March 6, 2006

Nigerian lawmakers discuss changing constitution

By Tom Ashby

LAGOS (Reuters) - Nigerian lawmakers began discussing
amendments to the constitution on Monday which could allow
President Olusegun Obasanjo to extend his hold on power and
give a greater share of oil wealth to Niger Delta states.

The power extension is backed by influential state
governors who will also benefit from any change in term limits,
but it is opposed by many other interest groups and has been a
factor behind recent violence in Africa's top oil producer.

"I don't see more than 10 or 15 changes," said a member of
the constitutional reform committee, asking not to be named, as
members gathered in the southeastern city of Port Harcourt for
a week-long retreat to discuss the final proposed amendments.

Top of the list is the clause on term limits for political
office holders. Obasanjo is now approaching the end of his
second and final term allowed under the 1999 constitution, and
some supporters want to change this to three terms of four
years to give him another four years in power.

An alternative also being considered is to keep the current
two terms of four years, but include this in a whole new
constitution which would reset the clock and allow Obasanjo to
run for another two terms, committee members said.

Rampant corruption in government has fueled distrust and
rivalry between tribes and regions in Nigeria, where political
office comes with discretionary power over billions of dollars
in oil revenue.

To garner support in the southern Niger Delta -- one of six
geopolitical zones in Africa's most populous country -- the
committee is expected to recommend that states be allowed to
keep a greater share of their oil proceeds, up from 13 percent
to a possible 25 percent, a committee member said.

This goes some way to meeting the key demand of militants
in the delta whose three-month campaign of sabotage and
kidnapping has cut oil exports by a fifth. They have demanded
total control over their resources.

Many interest groups in Muslim-dominated northern Nigeria
oppose a third term because they had expected power to shift to
the north after two terms of Obasanjo, an ethnic Yoruba and
Christian from the south-west.

About 150 people were killed in several northern and
southeastern states last month in rioting attributed by
politicians and analysts to Obasanjo's third term campaign.

Given Nigeria's history of vote rigging, Nigerians assume
that the ruling party candidate will win any election.

Elections next year had been expected to mark the first
time in Nigeria's 47 year history as an independent nation that
one civilian president hands power to another, but the campaign
for a third term has put this into doubt.

Any constitutional reform must be backed by two-thirds of
both houses of the National Assembly and two-thirds of the
nation's 36 State Houses of Assembly.

Obasanjo himself has declined recently to comment on the
campaign, which has dominated political debate for months.