Obasanjo: Beyond the Demonisation

It is now common to see Obasanjo’s eight year-rule (May 1999 – May 2007) as representing everything that is evil in Nigerian political history. There is usually an erroneous assumption that things were better when Obasanjo came to power in 1999. For some, Obasanjo epitomised a betrayal of hope, what with the enormous revenues earned from oil under his watch, and the paradoxical increase in destitution, unemployment and insecurity of life and property under his regime.

It is possible to identify at least five strands of criticisms: The remnants of the Nigerian left criticise him for his wholesale embrace of market economics – typified in his privatisation programmes (and the redundancies and corruption they spurned) and other policies that were couched in the brand of economics usually espoused by the Bretton Woods institutions. Those who consider themselves urbane or morally-driven pick quarrels with his personal style (including his alleged overflowing libido and countless concubines), his undeniable garrulity (‘roforofo’ – a la Reuben Abati), his obvious issues with manners, his apparent hypocrisy in a number of issues such as fighting corruption and his grand-father-knows-it-all stance on many issues. There are also those who criticise Obasanjo from ethno perspective. For this class of critics, Obasanjo was out to “undo” or “marginalise” their “people”, and each group can reel out many instances of this, or what they would call deliberate acts of denial of “federal presence” in their ethnic enclave under his regime. Obasanjo is equally criticised by the religious right: the Christians criticise him for lacking the balls to stop the introduction of Sharia in some Northern states while some Muslims accuse him of deliberate policies to undermine their religion such as the building of a Chapel at Aso Rock and the removal of the Islamic inscriptions on the Naira notes. There are equally those who criticise him for not living up to the Obasanjo myth – a man who, for a greater part of the last 30 years, was regarded as ascetic, frugal, incorruptible and ultranationalist.

In many ways therefore, there is a room for everyone to find an angle to take a swipe at Obasanjo. Criticisms, sometimes very harsh ones, come with the territory of politics and public service, and are typified in the saying that politics is the “art of the possible”. Those who cannot take the heat are usually counselled to stay away from the kitchen.

But I feel that criticisms of Obasanjo are grossly overdone, without due recognition for his achievements. I believe that despite Obasanjo’s obvious failures and personal weaknesses, he remains the greatest Nigerian leader to date. He remains the only leader that has recorded irreversible developmental achievements – in banking reforms and in the uptake of mobile phones and internet penetration. Is there any developmental achievement from previous Nigerian regimes that had been sustained? Curiously while the numerous failures of the regime are rightly attributed directly to Obasanjo, his obvious successes are attributed to others – Professor Charles Soludo (banking reforms) and inevitable invisible hand of the globalisation process (internet and mobile phones penetration). There is no doubt that his regime failed in the provision of infrastructure, power, jobs, and in poverty alleviation. If the regime of Umaru Yar’Adua can record just one irreversible change in any sector (energy, transport, education etc) the nation will be irreversibly moving forward. Development after all is a continuous and incremental process, and part of the Nigerian tragedy is that we have been unable to record irreversible successes in any area (besides the aforementioned two under Obasanjo). Most regimes that are considered successful in many parts of the world often leave their marks in one or two areas. For instance, in the UK, many people consider Tony Blair as a successful Prime Minister despite his unpopular decisions such as the war on Iraq and numerous policy failures such as in the reform of the National Health Service, education and arresting the increasing wave of gun-crimes. He is regarded as successful largely because the economy boomed under his watch. Though many people put the success of the economy down to the then Chancellor Gordon Brown, the credit rightly goes to Tony Blair because he provided the enabling political environment. It will generally be deemed myopic to judge any weather only by its sunny or inclement side. A successful general is not one who never suffered any defeat but one who registered at least one strategic success.

System Dynamics

The harshest critics appear to be those who judge Obasanjo by the man he was, or was perceived to be in his first coming, in 1976-1979. At that time, he stuck to the transition programme of the slain Murtala Mohammed and handed power to an elected civilian government – a rarity in those days. Embedded in that action was a man who could be relied upon, and had a sense of purpose. So with Obasanjo infamous for not keeping his words, and for using and abandoning friends during his second coming, what really happened?

