Nigeria Considers Allowing President a Third Term

Lawmakers in Nigeria are debating a change in the constitution that would allow President Olusegun Obasanjo to run for a third term. Renee Montagne talks with Clement Nwankwo, a Nigerian human rights lawyer, about the debate.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Human rights activists in Nigeria are worried about a possible change in that country's Constitution. Next year's election was supposed to be the first time since Nigeria gained its independence a half-century ago, that one civilian president handed power to another. But now, lawmakers are talking about amending the constitution to allow President Olusegun Obasanjo to run for a third term. That possibility provoked a warning from U.S. Intelligence Director John Negroponte. It could unleash major turmoil and conflict, he said--chaos that could disrupt the flow of oil from one of America's biggest suppliers.

Clement Nwankwo founded Nigeria's first human rights group. He says extending the presidency poses great peril to Nigeria's fledgling democracy.

Mr. CLEMENT NWANKWO (Founder, Constitutional Rights Project, Nigeria): If President Obasanjo was to amend the constitution, then it would mean that the institutionalization of democracy that this country has so very earnestly craved would be endangered. And, I think, also, the problems would arise that people who have had to put up with eight years of Obasanjo's rule, and who want change and new leadership, would be seriously frustrated.

MONTAGNE: Of course, you've just used the word, put up with eight years of his rule. Before he was elected, Nigeria was run by generals. He was elected with over 60 percent of the vote seven years ago, and, at the time, he was hailed as the great hope for democracy.

Mr. NWANKWO: Yes, he was hailed as the good hope for democracy. People had expected that being a former military head of state, and having relinquished power and undertaken some activities in the area of governance, and having developed a reputation as an international statesman, that he would bring all of this to bear in Nigeria's new democracy that came into being in 1999.

I think a lot of people have been disappointed, that their expectations have been dashed, and the hopes that the country would embark on serious political and economic reforms have not been hopes that have been fully met.

MONTAGNE: Now, President Obasanjo has never said he would run again, were the constitution to change, but would there be an argument, though, for keeping continuity at the presidential level, and the argument being that a vote might further deepen the divide between the Muslim North and the Christian South?

Mr. NWANKWO: The continuity that Nigeria needs is continuity of democracy, continuity of constitutional rule, not the continuity of an individual in power. I think that Obasanjo may have contributed, in some ways, to the development of the economy, and people may have benefited from his rule in some ways.

But, in reality, a lot of people feel that the country needs to go beyond him. At more than 70 years old, he's perceived as being too old to continue in office. Nigeria feels that there's a need for new leadership and new vibrancy that would help sustain democracy in the country.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, the Bush Administration has looked to Nigeria as a possible alternative to the middle-eastern states, which would be perceived as more volatile when it comes to the question of oil. How do you see the politics there?

Mr. NWANKWO: I think that unless Nigeria can really be able to structure itself politically, in order to achieve some political stability, then the level of insecurity will continue. The problem really is that we still have not achieved the level of political continuity that this country needs. And Obasanjo starts with third term completely will draw up this search into smokes.

MONTAGNE: Clement Nwankwo is a prominent lawyer in Nigeria, and he founded the Constitutional Rights Project there.

Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. NWANKWO: Thank you, Renee.

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