Does Nigeria Really Need a ‘Sovereign National Conference’?

This is a piece I wrote for the Royal African Society’s African Arguments blog.

In a few weeks, Nigerians across ethnic and regional divides will be gathering at a roundtable to discuss critical national issues. The imperative for this National Conference as a necessary discussion over Nigeria’s future was underscored by the President, Goodluck Jonathan, in his Independence Day commemoration address in October 2013. No doubt, there is need for consensus among the country’s distinct ethnic and religious groups on critical governance issues such as the structure of government, federalism, revenue distribution, political representation and power sharing. Whether the National Conference taking place this year is capable of addressing Nigeria’s perennial existential problems is another question.Read More »

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Part 2: Interview with Mallam Nasir El-Rufai on Sovereign National Conference and Other Matters

 

The is  the second part of the interview with Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, with focus on calls for a National Conference and Sharia Law. As with the first part of the interview, this was originally posted on Nigeria Village Square website HERE. Enjoy!!

 

Now What Podcasts : The NOW WHAT podcasts Series are initiated by a desire to chart a way forward for Nigeria following the January 2012 Occupy protests, Boko Haram and other security challenges and the seeming slide to anarchy in Nigeria. Each week, members of the NVS forum will exchange ideas in a round-table and will also invite high profile guests to offer ideas

On Saturday February 25, 2012, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai was our guest. Mallam Nasir El-Rufai spoke on Boko Haram, Sovereign National Conference, Security, and so much more in a very frank manner.

The following is transcript of the second part of the interview, with focus on National Conference and Sharia.


Mallam Nasir El-Rufai (Part 2)


SOVEREIGN NATIONAL CONFERENCE

Anchor: Thank you Sir. The next series of questions will be taken on by Ajibola Robinson and they will be on Sovereign National Conference and other general questions. Mr. Robinson…

NVS: I’ll like to start off with a few questions about the National Conference. You’ll notice I started off removing the word Sovereign from the statement. With that said, let me go on to the first question which is: It appears a large groups of Nigerians have become increasingly frustrated with the current state of affairs in Nigeria. As an example, yesterday, even the 19 Northern governors called for a review of the revenue allocation formula to states. A number of Nigerians both home and abroad believe thatthese are legitimate issues to be discussed in a wider forum, at the national level and in a discussion that involves all Nigerian nationalities.

We are at a point where we should sit down as a nation and have some kind of dialogue. This wider discussion will allow all stakeholders to bring their various grievances to the table. Issues like State police, revenue allocation, resource control, state agitation, and even as yu mentioned earlier, states that want to have Sharia law. What are your views on this? And would you be willing to take part in a process to discuss these issues?

El-Rufai: I support the national conference. I think that any opportunity we have to sit and discuss the terms of our federation is a welcome step. I have issues with “sovereign” and I’m happy you didn’t even mention the word because I think its impossible when you have a sitting Government that is elected no matter how flawed the elections are to have a sovereign National Conference.

Yes we should have a National Conference, yes we should agree on who should represent various parts of Nigeria to that conference. And I think we should discuss everything, nothing should be pulled off the table. I support that. As to whether I’ll be part of it? It depends on how the membership of those that will attend the conference is determined.

If the people of Kaduna or the FCT where I live elect me to represent them, or select me or in whatever way, I’ll be happy to be part of it. That is not an issue at all, I think there many issues for discussion in the Nigerian federation, and we should talk about them and negotiate them.

 

NATIONAL SUMMIT GROUP

NVS: In line with the above, I’m sure you’re aware there is a National Summit Group that had their first meeting. Dr. Reuben Abati was here 2 weeks ago and he said government is looking to engage in dialogue with the National summit group. Are you a member of this group? And when can the group be ready for a real national discussion and on what key action points?

El-Rufai: No I’m not part of any National Summit group. The National Summit group, I think is something that’s being promoted by Tony Uranta who is a Jonathan ally. I was invited and did not attend because I will not attend any summit that the government has a hand in putting together because I don’t trust this government. I don’t trust the agenda of this government and I will not be part of anything that they have a hand in putting together. So I didn’t participate, and in fact I think that the whole thing was a choreographed arrangement to lead to a certain conclusion. What the conclusion is, we are waiting because we know there is an agenda somewhere.

 

NVS: That is an interesting point, but it appears you support the wider national conference, but just not the summit group…

El-Rufai: It is, it is. In fact at that summit, a professor, I can’t remember her name, asked the question- ‘who is paying for this? 3 nights in the Sheraton, this big hall, who is paying?’ and Chukwuemeka Ezeife, one of the organizers of the summit seized the microphone and said ‘I will talk to you off camera’ and to me that smells of government sponsorship. And the fact that those that are sitting there, if you look at their faces you’ll know that they don’t have the money to sponsor this kind of thing clearly proves it. I support a wider conference, that is not being engineered and sponsored or directed by the government.

I think that we must find a way for every part of Nigeria to come together to discuss about these issues and agree on them, but not when the Jonathan administration is the hand behind it. I would not be part of it, I would not be part of it.

 

DOCTRINE OF SETTLED ISSUES

NVS: In an interview, the ex-President mentioned the “Doctrine of Settled Issues” Just like IBB today, Obasanjo in the past also informed the National Conference that discussions on the unity of Nigeria was a no go area, a settled issue as Nigeria was to remain a singular united country under all circumstances.

