Jonathan: National Conference Won’t Negotiate Nigeria’s Integrity •Abdulsalami backs conversation • Jigawa to boycott national dialogue •Agbakoba seeks no restrictions on discussions

President Goodluck Jonathan Monday set the stage for a national conversation on Nigeria’s future with the inauguration of the National Advisory Committee on National Conference.
He seized the occasion to allay fears of critics of the committee, saying it would not negotiate the nation’s integrity.
The 13-member committee, headed by a chieftain of the pan-Yoruba group, Afenifere, Senator Femi Okurounmu, was given six weeks to submit its report, an extension by two weeks from the original deadline set for the committee when the president announced its formation in his 53rd independence day anniversary speech.
Jonathan said the extension of time was to accommodate the opinions of some Muslims who had already travelled for pilgrimage just as he gave the committee the latitude to determine the name to call the discourse.
However, when the conversation eventually begins, Jigawa State will not be part of it as its governor, Alhaji Sule Lamido, Monday announced that his people would not take part in the national dialogue.
But the president got the backing of a former military Head of State, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar (rtd.), in holding the national conference, which the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) described as an exercise that has nothing to offer the nation.
According to the president, contrary to the perception of critics on the exercise, the national dialogue is a concrete step to further strengthen understanding among the citizenry, expand the frontiers of inclusiveness and deepen their bond as one people under God.
He allayed the fears of those who think the conference will call the integrity of Nigeria into question, saying a national discourse would strengthen the nation’s union and address issues that are often on the front burner, and are too frequently ignored.
He also noted that the dialogue was a perfect way to calm tension, and channel misgivings, grievances and suggestions into positive use for the country.
Jonathan, in his speech, defended his administration’s change of stance to embrace a national conference as a way for the constituent parts of the country to examine and find solutions to the thorny issues that have impaired national cohesion.
He said the terms of reference of the committee were to facilitate a most acceptable process that would bring the aspirations of the people to fruition.
He said: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have wasted too much time and resources bickering over sectional versions of what define reality. This is an open-ended luxury we can no longer afford.
“Let us move forward, with honest conviction and patriotic courage, to strengthen this Republic, and get it to work better and brighter, for all of us, to the glory of God.
“Of course you will also agree with me that over the period, we have been wasting so much time putting wedges on our front lines.
“This committee and the assignment is to rather put a strong mortar that will bind our appendages and make our nation stronger for our own interest and especially for the interest of our children yet unborn.”
In response to criticisms that have trailed his decision to set up the committee, the president said: “There is a view by some of our people that we do not need to sit together to dialogue over the socio-political challenges facing our country. Some believe that because we have held several conferences in the past, we do not need to hold another one. I was one of those who exhibited scepticism on the need for another conference or dialogue. My scepticism was borne out of the nomenclature of such a conference, taking into cognisance existing democratic structures that were products of the will of the people.
“However, we are in a democracy, and in a democracy, elected leaders govern at the behest of the citizenry. As challenges emerge, season after season, leaders must respond with best available strategies to ensure that the ship of state remains undeterred in its voyage.”
The president explained that in the march to nationhood, it has become imperative for Nigerians  to be dynamic in their approach and response to the problems, even as solutions are being sought.
He said the gains of conference and dialogue to shape a nation were enormous, pointing out that conferences that were held before 1960 were designed to produce a political system and a roadmap to Nigeria’s independence.
While saying the conference is a people’s conversation, Jonathan also urged members of the committee to formulate an all-inclusive process that protects the people’s interest.
The president charged the committee not only to be alive to the expectations of the people, bearing in mind, “that what we desire is what can work for the good of our people and country”.
Jonathan assured pessimists that his administration would implement the outcome of the discourse, adding that recommendations from several dialogues of such nature had been put to use by the government.
In his remarks, Chairman, National Advisory Committee on the National Conference/Dialogue,  Okurounmu thanked Jonathan for the confidence reposed in the committee.
He said for over two decades, there had been calls from many sections of Nigeria for a national conference in one form or the other, adding that advocates of such a conference were prompted by what they perceived as the injustices and inequities prevalent in the polity.
“To this clamour for a national conference, there has also always been a strong resistance from other sections of the public who, while they may not have been as loud and numerous as the advocates of a conference, nevertheless have much political clout. These two conflicting pressures have always put our leaders in a very precarious position, making them reluctant to endorse the convening of a national conference or dialogue.
