As I listened to President Obasanjo’s first public comments on the outcome of the Constitution amendment Bill, I could not but feel immense pity for the discernible pain in his voice. He tried what a good commander, nay, a good leader would do. That is, re-gird his loins, marshal his forces, and re-commit his men to more battles in spite of debilitating wounds and catastrophic deaths. Hear him:
“Many derogatory statements and unfounded allegations have been made about me and my position concerning the so-called third term in the National Assembly and in the media which are false, incorrect and uncalled for. Of course, that is part of burden of leadership in our own type of society…”
That burden, Obasanjo has borne quite impressively. In a different society; in a society where people’s sense of history is not so warped; where heroes are recognized and adulated, where the generality of the populace is not led by the nose on fleeting celebrations, Obasanjo should be riding the high tide of appreciation for the sacrifices he has made for Nigeria.
Where is the celebration of the life of Nnamdi Azikiwe today? Where is the celebration of Obafemi Awolowo’s sacrifices today? Where is the celebration of Anthony Enahoro’s courage today? Who still remembers Joseph Tarka? Did not Moshood Abiola give his life for this country? Who still remembers him beyond the perfunctory markings of “June 12” in Lagos State? And whatever you think of him, did not Emeka Ojukwu play an important role in the history of Nigeria? Who is giving him any credit today?
I have written in other fora about our collective amnesia and I am not ashamed to repeat same here. Just reading commentaries on the 3rd Term issue in the various media outlets always makes me want to puke. Our so-called erudite commentators put Obasanjo on an ignoble pedestal, painted onto his forehead the bull’s eye of 3rd Term plot and proceeded to fire shots at him. If you were as gullible and malleable as all of them, you would have believed that the president actually sent the Bill to the Senate requesting the amendments to the Constitution, where in actual fact, the amendment Bill originated in the Senate.
Lost in the cacophony of sanctimonious balderdash that emanated from the dirty orifices of these later-day pro-democracy protagonists was a very simple fact: neither Obasanjo nor any of his paid spokespersons (not even the sometimes garrulous and loquacious Fani-Kayode) ever remotely hinted that the president was interested in extending his own tenure.
I know that with our history of brutalization in the hands of previous governments, our political psyche has been too damaged to understand due process. We have been conditioned to suspect our leaders, no matter what their intentions are.
I was around when Yakubu Gowon made his infamous comment that handing over government to civilians in 1976 as he had promised earlier was no longer “realistic.” It was this same Obasanjo and the late Murtala Muhammed that led a bloodless coup which ousted Gowon in 1975. Although Muhammed was assassinated in 1976, Obasanjo fulfilled the pledge of his regime by handing over government to civilians in 1979. Irascible Obasanjo critics would tell you that he did nothing special. He only carried on the wishes of Muhammed. They know, but choose to ignore the fact that having tasted power, he could have been consumed by its allure and held on for much longer.
I was also around when, in spite of his dismal first term when Nigerians queued up for staples like rice, milk and sugar for the first time in the Nations history, Shehu Shagari and his NPN, rather than lose the 1983 elections in a landslide, miraculously “routed” the UPN, PRP, GNPP and NPP from their strongholds, further consolidating himself in power. It took the intervention of Muhamadu Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon to dislodge Shagari.
I know that I probably sound like a broken record by now, but I was also around when Ibrahim Babangida, having misruled Nigeria for 8 years refused to leave peacefully. When the entire world literally piled enough pressure on him, he reluctantly “stepped aside,” but not before annulling the freest and fairest elections ever conducted in Nigeria. And not before laying the foundation for the ascension of the more despotic Sani Abacha.
So, when the 3rd Term project hit the streets, it was understandable that Nigerians would vociferously oppose it, for they do not want to have a perpetual ruler, no matter how benevolent. To be clear, I too opposed the extension of terms if it would benefit the current occupiers of the offices of President and Governor. But I do not oppose either an amendment to increase terms to three, or reduce terms to just one, as long as it is the wish of Nigerians as reflected in the votes of their elected Representatives. It is common knowledge that the British Prime Minister is not limited to two terms.
Obasanjo probably would also have not opposed a recommendation to amend the Constitution to reduce terms to one, or increase terms to four. He probably would have remained silent, believing that the discourse was healthy, and the decision was in the purview of the Legislature. Had he publicly taken a position one way or the other, he would still have been vilified and pilloried by those who have paid only tangential attention to the national issues.
Obasanjo reminded his forgetful audience: “Throughout the period, I resisted the invitation to be drawn on either side and I maintained studied silence. I was maligned, insulted and wrongly accused but I remained where I am and what I am and I remained focused…”
But keeping mum on the issue of 3rd Term hurt Obasanjo’s credibility. He failed to understand that our people are not yet that politically sophisticated. Silence is not always golden. Now, Obasanjo has run the risk of having his legacy defined by the 3rd Term issue. An adroit statesman that he is, he chose to not play politics on the matter, leaving it to posterity to judge him as trying to keep the Executive out of meddling in the affairs of the Legislature. But on the issue of 3rd Term, the country needed leadership, and he failed to provide it.
In our culture of forgetfulness, and single-mindedness, no one would remember how ALL our debts to International creditors got paid. In fact, many who now form the core of Obasanjo bashers are those who lost their traditional conduit pipes for pilfering from the Nation. In 7 years, Obasanjo plugged most of the loopholes that were used to cart away the nation’s resources. He unleashed the wrath of the EFCC on those who still managed to steal. For the first time in the history of Nigeria, politicians actually stole with a little more compunction and trepidation. Governors ran helter-skelter in bids to hide their loots. An Inspector-General of Police coughed up his loot and went to jail. Thousands of millions of dollars stolen and stashed in coded Swiss bank accounts (previously off limits to investigators) were decoded and repatriated to the country. Federal ministers, like Mobolaji Osomo, and other functionaries that misappropriated were sacked. Those, like Ribadu, Okonjo-Iweala and el Rufai that are the epitome of performance and incorruptibility are rewarded. Federal appointments to plum positions which hitherto had been the exclusive prerogative of one particular ethnic group were restructured to reflect the Federal Character. Roads and airports, especially in the East, that have become death traps and health hazards due to years of neglect started to see some facelift.And Nigeria, previously on the verge of becoming a pariah nation to the rest of the world was repositioned to re-gain its lost glory and respect.
But the newt-brained elite commentators in our midst, who should know, have chosen to conveniently forget. They would rather throw the baby away with the dirty bath water. I remember… I remember having been through this street before. Not too long ago, Buhari and Idiagbon saved the nation’s rudderless ship from Shagari and strove to instill a sense of orderliness and discipline in us, with the hope that once we had imbibed the basic sense of order and mutual respect for each other, they could move on to governing Nigeria. Idiagbon’s non-smiling face soon became the face of that administration and Nigerians (including myself), ignorantly reduced that administration’s laudable goals to the ephemeral and intangible issue of smiling, or lack thereof. We hoped and prayed loudly that the regime was overthrown.
Ibrahim Babangida answered our prayers by sacking that government. With his toothy smiles and wily character, he led us deeper into the fangs of the IMF. Under his maladministration, more university students were rusticated and more universities were closed more often than all administrations before him, put together. Pro-democracy activists went into self-imposed exile, and the media, after the letter bomb assassination of Dele Giwa, went into self-censorship. Babangida’s bestiality reached its apogee with the brazen annulment of M.K.O Abiola’s election, a singular act that sent Nigeria into a dangerous tailspin from which, again, Obasanjo rescued us.
Our elite politicians have forgotten all that. And sadly, our media, too, have forgotten all that. Rather than insult Obasanjo, rather than dance the macabre dance of a pyrrhic victory on account the death of the 3rd Term issue, we should borrow a leaf from Thabo Mbeki from whom we seem to have borrowed a whole forest recently.
Mbeki told Obasanjo:”I am truly inspired that you, a tried and tested leader of the peoples of Nigeria and Africa, spoke to all of us in unequivocal terms to reaffirm our sacred task to entrench democracy throughout our continent.
“With no reservations whatsoever, I would like to thank and salute you for these comments as you responded to the decisions of the Nigerian National Assembly.
“The comments communicate an outstanding act of statesmanship that I am convinced must and will inspire all Nigerians, our own people, and our brothers and sisters in the rest of our continent, as we all strive to empower the masses of our peoples democratically to participate in their own systems of governance.”
Obasanjo should rise above the pettiness of the gloating going on right now. He should do his best, in consultation with the real powers that be, to ensure that he does not hand over power to another Shehu Shagari, who will govern so poorly that the military will return and keep Nigeria in a vicious circle of political and economic instability. This is the only way the gains of the past 7 years, his legacy, can be preserved.