President Goodluck Jonathan Monday inaugurated 492 delegates who will debate Nigeria’s future at the National Conference and dropped a hint that the federal government would subject the decisions of the conference to a referendum, if the need arises.
The president, in his speech in Abuja, in which he made a case for a new Nigeria, using the opportunity provided by the National Conference to build a country free from the prejudices of the past, also reiterated that he had no personal agenda for setting up the national discourse.
He again defended his decision to go ahead with the National Conference despite criticisms from a cross-section of Nigerians, saying it would afford the country and its people a chance to address their grievances, some of which are being discussed in the media.
According to him, Nigerians could not continue to fold their arms and assume that things would straighten themselves out in due course, instead of taking practical steps to overcome impediments to their path to true nationhood, rapid development and national prosperity.
He described the inauguration as a significant landmark in the efforts at strengthening national unity and consolidating democratic governance in the country.
The president also raised the possibility of subjecting the decisions of the conference to a referendum, saying: â€œLet me at this point thank the National Assembly for introducing the provision for a referendum in the proposed amendment to the constitution. This should be relevant for this conference if at the end of the deliberations, the need for a referendum arises.â€
He stated that the National Conference was convened to engage in intense introspection about the political and socio-economic challenges confronting the nation and to chart the best and most acceptable way for the resolution of such challenges in the collective interest of the country.
He said: â€œFor many years, we have discussed and argued over various issues concerning our national existence and well-being. Much of this national discourse has been conducted through the mass media, both print and electronic. More recently, the advent of the age of ICT and socia
l media has greatly enlarged the space for the discussion of our countryâ€™s future.
â€œMy administration is convening this National Conference today (yesterday) because we believe that we must assume responsibility for ensuring that the long-running national debate on the best way forward for our country is not in vain.
â€œIn inaugurating this national conference today (yesterday), we are not unmindful of the argument of those who say that we do not need such a conference since we already have an elected parliament and an elected government in place.
â€œAs cogent as that argument may sound, I have chosen to act on the sincere conviction that in the truly democratic nation we are striving to build, we must never ignore the loudly expressed views of the majority of ordinary Nigerians.
â€œI have heard that majority say that we need to rebuild trust by involving them in the process of developing a guiding document of our national political relationships which is more acceptable to all sections of the country.
â€œI have also heard them say that, as the elected representatives of our people, we must never arrogate to ourselves all knowledge and wisdom regarding the development of our country.
â€œAnd I am in full agreement with our people. The power we hold is, without question, in trust for the people. Sovereignty belongs to the people. Their voices must be heard and factored into every decision we take on their behalf.â€
He described the National Conference as an important avenue for the voices of the people to be heard.
â€œOur people have yearnings and desires that need to be discussed. Their representatives at this conference are neither usurping the role of the National Assembly nor the executive. They are complementing us in our march towards a greater and stronger union.
â€œOver the years, well-meaning Nigerians have drawn attention to inadequacies in our current constitution. Some have described it as a military-inspired document which does not take into full consideration the genuine desires and wishes of the people.
â€œWhile opinions on the matter can be as diverse as rain showers, I believe that irrespective of our personal views on the issue, no one can deny the fact that every constitution is a living document that needs to be revised and improved upon from time to time. The United States, which is the model democracy in the eyes of many, has amended its constitution 27 times since it was first adopted in 1787.
â€œSome of our compatriots also believe that because we have held several conferences in the past, we do not need to hold another one. I do not share that view at all.
â€œA deeper look will reveal that the challenges we faced before each of the preceding national conferences were different. The challenges of 1956 are certainly not the challenges of 2014, and definitely not the challenges that the nation will face in years to come.
â€œIt makes sense, therefore, that as the challenges before us evolve, we must be constant and proactive in our search for fresh solutions. We cannot continue to proffer yesterdayâ€™s solutions for today’s problems,â€ the president added.
He explained that the conference was open to Nigerians to table their thoughts and positions on issues, and make recommendations that would advance their togetherness.
He said the issues ranged from the form of government, structures of government, devolution of powers, revenue sharing, resource control, state and local government creation, boundary adjustment, state police and fiscal federalism to local government elections, indigeneship, gender equality and childrenâ€™s rights, among others.
He added: â€œWe must not approach these issues with suspicion and antagonism. Rather, we should be open-minded and work to achieve what is best for Nigeria. 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 a reference point at this national gathering.
â€œIt is very regrettable that there are persons who believe that we cannot undertake any collective task in our country without the hindrance of ethnic rivalry even after 100 years of nationhood.
â€œThis conference gives us an opportunity to prove such persons wrong and I believe it will. As we start a new century of nationhood, we have an obligation to reshape and redirect our country for the benefit of our children.
â€œThere should be no room for divisive cleavages and ethnic jingoism. There should be no room for selfish considerations that defeat the purpose of national progress. There should be room only for the national interest.
â€œIn the 60s, our country was ranked along with some developing countries including India, Malaysia and South Korea. Today, those countries have moved far ahead of us in several areas.
â€œMy expectation is that the outcome of this conference will be a positive turning point for our countryâ€™s development. We must seize this opportunity to cement the cleavages and fault lines that tend to separate us. We must re-launch our country.
â€œYesterday’s prejudices should die with yesterday. Today is a new day. This is the dawn of a new era. This is an opportunity to think anew. We must jettison the poisonous mindsets of the past, which were built on unhealthy competition among our diverse groups and peoples.
â€œWe need a new mind and a new spirit of oneness and national unity. The time has come to stop seeing Nigeria as a country of many groups and regions.
â€œWe have been divinely brought together under one roof. We must begin to see ourselves as one community. We are joined together by similar hopes and dreams as well as similar problems and challenges. What affects one part of the community affects the other.”
Jonathan said he expected that as persons of integrity and honour, the delegates would not undermine efforts and desire to build a truly great nation.
He charged them to ensure that their discussions are informed only by the noblest of instincts and persuasions.
â€œI urge all officials and participants in the National Conference to work extra hard to ensure that their deliberations are completed on schedule, well ahead of the schedule of events for the next general election already announced by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
â€œLet me again repeat what I have been saying that Goodluck Jonathan has no personal agenda in convening this national conference,” the president added.
Earlier, in his opening remarks, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Senator Anyim Pius Anyim, said the conference would serve the purpose of re-emerging the unity of Nigeria as a sovereign nation.
While responding to the presidentâ€™s speech, the Chairman of the conference, retired Justice Idris Kutigi, assured him that the delegates would do the nation proud.
Many of the delegates and dignitaries at the event, including former Senate President Ken Nnamani; former Minister of Education, Prof. Jibril Aminu; human rights activist and lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN); and Catholic Archbishop of Abuja Diocese, John Cardinal Onaiyeikan, lauded the president’s speech and expressed optimism that the outcome of the conference would be positive.