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Nigeria: the debate is far from over; The National Political Reforms Conference convened by President Obasanjo five months ago to discuss the future of the country ended acrimoniously in July after several walkouts and boycotts. Pini Jason reports from Lagos.

A little over two hours into the main plenary session, which had been resumed after a 15 June walkout of delegates from the South-South, the National Political Reforms Conference (NPRC) was adjourned indefinitely. The unceremonious end did not surprise many observers, particularly the rival Pro-National Conference (PRONACO) organisers, led by the veteran politician, Chief Anthony Enahoro and the Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka.

The last straw was the emotive issue of revenue allocation by the "derivation principle", otherwise known as resource control. The oil-rich people of the Niger Delta, known as the South-South zone, demanded that 50% of revenue from all resources be allocated to the community in which it is found. While the argument raged, the South-South eventually came down to 25% minimum.

As the South-South insisted on resource control, the Igbos of the South-East called for a return to the former regional structure based on the six geo-political zones, and the rotation of the presidency among them. In addition, the Igbos insisted it was their turn at the presidency in 2007. Obasanjo's men worked tirelessly to force through six-year single term tenures for the president and a five-year single term for governors. This proposal was followed by a campaign by Obasanjo's foot soldiers that he should get a two-year extension to his second term to kickstart the new six-year single term, causing uproar among Nigerians.

But the death-knell for the conference was the issue of resource control. The South-South based its argument on the 1960 and 1963 constitutions that allowed the former regions to keep 50% of revenue from their regions and contribute a further 30% to the common distributable account from which the regions shared. The remaining 20% was surrendered to the federal government.

This old arrangement, it was argued, was not only the essence of true federalism and cultural diversity, but allowed each region to develop at its own pace.

During military rule, though, the percentages given to the federating units were whittled down to zero. However, previous agitations led by civil society groups restored it to three per cent under General Ibrahim Babangida's military government while General Sani Abacha who overthrew Babangida increased it to 13%.

The North, which was all along uncomfortable with the conference, opposed virtually every proposal the Southern zones tabled, but eventually agreed to a 17% revenue allocation on the principle of derivation, insisting that the presidency oscillates between the North and the South. In effect, this means in 2007 it is the turn of the North.

Their position, which many Southern delegates described as intransigent and condescending, pushed the South-South to look for a strategic alliance with the Northern minorities of the Middle Belt, which agreed to support the 25% demanded by the South-South.

It then became strategic for the Igbos of the South-East to also throw their weight behind the South-South agitation. After a lukewarm attitude to the controversy, the South-West, which was more interested in regional autonomy, also came round to support 25% for derivation. With four zones in favour of 25%, two Northern zones against, the conference was primed for a showdown. It did not help matters when the process of adopting the report of the Harmonisation Committee of Conference Elders saw the NPRC sail into even more troubled waters.

Whereas the South-South expected a debate on the report, Justice Niki Tobi, the chairman of the conference, called for a motion for the adoption of the report, which had recommended 17% derivation. Tobi later admitted that he was misled into calling for a motion to adopt the report.

The South-South delegates walked out, closely followed by the South-East, while the Northern delegation swore to boycott the conference should the derivative issue be reopened for debate. In the process, the conference adjourned twice to allow tempers to simmer down, but the South-South would not be placated. President Obasanjo met twice with the governors and leaders but could not break the deadlock.

When asked why the stalemate, during his Radio Nigeria programme (The President Speaks), Obasanjo played Pontius Pilate by saying: "No formal report has been made to me. Whatever I have learnt about the confab had been through informal sources. We are watching and waiting." After one month of watching and waiting, the conference ended, adopting the 17% derivation principle.
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Title Annotation:Olusegun Obasanjo
Author:Jason, Pini
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6NIGR
Date:Aug 1, 2005
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