By Chidi Odinkalu & Ayisha Osori
Authors reviewed the beginning of National Assembly debate on constitutional amendment aimed at facilitating a third term for Obasanjo; the role of the private media and Senators who either stood for or opposed the unpopular project. They relayed how on Tuesday, 16 May 2006, an unexplained, early morning fire outbreak destroyed Dokpesi’s home in Agenebode, Edo State. The fire incident was believed by some to be connected with Dokpesi’s AIT coverage of the riveting debate on the floor of the Senate on the constitutional amendment bill.
Having dominated Nigeria’s politics since 1966, the military prepared and promulgated a Constitution on their own terms as they reluctantly retreated to the barracks at the end of May 1999. Demands to amend the Constitution began almost before the ink was dry on the one that the soldiers left behind. When the amendment of the Constitution was initially mooted in 1999, Senator David Mark, a retired general, opposed the idea, arguing that “we have not practiced the Constitution for enough time.
He would later complain that his advice was rejected as he was “shouted down and people called me military apologist. They said it was designed by the military and, therefore, I was supporting the military.” By consensus, both chambers of the National Assembly set up a Joint Committee on Constitution Review (JCCR). This JCCR made slow progress and was replaced in 2003 by another JCCR led by the deputy Senate president, Ibrahim Mantu.
The Mantu-led JCCR was also supposed to have organised hearings in each of the six geopolitical zones of the country and also meet for weeks in Port Harcourt, in the Niger Delta, from where they formulated the bill under consideration. One of the many objections to the zonal hearings was that they were hijacked by governors under instructions from the Obasanjo presidency. In Osogbo, capital of Osun State in the South West, where another retired general, Olagunsoye Oyinlola, was the governor, some 33 witnesses who appeared to testify against the proposal were arrested; “their clothes were removed, their hands were tied behind their backs and they were made to lie on the floor and face the sun before being transferred to the Police station.” In other narratives, “there were also complaints about the size of the venues used for the hearings in some zones, while in others, such as Maiduguri (North East) and Lafia (North Central), last minute changes of venue served to alienate further those who wished to attend.”
On the fourth day of the debate, on 10 May, another former military ruler and army general, Muhammadu Buhari, turned up to observe the debate. He had emerged as Head of State after a military coup overthrew Nigeria’s first elected civilian president at the end of December 1983. A wiry ex-military dictator with a humourless reputation, Buhari seemed almost destined to live in the shadows of Obasanjo. Having previously served as a junior officer under Obasanjo’s direct command, he would later also serve in Cabinet as Obasanjo’s Petroleum Minister from 1976 to 1979. In 2003, General Buhari ran unsuccessfully against President Obasanjo for the opportunity to lead the country as president. Both ol them dominated Nigeria’s politics. In a fair contest between the two there could be only one winner: an ex-soldier!
On the whole, it looked increasingly as if the military had merely traded up their starched fatigues for the opportunity to remain in power under cover of electoral legitimacy. Ahead of the scheduled 2007 elections, General Buhari clearly nursed an ambition for a re-match against his former boss, President Obasanjo. If the constitutional amendment was passed, he would again run against Obasanjo, all but guaranteeing that his ambitions would be frustrated in another heavily rigged contest.
Accompanying Buhari in the gallery was the cream of the leadership of the opposition ANPP, including Alhaji Balarabe Musa, a veteran politician and former governor of Kaduna State in North West Nigeria. It was not difficult to surmise that they were there to rally their party caucus in the Senate against the amendments.
Too many personal and political fortunes hinged on the outcome of the third term debate. Many equally felt the future of elective government and the country hung in the balance.
