Bid to Allow Nigerian a Third Term Hits Snag

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 13, 2006

JOHANNESBURG, May 12 -- A measure that would allow President Olusegun Obasanjo to seek a third term suffered a serious setback this week as opponents appeared to muster commitments from enough lawmakers to block it.

Nigerian newspapers reported Friday that the plan to revise the constitution was dead or nearly so after 42 senators announced their opposition, five more than necessary to defeat it.

Obasanjo reportedly convened an emergency meeting of his top advisers and legislative allies Thursday. Supporters of the bill said they might be able to regain momentum before voting begins next week.

"I'm so happy," said Wunmi Bewaji, an opposition lawmaker, speaking from Abuja, the Nigerian capital. "Once we are able to do this, we will have succeeded in laying a solid foundation for our democracy."

Since winning independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria has experienced assassinations, military juntas and, when elections have taken place, allegations of extensive rigging. The country, which is Africa's most populous and a major supplier of oil to the United States, has never had a peaceful transfer of power between two civilian governments.

The issue has dominated political discussions in Nigeria and is being followed across the continent. Uganda and Chad recently changed their constitutions, allowing President Yoweri Museveni and President Idriss Deby to seek third terms, despite international concerns about democracy in Africa. Both leaders were reelected.

Obasanjo, 70, a military ruler in the 1970s, was embraced by many Nigerians and Western powers including the United States when he was elected in 1999, ending years of repressive military rule. He was reelected in 2003 and has indicated that he might be interested in running again in 2007, despite a constitutional limit of two four-year terms.

In an April interview with The Washington Post, Obasanjo said that he had not decided whether to run again but that a third term would allow him to complete initiatives he started in his previous seven years in office.

"The reforms that we are putting in place have to be anchored, anchored in legislation, anchored in institutions," he said.

Obasanjo's special assistant, Femi Fani-Kayode, said Friday that it was not appropriate to comment on the bill before the debate was concluded but that the president was committed to working within the democratic process.

"Rest assured," Fani-Kayode said, "we would not do anything outside the constitution."

Despite Obasanjo's attempts to distance himself publicly from the effort, it has widely been seen in Nigeria as emanating from his office. Opposition lawmakers have alleged that millions of dollars in bribes were offered to those who agreed to support a third term. Obasanjo has denied the charge.

Opposition to the effort has grown steadily, and in recent weeks, leading Nigerian political figures, U.S. officials and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan have criticized the effort.

"We need to play by the rules," Annan said, according to the Guardian newspaper of Nigeria. "We should not tamper with the constitution to perpetuate our rule."

The intensity of the debate grew this month as bills to revise the constitution were discussed in the Nigerian House and Senate. The amendment requires two-thirds approval in each chamber and the support of two-thirds, or 24, of the 36 state legislatures.

Opposition to the effort was clearest in the Senate, where it would take 37 no votes to block it. By the end of debate Thursday, 42 of the 109 senators had announced their opposition, and 37 had spoken in support.

"The issue of elongation of tenure is a cancer," Mohammed Ibrahim, a senator, said to applause, according to news reports. "It is a disease that can kill everybody."

In the House, 57 of 360 members had spoken in favor of scrapping the two-term limit and 69 against. Debate is set to resume in both chambers Tuesday, with votes likely next week as well.

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