The Northern Elders Forum has said the North is not afraid of the break-up of Nigeria if its citizens vote for it at the end of any conference.
The spokesman for the forum, Prof. Ango Abdullahi, said this in a telephone interview with one of our correspondents, in Abuja, on Wednesday.
He was commenting on the national dialogue advisory committee set up on Tuesday by President Goodluck Jonathan.
Abdullahi,who said he saw nothing wrong with Nigerians sitting down to discuss their problems, explained that contrary to the views held in certain quarters, northerners were not opposed to any form of dialogue in whatever form or shape.
He said, “There is no problem with Nigerians sitting down to discuss their problems whether in the form of dialogue, whether in a form of conference, whether in the form of a meeting, even in the form of a Sovereign National Conference.
His view on SNC is however not in tandem with that of the foremost Northern socio-cultural organisation, the Arewa Consultative Forum, which on Tuesday said it would not support any form of dialogue termed sovereign.
However, Abdullahi, a former vice-chancellor of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, said, “The SNC that people are advocating; people are saying that it is a way for Nigeria to break up. This shouldn’t be a problem. Even in Britain today, Scotland is still agitating to opt out of the United Kingdom; even the Northern Island problem is still there.
“In Spain, there are separatist groups agitating for independence. Even recently, we had in the Soviet Union and it has broken up into 11 different countries.
“India was created in 1948, in one year there was Pakistan, in another year there was Bangladesh. So why shouldn’t it happen in Nigeria if they (advocates of SNC) believe this is the way to go?
“We don’t mind any conference no matter the outcome. I don’t think it should worry any Nigerian.”
The former VC said the earlier Nigerians accepted that Nigeria’s ethnic nationalities could never dissolve into one, the better.
He stated that it was left for Nigerians to make something good out of the almagamation of Nigeria by Britain in 1914.
Abdullahi also noted that it was probably out of the desire to make something out of the situation that led to the several conferences that had been held since 1914.
He, however, expressed fears that the current attempt by the Jonathan administration to hold another conference when the reports of previous ones had not been implemented was suspicious.
The NEF spokesman said the country had held constitutional conferences in 1976, 1978, 1988, 1994/1995 and 2005.
He stated, “In each of these conferences, there have been voluminous reports on what is the problem with Nigeria. It is not for lack of information on the issues at stake.”
Abdullahi said that the country could still gain from the reports of past constitutional conferences.
He added, “When you look at it from this point of view, those who believe that Nigeria’s time is being wasted or that these are diversionary tactics have a point.
“Because this is what (President Olusegun) Obasanjo tried to do when he was looking for a third term and he thought that he wouldn’t get it through another means except through constituting a constitutional conference.”
National Assembly backs conference
The Chairman of the Senate Committee on Information, Media and Public Affairs, Senator Eyinnaya Abaribe, in an SMS to one of our correspondents in Abuja, said, “The Senate supports the President in his choice of the members of the committee.”
The House of Representatives also welcomed the committee and its membership, saying that Nigerians were entitled to freedom of expression.
However, it clarified that whenever a constitutional matter cropped up in the course of discussions at the conference, it should be referred to the National Assembly.
The Deputy Leader of the House, Mr. Leo Ogor, who spoke to The PUNCH in Abuja, explained that the National Assembly remained the legally constituted body to resolve any constitutional issues in the country.
Ogor added, “We are the true representatives of the people. That is why constitutional matters must be left to the National Assembly to handle.
“But, the constitution (1999) guarantees freedom of expression and association. On that score, the conference is a welcome development; to give people the opportunity to talk and share ideas.”
Project Nigeria, two other groups kick
The Project Nigeria Conscientious Group however questioned the rationale behind the appointment of Senator Femi Okurounmu as the committee chairman.
As the group kicked, two others faulted the composition of the committee, saying it was not representative.
The PNCG, in its reaction on Wednesday, said that appointing Okurounmu as chairman of the committee, might amount to an embarrassment to Nwabueze.
The Secretary-General of the group, Mr. Wale Okunniyi, told one of our correspondents on the telephone that if the Federal Government had consulted well, Nwabueze ought to been made the head of the committee.
Okunniyi said, “If they had consulted, Prof. Nwabueze should be the chair of the committee. If he has to play a role in the committee, he has to be the chair.
“Though Okurounmu is emminently qualified and he is our own, he understands the issues. However when both Okurounmu and Nwabueze are under the same roof to discuss the issue of national question, you know what is right.
“So if that is not intended to embarrass Nwabueze, then you know what is right and what is right in this case is that Nwabueze should preside over the discussion.”
He said despite the development, Nwabueze, would not reject the appointment as a member of the committee.
He added that the Senior Advocate of Nigeria , who is still abroad, might not return to the country until after the swearing-in of the members of the committee.
“Prof. Nwabueze is scheduled to return to the country on the 11 but the swearing-in is to take place on the 7,” Okunniyi added.
He stated that the PNCG which is led by Nwabueze had done “the most profound research” on the national conference, adding that it already had five models of how it could be conducted.
Okunniyi added, “Project Nigeria Conscientious Group is the body that has done the most profound research on the national question in the last two years. The group has come up with five models with which you can conduct a national conference within the ambit of the existing law. We don’t intend to rock the boat. We are not quarelling with Okurounmu, he is our own, he understands the issue; he is qualified but when you put both of them in one room, Nwabueze must take precedence.
“In the actual conference, he should chair it because he understands the issues better. If it must hold, Nwabueze is the most authoritative person that can chair it.
“This is good because we have to do damage control. If they had consulted us, we would have told them what to do. We want this thing to succeed and we are going to make sacrifice for it to succeed. We are not going to criticise them too much; we are going to encourage them.
A member of the committee, Col. Tony Nyiam (retd), however, said they would take the assignment with the highest sense of responsibility.
“This is not the time to talk. It is the time to work. We know that we have a very important responsibility before us. We pray that Nigerians will judge us based on our work,” he said.
Nyiam, who was part of an attempt to overthrow Gen. Ibrahim Babangida’s regime, added that he was glad to be a part of those planning the national dialogue under a civilian government.
He said there was the need for Nigerians to determine how they want to co-exist and to encourage the country’s diversity and promote its unity.
The Director, CCM of the University of Jos, Prof. Audu Gambo, and the Executive Director, Christian Foundation for Social Justice and Equity, Mr. Joseph Sangosanya, both faulted the composition of the advisory committee.
Gambo and Sangosanya, in separate interviews with one of our correspondents on Wednesday, said though the idea of a national dialogue was a welcome development, it should be done in such a manner as not to raise any suspicion about the intention of government.