Ahead of a meeting President Goodluck Jonathan is billed to hold with some delegates over the impasse on the voting format at the National Conference, the ad hoc committee set up to broker a truce over the issue has reached a compromise, THISDAY learnt Thursday.
It was learnt that the 50-member committee, tagged The Consensus Group, which was set up on Wednesday to resolve the logjam over whether the conference should adopt the three-quarters voting system or the two-third version, agreed on 70 per cent at the meeting of the group on the second day.
The agreement, which will be passed to other delegates for ratification, was regarded as a strategic move to produce a win-win situation in the voting pattern crisis that has pitted northern delegates against their southern counterparts.
During the two-day debate on the voting pattern that produced a deadlock on Tuesday, the northern delegates had refused to give ground on their demand for the National Conference to adopt three-quarters of the votes for ratifying resolutions of the 492-member gathering.
On their part, the southern delegates had insisted on the adoption of a two-thirds majority. The row over the voting format forced the conference to adjourn sitting on Wednesday until Monday to enable the 50-member interim committee work out a consensus on the issue. But THISDAY gathered that despite the compromise reached on the format, the president will still meet with some delegates between now and Sunday. However, the House of Representatives has warned that the conference may end up a wasted effort except the 1999 Constitution is amended to provide for the conduct of referendum in ratifying the report of the national discourse.
Giving THISDAY an update on the deadlock over the voting pattern at the conference, a source said: "We agree that there must be consensus on all issues to be discussed, but where it fails, then the voting pattern must be 70 per cent of the 492 delegates.
"But first, the delegates must first go out to negotiate and if it fails, the plenary shall be adjourned for a second time for negotiations and it fails, the conference shall at the third time vote and the voting shall be by a consensus of 70 per cent. This is give and take; no winner, no vanquished."
It was gathered that in the new spirit of the agreement, the southern delegates would no longer insist on the two-thirds majority vote and their northern counterparts would give ground from the 75 per cent to accept the recommended version.
With the resolution of the controversy over the voting format, it was learnt that the leadership would on Monday announce membership of the 22 committees of the conference.
By the approved rules of the conference, the secretariat will place delegates in the various committees, while the delegates will choose their leaders by themselves.
Irrespective of the consensus reached by the National Conference interim committee to adopt the 70 per cent voting format, Jonathan will between today and Sunday meet with some delegates over the controversy on the issue.
It was also gathered that the decision of the northern delegates to stick to the three-quarters majority vote was the outcome of a meeting the president had with the Sultan of Sokoto, Sa'ad Abubakar III and some Muslim leaders to guarantee the participation of the north and Muslims in the conference.
THISDAY gathered that during the meeting between the president, the sultan and other Muslim clerics, it was agreed that the only way to ensure parity between northern and southern delegates on all issues was to ensure a level of inclusiveness of all delegates was reached, so that the outcome of the conference would be acceptable to Nigerians.
A source told reporters yesterday that "the three-quarters voting pattern was indeed a compromise made by the president to ensure that everyone is carried along and to ensure that when the issue of a referendum is on the table, everyone will have a sense of belonging.
"It is not about a winner taking it all as obtains in the two-thirds majority vote, which is 24 states. But in an inclusive consensus where the decision of three-quarters of the delegates, translating to 27 states, this means that only nine states would be in the minority.
"This is why the matter of three-quarters is made much easier, in the event that the outcome of the conference is subjected to a referendum".
He explained that the northern delegates were initially sceptical of the conference, "but with the assurances of the president and the dangling of the three-quarters voting format as the basis for reaching decisions, that made the north buy into the idea of the conference. "Some of us thought that the president had a hidden agenda, but with the assurances of the three-quarters majority vote, it helped to ease the doubts that the president had a hidden agenda. So, the three-quarters is President Jonathan's brain child."
The source said it was for this reason that Jonathan had agreed to meet some delegates from the South to explain the circumstances that led to the suggestion of the three-quarters voting pattern.
"It was an agreement reached and it is the reason why the president will be meeting with them to explain issues and let the conference go ahead as planned," the source added.
