Obasanjo has a way of falling out with every government in power – and he has literarily played a role in the making of most of the leaders of the country since he stepped aside from office as a military Head of State in 1979. Since his 16-page letter to Buhari in January 2018 asking him not to seek a second term in office, there has been no love lost between the two retired Generals. Buhari not only ignored the advice, but went ahead to contest and win the election. With that, Buhari became one of the few Presidents of the country that Obasanjo moved against without being able to bring down from power.
The above is an important context for understanding the reaction of the presidency to Obasanjo’s speech at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Oleh in Isoko South Local Government Area of Delta State on Saturday, May 18 2019. Speaking on the topic, ‘Mobilizing Nigeria’s Human and Natural Resources for National Development and Stability’, the former President averred that Boko Haram (and its affiliate Islamic State West African Province) and the ‘Fulani’ herdsmen had not been treated the way they should and suggested it could be part of a hidden agenda on the part of the Buhari government. He was quoted as saying: “They have both incubated and developed beyond what Nigeria can handle alone. They [Boko Haram and herdsmen] are now combined and internationalized with ISIS in control. It is no longer an issue of lack of education and lack of employment for our youths in Nigeria which it began as, it is now West African Fulanization, African Islamization and global organized crimes of human trafficking, money laundering, drug trafficking, gun trafficking, illegal mining and regime change.”
The government was quick to fire back. Information and Culture Minister, Lai Mohammed, said it was particularly tragic that a man who fought to keep Nigeria one is the same one seeking to exploit the country’s fault lines to divide it in the twilight of his life. He said that rather than being instruments of any hidden agenda, “Boko Haram and ISWAP are terrorist organisations pure and simple”.
”Since the Boko Haram crisis, which has been simmering under the watch of Obasanjo, boiled over in 2009, the terrorist organisation has killed more Muslims than adherents of any other religion, blown up more mosques than any other houses of worship and is not known to have spared any victim on the basis of their ethnicity. It is therefore absurd to say that Boko Haram and its ISWAP variant have as their goal the ‘Fulanisation and Islamisation’ of Nigeria, West Africa or Africa”, Mohammed said. Other supporters of the government have variously described Obasanjo’s statement as “insensitive”, “mischievous” “divisive” or trying to divide the country on the “twilight of his life”.
There are a number of issues here:
One, Obasanjo did not say anything that many critics of the Buhari government have not been alleging against his government. But given his stature (in and outside the country), whatever he says is bound to re-echo throughout the country and beyond, and thus force the topic onto the top of the country’s agenda. But was Obasanjo really right in the charge of “…West African Fulanization, African Islamization and global organized crimes of human trafficking, money laundering, drug trafficking, gun trafficking, illegal mining and regime change.”. If interpreted literally it could mean allegations that the Fulani want to establish their hegemony in the West African sub-region, Islamize the African continent and that they are behind global organized crimes of human trafficking, money laundering, drug trafficking, gun trafficking, illegal mining and regime change.
If we agree with Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s (2006) notion that identities that are under threat are the ones most vociferously defended, it becomes easier to understand why many Muslims and Fulanis feel especially let down and offended by that stereotyping. But I honestly believe that what came out was not what Obasanjo intended to say. Obasanjo was, in my opinion, a victim of ‘rhetorical flourishes’.
Two, that the ‘offensive’ part of the speech was made under ‘rhetorical flourishes’ could be seen in the fact that the leaders of Boko Haram, at least in initial stages of the terrorist group, were mostly Kanuri, not Fulani, and therefore could not have been angling to ‘Fulanize’ the West African sub-region. Boko Haram never hid its goal of establishing a Caliphate and their own version of an Islamic state – so there is a group with avowed agenda of Islamizing the country. Despite the unifying bond of Islam, the North has its ethnic contradictions and therefore other ethnic groups in the region are unlikely to be part of a hidden agenda to ‘Fulanize’ them. Therefore while Buhari has long been accused of harbouring a hidden agenda to Islamize the country – allegation he always strongly refutes- lumping Fulanization and Islamization agenda together makes no sense. True, he is variously accused of treating the herdsmen with kids’ gloves because they are his fellow Fulani or of favouring the North in strategic appointments , accusing him of trying to establish a Fulani hegemony and Islamize the West African sub-region pits him against non-Fulani Muslims in his key Northern constituency.
Given the history of alliance formation in the country, Obasanjo is likely to be appropriated by groups who publicly or privately have grouses against Muslims or Fulanis but will also lose some of his old allies who are Muslims and Fulanis and who feel he has maligned their important identities. This is why one of the first forceful reactions against the statement by Obasanjo came from his longtime ally Sule Lamido, a former Governor of Jigawa State, who rebuked him not to allow his disappointment with the current administration to turn him to a religious and ethnic bigot.
Three, is Buhari really trying to establish a Fulani hegemony or Islamize Nigeria? This will remain debatable –depending on one’s location in such identity markers as political party leaning and one’s ethnicity and religion. The truth is that there is pervasive suspicion and mutual distrust among the constituent parts of the federation that any group that captures state power will use that power to privilege its in-group and disadvantage others. This belief is one of the reasons why elections are anarchic in the country. This means that any government in power is already a suspect, and sometimes charges of favouritism or attempts at establishing hegemony are mere self-fulfilling prophecies. There is hardly any government in this country that has escaped from suspicions of favouring its in-group or having a hidden agenda. Quite often a natural attempt by members of an ethnic group to forcefully defend one of their own (such as Edwin Clark and Asari Dokubo did under Jonathan) would be interpreted as conceit or attempts to insult other ethnic groups – thus accentuating the suspicion that the political power held by one of their own has emboldened them to the point of impunity and disrespect. Additionally there is the tendency for political jobbers and favour seekers to imitate the cultural cues of people in power, especially Presidents of the country. Under Shagari, the Hausa ‘babanriga’ and ‘Shagari cap’ were ‘elevated’ to national attires; under Jonathan, the Ijaw fedora hat was mainstreamed by favour seekers. We have also seen Muslims who follow Christian Presidents to worship in churches and we have seen respected Christians follow Muslim Presidents/Heads of State to worship in mosques. In essence, a sort of cultural imperialism flows from being a President in this country. Even at State levels we see favour seekers imitate cultural tastes of their leaders. In Kano State for instance, supporters of Kwakwanso took to wearing his trademark red Igbo-type red cap while Lai Muhammed wears the Tinubu-type round-shaped eye glasses – which Tinubu probably also copied from the late Yoruba sage Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
Ironically when a leader is accused of favouring his ethnic or religious group, quite often such accusations will valorize his support among that ethnic group while widening the social distance between him and the rest of the country. I am not trying to defend Buhari but to underline the fact that just as our names make us suspects in whatever we say or do in this country, so do the ethnic and religious identities of whoever is the President in the country also make the person a suspect.
Four, despite the brouhaha about what Obasanjo said and his motive, we need to recognize that things are not going well in this country, especially on the security front. When Buhari came to power, only the Northeast was in serious security situation. Today the entire North is facing an extremely security challenge. But it is a national, rather than Northern problem because of its potential to spiral to other parts of the country or affect the food supply from the region.