Walter Lipmann, the legendary writer, once remarked that “Politician tend to live in character.” One way to read this statement is that in most cases, a politician’s temperament colours his politics and relationship. And there is no one that is as characteristic as OBJ. His historical match would probably be the irrepressible SLA himself—Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola, though a product of an entirely different dynamic. But I will take OBJ over SLA for the simple reason that Chief Olusegun Obasanjo has national and global credentials that captures the whole of Nigeria as its geopolitical space. And of course, there is always a steep price to pay for any patriotic endeavour that takes on the whole of Nigeria.
What parameters could enable a balanced perspective on Obasanjo and his sojourn so far on the Nigerian political terrain? Let me outline the answer to the question in the form of three significant questions. First: Is Olusegun Obasanjo a patriotic leader? This question is only logical to the extent that true leadership derives from a patriotic love of country and the willingness to pursue a sacrificial path towards its greatness. Second: Does OBJ possess the ideational, intellectual, moral and political capacity to transform Nigeria? Again, this is only logical. Leadership transcends charisma to the examination of those capacities which makes any individual suitable for any specific position. Third: Is OBJ human? A leader could only do and achieve what his humanity allows him to achieve. Angels do not govern. These three are issues around which one cannot ever hope for any consensus. Obasanjo is not the kind of man that would evoke a sanitized and seamless unanimity.
“A politician,” says Adlai Stevenson, the US statesman, “is a statesman who approaches every question with an open mouth.” Obasanjo perfectly fits this mould. He is acerbic but deep; deep enough to understand the dynamics of nation building, and acerbic enough to verbally lash out at those who stand in his way. It is this streetwise, no-nonsense but courageous profile that stays most firmly in people’s assessment of his personality. And all the more so—Obasanjo is only human, and his personality comes with its own peculiar vanity. Beyond the tantrums and the verbal fencing, no one should deny that here is a man with an acute understanding of Nigeria’s national question. Odia Ofeimun, that fiery scourge of Nigerian leadership, describes him as an irredeemable partisan in an almost occult pursuit of Nigeria.
So, maybe he turned Machiavelli himself on his head in his attempt at ensuring that Nigeria becomes better. In the understanding of Nigeria, OBJ brings the love of ideas and a passionate temperament to bear on the question of how Nigeria can be fashioned into a strong nation with a complete development profile in a continental and global context. I am not sure but apart from Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obasanjo seems to be by far the most cerebral of all Nigerian presidents. It is definitely true of him that the quality of a president is known by the kind of books he reads and the type of people he moves with. Obasanjo could consult Professor Adebayo Adedeji, hold intelligent discussions with Professors Akin Mabogunje and Oladipo Akinkugbe, verbally fence with Professor Wole Soyinka and throw certain spoken punches at Professor Ojetunji Aboyade. It would be a good dissertation to investigate how, for instance, OBJ’s intellectual associates influenced or failed to influence his political worldview.
Consider this: his landmark Operation Feed the Nation (OFN) derived from an almost intuitive understanding, by a consummate farmer, of the role of agriculture as a viable and sustainable economic growth variable for Nigeria. And at his second coming, OBJ hit on the critical nature of the civil service as a veritable complement to democratic governance. The Civil Service Renewal Programme launched in 1999, more than twenty years after OFN, is a testament to OBJ’s grasp of the fundamentals of governance. And finally, the birth of the African Leadership Forum (ACF) in 1988 consolidated Obasanjo’s pan-African legacy as a leader who sees Nigeria’s success as a firm part of a larger continental development. The ACF is brilliant because it invokes a generational framework that raises a crucial concern about the quality of future African leadership by focusing on the present generation of African leaders while ensuring a constant dialogue between the old and the incoming.
But then, temperament matters in governance. It is one thing to be ideational; it is by far another to possess the composed disposition that would methodically unravel the complexities of ideas. Obasanjo comes in the mould of Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), Singapore’s dynamic leader, especially with regard to the compelling force of a singular vision of progress that dictates strict disciplinary and often undemocratic measures that pushes for obedience and compliance in the quest for national development. However, Obasanjo is too far away from the military ambience of the 70s and the 80s. I have not studied LKY’s psychosocial temperament sufficiently to make comparative analogies, but it seems to me that OBJ’s inflexibility often undermine critical interpersonal advantages that fires up rather than stabilises the polity. One crucial question in this regard is: What essential content does the notorious Obasanjo-Soyinka animosity add to the potential greatness of Nigeria?
Obasanjo’s transactional competence and strong administrative capacity are necessary but not sufficient qualities to push a sustainable governance dynamics that would be viable enough to translate brilliant ideas to workable policies. Governance and government require critical elements in balanced equation to deliver on appreciable democratic results. For example, while there is often the paranoia which demands the recruitment of loyal officers with the appropriate organisational chemistry to facilitate the achievement of governance objectives, it is also often the case that loyalty does not often square with competency. The result is therefore that incompetence cannot be mitigated in the selection of critical teams that would deliver the high-end goods of governance.
And in Obasanjo’s case, when competence is however placed above loyalty, there is no framework that would dissuade these competences from being watered down into bureaucratic technocracy that is arrogant, insular and dismissive of those very ideas that recruited them in the first place. And when OBJ discovers such aberration, his temperament, most often than not, prescribes beheading as the cure for a headache. And this is a major governance flaw—the inability to dissociate a fiery temperament and an impatient ego from the vagaries of governance dynamics, I argue, considerably constrained OBJ’s capacity to dispassionately harness available 21st century competences and expert knowledge as the framework for delivering on his noble objectives of democratic governance. I was intimately involved in Obasanjo’s administration and I could give a line by line critique of why the brilliant Civil Service Renewal Programme did not work, even if it still remains the benchmark for leaders since 2007 to match.
In this wise, Goethe, the German writer and statesman, chastises OBJ: “A great person attracts great people and knows how to hold them together.” One could lament this profound statement since Chief Obasanjo is no longer in government. But that would translate into a gross misunderstanding of what Goethe intends. Goethe’s statement is not time bound. On the contrary, it provides a framework within which we can still appreciate the greatness of Obasanjo as a patriotic Octogenarian with an unquenchable love for Nigeria that translates into building bridges and crafting institutional capacities that hold people together in one huge national bond that works feverishly to realise OBJ’s vision of a better, democratic and developed Nigeria which he began forming as back as the 70s when he took his first step into government and into the task of contributing to making Nigeria work.
This is the same Nigeria Obasanjo fought a gruelling civil war to preserve; this is the same Nigeria that OBJ must spent the rest of his vibrant life fighting to restore to sanity and stability. Chief Olusegun Matthew Okikiola Aremu Obasanjo is a man that has been immensely blessed. Providence has also added long life to the list of elements that places OBJ right at the center of Nigerian politics at the moment. I may not be Providence’s spokesman, but I am certain that one of the reasons why Olusegun Obasanjo is still energetic is that there are still great national virtues left in him that could translate into national greatness for Nigeria. If a man in his eighties, sorry, late seventies, is pregnant, then that becomes a wonder we all must wait patiently to see what comes forth.
––Dr. Olaopa is the Executive Vice Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP) [firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org]