14 May 2006
There is currently an ugly and unwarranted debate on the possible extension of the term of office of the president and governors of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. I call it unwarranted because the Nigerian constitution clearly limits the term of office for these officers to a maximum of 2 four-year terms. The debate is also ugly because it stirs a lot of passion within a country that is still struggling to keep its polarized people under one roof. This debate is mean because of the status of Nigeria. This is a country that is supposed to be seen as a model for other countries in Africa to follow. People outside Nigeria are watching this unfolding drama with consternation because no body expected this to be happening under the watchful eyes of the much-respected president Olusegun Obasanjo.
About 116 constitutional amendments to Nigeria’s present constitution have been proposed to lawmakers for debate. Of these, the most contentious is the proposal to extend the term of office of the president and governors by another 4 years making a total of 12 years. Obasanjo’s second term of 4 years expires in 2007. Critics see the term prolongation issue as the main reason for tabling these amendment proposals and they charge that the Obasanjo regime is trying to shift the goal post in the middle of the game. As one critic said, “it is immoral for this government to be tabling an amendment to the constitution to which she will be the principal beneficiary”. As usual proponents of the term prolongation cite the ‘satisfactory’ performance of Obasanjo and ask for more time to be given to him to ‘complete his good work’. We have heard these arguments before during the regimes of Gowon, Babangida and even that of Abacha. I see this simply as a rent-a-crowd political manipulation to illegitimately hang unto power. Already a senator from Zaria has called for the investigation into allegations of bribery involving his colleagues on this issue.
In my opinion, Obasanjo has not acted like a respected statesman with regards to this debate. His responses to straight questions on the issue have been evasive and conveying the impression that he is sitting on the fence. His silence is very loud and the sound of that silence is clearly heard supporting term prolongation. Obasanjo is seen to be failing to defend the constitution he swore to uphold. If he was not the architect of this amendment he should have been the first person to condemn and distance himself from it. It is discomforting for the Nigerian president to wait to address this problem only when he is prompted as was observed during his recent visit to the U.S. Nigerians and indeed all Africans want an unambiguous and straight declaration from Obasanjo on where he stands on this issue. Nigeria must be seen to stand out of the crowd and do what is right and this responsibility presently rests on Obasanjo’s shoulders.
Observers generally agree that Obasanjo has performed his duties as president satisfactorily. Some Obasanjo supporters will argue that this is the more reason why his term of office should be extended. That will be immature reasoning. When Nelson Mandela was president of South Africa, his ratings were certainly higher than those of Obansanjo. Many people would have wished that he went in for a second term (which was his right) but he opted to step down and make way for his deputy to become president. Mandela is today one of the most revered political figures in the world. He did not need to remain as ‘Mr. president’ for decades in order to earn such admiration and respect.
Africa is replete with leaders that cling unto power indefinitely and most of them usually start by manipulating the constitution to extend their tenure of office. Countries like Zimbabwe, Congo Brazaville, Gabon, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Chad are typical examples. Leaders of these countries will only be too happy if ‘big brother’ Nigeria joins their ranks. If that happens, pro democracy movements on the continent will suffer a demoralizing setback. The stakes are very high for Nigeria and the rest of Africa and Obasanjo at 71 should know better. He was a former participant in the military coup against Yakubu Gowon and he should know better that this ‘prolongation game’ could be playing into the hands of adventurers lurking in the barracks.
President Obasanjo has to do more to convince us that he is capable of learning from history. He will have to work even harder to restore his credibility that has been damaged by this debate even if the term prolongation issue does not sail through parliament.
Njei Moses Timah