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Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: Gains of Third Term Crisis by Yusuph Olaniyonu


The third term debate or should I call it the third term crisis has come and gone. Actually, it is still contentious whether what happened was a debate or a crisis. It will be right to call it a debate when looked at from the point of the arguments for and against and the various exchanges that occurred at the personnal and institutional levels. But one would only be misapplying the word 'debate' to call those exchanges as such.

The third term issue brought the best and worst of our politics to the fore. It showed that many Nigerians are really not democratic in their inclinations even when they are always quick in prefacing all their sentences with the phrase "I am a democrat,...".

Democracy is about contest of ideas, policies and personalities. It is about persuading people based on well-thought out ideas and reasons. It is about seeking support for one issue, idea or person. Democracy is about allowing both the majority and the minority to have their say while eventually the majority will have their way.

But all these attributes of democracy were jettisoned by both sides of the third term issue. And that is why it may be right to say what we had in the past three or so months was not a debate but a crisis. It was a crisis which showed that majority of Nigerians have not imbibed democratic ethos and ethics. Many Nigerians on both sides of the third term divide could not even sustain simple intellectual debate or argument based on reasoned explanations. Abuses, threats, character assassination, name calling, blackmail, persecution and intimidation were employed.

People on both sides of the divides were highly intolerant of opposing point. Culture of intolerance and debate took flight and were replaced by culture of violence and anarchy.

However, there are still opportunities to derive collective gains from the negative aspects while the 3rd term crisis lasted. The shortcomings of our democracy have now been demonstrated and it is important that all of us must work to correct them. Every participant in this democratic project should learn a lesson from the exchanges of this 3rd term crisis.

Never should we allow an issue to make us replace reasoning with emotion. Nigerians should never allow an issue to consume the major ingredients of democracy like free speech, right of individuals to freely come together, associate with each other in pursuit of lawful objectives. Freedom of the media to obtain information from all sides to an issue and disseminate such viewpoints without let or hindrance should be seen as sacrosanct. All Nigerians should learn from the Third term crisis that our democracy can only grow stronger if we allow a culture of debate to reign, adhere strictly to the rule of law, respect due process and affirm the supremacy of our constitution. This is actually the first gain we would have recorded from the madness called third term.

A second gain that I believe we recorded from third term crisis is that Nigerians have further underscored the latin aphorism that 'Vox Populi, Vox dei, which means the voice of the people is the voice of God.'

From the beginning, the idea of elongating the tenure of office of President Olusegun Obasanjo and state governors was not popular with the people. While the proponents of third term perceived the opposition to the idea as an elitist chorus not well founded in the grassroots, they forgot that many of the achievements we could attribute to the Obasanjo administration only applied to and are visible to the elites. The much-praised economic reforms programme of the administration has not started translating to better standard of living for the masses of the people. So, when the pro-third term people talked of continuity the masses perceived the message to mean continuity of the current high level of unemployment, decaying social infrastructure and high, un-affordable cost of living. Many Nigerians at the grassroots could not comprehend why the present government should continue in office.

The people's opposition to 3rd term connected with the desire of political leaders who simply want Obasanjo and the present governors out of office to create vacancies for another set of politicians to fill. So, third term was a doomed, highly unpopular project from the beginning.

Thank God that unlike in the case of the June 12, 1993 elections, when the people's will was subverted by the few individuals in government, the people's choice on third term prevailed over the whims and caprices of the government in power. That is one other gain the Nigerian nation recorded in the 3rd term crisis. I hope from now on, the popular wishes of the people will continue to subdue the preferences of the people in power. After all, power belongs to the people and it is exercised by the governors on behalf of the governed. The failure of 3rd term therefore is the rejuvenation of the people's power as the ultimate factor in a political process.

Another gain recorded from the 3rd term crisis is that the civil society, the political class and other segments of the society must have realised that it is not at all times that open demonstration and mass rallies can be used to achieve reversal of government policies. The defeat of the 3rd term project was recorded through institutional realignments which resulted in a coalition consisting of politicians, media professionals, civil rights advocates and the general public. This coalition may need to be re-invented soon as the next general election approaches to ensure that the results from the polls reflect the true desires of the electorates as expressed in the votes cast.

