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Nigeria’s Democratic Victory

Prepared by: Alexandra Silver
May 23, 2006

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It may be too early to talk of a precedent in the decision of Nigeria's Senate to reject a move to allow the president to run for a third term (VOA). Yet, on a continent where autocrats, conflict, and failing states are not unusual, the decision, made in the face of intense political pressure, was greeted with much optimism locally and abroad. Freedom House expressed praise and the New York Times called it "a shining example for the rest of the continent."

President Olusegun Obasanjo denied orchestrating the amendment effort, calling its failure a "victory for democracy" (Nigerian Tribune). The will of the people does seem to have been heeded; polls suggest that 84 percent of Nigerians opposed the extension of term limits. Some, however, are skeptical, saying that Nigeria's "democracy remains on trial" (Vanguard).

This is hardly the first time an African president has sought to overstay his term limits (Reuters). Several other African leaders, including Uganda's Yoweri Museveni earlier this year, have changed constitutional law to extend term limits. Others have failed to do so. Zambia's Frederick Chiluba bowed to popular pressure in 2001 and left after two terms. Constitutional changes that would have allowed Malawi's Bakili Muluzi to run for a third term in 2003 were also resisted. Princeton Lyman, CFR's senior fellow for Africa policy studies, said Obasanjo's quick acceptance of the Senate's decision "sends a message across the continent."

Obasanjo, a former military leader who led Nigeria in the 1970s before transferring power to a civilian government, helped return Nigeria to the democratic fold (BBC) in 1999 after years of military rule. The country has a rocky political history, as this Congressional Research Service report explains.

The field is now open for the 2007 presidential election, and political parties are beginning to consolidate (AllAfrica.com). The current vice president, Atiku Abubakar, who publicly opposed term extensions, is among the presidential hopefuls. Though generally met with optimism, the uncertainty surrounding who will lead next is potentially dangerous. There was an increase in violence before the 2003 elections, and the BBC notes: "Politicians could be tempted to exploit existing ethnic and religious tensions in an attempt to build up their support bases." While a smooth transition would be a sign of democratic progress, there's no guarantee as to what will follow. Lyman doubts a military coup or dictatorship will result, but he does emphasize the need for electoral reforms if there is to be a fair election in 2007.

As Africa's most populous nation, Nigeria has played an active role in tackling many of the continent's issues. Under Obasanjo it has led the African Union, spearheaded talks to resolve the conflict in Darfur, and supported the United States' counterterrorism efforts, as noted in this CFR Backgrounder. But it has not always been a pretty picture. As the Independent Advocacy Project notes, corruption is notorious, and ethnic and religious conflict simmers (GlobalSecurity.org) both between the Islamic north and Christian south and among many tribal groups and multinational firms exploiting the country's natural resources. The growing importance of Africa for the United States and the world is not in doubt, experts say, as explored in this CFR Task Force Report.

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