Obasanjo and the Quest for Statesmanship

by Akintokunbo A Adejumo

It was sometime in May 1999 that I dared venture to visit my country, Nigeria, after over nine years in the UK. Olusegun Obasanjo, ex-military Head of State, retired Army general and Civil War hero, convicted of treason and incarcerated, nearly executed by the detested dictator, now dead, Sanni Abacha, and brought out of incarceration and nominated as the Presidential Candidate of the People’s Democratic Party, and has now won the Presidential election to become Nigeria’s President being sworn in this May 1999, to flag off a prosperous era for the so called 4th Republic and democratic dispensation.

I was full of joy and hope. Obasanjo had ruled Nigeria over twenty four years before as a military head of state. He is widely believed to be a much disciplined soldier; a nationalist to the core. Even at the airport that humid day, the customs and immigration officers, noting my long absence from the country, were full of smiles and telling all visitors that Nigeria has changed already, with a new democratic government, and that this would no longer be an experiment in democracy as we have had, but this is the real, sustained thing. They projected to me, from their actions that day a country and a people full of hope, ready for change. I could almost kiss the immigration, customs, NDLEA and police officers at the airport that day.

I was elated and optimistic. On Inauguration Day, as I watched on national TV, tears welled up in my eyes. I was tearful to see Obasanjo sworn in, for the second time in Nigeria, as the leader of this great nation. Another reason why I believed that perhaps, Nigeria’s Messiah has come is the fact that Obasanjo, in the history of the world (correct me if I have erred) has become only the second man to serve two non-consecutive terms as president of any country; Grover Cleveland served as President of the USA twice, 1885 to 1889 and then again from 1893 to 1897, thus become the 22nd and 24th president of the US.

Grover Cleveland only had 4 years before he served a second term; Obasanjo had 20 years in between and was on the brink of death by execution. I was convinced God had deliberately spared Obasanjo’s life for Nigeria, and has chosen him a second time to lead this country to greatness. Or at least, God has given him a second chance to make good and correct the mistakes he made when he was military ruler 20 years before. I was convinced he would do well; put Nigeria on the right path, clean up as much as he could of corruption and indiscipline and generally effect the desired change. If anybody had told me that by 2013, Nigerians would be still cursing their leaders and Obasanjo amongst them, I would have bet a million dollars against it.

But there we are! After eight years of Obasanjo (and he even tried to amend the Constitution to get a Third Term, a typically sit-tight African leader syndrome) and fourteen years later, many right-thinking and truly patriotic Nigerians are shaking their heads in absolute disgust, helplessness, frustration and anger at the devastation, degradation, deprivation and dearth of progress that have been visited upon us in that short space of time. Like I always like to quip and paraphrase the late Malcolm X, “Nigerians did not land on Aso Rock (the seat of power in Nigeria), Aso Rock landed on us”.

I don’t of course need to go over our travails in 14 short years. It was more of a horror story. How such terrible tragedy could be visited on a people of 150 million souls is beyond me? Even after ten years, I was still of the opinion that our democracy should be given a chance – I still opine this – as it is still a nascent democracy. The eternal optimist in me kept subduing the fatalistic and realistic pessimist in me. Democracy has become a nightmare for most of us, and unfortunately, it was mostly of our own making. The euphoria over Nigeria’s test in democracy is over. Looking towards another general election in 2015, reality is once again at our doorstep with the unsettling questions about our future.

Why is our nation, home to brilliant minds, rich traditions, rich in natural and mineral resources and centuries of wisdom, culture and morality, withering in poverty while most other nations rapidly move ahead of us? Aren’t the nation, drifting aimlessly, without direction or vision and tottering on the edge of fragmentation and anarchy? Why are our current systems, economic, political and social, limiting us in this era of intense global competition among nations?

