The thriving threat of a third term

By Yusuph Olaniyonu

From the beginning of this piece, let me make it clear that the Presidency has on two occasions in the past stated unambiguously that “there are no circumstances, nor set of circumstances, under which President Muhammadu Buhari may seek to amend the constitution regarding the two-term limit on holding office as President”. The declaration was part of a press statement issued on October 2nd, 2019 by Mallam Garba Shehu, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media. Shehu also reiterated the statement two days to Christmas the same year.

Except for this assurance, there is nothing on the ground to indicate that if the incumbent President wants a tenure elongation, he would not get it with ease. This feeling which I have been having for some time seems to be prevalent among many conscious people who analyse socio-political and economic developments in the country and connect the dots.

Apart from Mr. Femi Falana SAN, whose view on this issue warranted the second rebuttal by Shehu, just at the weekend, Senator Abdul Ahmed Ningi, former Deputy Majority Leader of the Senate and member of the Board of Trustees of the opposition PDP also noted in an interview on Channels TV that all the indices for the elongation of the tenure of the incumbent President or what is popularly called ‘the Third Term Agenda’ are present and if President Muhammadu Buhari seeks a third term he will get it without any hassle.

Though Ningi was not allowed to elaborate on why he believes the third term agenda is easily achievable by Buhari if he seeks it, it is obvious that he was talking about the situation in the National Assembly where he had served for 16 years. If there would be any move to give Buhari a third term in office, while the agitation and groundwork would be done outside the legislature, the constitutional amendment process must commence from the National Assembly.

In the present Ninth Assembly, the leadership of both the Senate and the House of Representatives have made it clear that President Buhari will get their approval on anything he brings before the parliament. The Senate President has said that “any request from President Buhari to the National Assembly is good for the nation”. What this means is that if by any chance, a proposal for amendment of the constitution to extend the tenure of the President comes to the National Assembly and has a veiled endorsement of Buhari, it will scale through.

It should be noted that with the APC legislators believing that whatever the executive wants must scale through its wall, the ruling party has 72 senators and about 190 House of Representative members. For a Constitution amendment to pass, it must have the support of at least 73 senators and 240 representatives. That means the APC is just one member short of the necessary two-thirds requirement in the Senate while it is about 50 members short of the required number in the House.

These shortfalls can be easily obtained with the necessary groundwork. At least the voting on the Electoral Act (amendment) Bill which provides for electronic transmission of results has demonstrated how easy it is to manipulate the proceedings of the National Assembly to a pre-determined end.

At the state level where a proposed Constitution amendment process must also travel through before it can be said to have succeeded, the requirement is for 24 out of the 36 state Houses of Assembly to approve the proposal from the National Assembly. Incidentally, APC already controls 22 states and can influence decisions in two other states. What this means is that from the legislative point of view, such a proposal is doable.

Another area where the opposition to the third term proposal may be expected is in the judiciary where cases may be filed and judgment that can scuttle the plan is possible. As if by design, since the night raid on Friday, October 7 and dawn of October 8, 2016, on the homes of judges and arrest of some of them in Abuja, Port Harcourt, Gombe, Kano, Enugu, and Sokoto, the judiciary seems to have capitulated and become castrated. Since that unprecedented event, the judiciary has not recovered and most of the controversial judgments that come from the election petition tribunals and other courts on key cases are traceable to that event.

Today, the judiciary has been so enervated that even when its head, Chief Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen was arbitrarily, unceremoniously, and ingloriously removed from office in 2018, no whimper came from the courts. Now, the courts declared as the winner a candidate that came fourth in an election and allocated as valid votes which the electoral commission had nullified and deemed non-existent. Many judgements that came from the courts could hardly be justified. With such confusion in the ill-motivated, poorly remunerated, and ill-equipped judiciary, any attempt to extend the tenure of this incumbent President has the likelihood of scaling through the judiciary without much problem.

Another institution that is known to always oppose any attempt to subvert the constitution is the media. The Media has over the years since the creation of Nigeria in 1914 played the role of bulwark against any attempt by any government – colonial, military, or civilian – to impose unpopular policies on the populace. The Media has confronted the worst of military dictatorship and its members have paid huge prices to fight for the enthronement of democracy which we now enjoy.

However, it appears the media is battle weary. Its members have become very tolerant of repressive and anti-people policies, particularly in recent times. The government has succeeded in cowing the media and muffling the editorial voices. With the use of criminal libel charges which are reminiscent of the use of the law of sedition in the colonial period, arbitrary arrests, and the economic crisis which has rendered prostrate the various media houses, the present government seems to have found the formula to keep the media silent. That is why many harsh policies introduced by the government have gone either uncriticised or treated with a mere shrug by the media.

Today, the government through proposed laws like the Protection from Falsehood and Manipulation Bill, otherwise known as the ‘Social Media Bill’ said to be copied from a recently enacted law in Singapore and many actions of regulatory bodies like the National Broadcasting Commission ( NBC) have seized control of media content and owners of media houses now look elsewhere when government rides roughshod on the rights of citizens. Thus, if Nigerians expect the media to lead or mount a robust fight against any attempt to elongate the tenure of the incumbent President, it will be a hopeless expectation.

If the experience is anything to go by, another area of resistance to unpopular government policies is the civil society organisations and their leading advocates, the human rights activists. However, it is unfortunate that the most vocal and consistent human rights activists that stood against the worst dictatorship in Nigeria in the last 40 years have either died or some are too old or tired to be effective again. The people in government have devised means of creating distractions that make the few activists who still speak out like Mr. Femi Falana, SAN, ineffective. Many other activists have become compromised or tamed such that it is easy to get them ignored.

And since these activists provide the content with which the critical press makes government uncomfortable and forces it to back down on any dictatorial, anti-people, and anti-democratic policies, the combination of the two democratic forces has been successfully rendered impotent. Now, we are in the era of anything goes.

The worst affected of the social forces which one would expect to vociferously lead a fight against any move towards tenure elongation in the current dispensation is the opposition parties, particularly the PDP. That perhaps is where the smallest and most ineffective resistance will come from. The leading opposition party, the PDP has continued to lose its members to the ruling APC despite the many failures of the government in power to deliver on most of its promises to the people.

The government in power has found the formula to intimidate and overwhelm the opposition such that even members of the opposition will either jump ship or scamper away when critical issues that warrant their confronting the government in power are being discussed. A perfect example of how opposition elements will either run away instead of opposing any tenure elongation plan is the way some PDP legislators absented themselves from the chambers during the vote on electronic transmission of election results contained in the Electoral Act (amendment) Bill.

In all, Nigerians should be grateful to President Muhammadu Buhari who has made a patriotic choice by saying it clear that he “will not be seeking, accepting nor standing for a third term”. This unambiguous ‘Shermanesque’ declaration is similar to that of another General in the US, General William Tecumseh Sherman who in 1884 turned down an invitation to become the Republican presidential candidate by saying: “ I will not accept, if nominated and will not serve if elected”. It is the only hope the country today has that tenure elongation or what is known as the third term will not happen.

If President Buhari did not make the public declaration as clear as he has, it is possible that the funny, fawning ‘cabal’ moving around the country to recruit ‘disturbed’ politicians into the APC by using the name of the President would have started some campaigns whose motive is their self-relevance. Meanwhile, the campaign would have been masked as emanating from the love for Buhari and country.

Thank God President Buhari does not want a third term and he has said “any activity aimed at altering the two-term limit will not succeed and shall not have his time nor support”. Buhari has spoken and we have heard. Shikenah.

*Olaniyonu, a public affairs analyst, writes from Abuja

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