Obasanjo’s Metamorphosis by Abdulrahman Abdulraheem

Obasanjo’s Metamorphosis by Abdulrahman Abdulraheem
February 08 17:28 2018 Print This Article

“Olusegun Obasanjo is a crafty, wily man who designs both good and bad schemes with equal celebrity”

Late General James Oluleye

 Basking in the euphoria of his newly acquired Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD), former president Olusegun Obasanjo has done it again. He has come a long way in this and he is easily predicable; after either imposing or joining forces to support a leader to emerge, he waits a couple of years before throwing a sitting president under the bus with razor-sharp criticism and below-the-belt punches. While some observers see his latest intervention as the beginning of the end of the Muhammadu Buhari era, others believe the famed “Ebora Owu” has not got the moral authority to so intervene and that he is not too big to be demystified.

Hate him or love him, he is one of those former Heads of State who are well celebrated across Africa and beyond. Many believe he has in about 50 years of public life paid his dues. It is difficult if not impossible to pen the story of post-independent Nigeria without a generous mention of his name.

Olusegun Okikiolakan Mathew Aremu Obasanjo is the enigma who means different things to different people depending on who is the latest to earn his praise or rebuke; yet no one can really tell what kind of man he is and what sort of things go on in his mind. Today he is seen carrying someone on his back, saying that person is the best thing to happen to mankind since toothpaste was invented. The next day he is seen raising that same person up and hitting him or her on the floor in order to break his or her spinal cord and urging all well-meaning people to avoid him or her like a plague. How he manages to get people to back his political schemes without a proper questioning of his motives and his own antecedents is a great puzzle.

He is like the old wine that gets better with age. His energy is incredible. His enthusiasm is as fresh as that of teenager. His longevity is amazing. His staying power is out-of-this-world. Those who have worked with him have also spoken well of his huge intellectual stamina, attention to details, thoroughness and clear headedness. That must of course be the reason he has been able to pursue a PhD programme to a logical conclusion even in his 80s.

Like the ever constant northern star, he has managed to be around for so long. He manages to show up at critical stages of the country’s history when it looks as if the ship of state is about to capsize. And when you rule him out and think he is done with life or public space, he stages a sensational comeback. From the second republic to this moment, he has made himself so relevant that anytime something goes wrong, he intervenes and like the Lion in the jungle whose roar gets all the lesser animals panting, when he speaks or put pen to paper, the whole nation catches cold and the international community takes note.

President Muhammadu Buhari has succeeded in dividing Nigeria into two – those who believe his administration is a failure and want him to retire in 2019 and those on the other hand who believe he has done well and should be rewarded with a second term in office. Prior to Obasanjo’s intervention, in criticizing the government, those in the former category had relied on criticism of the present administration by people who were on his campaign trail in 2015 but who seemed to have since disembarked from his bus; people like the President’s wife, Aisha Buhari; famous scholar, Farooq Kperogi; fiery Catholic Priest, Father Ejike Mbaka, the Serving Overseer of Latter Rain Assembly, Pastor Tunde Bakare, the Publisher of Ovation Magazine, Dele Momodu etc. Die-hard Buhari supporters had however dismissed these people as disgruntled, overzealous elements who had reasons other than altruistic for criticizing the President. The ‘wailers’ as they are fondly called on social media therefore needed a stronger political voice to reinforce their stand that the government has failed. Then came Obasanjo. Since that famous special statement was made public on January 24, President’s Buhari’s critics have been having a party. They feel vindicated. Their arsenal has been boosted by the launch of Obasanjo’s grenade.

In disagreeing with Obasanjo however, some political observers think he is too full of himself. They say the man looks himself in the mirror and thinks he is the best thing that ever happened to Nigeria and pretends as the moral conscience of the nation, using his own personal standards to judge other leaders. His critics say if at all he is close to being the best Nigerian leader ever, it must be due to our extremely low standards as Obasanjo wasn’t a fantastic leader himself. He is also a divisive figure. His supporters say people should ignore his past misdeeds and just take the message while others say a messenger who once sought to change the country’s constitution to pursue an immoral third term ambition lacks the moral authority to tell an incumbent leader not to pursue a constitutionally-guaranteed second term. This is not the first time the “Ebora Owu” is launching strong criticisms against sitting presidents, some of whom he helped to power.