Speaking further on the meeting between the president and the Muslim delegation, the source explained that it was meant to address the imbalance between Muslims and Christians in the composition of the delegates.
"The main point is that the Christians and southerners are more in number and there is the fear that the conference will alter many fundamental issues in the country. It is easier to reach a two-thirds consensus in favour of southerners and Christians than with the Muslims and northerners.
"If the two-thirds voting pattern is to be accepted, then there should be a recomposition of the delegates to ensure a parity between the North and the South. That is the essence of the meeting between the president and the group led by the Sultan of Sokoto," the source said. But a representative of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) to the National Conference, Mr. John Achimugu, dismissed allegations of lopsidedness in the composition of the delegates against Muslims.
Achimugu, in an interview with THISDAY in Kaduna yesterday, described the allegations by the Jama'atu Nasril Islam (JNI) as unfounded and being peddled by those who do not mean well for the country.
According to him, those behind the allegation are out to ensure that the conference does not hold so that the status quo could be maintained.
"Anybody who saw the list of the federal government delegates which was published would know that Christians are represented by six delegates, Muslims are equally represented by six delegates. I do not see the lopsidedness in the six-six representation.
"People came from various shades of life, representing various shades of interests, professional bodies, NGOs and the likes. There is no parameter set for the conference that such people, in the process of their nomination to represent their group interests, must be nominated on the parameter of religion," he said.
Besides, Achimugu who was also a delegate to the conference organised by the Obasanjo administration in 2005, faulted claims by the JNI that Muslims are in the majority in Nigeria, saying there has never been any census in Nigeria to determine the population of Muslims and Christians.
Also speaking on the conference, the Chairman, Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN), Alhaji Ibrahim Waziri, who is also a delegate, has described the essence of achieving consensus at the conference as a way of "achieving inclusiveness to the extent that all delegates must be seen to be carried along".
He urged his colleagues to let the interest of the unity of Nigeria guide their discussions at the conference, calling on the delegates to ensure that the outcome of the conference adds value to the welfare of Nigerians and promotes the oneness of the country.
He said: "National unity is upheld when a decision is reached and both the North and South are happy with such a decision. This is what I described as inclusiveness, let us come together and agree on the way forward and how we can create a new Nigeria of our dream. The controversy over the voting pattern is healthy because it will bring out the unity in us.
"The all-inclusive voting pattern is such that will bring the unity of all Nigerians and not one that would divide us and promote disunity in the country."
Also human rights activist and lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), said the delegates should be allowed to break into committees to familiarise themselves better with the tasks ahead before going into plenary sessions.
"After meeting ourselves at the committee level, and coming out to the larger house (plenary), we are likely to have known ourselves better and be availed of superior reason.
"From the way we are handling it now, the fears of some people were borne out of a misconceived notion and that is why it is a bit problematic. From the report at my disposal, the consensus committee that is consulting with the chairman is likely to have arrived at a decision that will be acceptable to all delegates," he added.
Meanwhile, the House has warned that unless the 1999 Constitution is further amended to allow for a referendum to ratify the outcome of the ongoing National Conference, the delegates might end up wasting their time.
Deputy Chairman, House Committee on Media and Publicity, Hon. Victor Ogene (APGA, Anambra), at a press briefing in Abuja, said no portion of the constitution provides for a referendum.
According to him, the only document that the legislators are duty bound to invoke and act upon is the constitution.
"For any section to be altered, you need a two-thirds of both chambers of the National Assembly and two-thirds of the state assemblies," he added.
He explained that unless this was done, the issue of a referendum would not sail through, as there is "nothing on a referendum before the House".
On the delay in passing the 2014 budget, he blamed some ministers for contributing to the situation.
Ogene said: "Often times, a minister defending his/her ministry's budget estimates may write to seek for the re-scheduling of an appearance, thereby taking the committees back several days."
Responding to the perception that the House Speaker, Hon. Aminu Tambuwal, also flies with chartered executive jets for his trips and should be probed just as the House has decided to investigate the Minster of Petroleum, Mrs Diezani Alison-Madueke, Ogene asked: "Is there any allegation that any money is missing in the coffers of the National Assembly? If not, there is no need to worry."