Bishops Urge Retention of Term Limits In Nigeria

Abuja, Nigeria - Nigeria's Catholic bishops urged politicians to avoid changing the constitution to stay in power and said promises of democracy in Africa's most populous country remain unfulfilled.

The statement by the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria came days after a parliamentary committee on constitutional review said it would recommend an amendment that would allow the president and state governors to seek a third term in office.

"Even if a third term is made legal through a constitutional amendment process, those presently in power should ask themselves whether it is ethical for them to change the rules to their advantage midway in the game," the bishops said in their statement, which was released Sunday.

Nigeria has an estimated 20 million Catholics. There are also at least 40 million other Christians -- Anglicans or followers of evangelical and Pentecostal churches -- and at least 60 million Muslims. Religious leaders from the various faiths are widely respected and influential.

Nigerians are due to vote in elections for president and state governors in 2007. President Olusegun Obasanjo and many of the country's 36 governors are nearing the end of their second terms in office, and the constitution prevents them from running again.

A campaign by Obasanjo's supporters to allow a third term has been hugely divisive, contributing to recent fighting between ethnic and religious communities as well as a series of kidnappings and attacks on the oil industry.

"There is a feeling of hopelessness across the land," the Catholic bishops said. "The experience of military rule carried us nowhere. Now, the promises and expectations of democracy are being compromised."

Last year, Uganda's parliament changed the country's constitution to allow the chief executive to seek a third term. Chad also recently altered its constitution so that its president could seek a third term later this year.

Obasanjo has been in power since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999. The army has ruled for most of the period since the country won its independence from Britain in 1960.

The bishops also blamed the government for fighting between Christians and Muslims last month that killed at least 150 people.

"No Nigerian should be made to feel unsafe anywhere, due to religion, tribe or tongue. We state that the failure of the security agencies to secure life and property is the failure of government," the bishops said.