President Goodluck Jonathan’s plan to change Nigerian presidential tenures to a single, longer term could tackle some of the country’s electoral problems but the announcement’s timing and lack of clarity have provoked criticism.
A statement from the presidency this week said Jonathan will send a constitutional amendment bill to parliament changing presidential and state governors’ tenures to a single term, taking effect from 2015 elections.
Nigeria’s president and governors of the 36 states in Africa’s most populous nation now serve a maximum of two four-year terms, running for re-election between stretches, Reuters reports.
The law plans to strengthen democracy by focusing politicians on governance rather than re-election, reduce campaign costs and temper the unrest caused by elections.
It was not clear how long the new terms would last, although presidential sources have said it is likely to be six years.
The announcement followed reports in the local media that Jonathan was hatching a plan to extend his tenure, an accusation his team deny.
“The proposed bill will not be for his personal interest, if the proposal scales through, the president will not be a beneficiary,” said Reuben Abatithe, the president’s senior communications adviser.
“Mr president is resolute in upholding his statement that he will not seek for re-election in 2015.”
Nigeria has a history of controversy over tenure length and power sharing that makes the announcement of this plan without full disclosure of terms likely to stir suspicion among Jonathan’s opponents and the public.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, a southern Christian, pushed for a third term before his second-term was due to end in 2007 and was only stopped by fierce opposition, particularly from areas in the largely-Muslim north.
Jonathan won an election in April that international observers and many Nigerians said was the fairest Nigeria has held since the end of military rule in 1999.
But his campaign broke an unwritten “zoning” arrangement within the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) which says power should rotate between the mostly-Christian south and the north every two terms.
He inherited office when his predecessor President Umaru Yar’Adua died during what would have been the first term of a northern cycle.
Unless the law specifically states that Jonathan cannot elongate his tenure or run in 2015 there are always likely to be question marks over him standing.
“Despite many of his aides stating that Jonathan will not run in 2015, it will be very hard closer to the time to resist the pressure/temptation to run especially if his government can point to some successes in the economy,” said Kayode Akindele, partner at Lagos-based advisory firm JMH-TIA Capital.
Opposition parties have been quick to cry foul.
Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) released a statement describing the proposed law as “fraudulent, deceptively self serving and a terrible misadventure.” Another party said it was an attempt to “elongate his tenure through the back door.”
But the law would have many supporters.
Nigerian politicians are often criticised for spending their first term trying to get re-elected and using funds supposed to go into social benefits to win favour for future campaigns.
Infrastructure plans, legislation proposals and contract negotiations are often left unfinished between terms and progress can be painfully slow across many areas of sub-Saharan Africa’s second-largest economy.
“There is an argument to say you can’t change a bad politician by changing legislation but there is equally an argument to say continuity and consistency without distraction could be positive,” one senior western diplomat said.
“Jonathan genuinely thinks this will do some good but the leak and the timing is bound to raise suspicion.”
Jonathan’s announcement has been criticised because many feel he should be focused on the widespread economic and security problems facing Nigeria.
Radical Islamist sect Boko Haram are carrying out almost daily bombings and shootings in the northeast and the security threat spread further afield last month when a bomb was detonated in the car park of police headquarters in Abuja.
The major labour unions were hours away from a nationwide strike this month over the tardy implementation of a national minimum wage and the mainstay energy industry is being shackled by the failure of lawmakers to agree the passage of wide-ranging Petroleum Industry Bill.
Jonathan’s campaign pledges included creating jobs, turning around the woeful state of the power sector, unlocking the world’s seventh-largest gas reserves and spurring growth in the economy to reduce poverty.
Politician’s tenure length is not a priority for the majority of Nigerians who live on less than $2 a day.
“The timing is curious especially as it is the first bill that has been announced by the Executive when there are so many other outstanding and many would argue more significant issues that need to be addressed,” Akindele said.