By Chidi Odinkalu & Ayisha Osori
he strategy adopted for selling the third term project to the country was revealed: “Within the party leadership, it was understood that the governors would also benefit from the extension of the tenure of the president… the “Latin words mutatis mutandis reverberated in the hall of the Constitution Review Centre [of the National Assembly] in Port Harcourt [Rivers State]….
While the proponents suggested that the Third Term Agenda would only allow another four years for the president, Uche Chukwumerije, a vocal opponent of the proposal representing Abia North in the South East, argued that “it means that Mr President will rule for the next 12 years and the presidency will remain in one zone for 20 years. Fullstop!” Senator Muktar Aruwa called it tenure “perpetuation”.
Second, many of the PDP senators adopted the default position that they supported the extension merely as loyal party members. Some others, like Ifeanyi Araraume, another supporter of the third term from Imo North in the South East, who had a pecuniary interest in the project, claimed it was equally the position of their constituency. He produced no evidence to back up this claim. Senator Jonathan Zwingina came up with a unique marriage of both strains of argument, reporting that his constituency had “advised that if I must remain a member of the party, an officer of the party and if I seek to have advantages and future political ambition under the party, then I must abide by the decisions and toe the line of the political party.” As a result, he conveniently declared to howls of derision from most of his colleagues in the Senate, that he “concurred with the advice of my constituency.” Gbemi Saraki, a female senator from Kwara State mocked this line of reasoning, reminding her PDP colleagues that “for something that goes to the foundation of the rules of interaction among the three arms of government to be treated in such manner as party policy, in my opinion, is to misunderstand and thereby have little regard for the Constitution.” Senator Chukwumerije turned the issue of party loyalty on its head, asserting with considerable prescience that he was against the amendment because he was “a loyal PDP man. Third term will hurt PDR”
Third, senators wrestled with the rationales for a third term. In support of the extension, some argued that the president had performed so well he deserved to be granted an extension. The Chief Whip of the ruling party at the time and senator for Akwa-Ibom South, Udoma Udo Udoma, dismissed this argument as “dangerous.” It was not a very good sign. If even the Chief Whip could not support the official party position, it was enough evidence that the party’s position was hopeless. Udo Udoma and Obasanjo had a history of not being on the same page. Elected to the Senate in 1999, Obasanjo initially nominated him for a position in Cabinet. When Obasanjo offered him a junior ministerial position, Senator Udo Udoma turned him down, preferring instead to remain in the Senate. His father, Dr Egbert Udo Udoma, was a distinguished legal scholar and one of the first Africans to receive a doctorate degree in law from Oxford University in 1944. He served as Chief Justice of Uganda for six years from 1963, before returning to a career on the Nigerian Supreme Court. In 1979, Obasanjo by-passed Dr Udo Udoma for the position of Chief Justice, appointing instead Atanda Fatayi-Williams, whose judicial career began in 1960, one year later than Udo-Udoma’s who was originally appointed to the High Court in 1959.
From Gombe Central in the North East, Senator Abubakar Mohammed warned: “if we accept that such performance warrants a third term extension, then we have left ourselves and the people of this country vulnerable to the definite possibility that one day in the life of this country, another president who performs even better would by that extension be entitled to a fourth, fifth or life term.” Several other senators simply took the principled position that the amendment was unacceptable and anti-democratic. From Jigawa North in the North West, Senator Mohammed Ibrahim denounced the proposed amendment: “Extension of tenure is like cancer; it is a disease and it will kill everybody. It is like HIV that has no medicine.” Senator Ibrahim may have been inaccurate about HIV having “no medicine”, but his point was clear. Many other senators were of this epidemiological mindset.
One argument put forward during the debate and developed since then, including by President Obasanjo himself, was that he had not at any time himself informed the National Assembly that he wanted his tenure extended. This was strange. The president had cajoled many people privately, hollowed out his party to whip it into line behind tenure extension and sought to bribe legislators to get it passed. Yet, during the debate, Senator Abiola Ajimobi from Oyo South in the South West, argued that the Senate should not grant something that the president had not asked for, asserting that President Obasanjo had not himself or at any time “told us that he is looking for extension.” This claim, as it turns out, was dubious. The president himself had indeed approached some senators personally to seek their support for the amendment.
