Nigeria: Controversy Over Jonathan’s Single-Term Concept

Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan’s proposal for a single term of six years for future presidents and state governors is generating robust public debate. Political experts say this is healthy for the nation’s evolving democracy. In 2006, surreptitious moves were reportedly made to extend the tenure of Nigeria’s former President Olusegun Obasanjo in what was then […]


Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan’s proposal for a single term of six years for future presidents and state governors is generating robust public debate. Political experts say this is healthy for the nation’s evolving democracy.

In 2006, surreptitious moves were reportedly made to extend the tenure of Nigeria’s former President Olusegun Obasanjo in what was then infamously tagged the ‘Third Term Agenda’.
An amorphous body known as ‘Corporate Nigeria,’ which was composed of some respected bank chief executives and captains of industry – key players in the nation’s economy – was allegedly the architect of Obasanjo’s Third Term Agenda. Corporate Nigeria felt tenure elongation would give Obasanjo enough time to consolidate his successes
on the economic front.

But civil society groups and his political opponents, particularly his Vice-President, Atiku Abubakar, vehemently fought against Obasanjo’s bid for tenure elongation on the ground that it would violate the nation’s Constitution, which prescribes two terms of four years each as the maximum number. The matter was eventually resolved when Obasanjo endorsed the late Umaru Yar’Adua as his successor at the 2007 Presidential election, effectively signalling the end of the Third Term debate.

Incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, (who succeeded Yar’Adua), appears to have stirred a hornet’s nest again, with his current proposal of a six-year single term for future presidents and governors of the country. Though Jonathan has insisted that he would not be a beneficiary of the proposed new tenure limit as he has repeatedly assured Nigerians that he would fulfil his promise of running for a single term of four years that would end in 2015, the opposition is not convinced. There is no smoke without fire, they say.

Healthy for democracy

Despite the condemnation that has followed Jonathan’s decision to send a bill on the proposal to the National Assembly for debate and possible final assent, he has stuck to his guns, insisting that it is for the good of the country. The President’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Dr Reuben Abati, says the debate is healthy for the nation’s budding democracy.

Abati said: “It is still at the level of ideas. If you check the debate out there you will see that there are a lot of people supporting the President, but with some of them say the time is not right. The debate is healthy for our polity.”

But the major opposition parties in the country, particularly the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), the Labour Party, the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) and the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), have criticised the proposal, which they say is “distracting”.

They want the President to address the security challenges in the country and other socio-economic issues rather than divert attention to tenure limits for elected public office holders. They argue that a President’s success in office should be measured by the impact he has made rather than the number of years he spends.  

On its part, the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), a political party that is very strong in the southeastern part of the country, believes the proposal would make politicians unaccountable to the people.

The Chairman of the party, Victor Umeh, said: “The President may have good intentions for proposing this bill, but a critical analysis of the implications of passing this bill into law is that people will now be elected for a six-year single tenure. So it is very dangerous from the blast of the whistle. They can decide to abandon the electorate and you cannot do anything to them. With the Immunity Clause in our Constitution, it means that it will be very difficult to remove them when they are going wrong.”

Umeh, who insists that six years will be a long time to allow a non-performing governor or a president to remain in the saddle, believes that the four-year tenure is better. He vowed that his party would oppose passage of the bill by the National Assembly because it is, according to him, undemocratic.

“We believe that when public office holders know that they are going back to the electorate to renew their mandate, they will be responsible,” he added. “If you give them a long term without the right of the citizens to call those elected to order, then it will be very dangerous. If you allow them to stay for six years, they will compound corruption in the system. So it will be better to keep them on their toes, knowing that in the next four years they will return to the electorate to renew their mandate.”

However, the parties appear divided on the issue, as some of them believe a single-term limit is just what the country needs at this stage of its development. For instance, the Progressive Peoples Alliance (PPA) endorsed President Jonathan’s proposal, because it believes that it would help to accelerate socio-economic development in the country. According to the National Chairman of the party, Sam Nkire, the proposed six-year single-term bill would give political leaders ample time to complete their various projects and deliver real dividends of democracy to Nigerians. Nkire said: “The bill will discourage stillbirth of socio-economic projects in Nigeria hence leaders will have no cause for not completing their political projects within a six-year of single tenure term.”

However, he warned that Jonathan and the current governors should not in any way try to bend the rules to benefit from the exercise, in the interest of peace and stability in the country.