Part of the answer could be found in ‘system dynamics’ – every system operates in a given way and will often throw up people who will conform to its tenets or try to ‘swallow’ those who try to change it too quickly. Chinua Achebe in his powerful but less recognised novel, No Longer At Ease gave an insight into this phenomenon in the ‘Obi Okonkwo complex’. The novel’s main character, Obi Okonkwo, was his own man at a time in Igboland when the voice of the community and the elders was regarded as sacrosanct. First, they sent him to England to study Law so that he would come back to handle their land cases. He defied his people and read English. On his return, when the villagers amassed at the airport to receive him (most of them wearing suits and ties in the brazen sun), they expected to see a man clad in the best suit England could offer. But Obi Okonkwo disappointedly showed up wearing a simple shirt. He was to prove an even greater disappointment at a reception organised in his honour, for while the secretary of the town union reeled out the “English that filled the mouth”, Obi Okonkwo, who was expected to thrill them with the type of bombastic English they never heard of before (after all he had just come back from England!), spoke only the “is and was” type of simple English. Above all, Obi Okonkwo went against the ingrained custom of his people and married an ‘osu’ –a religious outcast. As if these were not enough, he refused to use his senior position in the civil service to help people from his town to get jobs in the service (which was then a common practice among the ethnic unions in the colonial enclaves and new townships) and instead distanced himself from the community. Yet, despite his idealisms, hatred of bribery and corruption and proving beyond doubt that he was his own man, Obi Okonkwo was compelled by the exigencies of survival imperatives and living up to societal expectations to take bribe – and was caught! Some people have used this story to challenge the conclusions in Achebe’s later work The Trouble With Nigeria that the problem with Nigeria is leadership, rather than the system.

So what has this got to do with Obasanjo? This means that the Obasanjo of 1976-1978 could not possibly be the Obasanjo of 1999-2007 because the system has changed – the values, ethos, political culture and people’s orientation have changed from what they were in 1976-1979 and Obasanjo, as a product of his environment unwittingly had to change to adapt to the demands and expectations of the new system. This is not an excuse for his suspected avarice while in office but an explanation of why it probably happened.

One of the first of these changes Obasanjo felt he had to make to adapt to the new systemic mores and expectations was with respect to his looks and sartorial tastes. Obasanjo had always been known and respected by many for his ascetic and spartanic clothes and life style (remember the photographs of him on his ‘Long-John’ type of bicycle and usually dressed like a peasant?). Once he was drafted into the Presidency and allegedly given so much money, there appeared to be a systematic “killing” of the old Obasanjo of simple life style. First went the bohemian moustache and the simple shirts and in came numerous designer ‘agbadas’, glasses and even manner of speaking English. The type of friends he kept also changed and there was a new embrace of men of wealth and the nouveaux riche in tune with the new societal norms of wealth adoration. Some wicked tongues sniped that the deprivation he faced after handing over power the first time, and the humiliation of the near bankruptcy he faced when he was released from Abacha’s gulag, made him distance himself from the old Obasanjo and resolved not to be “foolish again” at the second opportunity. The failure of the third term plot, it seemed, brought out the worst in Obasanjo. There are many who believe he completely lost the plot when he embraced the third term plot, as many projects from then on were either to actualise the third term or to punish those who he perceived worked against it.

The Zik complex

Virtually every group has a grouse against Obasanjo. He is uncharacteristically criticised more by his Yoruba brethren than perhaps by any other ethnic group. This is remarkable, coming from an ethnic group that is believed to passionately protect one of its own in Nigeria’s competitive ethnic environment. Unlike the late Awolowo, Obasanjo was unable or unwilling to rally the Yorubas behind him. This is due partly to his garrulous style and partly to what I will call the “Zik complex”. Zik was obsessed with being seen as a detribalised African/nationalist and enjoyed being called ‘Zik of Africa’. He would often openly distance himself from known Igbo positions in the vain hope that such would enhance his Africanist and nationalist credentials. Believed to be de-tribalised, Obasanjo would often descend heavily on known Yoruba positions (eg the massive Yoruba support for Awo presidency in 1979), institutions (AD, Afenifere) and leaders (Awolowo, Obas, Abiola, Abraham Adesanya, Fela etc), often in the hope that it would enhance his nationalist credentials. One of the consequences is that while, like Zik, he may have surreptitiously promoted the interest of his ethnic group in many ways, members of the ethnic group remain suspicious of him and even fail to see his effort in promoting the interest of the ethnic group. This is perhaps one of the reasons some believe that Obasanjo is a hated figure in Yorubaland who cannot win a free and fair election, even in his Owo village.

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