Mixed Reactions Trail President’s Proposal for National Conference. •PDP factions, others hail initiative, APC, Arewa cautious •Okurounmu, Nwabueze, 11 others to chart path for Nigeria’s future

President Goodluck Jonathan Tuesday announced the constitution of a committee to prepare the grounds for the convocation of a national conference, setting off a chain of reactions from critical stakeholders in the polity.
The president, in a national broadcast to mark Nigeria’s 53rd independence anniversary, said the 13-member advisory committee, which will establish the modalities for a national conference aimed at resolving issues causing friction in the polity, would be chaired by a chieftain of Afenifere, Dr. Femi Okurounmu.
The committee, with Dr. Akilu Indabawa as its secretary, has one month to submit its report and will be inaugurated by Jonathan on Monday.
Jonathan’s announcement, which marked a shift of position by his administration to the clamour for the convocation of a national conference to discuss the terms of the continued relationship among the nation’s disparate constituent parts, was greeted by plaudits and scepticism from political parties, members of the House of Representatives and other pressure groups.
The ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), its breakaway faction, the New PDP, and the Afenifere Renewal Group (ARG) hailed the decision, which they said was in the interest of the nation.
However, the All Progressives Congress (APC), the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) and others were more cautious in reacting to the announcement, saying it was better to wait for further details on it.
Jonathan, in the early morning broadcast, defended the change of stance by his administration on the convocation of a national conference, which some pressure groups and notable Nigerians have been demanding under successive administrations since the rebirth of democracy in the country.
He said: “Fellow Nigerians, our administration has taken cognisance of suggestions over the years by well-meaning Nigerians on the need for a national dialogue on the future of our beloved country.
“When there are issues that constantly stoke tensions and bring about friction, it makes perfect sense for the interested parties to come together to discuss.
“In demonstration of my avowed belief in the positive power of dialogue in charting the way forward, I have decided to set up an advisory committee whose mandate is to establish the modalities for a national dialogue or conference.
“The committee will also design a framework and come up with recommendations as to the form, structure and mechanism of the process.
“The full membership of the committee will be announced shortly. I expect its report to be ready in one month, following which the nation will be briefed on the nomenclature, structure and modalities of the dialogue.”
In the speech, in which he said he would depart from tradition to give account of his stewardship, the president urged Nigerians to remain fully committed to building a strong, united, progressive and prosperous nation in spite of the present challenges.
“In truth, Nigeria is still a work in progress and we are challenged everyday to keep building in spite of the various obstacles we face.
“History has proven that nations take time to evolve. We should rejoice in our democracy because it enables us to be united by our differences, not destroyed by them. And there is no more crucial time for us to be united than now.
“The threats we face may be real and immediate. But we are not alone in this regard. It is a difficult season for much of the world: industrialised or developing, rich or poor. What matters are the lessons we learn, the wisdom we demonstrate, and the victories we snatch from the jaws of possible defeat.
“This is a time to pull together behind the national cause: the cause of our freedom, and our future. We must rekindle the spirit of Nigeria, to ensure that every democrat and every lover of peace in this great nation continues to live in a free, peaceful and secure Nigeria,” the president added.
He also reaffirmed the federal government’s commitment to bring the war against domestic terrorism to a successful conclusion as quickly as possible.
“My heart goes out to the families of all those who have fallen victim of these dastardly acts. Our administration will not rest until every Nigerian is free from the oppression of terrorism.
“I reassure you that no cost will be spared, no idea will be ignored, and no resource will be left untapped in the quest to enable our people live without fear.
“I implore every Nigerian – wherever you are, whatever language you speak, whatever your religious persuasion, whichever political party you support – let us join hands to fight this evil of extremism,” he said.
A statement later in the day by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Senator Anyim Pius Anyim, named other members of the committee and its terms of reference.
Besides Okurounmu and Indabawa, other members of the committee are: Nigeria’s former ambassador to the US, Prof George Obiozo; legal luminary and constitutional expert, Prof. Ben Nwabueze; Senator Khairat Gwadabe; Senator Timothy Adudu; Col. Tony Nyiam (rtd), who was of the Col. Gideon Orkar 1990 coup that attempted to overthrow the General Ibrahim Babangida administration; Prof. Funke Adebayo; Dr. Mairo Ahmed Amshi; Dr. Abubakar Sadiq; Alhaji Dauda Birma; Mallam Buhari Bello; and Niger Delta activist, Mr. Tony Uranta.
Anyim listed the terms of reference for the committee to include consulting expeditiously with all relevant stakeholders with a view to drawing up a feasible agenda for the proposed national conference; and making recommendations to government on structure and modalities for the proposed national conference.
According to him, they are also expected to make recommendations to government on how representation of various interest groups at the national conference will be determined, and as well as advise on a timeframe for the exercise.
Welcoming the president’s decision on a national conference, the PDP said it showed that he derived his mandate from the wishes of Nigerians.
The party, in a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Chief Olisa Metuh, added that by his position, Jonathan had demonstrated that he was not only a listening president, but he values the opinions of Nigerians.
Commending the president for disappointing the opposition which was expecting him to use the occasion to score political points, the PDP said his “rare humility in acknowledging teething national challenges, his manifest resolve to fight head-on until Nigerians are freed from the oppression of terrorism; his good wishes and prayers for the families of victims of terrorism; and his strident call on those elected to govern at all levels to focus on improving the lives of our people and not selfish ambition, show him as a leader alive to the welfare of his  people.”
The New PDP also set aside the bitter rivalry in the ruling party to hail the president’s decision to embrace national dialogue as a means of discussing the nation’s multifarious problems.
