Deconstructing the Third Term Mantra

21.02.2006

Obasanjo-Nnamani-and-Gbajabiamila-360x225By describing it as a “bogey”, Chief Onyema Ugochukwu’s recent satiric approach to the third term mantra has added a rather interesting dimension to it and he came down heavily on his former colleagues of the written word by blaming them for generating an unnecessary and unwarranted hypnosis on a vacuous inanimate creature. I do not agree with his summation that the third term ‘bogey’ is a creation of the media for the simple reason that in this particular instance, the media have merely reported what they have heard and I have seen banner headlines for and against the third term myth in equal proportions. Chief Ugochukwu also accuses the media of bias in their attitude to the third term mantra because, according to him, “brilliant editorials and comments have been written warning Obasanjo of the dangers of his supposed Third Term ambition………Thus any one who “advises” Obasanjo to abandon his supposed ambition is given the front page, no matter how ignorant he might be. On the other hand, anyone who says that he believes that President Obasanjo should stay on to complete the reforms he has started is vilified and abused as a sycophant, or a criminal who is trying to avoid prosecution by praising the President.”

But there is a counterfactual to this accusation because we know a certain presidential rottweiler who ignores the exhortations of ‘third termers’ like a National Chairman of a ruling party and a Governor of a coal city state but vitriolically attacks anyone who offers an antithesis, from a Catholic Archbishop to a Nobel Laureate. This also goes a long way to lend credence to the existence of the “bogeyman” not to mention the recent pronouncements of a group of legislators led by the cerebral Senator Uche Chukwumerije.

But quite frankly, it is appalling that we are spellbound by the nonessentials of an otherwise harmless concept because – and I wish to make this point right away – there is absolutely nothing wrong with the notion of properly amending the constitution to include a third term or, for that matter, the constitutional abolition of term limits. However, its contribution to national development must be driven by a national consensus, which does not exist at the moment and should have been the focus and preoccupation of the presidential intelligentsia. As I have said to a number of friends, virtually every nation in the world that has attained the poster-child status of development literature has achieved it by turning the corner during a long period of a one-man purposeful leadership. Now the operational word is “purposeful leadership” and its exegeses should constitute a vital part of the discourse for our third term commentariat.

Before I go into that, it is pertinent to look at a poster-child scenario. The New Deal reform programme of America’s President Franklin Roosevelt initiated in 1933 laid the foundations for their present economic prosperity and social security. But in order to underpin it, Roosevelt had to break the second term tradition by going for a third term. This puts paid to any dimensions to immorality on the subject because Americans wanted him to continue in office and damn the noble precedence set by their adorable first president, George Washington. Why did Roosevelt do it? Was it because of World War II? Definitely not. After all, Americans changed their presidents during both the Korean War and Vietnam War. By the time Roosevelt died in his fourth term, after 12 years in office, the American Century was on an autopilot. Of course the post-Roosevelt era saw the insertion of the two-term limits clause in their constitution but long before I began to write these lines, former President Bill Clinton had himself begun a national discourse aimed at generating a consensus to remove that clause.

As an aside, I have chosen to ignore the recent Thabo Mbeki no-third-term frenzy because just as the Mandela option incantations in 2002 (and the present third term mantra), the issues involved are miles apart but have become victims of commentarial reductionism: while we are struggling to jumpstart growth, South Africa is contending with sustaining their prosperity and distributing income and as such requires different leadership transition models. There are many more examples that this piece cannot adequately capture and I have only expounded the American experience because it is the beautiful bride of democracy. But from Mahathir Muhammad’s Malaysia to Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore to Václav Havel’s Czechoslovakia, the constancy of this trend is not one that I would like to question but which we can choose to challenge with a view to changing it. However, it requires some level of intellectual rigour that is missing in the current discourse. In analyzing those success stories, purposeful leadership is the name of the game and not term limits but we need a national consensus to abolish term limits, a vibrant civil society to check its abuse and an informed citizenry (aided by the media) to demand good governance and sound policies. If not we would end up writing a blank cheque for an incompetent and corrupt tyrant.

But has President Obasanjo offered us purposeful leadership? Without any doubt, the Obasanjo administration has put in place a number of reforms that have fundamentally changed the nation for good. These are in the areas of macroeconomic stability, anti-corruption, pension reforms, the National Health Insurance Scheme, drug administration reforms, banking reforms, et cetera. Even his worst critics will be forgiven if they give him a pat on the back for these reforms because they are policies that are very necessary to start growth and some of them require courage to implement. To that extent, he has performed above average as president.

But against the backdrops of Anambra and Oyo States, among other contradictions especially in political reforms and rebuilding our institutions, it can be strongly argued that he could have done better and I will not attempt to dilute this point by recanting the imperfections of Mahathir Muhammad and Lee Kuan Yew. Simply put, President Obasanjo could have done better. But that should not be a basis for desecrating a third term option unless there are alternatives to Obasanjo in 2007. Of course, we acknowledge that there are hundreds, if not thousands of Nigerians that are not only equal to the task but can even excel the Obasanjo testimonial. I definitely agree with that and I know a number of them. But I have a problem with placing my bets on people who cannot even offer themselves for leadership even from the basal level of articulating and consistently propagating their pathways to national development and prosperity by putting it in the public domain. After all, what type of leader do we need and what kind of leader do we seek? I submit that she or he should be someone with a vision of what Nigeria ought to be as a nation with policies, programmes, strategies and tactics towards realising that vision, and most importantly, mobilising Nigerians towards that vision.

Pray, am I the only one who is worried that about 10 months to the presidential election all we hear is that Obasanjo should go and no serious contender has declared any interest in the job that should be vacant in the next 15 months? At the heights of the stagnation and decline in Eastern Europe, Václav Havel not only led citizen rejection of communism by offering differing viewpoints (all the more so in a totalitarian state), he showed in no small measure that he was prepared to lead a post-communist Czechoslovakia. The collapse of communism saw his immediate rise to the presidency. His 14-year presidential testimonial is there for all to see in the Czech Republic. Leadership in a democracy requires a visionary state of mind that is driven by courage, conviction and self-confidence.

On my part, after an extensive study of leadership models in democracies across the world and with my local knowledge and understanding of the Nigerian terrain, I want to start a commentarial series on our potential presidential jewels and I hope that it will challenge them out of inertia because the truth is that given what we have achieved so far the time, has come for us to be more proactive on issues of national development because Nigeria still needs a bold, radical leader and reformer in 2007 who will now tackle big issues like abject poverty and income inequality. But if he or she fails to take up the cudgel now, we may just have to shift the paradigm of an Obasanjo third term away from its reductionism and malcontents, and of course, his own contradictions. If it gets to that, we can take solace in the words of Edward Gibbon (the greatest English historian of his time) who wrote about the Roman Empire, as if he was counselling Obasanjo’s third term paranoiacs: “the (Roman) people became indifferent or insensitive to the debauches of their emperor, provided he repaired the roads and remitted taxes.”

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