“This is why President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, having decided to convene such a conference, must be commended for showing courage. He has by his present move, shown himself to be a listening president, a president willing to accede to the yearnings of a majority of Nigerians, a president with a strong commitment to sincere constitutional reform, as part of his ongoing transformation agenda,” he said.
According to him, the president’s sincerity and commitment are further buttressed by the fact that he has not established any so-called “no go” areas for the committee.
He promised that the committee would live up to the expectations of the president and the people by carrying out its assignment with all sense of responsibility.
Besides Okurounmu, other members of the committee at the inauguration were the Secretary, Dr Akilu Indabawa, a former Nigeria’s Ambassador to the United States, Prof George Obiozor, Senators Khairat Gwadabe and Timothy Adudu, retired Col. Tony Nyiam and Prof. Funke Adebayo.
Others included Mrs Mairo Amshi, Dr Abubakar Sadiq, Alhaji Dauda Birma, Mallam Bukhari Bello and Mr Tony Uranta.
However, a member of the committee, Prof. Ben Nwabueze (SAN), did not attend the inauguration.
The Presidency explained that Nwabueze was absent because he was on a medical trip abroad and sent his apology for his inability to be physically present at the event.
Former head of state, Abdulsalami, drummed up support for the presidential initiative, saying it is better to “jaw jaw than to war war”.
He told State House correspondents shortly after making a presentation as the board chairman of the proposed nation’s Centenary City that the country would lose nothing by discussing its problems.
He said contrary to the belief of some Nigerians, the country had reasons to celebrate its 100 years of amalgamation.
But a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), urged Jonathan not to restrict issues Nigerians could discuss under the auspices of the conference.
He said in a statement signed by him yesterday that such a rare opportunity as the conference offered Nigerians the opportunity to agree on some major issues.
He also suggested that to compensate for the non-sovereign nature of the conference, it is vital that it would come with some important elements, which are; inclusion, authority, validity and legitimacy.
“By inclusion,  I mean every Nigerian must be allowed to freely speak his mind. By authority, I mean that we have to accept that the president and the National Assembly are the convening authorities. By validity, the government has to accept that we, the people shall validate the constitution by referendum. By legitimacy I mean that our discussions shall not be altered by the government, but shall be final and binding and validated by Nigerians,” he stated.
Agbakoba also underscored the challenges associated with selecting participants for the conference, saying they could be drawn from ethnic nationalities with at least the six basic estates of the realm, namely the executive, legislature, judiciary, media, civil society and organised business being fully represented.
On the day the president was inaugurating the national conference committee, Jigawa State governor and MEND criticised it.
Lamido, in an interview with a Dutse-based radio station monitored by THISDAY, said his state would not participate in the conference.
According to him, the proposed dialogue lacks constitutional backing and is a flagrant abuse of democratic institutions.
He said: “The only solution to the country’s problems is good governance and also leaders should abide by due process, rule of law and ethics of leadership.
“Such a conference is a fruitless effort and could not make any positive impact on the country. It is a flagrant abuse of democracy, when we have the Senate and members of the House of Representatives that are legally and democratically elected to represent any constituency in  discussing any national issue.
“Are you going to ask Jega (INEC chairman) to organise an election for those that would participate in the dialogue, which I am sure he would not accept to do.  Or are you going to select them through nomination to go and take over the responsibility of the elected ones?
“So the idea for the dialogue lacks any formula in our democratic society, and embarking on such a worthless venture is not ideal.”
MEND also expressed the same sentiment over the proposed national conference like Lamido, saying the exercise has nothing to offer Nigeria.
The group in an online statement yesterday by Jomo Gbomo said: “MEND considers the proposed national dialogue as another deceit, a distraction, waste of public funds and time. Aside from the therapeutic benefits of letting off steam from a political perspective, it has absolutely nothing else to offer.
“The National Assembly members should rise up to their responsibilities and justify their huge salaries and fringe benefits. Reversing the injustice meted out, especially from the General Yakubu Gowon and Olusegun Obasanjo military regimes on the people of the Niger Delta, is one of such responsibilities.
“Instead of wasting time to rant over what can be expressed in the opinion columns of newspapers, or radio and television talk shows at a reduced cost, our national dialogue should focus on corruption: the mother of all terrors which is tantamount to this government.”