In all my adult life, there have been precious few incidents that have made Nigerians from all walks of life unite in celebration and joy. And even then, it is usually to celebrate the success of our sportsmen, especially our national football team. In recent times, even that has become a rarity. On the political front, all Nigerians have come to expect, through painful experience, is the worst. But on the 16th of May, when the Senate president, Chief Ken Nnamani brought down his gavel to officially signal the death of the bid to extend the tenure of the president from two to three terms, there was spontaneous rejoicing across the land. People cheered, hugged one another and mobile phones went off as people tried to ensure that the next person, even those outside the country, had heard the news.
The mood amongst Nigerians was reminiscent of that displayed on the death of General Sani Abacha, when Nigerians uncharacteristically danced on the streets at the news of a death. Indeed, as has been highlighted again and again in the press, there are many parallels to be drawn between General Abacha’s ambition to transit to a civilian president and the third term ambition of President Obasanjo. These range from the justifications for the bid, the manner in which both projects were undertaken, the keep-mum tactics of both rulers and suddenness of the end!
However, there is one significant difference. Although Nigerians fought against General Abacha, his end is not directly attributable to Nigerians. Yes, God may have answered the prayers of the suffering masses and intervened, but the cold hands of death that reminded him too late of his mortality was outside the direct control of Nigerians. But this time, Nigerians, through the National Assembly made the difference. If ever proof was needed that democracy is better than military rule or dictatorships this is one. Intimidation, threats and blackmails failed. Media engineering failed. The all powerful ghana-must-go bags failed! Nigeria scuttled the machinations of a sitting president without our youths having to die in marches and riots, without workers’ strikes bringing the nations economy to a standstill. The system was tested and it prevailed. It may be one small step, but it is a giant leap for democracy in Nigeria! Paradoxically, the same act which threatened the democratic experiment in the country has helped strengthen it.
It is a shame of course that some of the other important issues on the bill such as the removal of the immunity clause have had to be dropped as well. However, while not specifically canvassed by the assembly, from a legal point of view, it is arguable that this is an appropriate step to take as the entire process by which the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (Amendment) Bill, 2006 came to be is flawed. This is because one of the primary rules in law is that anything built on a foundation that is null and void, is itself a nullity. As the eminent jurist Lord Denning said in Macfoy v. United African Company Ltd, “You cannot put something on nothing and expect it to stand. It will collapse.” On a practical level, the killing of the bill in its entirety was an astute political move as it totally put paid to the possibility of the notorious clause being resurrected from the ashes. It is not improbable that had the process of constitutional amendment continued, attempts would have been made to smuggle in the clause in other guises. In any event, the spectre of that clause would undoubtedly have hung over and marred the entire process.
There is no denying that there are aspects of the Nigerian constitution that need amendment. But any process of amendment needs to be done in a transparent manner and in accordance with the rules. It is only in such an environment that the constitution can be amended truly for the benefit of Nigerians rather than those of an individual or a clique. In the mean time, democracy marches on in the country, with the real chance of transition from one civilian government to another for the first time in our political history.
Undeniably, the battle is not over. There are other fears. Whilst still rejoicing, the group I was with started discussing the possibility of this outcome being orchestrated from the beginning. What if this whole third term circus was planned to hoodwink us and divert our attention from more sinister plans. Was it so that the process of electioneering can be left late enough for only those few who already have in place the resources and machinery necessary for winning an election? Perhaps it was an opportunity for ex-leaders who had since become pariahs to get back into the limelight and build their political relevance by giving them the opportunity to make populist statements about the whole process. Certainly General Ibrahim Babangida, has suddenly become more vocal in recent times, after having kept a long studied silence, since stepping aside after bringing the nation to the brink of war. He has even categorically declared his intention to contest the next presidential election. While such views may appear cynical, they are not far-fetched in light of the Machiavellian politics that Nigerians have had to endure.
Similarly, while opposed to tenure elongation in principle, a number of Nigerians appreciate that in spite of its many failings, the present administration has put in place some policy reforms which need to be seen through. The comment attributed to presidential aspirant, General Buhari (Thisday online, 18/05/06, “2007: Battle for Presidency Begins”) that “…there were reforms before this government and there would be reforms after it; and the political progress of this nation should not be arrested because of so-called reforms that might well be dismantled by succeeding administrations” does not help to allay fears that even the small steps we have made at progress would be destroyed.
The next real test therefore is for Nigeria to have free and fair elections, where our leaders are not selected but elected by the people. Only then, can Nigerians elect into office people on the basis of their policy and character. If Nigeria can do that, then we would truly have turned the corner.
But that is fight for tomorrow. For today, I say hooray. Hooray for democracy. Hooray Nigerians!