Obasanjo: Between Image And Reality

Chinua Achebe, Nigeria’s literary giant, a manwhose 1958 magnum opus, Things Fall Apart, a historical novel that considers the effects of colonialisation on Ndigbo, has been translated into over 50 languages, is, of course, no clairvoyant.

But his writings have the uncanny ability of accurately predicting social and political developments in his grossly abused fatherland.

“The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership,” Achebe wrote in his 1983 political commentary. Entitled The Trouble with Nigeria, the 68-page essay was a brief but lucid critique of the politics of Nigeria’s Second Republic (1979-1983).

“There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which is the hallmark of true leadership,” he concluded.

Twenty-four years after this seminal essay was authored, the highly cynical and inept leadership which President Olusegun Obasanjo offered Nigerians in the last eight years, and the resultant state of anomie has, once again, proved Achebe right.

It is sad that as Obasanjo prepares to quit power in a week’s time, feelings of disappointment, if not betrayal, tend to eclipse what ought to be Nigeria’s day in the sun; a historic moment, the first successful transfer of power from one elected government to another.

The huge feeling of disappointment is proportional to the high expectations, Nigerians had in 1999, of what Obasanjo’s presidency would offer.

The first Nigerian military leader to hand over power to a civilian government, Obasanjo was hailed, locally and internationally, as a democrat and a statesman. His imprisonment, on the trumped-up charge of coup plotting, by General Sani Abacha, made him a hero of some sort.

Obasanjo, himself, heightened the expectations through his utterances. “Perhaps I can be a stabilising influence, a conscience for our nation,” he told the New York Times shortly after his release from prison in 1998.

“After my prison experience, I am committed more than ever to the ideals for which I have lived and suffered – democracy, peace, human rights, alleviation of poverty, transparent government, and popular participation,” he also wrote in an article he contributed to the New York Review of Books, in 1998.

As the presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic Party, Obasanjo made big promises too. “We will improve the health service delivery in our hospitals and upgrade teaching hospitals to research centres so that our people will not have to go abroad for treatment any more. My priority will be eradication of poverty. A situation in which 70 percent of Nigerians live on less than $1 day is unacceptable,” he told his audience at a campaign rally in 1999.

Unsurprisingly, he was elected president when the military relinquished power. Obasanjo, as has been noted by many, took office on a platter of popular support and enthusiasm the country hadn’t seen since the first heady days after gaining its independence in 1960. Average citizens showed widespread support for democracy and the new president, something no Nigerian had enjoyed in almost three decades.

In his inaugural presidential speech on May 29, 1999, the man of the moment reiterated his campaign promises, identifying “the crisis in the oil producing areas, food security, education, supply and distribution of petroleum products, law and order, infrastructure, and job creation” as top priorities for his government.

“Nobody, no matter whom, will be allowed to get away with the perpetration of corruption and evil,” he vowed.

Linking corruption to crime, the president said: “The issue of crime requires as much attention as the issue of corruption. All Nigerian citizens and residents in our midst are entitled to the protection of life and property. A determined effort will be made to cut down significantly the incidence of violent crimes.”

To achieve all these, the president promised to restore the confidence of the citizenry in governance.

Eight years after, I do not know how many Nigerians will say, out of conviction, that Obasanjo matched his mountain of promises with observable action.

Locally and internationally, the verdict is that his presidency is a colossal failure and unmitigated disaster. Practically, none of the promises which he made, both as a presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic (PDP) and as president, was fulfilled. This is despite the fact that the country, under his watch, has the wherewithal to fulfil the promises, having been awash with petrol dollars since 2003 when President George Bush and the neo-cons in the White House invaded Iraq and crude oil prices hit the roof.

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