Rising from very humble beginnings, Obasanjo has had a glorious career in the military which took him to the peak as Head of State. In a move that was considered to be unfashionable and unprecedented in Africa at that time, Obasanjo fulfilled a promise to hand over to a democratically elected president in 1979 and since then he has been a respected figure in the international community to the extent that every other thing he has done wrong including his infamous third term agenda, has been missed by some people. In his trademark outspokenness, he has talked down on every other Nigerian leader since he himself left office, both in 1979 and 2007.

The first president to suffer Obasanjo’s caustic tongue was Alhaji Shehu Shagari who succeeded him on October 1, 1979. He suffered missives from Obasanjo’s retirement base in Ota when the later felt that the new president was allowing the ship of state to drift. Decades later in 2017, Obasanjo also recalled his beef with that administration to be mainly due to policy inconsistency. Speaking when he received a business delegation in the Obasanjo Presidential Library in Abeokuta, he said: “One of our problems in this country is inconsistency in policy. In 1979, we were getting to a place where we would be self-sufficient in rice production, but then a new administration came and set up a presidential committee on rice importation instead of a presidential committee on exportation of rice. In no time, when the imported rice started a arriving, those farmers who were cultivating rice gave up.”

The first time Obasanjo called out Buhari was under military rule in 1984 when he (Obasanjo) asked the then Head of State to stop making references to his military junta as being an offshoot of the Murtala-Obasanjo military regime. In his combative style, Obasanjo sought to dissociate his own military regime from the ruthlessness and human rights abuses associated with the Buhari- Idiagbon military regime. Obasanjo at a lecture delivered to the Agriculture Society in Ibadan, in August, 1985 flayed the regime for installing what he described as a “tilted federalism” on the country. Buhari later confessed that Obasanjo had sent him an advance copy of the lecture before delivering it. Few days after he delivered the lecture, Buhari was overthrown from office.

 

The Ibrahim Babangida military regime probably suffered criticisms from Obasanjo more consistently than any other past Nigerian leader. He was particularly critical of the administration’s economic policies saying famously at the peak of the nationwide protest against the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) that “SAP must have a human face.” Obasanjo also repeatedly expressed disgust towards the drama, suspense and endless dribbles that characterized Babangida’s transition programme. In May 1993, Obasanjo called a conference of retired generals, activists and scholars to discuss the state of the nation. He had ahead of the summit informed Babangida of the gathering scheduled for Gateway Hotel, Ota. Those invited came and were turned away by soldiers sent by Babangida who thought he could thwart the event. Obasanjo however showed him that he was the real ‘Maradona.’ Unknown to the then Military President (as he proffered to call himself), Obasanjo had envisaged it and had adequately conveyed to participants to gather at his farm where the conference took place successfully. During the event, the former Head of State did not mince words in castigating Babangida for his economic policies human rights abuses and endless transition programme.

Obasanjo did not allow Abacha to settle down in office properly before dishing a dose of his bitter medicine to the ‘dark-goggled General.’ In a lecture he delivered at Arewa House, Kaduna, in 1994, he said: “General Babangida is the main architect of the state in which the nation finds itself today, and General Sani Abacha was his eminent disciple, faithful supporter, and beneficiary.” The consequences were graver than he expected as he almost lost his life in the incarceration that followed.

Looking at the way Obasanjo carried Late Umaru Musa Yar’adua on his back to campaign grounds prior to the 2007 election; everyone thought his case was going to be different. And when his health crisis became a national embarrassment, Obasanjo struck again. At the annual Media Trust Dialogue held in Abuja in January, 2010, Obasanjo asked Yar`adua to toe the “path of honour and morality” and resign if his health could not carry him any more in office.

