President Goodluck Jonathan could not have made a better choice than Femi Okurounmu, a former senator, as chairman of the 13–member Advisory Committee on National Conference.
In his broadcast to the nation to mark its 53rd Independence Anniversary, on Tuesday, Mr Jonathan said the committee would establish modalities for a national dialogue, among other things, and submit its report in one month.
A statement from the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SGF, later named other members of the Committee as George Obiozor, Ben Nwabueze, Tony Nyam, Funke Adedayo, Abubakar Sadiq, Buhari Bello, Tony Uranta, Khairat Abdurazaq-Gwadabe, Timothy Adudu, Mairo Ahmed Marshi and Dauda Birma. Akilu Ndabawa will serve as Secretary.
For Mr. Okurounmu, his choice as chairman of the committee to midwife the conference was a dream that is almost becoming a reality. For a sizable part of his political life, Mr. Okurounmu, an engineer, who represented the Ogun Central Senatorial District on the platform of the Alliance for Democracy, AD, between 1999 and 2003, had joined like-minds across the country to agitate for a Sovereign National Conference and later National Conference.
On October 13, 1999, barely five months after he was inaugurated senator, Mr Okurounmu moved a motion on the floor of the upper legislative chamber, seeking the convocation of a national conference in the country, to address salient issues.
In the motion, the former senator asked the Senate to consider the convening of a National Conference on True Federalism towards a review of the 1999 Constitution.
Mr. Okurounmu’s desire for a National Conference did not come to many as a shock. As one of the leaders of the apex Yoruba socio-political organisation, Afenifere, the senator was passionate about translating the agitation of the leaders of the zone into reality while in the upper chamber. The quest by the leader of the South West zone for a conference, it was generally believed, was not divorced from the annulment by former military president, Ibrahim Babangida, of the 1993 presidential election, presumably won by the late Moshood Abiola.
However, despite his superlative lead debate to convince his 108 colleagues, Mr Okurounmu’s motion was roundly defeated. His plan was to get the issue of a national dialogue adopted by the defunct Presidential Committee on the Review of the Constitution set up by the then President Olusegun Obasanjo, who himself was one of Mr. Okurounmu’s constituents.
During the debate, most of the lawmakers expressed the view that the review of the constitution was the exclusive prerogative of the National Assembly.
Although his attempt to get legislative backing for his pet project failed, the Ogun State-born former senator had recorded a major achievement – registering the issue of a national dialogue in the consciousness of his colleagues. Chuba Okadigbo, who succeeded Evan Enwerem as Senate President, upon assumption of office in 2000, constituted the Senate Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution and made Mr. Okurounmu a member. The Committee later became part of the Joint National Assembly Committee on the Review of the 1999.
In 2001, Mr. Okurounmu served a notice on the Senate about the plan by him and eight other senators to sponsor a fresh motion on the floor of the Senate, seeking the convocation of a national conference. The eight senators were Arthur Nzeribe (Imo West), Afolabi Olabimtan (Ogun West), Ike Nwachukwu (Abia North), Jim Nwobodo (Enugu East), Melford Okilo (Bayelsa East), Tokunbo Afikuyomi (Lagos Central), Sunday Fajimi (Osun West), and Emmanuel Diffa (Bayelsa West). They titled the notice “Motion that the Senate should mandate the Joint Committee on the National Assembly on the Review of the 1999 Constitution to convene a National Conference as a necessary part of the process in its Review Exercise, and to forward the motion, if passed, to the House of Representatives for concurrence.”
In his argument, the senator said, “I am, in this current motion, relying on the provisions of Section 53 (6) of our Standing Rules to revisit the earlier motion in a modified form, in conformity with the reality of the existence of the Joint National Assembly Committee, and in recognition of developments in the polity since the earlier motion.
“It has become clear that the setting up of the Joint National Assembly Committee which itself followed an earlier committee set up by the President, has not reduced the clamour for a National Conference. On the contrary, the clamour is gaining momentum with each passing day.”
Mr. Okurounmu, who was then the Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency, which was chaired by the current Senate President, David Mark, told his colleagues that not only had the demand for a National Conference become a dominant opinion in the South East geo-political zone, the agitation of almost all the ethnic nationality unions, was the convocation of a conference. He added that in the South West, the demand for a National Conference was an article of faith while in the Northern geo-political zones, an increasing number of individuals and groups were beginning to see the wisdom in a national dialogue.
He also recalled that apart from receiving the support of the former Secretary General of the Commonwealth of Nations, Emeka Anyaoku, the agitation of a national dialogue had received unreserved support of the second meeting of the Tradition Rulers and Leaders of Thought from the six geo-political zones.
“It can therefore be surmised that a non-negligible fraction of Nigerians, and possibly a majority, are vociferously clamouring for a National Conference, in spite of the two existing committee of the executive and the legislature,” Mr. Okurounmu argued.
