By Chidi Odinkalu & Ayisha Osori
We saw those who supported the third term project and those who opposed it. We also saw Buhari and Alhaji Balarabe Musa, leadership of the opposition ANPP in the gallery of NASS on their mission to rally their party caucus in the Senate against the constitutional amendments
The import and background to this debate was not lost on the senators. No elected civilian administration had, at the time, successfully handed over to another. Elections were due to hold in less than nine months, in the first quarter of 2007, to determine who would succeed President Obasanjo. Preceding the debate, the president had reorganised the ruling PDP in what many considered a martial fashion.
Without the knowledge or participation of party organs, he ousted the Chairman, Audu Ogbeh, an urbane, bookish veteran of Nigerian politics, who had been a Minister in the previous civilian administration overthrown by the military in 1983. It was alleged, without confirmation or denial by anyone, that the president forced Chief Ogbeh to resign at gunpoint. In his place, Obasanjo installed another retired army colonel, Ahmadu Ali, whose defining attribute, Obasanjo recalled, was his capacity to “remain steadfast on what was agreed.” Ali had served him over 20 years earlier as a controversial Education Minister when President Obasanjo was military Head of State. With this step, the president, his National Security Adviser, chairman of the ruling party and the chief of staff to the president were all retired senior soldiers who had worked together when Obasanjo was military Head of State from February 1976 until October 1979.
In the Senate, President Obasanjo’s ruling PDP controlled 76 seats out of the available 109, representing 69.72% of the seats. This was well above the threshold of two-thirds or 66.67% needed to amend the Constitution. The ruling PDP did not just control nearly 70% of the Senate, it also controlled 28 out of the 36 governors across the country who could be relied upon, it was believed, to whip their state legislators behind the amendment.
Within the party leadership, it was understood that the governors would also benefit from the extension of the tenure of the president. Hence, according to Senator Ogunbanjo from President Obasanjo’s home state in South West Nigeria, the “Latin words mutatis mutandis reverberated in the hall of the Constitution Review Centre [of the National Assembly] in Port Harcourt [Rivers State]…. It was agreed that whatever applies to the clause on the tenure of the office of the president, would apply mutatis mutandis to the clause on the office of governor.” With the support of the governors assured with this mutatis mutandis arrangement, the senators had nowhere to hide, or so it was thought. From their states, their governors were well placed to put pressure on them with offers they could not refuse. If they ran to Abuja, the party at the centre could exercise the whip by threatening to deny them a ticket, without which their ambitions to return to the National Assembly could be extinguished. Caught in this high stakes political good-cop-bad-cop arrangement, the legislators were well aware that their political careers were at stake.
Some senators had more than their careers at stake. One of them was Daisy Danjuma, a female senator representing Edo-Central in the Niger Delta, who was married to Theophilus (TY) Danjuma, a billionaire and retired general with a fearsome reputation, who served as army chief in the military regime of General Obasanjo from February 1976 until October 1979 and then as his Defence Minister from June 1999 until May 2003. She narrated that her husband had warned her that if she voted in favour of the amendment, “he would throw me out of the house.”
The problem was that the proposed amendment to extend the president’s tenure was widely perceived to go against an implicit bargain that underpinned Nigeria’s fragile and diverse ethnic mosaic. President Obasanjo was a Christian from southern Nigeria. Under a convention of the ruling PDP known as “zoning”, it was understood that at the end of his constitutionally permissible two terms in office, President Obasanjo would be succeeded by a Muslim from Northern Nigeria. In fact, there were suggestions, never explicitly denied or confirmed, that prior to being elected, Obasanjo had agreed to serve only one term between 1999-2003 and hand over power back to General Babangida, another retired former military ruler from the North. If President Obasanjo succeeded in amending the Constitution to extend his tenure, this would terminate this arrangement unilaterally.
In the debate on the third term, the identity and background of a senator was an important marker for where they stood. Legislators from Northern Nigeria, for instance, were more likely than not to be against the bill. Understandably, the proposal faced stiff opposition from many quarters. Party discipline was seriously fractured.
When, the Senate convened on Tuesday, 16 May 2006, suspicions were high and tempers were at breaking point.
The debate had drama, anticipation, even foreboding written all over it. Outside the Senate Chambers, the entire country feasted on every word coming out of the debate. Inside the Senate, the public gallery was full. Among the observers of the debate on the day was a powerful delegation from Lagos, the only state in President Obasanjo’s South West that was ruled by the opposition Alliance for Democracy (AD). The AD delegation was led by its National Chairman, Chief Bisi Akande, himself a former state governor, and included two other former state governors, Chief Olusegun Osoba and Chief Niyi Adebayo. President Obasanjo ousted all three in dodgy elections in 2003. Beside them in the gallery were the recently ousted chairman of the PDP, Chief Audu Ogbeh; two former Ministers, Chief Tom Ikimi and Chief Edu; as well as former national vice-Chair of the party in the South West, Chief Shuaib Oyedokun. From the ruling party, the senators admitted two of their former colleagues, Joseph Waku and Musa Adede, into the chambers as observers. The government sent a former senator and President Obasanjo’s Minister for Integration in Africa, Lawan Cuba, to watch the proceedings on its behalf. The choice of Cuba, a largely unknown junior minister, to represent the government could have been driven by confidence that the Senate would pass the amendments or a reading of the tea leaves which foretold defeat.
Presiding was Kenechukwu Nnamani, a senator from Enugu in the South East, who in the previous year emerged as the president of the Senate. Anticipating the conclusion of the debate, Senator Nnamani opened proceedings on this final day with an address to his colleagues, cajoling them to protect what he called “legislative due process.” Admitting that the country faced a “crisis of political succession”, he appealed to his peers not to “become political entrepreneurs who pander after personal gains, but rather delegates and trustees of the people who will preserve democratic governance.” Contributing to the debate, Teslim Folarin, a supporter of the Third Term Agenda representing Oyo Central in South West Nigeria, commended the Senate president “for the transparent nature and resolute commitment” with which he had steered the debates.
This was about the only point on which all sides in the debate agreed. The debate itself was unusually meaty. On the floor, senators canvassed their arguments for and against the bill with zeal, tact and skill. The full range of parliamentary debating and persuasive skills was on display. Senators jousted and contested three major points. First, early in the debate, it became clear that the exact import of the amendment on tenure extension sought was not clear. If the Constitution was in fact amended, how much longer could the president rule? Those in support sought to minimise the effect or change the narrative. Bob Effiong, a senator from Akwa Ibom North, in the Niger Delta, described “the phrase elongation of tenure or extension of tenure” as “completely wrong”, explaining that “what is correct is that a new term would be added.” In other words, the amendment would only add a third term to the already existing two terms of present incumbents. If this was so, the bill was not clear enough. It lent itself to different meanings. Mamman AH, from Yobe South, countered by enumerating the various guises under which the exercise had been sold, including “elongation, amendment, tenure limit extension, continuity, ‘carry-go’”, a local slang implying arbitrary plunder, and denounced the project as “dubious”.