The Patriarch and his Protégé – by Frank Ofili7 views
Chief Olusegun Obasanjo needs no introduction anywhere in the world. He was commander of the dreaded 3rd Marine Commando during the Nigerian civil war. He commanded federal troops against the rebel Biafran army. He was reputed to be the one whose exploits during the war brought a turning point in the war and eventually led to its end. The commander-in-chief of the rebel Biafran army and governor of the then East Central State, Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, was to abdicate and escape to Ivory Coast following the onslaught of the 3rd Marine Commando commanded by Obasanjo. Philip Effiong, Ojukwu’s deputy was to eventually invite the federal troops for a détente. Obasanjo received the instrument of surrender on behalf of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
After the war, Obasanjo became a member of General Gowon’s Supreme Military Council. He held that position until Gowon was toppled by Murtala Mohammed in a bloodless coup, and he became the Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters to Murtala Mohammed. Following Mohammed’s assassination in a bloody but foiled coup d’tat on 13th February 1976 Obasanjo became an unwilling head of state between 1976 and 1979.
Five critical incidents defined Obasanjo’s regime as Military head of state. These were (a) the university students’ revolt of 1978 (sparked off by increase in tuition); (b) the pursuit of a stringent policy of indigenizing multinational companies whose parent countries were sympathetic to the Apartheid regime in South Africa; (c) the controversy surrounding the N2.8 billion alleged to be missing from NNPC’s account; (d) his administration’s intolerance of Fela’s critical music against his regime, which eventually led to an “unknown soldier” throwing his mother off a storey building when Obasanjo’s army invaded Fela’s house; and (e) the declaration of Alhaji Shehu Shagari as democratically-elected President of Nigeria after a controversial ruling by the Supreme Court which hinged its ruling on the highly intelligent 12⅔ argument of Chief Richard Akinjide. Obasanjo was castigated and accused of teleguiding the judgment, but the man stuck to his guns and handed power over to Alhaji Shehu Shagari on 1st October 1979, after which he retired to his Otta farm to tend his chickens.
While at Otta Obasanjo was anything but just a farmer and retired army general. He kept a kin eye on the political landscape. Perhaps expecting that Shagari ought to appreciate him by consulting him before taking major decisions, the man constantly lambasted Shagari for his handling of the national economy. Where the retired but not tired army general disagreed with Chief Obafemi Awolowo with regard to the politics leading up to the Second Republic, he found agreement with the late sage in the mismanagement of the national economy by Shagari in the Second Republic. That Republic eventually collapsed when Buhari toppled Shagari in a coup on 31st December 1983. Buhari himself was to be toppled by the false-smiling toothy general, Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida a.k.a IBB.
But Obasanjo was not done yet. He chastised IBB over his government’s twin politico-economic programs of Transition to Civil Rule and Structural Adjustment Program. The toothy general however was smart. He pacified the Owu high chief with regular invites to Dodan Barracks, and later Aso Rock, for meaningless chats on national issues, a move which eventually quieted the restless Obasanjo. Temporarily pacified, and perhaps more in search of what to say, Obasanjo wrote two books “Nzeogwu” and “Not My Will”. The contents of the books drew ire and fire from the northern political establishment. In Nzeogwu, he painted Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, the young army officer who led the January 1966 military coup in which Ahmadu Bello, the Saduana of Sokoto and Premier of Northern region, and the then Prime Minister of Nigeria, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa were killed, as a hero and nationalist who wanted to correct the ills of the First Republic.
But there always will be no permanent friends in the realm of politics. IBB was soon to incur Obasanjo’s wrath once again when he cancelled the result of party presidential primaries in 1992. In response to IBB’s serpentine and less-than-transparent political transition program, Obasanjo founded the Association for Good Governance and Democracy in Nigeria and started a string of attacks on IBB’s regime. Knowing better than to engage Obasanjo in media warfare, IBB sought refuge in his oft-stated explanation that his professional training forbade him to exchange words with his former superior officers and commanders-in-chief. It worked, but only temporarily.
