Nigeria president moves towards national dialogue

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Nigeria's president on Tuesday said he had formed a panel tasked with laying the ground for a national dialogue to tackle contentious issues such as religious tensions and the sharing of oil wealth.

"When there are issues that constantly stoke tension and bring about friction, it makes perfect sense for the interested parties to come together to discuss," Goodluck Jonathan said in an address marking the 53rd anniversary of Nigeria's independence.

"Our administration has taken cognizance of suggestions over the years by well-meaning Nigerians on the need for a national dialogue on the future of our beloved country," he said.

Jonathan did not discuss the proposed conference's agenda during his address but the economic and demographic powerhouse has been plagued by ethnic, sectarian and social tensions.

Among the issues threatening Nigeria's unity is the country's huge oil wealth, with producing regions such as the Niger delta arguing they are getting less than their fair share.

Another bone of contention poisoning relations even within Jonathan's ruling Peoples Democratic Party is the issue of which region should get the next presidential tenure.

Jonathan, a Christian from the south, was elected in 2011 and is expected to seek another term in 2015, but northern politicians argue that power should return to their region.

Nigeria is also grappling with a bruising insurgency by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Militant attacks and the response by the army and allied vigilantes are killing dozens of people every week.

Jonathan said the committee, headed by former senator Femi Okurounmu, had one month "to establish the modalities for a national dialogue or conference."

He said the committee will design a framework and come up with recommendations as to the form, structure and mechanism of the process.

Previous governments have spurred calls by eminent Nigerians and civil society organisations for a national dialogue to discuss the recurring problems facing the country of 160 million.

Jonathan condemned the latest Boko Haram attacks and called for unity.

"Let us join together to fight this evil of extremism... We must stand as one, with absolute commitment and resolve to resist any force that threatens us and the sanctity of our union," he said.

"We must rekindle the spirit of Nigeria, to ensure that every democrat and every lover of peace in this great nation continues to live in a free, peaceful and secure Nigeria," he added.