The recent recommendation by the Senate ad hoc committee on the review of the 1999 Constitution for a-single term tenure of six years for Governors and their deputies as well as for the President and his Vice, has generated understandable concerns among many Nigerians. The recommendation, which is yet to be discussed in a plenary session of the entire Senate, is only one of several other proposals made by that Committee. If it passes into law, current occupants of these positions will be disqualified from contesting for the affected offices whenever the single term tenure dispensation kicks off.
For obvious reasons the recommendation on term limit has eclipsed the other proposals made by the Committee.
The singe term tenure was born, if not conceived, with a bad name. When President Jonathan first floated the idea of a seven-year single term tenure shortly after his election in April 2011, it was a most inappropriate time to do so, especially as it came shortly after the contentious issue of zoning and power rotation had threatened to tear the country apart. The issue was whether Jonathan was morally qualified to run for the presidency in the April 2011 election. Most of those who opposed his candidacy from the North argued that Jonathan, as Deputy Governor of Bayelsa state, was part of a meeting in 2002 in which an agreement on power rotation between the North and the South was reached, and that based on that alleged agreement, Jonathan would simply serve out the remaining part of President Yaradua’s first term in office so that the North would continue with ‘their turn’ at the presidency. Those supporting the Jonathan candidacy talked about his constitutional right to contest or reminded the North that they had been in power longer than any other zone or denied outright the existence of any zoning and power rotation arrangement between the North and the South.
In essence, it could be argued that despite his victory at the polls in the April 2011 election, Jonathan came to office with a certain crisis of trust hanging over him. It is therefore understandable that when he floated the idea of a- single term tenure of seven years (no one ever fully explained why such was deemed a priority by the regime), suspicions were legitimately aroused. Besides the contentious issue of zoning and power rotation in the run-up to the April 2011 presidential election, the memory of how Obasanjo tried to use sneaky ways to elongate his tenure was still fresh in people’s mind. Therefore Jonathan’s proposal (or kite flying) coalesced critics, cynics and opponents of the regime who happily rolled out their war drums. When Presidential aides insisted that Jonathan would not benefit from the proposal, many told them to go tell such to the marines or to Auntie Monica. Others wondered why the President was not pushing for a single term tenure of four years, especially given that as a Christian, he must be fully aware that the age of the biblical Methuselah had nothing to do with the wisdom of the equally biblical Solomon.
Apart from the issue of trust, there are also issues with the premise on which the entire argument for a- six-term tenure is based. There are three major arguments here: The first is that in the current two-term tenure of four years each, there is too much preoccupation with elections such that, no sooner is a Governor or President elected to office than he begins to plot for his re-election. The second is that a-single term tenure of six years would reduce the frequency and therefore the cost of conducting elections in the country. The third is that pre-occupation with elections in the current two-term system heats up the polity, leading to political instability or widening the social distance among Nigerians.
With all due respect, I disagree with all the above arguments. I do not for instance believe that a-single term tenure of six years will mean that a Governor or President will cease to be concerned about the next cycle of election. If our political experience is anything to go by, the President and Governors are very much interested in who succeeds them – either as insurance against their perceived legacy or simply to cover their backside. The involvement of these political office holders in the next election cycle therefore is irrespective of whether they are running as candidates or supporting the candidacy of a surrogate. Was it not when former President Obasanjo was campaigning for his selected successor, the late Umaru Yaradua, that he declared that the election should be seen as ‘do or die’? In fact, rather than a single term tenure of six years making a President or Governor apolitical, the opposite is likely to be the case as the incumbent is likely to spend a lot of political energy fighting not only to avoid becoming a lame-duck but also to whittle down the influence of those he doesn’t like who are scheming to succeed him or to prop up and position his anointed ones to succeed him.
I also fail to see how a-single term tenure of six years can reduce the cost of election. True, the frequency of elections will be reduced – from two elections every eight years to two in 12 years (here we are assuming there will be no cancellation of election results or that the rate of court annulment of the results will be the same). This will however not necessarily lead to cost saving if it means that INEC will spend more money in updating voters’ register every six years than it will otherwise do every four years, or that the cost of providing security for elections is higher (if elections under a six year single term tenure is more anarchical because of the fear that losing out will mean being in the political limbo for six years). The cost of elections is not necessarily a function of its frequency.
I also have issues with the argument that pre-occupation with elections heats up the polity. Liberal democracy by definition is a noisy enterprise because it permits ideas to compete freely in the marketplace of political ideas. Just like a typical Nigerian open market, you find all manner of haggling, grandstanding, intrigues, threats, drama and dogfights in the political marketplace. Most provide political education and occasionally entertainment. True, you also find fissiparous tendencies and irredentist centrifugal forces in this market. But it is usually difficult to know the line where vibrant competition among political ideas ends and where heating up the polity – as politicians would say – begin. My personal opinion is that in a democracy, we shouldn’t really worry about the so-called heating up of the polity. It is far better, in my opinion, to draw ideas to compete in the political marketplace than to allow them to go underground where they will be romanticized. This is one of the reasons why, in the more mature democracies of US and the UK, even hate groups like KKK (in the US) or the British National Party (in the UK) are not banned.
Despite some legitimate concern about our current two term tenure of four years each, there are still several reasons why we should not be so quick to dispense with it: most executives tend to do more in their first term in office with the hope that they will be rewarded with re-election. Why kill this incentive for hard-work? How are we sure that beneficiaries of a single-term tenure of six years will not change the constitution and serve for two terms of twelve years? Given that zoning and power rotation have been more or less ingrained in the psyche of most Nigerians, will it augur well for us that some people from some zones may not have the opportunity to take a shot at certain political offices in their life time? Will a- single term tenure of six years not abridge the rights of those elected on the expectations that they could go for re-election?
My personal opinion is that the arguments for elongated single term tenure are based on an inappropriate diagnosis of the problems of elections in this country. The truth is that there is an obsession with elections only because state power is the major means of production, material accumulation and allocation of privileges in the country. A-single term tenure of even ten years is therefore unlikely to change the character of elections or the obsession with it in Nigeria.
A legitimate concern is the tendency for liberal democracy in our type of society to unleash forces that will aggravate the structures of conflict and complicate the nation-building process. How do we further our current democracy project while ensuring that the fissiparous tendencies it unleashes do not undermine the gains we have made in our nation-building process? This, I feel, ought to be the main focus of any constitutional amendment.