Jonathan was expected to have been more grateful to Obasanjo since he rose from the status of an unknown Deputy Governor to the highest office in the land due to the different schemings and machinations of the former president. The “Ebora Owu” practically defied Nigeria’s political order of succession and stepped on the toe of the northern oligarchy by supporting Jonathan in the 2011 election. When the love boat capsized in 2013, he wrote several letters to Jonathan, but only two came to public knowledge. Accusing Jonathan of corruption, nepotism, leadership weakness, and failure to deal with Boko Haram insurgency as well as pushing the country to the precipice with his desperation for a second term in office, Obasanjo went to the extent of publicly tearing his membership card of the Peoples Democratic Party, vowing to rather contribute to the destruction of the party that made him than have Jonathan remain in office beyond 2015. He therefore started romancing leaders of the then opposition party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and was said to have formed a national and international coalition to garner support for the emergence of Buhari as Jonathan’s successor.

 

One thing however stood out in the second open letter he wrote to Jonathan titled: “Before it is too late,” he copied former Heads of State, General Ibrahim Babangida (rtd) and General Abdulsalam Abubakar (rtd) as well as former Chief of Army Staff, General TY Danjuma (rtd), fuelling speculations that his intervention may have had the endorsement of the above listed elder statesmen. Before Nigerians finished guessing whether the Otta Chicken Farmer was on his own this time, Babangida came out with his own statement, asking the present “horse rider” to “dismount the horse” (both in Obasanjo’s words) in 2019 and pave way for a “digital leadership” (in IBB’s words).

In his latest outing, Obasanjo reminded all and sundry how he fell out with Jonathan who he sarcastically called “the former horse rider” and told him to change before it is too late but that his hangers-on urged him on until he fell like a pack of badly-arranged cards at the polls. He claimed that the efforts of people like him brought about the change that Buhari benefited from. He said the President had however disappointed all and sundry in failing to garner a competent team that would have helped him navigate through the tough waters of economic management, internal politics, and foreign affairs, which he listed as areas he knew the President’s knowledge was limited.

While acknowledging the progress made in dealing with Boko Haram and tackling corruption, Obasanjo in the special statement said the President’s nepotism, clannishness, weakness in tackling herdsmen crisis, and failure to punish erring aides had robbed the administration of any credit. He therefore urged him to prepare to ‘dismount the horse’ and join the league of respected former presidents in 2019.

“…But whatever may be the state of President Buhari’s health today, he should neither over-push his luck nor over-tax the patience and tolerance of Nigerians for him, no matter what his self-serving, so-called advisers, who would claim that they love him more than God loves him and that without him, there would be no Nigeria say. President Buhari needs a dignified and honourable dismount from the horse. He needs to have time to reflect, refurbish physically and recoup and after appropriate rest, once again, join the stock of Nigerian leaders whose experience, influence, wisdom and outreach can be deployed on the side line for the good of the country. His place in history is already assured. Without impaired health and strain of age, running the affairs of Nigeria is a 25/7 affair, not 24/7.”

Obasanjo wrote: “I only appeal to brother Buhari to consider a deserved rest at this point in time and at this age.” He however added a subtle warning that in case Buhari wishes to toe the path of Jonathan, Nigerians would be prepared to push him out and face a better future. “President Buhari does not necessarily need to heed my advice. But whether or not he heeds it, Nigeria needs to move on and move forward,” he added.

But in the story of ‘Baba Iyabo’s metamorphosis, it is not only sitting and former presidents who have suffered from his repertoire of criticisms. Being a respected voice at local and international level, Obasanjo has also deployed his words in dismissing the ambition of too many persons who sought the highest office in the land but failed. No political scientist has been able to tell how Obasanjo does this so often and so successfully; anyone he dismisses fails until he dies; anyone he endorses wins the next election.

He started with the late sage, Obafemi Awolowo, during the preparation for the 1979 election which he supervised as an outgoing Head of State. In the face of the seeming conclusion that surrounds the late sage that he was the best Presidential material at that time, Obasanjo poured cold water on the whole thing by saying: “The best candidate may not win the election.” Awolowo didn’t win and he died in 1987 without achieving his ambition.

