Obasanjo v Jonathan: Cockcrow at dawn

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Obasanjo’s 18-page letter to President Jonathan dated December 2 2013 has been causing expected ripple in the polity. What was the letter really designed to achieve? Is it achieving that? And how do we evaluate the responses of the presidency to the letter?

At this stage several tentative observations could be made:

One, the letter seems to be part of a carefully choreographed chain of events: first there was the walkout on the PDP Convention by some disaffected PDP members, which culminated in the formation of the New PDP (nPDP). Later five of the seven governors in the nPDP decamped to the APC.  This was followed by allegations by Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the Governor of the Central Bank that the NNPC failed to remit a whopping $49.8m to the Federation Account and that he wrote to the President about this and was ignored. Before the furore from this could die down came open criticism of the President by Speaker Aminu Tambuwal who alleged that the President’s body language shows he condones corruption. Obasanjo’s letter caps or adds to this apparently choreographed sequence of events. And the aim appears to be to create a narrative of an incompetent and corruption-condoning Jonathan which will either force him not to run in 2015 or make him unelectable if he chooses to run.

 There is absolutely nothing wrong in opposition groups using apparently choreographed plots such as the above to weaken their opponents. On the contrary, it is the crux of politics and is what some people mean when they say that ‘politics is a game’. Like in any game, there are a number of smaller moves (sub-plots) which when added together will create a storyline or reveal a player’s game plan. Today (December 18, 2013), we read that 37 Members of the House of Representatives have decamped to APC and that former Vice President, Alh Atiku Abubakar might soon follow suit. If we connect the dots from the series of apparently small events mentioned above, a plot, which casts the PDP as a sinking ship is emerging. If PDP has a counter game plan, it has not worked so far and time may be running out.  Obasanjo’s letter, by its overdose of bile, and expected reactions from feature writers (both hired and otherwise), will diminish him without enhancing Jonathan.

Two, Obasanjo’s claim that he wrote the letter in ‘public interest’ is suspect. Since Obasanjo’s antecedents in taking on governments he is not running have been well documented since the publication of the letter, we need not waste time on it here.     Suffice it to add that the impression that Obasanjo sought to create that he was forced to make his letter public because his efforts to offer wise counsels in private were repeatedly rebuffed, is unconvincing. For instance while Obasanjo claimed that “none of the four or more letters” he wrote over the past “past two years or so” elicited an acknowledgement nor (sic) any response”, (p.1) on page 3 of the same letter, he created a contrary impression when he wrote: “Up till two months ago, Mr President, you told me that you have not told anybody that you would contest in 2015. I quickly pointed out to you that the signs and the measures on the ground do not tally with the statement”. Again Obasanjo noted that at “the prompting of the governors from the two sides of the divide and an encouragement from the President”, he spent two nights to intervene in the dispute of the PDP Governors and “I kept you [Jonathan] fully briefed at every stage” (p.6). These suggest that Obasanjo and the President have been working closely, if not in conspiracy.   My suspicion is that the letter has several layers of motives- including a possible fight-back for perceived slights and a certain playing to the gallery perhaps in an attempt to return to the good book of some people in the North who felt he betrayed them. Only Jonathan and Obasanjo know for certain at what point ‘water passed under the bridge’ in their relationship.  We do know however that Obasanjo once reportedly endorsed Sule Lamido for presidency (which was bound not to amuse Jonathan). We also know that the presidency has been taking measures to undermine Obasanjo, including in the South-western (which Obasanjo has not found funny).

Three, as should be expected, an euphoric APC, hoping to benefit from the anti-Jonathan plots, is calling for the resignation or impeachment of the President. This is what any opposition party in its position is expected to do – whether it really means it or believes it is feasible or not. The Presidency on its own is uncreatively raising the hammer of treasonable felony against those proposing such impeachment. Some elements are also proposing that the presidency move very strongly against Obasanjo.

My personal opinion is that the presidency and the PDP have responded very poorly to the political moves by its disaffected members. I had expected a much cleverer counter moves that will not only thwart further exodus from its ranks but also trigger a return of the ‘prodigal sons’ from APC (apart from taking concrete steps to address some of the issues raised in Obasanjo’s letter). I find it baffling that more than two weeks after the Obasanjo letter was written, President Jonathan had not personally made a pointed and strong rebuttal of some of the allegations in the letter –  and if need be, make his own counter allegations, at least to put his opponents on the defence and gain reprieve. I do not believe that it suffices to use aides to defend himself and his administration.  I also find it puzzling that the regime was apparently unable to make any of the former leaders of the country such as Shagari and Gowon to come against Obasanjo’s letter – at least the bile in it – to help defuse its impact.   In the same vein some have wondered why the Presidency has been unable to exploit the known animosities between Obasanjo and both Babangida and Atiku Abubakar to do damage control. The impression is therefore unfortunately created that the presidency does not have any of the former Heads of State/President or their deputies on his side – at least on this issue. This impression unfortunately accentuates Obasanjo’s charges. Presidential aides appear to rely on only two strategies – accusing those opposed to Jonathan of trying to undermine his presidency (as if that is not the day job of opposition political parties anywhere in the world) and threatening sanction against those who will move against the President (as if they forgot we are in a democracy which permits freedom of speech). With all due respect this cannot be called a counter game plan – which will necessarily be made up of little plans (sub plots) that will be linked up to create a counter game plan or storyline.

Four, despite the politics surrounding Obasanjo’s letter (and 2015 is a big part of this), my personal opinion is that it will be a mistake for the opposition groups to believe they can intimidate Jonathan from contesting in 2015. In fact, rather than  make him chicken out, intimidation and a cantankerous environment is likely to make him not only contest in 2015 but may make him dread a life without power – which is often at the root of the quest for life presidency in Africa. A president who feels that vengeance e is all that awaits him if he gives up power is more likely to ‘do a  Samson’ – (i.e. pull down the structures so that everyone goes down with him or remain in power by whatever means as Mugabe does in Zimbabwe). For this, those opposed to Jonathan really have to take a second look at their politics if they truly want to stop him from contesting in 2015 or accept defeat if he runs and is defeated.

Similarly any attempt by the presidency to move too strongly and roughly against Obasanjo will boomerang.  True, Obasano is not the darling of the Yorubas – just as Abiola was not. Yet any perceived ethnic slight if Obasanjo is hounded will not only boomerang across the country and beyond but will also bring back the triumphal memory of the fight by NADECO and Afenifere over June 12. Whether we like him or not, Obasanjo has loyalists across critical networks in and out of the country. He is a former President and Head of State, who deserves to be treated with respect – despite his shortcomings.  It is part of statesmanship for any regime to know how to manage Obasanjo and the ‘usual suspects’ – the likes of Wole Soyinka, Balarabe Musa, Olisa Agbakoba, Femi Falana and others. These are individuals with strong anti-establishment credentials who thrive in picking fights with governments and are unafraid of the consequences of such fights. Like medical conditions such as High Blood Pressure or Diabetes, these individuals, if not properly managed, are capable of creating events that could be fatal for any regime.

Five, Obasanjo has made a career of positioning himself at the cusp of history, such that whenever he comes out very strongly against regimes like this, something untoward happens – from the time he was Minister of Works under Gowon and criticised the regime (and Gowon was overthrown shortly afterwards) to moving against Yaradua (leading to the doctrine of necessity that made Goodluck Jonathan Acting President).  Following from this, my main concern with Obasanjo’s letter is whether he knows something the rest of us don’t know about?

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