A huge 'no' to Africa's big-man politics

Nigeria has defied an African tradition of bowing to the Big Man (the kind who takes power by bullet or ballot and never lets go): It denied its president a third term. Such an act shows the potential for leadership by Africa's most populous nation.

Last week, Nigeria's Senate rejected an attempt to alter the Constitution and allow President Olusegun Obasanjo to run for a third four-year term next year. Mr. Obasanjo had kept publicly mum about the idea but had not opposed it.

After being elected twice since 1999 and serving during the longest period of democratic rule since oil-rich Nigeria won independence in 1960, Obasanjo may have thought that he alone offered the best chance for stability in a country long riven by ethnic and economic unrest.

He could have been troubled by the field of potential candidates to succeed him, including military men Ibrahim Babangida and Muhammadu Buhari, who might stray from democracy, and his vice president, Atiku Abubakar, who has apparently lost his trust.

Those concerns may well be legitimate. But a Constitution that provides a maximum of two terms, a limit on power familiar to Americans, should not be blatantly altered for the sake of retaining personal leadership.

Granted, transitions in any fragile democracy can be tricky. Nigeria's election will be a test of its resolve - and an opportunity for restraint from those vying for power. Obasanjo took a crucial step by calling the Senate action "a victory for democracy."

With some 130 million people and oil resources that should have made it prosperous by now, Nigeria could be the continent's shining light. But an entrenched culture of civil and political corruption, along with tensions among its more than 250 ethnic groups - and especially between its Muslim north and Christian south - have kept those prospects dim.

Little of the income from Nigeria's considerable oil reserves in its southern Niger River delta, which account for 11 percent of US petroleum imports, has trickled down to the region's 20 million poor. That, in turn, has created unrest, including killings and sabotage against oil facilities. The shock waves have been felt at gas pumps worldwide.

Yet despite such problems, Nigeria is still seen as a model by most of the continent. Its elections could set a precedent and produce that rarity in Africa - a peaceful transition from one democratically elected leader to another. That's in stark contrast to the way Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe (in office since 1980) and a rogues' gallery of other leaders have clung to power by extending their terms through gun or guile while suppressing and subverting their opposition. (South Africa provides one counterexample, as President Nelson Mandela retired from politics and Thabo Mbeki was elected. Mr. Mbeki has said he'll step aside in 2009, after serving two terms.)

Obasanjo, a former general, once before gave up power voluntarily: In 1979 he briefly headed a military government that ceded power. His 1999 election was on a platform to fight corruption and increase government transparency and accountability. While he's made progress, it has been too slow for many of his constituents. They deserve an opportunity to hand the job to someone else.

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