President Goodluck Jonathan, yesterday, inaugurated the 492-member National Conference stating that his administration opted to convoke the summit this year for the sake of national unity, peace and progress.
Jonathan, at the premises of the National Judicial Institute in Abuja, said the challenges staring the nation in the face and the need to move the nation forward also informed the convocation of the dialogue.
Making his remarks, Jonathan received intermittent applause from the delegates and guests as he went memory lane to justify the timing and imperatives of the confab at this time.
The President said the timing of the conference could not have been better than now that Nigeria had just celebrated 100 years of existence as a nation and urged Nigerians to see it as a veritable platform for resolving the nation’s headaches.
The President urged the delegates not to bow to the pressure being mounted by ethnic jingoists to promote ethnic agenda during their deliberations but to work for the overall interest of Nigeria.
He said: “The National Conference is, therefore, being convened to engage in intense introspection about the political and socio-economic challenges confronting our nation and to chart the best and most acceptable way for the resolution of such challenges in the collective interest of all the constituent parts of our fatherland.
“This coming together under one roof to confer and build a fresh national consensus for the amicable resolution of issues that still cause friction amongst our people must be seen as an essential part of the process of building a more united, stronger and progressive nation.
“We cannot continue to fold our arms and assume that things will straighten themselves out in due course instead of taking practical steps to overcome impediments on our path to true nationhood, rapid development and national prosperity.
“It is our expectation that participants in this conference will patriotically articulate and synthesize our peoples’ thoughts, views and recommendations for a stronger, more united, peaceful and politically stable Nigeria, forge the broadest possible national consensus in support of those recommendations, and strive to ensure that they are given the legal and constitutional backing to shape the present and the future of our beloved fatherland.”
Justifying the convening of the conference despite a National Assembly in session, the President made it clear that the conference would not in any way usurp the functions of the legislature.
According to him, the National Conference is a very important avenue for the voices of our people to be heard. He said: “Our 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.”
He said the constitution of Nigeria, which had been criticised by many as a military document and outdated, needed to be amended to cope with the yearnings and aspirations of Nigerians since every constitution is a living document that needs to be revised and improved upon from time to time. Jonathan also disagreed with those opposed to the conference, saying the challenges of the time were different from those of the past and the future.
He said: “It 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 yesterday’s solutions for today’s problems.”
In what appeared as a clear agenda for the delegates, the President enunciated the areas of focus for the participants, saying: “This conference is open for us to table our thoughts and positions on issues and make recommendations that will advance our togetherness.
“The issues range from 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 children’s rights, among others.
“We 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 reference point at this national gathering. Whatever the pressures on you may be, I call upon you to put the best interest of Nigeria before all other sectional or group interests.
“Indeed, I am quite worried when I hear people say that some participants in this National Conversation are coming here to defend and promote ethnic or clannish agenda. It 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. This 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.
“There 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. My expectation is that the outcome of this conference will be a positive turning point for our country’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.
“I know the task before you is onerous, but there must be only one winner, and there can only be one winner if we do everything right, and that winner must be Nigeria. I urge you therefore to focus strictly on the Nigerian Agenda. I expect that, as persons of integrity and honour, you will do nothing in this conference that will undermine our efforts and desire to build a truly great nation. I also expect that your discussions will be informed only by the noblest of instincts and persuasions.”
“Our sole motivation for convening this conference is the patriotic desire for a better and greater nation. We are determined that things must be done in a way and manner that will positively advance that objective. While we recognise that groups and communities are the building blocks of our nation, we must also emphasise that we need one another to build the solid and prosperous country of our dreams. We cannot join hands together to build with a collective vision if we continue to harbour negative biases and prejudices against ourselves.
“Yesterday’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 mind-sets of the past, which were built on unhealthy competition among our diverse groups and peoples.
“We 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. We 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.”
The Chairman of the National Conference, Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi, pledged to do his best to ensure that the conference was successful and thanked all the delegates for accepting their nominations and turning up.