The came the turn of Late MKO Abiola, who had clearly won the June 12 presidential election and was denied the crowning of his glory by a conspiracy of the military elite. In 1994, Obasanjo reportedly had a sumptuous meal of ‘amala’ and ‘abula’ with Abiola in his home and the duo had a long discussion about the struggle for the actualization of 12 and how to achieve victory only for the retired soldier to appear in an international conference in Harare, Zimbabwe few days later and gave this historic declaration that “Abiola is not the Messiah we are looking for.” Abiola never became president, he died looking for it.

Obasanjo also described his erstwhile deputy, Atiku Abubakar, as “too corrupt” to lead Nigeria and has continually worked against his ambition to reach that coveted position. He once went into a prolonged laughter when reporters accosted him some years back to seek his opinion about Atiku’s presidential bid. He simply said: “I dey laugh ooo.” Up till now, Atiku is yet to wear that crown.

Back to his latest intervention, while some analysts believe President Buhari should listen to his former boss and quit the stage when the ovation has not completely dried up, others say he should ignore him and continue the good work he is doing.

Some observers see the Otta Chicken farmer as a God-given Guardian Angel who has a divine duty to often appear at historic moments to guide Nigeria through difficult paths in her history. This School of Thought always wants Nigerians to digest his deep message and ignore his past misdeeds. Another School of Thought has tried to psycho-analyse the kind of person he is and claim he is nothing more than an egoistic, vainglorious man who often seek to over-rate himself by putting down others. According to this group, Obasanjo always want to sustain the narrative that he remains Nigeria’s best leader ever and want to ride on his excessive luck to play God in deciding Nigeria’s leaders.

The line of reasoning by the first School of Thought is reinforced partly by the story told by Obasanjo’s first wife, Mrs Oluremi Obasanjo, that during the retaliatory coup of July 1966 when mainly southern officers were the target, the then Governor of Northern Nigeria, Late General Hassan Usman Katsina, had while ensuring the safe exit of the young officer called Obasanjo from Kaduna by providing two Armoured Personal Carriers to see him off to the airport, told the soldiers tasked with the responsibility of escorting him to ensure nothing happens to him and that “Nigeria will need him in the nearest future.” According to Obasanjo’s protege, Akin Osuntokun, this prophecy by Katsina played out in the role Obasanjo played at the end of the civil war, the way he handed over power to a democratic regime peacefully in 1979 to global acclaim and in the consistent advocacy roles he has played in all these decades.

The thinking of the second School of Thought is bolstered by the fact that there is hardly any crime or infraction Obasanjo has accused any Nigerian president or any public office holder of committing that he himself did not commit while in office. He probably has no history of nepotism but his two stints as leader of the nation were known for bribery and corruption, human rights abuses, undemocratic tendencies, electoral manipulation, alleged state-sponsored assassinations, Gestapo tactics etc. Thinkers in this line are not amused by the fact that the same Obasanjo who could desperately sought an illegal and immoral third term in office could summon the energy to put pen to paper and advise a President Buhari not to seek a second term in office. For this, veteran columnist, Sonala Olumhense, calls him an “egomaniacal hypocrite.” This is how celebrated poet and columnist, Sam Omatseye, captures him: “So, when Obasanjo graduated with PhD from the Open University, he had to dance. In his life, PhD has not always meant a doctorate degree. It means pull him down. He loves to lionise himself by bringing down foes in high places. Since he vacated office as military head of state, he has ripped apart others from Buhari down. His book, My Command, was an egoistic trip in self-promotion.”

Now that Obasanjo has made good his threat to champion the formation of a third force movement called Coalition for Nigeria (CN) in order to knock the APC off their perch and deny the PDP a return to the top of the ‘horse,’ if he succeeds again this time as he had done repeatedly in the past, his swagger as Nigeria’s ultimate kingmaker, owner and modern day founder would no doubt be enhanced, his confidence boosted and his ego enlarged but if he fails to uproot President Buhari from office, he would then have no choice but to retire into oblivion and take the long overdue rest he recommended for the President in his special statement.

Many political analysts have however not failed to point out the fact that with Obasanjo and many other gladiators who supported Buhari in 2015 preparing to work against him in 2019, his chances of winning reelection may be getting slimmer by the day. His case may become that of a fish that can no longer swim because the water he relies on has dried up.