The National Conference secretariat distributed a draft new national constitution to delegates yesterday, in what came as a surprise to many of them who said the idea of producing such document was never approved.
On their resumption from recess, delegates also yesterday received copies of the conference report, a bill on constitution amendments being proposed, as well as records of proceedings.
The draft constitution contains changes approved by the plenary during debates on committee reports in June and July. These include listing of 18 additional states, delisting of the 774 local government areas, creation of state police, independent candidates for elective offices, and limiting the number of ministers to 18.
Apart from scrapping the 774 LGAs, the new constitution gave powers to state authorities to create and run their local government areas.
The 18 new states included in the draft constitution are Aba, Adada, Amana, Anioma, Apa, Edu, Etiti, Ghari, Gurara, Ijebu, Kainji, Katagum, New Oyo, Njaba-Anim, Ogoja, Oil Rivers, Ose and Savannah.
Delegates have now been given until Wednesday to study the distributed documents and reconvene to approve them.
On July 14 the confab adjourned and asked the secretariat to compile the approved recommendations of the 20 standing committees and draft a report.
Daily Trust exclusively reported yesterday that the secretariat had gone beyond its brief by suggesting in the report that the National Conference should produce a new constitution for the country.
Yesterday’s plenary was chaired by conference secretary Valerie-Janette Azinge, as both chairman Justice Idris Kutigi and his deputy Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi did not attend the session.
Mrs Azinge announced to delegates that they would be given documents which they had until Wednesday to study, before she adjourned the session.
“You will receive copies of the main report which is in two volumes-1 and 2, and a bounded draft constitution,” she said.
“In that bounded draft constitution is what we call a matrix; it has in it the first column which has the constitution as it exists today, the second column has all the amendments as suggested by you, and the third column is a fusion of both the constitution plus all the amendments that you suggested.
“For easy reading, we have also extracted the third column, that is, the fusion of the existing constitution & the amendments proposed as a draft constitution.
“There is also a draft bill which will introduce the amendments and alterations which will make it the fourth amendment to the constitution.”
The idea of drafting a new constitution by the National Conference was first exclusively reported by Daily Trust on June 30, when it reported that deputy chairman Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi was at the time trying to convince Northern delegates to accept the plan.
But after a heated debate at plenary session over the issue, it was agreed that no new constitution was to be drafted by the National Conference. Delegates had argued that the confab had no such powers and this was not part of their brief.
On Sunday, Prof Awwalu Yadudu wrote an open letter to fellow delegates, saying he found out the secretariat had resurrected the idea of writing a new constitution as well as conducting a referendum on it, contrary to conference decisions.
The fact that this draft has now been produced by the secretariat is likely to create rift in the conference. Delegates, especially those from the North, are likely to reject the document while many among their southern counterparts may support it.
Dr Haruna Yerima, a delegate from Borno State, said the new constitution was not acceptable.
“We are not here to draft a new constitution. The conference secretariat has no mandate to draft a new constitution. We are going to reject it,” he told Daily Trust.
“That is not why we are here. The secretariat has overstepped its bounds. That is unacceptable.”
Yerima also raised objection to Akinyemi’s presiding of the plenary. “When we resume on Wednesday, the chairman Justice Kutigi must preside all the proceedings. We don’t want Akinyemi to preside again. Kutigi must brace up to his responsibility,” he said.
Spokesman for the Northern Delegates Forum (NDF), Mr Anthony Sani, said “it is morally preposterous for the confab of unelected delegates to give the nation a new constitution. This is democratically wrong and morally prosperous. It is unacceptable.”
But Ms Annkio Briggs, a delegate from the Niger Delta, said the new constitution is good for Nigeria.
“Nigeria needs a new lease of life. We must accept the challenges. The current constitution which is in operation since 1999 has failed us. We need to move on,” she told Daily Trust.
“The new constitution is what Nigeria needs now to address its challenges. We have been clamouring for Sovereign National Conference. This confab is an opportunity to solve Nigeria’s problems. The new constitution will address just those challenges.”
Some delegates also said the time given to study the documents was too short. Malam Sani Zorro said most delegates were not aware a new constitution was being drafted by the secretariat.
He also wondered why the chairman and his deputy were absent. “In this era of Ebola, it is important that we know that that the chairman and his deputy are in good health. I say this because you (Azinge) did not mention the reason for their absence,” Zorro said during the brief plenary session yesterday. Mr Dan Nwanyanwu from the Labour Party also said delegates needed at least a week to study the documents.
But Azinge insisted that delegates should reconvene on Wednesday.
In his open letter to delegates on Sunday, Prof Yadudu had said “(the) Confab, whether at plenary or committee stages of its work, never tasked any members to propose a ‘draft constitution’ which may be considered for adoption by ‘referendum’ or in total disregard of the existing constitutional or legal order.”
Daily Trust learnt that a technical committee of selected Northern delegates met last night to review the new constitution. The committee will brief Northern delegates at an expanded meeting today, where a decision will be taken on the draft ahead of tomorrow’s plenary session.