There are also constitutional hurdles ahead of Jonathan, as such a proposal would require the votes of not less than a two-thirds majority of all the members of State Houses of Assembly (24 states), and must be endorsed as well by two thirds of members of the National Assembly before it can pass. This, no doubt, is an uphill task for the President, even though his party has 25 states of the federation in its firm grip.

The opposition, which controls 11 out of the 36 states, appears determined to make things warm for Jonathan as it has reportedly started to mobilise its governors and state assemblies to kill the proposed bill before it gets to the National Assembly.

Lack of trust

Jonathan’s proposal has indeed ruffled quite a few feathers in political circles. Some of his opponents are quick to recall how he circumvented the ‘zoning’ formula within his party, the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which stipulates that power should rotate between the Christian south and the Muslim north every two terms, by throwing his hat in the ring at the April polls. As such, they argued that he cannot be trusted.

In spite of his repeated assurances that he will not run in 2015, those opposed to the six-year single term believe he may not be able to resist the temptation – especially now that he has assembled a crack team of technocrats that includes the former Managing Director of the World Bank, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, to re-engineer the economy. To them, the idea is largely anti-democratic.

Abati clarified this again: “The proposed bill will not be for his personal interest. If the proposal scales through, the President will not be a beneficiary. Mr President is resolute in upholding his statement that he will not seek re-election in 2015.”

However, those who buy into the idea say it will make political office holders more accountable to the people. They argue that future presidents and governors will focus squarely on developmental projects that will raise the standard of living of the people as they would not have to bother about re-election, which often takes its toll on their time and resources. They feel that a single tenure would enable politicians to take firm decisions, since they would not have to, first of all, consider the political implications of the decisions they take and how such actions might affect their chances of re-election.

Those seeking re-election usually spend the last year of office campaigning, to the detriment of the various projects that they are supposed to execute. This is one of the main causes of several abandoned projects that litter the economic landscape of the country. A single non-renewable term would deepen democracy, as it would help politicians to concentrate fully on governance rather than re-election, they argue.

The champions of the proposal also point out that it is good for the rotational presidency system that the country has adopted in principle, because the time taken for power to shift from one of the six geo-political zones to the other would be shortened to six years instead of eight years.

This school of thought further argues that it would be difficult for the president to achieve all his targets within four years due to the bureaucracy that often impedes progress. Their submission therefore is that four years in the life of an administration is too short a time for the president to make the desired impact – anywhere in the world.

It is also felt that a single tenure will drastically reduce the enormous cost of conducting elections in the country every four years. Unofficial reports indicate that the Nigerian government spent about N1 trillion (over $6bn) on the last general elections in the country in April this year.

Future perspectives

All these factors may have influenced President Jonathan’s decision to come up with the single-term proposal. But he is not the first public figure to propose a single term of six years. Last year, former US President Jimmy Carter, whose model of democracy Nigeria appears to be following, called for a single six-year term for American presidents. His argument was that it would not only enhance the president’s integrity and moral authority; it would also give him more time to face pressing state matters. This view seems to be justified, considering that the incumbent, President Barack Obama, is already looking at re-election in 2012. However, Carter is also not the first to propose a single, six-year presidential term for US presidents. The idea was first mooted and later jettisoned, at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

Franklin Roosevelt holds the record of being the longest-serving American President – from March 1933 to April 1945. However, in 1951, the US placed a limit of two terms by means of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution. This means that no American president can serve more than two terms of four years each in office.

In most democratic nations, presidents often enjoy a tenure limit of four years, after which they seek re-election for another term of four years. In some countries, notably African countries, the tenure limit is five years, renewable. However, some African presidents are known to shift the goal posts to extend their tenure almost indefinitely.
Mexico is an example of a country that has adopted the single six-year term limit.

Despite these misgivings about Jonathan’s proposal, some believe it may well be the panacea for succession issues, which have largely been responsible for Nigeria’s turbulent political history.
Before the nation retraced its steps to democracy in 1999, it had experienced 16 years of uninterrupted military rule, from 1983 when the General Muhammadu Buhari-led junta toppled the civilian administration of former President Shehu Shagari less than three months into his second term in office. Prior to 1979, when the then General Olusegun Obasanjo handed over the mantle of leadership to Shagari, the military had called the shots for 13 years from 1966 to 1979, having seized power just six years after Nigeria’s independence in 1960.    

Only time will tell if Jonathan’s six-year single-term proposal will fly. But until a final decision is taken on this, the debate will continue. This is healthy for Nigeria’s fledgling democracy.

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