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Nigerian Opposition Boycotts National Dialogue

The Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo is pressing ahead with controversial talks to discuss constitutional reform. Opposition groups say they will boycott discussions.

President Obasanjo passionately appealed to the Nigerian opposition to join in a National Political Conference that opens in the capital Abuja, Monday. The discussions will focus on pressing national issues, like redistribution of oil wealth and representation of women in government.

In a speech Mr. Obasanjo said that he welcomed discussion, and people should place the interests of Nigeria above everything else, even if the process of national debate did not satisfy everyone.

"We must not be afraid to disagree among ourselves provided we also have our eye on the goals of unity, peace, harmony, patriotism and progress for all," he said. "Our disagreement of course must not lead to disintegration."

Talks are meant to last three months and will address reform of Nigeria's current constitution, which was written under military rule that ended in 1999.

Groups opposed to the National Political Conference is still refusing to participate in the talks, because they believe the ruling party will dominate. A spokesman for an umbrella group known as the Conference of Nigerian Political Parties, Osita Okechukwu, says he believes Mr. Obasanjo called the conference in order to change the constitution and run for another term as president.

"Our suspicion, and a very big suspicion, is that he is organizing his own friends to come and endorse him for a single five or six year term that will extend his regime," he said. "He is considering constitutional change for his interests."

Under the present constitution Mr. Obasanjo is limited to serving out his current five year term.

The opposition wants delegates attending the government's conference to be elected, but Mr. Obasanjo nominated 50 delegates himself. Among the 400 delegates, six representatives will come from each of Nigeria's 36 states.

Opposition groups now want to hold their own alternative conference.

Nigerian activists say people are afraid that issues that most concern them will not be highlighted in the government's attempt at national dialogue. At a time of rising fuel prices, people are demanding a greater distribution of oil wealth in the country.

In particular, residents from the oil producing delta region want a greater share of the money generated from oil. Nigeria is one of the world's 10 biggest oil exporters, but the Niger delta, where most of the oil is produced, remains one of the poorest areas in the country.