Like the first leaves of spring, the posters have already begun to appear.
High above the traffic jams and street vendors choking on exhaust fumes, Nigeria’s larger-than-life politicians stride majestically towards the edge of towering billboards, arms gesturing to the great visions that lie just beyond the paper borders. The elections might be more than a year away, but the country is throwing itself into one of its favourite sports — politics — with a vengeance.
Currently, the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) enjoys a stranglehold on power at all levels of government, holding 28 out of 36 powerful state governorships and a majority of seats in the Senate and the House. In Rivers state, the hub of oil production in the volatile Niger Delta, every official from the state governor to the lowest town councillor comes from the ruling party.
Yet, despite their strength, deep divisions have begun to show within the party over proposed constitutional reforms allowing President Olusegun Obasanjo and the current state governors to run for a third term. The Vice-President, Atiku Abubakar, is vehemently opposed — he wants the position himself — and the two men are barely on speaking terms.
The divisions go far beyond the traditional animosity between the Muslim north, which provided so many of Nigeria’s military dictators, and the Christian south, which has used Obasanjo’s presidency to fill many key positions in the civil service and military. Many Nigerians feel cheated and disenfranchised by their government, which has received billions of dollars in oil revenues this year but failed to provide basic services such as a steady electricity supply.
On the streets, it is difficult to find one person supporting the idea of extending the president’s reign, and many politicians within the ruling party are also in revolt.
For Dimieari von Kemedi, a civil rights lawyer, a potential split in the ruling party is the only ray of sun on a stormy horizon. He hopes that if the PDP splits, the splinter faction combined with some outsiders with “real credibility” could mount a serious challenge. “But if Obasanjo gets a third term, I am going to go to Ghana and run a provision shop,” he said with a rueful smile.
There have already been confrontations over the issue in the streets. Recent rioting in Katsina and Maiduguri were not sparked by the religious demonstrations in which more than a hundred people died, but by constitutional reviews held in those cities. Nigerian newspapers reported that even in other cities, much of the violence was more to do with the so-called “third-term agenda” than with Danish cartoons.
Earlier this year, the wife of a former Kano state governor had her throat slit in her own home; Sa’adatu Mohammed Abubakar Rimi attributed his wife’s death to his outspoken opposition to a third term. Whether or not it is true, many Nigerians believe him.
The 2003 elections were marked by widespread fraud and intimidation; Human Rights Watch says hundreds died and many more were injured in politically motivated attacks. The destruction and corruption, combined with the April 19 date, led Nigerians to refer to the last elections as their 4/19. It’s an ironic echo both of the United States’s 9/11 and the section of the penal code that covers Nigeria’s infamous financial scams. Widespread corruption ensured that even after the officials were installed, the violence continued; one state Governor, Chris Ngige, was held up in a toilet at gunpoint and forced to sign his own resignation letter after he refused to give his “godfather” — the man who backed his campaign — the contracts he had promised.
“What you have now is a new militarism rather than democracy,” said Kayode Fayemi, a prominent civil rights campaigner who plans to run for the governorship of a small southern state on an opposition ticket. “You need to strengthen the institutions of democracy so who holds power becomes less important — permitting a third term would do the opposite.”
Obasanjo has remained diplomatically silent so far on the third term issue. Potential challengers are also treading carefully. “Nobody wants to declare themselves as a candidate because they are all afraid of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission looking at them,” said Oronto Douglas, a lawyer and former government official.
But one man has not been afraid to step forward. General Ibrahim Babangida, popularly known as IBB, is a fabulously wealthy former head of state who, in 1993, annulled the elections when it looked as if he would lose, plunging the country into a crisis that was only averted by his eventual resignation. Undeterred, he has already mounted a comeback campaign, his slogan “Only the best for Nigeria”, emblazoned across his billboards. Underneath, IBB opens his arms to the voters, his face lit up by a beatific smile.