Those who mock Obasanjo for failing in his bid to elongate his tenure as a civilian President may have been too hasty in their judgment or rather too naïve. From recent developments, Obasanjo is having the last laugh on them. His ambition for a third term has just been realized. Those who cannot see the genius – evil or angelic – in his political moves are perhaps too naïve or too partisan to deconstruct complex political plots.
Obasanjo was one of the gladiators intensely consulted by the disaffected members of the PDP, who formed the ‘new PDP that eventually merged with APC to bolster the latter beyond the wildest imagination of its founding fathers. Obasanjo who offered to mediate between the disaffected PDP members and the then Tukur-led main PDP was accused by Chief Edwin Clarke and others of orchestrating or fuelling the crisis in PDP. Accusations and counter accusations are often the hallmarks of Nigerian politics. It is sometimes difficult to know when these accusations are wired just to force your opponents’ hands or to put them on the defensive. What is not contestable is that Obasanjo was seen by most of the disaffected members of the PDP as their spiritual head. And when the ‘New PDP’ collapsed into APC and the latter’s fortunes became bolstered, Obasanjo became more or less the spiritual guardian of a grateful APC. Obasanjo’s angry letter to President Jonathan on December on December 3 2013 brought members of the APC closer to them in a classic case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
It could be argued that with the new found strength of the APC, and its overnight transmutation from a coalition of regional-based parties to a national party, Nigeria as a country has become factionalized between the segment of it controlled by PDP and its acolytes (APGA and Labour Party) and those controlled by APC. From what played out in Rivers State recently, APC-controlled States may have adopted Obasanjo as the de facto President of their faction of the country. APC apparatchiks may have found in him a match to President Jonathan in terms of media coverage, prestige (he was both military and civilian President) and knowledge of the country’s political terrain and how to survive within it.
Like Jonathan who routinely goes to commission projects from loyal State Governors (hoping perhaps to also use such to showcase the achievements of the PDP), Obasanjo paid a two day ‘official’ (my word) visit to Port Harcourt between February 17 and 18. A press release from the Rivers State chapter of the All Progressives’ Congress said Obasanjo was in the State to commission “16 world class projects”. When was the last time we read of a big state project like that being commissioned by anyone else but an incumbent President?
Hailing Governor Amaechi for his administration’s developmental strides, Obasanjo was quoted as saying: “I came to see developments and I have seen developments and I will confess developments! What I have seen is worth declaring! The area of Health, Education, Agriculture, Sports and Road Infrastructure is worth declaring. When I see development I earmark, eye mark and mouthmark.” In Rivers State Obasanjo spoke, not as a former President, but as de facto President of the faction of the country controlled by APC. We are likely to see Obasanjo commission more projects in APC-controlled state. Despite his own limitations, he remains one of the few Nigerians who transcend the country’s fault lines. APC needs to identify with them as a sign of how nationalistic the party has become. And Obasanjo needs the APC not just to re-invent himself as a statesman but also to fulfill his ambition of a third term, even if it is now only as a ceremonial President.
I have always been very fascinated by the Obasanjo character. As a younger man in the late 1980s, I had accompanied the political activist and publisher Chief Arthur Nwankwo to one of the nocturnal meetings at Obasanjo’s Ota Farm. It was my first and only encounter with the Ota farmer. But I was very impressed. I recall he was wearing rather cheap trousers, his shirt was wrongly buttoned and he was walking around bare feet. His Raleigh (or so it seemed) bicycle leaned against the wall of the modest one storey building in the farm. I was just too full of admiration for a former Head of State that embodied such simplicity. Over the years I have been both his ardent critic and a passionate admirer of some of his attributes. True, when Obasanjo shaved off his trademark moustache and exchanged the simple shirts and trousers for which he was known for expensive agbadas, Rolex watches and designer glasses, something of the old Obasanjo seemed to have died in those transformations.
I concede that Obasanjo’s critics are mostly right: Obasanjo is a hypocrite who is adept in seeing the speck in others’ eyes but not the plank in his own; he could be vindictive and ruthless, he cannot be trusted to keep agreements or even be truthful about the existence of such agreements. I also concede that Obasanjo is almost always self-serving. But how come this Ota Farmer has been so successful in re-inventing himself and planting himself successfully at the frontal cusp of each turn in our history? How come the Tinubus, the self-appointed defenders of Northern interests and others who normally use the most demonic adjectives to describe Obasanjo glee in wild excitement whenever he pitches his tent with them? Tinubu, who had a long-running battle with him when he was governor of Lagos State led a delegation that included Buhari to Obasanjo and pleaded with him to be the navigator (read: spiritual head) of APC. By being the spiritual director of the APC, Obasanjo also by extension reconciles with his South-West home base, who often takes the charge in demonizing him. By taking a hard position that Jonathan should not contest in 2015 and implying that he supported him in 2015 only because he promised to serve one term, he probably also reconciles with a segment of the North that often sees him as betrayer. The crucial question now is whether the Lagos press which appears to have a bias for APC will now also temper its criticisms of the now beatified Obasanjo. In essence, the canonization of Obasanjo by APC could mean a pacification of those who are often most vocal in calling for the Ota Farmer’s pound of flesh, ensuring that that the idea of his being a favourite character for demonization will be muted. For those who subscribe to the Machiavellian school of doing the needful to be in power or remain relevant, please let us give it to Obasanjo: he remains the master of the game. Combining his military courage with extreme cunning, Obasanjo knows how to place himself at the cusp of history. Some have called him opportunist but I think he has a good sense of timing. Whatever you may think of Obasanjo, you can ignore his deft political moves at your own peril.
There are several instances of Obasanjo positioning himself deftly to benefit from the turn of history or adding momentum to particular historical trajectory. For instance it was said that after his visit in hospital to the late Yaradua, his position that if Yaradua could not discharge the duties of his office effectively he was honour-bound to resign, added momentum to the forces that were clamouring for Jonathan to be made Acting President. And from there the rest is history and Obasanjo was on the winning side. It could also be argued that APC as we now know it benefited immensely from Obasanjo’s angry letter to Jonathan which, by innuendo, painted Jonathan and the PDP as irredeemable.
Obasanjo will however always be an Obasanjo. He has declared that he remains a card carrying (not necessarily a loyal) PDP member. As the spiritual head of APC, he is the de facto President of APC- controlled states. However if the current excitement with the APC wanes and the momentum begins to shift back to PDP, trust Obasanjo to dig into his bag of tricks and find a magic wand that will make the PDP also eternally grateful to him for not being overrun by APC.