On May 16, 2006, the Senate voted to reject a constitutional amendment that would have allowed the then President, Olusegun Obasanjo, to seek a third term, bringing an end to the infamous third term bid allegedly being pushed by the former President and some of his loyalists in government. The Senate’s resolution also ended a parallel debate over the controversial matter in the House of Representatives as a constitutional amendment needs the support of two-thirds of each chamber and approval from two-thirds of the country’s state Houses of Assembly.
Meanwhile, the push for a possible third term and tenure elongation of the then President was marred by allegations of bribery to entice more supporters and violence to intimidate those who actively opposed it. Ghali Na’abba, a one-time Speaker of the House of Representatives and one of those who were against the third term bid at the time, tells GBENRO ADEOYE the role he played to thwart the move and what he went through in the process
What came to your mind when you first heard about the third term bid allegedly initially being pushed by the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo at that time?
What came to my mind was that the third term agenda was undemocratic and since it involved a constitutional amendment, which would eliminate constitutional term limits, it was not going to be an agenda for the President to have a third term, it was for him to be President for life. So my first instinct was to be wary of it and I thought that I must fight to ensure that it did not see the light of day. So that was how other Nigerians and I collaborated to help campaign against it and to eventually cause the National Assembly to vote against the constitutional amendment that could have allowed it.
But since you were no longer the Speaker at the time, what specific roles did you play?
As a politician, I don’t have to be a member of the legislature in order for me to be able to promote democratic causes. At the legislature, I also did a lot of things and influenced the way the legislature did its work and it is very remarkable that we gathered together as politicians and imposed our views on the legislature at that time. And luckily for us, quite a substantial number of the legislators did not like the idea even though the majority of them wanted it passed.
What happened in the 2003 elections was that the President and the party (Peoples Democratic Party) colluded to have as many members as possible that would be favorably disposed to the elimination of term limits to be brought to the legislature, so they were in the majority. If it were a simple majority that was needed to alter the constitution, that agenda would have been passed but fortunately, it was not so. For that amendment to be able to go through, it must be passed by two-thirds of the members of each of the chambers of the National Assembly and they could not get that
There were allegations that some legislators were paid several millions of naira to support the move, was that the reason why some also supported it or were there other reasons?
Yes, we were aware that money was distributed to legislators. The senators collected N50m each; the senators that subscribed to the agenda. Those who opposed it refused to collect the money and that also happened with the House of Representatives’ members. Forty million naira was offered to each of the House of Representatives’ members who subscribed to that agenda and those who did not subscribe to it were not given the money. But that notwithstanding, it was the 2003 elections that ushered in many unelected members to the National Assembly. A lot of them were not duly elected; the election was rigged for them to get into the legislature to pursue a particular political order and that order was the removal of term limits from the constitution.
How did the idea start? Did it start from the President or did some people think about it and then sell it to him?
I think some of those handling the President sold the idea to him and he bought it. That is my thinking because I never discussed it with the President and I never discussed it with his aides but that was what we suspected happened. And we, particularly I, I’m aware that the President wanted a situation whereby he wouldn’t leave the Presidency. So when they advised him, I believe he agreed because it was like they were reading his mind and the idea was sold to his supporters in the legislature. The legislature was going to embark on a constitutional amendment and the removal of term limits formed part of that exercise. And when we got substantial information and proof that the constitution amendment was going to take place, we started our own propaganda. We went to many places to campaign against it; we were holding meetings, press conferences, visiting institutions and doing all sorts of things in order to nip that idea in the bud.
You and the President have a history which goes back to the time that you were the Speaker of the House of Representatives and even moved for his impeachment. Looking back, do you regret that your plan to impeach him at the time did not succeed, considering that his alleged third term bid came after that?
Really, I regret that the impeachment was not able to go through on the advice of certain former heads of state that we had tremendous respect for. And one of the reasons why we thought we should impeach him was simply because (we felt) something like the removal of term limits was going to be initiated and that was why we thought we should impeach him at the time.
