The man Nigerians love to hate
He does not cut the image of a man to adore. Not that he cares. Some have even suggested that he evinces a sort of twin fate with his country such that a discourse of Nigeria in certain international circles without him appears hollow or a non-event. What is more, he also carries with him that effortless hallo of national knowingness that many vainly strive to appropriate.
Welcome to the world of two-time leader of black Africa’s most populous but grossly under-performing country, Mr. Olusegun Obasanjo. If ever there was a man who the stars or providence gifts with uncommonly favours it is Obasanjo. But some have also said he has twice squandered that gift and he is forever in search of fresh opportunities to make amend. If that were true, then Obasanjo must rank among the most blessed of men for having more than one chance to right what many call his many wrongs on the national psyche.
He joined the Nigerian Army at an auspicious time and became embroiled in the bloody civil war that broke out barely six years after independence in 1960. Obasanjo and his mates would play a prominent role in prosecuting the war and bringing it to an end in favour of the side he fought on. He narrowly escaped being killed. He would broker the cessation of hostilities and bring the warring parties back to one table and country.
But a development economist and historian, Dr. Jimanze Ego-Alowes, would argue that two big brothers – Hausa/Fulani and Yoruba – went to war with a third brother – Igbo – and won the battle over the third. But that it would appear only one brother – Hausa/Fulani – actually came away with victory and took all the spoils of that war! Current political realities in Nigeria bear testimony to Ego-Alowes’ curious and apt observation. Cry for restructuring and true federalism is perhaps more strident among the Yoruba today than ever, co-battle victors with Huasa/Fulani while the latter coast home as perhaps the only victors of the war. With Obasanjo and Chief Obafemi Awolowo as two eminent Yoruba who fought alongside Hausa/Fulani, it would have been easy for both parties to be co-equal partakers of the spoils of war. But this has not been the case.
Some clam that Obasanjo was stampeded into handing over to Shehu Shagari in 1979 instead of Awolowo, aided by the infamous two/third Supreme Court ruling. And that singular action endeared him to the Hausa/Fulani bloc who would trust him with power in another 20 years in 1999, when the military were retreating to the barracks after muddling the political waters. So indeed, Obasanjo has been a creation of the Hausa/Fulani who twice gifted him power. He would also return the favour thrice more as well in Shagari in 1979, Umaru Yar’Adua in 2007 and Muhammadu Buhari in 2015.
By so pandering and returning the political favour to his Hausa/Fulani benefactors, Obasanjo has always ended up hurting his own ethnic stock, the Yoruba and robbing them of Nigeria’s apex seat of power. Awolowo was so robbed in 1979. Then came Chief Moshood Abiola in 1993; Obasanjo would famously claim Abiola wasn’t the saviour Nigeria was looking for, thus weakening Abiola’s support base and emboldening the hands of maximum ruler, Gen. Sani Abacha, to tighten the noose on Abiola’s neck. He died in the process. But if Obasanjo thought Abacha was his beloved Hausa/Fulani, his near-death brush with Abacha in a phantom coup would teach him otherwise.
Unlike Abiola, he managed to escape Abacha’s noose, and like a legend born twice, he would literally sleep in prison one night and find himself in the presidency some months after. Such is the fabled life of Obasanjo and he has consistently prided himself on that fable to the point of assuming the kingmaker role in Nigerian politics. He has had the singular opportunity to make Nigeria truly great. But somehow he missed the road twice, but he has always believed in his own infallibility and carries on in that mien to the disconcert of many of his countrymen and women.
From 1999 through 2007, Obasanjo had the golden years of his life to take the country that has gifted him so much out of its mess. He assembled the best of teams, but somehow they missed it. A case in point is the power sector; he left Nigeria in more darkness. He cleared the Paris Club debt mess and the country started on a clean slate, but somehow things still went south. His trilogy after his two terms in office, My Watch, failed abysmally to provide a clue to where things went wrong. Instead, it’s about self-adulation, a trademark for which he has become known.
Garrison politics is what Obasanjo’s style in eight years in Aso Rock Villa has been variously called by those uncharitable to his legacy. A certain element of political vendetta soured what would have been a golden era. Presidency-sponsored and rash impeachment of state governors, Odi massacre, near-kidnap of a state governor, Mr. Chris Ngige, vengeful malice against proponents of fiscal and true federalism and resource control that would earn Diepreye Alamieyesagha impeachment, James Ibori imprisonment long after he left office, withholding of Lagos State’s federal allocation against Ahmed Bola Tinubu for daring to create new local council areas in response to Kano State’s bogus but unmerited size that guzzles resources it does not produce…
However, he would set up Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), which many saw back then and still do, as an agent of political witch-hunt. But while Obasanjo hunted members of his own political party, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), for corruption.
Under Obasanjo, religious zealots up north ran riot and adopted Sharia. Some have since argued that it was Obasanjo’s complicit silence in his bid not to hurt his benefactors as the north’s trusted ally who gifted him power against his more urbane and democrat of a brother, Chief Olu Falae, that would provide fertile ground for the emergence of Boko Haram insurgency which would declare a Caliphate in just a few years after he left office. Had he constitutionally dealt with the Sharia issue and legally nipped it in the bud, things might have turned out different.
However, Obasanjo’s alleged attempt to secure for himself a third term in office would further cast odious light on his political career. Nigerians rose up as one man and vehemently opposed him. Allegedly also, he would entrench money politics to dilute the National Assembly in his desperate bid to secure his own stooges as principal officers of the legislature. A rash of impeachment also engulfed the Senate such that Nigeria’s most erudite Senate President, Dr. Chuba Okadigbo, would fall in Obasanjo’s bid to have yes-men as senate leaders who would kowtow to his whims and caprices.
Under his watch too, while labour under then Comrade Adams Oshiomhole battled Obasanjo to increase workers’ wages and not to raise the price of fuel, the earnings of National Assembly members kept soaring to the high heavens in jumbo proportions. Just a tiny fraction of Nigerians in the National Assembly has become a monster guzzling a huge chunk of national resources while government is unable to pay labour agreed N30,000 as minimum wages.
Also, in his determination to court his northern allies, Obasanjo would in 2014 dump the party that took him to Aso Rock and his South South political godson, Goodluck Jonathan, who he singlehandedly drafted to the vice presidency from where he became president after his principal, Yar’Adua, died in office, for Buhari. While many saw it as a show of shame, Obasanjo and his newfound allies, including Tinubu, coasted home to victory in 2015. It was what some described as a coven of generals. Well, generals come and go, but barracks remain the same. In less than four years, the generals went apart and Obasanjo again started operation remove Buhari from power for his uncommon failure to rise to the task of leading Nigeria to the phantom promised land.
Having established himself with the new trait of a letter writer, Obasanjo would write hapless Jonathan out of power. He also sought to give similar treatment to Buhari, but the old soldier held on perhaps as a fellow battle-tested general. But whether Obasanjo would have his way with Buhari is left for the courts to decide as Atiku Abubakar and PDP are in court trying to wrestle unearned victory from Buhari, allegedly. Obasanjo repels and attracts in equal measures. In just the same way a majority of Nigerians were swayed by his letter on Jonathan, so also were many swayed with him on Buhari.
Many too have also asked him to retire from politics, that he has had his time and is rather causing more harm than good with his constant interference. But yet others see him as the internationalist voice that could wrestle down a fellow general like Buhari who has begun to show dictatorial traits like Abacha, as Wole Soyinka has aptly described him. This is the quintessential Obasanjo, the Otta farmer Nigerians love to hate!