Obasanjo’s recent 16-page letter to Buhari, which sounds more like a state-of-the nation address, has, as expected, dominated the deadlines since it was delivered on Sunday, January 20, 2019. Titled, ‘Points for Concern’, the 4,018-word commentary was a bare-knuckled critique of the Buhari government on sundry grounds, including accusations that his government plans to use state institutions to rig the forthcoming elections. Obasanjo also accused Buhari of undermining the country’s democratic process and returning the country to the Abacha era. Though Buhari once claimed that Abacha was a hero, most Nigerians regard him as the poster boy of Nigerian authoritarianism and unbridled corruption. Obasanjo’s recent 16-page letter was followed by an interview with the BBC Yoruba Service in which he was quoted as saying that “Buhari is sick in the spirit, body and soul. Let’s beg him to go and rest. He has tried his best. Let’s give chance to another person”.
On January 28 2018, Obasanjo wrote a 14-page letter to Buhari entitled ‘The way Out: A Clarion call for Coalition of Nigeria Movement’, in which, in a more cautious use of language, he advised Buhari not to go for a second term – mentioning what he alleged were his weaknesses in the areas of handling the economy, foreign policy and his poor understanding of the “dynamics of internal politics”. The government, in a measured response sought not to confront Obasanjo, hoping that the strategy would mollify the Ota farmer. Obasanjo remained unrelenting in his criticisms. In May 2018, Buhari apparently decided to accept Obasanjo’s political ‘roforofo’ challenge. Speaking while receiving members of the Buhari Support Organization led by the Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Customs Service, Col. Hameed Ali (retired) at the State House on Tuesday, May 22 2018, Buhari accused Obasanjo (without mentioning his name) of spending $16bn in the power sector without anything to show for it. He was quoted by ThisDay of May 23 2018 as saying: “You know the rail was killed and one of the former heads of state between [sic] that time was bragging that he spent more than $16 billion, not naira, on power. Where is the power? Where is the power? And now, we have to pay the debt.”
Since then, the government has not backed down from the Obasanjo challenge. And Obasanjo himself does not duck a fight. Obasanjo’s recent bombshells on Buhari are therefore merely a continuation of the dogfight between him and the Buhari government which started in January 2018 – exactly a year ago.
There are a number of observations in the on-going political Cold War between the two retired Generals.
One, Obasanjo embodies extreme contradictions. His critics are right that his messages are often tainted, because he is equally, if not more guilty of most of the allegations he levels against other leaders he is up against. For instance as President he declared the 2007 presidential election a ‘do-or-die-affair’ for his party, the PDP, and consequently turned the elections into a shambles, a daylight heist. This obviously makes him appear like a hypocrite when he accused Buhari of planning to rig the forthcoming election. He also blatantly used the EFCC and INEC to undermine our democracy – just as he accused Buhari of doing.
People who rely on the above to argue that as a tainted messenger Obasanjo has no moral right to intervene in the affairs of the country miss the point. No one judges any weather only by its inclement side. Despite Obasanjo’s obvious shortcomings, and what one columnist called his “lack of grace”, he remains, in my opinion the best the country has ever produced. Apart from Obasanjo every other President the country has produced since the 1999 has been primarily defined by his ethnic or regional base. Obasanjo, far from being perfect (both as a leader and as a person) comes very close to being one Nigerian who transcends the country’s traditional fault lines. Others are largely local and regional champions – including the wanna-be national leaders who feel they make themselves big by using irreverent words to condemn his interventions. Even the Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, an otherwise decent intellectual who showed a lot of promise as Acting President, has quickly retreated into the Yoruba ethnic cocoon after being on the national stage for less than four years. In contrast, Obasanjo has been on the national stage since the 1970s and no one has been able to tar him with ethnic or regional brush.
Apart from being a national institution (very few of our current political leaders pass that smell test, in my opinion), Obasanjo is a trail blazer in many respects: As a military Head of State he handed over power to elected civilians in 1979 at a time when such was a rarity in Africa. He became an instant global statesman by that singular action and has been able to leverage on it to grow even bigger in global stature. Obasanjo’s think-tank – the Obasanjo Leadership Forum – which he set up after his first coming – was one of the first think-tanks set up by any former African leader. Obasanjo has also probably written more books than any other African leader – and remains active and in high demand both locally and globally – as a mediator in regional conflicts – despite his age and shortcomings at home. With the possible exception of Babangida, we are yet to produce another President or Head of State as much fascinated by ideas as Obasanjo. At the age of over 80, he secured a PhD and remains very active not only in domestic conversations but also on the international scene. While there were certainly impunities in Obasanjo’s government as a civilian President, he assembled a crack team of capable technocrats in his government and left monumental legacies– from lifting university lecturers from abject penury with a quantum salary increase to the introduction of National Health Insurance scheme, the GSM, encouraging internet penetration, banking reforms, securing debt relief for the country to creating the ETF (now TETFUND). Obasanjo’s footprints are simply everywhere in several aspects of our national life. His critics simply cannot run away from that reality.
Two, those who argue that Obasanjo should imitate the likes of Gowon, Abdulsalam Abubakar and other past leaders who seldom criticise the governments of the day – also miss the point. The fact is that in fragile states like ours, where the institutions are manifestly weak and subjected to the whims and caprices of the strongman, we need voices that are courageous and credible enough to stand up to the strongman in power. The truth is that when Obasanjo criticizes a government of the day, he knows the consequences – the government can come after his interests and will unleash its attack dogs to cut him down to size. Not all former leaders want such hassles in their retirement. Obasanjo, despite his occasional excesses, intervenes to the delight of citizens who are already cowed. Unfortunately, in our type of societies, institutions that should stand up to the strongman are themselves subordinated to the whims of the strongman and his cabal. Obasanjo’s interventions are therefore akin to the UN’s doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), often used to justify the intervention of the international community in the internal affairs of some countries.
Three, as often happens with Obasanjo’s interventions, his recent bombshell has not only set the government into a panic mode but has also forced more intense national conversations on the issues he raised in both his 16-page letter and the BBC Yoruba Service interview. Obasanjo has a big and powerful voice nationally and internationally – whether one likes him or not. He is also a master of timing. Thanks to his intervention, we are likely to see a renewed national and international focus on the election and its processes, especially against the allegation of plans to rig it.
Four, Obasanjo’s interventions, even if animated by less than altruistic motives, and even if laced here and there with exaggerations and outright falsehoods, tap on popular sentiments, and for this, should be a good barometer for the government on street perceptions of its performance. This point is very crucial given that successive governments are often barricaded by political jobbers and opportunistic aides, who regale in lying to the emperor of his sartorial splendour, when in fact, others are actually laughing at the emperor for being without clothes.
Five, critics have mocked Obasanjo for double-speak – for instance for describing Atiku Abubakar in unspeakable terms and later ‘swallowing his vomit’ to endorse him for President, and for constantly propping up governments and bringing them down. Here Obasanjo is guilty as charged. However Tinubu, El-Rufai and several supporters of Buhari had also said worse things about Buhari that they now promote and market as the best thing that has happened to the country since the invention of mobile phone and egusi soup. Let us also not forget that voters elect a candidate and later vote out the same candidate. It is human nature to change as circumstances change.