Should we, the people of Nigeria, complacently continue to watch while brazen official corruption, political instability, and rudderless administration in the states, flagrant wastefulness, tribalism, insecurity of life, property and food, maladministration and administrative lapses, overloaded and corrupt judiciary and unwieldy and dishonest civil service, and unbelievable personal greed demoralise our society and negate the advances, if any, we have made so far? Why have we been getting a raw deal from our various governments over a very long period of our existence as a nation?

Like all nations, Nigeria too has changed. Unfortunately, the motherland that we see today is not what we desired our country to be. Much of the change, especially over the last two decades, has caused grave concern amongst a lot of us, to the extent of desperation and sadness. However, haven’t we haplessly and helplessly watched on, either choosing to compromise our integrity or insulating ourselves from the forces that threaten our society? There is hope… We know from the testimonies and occasional glimpses of hope from people who are fighting independent battles to correct the system.

So when the Balogun of Owu, Obasanjo went on the attack and came out to mention names; Atiku, Tinubu, Alamieyeseigha, Buhari (Salihu), Dariye, and others that he alleged have failed Nigeria, I had to again revisit my perceptions of this enigmatic despot. Are Nigerians wrong about this man, Obasanjo? What will he be remembered by in say, ten years’ time? Will Obasanjo go down in the history of Nigeria as a statesman?

Does he meet the criteria for statesmanship, which is the ability, qualifications, or practice of a statesman; wisdom and skill in the management of public affairs? Is he a statesman, defined as 1, a political leader whose wisdom, integrity, etc., win great respect, and 2, a person active and influential in the formulation of high government policy, such as a cabinet member, and 3, a male political leader regarded as a disinterested promoter of the public good, and 4, a politician, diplomat or other notable public figure that has had a long and respected career at the national or international level?

At first I thought Obasanjo was attempting to exonerate and absolve himself from the disaster that Nigeria has become, as he has variously done in the past; but on closer look, it was as close as he could get to being contrite and expressing guilt and regret for his own personal failures as ruler of this country. But he had to mention those people, too. And believe me, all of the people he mentioned are much worse than OBJ, and will be worse if they ever get to rule this country.

OBJ has exposed some (only 0.01%) of them. It remains about 99.99 % to be identified. However, what OBJ should be saying now is what we can do about them, not what they have done to us. We know what they have done to us. He should tell us, in his infinite wisdom and experience, which I acknowledge, what we can do about these thieves and hypocrites and how we should go about dealing with them? Let him tell us what he himself can do about them. We know what he did, or did not do about them unsuccessfully when he still had the power. Maybe he can now come up with better ideas with the benefit of hindsight and absence of any political hindrance.

It would have been more interesting, for example, if he exposes who killed his Attorney General, Chief Bola Ige.

Maybe even more interesting, if he has the courage to tell us how much involved he was in the looting of the treasury under his watch. Obasanjo has still not answered a lot of questions for Nigerians – the trillions that have disappeared in the independent power projects; the railway line projects, Halliburton, to mention a few. Obasanjo himself is still largely seen as a corrupt leader with oil revenues going missing from the federation account and allegations of paying out over $50bn on power sector to non-existent companies.

He must know all these things! As the Executive President on Nigeria for eight years, the buck must have stopped at his desk. If the buck did not stop at his desk, then he must not and cannot make any claim to Statesmanship.

He was notorious for supporting and facilitating many illegal executive actions and ignoring judgements against himself and his government including judgements delivered by the Supreme Court. Examples included the illegal withholding of funds due to Lagos State Local Governments for more than 2 years after the Supreme Court ordered its immediate release. He also supported the illegal impeachment of several corrupted state governors which the Supreme Court also reversed.