Recent reports from for twitter account, indicate you support a return to a pre-1966 Nigeria set up, with strong regions and a weaker center. Can you clarify the validity of this statement and if true, how will a 2012 and beyond Nigeria look like based on your pre-1966 ideas and more importantly how do you suggest we go about the process to restructure Nigeria?

El-Rufai: Well, look, both General Babangida and General Obasanjo were people that fought to keep Nigeria one, they were at the Civil War. Babangida took a bullet to maintain Nigerian unity. So you can understand his position, and I believe that Nigeria is better off together as one country, because the bigger we are the better, and I think our unity in diversity is better for all of us.

But that’s my point of view. I’ll prefer to see one Nigeria, I’ll hate to need a visa to visit Obi Ezekwesili or Dele Olojede or Ighodalo. These are my friends that are not from my part of the country but I want to assure you that if people want to put on the table the breakup of Nigeria, then it would be a legitimate topic. There’s nothing that cannot be discussed because there is no part of Nigeria that cannot survive on its own. So nobody should threaten the other. We must remain together if it is beneficial to all of us.

The situation where some people look at me because I’m from the north and say I’m a parasite is unacceptable, I’ll rather live with my poverty and dignity than to be insulted every day. So, those that are threatening to break up Nigeria should know that there are the Babangidas and Obasanjos of this world that are ready to take up arm to keep Nigeria one. But there are people like us that are willing to discuss it, so I do not fully agree with the Babangida’s doctrine of settled issues. That is his generation – he is a General and he had his reasons, and we all have our reasons for taking one belief or another.

Now, I have a preference for the pre-1966 Nigeria because we had strong regions, a fairly well functioning central government that was not too strong, and it worked. It engendered regional competition; it made all the regions of the country to develop their own internal resources. It had very little room for the kind of laid-back; wait-every-month-for-the-oil-money-to-flow. I think it worked better for Nigeria, it worked better for the North, for the West, the East and for the Midwest. How do we get there? I don’t know

The matter is we have 36 states in the federation with governors, with legislators and with Local Government chairmen, and you know what? They call the reins of power, they will not easily allow Nigeria to go back to the pre-1966 arrangement. But if I’m to have my wish we should be talking about Nigeria along those lines because I think that arrangement worked. Now we may need to tweak it and adjust it to take into account that we are in the 21st century and many things have passed under the bridge since then, but I think it worked, and I think if we put our heads together and think about a way, I’m sure we’ll find a way to negotiate and get to that end point. Do I have a road map? No, I don’t have.

 

SHARIA AND MINORITY RIGHTS

NVS: I think quite a number of people will appreciate that response. It cannot be of course argued that Northern Nigeria is predominantly Muslim and also it cannot be of course argued that the Nigerian constitution recognizes the practice of Sharia law. Hence one can see why those states would want to be ruled by Sharia law.

What is not apparent is that a number of people will take issue with your statement the rights of the minority Northern Christian people, like the huge populations of parts of Kebbi State, Southern Zaria et al are being respected as well as the rights of the non-Muslim Southerners by also not being subjected to Sharia law. Do you have some comments on this? As this is a major complaint of those people within Northern Nigeria.

El-Rufai: Look, listen, I am from Kaduna state, and we have Christian minority in my state, and we had Sharia under Governor Madaki. Sharia does not apply to non-Muslims, as it is all over. There is nowhere, I challenge you to bring out the case of any non-Muslim brought to Sharia court to settle a dispute or to subject him to the criminal law, it’s not true. There isn’t one case, not one, people just say these things without looking at the facts…

We know the case of Amina Lawal, we know the case of Fatima the woman that was convicted for adultery which was quashed at the Court of Appeal. So, even for the Muslims that appealed (their cases) ultimately Sharia law didn’t apply to them. But there is not one single case, and I challenge anyone in your forum and in the Village Square, to produce a situation in which a Christian was brought before a Sharia court and tried under Sharia law, it doesn’t happen.

 

NVS: ……I lived in Samaru we have the sharia court of law near the market. So I know Sharia has always been there, but it just looked like, with the advent of civilian government it took a different dimension, it became like the law of the land.

El-Rufai: No no no no, let me explain Ajibola. What we have in the Northern states from time is the Penal Code. The Penal Code… of Northern Nigeria is based on Sharia. It was brought from Pakistan and Sudan, and modified and enacted for Nigeria. That’s what we have, the Penal Code that apply to all the northern states.

But the penal code is not strict Sharia, it’s a mix of customary law, a bit of Sharia and the common law. But you have Sharia court and Area court, and so on and so forth.

Sharia court then deals with only personal Islamic law- marriage, inheritance, divorce and so on and so forth. That was the scope of Sharia court then. What happened in the first Obasanjo term was, starting with Zamfara state and then across 11 northern state, the governors decided to expand the scope of Sharia law to include the criminal law, so when you steal a goat instead of going to prison for 3 months as it obtained in the penal code for instance, they cut off your hand. That is the only addition. And in all these laws, in all the Northern states that I know adopting Sharia, there were clear caveat that this does not apply to non-Muslims. The Penal code is the one that still applies to non-Muslims, and you have in many states in the North like Benue state, certain aspects of even the Penal code like the aspect relating to adultery, are not applicable.

So the penal code is a very flexible form of legal system, which I think, as a Muslim, I think have gone far enough to take care most aspect of Sharia as they relate to our personal lives as Muslims. But those governors crossed the line and went into criminal law, and that’s what this is all about. But like I said, even when they did cross the line and many of us disagree with them – even then, it did not apply to non-Muslims.