The Scary Fragility of Nigeria’s Democracy

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Credit: Bayo Omoboriowo

By God’s grace, we will amend Nigeria’s constitution to allow Buhari to be president for the remaining years of his life. He will only cease to be president when God takes his life.” — Sen. Lawal Gumau, APC.

The life blood of politicians is power. Give a politician a Bill and they’ll take an Executive Order or two. It is this pursuit of power that is one of the main threats to democracy, and preventing a Ruling Party from becoming an autocracy — no matter how benevolent — is a major role of the Opposition.

To be clear, some of the more exemplary examples of national democracy do not have term limits, and some do. Articles and opinion pieces have been written for and against term limits, and there is a vast treasure trove of material available online.

This article gives no opinion on term limits in general, and focuses instead on Nigeria, where the President Buhari, constitutionally limited to two 4-year terms, is just starting his second. Unsuccessful attempts have been made in the past to alter this limitation; but with a ruthless Presidency and a pliant National Assembly, just how far-fetched is the idea of Life President Muhammad Buhari? Not quite unrealistic actually, if one looks at the Nigerian Constitution but more importantly at the current composition of Nigeria’s 9th National Assembly. But let’s visit the Constitution first.

Section 9 (2) of the 1999 coldly states:

An Act of the National Assembly for the altertion of this Constitution, not being an Act to which section 8 of this Constitution applies, shall not be passed in either House of the National Assembly unless the proposal is supported by the votes of not less than two-thirds majority of all the members of that House and approved by resolution of the Houses of Assembly of not less than two-thirds of all the States.

There isn’t much to misunderstand in the quoted clause. Get a majority in the National Assembly, ratify it by a majority of the states, and voila! You have a constitutional amendment. So if, hypothetically, Buhari wanted a third term, perhaps to help him continue to ‘selflessly’ serve Nigeria (or ruin it, depending on one’s assessment of his rule), would he be able to muster the numbers in the National Assembly?

The recent leadership vote in the National Assembly suggests he just might be able to pull it off. The Senate is made up of 109 Senators. 2/3rd of that number is 73 Senators. The current APC Senate President Dr. Ahmad Lawan, annointed by President Buhari, secured 79 votes. Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, also the President’s preferred candidate, emerged as Speaker of the House of Representatives by polling 281 out of 360 votes, way more than the 2/3rds majority required for a constitutional amendment. The National Assembly would fold under a determined Buhari.

The next constitutional hurdle would be for Buhari’s ambition to be ratified by 2/3rd of the 36 states. The nature of Nigeria’s politics means that for all intents and purposes, Governors control their state houses of assembly. The APC controls 20 states (including Anambra’s APGA, as Gov. Obiano has aligned his State’s interests at the national level to the APC).

So Buhari would find himself 4 states short. Sad.

But…what if instead of just a third term for himself, his Executive bill also provided for the removal of term limits for all State Governors, and for the provision of immunity from prosecution for the leadership of the Senate and House of Representatives? Would that sweeten the deal?

The PDP has 16 Governors. Strike out Bayelsa and four of the newly-sworn-in first term governors (apart from Matawalle who would probably endorse the Bill in exchange for his second term in a heartbeat, considering how poorly he performed in the election the Supreme Court awarded to him) and we’re left with 10 Governors whose tenures will end in 2023. Which of these men might be tempted by the Buhari Bill? Wike and Tambuwal (Rivers State and Sokoto State) probably would not be, as they have their own 2023 ambitions. Okowa (Delta State) would struggle to get the buy-in of his Niger-Deltan State Assembly, and the divisiveness of the 2019 elections has calcified Akwa Ibom’s status as a bonafide PDP state. The farmer/herder conflicts in the Middle Belt would also make the Buhari Bill extremely unpopular in Taraba and Benue.

But everyone else is there to be courted. Abia; Enugu; Ebonyi; Cross Rivers; these PDP Governors would all love third terms. Zamfara’s Governor would love a second term. Even Fintiri of Adamawa State, an astute politician, might be tempted by Buhari’s magical ability to make EFCC’s selective corruption cases disappear.

If you’re counting, that’s 6 Governors who could possibly support expunging term limits from the Constitution. To become Life President, Buhari only needs 4 of them.

But this is just a hypothetical. Remember the role of the Opposition is to defend democracy? Now that the nightmare of President Buhari celebrating his 100th birthday in office is a statistical possibility, the Opposition must make sure it never happens.

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