He was not able to trickle down reforms and development effective to states and local government level, even in the states controlled by his party. The states and local governments are still riddled with corrupt officials. Also, he failed to solve police and security issues in the country. He also didn’t provide uninterrupted power supply for Nigerians. (Source: Wikipedia)

Some schools of thought believe that Obasanjo twice had the chance to turn Nigeria round and twice, he failed woefully and miserably. Aside for his own failings in office, he made sure that on two occasions he handed over to lacklustre and mediocre successors; Shehu Shagari and Yar Adua/Jonathan. Of Nigeria’s 53 years of independence, Obasanjo ruled for 11 years, that is 20% and when you add the years that those that Obasanjo handed over to, we will have total of 22 years (Shagari, 4 years; YarAdua, 3 years; Goodluck , 3 years and counting) that Obasanjo his directly and indirectly affected and impacted, negatively, on the fortune of Nigeria (Source: Eric Ayoola). So when Obasanjo laments the situation of Nigeria and bemoans the utter dearth of leadership qualities amongst those that attain office, I am always amazed at his effrontery and audacity and apparent lack of remorse and culpability. We know how he unashamedly helped rigged his party, PDP, into power in the South West states in 2003 and 2007, despite him knowing the candidates then were mostly thieves and mediocre.

In fairness to Obasanjo, while a lot was said against his civilian regimes failures but not much were emphasised on the state of things before he took over. In fact, many institutes and structures were left degraded or abandoned. Things like power, railway, national shipping line, and national airways were starved of investment for twenty years and eventually collapsed. On the plus side, several governors too were removed for corruption, though, some judges reversed some decision. And he was able to attract technocrats and Nigerian expatriates to his administration. They were able to plan various reforms in the country administration. They made effective contribution to the country economic planning and development. His administration had now established future planning and development for the country for the next five years.

The international community must have realized his vast skills and talent and decided to exploit them. Thus Obasanjo was and is still being appointed or nominated into one international service after the other since 1979. The list is as long as my arm.

These and many others have helped to raise the stature of Olusegun Obasanjo above that of any other living Nigerian. In 1992 he was even in the race for the position of Secretary General of the United Nations.

“It was generally believed that his prison experience made him a new creature. First, he saw first-hand what the phrase: man’s inhumanity to man truly means. Second, he said was drawn closer to God; he became truly convinced of the need for a true democracy and saw the tragedy of military rule”. (Wikipedia)

“His prison experience though short-lived because of the death of his jailer has sometimes been likened to that of South Africa’s most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela. Obasanjo and Mandela stand out today as two distinguished African democrats who were jailed for unjust causes, rescued by divine providence and still actively involved in chasing a past greatness for Africa”. (Wikipedia)

So, one can see that with all these strange mixture of accolades, honours, awards, successes, achievements and under-achievements, let-downs, disappointments, failures, venality, insensitivity, hypocrisy, where can we place Obasanjo in the history of Nigeria? The man remains an enigma to many of his own people. One thing is that everything you throw at him bounces off him. He is never concerned about anything Nigerians accuse him off. He takes it in his stride and never replies to most allegations of corruption and mismanagement against him. So we may never know how great or limited he is; and that will be a great disservice to himself.

Will history and Nigerians be kind to him? I honestly do not know. Sometimes, I really do pity him. Maybe he ruled the wrong country. Maybe the country was not ready for him; but twice, or even thrice? How did he get derailed with all his convictions mentioned above? Was he corrupt despite his vehement and indignant denial during his interview with BBC’s Hard Talk a few years ago?

Maybe the country Nigeria, as some people now postulate, is actually ungovernable and despite Obasanjo trying his best, his best was not enough, and could never have been enough.

Obasanjo remains an enigma, perhaps to his own disadvantage and loss.

Is he a Nigerian Statesman despite the poverty, the tortures, the disappointment, the deaths, the sufferings, the corruption, the mismanagement, the degradation, the depravity, the evil, that he and his cohorts, acolytes, followers, favourites both in the military and in his politics have visited upon his own people, Nigerians?

Is he worthy to be even thought of as an African or World Statesman?

I always seek to tell the Truth always, but in the case of Obasanjo, I really don’t know the Truth.

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