By Estelle Shirbon
ABUJA- Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar spoke out publicly for the first time on Thursday against a campaign to keep President Olusegun Obasanjo in power for a third term, as opposition to the plan gained momentum.
Abubakar made a speech against the third term to five state governors, more than 100 lawmakers and several opposition leaders at an overnight meeting held at the house of one of the governors after police stopped the group gathering at a hotel.
The standing room-only meeting, described by one participant as “electric”, took place just hours after the figurehead of the pro-third term campaign, Deputy Senate President Ibrahim Mantu, survived an impeachment motion in the National Assembly by just one vote.
Participants said Abubakar, who wants to succeed Obasanjo in 2007, told the meeting that if all those who oppose the third term join forces, they can stop it from coming to a vote in parliament because the Obasanjo camp would not risk a humiliating defeat.
“He told them that he’s 100 percent with those who are true democrats and from now on he’s available whenever they need him,” said Nasir Galla, national coordinator of Turaki Vanguard, a campaign group that supports an Abubakar presidency.
An old feud between Obasanjo and Abubakar came out into the open last August when the president accused his deputy of disloyalty on live national television, but until Thursday Abubakar had not publicly sided with his boss’s opponents.
“The third term campaigners are on the defensive. They need a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly for the plan to go through and they just don’t have it,” said Abubakar Siddique Mohammed, a politics lecturer at the University of Zaria.
He was referring to a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow Obasanjo to stand for a third term in elections next year. In its present form, the charter limits presidential terms to two and Obasanjo is nearing the end of his second.
A committee of lawmakers headed by Mantu has recommended an amendment, but the proposal has not yet come to a vote.
Participants at the overnight meeting included prominent figures from opposition parties as well as from the ruling party, signalling that the third term issue is uniting Nigeria’s fragmented opposition.
Obasanjo, a former army ruler who gained democratic credentials in 1979 when he handed over to a civilian government, returned to power as a civilian in 1999 elections that ended 15 continuous years of military dictatorship.
He has not said publicly that he wants a third term, but he has done nothing to stop his supporters’ efforts to make it possible. They argue that Nigeria would benefit because it would enable Obasanjo to pursue his economic reforms.
But civil society groups accuse Obasanjo of betraying the democratic ideals that brought him back to power and of pushing Africa’s most populous nation back towards dictatorship.
Opposition politicians have been teargassed, labelled a threat to national security, investigated for corruption and charged with belonging to an unlawful society as Obasanjo’s men ratchet up the pressure to hold onto power.
The third term idea infuriates many interest groups who want to see their own candidate win the presidency in 2007.
In particular, many in the Muslim-dominated north feel the top job should go to one of them after eight years of Obasanjo, a Christian from the southwest. The vice president is one of several prominent would-be candidates from the north.
Tensions over the issue were one of the drivers of a spate of religious and ethnic violence that killed at least 150 people in February, and of a series of attacks against the oil industry that have cut output by a quarter. — Reuter