Barrister Joe Nwokedi, a civil rights lawyer believes Nigeria’s best chance of overcoming the constitutional crisis which has bedeviled the nation since independence lies in the outcome of the ongoing National Conference and amendment by the National Assembly. The Lagos-based lawyer also cautioned that failure to produce an acceptable norm this time may have negative impacts on the country’s future. In this interview with OLISEMEKA OBECHE, Barrister Nwokedi provides perspectives on the constitutional reform project and other issues confronting the nation. Excerpts:

Nigeria’s quest for a constitution that can foster peace, unity and progress for the 53-year-old nation has taken a new dimension with the convocation of the ongoing National Conference and the amendment process at the National Assembly. Do you think that the Federal Government will get it right this time around?

It is the desire of every Nigerian that we get it right as a nation. Interestingly, the process of getting the desired constitution for Nigeria through a constitutional conference is championed by the president. And the fact that majority of the delegates at the conference are people with proven experience, reputation and honour in their various areas of endeavor makes me believe that something good could come out of it this time around.

It is my conviction that if all the participants have the utmost desire to get it right, we will get it right; because Nigeria’s problems must be solved by Nigerians. It’s only when we begin to look beyond our sectional interests or the so-called regional/ethnic or religious agenda in this constitutional project; that we begin to get it right. I believe that at a forum like this, people should first have the mindset to move Nigeria forward and not their regions or tribes.

When you start propagating northern agenda, South-east, South-west and South-south agenda and so on, we cannot make any headway because the question will now be which tribal or regional agenda would be adopted at the expense of others. But if we have the ultimate agenda, which is Nigeria and approach every issue on the basis of what is best for the nation, then we can get it right. So it behoves on all the delegates to jettison their ethnic, religious or parochial interests and approach the tasks before them with open mind and in the national interest. That’s the best way to get it right.

One major area of concern here remains whether the recommendations that would be made by the National Conference should be transmitted to the National Assembly to be passed as a bill or be subjected to a referendum.  Technically speaking, which of the two offers the best and credible option to achieve the desired result?

Well, it depends on what the resolutions are. If the resolutions touch on Nigeria’s sovereignty, unity and corporate existence as a federation of many entities, then it will be better to subject it to referendum. For instance, if at the end of the conference the people decide not to remain as a united entity, the National Assembly cannot decide that kind of delicate issue but the people themselves through a referendum. When a matter touches on the very foundation of the nation, referendum should be a better option in making a final decision.

However, the National Assembly can handle issues that bother on some sectors of the economy and polity. These include state creation, indigenship, zoning of political offices among others.

Between the demands for a sovereign national conference culminating in a new constitution and the ongoing effort aimed at amending the 1999 Constitution; which do you think will give the country better result?

The composition of the National Assembly vis-a-vis that of the National Conference, shows that they all represent the people. While members of the National Assembly were elected representatives from different senatorial zones and constituencies, delegates at the confab were appointed from different sectors and regions based on the approval of the Presidency. Though, they don’t have the kind of constitutional authority and powers vested on the National Assembly on law making, recommendations emanating from the conference would be crucial in the constitution making.

Despite the fact that the National Assembly has been playing a vital role since 1999, Nigerians are yearning for a holistic and all-inclusive constitution. Basically, what the people are saying is that the lawmakers, though their own representatives, are not representing all the sectors and therefore not well placed to undertake the exercise.

The people want a forum with wider scope of representation that can afford them the opportunity to discuss national issues from a multi-faceted point of view without political manipulations. So, I believe we should give the National Conference a chance to do this job. For me, I prefer the outcomes of the National Conference, because they represent a wider scope of the people. However, let the National Assembly also come up with its own amendment and, thereafter, we scrutinize the whole thing and get the best suggestions that can pave the way for the peoples’ constitution. The major challenge we have as a country is that the Nigerian people have never had the opportunity of designing their own constitution. All the constitutions we have had were foisted on us by the military.

Do you have any fear about the possibility of such recommendations ending up not being incorporated by the government, just like what happened to Justice Muhammad Uwais panel’s report on electoral reform?

I think that can be taken care of if there is a harmonization committee to collate the recommendations. The only thing is that we must not allow passions to over-cloud our sense of judgment on this matter. A particular issue you are passionate about may have adverse consequences for the entire nation in the long run; and if those expected to crystallize the whole inputs from the conference fail to allow such matter to become constitutional, some people would cry foul. However, its future implications on the entire nation should be considered and not just immediate benefits to a section of the country. That something appears good on the face value does not mean that it is actually good and in the best interest of the nation. To ensure that we don’t make such error of judgment, a body should be set up to analyze recommendations.

