Nigerian opens much-anticipated national conference

By Rafiu Ajakaye, Monday, March 17, 2014

LAGOS – President Goodluck Jonathan on Monday inaugurated a much-anticipated national conference bringing together 492 delegates from different segments of Nigeria, with the hopes of resolving all knotty issues confronting the heterogeneous nation, cement its unity and propel it to development.

"The conference is open to table our thoughts and positions on issues and make recommendations that will advance our togetherness," Jonathan said in a 52-point speech that spanned over 40 minutes.

"The issues range from form of government, structures of government, devolution of powers, revenue sharing, resource control, state and logical government reactions, boundary adjustment, state police and fiscal federalism to local government elections, indigeneship, gender equality and children's rights, amongst others," he elaborated.

The president insisted he has no personal agenda, a veiled reproach to those claiming he hurriedly bought into the conference idea to advance his political interest.

"Even though you come to the conference as nominees and representatives of different interest groups, I urge you all to make a more united, stronger, indivisible and prosperous Nigeria your preoccupation and reference point at this national gathering," he added.

Delegates are drawn from different ethno-religious and interest groups, including the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs and the Christian Association of Nigeria.

There are also delegates from each of the country's 36 states and professional bodies.

Conference proceedings are expected to go on for three months.

The conference is chaired by retired jurist Idris Legbo Kutigi, a northerner.

He is a former chief justice of Nigeria and one of the few senior judges with an unblemished public record.

Kutigi is deputized by Bolaji Akinyemi, a former foreign minister from Nigeria's southwestern region and a widely respected scholar of international relations.

-Referendum-

The delegates are expected to debate issues such as resources control and Sharia.

Delegates from the oil-rich Niger Delta region are expected to square up against the North which would likely reject any plan to increase derivation formulae from the current 13 percentage of oil income.

The issue of Sharia is another sensitive issue given the insurgency in the country's northeast where the militant Boko Haram is demanding Sharia rule.

Although most Nigerian Muslims don't agree with Boko Haram's violent ideology, they are most likely to reject any attempt to undermine the status of Sharia in the constitution, which currently recognizes Sharia courts.

President Jonathan drew the first applause in his long speech when he said the government would consider subjecting the conference's outcome to a referendum.

"The outcome of the exercise could well be subjected to a national referendum if the National Assembly had concluded the ongoing constitutional amendment, which has a section incorporating into our constitution the provisions for a national referendum," he noted.

Currently, Nigeria's constitution does not allow for a referendum, but provisions for such have been included in parliament's proposed constitutional amendment.

Whether the constitutional amendment will have been completed by the time the three-month conference winds up remains unclear.

Putting the conference's outcome to a referendum will buy the president and the meeting a lot of goodwill among the skeptical Nigerian public.

An earlier proposal to put the outcome before parliament had sparked criticism, informed largely by public distrust of the partisan legislature whose most members suffer credibility crisis.

"I use this opportunity to commend the National Assembly for incorporating provisions for a referendum in the ongoing constitution amendment," Jonathan said.

Nigeria has had many constitutional conferences, the first dating back to the early 1920s. It was sponsored by the British, Nigeria's colonial masters.

The first indigenous constitutional conference was held in 1963 and had given birth to the country's Republican constitution of 1963.

The last constitutional conference was in 2005, called by then President Olusegun Obasanjo.

It ended in confusion after some allies of the president smuggled in a document recommending another term for Obasanjo who was serving out his second and last term allowed under the constitution.

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