Remarks by His Excellency, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, GCFR at the Inauguration of the National Conference on Monday, 17th March, 2014 at the National Judicial Institute, Abuja, Nigeria.
I am delighted to welcome you all to the inauguration of this historic National Conference which promises to be another significant landmark in our efforts to strengthen national unity and consolidate democratic governance in our beloved country.
I also believe that this National Conference is coming at a very appropriate time. Having just celebrated the first centenary of our country, the most compelling task before us, as we move ahead and contemplate what our nation will be at the end of its second century, is to lay a much stronger foundation for faster development.
This we can achieve by building a more inclusive national consensus on the structure and guiding principles of state that will guarantee our emergence as a more united, progressive and prosperous nation.
In our history as a political entity, we have experienced highs and lows but have always forged ahead. To my mind, the fact that we have weathered all storms and continued with the mission of evolving a truly national identity signifies that we are going in the right direction.
The strongest nations in the world today also went through their own formative stages; some for decades and others for centuries. We must learn from them that nationhood will not happen overnight, especially given the circumstances of our birth as a nation.
History also teaches that nation-building is a journey of dedication, commitment, diligence, perseverance and patriotic vision. To be successful, nation-builders must continually strive to evolve better and more inclusive societies in which every citizen is a proud and committed stakeholder.
It was with this objective in mind that we set up the Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC) on the National Conference in October last year and charged its members with the responsibility of designing the framework and modalities for a productive National Conference.
The Committee which submitted its Report in December, 2013, was able to reach out to all Nigerians and various interest groups, socio-political groupings, regional and religious elements, professionals, civil society, the organised private sector, labour, youth, women and others to ascertain their views on the initiative.
The Presidential Advisory Committee established that there was indeed, a national consensus for this Conference to be convened immediately, to meet the yearnings and aspirations of our people.
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.
For 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 social media has greatly enlarged the space for the discussion of our country’s future.
Many more young and articulate Nigerians who previously had little access to the traditional mass media have now joined the conversation, motivated by patriotic concern for good governance, peace, stability, justice, equity, fairness and the harmonious co-existence of the diverse groups that make up our great nation.
Dear Compatriots, my administration is convening this National Conference today 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.
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.
In inaugurating this national conference today, 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.
As 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.
I 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. I have heard our people say that we need to openly and frankly discuss our problems and seek acceptable solutions instead of allowing them to fester and remain sources of perennial conflict.
I 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.
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.
This National Conference is a very important avenue for the voices of our people to be heard. 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.
Over 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.
The phrase in the preamble that says “we, the people,” has been variously criticised as being misleading because, according to the critics, the constitution was not written by the people. There are also those who believe that the constitution is not our problem but the political will to faithfully implement it for the peace and progress of Nigeria.
While 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.
Some 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.
A 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. 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.
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, amongst 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.
In 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. 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.
An average Nigerian sees every part of the country as home. Let us seize the opportunity of this Conference to do more to further turn our diversity and plurality into unique national resources for strength and greatness.
I have always affirmed that our ability to stay together despite our acknowledged differences, when other countries are finding it difficult to meet that challenge, is a powerful statement by Nigeria to the world on the virtues of tolerance and unity.
It is a strong and compelling statement in a world much afflicted by strife and violence. We must sustain it. We must not allow the antagonists of unity and togetherness to prevail. We must work ceaselessly to remain one nation bound in freedom, peace and unity, as our National Anthem says.
Honourable Chairman and distinguished delegates, I urge you not to be under any illusions as you begin your assignment. The task that lies ahead of you is formidable. Over the coming weeks, you will be confronted with complex and emotive issues; strong views will be expressed by opposing sides and some disagreements will, in all likelihood, be intense.
I sincerely believe, however, that we can overcome all obstacles to true national unity if we dig deep into the recesses of our national character and look up to God Almighty for wisdom, guidance and the generosity of spirit we need to ensure the success of this conference.
Once again, I wish to express my appreciation to the Nigerian people who have, without hesitation, accepted dialogue as a means of resolving all differences and tensions that may exist in the country, and therefore, given their unequivocal support for this National Conference.
Let me at this point thank the National Assembly for introducing the provision for a referendum in the proposed amendment of the Constitution. This should be relevant for this Conference if at the end of the deliberations, the need for a referendum arises. I therefore urge the National Assembly and the State Houses of Assembly to speed up the Constitutional amendment process especially with regard to the subject of referendum.
I thank the Chairman, Senator Femi Okurounmu and members of the Presidential Advisory Committee for the arduous work they undertook to prepare for the Conference. I also thank the Chairman of this National Conference, Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi, the principal officers and all the distinguished patriots and representatives of our people who have taken time off their busy personal schedules to serve the cause of national unity and progress at this conference.
I am confident that we are embarking on a landmark journey that will make us stronger as a nation if we undertake it with all sense of purpose and sincerity. Let us do that which is selfless, purposeful and patriotic so that history will remember us for having served our nation well.
In conclusion, I 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 elections already announced by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
Let me again repeat what I have been saying that Goodluck Jonathan has no personal agenda in convening this national conference.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I now have the honour and privilege of declaring the National Conference open, for the good of our Nation and to the glory of God Almighty who has brought us together. I thank you all.