President Goodluck Jonathan’s proposal of a six-year single tenure for the President and governors will face a robust debate in the National Assembly as legislators and other stakeholders prepare to rake up politics of past failed attempts
President Goodluck Jonathan started his much awaited transformation mission on a rather controversial agenda on Tuesday, July 26, when he made public his intention to send an executive bill to the National Assembly, NASS requesting a further amendment to the 1999 Constitution to provide for a single term for the president and the 36 state governors. After two weeks of intense speculation, Reuben Abati, special adviser on media and publicity, finally confirmed this in a statement titled: President Jonathan and Tenure of Office.
Though the President was not explicit in the number of years the proposed single term would run, it was gathered that it would be six years, instead of the current maximum of two terms of four years each. In this proposal, there appears to be something in it for everybody, as it were. For their expected part in passing the bill, the federal and state legislators are also to enjoy tenure elongation, “although lawmakers will still be eligible for re-election as their constituencies may determine.” In other words, a legislator who gets elected four times, like Senate president, David Mark, will spend 24 years in the NASS.
According to Abati, “The envisaged bill is part of the Jonathan administration’s transformation agenda aimed at sanitising the nation’s politics. The President believes that this single move, when actualised, will change the face of our politics and accelerate the overall development of our nation.”
In his inaugural speech, Jonathan had asked Nigerians to brace up for hard decisions targeted at repositioning the country to achieve good governance and a buoyant economy. His proposal of a single term for the President and governors is said to be “borne out of a patriotic zeal, after a painstaking study and belief that the constitutionally guaranteed two terms for presidents and governors is not helping the focus of governance and institutionalisation of democracy at this stage of our development. A longer term for lawmakers would also help to stabilise the polity.”
Details of the provisions of the bill are not yet known until when it is forwarded to the NASS for consideration. However, Abati confirmed that Jonathan would not be a beneficiary. As expected, the nation did not go to sleep after the news broke Tuesday evening as journalists, politicians and activists worked the phone till the next day. Opinions are sharply divided for and against the proposed bill. While a cross-section of the people feel a single term of five or six years could be the panacea to Nigeria’s wobbling democracy, others view it with serious suspicion of a hidden agenda and hope that it will come to a dead end, like two previous attempts.
Ogbonna Nwuke, publisher of the Port Harcourt Telegraph and two times commissioner in Rivers State, now representing Etche/Omuma Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives, is worried that the bill might bring an unnecessary distraction too early in Jonathan’s administration. He would not be drawn into assessing the pros and cons of the bill until it gets to the NASS and legislators can study its details. “When it comes up in the floor of the House, we will debate it on its own merit but for now, I think it’s a distraction when the people are expecting immediate policies that will touch their lives positively.”
He is in sync with Ita Enyang, a two-time member of the House of Representatives, now senator representing Akwa Ibom East. He wonders if this bill is what the people of Nigeria want now. To him, the electorate would prefer immediate policies and programmes to alleviate their suffering than the conflict of tenure elongation for political office holders.
However, Kingsley Ebeyi, a former Nigerian ambassador to Spain and a former majority leader of Enugu State House of Assembly, now representing Isi-Uzo/EnuguEast Federal Constituency, says that from his legislative experience, the bill is welcome; that it would solve a lot of problems inhibiting political office holders from performing at their best. “I support a single tenure; once elected you know that you have one term and you will hit the ground running. With the two terms of four years each, they use the first term to win people over and play the politics of who will help them to come back but with a single term, one can relax and get down to the business of good governance.” On what the reception of the bill might be in the Green Chamber, he appears optimistic that it will be well received: “The present House is ready to promulgate laws for good governance.”
Similarly, Ayo Fasanmi, an Afenifere chieftain feels that “it is a welcome idea. Six years is sufficient for you to do what you can do in eight years; staying longer in office leads to corruption.” Olisa Agbakoba, former chairman of Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, says the bill will have more integrity if there is no benefit in it for Jonathan. “A single term will reduce rancour and reduce cost.” In the same vein, Rotimi Akeredolu, another former NBA chairman, noted that, “the struggle to win second term has brought a lot of acrimony in politics.” David Oyedepo, general overseer of Living Faith Church, aka Winners Chapel and chancellor of Covenant University, Ota, Ogun State, says a single term will curb financial irresponsibility in governance. “The cost of governance is unnecessarily extravagant. Today, democracy in Nigeria is said to be the most expensive globally, and I believe one-term tenure will help address the enormity of waste involved. For instance, elected president and governors in this dispensation spend the first one year trying to study what is on ground and that is if there are not tribunal cases where he may have to defend his election in which case the time spent studying the terrain may be longer. In the best scenario, he spends the second year working while he engages the third and fourth year in driving his re-election ambition.”
For Lekan Alabi, a human rights lawyer, “it makes more sense for a five-year single term in respect of performance. As it is now, it is easier for politicians who have underperformed during their first terms to stage a comeback. If the proposal sails through, which is quite unlikely, presidents and governors know they are not going to come back whether they performed excellently or not. The idea might not sail through with the opposition also who might like to return governors who have done excellently well. However, I think it would augur well for our democracy in the long run in the sense that elected presidents and governors have a longer time to execute their agenda. It also leaves no room for waste.”
