President Olusegun Obasanjo Weathers a Political Storm

Nigeria: Impeachment Impasse

(Photo: AFP)

Though his international profile is riding high following his involvement in the recently founded African Union and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) economic recovery plan, Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo may be fighting for his political life at home.

Obasanjo, a former military ruler of Nigeria whose 1999 election as president ended 15 years of military rule in the country, has said that he will seek a second term of office in a national election scheduled for early 2003. But if powerful elements in the Nigerian legislature have their way, the president may be impeached before he can get on the campaign trail.

On Aug. 13, the Nigerian House of Representatives issued a two-week ultimatum to Obasanjo to resign or face impeachment proceedings. A main reason given for the threat was the president’s failure to implement the 2002 budget, but in a total of 17 charges, members of Parliament also accused him of disregarding Parliament’s authority, traveling too frequently, and failing to control violence in the country.

“President Obasanjo...has carried on with an imperial disdain for the complexities and nuances of the separation of powers and other adjuncts of the presidential system of government that the nation has chosen to operate,” read an Aug. 20 editorial in Abuja’s conservative, Muslim-oriented Daily Trust.

Similarly, in an Aug. 20 commentary article for Lagos’ independent This Day, Sam Amadi lamented that Obasanjo “has exercised rulership aplenty, albeit at times, crude forms of it, but not leadership….He has not steered the nation away from ethnic myopia; he hasn't dignified the presidency by making it a moral pulpit in a nation of wanton charlatanism…and he has failed dismally to find a coherent voice and articulate a vision and direction of change.”

When he appeared on national television on Aug. 24 to address the charges against him, Obasanjo added fuel to the fire by making light of the crisis, thereby bolstering the case of opponents who accuse him of arrogance and authoritarianism. Quick to react, the Nigerian Senate announced on Aug. 26 that it would join the House of Representatives’ charges. Further attempts by Obasanjo to make the accusations go away brought increased opposition: In mid-September, the president’s own People’s Democratic Party (PDP) accused its leader of abuse of power and misappropriation of funds, and on Oct. 7, the House of Representatives increased the number of charges against him from 17 to 32.

Forced to adopt a more contrite stance, Obasanjo met with the PDP leadership in late September and pledged to address the party’s dissatisfactions. In an attempt to break the ranks of the opposition against him in the House of Representatives, he also gave a green light to several long-delayed water and rural electrification projects.

The escalating charges reveal Nigeria’s disappointment in its leader, but they are also a manifestation of the kind of power plays that are almost inevitable in a country in which hundreds of different ethnic groups are constantly vying for power.

An ethnic Yoruba from southwestern Nigeria, Obasanjo rose to power in 1999 by forming a coalition of the country’s most powerful tribal groups and promising to unite ethnic factions. Since then, his attempts to quell interethnic violence by means of military force have been regarded as heavy-handed, and he has been criticized for failing to implement laws signed by his government. Three years after his election, tribal violence continues to rage in Nigeria and the country’s economy is shattered.

Whether impeaching the president is the answer to these woes, however, is a question that is obsessing Nigeria in the run-up to the 2003 elections. While impeachment offers a chance to castigate the president, there are fears that it could destabilize the country.

“What do the legislators stand to gain by stirring a hurricane in the run-up to an election?” read a Sept. 30 editorial in Lagos’ weekly magazine The News, which went on to point out that National Assembly members were in a weak position to criticize the president, since “in the estimation of the people, members of the National Assembly are famous for…making laws to take care of their own welfare at the expense of the people.”

Writing in This Day on Oct. 3, Bolu Akin-Olugbade, Oludele Sonola, and F. Coker-Onita urged the National Assembly to rethink its attack, saying that Obasanjo “has returned Nigeria to the path of sanity, growth, and greatness,” and “does not deserve this level of embarrassment.”

But Obasanjo's opponents, who include the influential human-rights lawyer Chief Gani Fawehinmi, couldn't disagree more. Fawehinmi, who declared that he would run as a 2003 presidential candidate on April 22, told World Press Review in August that “Obasanjo was welcomed with open arms when he was elected. Today it is not so. Most Nigerians hate this man, just hate him.”

Obasanjo, however, is nothing if not a fighter, and in mid-October there were signs that his rapprochement tactics were beginning to pay off. On Oct. 17, Senator Francis Arthur Nzeribe announced that 72 senators had agreed to disengage from the impeachment move. The senator told This Day on Oct. 18 that the “popularity of the impeachment moves would be tested in the Senate next week when the motion for the disengagement of the Senate from the entire moves is tabled.”

For the moment, Obasanjo seems to have outmaneuvered his opponents. But mounting pressure suggests that, even if he escapes impeachment, he will have to work hard to win back the confidence of the Nigerian people.

“President Obasanjo has reached a critical junction in both his life and in the life of the country he is leading,” wrote Idang Alibi in the Daily Trust (Oct. 17). “Since he is aspiring for a second term, this time should serve as his mid-term review period. He must ask himself very hard questions and provide honest answers to them. He must boldly challenge the ills plaguing his administration.”

“An accusation to anyone, not least to a president, of 17...violations of the Constitution, anywhere in the world, is a monstrous allegation,” wrote Sam Igwe in This Day (Oct. 6). Calling on the president to “come before the people to rigorously and transparently defend each and every charge before him,” Igwe wrote that “if this is not done then he will be morally inhibited to flaunt himself around the world as our president.”