IBB however was to hand his own head to Obasanjo on a platter of gold when he (again) annulled the June 12 1993 presidential election widely believed to have been won by business mogul and long-time friend of the military, M.K.O Abiola. The Otta farmer in alliance with pro-democracy forces, but for different reasons, intensified pressure on IBB and the man quit office in disgrace. Ernest Shonekan, retired chairman of UAC, took over as head of the hastily-created Interim National Government. Shonekan was himself shoved aside by the dark-goggled long-time friend of IBB, General Sani Abacha, three months later.
Obasanjo and his deputy as military head of state, retired Major General Shehu Musa Yar Adua, were invited by Abacha to nominate their candidates to serve in the government, but instead of obliging Abacha both demanded from him a short stay as head of state and a definite handover date to a civilian government. From then on, the battle line was drawn between Obasanjo, Yar Adua and the Abacha regime.
The usually taciturn Abacha was to concoct a phantom coup allegation against Obasanjo and Yar Adua as an excuse to slam them into prison. While Yar Adua died in Abacha’s gulag as a result of chemicals injected into his body, Obasanjo survived. Providence and perhaps the change in the political climate at the time resulting from Abiola and Abacha’s death as head of state in highly suspect circumstances ensured that the Otta farmer lived to become democratically elected president in 1999, ironically promoted and financed by retired army generals a’la IBB and Theophilus Danjuma, the remnant of the old 2nd Republic NPN and PDM, Shehu Musa Yar Adua’s political association commanded by Alhaji Atiku Abubakar.
As elected President of Nigeria (1999 to 2007), Obasanjo inherited a comatose economy resulting largely from international alienation of the Abacha junta. Before his administration Nigeria’s GDP growth had been painfully slow since 1987, and only managed 3% between 1999/2000. However, under Obasanjo the growth rate doubled to 6% until he left office, helped in part by higher oil prices. Nigeria’s foreign reserves also rose from $2 billion in 1999 to $43 billion on leaving office in 2007. He was able to secure debt pardons from the Paris and London clubs amounting to some $18 billion and paid another $18 Billion to be debt free. Controversial as some of his decisions were, Obasanjo performed fairly well on the economic front, but failed woefully on the political front, not helped by the fact that, for a man who was expected to do a Mandela by serving only one term, the man not only served a second term but midway into it, he developed a strange appetite for a third term as against the spirit and letter of the 1999 constitution. To achieve his third term bid, he sought to surreptitiously amend the constitution, bribing and intimidating lawmakers to do his bidding. But the plot fell flat. From this point, his hitherto high-profile international stature started receding.
His government was also accused of corruption and political witch-hunting with EFCC as a tool. No one however doubted the fact that he at least made attempt to tackle corruption head-on. One notable instance was the case against Diepreye Solomon Peter Alamieseghai, then governor of Bayelsa State accused of money laundering in the UK.
Alamieseghai was arrested in the UK, released on bail but he jumped bail disguised as a woman. He returned home to his seat as governor of Bayelsa State, but not before Obasanjo rallied the state house of assembly to impeach him. While his impeachment proceedings were going on in Yenogoa his deputy Goodluck Ebele Jonathan was invited to Abuja and kept in a hotel room awaiting outcome of the impeachment proceedings. Alamieseighai’s attempts to get his deputy to rally round him fell flat as Jonathan evaded the governor-general of Ijaw nation in tortoise-like manner. Alamieseighai eventually fell and Jonathan became governor. In the run-up to PDP presidential primaries in 2007 Obasanjo nominated and supported a terminally ill Yar Adua as president and Jonathan as his vice. The rest is now history as Yar Adua died and Jonathan became acting president and later elected president.
Since becoming President, Jonathan has had quite a few political disagreements with Obasanjo but never on a scale that could have warranted Obasanjo’s latest bombshell. It is against this backdrop that one must now examine the political soft underbelly in order to see if one could unearth what went wrong between godfather and his protégé. Four incidents appear to be principally responsible for the soured relationship between the two.
First is that on Jonathan’s assumption of office as President, Obasanjo forwarded a long list of his nominees for political appointments. Jonathan saw through the list for what it was, put a scissors through it, and cut it to size. To Obasanjo, that was affront No. 1 coming from someone he perceived as being politically naïve and timid but accelerated to power by the power of Obasanjo himself only a few months ago. From here the battle line was drawn even before Jonathan consolidated on power. For political wise counsel, Jonathan went for Uromi high chief and PDP hatchet man, Chief Tony Aneni. Obasanjo should not have lost sight of how Jonathan craftily dribbled Alamieseighai when he Obasanjo was hounding him. He should have known that any man who would abandon his principal in time of trouble cannot be trusted. Jonathan’s greatest strength is his personae of a seemingly meek and harmless fellow, a nice guy yet uncorrupted by political chicanery. That false image often makes foes underrate him and which invariably turns out to be their undoing.