But serious suspicions still persist that Jonathan still has a hidden agenda; that he is dealing his cards one at a time, and may eventually manipulate the NASS, governors and state legislators to ‘persuade’ him to join as one of the beneficiaries in another scenario of doctrine of necessity. The offer of an elongated tenure for state and federal legislators further reinforces this suspicion. Many of those who welcomed a single five or six-year term frowned at the inclusion of the legislators who would continue to enjoy multiple terms. In the United States, for instance, while the president and governors have two maximum terms of four years each, the legislators have multiple terms of two years. So every two years they have mid-term elections where the lawmakers go back to the people to renew their mandate. Long renewable term of six years each is seen as rather ridiculous.
Abdul Adebayo, contributing to the debate on Facebook, says the problem is human, not the system. He noted that “parliamentary system did not work in 1960, republicanism failed in 1963; presidential system could not work in 1979; (while) two party system was demystified in 1993. We have tolerated another presidential system for 12 years... Military dictatorships could not work. And now they want a six-year single term. The problem is ‘us’ and not the system!!”
Shehu Sani, a Kaduna-based human rights activist, says the move is anti-democracy. “Periodic elections are necessary to checkmate the excessiveness and arbitrariness of elected officials as politicians who know that there is election ahead of them will always moderate their activities and actions, and would live up to their promises for the sake of being re-elected.” He feels that a single tenure will expose the people to a lot of hazards. “We’ll be saddled with elected officials who have nothing to fear, nothing to be apprehensive about and who will always be responsible to themselves.” To Sani, a six-year single tenure is enough for elected officials to execute their programmes but the flip side is that “we are going to be faced with the problem of unaccountable government.”
He is one of those who are not persuaded by Jonathan’s declaration that he will not be a beneficiary as he insists that it is still subject to abuse and manipulation. “Towards the end of his tenure, we may start seeing amorphous groups urging him to contest in order to complete the good work he started!” Junaid Mohammed, a member of the Northern Political Leaders’ Forum and a Second Republic member of the House of Representatives, says the proposal was deliberately designed to heat up the polity and hide Jonathan’s incompetence. “It just shows we are not a serious country. Somebody who was elected and it took him two months to form a government...and instead of sitting down to work and see what he has to offer during the four years of his mandate, he is now raking up unnecessary controversy to camouflage his incompetence.” Mohammed is one of those who feel that Jonathan has a hidden agenda. “There is an agenda definitely but it is hidden no more; the agenda is to continue to deny some people the right to govern Nigeria... These are people who have never delivered on what they promised, so what makes you think Jonathan will keep his promise?”
Mohammed insists that the bill was not motivated by the good of the country; rather that it is a manifestation of “illiteracy in the presidency.” He means that if there has been sufficient scholarship in the presidency, they would have done a comparative analysis of what is obtainable in other democracies in the world where things are working well. For instance, a single term of six years is in operation in Mexico and Philippines, but it does not apply to the legislature and state governors; rather, it applies only to the office of the president. Many see no benefit for the country in state and federal legislators benefiting from the elongation. That is why some analysts suspect that adding the legislators to the beneficiaries, amounts to a trade off for them to pass the bill.
Besides the initial controversy surrounding the bill, it will be a major test of not only the leadership of the NASS but also the calibre of legislators in both chambers and their capacity for independent thought. In the Senate, most contributors are of the opinion that the bill will sail through effortlessly due to David Mark’s winning ways. It is in the House of Representatives that those opposed to the bill are hoping it might meet its waterloo because the Green Chamber has demonstrated more radicalism and independence. To Nwuke and Ebeyi, the bill will be considered on its own merit on the floor of the NASS but Sani has no confidence on their capacity to act independently. “There is nothing that will not sail through in the National Assembly; it’s a place the ayes always have it!” For Mohammed, the NASS could be unpredictable in this context. “In a National Assembly dominated by the PDP, a party of touts, it is a risky business predicting what they can do; what would decide the direction of the National Assembly is money!”
May be yes, may be no. The magazine’s investigation shows that the bill will be subjected to rigorous test in the House of Representatives. A similar scenario to what played out when Aminu Tambawal was elected Speaker against the will of the ruling party is likely to be re-enacted during the consideration of the bill. Last Wednesday, the House ratified their new rules, which provide among other things, for secret balloting as the system of voting in the House. This was the system that produced Tambawal as Speaker. It makes it impossible for the party to isolate for persecution lawmakers who vote against the party position on crucial national issues. Tenure elongation failed during the Olusegun Obasanjo administration because the NASS adopted televised open-secret ballot in the voting. Lawmakers voted no because their constituents were watching and most did not want to be despised or even attacked when they returned home. Time will tell what system the Seventh NASS will adopt in the consideration of the controversial single term bill.
