By Tume Ahemba
LAGOS – A bill to change Nigeria’s constitution to allow President Olusegun Obasanjo to seek a third term in elections next year headed for defeat after more than a third of senators opposed the amendment on Thursday.
In two weeks of deba
te, 40 of 90 senators who spoke have opposed extending the current limit of two four-year terms.
Even with 14 senators still to speak, the level of opposition so far means the bill cannot achieve the two-thirds support of the 109-member chamber it needs to pass.
Opposition has also been overwhelming in the lower House of Representatives, but the debate there is lagging the Senate, where opponents slated the idea on Thursday.
“The issue of elongation of tenure is a cancer, it is a disease that can kill everybody,” Senator Mohammed Ibrahim said, to the applause of fellow opponents, in televised proceedings.
“It is HIV, it has no cure,” he said.
Elections next year should mark the first time in Nigerian history that one civilian president hands over to another through elections, but the campaign to allow Obasanjo to stand again has jeopardised that.
Supporters of the third term argue that it would allow him to consolidate his liberal economic reforms.
Vice-President Atiku Abubakar has publicly split from his boss over the amendment, and accused the former military ruler of trying to subvert democracy against the popular will.
A visibly irritated Obasanjo called the leadership of the National Assembly to the presidential villa for two hours of emergency consultations after the debate on Thursday, delaying his scheduled departure to Indonesia for a two-day summit.
A glum-faced Obasanjo did not comment after the meeting.
A defiant Senator Arthur Nzeribe, a third term supporter who accompanied the leadership to the meeting, said he was still “very confident” the bill would pass, although he did not explain how this could happen.
The National Assembly is due to spend the next several weeks voting on more than 100 amendments to the 1999 charter, including the clause extending the presidential limit.
Obasanjo came to power in landmark elections in 1999, restoring democracy to Africa’s top oil producer after three decades of almost uninterrupted military rule.
The United States government and Nigeria’s influential trade unions recently joined those asking the president of Africa’s most populous country to quit next year.
Last week, the opposition launched a boycott call against companies they accused of bankrolling the third term campaign.
Opponents, including dissident members of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, argue that any extension would undermine democracy and lead to more conflict in Nigeria.
They have accused the government of trying to corrupt the assembly by offering hefty bribes to garner more support.
Obasanjo has done little to halt the divisive campaign and has avoided making a clear statement on whether he intends to stay or retire in 2007.
Political uncertainty has been a factor behind riots that cost at least 150 lives in February and militant attacks in the Niger Delta which have cut oil exports by a quarter.
Obasanjo’s government has become increasingly repressive towards opponents of a third term, teargassing rallies, detaining leaders and labelling opposition groups a threat to security. — Reuter