Former President Olusegun Obasanjo should know when to either move forward or retreat and not overreach himself in the political space, writes Olubunmi Johnson-Adubi
Save for his manifest non-tribalism – which nearly everyone acknowledges – a debate about the character and integrity of former President Olusegun Obasanjo is one that comes with ease, especially for those, who know him quite well. His recent posturing as the father of modern Nigeria and or the epitome of her democracy is but a comic fluke – a rather unfortunate self-serving facade, which can at best pass as the fulcrum of the nation’s now shaky foundation since her return to civil rule some 17 years ago.
Today, the nation’s tottering democracy, many will concur, is as a result of one man’s clandestine attempt to extend the control of state powers to his personal estate through surrogate successors but at collective and development expense. Rather than admit to his follies and give the political space some healthy breather, Obasanjo has continued to choke even the already stifling political space, suffocating the rest of the actors to their early demise or leave them bedridden.
His recent loitering around the seat of power in Abuja, the nation’s capital, is palpably discomforting – doing what? His overrated stature is already a burden, both to himself and the state, the very reason he is unable to spot his own shortcomings. Instead, all he sees is his self-styled messianic larger than life image – a deceitful illusion that is no less a national curse and pain.
The last decade has witnessed an intense debate on Obasanjo, with focus on his place in history, especially his role in whatever has become of the nation today. Through misplaced priority, he has taken with the left hand, some of the good he did with the right hand. As the celebrated first military ruler to hand over power to an elected democratic president, he will also go down in history as the first civilian president that attempted to stay beyond his constitutional two terms with his failed third term agenda.
Since President Muhammadu Buhari assumed office last year May, Obasanjo had visited him about seven times on different grounds – from the needful to the needless – putting up the face of a patriot, who desires a better Nigeria, when indeed, he cannot be extricated from whatever problems the nation is facing today, either directly or not. And this much, the discerning knows and can relate to.
Unfortunately, despite the evident failings of the Buhari government, Obasanjo is the last person anyone wants to see around him. He wrestled former President Goodluck Jonathan to the ground, not on the premise of principle or patriotism but because he was denied “his right of interference in a government he helped to install” as well as the party, whose flag he brandished for eight years as president.
And when he thought he had been played out in his own game, he left, albeit with a lot of drama, thus openly campaigning against his estranged son for a comrade general. Such volte-face, unfortunately, hasn’t changed in any significant way the fact that Obasanjo was and remains an integral part of the nation’s intractable problems.
Upon assuming office in 1999, he promised, like others after him to combat graft and was seen to have embraced certain initiatives in that regard. But like what Jide Ayobolu wrote in an article titled: “What Obasanjo Will Not Want You to Know about Him”, corruption had an even firmer root under Obasanjo.
“…In the fight against corruption, the president that has presided over the affairs of NNPC since 1999, but has not explained the missing N311 billion that should have been paid into the revenue account and Nigerians are eagerly waiting to know what exactly happened to the said amount. Secondly, it was reported that N84billion was missing in NPA…”
Corroborating this, Chief Dan Etete once said this about the former president: “Obasanjo must not hold the view that Nigerians have very short memory or that they do not care.
How does he explain his attempts to dispossess his erstwhile friend, Chief Egunjobi, of the Beachland Estate? In his first coming as Head of State, he claims he built the estate and on leaving office, he took his former friend, Chief Egunjobi to court and proclaimed that he used the latter as front. He did not tell the court, as Nigerians wanted to know, how he came by the money to build the estate.”
Leader of the Ijaw nation, Chief Edwin Clark also alluded to the Beachland Estate scandal in his letter to Obasanjo, when the former president first fired a salvo to Dr. Jonathan in his infamous letter. He said: “My dear OBJ, I was your colleague in the General Yakubu Gowon government in 1975. You were then the Minister of Works. The Head of State directed you to develop the Tincan Island Port.
“It was widely rumoured then that you carved out a portion of land from the area earmarked for the project for yourself, the area now known as Beachland Estate in Apapa, Lagos. Your clandestine usurpation of that piece of land led to series of litigations with your front man, in which I believe you are still probably embroiled.”
In his article titled, Obasanjo: An Exit Strategy, published in The Guardian edition of May 12, 2006, Reuben Abati, a former presidential media adviser, wrote: “In eight years, if President Obasanjo and his strategists had managed to establish a reputation of benevolence, perhaps, the support base for third term would have been broader. That would not make it right, it may still not succeed, but the associated public debate would have produced a more rigorous and kinder assessment of Obasanjo’s tenure than the platitudes of being mouthed at the National Assembly.
“The president has also further isolated himself by uniting the opposition against himself. Even within the PDP, he stands alone otherwise it should have been easy for a PDP-dominated National Assembly to endorse the third term proposal without any rancor. The present situation exposes the president’s weakness. The debate in the National Assembly is a reflection of his standing in his own political party.”
In the same breath, Simon Kolawole too wrote in an article titled, Obasanjo: Working Hard against Democracy and published in THISDAY of December 31, 2005. An excerpt reads: “But I keep wondering why Nigeria is not making much progress under him. Some of my friends tell me that it is because of the people surrounding the president. They say the man himself is very upright but the people around him are corrupt. What do you think?
“Inwardly, I chuckled. Committed leader? Upright president? Anti-corruption purist? Democrat? Peacemaker? Statesman? Which Obasanjo is that? I don’t, in anyway, begrudge him for having a false, messianic image abroad. It is his luck, our ill-luck. What I cannot stand is his desperation to hold on to power at all costs, his desperation to distort and destroy our democracy, even if it means setting Nigerian on fire – playing the South against the North and grinding all his perceived opponents to submission by using and abusing state power.”
