who gives us what we have always wanted. All we should do is to do what the people want.
The 2015 elections are fast approaching, is there any link with the conference?
No, there is none, and I don’t want to speculate about it.
What is going to be your stake at the end of the national conference?
My stake is to do everything I can to see that our committee comes out successful and does not disappoint Nigerians. Nigerians are putting a lot of hopes on us, a lot of faith and confidence that we can do this job and we don’t want to let them down. We want to recommend to the president the conference that will actually strengthen the unity of Nigeria, if the president accepts our recommendations.
What is the assurance that there will be ‘no-go areas’?
Already there is no ‘no-go area’ for us. There is nothing like ‘no-go area’ for us.
Is the national conference going to be sovereign or otherwise?
We are asking Nigerians to tell us what they want; that is part of the process of consultation. If Nigerians believe they want sovereign national conference they will tell us so. It is Nigerians that will tell us what they want.
What of the calibre of those invited from across the six geopolitical zones of the country?
We’ll invite all Nigerians who have something to say about the national conference, anything to say along the lines of our terms of reference. At this point we are not calling for papers on the issues themselves. We are consulting Nigerians on terms of reference, and we are consulting widely. If you look at our terms of reference, the first one deals with consulting widely to let us determine the feasible agenda for the conference. We want Nigerians to tell us what issue should be put in the agenda, so that we can take all the issues that Nigerians want us to table for discussion, that is very important.
I can tell you what the issues are but that is not my assignment. My assignment is to listen to Nigerians; let them tell us the issues, what they want, what the issues are and how the conference will be. And, of course, we want to hear how to choose the delegates to the national conference. We want to hear what should be the duration, what should be the legal framework for the conference from Nigerians, and so on. We want to hear how our decisions and findings will be incorporated in the constitution from Nigerians. We want to give every Nigerian an opportunity to make his views known. You can come and present memo to us as a representative of an ethnic group; you can come to represent yourself, a civil society group, a professional body, an association. Everybody has the chance to come.
Is the national conference not a duplication of the function of the National Assembly?
For instance, you mentioned the idea of ‘no-go areas’, this our own conference has no ‘no-go area’. The National Assembly has plenty of ‘no-go areas’. They take the 1979 constitution which was more or less transformed to the 1999 constitution; that one is given. They can only amend it. Ours is different from just bickering on a given constitution. We are not working with the constitution that has already been given.
Ours is to collect the views of Nigerians on our nation. We want to hear from Nigerians what the issues are, what the grievances are. At the time we come out with our recommendations, if they tally with the 1999 constitution, so be it. If not, then we will not hesitate to recommend a new constitution altogether.
At the end of the day what will be the role of the National Assembly?
That is not part of my terms of reference. The National Assembly members are Nigerians; we are going to hear from them, too. They are Nigerians and they will also have an input. My committee is just to recommend to the president the procedure for setting up a national conference. It is the national conference itself that will come up with findings and recommendations on the issues. The findings and recommendations of the committee are subject materials for the constitution. The people are the sovereign authority of Nigeria.
So whatever are the findings and recommendations of the committee should be subjected to a National referendum by the people. And what the people have approved in the national referendum, no other person has power above the people; the people are the ultimate power. I don’t think that anybody will oppose that the findings of the conference should be sent to the people to exercise their sovereign power, to approve or reject at the national referendum.
How will you feel if your reports and recommendations are not implemented?
Well, I will not commit suicide.
What are your findings so far since the time of inauguration?
As soon as we were inaugurated, we started working. We mapped out programme of actions covering the period given to us. You would have seen our tour programme. After the tour we also have a retreat where we will invite eminent Nigerians, scholars – people who have actually studied the issues which are relevant and pertinent to the national conference to come and discuss, talk to us, address us, and address Nigerians. After that we shall go back to look at all the submissions in the form of memorandum and issues made at the retreat, in line with our terms of reference and then make our recommendations.
What was your reaction when this assignment came your way, did you nurse any fear or restraint?
With all sense of modesty, I saw it as something I could handle because it is something I have been thinking about for more than 30 years. This is something that has occupied my mind, my conscious and sub-conscious. I have been talking about national conference for more than 30 years, ever since I became a politician in 1978 when I was in UPN. This matter has never left my conscious and sub-conscious mind. So, it is not a new area, at all. It is a responsibility that I was glad to accept, and I was happy that in my life time the thing I spent years agitating for, had actually come to me. It is not a new area to me, at all. I was glad to accept that responsibility.
Are you comfortable with the time frame given to your committee?
We are not complaining about it. The President himself realized that four weeks was too short and he extended it to six weeks. We have also seen that six weeks will not be enough. As we continue with our work, if we find that we will not be able to complete our job within that time, we will not hesitate to ask for more time.
What will you say to Nigerians to make sure that they have more confidence in the national conference?
Already, I know so many Nigerians have confidence in the committee and the national conference. I will only advise the few skeptics to please have full confidence in the committee. If you look at the members of the committee, you’ll see that none of them is likely to be a sell-out; none of them is likely to compromise basic principles. These are men of honour, men of repute, men of integrity with respectable antecedents. These are men and women that can be trusted.
What is your assessment of Osun in the last three years?
That is a political question and I do not want to wear a political cap. We are very proud of the people of Osun and we are very proud of the Governor of Osun. Of course, I share the same political lineage with the governor. I am naturally proud of him, but I don’t want to compare his government with any other government.
Source: Daily Independent