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Third Term Debate Divides Nigeria

Debate is raging in Africa's most populous nation, Nigeria, over whether the constitution should be changed to allow President Olusegun Obasanjo to seek a third term. The debate features those who strongly support Mr. Obasanjo's economic reform programs, against those who fear a change could lead to dictatorship.

Mr. Obasanjo previously said he wanted to retire to his chicken farm after his second elected mandate finishes in 2007.

The former military ruler has won international praise for macro-economic reforms, a crackdown against government corruption and keeping Nigeria from disintegrating into ethnic strife.

Recent statements from ruling party officials and a recommendation from a Senate committee indicate a movement is afoot to remove the current two-term presidential limit.

The head of a Niger Delta youth council, Mike Ekamoh, says it would be devastating for Nigeria's fragile cohesion and progress if Mr. Obasanjo does not stay on.

"What happens to Nigeria now? Because for the whole reform program to be stabilized and be achieved, you must stay there beyond seven, eight years because you are the writer of the manifesto," said Mr. Ekamoh. "So, you will be the one to execute it. So, when every four years you change the president that program dies, that manifesto dies, that vision dies. And especially this corruption, wiping of corruption, wiping away of corruption in Nigeria, for now, we need an Obasanjo-like president."

Political opponents have said Mr. Obasanjo has used the anti-corruption crusade to eliminate his rivals. They also say his time in power has been marked by military repression, rising poverty and a lack of development.

Mr. Ekamoh says this is typical talk from the opposition, and that local leaders should also be held responsible. He says, on the world stage, Nigeria needs a strong leader, like Mr. Obasanjo, who can be tough in defending Nigerian interests, such as debt relief.

"We do not need a weakling," he said. "We need an experienced general, a man with pedigree, a man with respect, that when they meet at that level, Nigeria will not be a pushover, that's one of the qualifications that Obasanjo has."

But an opposition politician, Mazi Okwu, says - even if Mr. Obasanjo is doing a good job in certain areas - that does not mean he should sacrifice democracy.

Mr. Okwu believes the constitutional amendment will eventually pass, but that opposition will be such that Mr. Obasanjo will fail in getting re-elected.

"He doesn't need to do this. He should leave a legacy and hand over to a genuine democratic government come next round. Why he would like to continue, I do not know. It's something that pains my heart but I believe that he will fail," said Mr. Okwu. "On paper, it's looking good, he's got his amendment, but he will fail."

The outspoken chancellor of the Catholic Church in Abuja, Father John Musa, stands with opponents to the third-term plan.

"Certainly one would expect the president as a man of honor to honor his word, that he will only stay for two terms and if anything happens that will necessitate his extending his stay in office beyond 2007, I think that would be most unfortunate," said Father Musa. "A man of honor should be able to keep his word. It would certainly be a bad omen for the nation."

Mr. Obasanjo has refused to directly answer persistent questions over whether he is going for a third term.