There are insinuations that he worked against your re-election at the time.
It is true. He colluded with my state governor then and thwarted my re-election.
Was that one of the reasons why you also actively kicked against his alleged third term bid?
My personal disposition is such that I fight anything that goes against democracy. If I had not lost the election, I would have been in the legislature and if I were in the legislature, definitely any idea that term limits should be removed from the constitution would not even be initiated by anybody because everybody knew my mindset.
A former Deputy Senate President, Ibrahim Mantu, once said that when he considered the kind of leaders Nigeria had had since Obasanjo left, he felt like weeping and that maybe he should have been allowed to stay for a third term and this sentiment is shared by some other people. Do you also think so?
I think that is his opinion and we should not forget that the two presidents that came after Obasanjo left, came to power through the machinations of former President Obasanjo, so the issue is that there is really a contradiction there because this is somebody who was going to leave power and then he brought in Presidents who could not perform after him. So I don’t think that was a credit to him. What would have given credit to him is if he had midwifed the coming of somebody who could really perform as President.
If the third term bid had succeeded, what would have been the implications of that to Nigeria and Nigeria’s polity?
We would have been under dictatorship because that same President would still be the President today because once term limit is removed, he would have enjoyed as many terms as possible.
But some people will look at some of the actions of President Muhammadu Buhari today and say that perhaps not much would have changed because of his alleged dictatorial tendencies. What would be your response to that?
That is why some of us are really surprised because when we were fighting against the planned removal of term limits or third term agenda, General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) was with us. We were going to places together and holding meetings together. Everything we had to do at the time, we did together. So today, some of us are asking, ‘Why was this man with us, fighting against the planned third term agenda or to ensure we did not have dictatorship when in fact he too has a dictatorial disposition?’
Who were the other big players that ensured that the move to remove term limits was thwarted?
Apart from me, the late Abubakar Rimi (Governor of Kano State during the Second Republic); the then Vice President, Atiku Abubakar; Chief Sunday Awoniyi; the then Governor of Niger State, Abdulkadir Kure; the then Governor of Benue State, George Akume; the then Governor of Adamawa State, Boni Haruna; the then Governor of Lagos State, Bola Tinubu; a former Inspector General of Police, Alhaji Muhammadu Gambo; Chief Tom Ikimi; and Chief Jim Nwobodo, were some of those involved.
But some people will look at the names, which include you and Atiku, who had a long running problem with Obasanjo, and say you were probably against the third term bid for selfish reasons. Could some of the players have been against it because it would have affected their own ambitions?
At that time, nobody cared whether it was for personal reasons or not, what mattered was to ensure that it did not succeed.
A former Governor of Abia State, Orji Uzor Kalu, once said that Obasanjo went after politicians who worked against the third term bid and their businesses and that he lost his Slok Airlines as a result of that. What did you lose?
Yes, they went after those who had certain things they could go after. I was not in office. What I also know happened is that every time we had to go for a lecture, we would meet policemen there. There was a time that they even tear-gassed us in Jigawa State and there was a time when we were supposed to hold a meeting in Abuja in the night and when we got there, we met a lot of policemen, including the then Commissioner of Police of Abuja. And they told us that we had no permit to meet in the hotel. I was there, the vice president (Atiku) was there, Buhari was there, Governor Kure was there, and others because a lot of us were there. So we had to leave and finally we went to the residence of Governor Kure and met there. Then, there was a time I went to Ahmadu Bello University on the invitation of the students to lecture them on the evils of removal of term limits. When I got there, I was told the school’s vice chancellor wanted to see me. When I got to his office, he pleaded with me and said that I should not be angry. He told me that the police IG had called him and informed him that the lecture should not take place. Some of us were even attacked; these are some of the things we suffered. Our businesses, of course, were not patronised.
