16 May 2006
Opponents of the proposed constitutional amendment to prolong the term of office of the president and governors of the Federal republic of Nigeria jubilated May 16th as the bill failed to sail through the senate. It did not muster the two-thirds vote in the senate to allow it go through. Even though the Nigerian house of Representatives is still debating it, the outcome of their decision will not change anything.
The debate has been ugly, divisive and passionate. For a country that is still struggling to keep its people that have been polarized along ethnic and religious lines under one roof, Nigeria didn’t need to go through this. About 116 constitutional amendments to Nigeria’s present constitution were proposed to lawmakers for debate. Of these, the most contentious was 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 saw the term prolongation issue as the main reason for tabling these amendment proposals and they charged that the Obasanjo regime was trying to shift the goal post in the middle of the game.
The most intriguing thing is that the man at the center of the debate (president Olusegun Obasanjo) kept a suspicious silence and commented only when prompted. His responses to straight questions on the issue were often evasive and conveying the impression that he was sitting on the fence. His opponents saw his hidden hand behind every manipulation and believed that the sound of his silence was clearly heard supporting term prolongation.
Observers generally agree that Obasanjo has performed his duties as president satisfactorily. Some Obasanjo supporters used this as argument to support that his term of office be extended so that he can “complete his good works”. “Nonsense” charged opponents. They point out to the fact that when Nelson Mandela was president of South Africa, his ratings were certainly higher than those of Obansanjo. Yet Mandela stepped down when many people would have wished that he went in for a second term (which was his right). They point out that 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 would have been too happy if ‘big brother’ Nigeria joined their ranks. If that were to happen, pro democracy movements on the continent will suffer a demoralizing setback.
President Obasanjo now has a very difficult task to convince Nigerians and other observers that he was not the architect of this political adventure that has ended in a fiasco. This task has been made more complicated because the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is investigating allegations that some senators received bribes to the tune of $390,000 to support the third term bid.
There is no denying the fact that the real casualty of this misadventure is president Obasanjo’s credibility.
Njei Moses Timah