by FIDELIS SORIWEI
The recent controversy generated by statements credited to former President Olusegun Obasanjo on third term is an indication that the last has not be heard of the tenure elongation plot, FIDELIS SORIWEI writes
Since he left the gulag of the late Gen. Sani Abacha administration and ventured into politics in 1999, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, has been one of the most visible political figures in Nigeria. As President, Obasanjo’s actions and activities came under severe public criticisms between 1999 and 2007. Even after his exit from governance, the Egba Chief has not had a respite from the scathing criticisms he quite often dismisses from the critical Nigerian citizens. Although, Obasanjo received quite a number of knocks and commendations on different occasions from the policies of his administration during his eight year rule as President, his worst public outing was the botched infamous attempt to extend his rule by yet another four years otherwise popularly known as third term. Many believe that the third-term agenda would pass as Obasanjo worst political mistake if it is true that he was the mastermind of the aborted attempt to rape the nation’s constitution.
The third term saga was a political conspiracy of key players of the executive arm of the Obasanjo administration and the National Assembly. The plot was to extend the tenure of the former President via purported plan to amend of the 1999 Constitution. The unholy move which was funded with public money and donations from highly-placed businessmen created a division within the National Assembly.
These were pro-third term lawmakers and anti-third term legislators. While the legislators, who supported the attempted desecration of the ethos of true democratic governance were reportedly bribed N50m each, their anti- third term counterparts were battered and brutalised for attempting to stay far away from the ‘maddening crowd.’ Amidst the mounting anger in the land against the self- succession bid which was reminiscent of the endless transition programme of former military President Ibrahim Babangida, the National Assembly threw out the touchy third term recommendation of the Ibrahim Mantu- led constitutional review committee alongside other far-reaching recommendations numbering over 100 into a deserving corner in the dustbins.
Although, Obasanjo is reputed to have played a central role in stabilising democracy and gearing the once politicised Nigerian military towards professionalism, the third term issue has remained a snag in his political profile. And the former President, who left the Aso Rock Presidential Villa to step into the position of the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the ruling Peoples Democratic party, has denied repeatedly that the third term issue was his idea. However, his fierce denial of the third term plot and the reasons adduced to support the denials have done very little to convince Nigerians of his sincerity. The contention was that it was impossible for a few political jobbers and members of the National Assembly to impose an unwanted idea violating the constitution and the ethos of democracy on Obasanjo. The feeling is that the former President did not just keep silent, he either facilitated the release of funds or looked the other way when huge amount of money were being released from government coffers to pay supporters of the ill-fated agenda.
Since his exit from governance, repeated denials have only strengthened the conviction of Nigerians that Obasanjo was the hidden hand beating the drums for the birds of the third term agenda to dance.
Expectedly, the third term agenda has become one albatross haunting the former President since he left the Presidential Villa. On April 6, Obasanjo took out some time to put up yet another denial of the alleged self- succession bid while speaking on a Channels television Network Africa Programme. Obasanjo said the third term issue did not emanate from him. The former President stated without equivocation that it was the National Assembly that initiated the idea. It was Obasanjo’s contention that if he wanted a third tenure in office, the bill for the amendment of the constitution to pave the way for him to contest the 2007 election would have emanated from the Presidency. He argued that the bill wouldn’t have been included with 100 clauses for amendment in the constitution.
Aside this, Obasanjo made other efforts to appeal to the sensibilities of his listeners as he struggled to exonerate himself from the tainting effects of the anti-democratic move. He pointed out that he did not instruct any of his aides and even lawmakers to push for tenure elongation for him. Specifically, Obasanjo said neither his National Assembly Liaison Officer at the time, Senator Florence Ita Giwa nor the Senate Leader, Alhaji Ibrahim Mantu, who was chairman of the Constitution Review Committee received directives from him to work on the unpopular project. In his bid to be more forceful in his denial, Obasanjo described those accusing him of the third term agenda as both unfair and mischievous.
