For Single Term Tenure
The 1999 constitution, like its 1999 ancestor, has provided for the maximum of two terms for any elected president, state governor or local government chairman. For about a year now, and perhaps even before, there have been appeals for the contraction of such tenures to a single term only. Such voices have concluded that two consecutive terms could be deleterious to the survival of democracy in Nigeria.
The calls for a maximum of single tenure are largely informed by the fear that a sitting executive will be obliged by his desire for a second term to “stand up” and use whatever is at his disposal to ensure that he succeeds himself, no matter how popular is the desire to unseat him. During every civilian-civilian transition, the political entropy rises, the atmosphere becomes charged and the fear of a shutdown comes to govern the minds of the privileged and the destitute alike. Nigerians look back at the ugly experience of 1966 and 1983 when election fraud formed the major ground for military takeover.
There was the general fear that 2003 would be the same. Supporters of two terms, if any, will now, with the benefit of hindsight, assert that since there was no unrest that followed the last 4-19 elections and neither is there any significant apprehension of a coup, Nigerians have now accepted democracy as an eternal value to preserve at all cost, regardless of the electoral fraud that might be committed by a sitting president. Therefore, they will urge us to stop looking backwards. Instead, we should look forward by appreciating and exploiting the advantages of granting an executive a maximum of two terms.
The advantages of allowing a second term, they would claim, are many. One, it consolidates the gains of the first. Two, the executive is accorded the chance to learn and perfect the art of governance by having the chance to correct his mistake and discover better ways of handling issues. Three, he is given enough time to plan and execute development projects; single term, they will argue, is too short to allow serious projects to mature. Four, the lesser the frequency of changing leadership of a country, the more is its political stability. Finally, the more dreaded reason: single term will exacerbate corruption, since elected executives know that they have only one term to loot the economy.
From Libya to Egypt, from Malaysia to Indonesia, examples could be cited to illustrate the gains of according an executive a several terms. Some may even argue that America would have been better had Clinton continued as its president than what it is today under George W. Bush. The longer the tenure, the better for the country, they may claim.
However, when speaking of single term, we are talking about its necessity, not its advantages. It is necessary to protect democracy by liberating it from the destructive penchant of a man bent on retaining power longer than the duration desired by his people. There was no form of malpractice or fraud that was not committed during the last 4-19 elections. The fact that people are silent over it has nothing to do with the their convictions over democracy, just as Mobuto and Mugabe were not toppled as a result of election unrest. Tenacity does not confer legitimacy to any regime; if anything, it is more associated with despotism than with democracy. In any case, another president in future may not enjoy the ethnic and sectarian interests that were used to gloss over the 4-19 fraud. Therefore, the likelihood of unrest as a result of such fraud when committed in future by another president from a different background, as we had it in 1983, remains high.
Even the supposedly plausible arguments about development and the fear of pervasive corruption canvassed in support of two terms are suspect. Two terms in a country like ours are detrimental to development because during the first term the incumbent concentrates on appeasing people and securing their support for his second term. And since in Nigeria politics is largely about money, the incumbent cannot secure a second term without greasing the palms of party officials and delegates at the party convention, or without spending stupendous amounts of money during the national elections. This vanishes the perceived difference in vulnerability of the treasury to plunder between a single term and double term. The only difference is that the latter is driven by hope, while the former is pushed by avarice.
We can also question the issue of increased political stability supposedly engendered by a second term. Instability has more to do with internal discontent than with the frequency with which governments come and go. If any government treats its people with justice and manages their resources transparently for their common good, there will be little ground for acrimony or unrest. Such governments will undoubtedly be popular, regardless of the basis of their legitimacy, whether monarchical, military or democratic. But so long as injustice prevails and people are governed more by expedience than by rule of law, so long will discontent, rancor and unrest become their lot. Across the world there have been many regimes that lasted for decades but their countries are still far from being regarded as stable.
The same logic stands against the issue of development. It is easy to think that a second tenure will consolidate the gains of the first or it will afford the correction of past mistakes. The reality in Nigeria, however, points to the contrary. A president or governor who knows that he has only one term and desiring to leave a good record will face development with the greatest commitment possible. That commitment will be reduced or even delayed when he knows that the possibility of a second tenure exists. On the other hand, an executive who believes government is an avenue for making “business” will mismanage it even if he were allowed hundred tenures. Of course, we will lament the departure of a leader committed to social justice, any time we are lucky to have one; we may even shed tears when listening to his valedictory speech. But we are assured that, as a father, he must have arranged for a successor that will continue with his good work.
We have people who have ruled this country for years with little to show except wasting our resources, destruction of our institutions and pervasive corruption. Today, they are under the illusion of returning, claiming that they have realized their mistakes. In the same vein, Obasanjo and most governors are spending their second terms. Going by the arguments canvassed in support of more than one term, we expect them to have a better vision of their task and show signs that they intend to correct their past mistakes. But over 100 days now, each of them is continuing with his previous style and repeating the same mistakes. Only the number of the president’s overseas trips, not that of the governors, appears to have reduced; the rest remains the same. The vision of Murtala Mohammed, on the other hand, was clear right from his first speech and, though he spent only six months in office, that vision is still with us, crystal clear. For four years now, not even Obasanjo can honestly tell the world the vision of our present “democratically” elected government.
I strongly feel that democracy in Nigeria will be served better by a single term. Apart from what is said above, a single term will reduce the influence of money in our politics. The need for an incumbent to loot the treasury to finance his return bid will be absent. He only needs to finance the bid of another person. Since men are less committed to the success of others than they are to their own, the appetite of an incumbent to devour the treasury for election purposes on behalf of his successor is lessened.
When an incumbent is contesting elections, the electoral process will usually come under his heavy influence. Elections will be more transparent if he is not returning because INEC, the police and the judiciary will be less compelled by the persuasion of an aspiring successor than by the fear of vengeance from the incumbent. In addition, in spite of the support an incumbent may lend to a ruling party candidate, the gap between latter and his contender will be reduced.
For those who believe in power shift, their whims are better served by adopting single term. And since power is likely to shift from one zone to another, the transition will be attended more by the optimism for change than by the boring continuity of a returning incumbent.
If only to grant us the cause of that optimism once every five years, not even for the more formidable risk of a total shut down that is the backbone of our argument, the National Assembly committee on constitutional reforms of the should limit tenures of our local government chairmen, governors, and presidents to just one term. It should quickly do so before supporters of the president come pressing for a third term with gifts that its members could not resist.