by Reuben Abati
“Former President Obasanjo is a courageous patriot and statesman who tells truth to power when he is convinced leaders are doing wrong” – Muhammadu Buhari, March 4, 2015.
“Buhari is sick in the spirit, body and soul. Let’s beg him to go and rest…Let’s give chance to another person” – Olusegun Obasanjo, January 21, 2019.
On Sunday, President Olusegun Obasanjo addressed a press conference at the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library (OOPL) in Abeokuta where he gave the equivalent of a state of the nation address which was essentially a testimonial on the performance of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration, an assessment of the integrity and credibility of the electoral umpire, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) vis-a-vis the upcoming 2019 general elections, and a general commentary on recent developments in the country and the tactics and methods of the incumbent administration. This is the second time in the last one year that President Obasanjo would be taking on the Buhari administration in an extensive and provocative expose. In his 2018 intervention, Obasanjo had advised President Buhari not to bother to run for a second term in office because his performance was disappointing and even more importantly, he would need more time to go and attend to his failing health.
He accused Buhari of cronyism, nepotism, incompetence and failure to bring about the change that he promised Nigerians. The former President’s advice was ignored at the time. Professor Itse Sagay, the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption who hijacked the job of the President’s spokesmen launched an attack on Obasanjo. He told Nigerians that Obasanjo is “irrelevant” and he needs to show President Buhari ‘some respect.” Titled “The Way Out: A Clarion call for Coalition for Nigeria Movement” (January 23, 2018), the Obasanjo letter then generated ripples within the polity and energized those seeking a third force as an alternative to the PDP and the ruling All Progressives Congress.
We should all take special notice of the fact that this was all in the month of January 2018, precisely in the third week. On the anniversary of that very episode, almost exactly to the day, President Obasanjo has intervened again. If his January 2018 letter to Buhari was hot, this one of 2019 is explosive. The 2018 letter was 13 pages long; the 2019 contribution titled “Points for Concern and Action” runs into 16 pages. But the key difference is not in the additional three pages; it can be found in the fact that Obasanjo’s tone in this latest one is not advisory at all. This is a brutal, dismissive, utterly condemnatory commentary which seeks to consign the Buhari administration to the ugly chapters of Nigerian history. The style of writing is lucid, frank, assertive, no one is left in doubt that Obasanjo considers the Buhari administration a mockery of sorts, some of its programmes such as TraderMoni “idiotic”, and its management of the country’s security situation, utterly laughable.
Having once declared that this government does not deserve a second term in office, and having shown his preference for the Presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Obasanjo, without an obvious hint of partisanship, tells us that the Buhari administration is adopting desperate tactics to rig the 2019 general polls. He takes on the Independent National Electoral Commission and accuses it of crossing the “redline” with “blatant partiality, duplicity, and imbecility”. Imbecility! Now, that is a very strong word. According to Obasanjo, INEC can only convince us otherwise if it redeploys Ms. Amina Zakari, the INEC commissioner in charge of the collation of results who happens to be related to President Buhari by marriage, and by conducting free, fair and credible elections.
The big take-away from the 16-page commentary is Obasanjo’s concern about how the Buhari administration seems to have compromised all institutions of state, and how in recent times, it has also taken on the task of humiliating and denigrating the Nigerian judiciary. The unkindest cut is the comparison of President Buhari to General Sani Abacha. This comparison is not helped by the fact that President Buhari himself once described Abacha as a “hero”. Many Nigerians consider Abacha a villain. He presided over a period in Nigerian history, 1993 – 1998, regarded as the “years that the locust ate”. When he died, there was ‘dancing in the streets”. The people jubilated and said: “Never Again”. When President Obasanjo says we are back to the Abacha era, he is clearly saying that Nigerians are currently under a military dictatorship. He notes quite instructively, that “criticism, choice and being different” have become near-impossible under President Buhari. These are very carefully chosen phrases. They constitute the very essence of democracy and fundamental human rights – to deny citizens the right to speak, the right to choose, and the right to be different is an assault on everything that makes us human or a nation. Why for example should an Igbo person not be good enough for the position of Inspector General of Police or any other security chief position? Why must everyone who criticizes the government consistently suddenly have a problem? Why should the membership of the ruling party become a form of life insurance? Obasanjo makes a strong case for democratic principles, and the urgent need to protect those principles from being violated by those who are committed to self and selfish interests.
Obasanjo is so impressively quotable, virtually every line from his pen drips with venom and journalistic topicality, his words sound like stones, hitting their targets with devastating force, drawing “blood” and pain. He does the job of the opposition in this January 2019 piece, barely 28 days to Nigeria’s general election, better than the opposition itself. Obasanjo may not always be right, and he has had cause to revise his assessment of people and circumstances when confronted with a different set of facts and variables, but his timing is always carefully chosen, his courage to speak up is unmistakable, and he is probably the only Nigerian statesman alive today who speaks, whenever he does on public issues, with a startling combination of poignancy, histrionics and a ricocheting effect. For this reason, he manages to capture the attention and imagination of both local and international audiences.
His blistering, bleaching, blinding attack on President Buhari is the last thing a sitting President seeking a second term in office, wants or needs at this time. Obasanjo has just told the whole world that Buhari is planning an “electoral coup” against the people of Nigeria: their right to choose, their right to differ, their right to be different. In addition, he says: “It is clear from all indications that Buhari is putting into practice the lessons he learned from Abacha. Buhari has intimidated and harassed the private sector, attacked the National Assembly and now unconstitutionally and recklessly attacked and intimidated the judiciary to cow them to submission.” So, who is left? Perhaps, the media, wrongly omitted by President Obasanjo.