Few people had as much to lose as the vice president, Atiku Abubakar. A founding father of the ruling PDP, Atiku was also a Muslim from the North and was widely seen as one of the leading candidates to succeed President Obasanjo. However, considering Obasanjo’s open reluctance to have Atiku as his running mate in 2003, it is safe to assume that there was no chance that the president would re-nominate him as vice president had he secured his third term. Atiku was aware that third term, therefore, represented a mortal threat to his continuing relevance in national politics. If it succeeded, he was easily expendable. If it failed, he could live to fight another day with a reputation as one of the leading figures who prevented personal rule from taking hold in Nigeria. It was a no-brainer. Within and beyond the party, resistance such as there was easily coalesced around him. The ensuing battle between the president and his vice crippled government.
Atiku was not the only person with much to lose. The senators participating in the debate were well aware that if they wished to run again in the forthcoming elections in 2007, they would need the support of the new party hierarchy to get their nominations or else look for another party. As the senior retired general among the new hierarchy, it seemed clear that this was the president’s way of whipping the legislators from the ruling party into line. Nigeria’s Constitution did not allow for independent candidacy. If the senators failed to line up behind the amendment that he sought, he could kill their political and parliamentary careers by ensuring that the party denied them the platform to run again. Those who supported him were guaranteed the party ticket as well as financing for their ambitions and in many cases, much more.
The debate on the proposed amendment afforded the proponents the opportunity to air all the arguments in support of or against extending the president’s tenure. On the Senate floor, Jonathan Zwingina, who was also the deputy Majority Leader, disclosed the machinations of the ruling party ahead of the debate. Zwingina, who held a doctorate degree in political science, was popularly known as the “Cicero of the Senate”. It was meant to portray him as the intellectual leader of the Chamber, Quite often though, he seemed to portray himself as the leading Chameleon of the Senate, a man not particularly moored to any principles. According to him, at the beginning of the debate, around 3 May 2006, the executive committee of the ruling PDP presided over by President Obasanjo, adopted a decision instructing the party’s Senate caucus to support all the elements of the proposed constitutional amendment package, especially the proposal to extend the president’s tenure.
Around the country, rumours were rife that the administration had offered significant sums of money as bribes to senators in order to encourage them to vote for the amendment. With the cost of elections grossly escalated by Obasanjo’s style of godfather politics, legislators sorely needed the money to finance their re-election. As president, Obasanjo frequently tarred the National Assembly with repeated charges of corruption; some senators took the opportunity of the debate to burnish their image as incorruptible and expose President Obasanjo’s executive as a hypocritical beehive of corruption. Badamasi Maccido, the senator from Sokoto North in the North West, wanted it “known by my constituency, the Nigerian public and myself that I did not collect any alleged N50 million that was shared.” Adolphus Wabara, a senator from Abia State in the South East, who was ousted as Senate president following unproven allegations linking him to corruption, repudiated any suggestion that he had collected any money to support the Third Term Agenda, adding, to much mirth and laughter: “[T]he one they alleged that I collected, I am still suffering from it.”
Besides these clarifications of positions, and reflecting the uncertainties of the time, David Mark, a retired general who served under successive military regimes for over three decades and became a senator on the platform of the ruling PDP in 1999, reminded the country that there were also “distinguished senators who were pro-third term in the night and anti-third term in the day-time.” Ahmed Mohammed, another senator from Kwara State in North Central Nigeria, summed up the sentiments when he complained that the exercise had “generated a lot of tension and bitterness”, polarised the country and “threatens the peaceful co-existence and unity of our people.”
May 16, 2006 was the day on which the Senate expected to conclude its debate on the second reading of the bill to amend Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution. As is normal with parliamentary procedure, the First Reading takes place when a bill is introduced to let parliament know the title and general objectives of the bill. During the second reading, members of parliament debate the general outline and principles of a bill. If they approve it for further consideration, the bill moves to a parliamentary committee, where it is examined in detail. Committees can also hold public hearings with lobbyists and advocates for or against a bill. The committee may then report back to the parliament which will consider the bill in full and decide whether or not to pass it into law.
Unusually, for a second reading of the bill on this occasion, all 109 members of the Senate were listed to contribute to this debate. Each was given a maximum of ten minutes.