Nigeria Matters

Obasanjo: From messiah complex to strongman syndrome

On Tuesday and Wednesday last week, the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Centre in Abuja was a busy place. The Murtala Muhammed Foundation had organised a public policy dialogue with presidential candidates of the major political parties aimed at giving Nigerians the opportunity to have more than a passing knowledge of what the people jostling for our votes in next month’s election have for the nation.

As a prelude to the dialogue, the foundation treated the audience to a documentary on the life and times of Murtala Muhammed, Nigeria’s head of state for a short period of 200 days, in whose memory the foundation was set up.

Among the people that were interviewed in the documentary is former president Olusegun Obasanjo, who was Murtala’s deputy and successor after the abortive coup that claimed Murtala’s life. Obasanjo said so many beautiful things about Murtala but one was striking. He said Murtala was fond of driving himself around Lagos without security. He said one day he told the late head of state to be careful and added that in case he (Murtala) drove into Isale Eko (downtown Lagos Island) and he was attacked, it would put the government in trouble. He said Murtala said if that happened, he (Obasanjo) would be available to see through the programmes the government had planned to execute. It was prophetic.

From nowhere close to where the coup that brought the Murtala regime to power was planned, he became second in command and later head of state. Before then, he had taken glory from Benjamin Adekunle who had done much of the fight against the Biafrans during the civil war only for Obasanjo to come and receive the surrender of the Biafrans in January 1970. He instantly became a civil war hero.

After handing over to civilians in 1979, he became an international statesman respected across the world. For instance, he was with Malcom Fraser, one time prime minister of Australia, co-chairman of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group (EPG) that fought against apartheid in South Africa.

In 1995, he was convicted on thrumped up charges for coup plotting and when he was released in 1998, it was to become presidential candidate of a party that had been established while he was in prison. He thus moved from prison to the presidency.

As civilian president from 1999 to 2007, Obasanjo developed a messiah complex. The messiah complex is the will, intention, compulsion to be a messiah, to be the redeemer and saviour. It is a state of mind in which an individual holds a belief they are, or destined to be come, a saviour.

Having seen himself as someone blessed, he felt his mission in politics was to redeem Nigeria. That was part of the reason he was intolerant of opposition and fought a war of attrition against anyone he perceived to be an obstacle to actions he took based on personal conviction.

As part of that complex, he encouraged praise singers and cheer leaders in his government to proclaim him ‘Father of modern Nigeria’, an honour that arguably belongs to Nnamdi Azikiwe, first president of Nigeria.

It was also this messiah complex that led him to the ill-advised attempt to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a third term in office. He believed that he alone has answers to Nigeria’s problems and that without him, the reforms he put in place would not be carried through. With hindsight, not a few people believe that given how Nigeria slipped backwards after Obasanjo handed over power in 2007, Nigeria would have been better off with a third term for Obasanjo.

Since leaving office in 2007, Obasanjo has gone from messiah complex to strongman syndrome. In his book, Not My Will, Obasanjo had chided Zik, saying the nationalist leader had descended from being Zik of Africa to being Owelle of Onitsha. But out office, apart from being the Balogun of Owu kingdom, Obasanjo has today fought and wrestled to the ground, Gbenga Daniel, the governor of Ogun State over the control of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in State.

Daniel, seeing that he has lost out in the struggle over whose faction should produce candidates for elective offices in the state in next month’s general elections, went to Obasanjo’s residence in Abeokuta last week to beg the former president. The fight with Daniel, whom he helped to install as governor in 2003 along with other PDP governors in the South west, has been the greatest battle he has fought since leaving office.

The reality of Nigerian politics has dawn him that for him to be relevant in PDP and by extension in national politics, he must be seen to have a base at home. Daniel is just a small irritant that has to be shoved aside to make the point that he (Obasanjo) is a strongman and must be seen as such. Who is Daniel to face a man who fought a civil war and emerged a hero by his own account; is the only Nigerian that has ruled both as military head of state and civilian president; got on a platter of gold position many other labored for but failed to get; moved from prison to Aso Rock (seat of power); who even as president fought the Owu kingmakers to install the monarch of his choice; installed his choice as successor in 2007. A man with this credential must see himself as super human, in fact more than a strongman. The party must bend backwards to accommodate Obasanjo.

Obasanjo can be likened to Hun Sen of Cambodia, who is seen as a complex personality: a charming diplomat, an eloquent poet, unforgiving to his enemies, ruthless in battle with a thirst for power but simple tastes.

Like Sen, Obasanjo can be ruthless and is generally unforgiving of those who crossed his path. Even as Daniel has begged for forgiveness, the governor still has to work harder to get reprieve from the former president especially as his immunity comes to an end on May 29 when he (Daniel) leaves office. He has realized too late in the day after so much grandstanding that it was a serious political error for Daniel to have challenged Obasanjo at this time. Obasanjo will bare his fangs at the appropriate time.

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