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Obasanjo's bid for third term rejected by Senate

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo's dreams of a third term in office appeared to be over after the Senate threw out amendments to the country's constitution that would have allowed him to run in next year's elections.

Although Mr Obasanjo never publicly admitted wanting to extend his rule, his supporters had been pushing to give him another four years in power, a proposal that aggravated ethnic, religious and regional rifts and sparked warnings that turmoil could engulf Africa's most populous nation. "The Senate has said clearly and eloquently that we should discontinue other proceedings on this amendment," Senate President Ken Nnamani told the chamber, to cheers.

The third term saga has become a national obsession over the past few months and it has been a bruising ride. Mr Obasanjo's People's Democratic Party split over the issue. Atiku Abubakar, the Vice President, accused him of trampling over the wishes of ordinary Nigerians.

One Nigerian senator described how four men in military uniform opened fire on him on Sunday, and Nigeria's anti-fraud squad has launched a probe into reports politicians were offered plots of land and 50m naira (£200,000) bribes to vote in favour of amending the constitution.

However, it all looked to be over after yesterday's Senate vote, and Nigeria now looks set to see power pass via the ballot box from one civilian president to another next year, for the first time in its history.

"It's an extremely positive development," said Olly Owen, Africa analyst at Global Insight. "It's very much a benchmark in Nigeria because it means the issue will not come up again, and it's a benchmark for the African continent because one of the power-houses can now lead by example."

Nigeria had risked becoming the latest in a long line of African nations - including Uganda and Chad - to see the ruling party tweak the rules and allow a president to cling to power, dashing hopes that the era of African "strongman" politics was over.

Mr Obasanjo, a one-time military ruler who was voted back to power in 1999 elections, won a billion-dollar international debt write-off thanks to his economic reforms, as well as high praise for his efforts to bring peace to the continent's trouble spots, most recently Darfur.

Finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala - herself a possible presidential candidate - has spear-headed an anti corruption drive which saw Nigeria named among the 21 most improved countries last year.

However, impoverished ordinary Nigerians were not keen for Mr Obasanjo to stay, with more than 80 per cent of those surveyed by research group Afrobarometer believing he should obey the two-term limit and stand down at the end of his mandate in May 2007.

Senior US officials had warned of major turmoil and conflict if Mr Obasanjo bid for a third term. And following ethnic clashes in February that killed at least 150 people, there was widespread muttering about the third term agenda being to blame. Mr Obasanjo is a Christian from the south, and many residents in the Muslim-dominated north feel that after eight years they should get a taste of the premiership.

Militants in the oil-rich Niger Delta had also warned of consequences if the president stayed on.

With yesterday's vote, analysts say the time has come for Mr Obasanjo to realise he will have to leave the presidential villa next year and to start preparing himself for some rest and relaxation on his chicken farm.