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Nigerians Hail Democratic Victory

A few weeks ago, the Nigerian parliament decided against a constitutional amendment that would allow President Olusegun Obasanjo to run for more than two terms. The move was in stark contrast to Uganda and Chad, which have approved efforts to extend a serving president's stay in power.

Analysts say by rejecting the third-term proposal, despite intense political pressure, the legislature has sent a message across Africa that Nigeria will not slide into years of one-man rule that defined the continent for decades after independence.

Chad, Uganda, and Zimbabwe are a few of the African countries where leaders have amended the constitution to remove limits to their tenure and powers.

Maxi Okwu, an Abuja-based lawyer and leader of a coalition of 16 political parties called the Political Parties Alliance, offers his view about why the third term campaign failed in Nigeria.

"In Nigeria, we seem to be a little bit ahead of many other African states, in terms of development, enlightenment, an active [and independent] media and a very robust elite. [In addition we have a] very competitive multi-ethnic society that is very suspicious and conscious of one another," he said. "All these [things came together] to make the [extension of presidential terms] - which may have succeed in other parts of Africa - difficult to fly in this country."

Okwu says that public opinion polls showing a lack of support for changing the constitution combined with heavy media coverage of the parliamentary debate on the issue were behind the final tally against the measure.

"Officially the party of the government, that is the PDP [Peoples Democratic Party] stated that the elongation was their agenda. But [legislators] from the same party worked against it," he added. "That was primarily because their constituents were opposed to it, and the media played a leading role in bringing home to the people what their representative was saying in Abuja and practically blackmailing the legislators who tried to go against popular feeling at home."

Under the two terms of President Olusegan Obasanjo, Nigeria has witnessed an upsurge in ethnic, political and religious violence that has killed at least 14,000 people since 1999. For some, the prospect of a third term also heightened the possibility of a drift to anarchy and chaos.

"We look around us on the African continent," said Wunmi Bewaji, a member of the House of Representatives from Lagos. "So many Nigerians came back amputated [from Liberia] as a result of [the leader there] not wanting to leave power voluntarily. So many of our soldiers who died in Liberia, so many of our civilians who died in Sierra Leone and Ivory Coasts [civil war]. [Now] we are also monitoring events in Chad where attempts to elongate tenure has also created a situation whereby you have rebels fighting in the bush. And we all want peace, we all want stability, we want peace in [our] country."

With President Obasanjo out of the picture, the field is now open for the 2007 elections. The uncertainty surrounding who will lead the country next is potentially worrisome, because one of the candidates is a former military ruler. But Bewaji says Nigeria's democracy has been strengthened by the events of the past few weeks.

"The bright side of it is that Nigerians have shown a resolve to protect and preserve and jealously defend our hard-earned democracy," he noted. "This is a very positive development, which could have a very long-term effect on our political struggle. One thing we have done successfully in this exercise is to say it loud and clear that Nigerians, the people of this country, will never accept any tenure extension from anybody."

If all goes well, elections next year will mark the first time in Nigerian history that a civilian president hands over power to another through elections.