Focus on campaign for single term presidency

If the Nigerian Bar Association should have its way, elected political office holders in the country would not have the chance for a second term.

In letters to both chambers of parliament last month, the umbrella body for Nigerian lawyers canvassed an urgent amendment to the constitution to provide for a single, five-year presidency that would extend President Olusegun Obasanjo’s stay in office by one year.

Then last week an NBA delegation led by its president, Wole Olanipekun, met Obasanjo in his office and urged him not to run for a second term in the national interest. Once more it pressed the argument that the desperation of executives at the state and national levels to renew their tenure in office was "overheating the polity" and threatening democracy.

"Right now the atmosphere is charged everywhere," Olanipekun told Obasanjo, "The signs are frightening and horrifying, several Nigerians have been abducted, killed, slaughtered, maimed and harassed for reasons not unconnected with the second-term syndrome."

In addition to the president, all of Nigeria’s 36 state governors have indicated interest in having another go at the office they have occupied for the past three and half years.

With most intolerant of opposition, tension has been mounting in Africa’s most populous country of 120 million people ahead of general elections the electoral commission said would hold in March and April next year. There have been increasing cases of political violence, including political assassinations.

There are widespread fears the country ruled by the military for all but 13 years since 42 years of independence, might relapse to its old, undemocratic ways. Indeed the lawyers have not been alone in expressing concern for Nigeria’s democratic health.

Last month a group of prominent Nigerians, including top professionals and political leaders, known as The Patriots, issued a statement asking Obasanjo not to run in general elections due early next year in the interest of national peace and stability. The group had also urged the legislature to quickly amend the constitution to provide for a five year, single term presidency to be rotated among the country’s key geopolitical regions.

But so far Obasanjo has not indicated any likelihood he will heed the calls. Instead he told the NBA leaders their suggestion was "escapist".

"I just believe we should not run away from our problems," he declared. "If the constitution says I can be here for four years and have a second term, then that is the rule of the game. And it is not fair to change the rules mid-way into the game."

Whatever President Obasanjo opinions on the matter, it appears the campaign for a single term presidency have resonated with some of his powerful opponents. These now appear to have seen a constitutional route to ending his ambitions of having another shot at the presidency.

In what appeared to be a major political blow for the president early in November, the two main lobby groups in northern and southeastern Nigeria issued a joint statement urging him to give up his bid for re-election which they said was unpopular and raising political tension to dangerous levels.

The groups, the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), which represents northern interests, and Ohaneze Ndigbo, which groups the political and business elite of the southeastern Igbo, comprise influential people who were instrumental to Obasanjo’s election in 1999 through massive votes he secured in both regions. This was at a time he performed very poorly in his southwest ethnic Yoruba homeland, where he was perceived as a stooge of northern political interests.

"What Nigeria needs now is leader who is dedicated to reviving the economy, one who respects the rule of who is caring and sensitive to the yearnings of the downtrodden...a man who is a true democrat, amenable to advice and able to accommodate dissenting voices," they said in their joint statement.

"We are sad to conclude that President Obasanjo is not such a leader," they added.

Curiously, the pressures for single term presidency have coincided with the submission of the report of a joint committee of the legislature reviewing the Nigerian constitution. The committee had also proposed a five-year, single term for the presidency and the 36 governorships. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives have promised to treat the committee’s recommendations with despatch.

Coincidentally, both legislative chambers, who had been bitterly opposed to Obasanjo and dangled an impeachment threat over him for months, now appear to be toning down their rhetoric. Some analysts see in this signs that new political calculations have started to emerge.

"It is not by chance that the legislators who had signalled their intention to impeach Obasanjo now appear to have softened their stance," Ike Onyekwere, a political analyst, told IRIN. "Impeachment was turning out to be politically too risky, a tool whose outcome could not be predicted for all involved."

He believes many of those who wanted to see off Obasanjo by impeachment now see an easier way out through the single term proposal, and would support a constitutional amendment to kill off his ambitions.

But this time they do not need only a two-thirds majority in the national assembly. Any amendment to the constitution requires also a positive vote by two-thirds of the country’s 36 state assemblies. This leaves a tedious political battle ahead with little time left before next year’s elections.

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:

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