Nigerian Senate Blocks Bid for 3rd Presidential Term

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

JOHANNESBURG, May 16 -- The Nigerian Senate voted on Tuesday to reject a constitutional amendment allowing President Olusegun Obasanjo to seek a third term, bringing an apparent end to an issue that had bitterly divided Africa's most populous nation.

Obasanjo's supporters did not immediately rule out other attempts to amend the nation's constitution, but in recent weeks there has been a dramatic and seemingly decisive shift in sentiment against efforts to keep him in power. Assuming Obasanjo is not a candidate in elections next year, Nigeria is on track to experience its first peaceful transition between civilian governments since winning independence in 1960.

Debate over a possible third term had been marred by accusations of bribery and violence on the part of supporters. On Tuesday, lawmakers opposed to the proposal cheered and hugged one another as the outcome of the voice vote became clear, according to news reports.

Senate President Ken Nnamani, in a nationally televised address, said, "The Senate has said clearly and eloquently that we should discontinue other proceedings on this amendment."

The action also effectively ended a parallel debate in the House. To pass, a constitutional amendment needs the support of two-thirds of each chamber as well as approval from two-thirds of Nigeria's states. The bid to extend Obasanjo's tenure was among several proposed amendments rejected Tuesday.

"It is dead now," said Rep. Wunmi Bewaji, an opposition leader, speaking from Abuja, the capital. "It is a very, very good day for us. It's a victory for our people. It's a victory for our democracy."

He expressed fears that the rejection of the constitutional amendment could encourage extralegal efforts to keep Obasanjo in power. The president has said repeatedly that he would respect the political system and Nigeria's constitution.

Obasanjo, 70, had never publicly acknowledged plans to run again, but the effort to amend Nigeria's constitution was widely viewed as engineered by him and his top aides. He had said in interviews that more years in office would allow him to complete initiatives.

Obasanjo was in France but due to return Tuesday night. Femi Fani-Kayode, a special assistant to the president, said from Abuja that Obasanjo would respect the decision of the National Assembly.

"Under the provisions of the constitution as they stand, it's not possible for the president to run," Fani-Kayode said.

He did not rule out the possibility of another effort to change the constitution. "That would be for the National Assembly" to decide, he said.

Obasanjo, a military ruler in the 1970s, was elected in 1999, ending what had been decades of turbulent and often repressive rule, mostly by the military. He won reelection in 2003 and is scheduled to step down in May 2007.

In recent weeks, the United States, Britain and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan had criticized the effort to let Obasanjo stay in power, saying it threatened to undermine democracy. Leading Nigerian politicians, including both of the most prominent candidates to succeed him, also criticized the push.

Nigeria's anti-corruption agency, meanwhile, opened an investigation into allegations of bribery by the supporters of a third term. Opponents have repeatedly alleged that millions of dollars in bribes have been offered to supporters. Obasanjo has denied knowledge of bribes being given.

Also on Tuesday, one senator said he had been targeted Sunday in an assassination attempt by Obasanjo supporters.

Fani-Kayode said, "Certainly Mr. President is not a bribe giver, nor is he a murderer."

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