After only six years of democracy in Africa’s most populous country, growing suspicions that Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo is planning to seek a third term in office are polarising the country’s political figures and raising the spectre of instability ahead of 2007 elections.
Obasanjo, whose election in 1999 put an end to 15 years of military dictatorship, has repeatedly denied that he plans to stay on beyond the constitutional limit of two four-year terms but his critics are becoming increasingly alarmed by the actions of the president’s allies.
“There is a looming danger on the political horizon of the country and it is the danger of the third term agenda,” said Ghali Umar Na’Abba, a former speaker of the House of Representatives and member of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), known for his opposition to Obasanjo.
Last week, the Senate Constitution Review Committee called for an amendment that would allow the president to run for another four years in power and the local media were full of allegations that a number of legislators had been offered bribes to push the change through.
But concerns go back to February when Obasanjo convened the National Political Reform Conference, citing the need to review the constitution in order to stabilise West Africa’s giant.
The president said at the time that he hoped the conference could work out mechanisms for managing differences in a country with a history of violent ethnic and religious upheavals among its 126 million people who are divided into a largely Muslim north and predominantly Christian south.
However, his critics suspected other motives when some of Obasanjo’s close aides used the conference to propose a new draft constitution that would have extended his tenure by at least two years.
Although the proposal was shelved and Obasanjo declared that he longed to retire to his farm when his mandate expired, subsequent events suggested to some that the president was trying to consolidate his grip on the political machinery of the ruling PDP.
Feud with vice president
In September, a close Obasanjo ally started a party membership ‘revalidation’ process which left many of the president’s opponents without a say in PDP decision making.
Atiku Abubakar, the country’s vice president with whom Obasanjo has been feuding over a perceived lack of loyalty, did not receive his new membership card until after he protested publicly earlier this week.
And according to an Abubakar aide, even though the vice president has not lost his right to vote on party matters, the exclusion of many of his supporters could throw a spanner in his plans to secure the PDP’s backing for a 2007 run at the country’s top office.
But ruling party chairman Ahmadu Ali has dismissed any talk of an internal coup de force through a revised membership list.
“Let me assure you all that there is nothing sinister in the exercise,” he said. “It was only meant to streamline and strengthen our great party.”
Workers split on third term question
Nevertheless, fears of a conspiracy have led a number of prominent politicians, including two former PDP chairmen, to form protest movements in the last month.
Moreover, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), a powerful workers’ union, has denounced those who think Obasanjo should be given more time to carry out much-needed economic reforms in a country famous for its corruption.
“Setting aside or willfully manipulating the constitution could begin a process of anarchy which will negatively affect the business environment,” the NLC said in a statement issued over the weekend.
PDP spokespersons were unavailable to comment.
But the private sector Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) believes that the country’s need for a competent leader should trump arbitrary term limits.
“The need to guarantee consistency of policy goes beyond the question of whether President Obasanjo remains in power or not,” Charles Ugwu, MAN’s president said in a speech last week. “We as a nation must view the tremendous achievements we have recorded and guard these jealously to prevent any possibility of a reversal before they are fully entrenched and clearly irreversible.”
Obasanjo like Abacha before him?
There's no shortage of leaders in the region who cling to power: Gabon’s Omar Bongo, Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore and Cameroon’s Paul Biya have all ruled for a generation or more.
On the other hand, Obasanjo, who had a brief stint as head of state in the 1970s, was the only one of Nigeria’s succession of military rulers to give up power voluntarily and spent three years in prison in the 1990s for his outspoken criticism of the late soldier-president Sani Abacha.
And yet today, some are drawing parallels between Obasanjo’s civilian incarnation and his former rival.
“In every move he makes, Obasanjo shows the trappings that characterised Abacha,” wrote Ogbonna Ude, a columnist for a Nigerian online newspaper.
“Like Abacha enjoyed all the ceremonies and endorsements associated with his self-succession, Obasanjo is no doubt enjoying the same, sipping champagne with his cronies in anticipation of another four years.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions