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Nigeria Opens National Conference on Political Reforms

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has opened a national conference to discuss constitutional reforms.

He was joined by several former heads of state, including military rulers, began meetings with various Nigerian groups in Abuja Monday. One of the major goals of the conference is to discuss ways to reform the political system, six years after the end of military rule.

Topics up for debate include changing electoral rules, increasing women's representation in government, redefining citizenship within states, and better redistribution of oil wealth. However, many civil rights and opposition groups are boycotting the conference, saying it was dominated by the ruling party.

President Obasanjo will have the final say on whether the conference recommendations will go to parliament, but Jerry Gana, a special adviser to the president, and one of the conference organizers, insisted that it would be important for the Nigerian people. "This conference would be a very, very profound turning point. I pray that they will reach a consensus. Whatever they reach a consensus on this nation will implement," he said.

There is a heavy security presence in and around the national conference center in the capital's Garki district, discouraging any protests.

A coalition of opposition groups has decided to hold their own national conference in June, believing that issues like aspirations for secession proposed by several groups, will not be touched upon in the government's attempt at national dialogue.

The program coordinator of the Nigerian Civil Liberties organization, Shola Oshodi, said she believed delegates at the conference had a limited ability to set the agenda. "We don't really know what the agenda is, as I am speaking to you. It is not very clear yet. And I understand there are some no-go areas (issues) even the delegates cannot talk about. Some of the no-go areas are the issue of secession that and probably resource control," he said.

But some leaders from Nigeria's more than 200 ethnic groups hope that the conference will give them an opportunity to have a greater say in running their communities.

The Ijaw people, the largest ethnic group in Nigeria's oil-producing Delta region, have been pressing, sometimes violently, for a greater share of oil wealth. However, a prominent Ijaw militia leader has refused to participate in the conference.

A Nigerian spokesman for the human rights advocacy group Global Rights, Fabian Okoye, says that the people who live in oil-producing areas have good reason to demand more investment in their lives. "It is clear because of oil pollution a lot of them have had their means of livelihood undermined. They cannot do fishing anymore, their land is polluted and a lot of them cannot engage in farming anymore, so there is so much poverty, and I think their struggle for a better deal in the Nigerian Federation is in order," he said.

Mr. Obasanjo was previously opposed to all suggestions of constitutional changes but agreed last year to a national debate. Some activists say his change of mind came about after an ethnic militia group temporarily shut down oil production last year.

Other activists say Mr. Obasanjo may now take advantage of reforms to amend the constitution so he can serve another term as president. He is currently serving his second and final elected term allowed by the current constitution.