Obasanjo and his supporters have been careful to neither publicly announce their desire for a third term, nor deny the rumors, a point that has sparked an increasingly heated national debate and led to widespread speculation among journalists, politicians and regional watchers.
“This embassy is not aware of any third-term agenda,” a political affairs officer for the Nigerian embassy in Washington, D.C. who refused to speak on the record about the subject said. “We have no information or briefing. All we know is that an election is scheduled for 2007 to change the presidency and the parliament.”
But, regional experts watching the political situation in the newly democratic country disagree.
“The reality is that we see very definite, tangible initiatives by the president and the people around him to try to float the idea of extending term limits,” Peter Lewis, a professor of African politics at American University said. “It’s not just rumor, it’s an actual campaign.”
Fueling the debate
Several recent actions have fueled the speculation that Obasanjo, voted into power in the country’s first democratic election in 1999, and the leadership of the ruling People’s Democratic Party have aspirations to remain in power.
In January, as part of a national political conference aimed at reviewing several provisions of the country’s constitution — a document written under military rule in 1999 — a Nigerian Senate subcommittee proposed the idea of an amendment that would allow the president to run for a third term, the BBC reported.
The recommendation was opposed by the National Political Reform Conference, a group formed after the 1999 election to oversee democratic reforms in the country.
Then, last week, a group of senators and representatives from the Nigerian parliament launched a campaign in opposition to a tenure extension, the country’s Daily Sun reported.
“For some time, there has been speculation in our polity concerning the reality or otherwise of a third term agenda by President Olusegun Obasanjo and some governors,” the paper quoted Sen. Uche Chukwumerije as saying. “We want Nigerians not to accept any longer the half-truths, lies, deception and manipulations of the presidency on this issue.”
Hearings scheduled by the PDP for Wednesday and Thursday of this week to gauge public support for changes to the constitution also have angered many Nigerians. In Katsina, a northern Muslim city where Obasanjo, an ethnic Yoruba and Christian from the South, has failed to gain popularity, riots broke out in opposition to the third term “plot,” Reuters reported.
Diplomats told the news organization Obasanjo planned the hearings in six provincial capitals rather than in major cities in order to prevent larger protests.
The uncertainty and protests have sparked editorial writers in multiple newspapers to call for an answer either way from Obasanjo.
And, a poll of 2,400 Nigerians in Nigeria taken by Afro Barometer — a research network run by the University of Capetown in South Africa, the Center for Democracy and Development in Ghana and Michigan State University — reported that while 13 percent of the people surveyed believe Obasanjo should be allowed to serve as many terms as he wishes, 84 percent oppose a third term extension.
Obasanjo’s track record
The same research organization showed Obasanjo’s popularity and trust ratings among the nation’s voters sagging badly, particularly among Muslims from the North who themselves want more autonomy from the central government and those who feel that widespread corruption common under 45 years of military leadership still is prevalent.
Residents of the oil-rich Niger Delta, where poverty abounds despite Nigeria’s status as the world’s eighth largest oil producer, also condemn the country’s leadership.
Should Obasanjo mount a campaign again, it is those groups who pose the greatest danger to a possible victory.
“There are definite achievements that Obasanjo can point to in my view,” Lewis said. “He has been very effective in asserting civilian control of the military. … In the last three or four years, he’s been relatively effective in putting together a competent team to manage the economy … [and] he’s started a vigorous anti-corruption campaign and there have been a lot of high-profile arrests, investigations and even some convictions.”
Lewis pointed to a stabilizing, growing economy and to a pending deal between Nigeria, the International Monetary Fund and the Paris Club that would virtually wipe out the country’s $33 billion debt with the government paying off $12 billion and the rest being canceled.
The Nigerian public remains skeptical. A second Afro Barometer poll showed the president’s approval rating at 32 percent and a Feb. 10 editorial in the country’s Vanguard newspaper blasted the PDP for its failure to improve quality of life.
“Life in Nigeria, outside Abuja, is becoming increasingly unbearable. In Lagos, the commercial hub of Nigeria, electric power is as rare as two hours a day. The informal sector, which has been the backbone of the ailing economy is badly threatened by power outages … [and] the roads are washing away.”
Any effort by the Nigerian PDP to keep Obasanjo in power would also face widespread opposition from key members of the international community.
U.S. State Department officials have condemned the idea of amending the Nigerian constitution to allow for a third term. Arguments that keeping Obasanjo in power longer would allow the president to continue on the path to ending corruption and would help stabilize a country that has seen 13 leaders — many of them military — since independence in 1960 have fallen on deaf ears.
Obasanjo’s reputation as an international statesman and peacekeeper also holds little sway among American officials who view any threat to term limits as a threat to democracy.
“Our view is very clear that term limits should be respected,” Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer said in a state department briefing in December after being asked about the rumored intentions of Obasanjo and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
“It’s extremely important in Africa to respect term limits because it allows for the grooming of new leadership, it supports the rule of law and it demonstrates that … most of these countries … haven’t developed under those 20- or 30-year presidents,” she said.
According to Frazer, term limits protect against coups and violent rebellions by those who see few alternatives to a lifetime president.
Nigerian officials maintain Obasanjo has not made any statement asserting his desire for a third term. “Nobody has ever heard the president say he is going to run a third term,” the embassy official said.
Any changes to the constitution are purely legitimate, the embassy asserts.
“There is absolute need to amend the Nigerian constitution and it’s not motivated by any third term extension,” the official said. “It was the departing military government that imposed that constitution. It’s really a military document, which was to serve as a transitional, constitutional framework and there are a lot of contradictory provisions.”
The embassy said the Independent National Electoral Commission is preparing for the 2007 election, though observers say no one has formerly announced a candidacy, including the country’s Vice President Atiku Abubakar, reportedly at odds with Obasanjo over the third term debate because of his own presidential aspirations.
Regardless of the speculation and who will run, amending the constitution to allow for a third term would require a two-thirds majority from the federal legislature.
“To amend the Nigerian constitution is a very rigorous process,” the embassy official said. “If it happens then that must be the will of the people, not of one person and we should not be afraid of this.”