What grey areas do you think need to be addressed through this constitutional reform exercise for the country to make desired progress?

For me, most of the issues that pose challenges for Nigeria at the moment should be addressed. For instance, the issue of settlers and indigenes must be addressed. As far as I am concerned, it is not appropriate to tag some people as settlers in their own country, especially those who have lived in a place for over a decade.

That is one of the causes of the ethnic tensions and skirmishes we are having in this country. A good example is the recent Fulani herdsmen attacks in parts of the north. The moment you absorb Fulanis as part of the community where they rear their cattle, they would no longer regard themselves as strangers who must do everything possible to survive in a hostile territory. They will relate with the people of that community as brothers and sisters and not enemy as is currently the case.

It is not appropriate that a person who was born and brought up in Lagos or Port Harcourt, for instance, would still be discriminated against because he or she is Ibo or Hausa. It shouldn’t be so and we need to address that as quickly as possible.

Another issue is the security of our borders and citizenship. Our borders are too porous, such that citizens of neighbouring countries who manage to sneak through the border and integrate into the society become Nigerians unofficially. We should come up with new measures to effectively police our borders to checkmate influx of foreigners into our country because it poses not only a security threat to Nigeria and its citizens but also has far-reaching consequences on the economy and the society.

If Ghana can fish out Nigerians whose visas have expired and deports them, why can’t we? How many of those foreigners roaming the streets of Nigeria came in with visas, let alone fishing out those with expired visa? We have cases of people who migrated from Niger and end up taking charge of top political offices in Nigeria. Not that they naturalized, but because the government could not identify bonafide Nigerians, so anybody who sneaks into the country becomes a citizen by default.

Worse still is the inability of government to take accurate records of its citizens’ whereabouts. Nigeria is probably one of the few countries where somebody would relocate from one place to another without record of where he or she is coming from or going. Such records are important and many governments take it seriously.

The local governments are supposed to act as a liason in this case, by providing clear documentation of people and their movements. Before a person relocates, the local government must be contacted and such migration documented for record purpose. Of course, it is not difficult to regulate this kind of thing, considering its full benefit to the society. It is through this kind of documentation, in addition to a national identification data base, that the government can ascertain true Nigerians and identify foreigners.

America is a great nation today because of the strength of foreigners that were granted full citizenship and equal rights regardless of race, religion or colour. Imagine how that country would be today, if only the people with American ancestry have full rights and privileges. That is actually holding Nigeria back as a nation.  The Federal Government should come up with an orientation programme that would help instill in Nigerians the culture of uniting Nigerians as one big family regardless of tribe or religion. That is the only way to liberate the people from ethno-religious chauvinism.

Where do we start this process: is it from the top or bottom?

I believe the people at the top echelon of the society, especially at leadership levels are the major beneficiaries of the divisive state of the Nigerian society because most of them fan the embers of discord for political gains. They see division arising from ethno-religious bitterness and hatred as a political tool to be exploited for advancing their political career. Whereas they freely unite at the top in their political dealings, they go out of their way to instigate the people at the bottom against one another. Their major concern at the top is how to grab power and what goes into their pockets but down there they plant hatred and bitterness; and when it is time for election, you see them shouting ‘my people, my people’ while they are fighting for their own selfish interests. That’s the problem.

However, I believe a holistic reorientation at the grassroots would go a long way in changing the way an average Nigerian sees the person from another tribe or religion. Indeed, tribe or religion is not our problem but the failure of our people, especially those at the helm of affairs at all levels to discharge their duties. If the leadership of this country had managed our natural and material wealth properly and invested wisely on the development of our society, Nigeria would be one of the best countries in the world. But they made us to think that our problem is religious or tribal struggle. Almost every part of this country is blessed with resources that can enable it survive and develop. So, we should start at the bottom where the people they use as pawns belong.

So, what do you consider as likely implications if the confab fails to get the constitutional reform right this time around?

It will spell doom for the country if we could not get the process of creating a generally acceptable constitution right this time around. It will lead to hopelessness because we have been clamouring for this constitutional conference for a long time. So, I believe stakeholders involved in this present effort should strive to get it right this time around because failure to get it right would have far-reaching negative effects on this nation.

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