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From your list, it appears that more northerners were against it. Could that have been because the northerners felt it would affect their chances in 2007 since they had expected that a northerner would take over from Obasanjo?
Really, the third term agenda or the attempt to remove term limit was looked at from many perspectives but the interesting thing was that it was the combination of northerners and southerners that got together and fought against the agenda. So this was remarkable because the minimum expectation was that there must be democracy in Nigeria and this fact was accepted by both northerners and southerners. There were many southerners who also participated in it. The founder of ThisDay Newspapers, Nduka Obaigbena, also fought against the third term agenda. In fact, all the newspapers in the South fought against the agenda.
You said recently that Buhari had not added any value to democracy. How do you think his administration has fared compared to that of Obasanjo in terms of that?
I think the regime of Obasanjo was better because at least one could see that there was activity within the PDP, even though some of them were geared towards his interest. But in the case of Buhari, nothing takes place in the party- absolutely nothing. It is very strange coming from somebody who fought against tenure elongation.
Many people have spoken against the ongoing killings in the country, including Obasanjo. What would you say about the killings in the country?
It is very unfortunate and it has conclusively shown that there is no governance in the country because you can’t have a country where there is governance and every day, people are killed – not one person, not two, but 30 people, 50 people, 80 people, this is too much.
The government insists it is tackling the problem, why do you think the problem has persisted?
It cannot tackle the problem because the decision making process of this government is too slow. It is too slow to solve any problem, so it can’t fix any problem.
You’re still a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress. How would you describe the performance of the APC-led government so far considering the cardinal focus of security, economy and anti-corruption?
I don’t think the country is being well-managed. You can’t have a President who claims he has monopoly of wisdom. That is what it is. This is the narrowest government in the history of this country. The base is too narrow for the country to have stability and the President has a choice to make the government as wide as possible so that all shades of opinions are represented in the government. He has that choice but he chooses to make it the narrowest government in the history of this country and it is the consequences of that decision that we are seeing today. Even though, they will deny it; they will tell you that they have restored security, they are fighting corruption and things like that and corruption is systemic, you can’t fight corruption alone. If you want to fight corruption in this country, you have to carry every institution along. This is like an exercise in self glorification; that is what we are seeing. The executive can only arrest, charge and prosecute people; the other functions belong to the judiciary. But the judiciary is not being carried along in this fight against corruption from the outset and I believe that all shades of opinions should be involved in the fight against corruption because corruption is systemic. And he (Buhari) shows that it is the government that is the victim of corruption. But all Nigerians are victims of corruption; people are resorting to self-help because they cannot have basic necessities of life, so this must be discussed. If you want to eliminate corruption in the Nigeria Police Force, for example, you cannot do that without solving the problem of welfare and accommodation of the police personnel and it is so for other forces and also the civil service. Every particular class of the society has one thing or another against the state so this must be discussed. But right now, what I see happening is punishing for corruption, which is of course desirable, but it should not be mixed up and it is not the same thing as fighting corruption. Fighting corruption is something totally different. The war against corruption is not being fought in a way that it can be successful.
Ahead of the next elections, a lot of coalition movements are springing up and one of them is Obasanjo’s Coalition of Nigeria Movement and the PDP has also said that it is ready to work with other parties. Do you think they stand a chance against the APC in the next elections?
Anything is possible.
If you were the Speaker of the House of Representatives today, what would be your reaction to the recent letter sent to the House by President Buhari that he had paid $496m for the purchase of Tucano aircraft from the United States without the consent of the National Assembly?
What can be more serious than not getting approval for spending $496m? It is a lot of money but impeachment is a very serious affair. Even when you look at when we decided to use the impeachment card in 2002; prior to 2002, since 1999, impeachment offences were being committed by the President but we never even discussed it or take a decision to impeach him. It was when we realised that what was taking place was too much that we decided to impeach him, but it is left to the members of the National Assembly to decide on what they want to do.