Trust some Nigerians to misapprehend the clearest of messages.
Last week, the (Nigerian) Vanguard newspaper published the text of an open letter that Iyabo Obasanjo, former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s first daughter, had written to her father. It is a blistering, unsparing letter, in many ways heartrending and heartbreaking. I predict that future scholars who come to consider the Obasanjo Phenomenon, especially his Presidency, will find the letter a treasure trove for annotations and insights. In fact, the letter is compelling on a number of levels, full of details and anecdotes that provide perhaps the richest intimate details into the psyche of the former president.
The Obasanjo who emerges in his daughter’s letter struck me as an altogether familiar figure. There are, for me, few surprises, save for the daughter’s unflinching marshaling of evidence unknown to most Nigerians in order to sustain her intrepid assessment of her father. She characterizes Mr. Obasanjo as a liar, egoistic, megalomaniacal, duplicitous, heartless, hypocritical, a man driven by envy (of talented and successful people) and mischief, cruel (most of all to members of his immediate family), corrupt, self-absorbed, and opportunistic.
Let’s be sure: there’s no epithet in Ms. Obasanjo’s letter that many Nigerians had not used before now. Many critics as well as erstwhile associates of the former president have described him in exactly those terms, sometimes even in harsher language. The difference, this time, lies in the filial relationship between the accuser and the accused.
It is never a pretty sight when a furious daughter descends on her aged father, in her hands a rap sheet of indictments. It may strike onlookers as mere theater, but something far more profound is usually at play. Those of us who have nothing but the deepest reverence for our parents are bound to find the whole idea and scenario unimaginable, a drama of the most extreme absurdity.
It is a rarity indeed, the kind of public flogging that Ms. Obasanjo inflicted on her father’s naked torso. Enrapt as the public was, a part of us always recoiled in horror and shock.
Yet, I think those who began to berate the daughter, to lecture her on etiquette and propriety, missed the point. I suspect that Iyabo Obasanjo is the first person that would have most wanted NOT to write that letter. Any careful attention to the tone of the first paragraph would establish that here was a reluctant scribe, but one who, ultimately, concluded that she had little or no choice. Ms. Obasanjo’s letter amounted, in three senses at least, to a tremendous labor of love.
First, she wrote, I suggest, with an eye to history, moved by a desire to help unmask a sordid man, a veritable master of the art of self-inflation and self-misrepresentation. Second, she wrote in order to offer Nigerians a much-needed cautionary intervention, to alert us to the toxicity of a moral, social and political climate that has been created and sustained by her father and his ilk. I have often stipulated that, until Nigerians realize how thoroughly messed up and twisted their going culture has become, they can go nowhere but deeper into perdition. In a third (and perhaps most significant) sense, Ms. Iyabo Obasanjo’s letter translates as a cry from the deepest, most affectionate region of a daughter’s heart. It is a daughter’s desperate, last-ditch effort to jar a complacent, depraved father into realizing how puny he’s rendered himself, how starkly naked he is even as he deludes himself that he’s adorned in regal attire.
Ms. Obasanjo began her letter, in a wholly convincing accent, by stating, “It brings me no joy to have to write this…” Then she added: “The only way to reach you may be to make the public aware of some things. As a child well brought up by my long-suffering mother in Yoruba tradition, I have been reluctant to tell the truth about you but as it seems you still continue to delude yourself about the kind of person you are and I think for posterity’s sake it is time to set the records straight.”
She then proceeds, with painstaking rigor, to outline the villainy, mediocrity and bad faith of a man some Nigerians persist—against all logic—to credit with exemplary leadership. As much as she indicts her father, Ms. Iyabo’s more cutting and powerful comments are those directed at Nigerians. She not only painted her father in all his manifest moral ugliness, she also held up a mirror to the rest of us, inviting us to ponder our own self-destructive ethos.
“I don’t blame you for the many atrocities you have been able to get away with,” she writes, and then adds: “Nigerians were your enablers every step of the way. People ultimately get leaders that reflect them.” Toward the end of her letter, she states: “You are the prototypical ‘Mr. Know it all’. You’ve never said, ‘I don’t know’ on any topic, ever. Of course this means you surround yourself with idiots who will agree with you on anything and need you for financial gain and you need them for your insatiable ego. This your attitude is a reflection of the country. It is not certain which came first, your attitude seeping into the country’s psyche or the country accepting your irresponsible behavior for so long.”
And then this, what I consider Iyabo’s most devastating blow, on Mr. Obasanjo as well as the rest of us: “Nigeria has descended into a hellish reality where smart, capable people, to ‘survive’ and have their daily bread, prostrate to imbeciles.”
For my money, this is one of the most penetrating and succinct diagnoses both of Mr. Obasanjo’s brand of “leadership” as well as Nigeria’s broader malaise. It is a sobering account, written in an infuriated daughter’s sharp and direct language. Nigerians would be well served to read the letter with the right attitude. The letter ought not to be seen as fodder for titillation, as a peep into a prominent family’s dysfunction. It is no occasion for entertainment. Nor should it be read as yet another example of the weakening, even abandonment, of our traditional mores. Something far more profound, and chastening, is at stake here.
It’s a pity that some commentators seized on the letter to propound on perceived lapses in Ms. Obasanjo’s cultural formation. Some abominated the whole idea of writing such a biting letter to her father. These critics were content to fix on the woman’s tone, not the substance of her letter. A common refrain: It’s unYoruba or unAfrican for a child to speak in such impertinent language to a parent.
Such reactions point to a frozen conception of culture as well as a cultural attitude that blames the true victim, the weaker party, whilst sparing the villain, the hubristic and powerful. I have written often about this phenomenon. Many Nigerians would insist that you don’t call a governor or president a thief, even when he’s demonstrably one. To call a thieving president or governor by the (proper) name of thief, in the illogical thinking of these Nigerians, is to display unacceptable disrespect for their exalted office. Yet, it hardly ever occurs to these enforcers that respect is earned, nor do they insist that stealing is incompatible with the high, extremely well remunerated office of governor or president. Let them steal all they want, we must address them as “Your Excellency So-and-So” or “Honorable This-and-That.”
In like spirit, those who scold Iyabo Obasanjo for describing the many ways in which her father is deplorable have not taken time to rebuke the former president for failing to treat his family with the love and affection they deserve. No, the daughter must repress her painful memories of a callous, unca
ring father. She must neither say nor do anything to impede her deeply flawed father’s messianic delusions.
Odds are that Iyabo Obasanjo is at peace with herself, after pouring out her soul. No question, she must have her faults, perhaps even grievous ones, but her letter was an act of courage. And when historians reckon up Obasanjo the man and public figure, they will be grateful for this daughter’s illumining, powerful and telling memory capsule.
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