Beyond other issues canvassed for and against the proposed bill, many people are wondering why Jonathan is sending the bill as his first to the seventh assembly. Both those for and against the bill think the President is too hasty to have introduced the bill just 50 days into his four-year tenure. They wonder why it should be his priority now. Even the lawmakers are suspicious that he just wants to create a diversion from more critical national issues like the challenge of Boko Haram, a wobbling economy, terrible state of infrastructure, energy crisis and galloping corruption. “We’ll be happier making and amending laws that have direct impact on these critical areas that touch our people, than how long a politician stays in power,” lamented a PDP senator that spoke in anonymity.” He is worried that the President’s strategy might be to keep the legislators busy on sidekicks while he concentrates on his administration. He fears that the public might come to hate the NASS as irresponsive to their needs.
Be that as it may, it was gathered the President also has his calculations and time appears to be of essence. He may have wanted to avoid an injury time rush for amendment like in the last election by giving the lawmakers and the general public enough space to debate the bill. He feels that tenure is a major factor in the political crisis facing the country and that it should be addressed. However, the timing may mar the rest of his tenure, as his opponents will view his subsequent actions with suspicion. One elder PDP chieftain told the magazine last Thursday that Jonathan might end up the proverbial lizard that disrupted its mother’s funeral.”
At the level of strategy, the timing may have nothing to do with the nation’s immediate problems; rather it may be located in Machiavelli’s recommendation to rulers to introduce all the hard policies they want to at the beginning of their regimes. His observation is that humanity has a short memory and that what people remember are things a prince does towards the end of a regime. In this political philosophy which most rulers find indispensable for its uncanny understanding of human foibles now appears the most appropriate time to initiate a very controversial change.
What does the northern political establishment think of the proposed bill? The attitude of the North appears stoic for now, believing that what goes up can, and will, come down. Their patience predicates on a deep reading of the Nigerian situation and the power of incumbency. What they are interested in now is just for Jonathan to go in 2015. “I believe the northern elite is not going to be opposed to it as long as power returns … to them in 2015,” says Sani. The thinking is that what Jonathan can do with the power of incumbency another can undo with the same power. In other words, “once power returns to the North, there is the possibility of another bill that will change it to eight years tenure,” says Sani.
This futility is why many analysts feel Jonathan should concentrate on good governance and making the present template of maximum two terms of four years each work; rather than stoking controversy. The perception of the North, according to Sani “is that there is fear of elections on the side of those who come from the minorities. This single term is more of a hypothesis that if one region gets it, it will do its own and pass it. I think how the issue of Yar’Adua and Jonathan played a major role in bringing about the idea of a single tenure.”
Conflict over tenure elongation is not new in Nigeria. In 2003, the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, canvassed for a single tenure for the president. In letters to both chambers of the NASS, they recommended a single, five-year presidency. An NBA delegation led by its then president, Wole Olanipekun, met Obasanjo in his office and urged him not to run for a second term in the national interest, as Jonathan has offered not to. “Right now, the atmosphere is charged everywhere, the signs are frightening and horrifying, several Nigerians have been abducted, killed, slaughtered, maimed and harassed for reasons not unconnected with the second-term syndrome,” Olanipekun warned.
Obasanjo replied the delegation then saying, “I just believe we should not run away from our problems; if the constitution says I can be here for four years and have a second term, then that is the rule of the game. And it is not fair to change the rules mid-way into the game.” Later, he attempted to change the rule at the end of the game by amending the constitution to get a third term in 2007 and failed.
Prior to this, it was a major issue at the 1994/95 Constitutional Conference. Tanko Yakassai, a Second Republic politician and a member of the 1994/1995 Constitution Drafting Committee set up by the late Sani Abacha, confirmed that Abacha’s 1995 Constitution consequently recommended a single tenure for the president and state governors. “I think it is a good idea… The idea is to have a system that would give everybody a sense of belonging.” Yakassai is of the view that such single tenure would reduce the fear of marginalisation among other ethnic nationalities when one part of the country appears to hang on to power for too long. “In fact, I think single five-year tenure would be better, because in 30 years time all the six geo-political zones would have had a shot at the presidency. This would reduce the cut-throat competition usually associated with deciding which part of the country should produce the presidency, as every part of the country would be given an opportunity to rule within a short period of time,” he argues.
To Yakassi, “This would serve the overall interest of the country better. It is more or less like bending the law to make room for peace and stability within the country because at the end of the day, the minorities would have their say, but the majority would have their way. If the President knows that he has only one term, he would be all out to achieve whatever he can achieve within a short period of time. In this regard, he does not need to tackle all the nation’s problems; he can take two or three areas to concentrate fully on. If he were able to tackle those problems the next president would select another area of focus. The so-called developed nations did not develop overnight; it is gradual.” On the flip side, Yakassai says since single six-year tenure is meant to simplify the issue of zoning, it would limit the choice of candidates that would offer themselves for the post of president or governor at a given time. “But the beauty of multiparty democracy is that the electorate can always opt for candidates of their choice from other parties,” he added.
Put together, it appears the proposed bill has its good points but the greater view is that legislators should not be part of it.
Additional reports by TAJUDEEN SULEIMAN, RAYMOND MORDI and FOLASHADE ADEBAYO.