The faction, in a statement by its National Chairman, Alhaji  Abubakar Kawu Baraje, described the plan by the federal government to constitute a national dialogue committee to address the problems confronting Nigeria as a nation as timely and appropriate.
It also called for the constitution of a special team of technocrats to manage the economy and the decaying infrastructure in the country, while restating the call for state police to help in tackling the growing state of insecurity in the country.
Baraje said: “We see the clamour for a national dialogue as timely and appropriate as there is an urgent need for Nigerians to come together and discuss matters affecting them as well as the way forward.
“We, therefore, welcome Mr. President’s announcement in his Independence Day broadcast on the establishment of a committee to advise him on the modalities for holding of the conference.
“We, however, wish to warn that the proposed conference should not serve the same cosmetic purpose served by previous efforts; it should be empowered to discuss all issues agitating the minds of Nigerians – there should not be any no-go areas except the unity and oneness of Nigeria, which is not debatable.”
Lamenting the poor standard of living in the country, Baraje said Nigeria at 53 has turned into a borderless valley of tears where life expectancy hovers at between 40 and 43 years.
The APC was more cautious in its reaction to the president’s announcement to set up an advisory committee to plan for a national conference, saying it will consider the details, when available, before taking a decision on it.
Its position came just as a former Governor of Edo State and chieftain of the APC, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, expressed doubts over the propriety of the decision to hold a national conference a year ahead of the 2015 general election.
Speaking to the press yesterday on the phone, APC’s interim National Publicity Secretary, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said the party would wait to get the full details of the presidential initiative before tabling it at a meeting of its leadership for discussion.
But Odigie-Oyegun expressed concern that the sudden support for a national conference by Jonathan and Senate President David Mark might not be unconnected to the brewing political crisis in the PDP over the 2015 presidential election.
The ACF also toed APC’s line in expressing caution over the setting up of the committee to plan for a national conference.
ACF spokesman, Mr. Anthony Sani, said yesterday that the pan-Northern group was not opposed to national dialogue that could help to strengthen Nigeria’s unity.
He, however, cautioned that the north would support the exercise, provided such national dialogue would not come by way of a  “sovereign national conference that amounts to passing a vote of no confidence on our democracy and its institutions, which no group has the right to do anyway.”
Sani explained that until the advisory committee submits its reports on the name, content, scope and direction of the national dialogue, ACF could not give an informed reaction to the development.
But the ARG backed the presidential proposal, saying that it was the answer to the clamour, which it and other groups had been making for years.
The ARG, in a statement by its Publicity/Media Secretary, Mr. Kunle Famoriyo, said the ARG “has been asking unwaveringly for a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) and will definitely cooperate with and support the advisory council set up by the President Goodluck Jonathan, where necessary.”
It welcomed the appointment of Okurounmu to chair the committee, describing him as someone “who has spent a significant part of his life in the struggle for democracy and true federalism and will work to produce a guideline that we can all be proud of, provided the government has not dictated a ‘no-go areas’ to the committee.”
The ARG urged Jonathan “to ensure this latest move comes from a pure motive of ending the country’s many problems,” adding, “We recall many conferences had been constituted in the past that never yielded any dividend for the people of Nigeria.”
Also welcoming the proposal for a national conference, Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, said such a national dialogue would only be meaningful if, at the end of the day, it addressed the fundamental questions bothering the diverse people of Nigeria.
He added that a national dialogue was long overdue, given the persistent clamour for it by pro-democracy groups in the country, but warned against a situation where the proposed dialogue would be turned into a mere talk shop and a political gimmick that would not add any value to Nigeria.
Chairman, House Committee on Justice, Hon. Ali Ahmad, on his part, said a national dialogue was desirable in principle but feared that it might be a tactic to divert the attention of Nigerians from the current debate over Jonathan’s eligibility to contest the 2015 presidential election.
Another lawmaker, Hon. Razak Bello-Osagie, described the national dialogue simply as a mixed bag. The lawmaker said Nigerians were looking forward to a completely new era characterised by real dividends of democracy and not policy and programme somersault on a note of experimentation.
Meanwhile, to mark Nigeria’s 53rd independence anniversary, the federal government yesterday held a low-key celebration at the Presidential Villa, Abuja.
To mark the occasion, there was a special presidential change of guard, which lasted for about two hours and was held at the forecourt of the villa to replace the normal full military parade and calisthenics that characterised previous independence anniversaries in the country.
The president had earlier stated that this year’s anniversary would be sombre, involving only the usual change of guard, which he said was a normal exercise always done on Monday mornings but for the independence anniversary, it was shifted to Tuesday.
The event started with the arrival of the president. He however did not appear in his ceremonial military uniform.
He inspected the quarter guards before marching to the villa’s forecourt to receive the national salute, which was followed by the rendition of the National Anthem.
Shortly after the ceremony, Jonathan signed the anniversary register, released pigeons from a cage and assisted by some top dignitaries, cut the anniversary cake.
Among those who attended the ceremony included former Head of State, Gen Yakubu Gowon; former Head of the Interim National Government, Chief Ernest Shonekan; Senate President David Mark; PDP National Chairman, Alhaji Bamanga Tukur; Primate of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Nicholas Okoh; Chairman, PDP Board of Trustees (BoT), Chief Tony Anineh; and former Information Minister, Prof Jerry Gana.
Others were the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Aminu Tambuwal; his deputy, Emeka Ihedioha; former Head of Civil Service, Steven Oronsaye; former Senate Presidents, Senators Ken Nnamani and Adolphus Wabara; Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Aloma Mukhtar; service chiefs; ministers; top government functionaries; and members of the diplomatic corps.