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

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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."

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