Obasanjo: Beyond the Demonisation

by Jideofor Adibe

Another reason why every one seems to be against Obasanjo is his style and love of ‘fearless’ men/women who use ‘garrison commander’ tactics. The Igbos for instance are among the ethnic groups that complained bitterest against his regime for marginalisation and high-handedness. This is in spite of the fact that, as far as the ethnic arithmetic of ‘who gets what’, goes, they did rather well under him. For instance, at a point in the regime, the Governor of the Central Bank, Finance Minister and Chief economic Adviser to the president were all Igbos, and one of his closest aides was an Igbo! He also empowered a number of other Igbos (whether the appointments benefited the Igbos as an ethnic group is irrelevant here). Obasanjo as a matter of fact empowered individuals from across the ethnic divide – from plum jobs to contract awards. A more politically savvy person, or one not obsessed with having a certain image, could have turned these into constituencies of support.

Despite the ‘Igbo empowerment’ for instance, few Igbos (or other ethnic nationalities for that matter), have kind things to say about him, not least because of the mayhem he was suspected to have encouraged in Anambra state. Obasanjo’s admiration of men and women with “garrison commander” mentality, helped to undermine whatever empowerment he gave various ethnic groups. Besides the well known excesses of EFCC under Nuhu Ribadu and El Rufai’s senseless demolitions in Abuja, there was also the extra legal activity of Professor Dora Akunyili, who, in my opinion, is wrongly seen as heroine in some quarters for fighting drug adulteration using“muscle man” methods. While fighting drug fake drugs must be encouraged (fake drugs is also a big problem in the UK but is fought using intelligence and moles), Mrs Akunyili was applauded for using such a crude and thoughtless method as closing an entire market for months, depriving in the process many honest traders of the chance to earn honest livelihood to care for their families and train their children in schools. Was there any relationship between that primitive method used in fighting a worthy cause and an upsurge in crime in Onitsha? This will be a good matter for research. The traders’ ‘sin’ was that they failed to fish out the fake drug traders (as if it was the traders’ job to do so and she had never heard that governments elsewhere use paid moles for the job). Could Prof Akunyili have tried such in any civilised country? Can the police in any civilised society close an entire street for months because drug dealers live there and the residents of the street are unable to hand over the culprits? I feel it is contradictory that people would accuse Obasanjo of disobeying the courts while applauding the likes of Nuhu Ribadu, El Rufai and Dora Akunyili, who, while they did some good, got carried away by the protection offered by a leader that hugged “tough people”. Therefore, the numerous ‘celebrity’ functionaries created by Obasanjo hurt so many innocent people and are part of the reasons why he is seen as a hated figure across the ethnic divide.

No regime in our political history has empowered women as much as Obasanjo has done, but how many women have stood up to defend him against the barrage of criticisms he faces? Again, I believe this is again down to Obasanjo’s style and proclivities, his penchant for empowering and disempowering individuals, the ubiquitous activities of the “celebrity” functionaries and his lack of skills or unwillingness to deliberately cultivate a constituency of support. Obasanjo seems to want to be feared rather than respected. Like Zik, he seemed to fear that deliberately creating a constituency of support would detract from his nationalistic credentials. The consequence is that one way or the other, everyone and every group felt Obasanjo’s tough actions and hated him for that.

History will be kind on Obasanjo

Despite Obasanjo’s many failings, I believe history will judge him kindly. When the current anti-Obasanjo sentiment settles (and I believe it will settle within the next two years), people will begin to deconstruct him. First, no one will take away the fact that he followed a programme of transition enunciated by Murtala Mohammed and was one of the first military regimes in Africa to willingly give up power. The credit for that belongs to Obasanjo, not Murtala Mohammed, because as the experiences with Gowon and Babangida showed, having a transition programme does not necessarily mean that power will eventually be handed over, or that the goal post will not be changed numerous times. No one therefore can be certain that Murtala Mohamed would have handed over power to civilians had he lived.

Obasanjo also left an enduring legacy in the banking sector reform and in communication (internet and mobile phone penetration). The credit for these successes, which we now take for granted, should be given to him just as the failures of other sectors are rightly attributed to him.

If the Umar Yar’Adua’s regime does well, the credit must also be partly given to Obasanjo for his wisdom in fishing out Umar Yar’Adua out from his obscurity and guided him though his apparent initial fear of the responsibilities inherent in the job. On the other hand, if Yar’Adua’s regime remains wobbly or continues with its present indecisions and self-reversals, people will begin to miss a decisive Obasanjo, who is not afraid to back policies he believes in, even unpopular ones. Leadership after is more of a vision contest, not a popularity contest. So head or tail, Obasanjo will win when compared with the Yar’Adua regime.

While the third term plot would always remain a blithe on his CV, he could, with time, claim that he decided to overlook the massive imperfections in the conduct of the April polls because he was determined to break the jinx of civilian-to-civilian transitions in our politics. If he successfully sells the idea, with time, a description of Obasanjo as the founder of modern Nigeria, which currently elicit sneers and mock laughter, may no longer be seen as a misnomer.

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