He said, ”It was the role of the National Assembly to amend the constitution. Third term was one of the over 100 clauses that they included in that amendment. Over 100 clauses and they initiated it. It was not an Executive bill so you are extremely wrong. If I wanted third term, that bill would have come from me. My liaison officer, Senator Florence Ita-Giwa, told the whole world that there was no day I called her and say go and work for third term . Even Atiku (Alhaji Atiku Abubakar), who said some people told him that there was a third term agenda, has not mentioned the names of those who told him.None of the people who were close to me will ever tell you that I told them to go and work for me for a third term. Even Mantu (Ibrahim Mantu) who was leader of the Senate and who of course, was the one to present the bill emanating from anywhere, (but this one came from the Senate itself), has never said I called him to say that I wanted third term. So all of you talking of third term are very unfair… you are mischievous. I don’t know what else to call you. Look if I wanted a third term, I know how to go about it. And there is nothing I want that God has not given me. If I had wanted a third term, I would have gone about it the way I should go about it and I would have got it.”
However, Obasanjo’s consistent denial of the tenure elongation agenda had triggered a serious debate among key players in the legislature at the time. The man, who was President of the Senate and who presided over the Senate session that threw out the bill, Chief Ken Nnamani, came out hard against the former President. In his reaction to the claim by Obasanjo that the third term issue emanated from the National Assembly, Nnamani said the former President was in the know of the plot to elongate his tenure. Nnamani alleged that Obasanjo had brought the tenure elongation agenda to his attention shortly after he became President of the Senate. According to Nnamani, the former President did not just notify him but went further to instruct him to take steps to actualise the agenda.
He further alleged that if Obasanjo did not know anything about the third term agenda, he wouldn’t have instructed the then Governor of Central Bank, Charles Soludo, to release funds for its pursuit. He maintained that Soludo released the sum of N8bn for the prosecution of the third term campaign with the authorisation of Obasanjo who, according to him, remained the only person that had such powers to order the release of such funds from the CBN. The former Senate President also dismissed as untrue, the claim by Obasanjo that the third term clause was not an Executive bill. He said that those telling Nigerians that Third Term was not an Executive bill were less than honest and were indeed far from telling the truth.
Nnamani said, “Immediately, I became Senate President, he told me of his intentions and told me how he wanted to achieve it. I initially did not take him seriously until events began to unfold..There was a time that there was a rumour that heavy sums of money were doled out to National Assembly members (Senate), that each of us received N50m – that translates into more than N8bn, including other sums that were shared. If he is claiming that third term was not his agenda, where could such money have come from and for what purpose? Didn’t he give instructions to the CBN Governor then to dole out the money? If he is claiming that he never initiated the idea, who then initiated the release of more than N8bn from the CBN? Is it not only the President that has access to CBN vaults?”
But Obasanjo is not without his supporters in the raging debate over the third term issue. Ibrahim Mantu and a former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Austin Okpara, exonerated Obasanjo from the plot to smuggle in the tenure elongation clause into the bill for the amendment of the 1999 constitution. Mantu said the former President did not give him any directive to work for the inclusion of tenure elongation in the then constitution review process. He argued that the third term issue came about as the suggestion of some persons, whose identity he did not disclose.
“In my capacity as the chairman of the Constitution Review Committee, there was never a time Obasanjo told me to bend the rule in order to accommodate tenure elongation or third term as it is properly known. The third term issue was made to become a very national issue with media hype because of some certain problems from certain interest groups; some people who were very anxious to take over from Obasanjo felt that if the term of office is extended by another four years, they would not be able to have patience for that time to come. So they now went to the media and started initiating a lot of things…”
Amid the accusations and denials that have become an inseparable feature of the third term issue, Nigerians are waiting to see who is engrossed in the mischief of masquerading the truth between Obasanjo and his supporters on the one side and Nnamani and others on the other.
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