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Nigerian Parliament Set to Rewrite Constitution

The Nigerian parliament is poised to begin a complex and time-consuming review of the 1999 constitution, in an effort to end long-standing grievances, including strife in the oil-rich Niger Delta. For VOA, Gilbert da Costa in Abuja reports that the challenge is to develop a national agenda that responds to the needs and aspirations of all Nigerians.

Under the Nigerian constitution, the two-chamber national assembly is vested with the power to amend the charter. The constitution says that two-thirds of lawmakers in at least 24 out of Nigeria's 36 states must endorse the changes, to make such changes valid.

A parliament panel is expected to begin the review process in the next few weeks. Already, the exercise has been mired in controversy, following a declaration by a panel member that tenure extension is being considered for President Umaru YarAdua.

Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu, who heads the review panel, is quick to reject the comment, assuring that the group will be guided solely by the best interest of Nigeria.

"This is a democracy and he is entitled to his opinion. But it does not represent the view of the either the senate or house of representatives. Neither does it represent the view of the constitution review committee," he said. "I can tell you, clearly, that no tenure of anybody, be it a local government chairman, governor or president, or even a senator will be extended by one day in that exercise. We are going to do a very transparent and professional job. We are only driven by patriotism and the best interest of Nigeria."

Many Nigerians have been calling for a new constitution since the return to civil democracy in 1999. They want to replace one drawn up by the military, which critics say fosters graft and tribalism because of the president's wide-ranging powers.

Many civic and religious leaders are calling for a new consensus among Nigerians to rewrite the constitution and save the deeply-divided country from collapse.

The southeast region is seeking an additional state and the oil-rich Nigeria Delta is demanding at least 50 percent of the oil revenues. The country that once dominated oil production in Africa has pumped more than $400 billion worth of crude in the past four decades, according to estimates.

Ethnic and religious divisions stoked by some politicians, in a country with more than 250 ethnic groups, are increasingly pulling at Nigeria's seams.

The largely Christian south resents the north's domination of political power, under both military and civilian rule, since the country's independence.

How these issues are resolved will go a long way determining the ability of Africa's most populous country to maintain its fragile unity.

The last attempt to pass a new constitution failed in 2006, when the national assembly rejected former President Olusegun Obasanjo's bid for a third term in office.