Second, it does seem that Obasanjo has not forgiven Jonathan for the slight in bringing back his former political associate but now turned foe, Chief Tony Aneni, and promoting him to the PDP BOT chair – a move which saw OBJ losing out on the party Board of Trustees. Apparently, Obasanjo expected a grateful Jonathan to continue to prop him in that position.
Thirdly, during PDP’s national convention, Obasanjo preferred his long-time friend, PDP ex-chairman and author of “garrison” politics, Ahmadu Ali, as PDP chairman, but again to his consternation, Jonathan promoted and supported Bamanga Tukur. Frustrated, angry and realizing that he has lost out in the PDP power game, and perhaps unwittingly created another Chris Ngige, the mercurial Obasanjo ran to Buhari and Tinubu in search of a possible political collaboration. But the Lion of Bourdillon saw through the scheme and advised his party hierarchy to reject the Greek gift.
And now the crux of the matter! It will be recalled that President Yar Adua died before completing what the north believed to be their turn in Aso Rock. With his unfortunate demise, northern PDP leadership felt it needed to complete its turn by fielding another northerner in the 2011 presidential election. A seemingly politically inexperienced Jonathan at the time ran to his political godfather, Obasanjo, who then hammered out and procured a one-term agreement between Jonathan and the north. The election held, and Jonathan won, but soon after assuming office, Jonathan started taking steps to distance himself from Obasanjo and the agreement. He started with Obasanjo’s ministerial nominees list. The rest is now history as Obasanjo started fomenting trouble for Jonathan using the Governors’ forum. Recall that Atiku Abubakar almost truncated Obasanjo’s second term bid using the same governors’ forum. That experience now came handy to Obasanjo, but with Tony Aneni firmly on the BOT chair of PDP, Jonathan was able to weather the storm. Obasanjo’s calculation was that with Boko Haram and the governors’ forum lined up against the Presidency, Jonathan would not survive the onslaught.
I have gone this length to show a man who more than three-quarters of his life has held power and control; a man of history and destiny who could have been the Mandela of Nigeria; a man who could have been the architect of modern Nigeria, but who the desire to remain in control has made him not to recognize that the drum beats have long stopped. When a man remains in power and control for too long, he tends not to tolerate a moment of not having it; he is then unable to recognize when to say I have had enough. Only the Mandelas of this world could summon such courage. But Obasanjo is not Mandela.
Some people have opined that Obasanjo’s letter to President Jonathan was hypocritical and motivated by the need to assuage the guilt of a wasted 3years as a military Head of State and 8years as an Executive President. They claim that the man now craves the lost toga of Nigeria’s Mandela. They may be right, but I have a slightly different view. I believe that however one looks at it, his letter to President Jonathan is not without merit. According to my friend Dr. Chris Nwaokobia “those who seek to rubbish the grave issues raised by Obasanjo in his 18page letter to GEJ are unfair to Nigeria because no matter how filthy the messenger appears; the message remains true and unequivocal. Is Nigeria at a terrible turn? Yes. Are schools on strike whilst Trillions that can resolve the impasse is stolen? Yes. Are we yet marooned to power outages and pain? Yes. Has corruption doubled and quadrupled? Yes. Has dropouts and militants of Niger-Delta extraction become Lords of the manor? Yes. Is democracy threatened by insincerity, insecurity and crash impunity? Yes. So why are some jesters bent on discarding the message because the messenger is soiled?”
This then is my submission. Obasanjo is filthy and corrupt, yes. Obasanjo wasted and frittered away resources that could have seen Nigeria take a pride of place in the comity of nations, yes, but his letter to Jonathan is, to me, a patriarchal intervention in our body polity. Anyone who has been following President Jonathan’s style of leadership would agree that the man has been alienating vital segments of the polity. Such a person would undoubtedly not disagree too much with the issues raised by Obasanjo in his letter. It follows then that we should look at the message and not necessarily the messenger.