At the beginning of May in 2006, just as the Senate debate was about to begin, President Obasanjo called Senator Daisy Danjuma. During the call, Senator Danjuma narrated that President Obasanjo “solicited her support for the measure.” When she declined the initial request, the president sought to persuade her not to speak during the debate and when that did not work “tried to convince her not to persuade other senators to join the anti-third term camp.” Indicating a motive for the amendment, Senator Danjuma said the president, who became one of Nigeria’s most famous poultry farmers upon his retirement from the Nigerian Army in 1979, told her that “he did not want a third term but did not want to hand the party to his vice president (Atiku Abubakar).” The president further pleaded that if her “husband (General Danjuma) wanted the job, I would be satisfied to retire to my chicken farm.” This suggested that in the end, the third term project may have had its origins in multiple motives: ego, personal vendetta and the institutional hubris of propagating the belief that only members of the military could govern Nigeria.
The debate on the second reading of the amendment had been billed as a show of force by both sides in the tenure elongation argument. The arithmetic was straightforward: those seeking to extend the tenure of the president needed the clear support of at least 72 senators or two-thirds of the members of the Senate for the proposal to go forward. Even if the president could improbably secure the support of all 51 senators from southern Nigeria, he would still need another 23 from the North to reach the requisite constitutional threshold for passage of the bill. This was unlikely “because political power and its benefits will be seen to elude that part of the country for another four years or longer.” Legislators from the North faced life and death choices. Voting for a third term came with the real threat that “they could be physically attacked and their properties destroyed.” For the opponents, they merely needed to find 36 senators to block the proposal. By the end of the debate, about 49 senators had come out clearly and firmly against the proposal. The signs looked bad. ‘’ In a last-ditch attempt to buy time, Senator Zwingina proposed that the Senate should “consider the possibility of moving the second reading of this bill to Tuesday, 23 May.” He was supported by Francis Arthur Nzeribe, the vastly experienced senator representing Imo West in the South East and the Chamber’s leading exponent of legislative dark arts. Nzeribe infamously master minded the plot by the military to nullify Nigeria’s presidential election in June 1993. In the Senate, he attracted admiration and opprobrium in equal measure for the shamelessness of his opportunism. If carried, Senator Zwingina’s proposal would give the government and ruling party leadership another week to put pressure on the senators to change their positions. Sensing blood, the senators who were opposed to the president’s third term bid moved to close off consideration of the bill altogether. On their behalf Senator Yari Gandi, whose constituency in Sokoto represented the symbolic heartland of Northern Nigeria, moved for the Senate to end debate on the bill with an up-or-down vote to approve the second reading of the bill. This, they calculated, would give senators the opportunity to vote against consideration and, therefore, kill the bill.
Senate president Nnamani first asked the senators to vote on Senator Zwingina’s proposal. Overwhelmingly, they rejected it. With the knowledge that they now had the numbers to kill the bill, Senator Yari Gandi requested formally for the second reading of the bill. Majority Leader, Dalhatu Tafida, took over the proceedings and formally invited the Senate to vote in favour of the second reading of the bill. In the arcane language of parliamentary procedure, the Hansard on the day records: “Question put and negatived (jubilation).” Following this vote, Senate president, Nnarnani, ruled with an air of solemnity: “So, by this result, the Senate has said clearly and eloquently that we discontinue further proceedings on this (Amendment) bill.” The stilted language of parliamentary business deflated weeks of parliamentary and national tension with a profound air of an anti-climax.
With no hope of passage by the Senate, third term died before it could even begin its parliamentary journey, or so it was thought. For many, this was the end of a long national ordeal and proof that democracy had a secure future in Nigeria. For the country, as it would turn out, it was only the end of the beginning.
END (of Prologue)