“I suggest, my distinguished colleagues that we should listen to them and weigh their arguments dispassionately and objectively unhindered by any previously fixed mindset.”
On the modalities, the senator said, “My proposal in this respect is to base representation on elections, to be conducted on non-party basis, with each delegate representing the smallest practicable constituency unit, subject to the total number of delegates not exceeding 1200.
“By this, the delegates will be representing their communities, not their political parties. The smallest practicable constituency unit as per this guideline will be the State House of Assembly constituency unit, and I therefore recommend its use for the purpose of the National Conference elections.
“This would give ethnic minorities the greatest possible chance of being suitably represented, since the larger the electorate constituency unit, the greater the possibility of small minorities in such units being disadvantaged.
“A delegate from each State House of Assembly constituency unit throughout the country would result in about 1000 delegates, which is not too large a number for a country the size of Nigeria. I also recommend that since delegates from a State are essentially representing that State, the elections in each State should be conducted by the State Independent Electoral Commission, SIEC.”
In the notice, Mr. Okurounmu and the eight senators listed their prayers:
-That the Joint Committee of the National Assembly on the review of the 1999 Constitution be mandated by the Senate to convene a National Conference on the lingering contentions and unresolved issues of the Nigerian polity, as a necessary part of the processes in its review exercise;
-That representation at the Conference should be by elected members, with one delegate elected to represent each House of Assembly constituency, on a non-party basis;
-That the elections to the Conference be conducted by the State Independent Electoral Commission;
-That the conclusion of the Conference be regarded as one of the inputs to the work of the Joint National Assembly Committee (on Constitution Review); and
-That if the above legs of the motion are successful, the entire motion should be forwarded to the House of Representatives for their concurrence.
On June 12, 2001, on the eight anniversary of the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, the debate on Mr. Okurounmu notice came up, but its consideration almost led to a rowdy session induced by opponents of a National Conference in the country. His colleagues, notably late Senator Afolabi Olabimtan (AD, Ogun West) made significant, but failed attempt to have it scale through.
When the then Senate President, Anyim Pius Anyim, who is the current SGF, put it to vote on whether the motion should be taken or not, Mr. Olabimtan and other AD senators present in the session, laboured unsuccessfully against striking it out. Although their action indeed demonstrated strong support for Mr. Okurounmu, they were overwhelmed by their colleagues who were in the majority and who subsequently shut it down.
As Mr. Olabimtan later explained in a statement he issued on June 14, 2001, “There is no doubt that the majority shall always have its way, but the minority in a democracy should be allowed to have its say….
“Honestly, I find it difficult to understand the serious opposition to National Conference as a means of finding lasting solution to Nigeria multifarious problems. I doff my cap and pay homage to the great Nigerian statesmen who sat together to talk and bring us independence in 1960. If they had the same spirit as some of us today, Nigeria would have arrived as one indivisible independent country.”
But Mr. Okunrounmu was not deterred. On March 7, 2002, he made another deft move by bringing up, this time, a bill on the issue. It was titled, “A Act to make provisions for convening of a National Conference of the Peoples of Nigeria for purposes of preparing a Constitution for Consideration and Adoption by the People of Nigeria at a Referendum and matters ancillary thereto.” The former senator successfully got the Senate Committee on Rules and Procedure headed by Dalhatu Tafida, the current Nigeria’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, to list the motion for first reading at the plenary session.
Mr. Okunrounmu, and many senators, including Olabiyi Durojaiye (Ogun East) and late Mr. Olabimton, voted for it, but again the motion failed to scale through the first reading, even though the senator and his supporters stood courageously behind the bill. Curiously, Mr. Nzeribe, who was one of the eight senators that signed the earlier notice to the Senate on the issue, led the onslaught against the bill. The maverick former senator produced a document against the bill and lobbied his colleagues to back him in his surprise bid.
The death of the bill, particularly Mr. Nzeribe’s betrayal, was devastating to the pro-conference senator. In a statement he gave this reporter, who was then covering the Senate, Mr Okurounmu explained, “It is on record that I effectively rebutted every point of order or constitution that was raised against the bill, and the bill was only killed because of the fixed negative mindset of many senators, as was glaringly exhibited by Senator Nzeribe’s prejudicial document which he had circulated to all Senators and Honourable members (of House of Representatives) as soon as the bill was circulated, canvassing that the bill should not be entertained.
“It is also important that the public be informed that the bill was actually the product of some of the best minds in Nigeria – The Patriots –and I was mandated by the Senate President to sponsor it since I have consistently and unrelentingly associated myself with the contents.”
Regrettably, Mr Okurounmu left the upper legislative chamber in May 2003, after spending four years, without realizing his dream of having the nation to dialogue, no thanks to the stern opposition of most of his colleagues to it. But with Mr Jonathan’s nod to a national dialogue and Mr. Okurounmu’s choice as head of the Advisory Committee, the former senator appears set to have the last laugh.