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The front page picture on the October 11, 2016 edition of ThisDay Newspaper had an interesting caption. The phrase ‘Habitual Visitor’ headlined the image showing two Presidents of Nigeria: an ex and the incumbent. Former president Olusegun Obasanjo had the day before paid a visit to President Muhammadu Buhari, one of several in the last one year since the latter moved into the presidential villa on June 21, 2015. The striking import of the picture’s caption could not have been lost as it simply conveyed the point that the ex leader had become a recurring visitor to the villa he bestrode like a colossus for eight years (1999-2007). The more significant message especially for students of political communication was that of substantial mutual confidence between a president and a predecessor. Simply put, President Obasanjo had the ears of President Buhari.
One month later however, the narrative appears to have changed. Reports from a November 23, 2016 event which featured Obasanjo as guest speaker betrayed what could be a crack in the supposed chummy relationship between both men. Newspaper headlines the next day were salacious. Here is a sample: ‘Obasanjo to Buhari: Stop the Excuses, Nigeria Needs Results-oriented Policies,’ ThisDay read. For the usually conservative Guardian, the headline was no less inviting- ‘Obasanjo decries Buhari’s ad-hoc approach to governance’ while the Sun in its usual sensational tabloid fashion screamed: ‘Stop excuses, clear mess, Obasanjo tells Buhari.’ Although Daily Trust, the preferred choice of the northern establishment adopted a less dramatic front page headline- ‘Obasanjo Opposes Buhari’s $30bn Loan Plan’ – it could not help but shore up the rather bland banner with a caricature illustration of the former president to attract attention. The Punch simply screamed on the strip atop its masthead: ‘Obasanjo attacks Buhari.’ Such offer on the news stable of November 24 was enough tell-tale signs that things have begun to fall apart between Obasanjo and Buhari. And the centre may not hold for much longer.
Last Wednesday’s tirade follows a pattern of Obasanjo’s wars of attrition waged with friends-turned-foes in the past. Such subtle nudges and knocks get to escalate into direct open rebukes and then ascend a crescendo of letter-writing. And somewhere in-between, a dinner table of delicious bowls of pounded yam and sizzling egusi soup is shared with the unsuspecting foe to bait him into a waiting trap. (Readers may wish to ask Minister Audu Ogbeh for details of this deceitful format.) And if things get really messy, the nation is then treated to the dramatic climax of public shredding of membership cards. (Fortunately, the much known to the public is that Obasanjo was only awarded the nebulous appellation of ‘navigator’ of the then crusading All Progressives Congress (APC), a party now struggling with its intractable contradictions.) Even though there may be no political party cards to tear in Ota in the build-up to 2019, one cannot put anything past the Olowu of Owu whose inexhaustible capacity for theatrics has entertained the nation since days of yore.
But let us return to the clarion call; the shrill cry of the falconer to a straying bird. In the moderated outburst, Obasanjo told his arch rival-turned-chummy buddy to stop the blame game and fix the country that is fast collapsing under his watch. To be honest, Obasanjo did not quite say anything new nor did his intervention make the anguish in the land more painful. The ex president merely re-echoed what has since become a tale of lamentation across the land. Hear him: “Businesses are closing, jobs are being lost and people are suffering. I know that President Buhari has always expressed concern for the plight of the common people but that concern must be translated to workable and result-oriented socio-economic policies and programmes that will turn the economy round at the shortest time possible.” He then warned that “if we do not fix the economy to relieve the pain and anguish of many Nigerians, the gains of fighting the insurgency and corruption will pale into insignificance.”
Like one waiting for an opportunity to defend his tenure in office, Obasanjo took exceptions to the penchant of his successor to lay the blame for all the malaise of the country on the 16 years of past Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) administrations of which he had eight years to himself. According to him, “the blanket adverse comments or castigation of all democratic administrations from 1999 by the present administration is uncharitable, fussy and uninstructive. Politics apart, I strongly believe that there is a distinction between the three previous administrations that it would be unfair to lump them all together.” Logically and has been demanded by many voices of reason before his, Obasanjo asked the Buhari administration to brace up and offer the goods it promised to offer Nigeria during electioneering campaign. Hear him again: “It was the same reason and situation that brought about the cry for change; otherwise, there would be no need for change if it was all nice and rosy. Now that we have had change because the actors and the situation needed to be changed, let us move forward to have progress through a comprehensive economic policy and programme that is intellectually, strategically and philosophically based.”
If you think Obasanjo was done, then wait for this: “We cannot continue to do the same thing and expect things to change. No administration can nor should be comfortable with the excruciating pain of debilitating and crushing economy.” He also advised Buhari must expand his horizon in the search for capable and competent hands to help the country out of its current quagmire. According to him, “we have people inside and outside who can be brought together to help device the right economic policies and programmes to get us out of the pit before we fall over the precipice into a dark cave.” He continued by asking the President to build confidence in the economy which “requires a great element of trust to get it out of the doldrums, let alone out of negativity. That trust and confidence has to be created.”
Obasanjo who took the National Assembly to the cleaners in a no-holds barred manner, focused on President Buhari’s proposed $29.9billion external borrowing plan and dismissed it as inchoate because a “comprehensive policy and programme will not support borrowing US$30 billion in less than three years.” Noting that the proposal was counter-productive, he explained that the amount being sought “was about the magnitude of cumulative debt of Nigeria which we worked and wiped out 10 years ago. Before that debt relief, we were spending almost $3 billion to service our debt annually and the quantum of the debt was not going down. Rather, if we defaulted, we paid a penalty which was added on. The projects listed for borrowing are all necessary in the medium and long-term for our economy but we have to prioritise. Now we are being told the projects will pay themselves when we know damn well they will not. If we borrow some thirty billion dollars in less than three years, we would have mortgaged the future of Nigeria for well over thirty years to come. There may also be the problem of absorptive capacity which will surely lead to waste. A careful scrutiny of the projects with prioritisation and avoidance of waste and taking into account avoiding bunching of debt service in future especially when no one can accurately forecast the global and national economy will indicate less than thirty per cent of the foreign loan being requested as prudent.
“Railway is a necessary service but it is not profit-making anywhere in the world today. We need steady and continuous but manageable funding on the railway project. The Mambilla hydro project is the same; necessary but it cannot pay itself, especially with the global energy sector of shale revolution, hydrogen fuel and increasingly cheap renewable energy such as solar energy. OPEC itself has projected that the price of oil will be hovering in the region of $50 per barrel for the next 15 years or so. So the argument of concessional mixed with commercial loans does not hold water. When the concessional and the non-concessional borrowings are put together, interests alone will be in the region of 3% to 4%. The bunching of debt service will be a problem to confront other administrations in future.” All of these may be friendly fires but assuredly, a flame has been set off nonetheless. The question is why did Obasanjo take to a public forum to make such remarkable criticism (call it wake-up call if you like) on a President he did much to bring to office? Why did he abandon his privileged and habitual (thanks to ThisDay newspaper) access to the presidential villa and choose instead to communicate indirectly to its prime occupant? Does he no longer have the ears of Mr. President? Or is it that his ‘habitual’ host merely pretends to listen but does not actually hear what he is told? Are we headed to the days of letter-writing soon? Is the honeymoon over? Questions and more questions searching for elusive answers buried in the bowels of time but which would be exhumed in future memos and memoirs that are not in my place to write. But like your good self, I will be glad to read.
––Epia, Publisher of OrderPaper.ng is on Twitter @resourceme.