March 17 (Bloomberg) -- Nigeria starts a National Conference today that critics say is designed to boost President Goodluck Jonathan’s sagging political fortunes and proponents argue may help outline key constitutional changes.
The three-month conference of 492 delegates is taking place in Abuja, the capital, against the backdrop of a worsening Islamist insurgency in the northeast that has deepened religious tensions in a country almost evenly split between Muslims and Christians. Jonathan’s administration is also battling allegations of corruption and rampant oil theft.
“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,” Jonathan said in a televised speech to mark the start of the conference. “This conference is open for us to table our thoughts and positions on issues, and make recommendations that will advance our togetherness.”
Jonathan, 56, said he called the meeting so a wide spectrum of Nigerians, including cultural and ethnic leaders outside of parliament, can debate proposals to change everything from the structure of government to revenue sharing to gender equality and children’s rights. The conclusions of the meeting, which the government says will cost 7 billion naira ($42 million), will be sent to the National Assembly of Africa’s top oil producer. Conference decisions may also be subject to a referendum if the need arises, Jonathan said.
“I think he is trying to give the impression that he’s addressing the call for a national conference without really intending to do anything with it,” Clement Nwankwo, the executive director of the Abuja-based Policy and Legal Advocacy research group, said in a phone interview. “You hype up so much promise and expectation, but in reality you have no road map to transmit the outcome into the constitution of the country.”
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation with 170 million people and more than 250 distinct ethnic groups, has been under civilian rule since the last military dictatorship ended in 1999. A southern Christian from the minority Ijaw ethnic group, Jonathan hasn’t said whether he intends to seek re-election in February 2015.
Jonathan succeeded Umaru Yar’Adua, a northern Muslim who died in office in 2010, and was re-elected in 2011. Northern leaders have put pressure on him not to run in 2015, respecting an informal agreement in the ruling People’s Democratic Party to rotate the presidency between the mainly Muslim north and south.
“Yesterday’s prejudices should die with yesterday. Today is a new day,” Jonathan said. “There should be no room for selfish considerations that defeat the purpose of national progress. There should be room only for the national interest.”
Nigeria’s main opposition party, the All Progressives Congress, has described the conference as designed to boost Jonathan’s popularity.
The governing PDP is facing its biggest internal crisis since coming to power 14 years ago and winning all general elections since then. Dissident party members led by former Vice President Atiku Abubakar walked out of a party convention on Aug. 31, leading to several defections to the opposition.
Jonathan has drawn criticism for his decision to suspend central bank Governor Lamido Sanusi last month after he called for an investigation into state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. for allegedly withholding billions of dollars of oil revenue.
Jonathan “will gain collateral benefits from whatever the conference produces,” Folarin Gbadebo-Smith, managing director of the Lagos-based Center for Public Policy Alternatives, said by phone. “If he comes back as president and implements some of what is decided, he can say this is what the people want and enjoy that legitimacy. It’s like one grand survey.”
Previous national conferences were widely seen as having brought few concrete results, Antony Goldman, the head of the London-based PM Consulting risk advisory group, said by phone.
“Part of the challenge for this conference will be to overcome that institutional suspicion, that legacy of skepticism over whether leaders really will be bold enough to take difficult decisions,” he said. “I think it has to be about identity, it has to be about oil resources, it has to be about representation, it has to be about accountability.”
The National Conference’s final recommendations will need approval by a 75 percent majority vote, according to the secretary to the federal government, Pius Anyim. That requirement will probably undermine the meeting’s success, Nwankwo said.
“It perhaps means that you don’t even intend agreement to be reached on very contentious issues,” he said. “If no agreements are reached, the divisions in the country will be brought into even sharper focus.”
Some of the most heated debate will center on how Nigeria distributes its oil wealth. Nigeria’s 36 states get most of their money from the federal government, which earns 80 percent of its revenue from oil production.
Theft and pipeline vandalism in the Niger River delta cut output to less than 2 million barrels of oil a day in 2013 from the government’s estimate of 2.5 million barrels.
“The issue of revenue allocation is one of the most controversial issues that will be discussed at the conference which is long overdue,” said Habu Mohammed, a professor of political science at Bayero University in Kano, the north’s commercial capital.
Leaders in the Niger delta in the southeast, where a three-year insurgency that ended in 2009 cut more than 28 percent of Nigeria’s oil output, will probably clamor for a greater share of the petroleum revenue. That will face opposition in the north, where Boko Haram has killed thousands of people in the past four years in name of fighting to impose Shariah, or Islamic law.
“There are genuine issues that need to be resolved,” Goldman said. “Until they are resolved there will always be the need for some kind of dialogue to try to deal with them. Otherwise, Nigeria will remain lurching from one crisis to another.”
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Antony Sguazzin at email@example.com Karl Maier, Michael Gunn, Andres R. Martinez