Over the years, observing General Obasanjo traverse the divide between relative obscurity and national notability and national notoriety, in his improbable and repeated rise to the pinnacle of the Nigerian political firmament; metamorphosing as he did so – from inflexible military autocrat to presumed democrat – conveniently switching costumes but not his customs. One got the impression from his conduct and pronouncements that he held very little regard for the people over whom he ruled and even lesser regard for their opinions of him.
In fact, for much of his time astride the saddle of national leadership, his mood towards the people seemed to oscillate between dismissive disdain and outright contempt. He affected by his manner, to have no wish to be loved by them. He conveyed an air towards them which suggested an indifference to whatever, they or posterity, might choose to inscribe – about his tenure in office – in the chronicles of Nigerian history.
Strange as his attitude may seem, it is not atypical; rather it is typical of many African leaders to consider it an integral part of their job descriptions to harbour resentments towards their people, whilst also inflicting indignities upon them as a matter of course. Hardly ever in their actions do they see or feel the need to show consideration for the needs or aspirations of their people; talk less of facilitating their fulfilment. In their perception, the people are nothing more than a useless nuisance and an impediment to the attainment of their self-centred interests.
So given General Obasanjo’s legendary disdain for the people, it is interesting as well as revealing to note, that in his recent, albeit, belated public intervention in the ongoing debate about the current president’s capacity to govern the nation due to his prolonged absence from office, he sought to explain to the people, that he was innocent of any underhandedness in the emergence of the president.
This new found approach is entirely out of keeping with his normal disdain for the people. More so, as he went so far as to echo the voice of many Nigerians, in asking the president to step aside from office in the interest of the nation. Does one detect, one wonders, a softening in his legendary leathery hide? Could the onset of his advancing years be propelling him towards a rapprochement with a people he has long affected to despise? One wonders.
In seeking to absolve himself of blame for the current imbroglio besetting and upsetting our political system, he wishes to persuade Nigerians that he acted in the best interest of the nation when formulating, finalising, and executing his presidential succession plans in 2007. But are we to take his viewpoint at face value? Or are we better advised to consider the possible factors which may have impelled him to act as he did back then? The latter approach would seem more sensible. And from this approach, a number of scenarios rise to the fore for consideration; and from none of them does he emerge with the fragrance of roses.
In the first scenario, it is difficult not to think that had he not been preoccupied during his second term with the pursuit of his extra-constitutional ambition of perpetuating himself in office, he would have had more time to reflect more carefully in order to act more competently with regard to the identity of his successor and the manner of his succession to presidential office. In effect, it seems that he took his eyes off the ball, or worse still, dropped it.
His inattention to this critical aspect of our transitional politics, it can be argued, is what has led the nation to its present preposterous impasse. A position, which is compounded by our political elite’s (elected and appointed) refusal or inability to achieve, maintain, or sustain a simple constitutional balance. A situation which ensures, our perception in the eyes of the rest of the world, as a banana republic; one whose political elite has lost its footing due to its having slipped on political banana peels, placed in its path by its own actions.
The second scenario has him acting simply within the bounds of his competence without a hidden agenda. This is to say, that he could not have done any better in his choice of successor, even if he had tried to. For after all, his oversight of a similar transition process in 1979 produced a not too dissimilar outcome. In fact, it seems and rather ironically too, that those from a ‘command and control’ background in our nation who strayed into the political arena and took control of it, at their point of departure from it, favoured weak or weakened men of a non-threatening disposition as successors. General Obasanjo had his Alhaji Shagari and the current president, whilst General Babangida had his Chief Shonekan.
In the third scenario, he is seen to act to prevent the emergence of, one or the other, of his erstwhile estranged deputy or General Buhari, as president. So he conceives and promotes the candidacy of the current president. By so doing, he effectively dilutes whatever claims his estranged deputy has to the mantle and legacy of the late Major-General Shehu Yar’adua (you can’t be more Yar’adua than a Yar’adua). By the same action, he also succeeded in reducing the appeal of General Buhari; seeing as he hails from the same State as the president. If this was his motivation, then it is clear that he acted out of a sense of personal calculation, rather than in the best interest of the nation.
The final scenario, pictures him giving fulfilment to his long standing disdain for the people. He empowers an individual; whose energies he knows will be channelled, almost exclusively towards the regaining his wellbeing, to the neglect of his presidential duties. If this was the case, then Nigerians would be correct in concluding, that his action was an act of premeditated malice perpetuated against them, in order to plunge, in his view, an ‘ungrateful’ nation into a state of systemic paralysis for opposing his desire to remain in office beyond his constitutional tenure. But he denies any such malicious premeditation in his actions.
Whatever the actual position, it is clear, judging from the current situation in the nation and his intervention that he realises that he committed an error when making his selection in 2007. Whilst one would not presume to tell a man of his advanced years or station in life how to conduct himself, it would seem eminently sensible, in the light of the present impasse, for him to at least acknowledge his error and offer the people a long deserved and unreserved apology.
For in his mental universe, it appears that he sees himself as the nation’s pre-eminent statesman. But for such a mental outlook to have any basis in reality, one of such status should be possessed of humility and be in good standing with his people. Does he? And is he? Nelson Mandela; Sedar Senghor; and Julius Nyerere come to mind as examples – past and present – of statesmen who retain(ed) a common touch and enjoy(ed) the respect of their people.
Were he to emulate their example, he will discover that sorry does not have to be the hardest word; and saying sorry does not have to be the hardest thing.