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Tensions Grow in Nigeria Over Presidential Term Limits Extension


Earlier this month, a Nigerian constitutional review panel recommended allowing President Olusegun Obasanjo to run for a third term. If approved, the move would alter Nigeria's charter, which currently limits presidents to two four-year terms. The possibility of extending the presidential term has experts warning of a return to Nigeria's undemocratic and authoritarian past.

Longtime Nigeria watcher John Paden, a professor at George Mason University, says the Nigerian constitution is very clear on the presidency: two terms and you are out.

Speaking at a recent forum at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Paden said respect for the national charter is a hugely important issue for democracy in Nigeria and across the continent.

"Constitutions matter, because in oil states, or in former military rule states, this is one of the few checks on absolute power," said Mr. Paden. "I think the term limits issue does come up within a global context, as well. There have been a number of cases in Africa, where incumbents have just decided to rewrite, with a compliant national assembly, rewrite the constitution."

And that is what these analysts say appears to be happening in Nigeria, where proposed constitutional amendments would allow Mr. Obasanjo to run for a third term. The amendments were approved by a special committee appointed by both houses of parliament, dominated by the ruling party.

The development has left Nigerian politicians, journalists and members of civil society feeling cheated, because, when Mr. Obasanjo won elections in 1999, after years of military dictatorships, hopes were high that democracy had finally arrived in Nigeria.

"The reactions in Nigeria have been, I think, extraordinarily, so far, civil, but strong," added Mr. Paden. "The Catholic Bishops have come out and said 'no third term,' the Arewa Consultative Forum has said they won't recognize [Mr.] Obasanjo after May of 2007. This is the major think tank for the northern elite."

That group is a key constituency for the president, a southern ethnic Yoruba, who was backed by northern Muslim politicians with the understanding that executive power would eventually return to a northern candidate, the historic tradition in Nigeria.

Darren Kew, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, says that issue is a critical part of the drama that is unfolding around the term limits debate.

"There is the important question of the north and its disillusionment with [Mr.] Obasanjo, and its anger that the power shift towards them may not be respected, if a third term goes through," said Mr. Kew.

But Kew says it is unclear if Nigerians will rise up against Mr. Obasanjo and state governors, who stand to retain control of tens of billions of dollars in oil profits, and absolute power over the police and the military.

"As the president moves towards a third term, will the main forces in Nigerian politics move to assert constitutional limits?" he asked. "Or to put it another way, will the big men and social forces, like civil society, perceive respect for the constitution as serving their interests enough to risk the wrath of the president?"

The speakers at the forum all expressed concern about the uncertainty ahead, fearing it might further inflame other political and economic issues already plaguing Nigeria. Those include ongoing sectarian clashes between Muslims and Christians, and increasing violence by minority ethnic militants in the southern Niger Delta seeking a greater share of oil wealth from multi-national oil companies.

Howard University professor Olayiwola Abegunrin, says the third term question is especially disturbing because, in 1979, then-military ruler Obasanjo voluntarily handed over power. He was the first leader to do so in Nigeria's history. In 1999, he was elected president as a civilian candidate, and was seen as a transitional figure to lead Nigeria out of its dictatorial past.

Abegunrin says Nigerians looked up to Mr. Obasanjo. But, he says, if the president pushes for another term, chaos could erupt in Nigeria.

"If he succeeds, and [Mr.] Obasanjo takes a third term, Nigerian people will take to the streets," he said. "He still has control of the military. What is he going to do with them? I don't know. But if he takes a third term, Nigeria is not going to be the same."

Furthermore, if Mr. Obasanjo seeks another term, he risks the disapproval of western nations, like the United States and Britain, which have held him up as a leading African statesman and a symbol of emerging democracies across the continent. In fact, President Bush is scheduled to host Mr. Obasanjo for talks at the White House Wednesday.

A third term is not a certainty. To become law, the constitutional amendment needs the approval of two-thirds of Nigeria's federal and state assemblies, both of which are dominated by the president's ruling People's Democratic Party.

Mr. Obasanjo himself has not said whether or not he would run for another term if the amendment goes through.

And, earlier this week, a group of senators began a move to impeach Nigeria's deputy Senate president, Ibrahim Mantu, who heads the constitutional review committee that recommended the third term option.