Adding his voice to the Obasanjo debate, especially on the failed third term agenda, another ex-presidential spokesman, Olusegun Adeniyi, in his article titled: Obasanjo and the 3rd Term Flu, published in THISDAY of February 16, 2006, had relished in self-denial because he reckoned Obasanjo would not travel that ignominious road.
“There are two basic reasons why I am almost certain Obasanjo would not pursue the third term route. One, given the current state of the nation, to secure the constitutional amendment that would give him an extension of tenure under any guise – he would have to bribe members of the National Assembly very heavily (which he eventually did). Is he prepared to do that and risk the local and international backlash? The second is that to pull the sight-tight agenda through would require draconian measures.
“Already, politicians, businessmen and women, academics, clerics, civil rights advocates and the media are highly mobilised against the idea. All these could culminate into a strong national resistance that may engender instability and violence. The implication is that for Obasanjo to force his way on the issue, he would have to resort to arresting and killing people because there will be many ‘dissidents’ to deal with.”
Seyi Oduyela, on May 21, 2006, added an interesting angle to Obasanjo’s impossible leadership, in his piece titled: Obasanjo’s Dishonest Honesty. Here: “What is disturbing is that under the democratic government of President Obasanjo, the police have not been able to solve any murder case.
“The Kudirat Abiola murder case was at the instance of Sergeant Jabilla aka Rogers, who came out to confess. We have more murder cases in this government within a period of four years than in any government either military or civilian. In fact, study shows that between May 1999 and July 2001, 252 cases of extra-judicial killing by the police and other security agencies were recorded, far higher than in the last two military regimes.”
Agreeing with Oduyela, Naiwu Osahon, a philosopher of science and leader of the world pan-African Movement wrote in October 2010, that “Obasanjo often equated his personal feelings with that of the state and hounded perceived enemies to death or was nonchalant over issues affecting those who had offended him.
“The circumstances surrounding the unresolved deaths of Bola Ige, A.K Dikibo, Harry Marshall and Chuba Okadigbo, promoted the poisoned atmosphere for further political assassinations, including that of Funsho Williams in Lagos, and Ayo Daramola in Ekiti State, between mid-July and early August, 2006.”
More succinct was the take by Ibang Essien in his article, Obasanjo’s Obsession and Nightmare and published in the Vanguard of October 22, 2006. He described Obasanjo as “a very corrupt ruler, who has serially been abusing his office and violating our constitution and has been accusing everyone else of corruption.
“And now that he has been exposed for the big hypocrite that he is, he is so scared that he has started accusing his opponents of plotting to kill his people. It is not the first time that a Nigerian leader would think of himself as God. It probably won’t be the last given what power can do to the senses of those who have it.
“Obasanjo has lost everything, whether he believes it or not. He is one of the richest Nigerians today but that will not guarantee his happiness. The one thing that will make him laugh happily is if he is able to stay in office longer than our constitution allows or, failing that, if he is able to prevent Atiku from succeeding him.
“For the damage that he has done to our institutions of democracy, especially the PDP and other parties, the National Assembly, our federal structure, the anti-corruption agencies the presidency and our constitution, we must deny him that chance. We have a duty that he leaves office in utter disgrace and agony. If as a result he curses the day he met Atiku and others who helped to make him president, so be it. After all, he blames everybody else for his troubles except himself.”
Even Wiki Leaks confirmed the degree of corruption that pervaded both the public and private sectors under Obasanjo, backed with facts of their claim.
Perhaps, it was for this reason and more that a former Senate President, Adolphus Wabara, who apparently still has a running battle with him once warned Buhari to steer clear of Obasanjo.
“Buhari should be very careful. He should be wary of Obasanjo because Obasanjo will hurt him. All he is doing around Buhari now is to feel his body language to know whether he has any plans in exposing him. The moment he finds that something like that is not happening and Buhari becomes a lame president; Obasanjo will hurt him preparatory for the next president that is coming in.
“Because, he must be in the Villa to protect himself from going back to prison and what he does is to run down whoever is there at the appropriate time to paint a picture that he is supporting the incoming so that that one will draw him closer again. By so doing, he is shielded from being thrown back into prison.”
It is against this background that a majority of the people are still wondering how Obasanjo arrived at his messianic posturing. Even more disappointing was the inexplicable silence of a former Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, who is believed to stand a better place in history as a true patriot and honest leader, at least, in the context of the current debate.
Until recently when he came out to support restructuring and explained how his emergence as president was an accident, Gowon had maintained a deliberate silence, thus, fuelling insinuations that it may have been forced for whatever reasons.
Gowon’s silence and those of other patriots, of course, had given Obasanjo the room to abuse the space by dancing around the corridor of power as if he was the only former ruler, who has the magic wand of addressing the nation’s problems. His overrated self-impression is one ego crisis the former president has continued to flash as his strength unaware that it is his major undoing.
The earlier Obasanjo weans himself of such illusion, the better. He has already filled his quota to the nation’s stunted growth and development, no doubt. But he should not compound the nation’s present predicament by not only exhibiting sheer indiscretion in his utterances but also showing up in Aso Rock at the slightest opportunity to cause more havoc to our national psyche.
Obasanjo should understand that times have changed and if for any reason he is needed, he would be asked to come around. Until then, he should steer clear of the corridors of power and let the new man in the saddle have his time, even if he too would end up another disaster, at least, let it be his own making and not through the machinations of an unidentified evil genius.