About a decade ago, or so, thereabouts, a telling picture emerged from someone’s photographic archives and made its way into the public arena to capture the interest of many Nigerians. Dominating the foreground of the picture were three men seated at a table in an Officers’ Mess, two of whom, were locked in concentration, as they attempted to outwit each other in a game of draughts. In the background, were other men in other poses, looking on and elsewhere, as the game unfolded. The three men, portrayed in the foreground of the picture, were: General Olusegun Obasanjo; General Ibrahim Babangida; and Lt. General Theophilus Danjuma; as middle ranking officers in recreational attire and pursuit.
A picture, it is said, is worth a thousand words and this picture particularly so. The picture was instructive on a number of different levels. Firstly, it revealed the length, if not the depth, of friendship between General Obasanjo and General Babangida; secondly, it demonstrated the ease and confidence with which General Babangida related to his superior officers even back then; a facility he would use to good effect to further his aims in years to come; thirdly, it revealed the identity of two of a number of key actors who would intervene in the affairs of Nigeria on different occasions to alter its course of direction; fourthly, the fact that the photograph was taken in an Officers’ Mess, was itself emblematic, as it presaged the mess that Nigeria would be left in after their respective interventions; and finally, it revealed their innate proclivity for game-playing. A feature which would persist for years to come, as they took turns in competing for the control of Nigeria’s fortunes – political and otherwise – sometimes in tandem with, and sometimes in opposition to, each other, as the occasion demanded.
But what the picture did not reveal and that which is not discernable from it, however many times one looks at it, is, who out of the two men won that game of draughts? But this notwithstanding, and regardless of which one won; as Nigeria’s chequered history reveals, that game was merely a prelude to many other games to be played out by these men in less recreational circumstances and for much higher stakes. Games in which, one or the other of the two of them, would emerge victorious at different times to rule Nigeria.
If, during the early to middle stages of their careers, their recreational game of choice was draughts, as they rose in rank and prominence, acquiring, as they did, greater sophistication, their preference in board games also changed. Chess, rather than draughts, it seems, became their new recreational pursuit, at least on a metaphorical level. Chess, a game reputed to be that of potentates and well suited to political intrigues; and one requiring a certain mental acuity and strategic and tactical nous, if it is to be played effectively.
No more were these ambitious men to be seen seated at wooden tables peering down at cardboard game boards; rather they were to assume elevated postures and positions; looking down on and at Nigeria as their national chessboard. And the masses pawns and mere adornments upon it; subject to their machinations, simply to be moved about at will, from position to position, towards the fulfilment of their quests for power.
The 1970s and 1980s, in particular, were to prove fertile periods for their game-playing antics. In the sole successful coup of the 1970s, a game of high-stakes, in which each man would feature to greater or lesser degree, and emerge therefrom with greater or lesser rewards. General Obasanjo, proved to be the undoubted winner of this game, as he, in quick succession, attained to two of the highest political positions in the nation; and this after having expended a minimum of effort or even none at all.
General Babangida, on the other hand, an active participant in the putsch that pushed out General Gowon from power, was to see his efforts rewarded with a peripheral seat on the Supreme Military Council. For a man as ambitious as he, this could not have been to his liking. And so for him, it was not to be, until a decade later before he was to achieve his heart’s desire and cause untold heartache to the nation; claiming the top political prize, in the latter of the two successful coups of that period; in both of which he featured prominently.
One would ordinarily have thought that that these men having achieved their ambitions (ambitions which in the ordinary scheme of things ought to have been beyond their reach and purview given their choice of profession) would put paid to their game playing and engage in other pursuits to repay or repair the nation; but no. Their penchant for national game playing remained unabated.
Perhaps, in some ways it is not strange, that those who become accustomed to operating at the centre or circumference of the circles of power, invariably develop a sense of entitlement and an insatiable appetite for power, leaving them devoid of any other purpose in life, other than to engage in its pursuit and retention, for, and of, itself.
It was, therefore, no surprise that when the presidency opened up again in 1999, the two men were to be seen working in tandem, strategically moving their pieces across the national chessboard; with the resultant outcome being, a return to power of General Obasanjo. It was to be, on General Babangida’s part, a tactical miscalculation, as he was soon to discover, to the cost of his own ambitions, that he had been outwitted in this collaboration. For not only did General Obasanjo complete two full terms in office, for good measure, he also pined after a third term.
But in the pursuit of this third term, he was on a hiding to nothing, and was to suffer disappointment in its fulfilment. For the Nigerian Senate in a rare moment of assertiveness put paid to this overweening ambition. And if a biblical analogy maybe employed in this regard, this was a classic case of the ‘arm’ of the Nigerian Senate, but the ‘voice’ of General Babangida. It is difficult to conclude otherwise. But whatever the case, a favour had been done to the nation.
However, as often has been the case in the past, General Obasanjo was not to be completely undone, and he was to have the last word, if not laugh, on the matter. In his turn, he turned round to scuttle General Babangida’s own presidential ambitions. Yet again, the nation had been done another favour. And, largely for this reason, today, a pawn, rather than one of these men, sits at the helm of Nigeria; the unwitting beneficiary of their stratagems.
But as 2011 approaches, one fully expects the two Generals to resume their habitual game-play; preparing their moves and examining the relative strengths and weaknesses of their preferred proxies. In the meantime, the masses remain pawns on the chessboard; overwhelmed by the challenges of daily survival, too preoccupied to notice the political manoeuvrings around them. And this is a great pity. For until they abandon their passivity and become active players in the national game, nothing will change in their favour.
But returning one last time to that picture and that game of draughts captured therein; if one were to hazard a guess, as to which of the men won back then; one would suspect, that it was General Obasanjo. And this, based on the fact that he has on occasion in the past succeeded in outwitting a man with a legendary reputation for outwitting others. But then again, you never know; it may have been the other way round.