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Constitutional Reforms Heighten Worries in Nigeria

The process of amending the Nigerian constitution started Wednesday with public hearings. Opponents are alleging plans by President Olusegun Obasanjo to amend the constitution to enable him stay on for a third term.

The public hearings on Wednesday and Thursday are purportedly to collect opinion on more than 100 changes to the 1999 constitution.

Political opponents of President Obasanjo say the constitutional reforms are meant to give him a third term. Under the current constitution, the president is allowed a maximum of two terms. President Obasanjo's second term ends in 2007.

Many Nigerians have criticized a third term for President Obasanjo, a Christian and an ethnic Yoruba from the southwest. Ethnic or religious groups from other geopolitical zones are agitating for a chance to produce the next president from their area.

A group of opposition parties, known as the Coalition of Nigerian Political Parties, or the CNPP, have warned that Nigeria could slide into chaos if the third term ambition is pushed through without regard for proper constitutional changes.

"What the CNPP [Coalition of Nigerian Political Parties] has promised him is that, we've said, if the constitution is manipulated without following the due process stated in the constitution on how to amend the constitution, we will make the country ungovernable," said Osita Okechukwu, the spokesman for the opposition. "It is a broad consensus across the federation because were tired of, in one breath, you were elected in 1999 with every goodwill and hope that Nigeria is returning to democracy and for the past six, seven years you've been running the country like a military garrison. So,were tired of the garrison command."

The hearings are holding in six provincial capitals, rather than the main cities, ostensibly to avoid protests and clashes. However, there has been at least one bloody riot in Katsina, which is scheduled to host one of the sessions.

Officials say there were plots to disrupt sittings in at least another center. Security has been stepped up at all the venues.

President Obasanjo has, so far, declined to publicly state whether he will consider a third term. However, his supporters have been campaigning vigorously to extend his tenure.

Analysts say the widely-publicized rumor on the third-term plot, could be the underling factor behind recent attacks against the oil industry in the Southern Niger Delta and religious inspired violence in parts of the north.

A U.S. intelligence chief warned in early February that Nigeria risks a major violent upheaval if Obasanjo says he will run again.

More than 14,000 people have died in political, ethno-religious and communal violence since 1999, when the Obasanjo administration was inaugurated.