In Defence Of Obasanjo

Nigerians are harsh judges and critics. With some justification they reserve their harshest criticism for their governments and public leaders. Thanks to decades of misrule and corrupt incompetence, the stock and respect for public officials has fallen to rock bottom. Nigerians may have become so accustomed to bad governance that they have blinded themselves to the positives of the last government. In their reflective lacerating criticism the government of the immediate past President Olusegun Obasanjo has taken a battering in public opinion and has been compared to the worst regimes in Nigeria’s history. The test of a government’s achievements (or lack thereof) should be whether it left the country in a better position than that in which it found it. The answer to this question in the case of the Obasanjo government is “yes”. This article seeks to show that the achievements of the Obasanjo government in some key areas have been ignored.

International standing

After years of brutal and repressive military dictatorship under General Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s name was mud in international circles. Nigeria had been suspended from the Commonwealth and had a visa embargo placed on members of its government. The U.S., U.N., Britain and Amnesty International all frequently issued damning condemnations of the misrule and corruption in Nigeria, its gross human rights abuses and the engagement of many of its citizens in international drug trafficking. When Nigeria’s last military ruler General Abdulsalam Abubakar announced plans to return the country to civilian democratic rule in 1998, another former military ruler (General Ibrahim Babangida) stated that the new ruler had to be someone who understood the military and who could “do business” with it. Obasanjo certainly fit the bill. Obasanjo’s major rival as Presidential candidate of the PDP was the erudite Alex Ekwueme. One commentator metaphorically referred to the contrasting background and temperament of the two men by describing Ekwueme as a chauffeur driver and Obasanjo as a truck driver. He concluded by stating that Nigeria needs a truck driver to steer it.

When the “truck driver” Obasanjo came to power some western diplomats privately conceded that he was the best they could hope for in the circumstances. Like Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Obasanjo was a Head of State more popular and respected abroad than in his own country. He had cultivated an image as an international statesman with the pivotal mediating role he played as one of the Commonwealth’s “Eminent Persons” group who negotiated the release of Nelson Mandela. He was the first (and at that time only) Nigerian leader to have voluntarily relinquished power and handed it over to an elected leader. He had also at one point also been a leading candidate to become UN Secretary-General. These feats were not lost on the international community. His personal standing with world leaders and the prestige of his economic team helped Nigeria to reschedule and repay its Paris club debt, and in the process Nigeria became the first African country to repay its Paris club debt. Between 1979 and 1999 Nigeria had accumulated external debts of over $30 billion. That $30 billion debt which took two decades to accumulate has been reduced to under $5 billion in the space of eight years under Obasanjo.

The Army

Decades of military coups and misrule ensured that Obasanjo inherited the most thoroughly politicized army in the world. Some elements of the army were viewed as little more than armed political parties that could threaten the existence of any civilian government. Thus when in 1999, Obasanjo became Nigeria’s first democratic President for 15 years, the fear was that it would only be a matter of time before the army found an excuse to abandon the barracks for another government rescue operation. In his outgoing speech in 1993, the then Chief of Army Staff Lt-General Salihu Ibrahim revealed how deep the rot was. Describing the Nigerian army as “an army of anything goes”, Ibrahim added:

“I hold the strong view that any military organization that intends to remain professional and relevant to its calling ,has no business meddling in the political affairs of the country…It is an open secret that some officers openly preferred political appointments to regimental appointments, no matter the relevance of such appointments to their careers…we became an army where subordinate officers would not only be contemptuous of their superiors ,but would exhibit total disregard to legitimate instructions by such superiors…We created such a situation whereby we were operating mini-armies within the larger Nigerian army.”

The fear and threat of a military coup was very real, as since 1966, the military had tolerated civilian rule for only 4 years, and busied themselves with Machiavellian coups and counter-coups. These coups have almost always been carried out by the same group of soldiers. The young NCOs and Lieutenants that blasted Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi from power in 1966 became Colonels that overthrew his successor General Gowon in 1975, and they became the Brigadiers and Major-Generals that overthrew President Shagari on the last day of 1983. There was a genuine need to restructure and de-politicize the army and the World Bank had at one stage mooted a radical an ambitious plan to retire all officers above the rank of Major. However no one was prepared to undertake a dangerous operation like a mass demobilization in the army which was regarded as untouchable. General Murtala Muhammed had after all been assassinated by officers opposed to his demobilization plans.

Within Obasanjo’s first month in power in 1999, the government drew up a list of all armed forces officers that had served in military governments for 6 months or more. All such officers (numbering over 100) were compulsorily retired. The retirements swept out a number of immensely powerful and wealthy officers who could have been sources of future political discontent and coup plots. The retired political officers included Major-General Patrick Aziza (who chaired the ‘coup’ tribunal that convicted Obasanjo and Shehu Musa Yar’Adua in 1995) and the popular and powerful former Military Governor of Lagos Brigadier Mohammed Marwa. The 8 year period that Obasanjo governed in (1999-2007) is the longest period of time in Nigeria’s history without a military coup. It is no coincidence that a coup failed to occur in the absence of the retired political officers. Under Obasanjo the army was commanded by apolitical professional officers such as General Martin Luther Agwai, who was recently moved to command the UN force in Darfur.

Obasanjo also broke the northern stranglehold on leadership of the army. Since the overthrow of General Gowon in 1975, there have been 16 Chiefs of Army Staff. All but 3 of these 16 have been northerners. The three southerners to hold the post (Lt-General Alani Akinrinade, General Alexander Ogomudia and General Andrew Owoye Azazi) were all appointed by Obasanjo.

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