In this interview with a former Secretary of the Independent National Electoral Commission, currently a chieftain of the All Progressives Congress in Kaduna State and spokesperson for the Northern Elders Forum, Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, he speaks on the group’s opposition to fresh moves by the National Assembly to amend the 1999 Constitution and NEF’s disappointment with the regime of President Muhammadu Buhari’s
Why is the Northern Elders Forum opposed to fresh moves by the National Assembly to amend the 1999 Constitution?
The processes for amending the constitution have yielded very little for a country that has shown genuine need for serious and far-reaching amendments to deal with design limitations and contemporary challenges. There are a number of reasons for this. One is the tendency for administrations in the past to use constitutional reforms as avenues for pursuit of personal ambitions. The second is the absence of the political will to amend the constitution in a manner that improves the quality of the federal system even at the risk of certain preferences of incumbent administrations. The third is the cumbersome nature of the process of amending the constitution. The fourth is the declining levels of elite consensus around both the need and the substance of constitutional reforms.
For these and other reasons, we are opposed to a process that merely goes through old and tired motions, and producing very little. We do not see evidence that this particular addiction to a routine will provide a different outcome. The National Assembly’s vital role in constitutional amendment is not being questioned. What we question is its methods. We thought it is vital to alert the nation to this, and advise that we pursue a different approach this time. It does not even make sense to say the North is opposed to constitutional amendment. In fact, the North stands to benefit more than all other regions from a rigorous interrogation of the constitutional basis of our existence as a nation.
In considering recommendations of the 2014 National Conference, what are the issues Nigerians should consider in the event of a referendum as it is being conversed by NEF and other socio-cultural groups?
We suggested that a provision should be made in our constitution for a referendum on key areas that require reviews and amendments. This will allow Nigerians to have a direct say in the manner they want to be governed and the arrangements that will best reflect our diversities, assets and interests. This has never been done in Nigeria, but this is not a reason why it should not be done. This nation is a nation of citizens, and politicians, elected or not, should not stand between us and a say in the way we should be governed.
Those who argue that constitutions are too sophisticated for ordinary people to amend do not appreciate the depth of feeling and grievances, which our fellow citizens, have about our systems of government. A referendum will be a process that asks all adult Nigerians to make choices in key areas like the type of federal system they want, number and sizes of the federating units, allocation of responsibilities to federating units, presidential or parliamentary system, policing, sharing of resources, managing diversities, electoral process and a number of other matters that have to addressed, because they represent existential threats to a functional and fair system, progress and peace.
Incidentally, you should know that the Northern Elders Forum raised fundamental issues related to the representative nature of the conference organised by former President Goodluck Jonathan and warned that it could suffer from lack of acceptance in spite of the quality of many of the people who participated in it. In the end, we were vindicated. Nonetheless, the outcome of that conference as well as other conferences and reports of committees will provide useful inputs into a serious search for options and ideas that will move the country beyond the point where it is currently stuck.
Do you have other organisations that have shown interest in joining the campaign to stop the annual ritual of constitutional amendment by the National Assembly?
Many credible groups from across the country have supported our position that we need a more rigorous review of the basis of our existence. Even the Senate’s response only suggested that our position should have been made directly to it in writing in response to its invitation of inputs. The Presidency has recently described our group as ‘extremist’ for suggesting that our elected representatives should explore a different avenue to avoid repeated and routine failures, but we are not surprised or worried about this.
The current administration made several promises before coming to power. One of them was the promise to restructure the nation by devolving more power to the federating units. The APC, which is the party in power, recently said the President had started implementing this. Do you agree?
This or any administration cannot amend the constitution as an electoral promise. Nigerians should judge the Buhari administration, which includes the APC-controlled federal legislature and majority of states, on how much of the constitution it has amended in its over six years of existence. You cannot restructure Nigeria in this piecemeal and opportunistic manner, and you certainly cannot restructure it if you think every call for genuine restructuring is subversive or an ethnic agenda.
We from the North have very clear ideas about what it represents, and we have a healthy respect for the opinions of others. We also believe that only a genuine and sincere dialogue involving all parts of the country will produce the type of consensus necessary for achieving the vital goal of restructuring the nation.
The NEF participated in a meeting involving groups from the other parts of the country facilitated by former President Olusegun Obasanjo. That meeting appears to have run into a storm of criticism from the Presidency. What informed your participation at the meeting?
We are a forum of elders and responsible Nigerians from the North. When an opportunity for meaningful and genuine discussion on the challenges, which the country faces, avails itself, we look at it very critically to see if it meets three criteria. One, is it useful for Nigerian communities, which are northerners? Two, is it good for all Nigerians? Three, is it likely to be productive and address some of our most pressing problems? The Obasanjo initiative met these criteria. This is what leaders and elders do when there are serious problems. They put aside all differences and contribute to find solutions.
We asked a lot of questions regarding this initiative, including who else apart from President Obasanjo had an interest in its potential to contribute to resolving some of the more serious issues we have with each other and in the nation. We asked for assurances that the initiative would not come under any partisan, political or personal influence. We asked for assurances that everyone invited would come with an open mind and commit to pulling the country from the brink. We were satisfied with the results of our enquiry. We participated in an important national endeavour, which should be judged by its output in its communiqué, and not by the personal opinion of President Obasanjo, which he read at the opening of the meeting.
It will seem that the scathing criticism of the Presidency of the meeting has truncated its value and may even have killed the initiative. Do you agree?
Not at all; we were under the impression that the Presidency was aware of the meeting, although it really was not necessary because we have the right to meet and discuss matters related to our country. Regarding the criticism from the Presidency, I have to say that even considering the characteristic failure to pay attention to details, which is a hallmark of this administration, the refusal to acknowledge the mature, responsible and constructive conclusions of the meeting is disappointing. It is obvious that the administration has issues with President Obasanjo and our groups. We can and will live with that. It is not the first time that we said the administration is letting Nigerians down. But this meeting was ours from the moment we accepted to be part of it, and we are humbled by the opportunity to do something.
Those, who criticise us, are either cheerleaders of an administration that ought to have tapped into the considerable reserve of concern and goodwill that exists among leaders and elders in Nigeria, but will not or cannot, or the administration itself, whose only contribution to lowering the tension and stresses in the country, is to try and lampoon those who say do something or actually do something. This initiative should continue on its own merit and it will gradually develop and encompass a large segment of Nigerians, who believe it is important to pull the nation back.
Again, let me say this is no more an Obasanjo initiative. Even without him, our groups can sustain it. We know where the flaks are coming from and why they should not worry Nigerians. There is a country that needs all of us to salvage. Every Nigerian can help.
So, what is next for the Obasanjo initiative?
I can only speak for our group. We see value in discussion, dialogue and actively looking for solutions. The groups we met with are known to us. We can and should sustain this initiative. President Obasanjo will fight his battles. In this instance, he has started something good. To the degree that it continues on this trajectory, we will work with him too. The bottom line is, we will not sit idly and watch this nation get worse by the day if we can do something legal and constructive. – Punch.