Whatever happens, Obasanjo has achieved his objectives. One, he has managed to put down the Buhari administration. The last time he did that to a sitting President, the opposition quickly rushed to him and made him the arrow-head of the “anybody-but-Goodluck Jonathan” coalition. Their conspiracy succeeded and Jonathan lost the Presidency. The myth that Obasanjo can make and unmake any Nigerian President became part of the national folklore, and it continues to flourish. The flip side of that however, is that if Obasanjo fails this time around and Buhari for any reason whatsoever wins the 2019 Presidency, and the myth thus evaporates, he, Obasanjo and others who are staking everything on Buhari leaving Aso Rock, may be the ones who may have to leave town. This is what their characterization of the Buhari administration tells us.
Two, whatever happens, Obasanjo and others who share his views have already raised very serious legitimacy questions about President Buhari and his party. Less than a month to Nigeria’s 2019 Presidential election, they are already hacking down any claims to legitimacy in the event of an APC victory. The APC can claim all the votes, but the election will be dismissed as fraudulent. Ahead of the elections, the APC has been set up for a post-election legitimacy crisis, the implications of which no one can fully imagine. But if the APC loses, that may well not be an issue. The result will be praised as a true reflection of the people’s wish. You may not like Obasanjo, but he is not just another voter with a PVC, the way many of his critics respond to him simplistically. He has a voice, a voice that resonates across continents. He has international credibility, the kind of credibility that transcends local bickering. The relationship between him and President Buhari has been a stuff of classical romanticism. With his latest commentary, that has ended in a bitter, feuding divorce.
Three, his statement is couched in the language of statesmanship. He is raising “concerns” and calling for “action.” It is not a crime under any jurisprudence for a former Head of State and a former President who is also a global eminent person to raise such concerns about his country. The world will listen. And Obasanjo knows.
However, the standard response from government spokespersons is to dismiss every piece of criticism as sour grapes and to impugn the integrity of the critic. This is a default position in the government-public communication process. It is so, I must explain, because what is called criticism in Nigeria can be sometimes biased, uninformed, partisan, sponsored or downright malicious. This in itself is a reflection of the level of our development. In Third World politics, the stomach rules the head, emotions suppress reason, idiots become kings, imbeciles pose as wise men. In practical politics, every political leader believes his own vision of reality. In his mind, he wants to do his best for his people. He wants them to love him. From the little that I have seen, there is no political leader who wants to be disliked. Power is like an injection: people react to it differently.
It is something about the DNA. It is also something about the level of exposure, belief-system, competence, knowledge, strength of character and the quality of the environment in which the leader finds himself. Nonetheless, when someone comes along and sticks a pin into that balloon, and bursts the bubble, those who protect the leader, and the leader himself are bound to fight back, oftentimes viciously. To that extent I can understand the viciousness with which President Buhari’s handlers have gone after President Obasanjo in the last 72 hours. I have been through that route before. When President Obasanjo attacked President Goodluck Jonathan under similar circumstances a few years ago, it was my duty to put out a quick rebuttal. I dismissed the attack on President Jonathan as “mischievous and reckless”. The President himself later took on the battle and responded to every point raised by President Obasanjo in what became a famous epistolary war in Nigerian politics. That war produced at least three books!
Both Presidents have since reconciled, and have been visiting each other, but there are persons in Abeokuta who have not forgiven me till today for responding to Baba because as far as they are concerned, it was wrong of me to support a man they regard as a “kobo-kobo” against a man they consider an icon. The Jonathan administration’s crisis with President Obasanjo had its long-term effect, but when the fire burned, it was Mrs. Patience Jonathan who stepped in to stop further responses from our end. The only witness to that story is Senator Andy Uba. I will tell that story some other day.
Despite that experience, I must confess that I am shocked beyond words by the official responses to President Olusegun Obasanjo’s January 2019 state of the nation statement. The counter-attack is pointless, for it is exactly the kind of tonic Obasanjo needs. It will be difficult to convince anybody locally or internationally that Obasanjo is uninformed or that he has some ulterior motives, or that he is sponsored. The man has earned a global reputation that grants him the privilege to pronounce on world matters with the credibility of an oracle. The totality of his public career has brought him to that place of security, and that is why his almost life-long spat with his arch-rival, Professor Wole Soyinka has not had any effect on either of the two well-placed gladiators’ reputation. INEC promised to study Obasanjo’s submissions and has offered a polite, reassuring re-affirmation of its resolve to be independent and run a free and fair election. In comparison, the Presidency has embarked on a name-calling offensive as various officials and party chieftains raise questions about Obasanjo’s moral integrity – his record as military Head of State, and later as President – the usual things – Third Term, Odi massacre, and anything else that can be thrown into the net. They forget that Obasanjo is not running for President. By calling him names, they merely reinforce his claims and the more they abuse him, the more they give further credence to his declaration that the Buhari administration does not tolerate “criticism, choice and being different.” Obasanjo set a trap for them. They have walked into it, so unwisely.
In a strange twist, Garba Shehu, the alternate Presidential spokesman, in a written response even suggests that President Obasanjo is sick, and he should “please get well soon”. He refers to him as a “coward” and a “90-year old liar.” Garba Shehu was a Presidential Assistant during the Obasanjo years (1999- 2007). Obasanjo was his boss and benefactor even if he worked directly with Vice President Atiku Abubakar. Now, the same Garba Shehu says Obasanjo is sick! Does he have a medical report to confirm that? Who really should get well soon? Garba Shehu’s current boss or Obasanjo?