One other positive aftermath of the Third term crisis is the re invention of the Nigerian parliament. For once, the defeat of third term in both chambers of the National Assembly restored the legislature to its rightful place in the presidential system of government. For once, the National Assembly proved that the postulations of political philosophers like Baron de Montesquie, John Locke, J.V.Dicey and the rest about the need for separation of powers between the different arms of government are not only valid but also have universal application. The National Assembly has for once freed itself from the shackles of the presidency. The National Assembly pitched tent with the people against the executive. For once, the people have an opportunity to assess the legislate outside the ambit of being a corrupt institution where ministerial nominees have to give bribes to be confirmed or where contracts are arbitrarily awarded for the leadership to make money. The National Assembly broke away from the image of an institution where ministers pay bribes to get their sectoral budgets approved or where the leaders waste tens of millions of public funds to furnish personal houses which they later get the National Assembly to pay rent for.

The National Assembly that voted last week against third term reclaimed its integrity. It re-established its independence and implanted itself in the heart of the people. A legislature is expected to be the most representative of all the three arms of the people. The legislators have ample opportunity to commune with their constituents on every issue and even on a periodic basis. The result of the consultation should guide the activities of the legislator in parliament. That is why it is widely believed that where there is a strong, credible and independent legislature, most of the problems our democracy has been experiencing since 1960 would have been solved. A strong National Assembly will curb the excesses of the presidency. It will formulate good legislations and insist that the executive implements them faithfully. The legislature will protect the sanctity of the constitution and other validly made laws of the lands.

The legislature is one institution which should not compromise itself by conspiring with the executive to the thwart the wishes of the people. Thus, we hope that the death of third term will be the revolutionary point for the National Assembly to finally free itself from the control of the presidency and act like an independent arm of government whose key duty is to check the excesses of the presidency and make it act in the general interest of the people.

While I praise our national assembly members, particular the ones who stood for democracy, rule of law and supremacy of the constitution, I call on them not to relent. The National Assembly should not allow the division created by the third term to continue. The leadership should reconcile all members. There should be a soul-searching effort to enable the federal legislature rediscover itself and assume the role assigned to it by the constitution and the culture in a presidential system. From now on, we need the genuine principle of checks and balances to obtain in inter government relations.

However, at this point, I must talk about my constituency, the media, and its role in the 3rd term crisis. I believe one of the gains of the just ended political crisis is the appreciation of the role of the media as a positive agent of change in a society. During the third term era, no single newspaper or broadcast medium of note supported the third term idea. Even the government owned NTA maintained an uncommon neutrality in the coverage of the events involving proponents and opponents of the 3rd term. The media as an institution was unwavering in its condemnation of the idea.

I wonder what would have happened had the media generally or substantially supported the 3rd term idea. The media offered staunch support to the opponents of the tenure elongation idea. I know some legislators and politicians who boldly came out in the open to oppose third term simply because they were sure the media was in support of their stand. The media gave more than adequate exposure to the antics of the third term proponents. Many of the plans of the pro-third term groups were sabotaged by the premature exposure by the media. Once again, the media followed its old tradition of liberating the polity as it did in the colonial era.

In fact, in terms of contributions to the failure of the third term agenda, the media did more than any other institution. The legislature which actually held the knife and did the actual slaughtering of the third term moster drew the strength to handle that noble and difficult assignment from the media. The media made it unnecessary for the anti-third term people to articulate the reasons why the project must fail. We in the media actually served as advocates of the sentiments against third term. We hyped the evil that third term represents. In fact, the media went as far as demonstrating that the third term project would not sail through if the referendum on it was restricted to the Obasanjo family. The interviews with the president's first wife, Remi, and one of his older sons, Gbenga in which both of them condemned tenure elongation were pointers in this direction.

Overall, the third term crisis showed that though some politicians usually do not feel comfortable with a free press the press remains a major stabilising factor in democracy. Without a free, virile press, there can be no viable democracy. Therefore, all lovers of democracy and those who claim to be democrats must at all times strive to ensure that they discourage all direct and indirect efforts aimed at stifling free press and suppressing free dissemination from ideas. If we can achieve this, then it will be one major gain of the third term crisis.

The author may be reached at Yusupholaniyonu@thisdayonline.com. This article was published by This Day.


Yusuph Olaniyonu

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

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