Fiddling With Nigerian Constitution Could Affect Regional Stability

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - An attempt to amend Nigeria's constitution to allow President Olusegun Obasanjo to run for a third five-year term could have disastrous implications for West African stability, African political analysts have warned.

The U.S. Embassy in Abuja has also cautioned against the move.

Although Obasanjo has not himself stated explicitly that he would run for a third term, the move to change the constitution to allow for such a move has raised concern.

Some experts worry that altering the democracy trend will exacerbate existing religious, political and ethnic tensions in Africa's most populous nation.

Apart from other security problems, two rebel groups have launched an
armed uprising in the oil-rich Niger Delta. They have abducted foreign oil workers, attacked oil installations and recently carried out a car bombing to protest a deal signed with China to explore for oil there.

Shaka Ssali, who hosts the Straight Talk Africa program on the Voice of America, said threatening democracy in Nigeria would seriously affect stability in the broader region.

"But I believe the political leadership there will not allow that to happen," Ssali added in an interview in Nigeria. "The political class needs the stability to ensure they continue ruling."

Prof. Macharia Munene, who teaches international relations and diplomacy at the U.S. International University here said amending the Nigerian constitution could accelerate similar moves across Africa.

Nigeria, the largest nation in West Africa geographically, economically and militarily, is seen as a power broker in a region dominated by fragile democracies and civil war-torn countries.

The country has been the main contributor and supplier to peacekeeping efforts in countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone.

For this reason, figures like Dr. Salim Ahmed Salim, former secretary-general of the Africa Union, are optimistic.

He said he believed Obasanjo would be guided by "his glossy pan-African credentials" as he decided whether to accede to his supporters' clamoring for a third term in office.

Salim recalled that Obasanjo had been a military leader who handed leadership back to civilian politicians - "one of the unique occasions in the continent."

He doubted the Nigerian leader would do anything to invite instability, given that the country had already gone through a civil war and military coups.

"Now they are beginning to see the prize of having elections, the prize of getting leaders elected. I believe the political leadership will understand the importance of not doing anything that is going to lead to crisis."

The debate on changing the constitution began in the past week in Nigeria's House of Representatives. An initial vote went in favor of amending the constitution, although analysts said proponents would struggle to obtain the two-thirds majority required to do so.

In an earlier statement, the U.S. Embassy said it believed "executive term limits should be respected in the interest of institutionalizing democracy and opening political space."

"This allows for new leaders to be groomed and it supports the rule of law. A regular turnover of power ingrains and institutionalizes a democratic process."

Several other countries in Africa - including Uganda, Gabon and Chad - have already amended their constitutions to allow presidents to stand for a third term, while others are debating such a change.

Nyokabi Kanyua of the International Commission of Jurists in Kenya said the "third term" phenomenon was emerging as a new challenge for African democracy and should not be allowed to succeed.

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