Obasanjo's Third Term Dilemma


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Obasanjo's Third Term Dilemma



Niyi Akinnaso




culled from GUARDIAN, April 24, 2006



If it is indeed true, as it now appears, that President Olusegun Obasanjo wishes to continue in office beyond 2007, he would have succeeded in landing himself on an undesirable island of history. Let us call it the "sit-tight" island. It is an island that is surrounded by very muddy waters. If Obasanjo moves forward, it is mud. If he retreats, it is still mud. Yet, he must now move in either direction. As the 2007 election approaches, Obasanjo will do the nation some good if he declared which direction he has chosen to move. However, whichever way he chooses to move, it is certain that history will judge him negatively for the third term agenda. In what follows, I examine the implications of either a forward or a backward movement on this agenda.


What happens if the constitution is eventually amended and Obasanjo goes on to fulfill his ambition? There are two possible ways he could go about this. In one method, Obasanjo may just continue in office for another four years beyond 2007, without any election whatsoever. Never mind that this would be grossly unconstitutional, since the terms of his re-election in 2003 would have expired in 2007. But this is Nigeria. There would be lawyers of the Akinjide type who would argue "successfully" that Obasanjo's action was constitutional. One argument they may use is that it is the same constitution after all. Only parts of it were amended! A non-legal, cost-benefit, argument might even be advanced. Obasanjo's defense might argue that elections are very expensive. Obasanjo would be saving the country billions of Naira by avoiding the 2007 presidential election. It would, therefore, be more profitable for the country if Obasanjo simply handed over power to himself, without the agony of election and the normal rituals of succession. And there would be judges who would listen.


Another method is for Obasanjo to contest the 2007 presidential election, by taking the amended constitution as a fresh start of a possible 12-year rule. This method could lead to two possible outcomes. In one scenario, Obasanjo may "win" the election, as he did in 2003, by deploying the apparatuses of his party and the state to his own advantage. The PDP, the police, the Security Service, INEC, and many broadcasting stations may all become Obasanjo's allies. Moreover, Obasanjo will still be in control of the nation's treasury. The traditional "security vote" for the election might be as fat as he wishes it to be. This scenario may be reminiscent of the 1983 elections and some of its consequences.


If Obasanjo "wins" the election and he is able to overcome all oppositions to possible election irregularities in 2007, he may even go on to seek one or even two more terms of four years each. The argument would be that his election in 2007 was achieved under a new constitution that guarantees three terms for President. This scenario implies that Obasanjo may be Nigeria's President until 2019. He may even rule beyond 2019 if he chooses to revise the constitution again and change the President's tenure. At the end of the day, Obasanjo will find himself in the ignoble company of African "sit-tight" leaders, who seek to rule until they die in office. However, none of these developments will come to pass if his "victory" is successfully challenged in the court of law.


However, Obasanjo may lose the election, if the other political parties unite in developing a better agenda for the nation and in mounting a vigilante at the polls, collation centers, and broadcasting stations, etc. Moreover, the opposition parties would have to come up with a very large purse with which to prosecute the elections the Nigerian way. However, the most important factor in this scenario would be the Nigerian electorate and their will to ensure that their electoral mandate is not stolen. The people of Ondo state demonstrated this will in 1983 and got back their stolen mandate.


Win or lose, Obasanjo's candidacy for the 2007 elections will attract negative evaluations by historians. In either case, Obasanjo will go down in history as a self-seeking leader who manipulated the legislative process and changed his country's constitution in order to elongate his rule. The negative evaluation may be delayed or temporarily muted, if he wins the election. However, if he loses, the evaluation will begin instantly. Such an evaluation will surely be the beginning of Obasanjo's political obituary. The global prestige and goodwill he has built so far may dissipate under this single act of political miscalculation.


But what if Obasanjo decided to retreat from the sit-tight island and chose not extend his rule? There are three possibilities. First, Obasanjo might still be persuaded by local and international forces not to elongate his tenure, even if the constitutional amendment were successful. Many political observers think that this is an unlikely scenario because of the huge investment that the PDP, presidential spokespersons, and Obasanjo's political supporters have made in the third term agenda in the last two years. If the constitution was successfully amended and Obasanjo decided not to continue in office, history would still be unkind to him. He would be viewed as a leader who manipulated the legislative process in his attempt to elongate his term of office but buckled at the last minute in his attempt to achieve this ambition. He would be blamed for waiting too long before appreciating the ignominy of such an ambition.


Second, Obasanjo would not be qualified to run if the constitutional amendment failed. Once this outcome becomes apparent, it is likely that Obasanjo and his spokespersons would become much more vocal about his lack of intention to run for a third term. We might begin to hear them blame the third term agenda on political pundits and an overzealous media. Nevertheless, the defeat of the constitutional amendment would still make Obasanjo go down in history as the leader who tried unsuccessfully to manipulate his country's constitutional review process in order to elongate his term in office.


Some have argued that there is a third possibility: That Obasanjo might be using the third term controversy as a political tactic to discourage presidential aspirants he does not like. According to this school of thought, the slash and burn politics Obasanjo has been playing with opponents of the third term agenda is meant to discredit or eliminate some possible presidential candidates. At the end of the day, this school of thought argues, Obasanjo might not continue in office or contest the 2007 presidential election. Rather, he might throw his support behind a particular candidate currently untouched by the biting criticisms of Obasanjo's spokespersons, the banning "decree" issued by the PDP on non-supporters of the third term agenda, and the arresting claws of the EFCC.


Whatever the outcome of the third term agenda, certain developments have already been written in stone. First, Obasanjo's lack of forthrightness on the issue has grossly affected his political stature and Nigeria's image at home and abroad. Just recently, the third term agenda was a topic of discussion in the British Parliament as it has been in many political circles abroad. It was even the dominant topic of discussion at a recent literary event in Philadelphia. During the recent launching of Wole Soyinka's memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn, Americans asked question after question of the author about Obasanjo and his third term agenda. Like the military coups of old, the third term agenda is already being viewed as Obasanjo's coup against democracy.


Second, the third term agenda has succeeded in stifling political debate in the country by dwarfing other important political, economic, and social issues. Take the public hearing on constitutional amendment for example. The most prominent topic of debate in many states was the amendment on the tenure of President. Many desirable amendments in the constitution were hardly debated. They may succeed or fail depending on the fate of the tenure amendment.


Third, the third term agenda has virtually halted partisan political activities at state and local government levels, thereby suspending, or at least muting, necessary preparations for the 2007 elections. When I asked a friend last week about his plans to run for the Senate seat in my Senatorial District, he told me what a prospective gubernatorial aspirant had told me earlier: "We are still waiting for signals from Baba". It is not unlikely that many politicians, who have staked their future on Obasanjo's third term agenda, may have to look for a new job if the constitutional amendment failed or if Obasanjo eventually aborted the ambition to prolong his tenure.


Finally, preoccupation with the third term agenda has galvanized an otherwise lethargic opposition. New promising political parties have been formed and alliances have emerged across ideological, party, ethnic, religious, gender, and linguistic lines. It is a matter for the near future whether this opposition will be strong enough to kill the constitutional amendment or, if the amendment succeeded, to prevent Obasanjo from elongating his rule beyond 2007. In order to achieve either of these goals, this growing opposition must avoid, or quickly mend, internal fractures, some of which may be planted from outside.


The outcome of the third agenda may depend on the strength and tenacity of this opposition. So will the future of Nigerian democracy.


* Professor Akinnaso teaches Anthropology and Linguistics in the United States



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