Olusegun Obasanjo, former Nigerian president, is a very important man in Nigerian society. And in much of Africa, we should quickly add. He has had the great fortune of leading Nigeria for about 12 years, first as a military head of state, and later as a democratically elected president. Any man with such a unique resume should be entitled to a delicious sense of dignified pride. Although his name invites revulsion in certain quarters because of some of his past deeds, I, personally, treasure some things that he has done, and also happen to like his rare sense of humor, even though that gift of his does occasionally veer towards the diabolical.
Although many might dispute this, I also happen to think that he is a brave and courageous man indeed. His record eloquently shows this. During the long, endless night of Ibrahim Babangida’s tyranny, Obasanjo was one ex-leader who risked life and limb when he repeatedly cried J’accuse against that duplicitous dictatorship and, for that reason alone, gave potent ammunition to the burgeoning moral opposition at the time.
And I might as well also add that you know a brave and courageous man partly by how he responds to an immediate challenge or crisis. I witnessed one of such moments some 16 years ago inside the executive chamber of government house in Rivers State during a meeting between Obasanjo, then newly elected, and members of the Ijaw Youths’ Council (IYC) whose leaders then included Oronto Douglas, who died of cancer last week, Felix Tuodolor, Phillip Okolo and of course, Asari Dokubo, then little known. At issue were the Warri crisis and the content of the IYC’s Kaiama Declaration of 1998 which the youths wanted the new government to implement.
Leading the charge for the IYC was Dokubo who, in a long tirade peppered with unimaginable insults, and egged on by repeated echoes of “Aaahn, Izon! Aaan, Izon!” from the throng of fierce-looking militant Ijaw youths, unleashed his anger on the president standing on the red-carpeted stage a few feet across from the crowd of youths, security policemen and Journalism’s witnesses. Among other things, Dokubo told the president that he should be grateful for not having perished in General Sani Abacha’s gulag. If any occasion ever qualified as lese majeste, this very occasion was it. The atmosphere was tense, and some started to make a beeline for the door out of fear that a bomb was about to go off. I saw Gusau Mohammed, the president’s security chief, walking out quietly.
Taking up the gauntlet, Obasanjo engaged Dokubo in a shouting match; and to the others chanting “Aaan, Izon!”, he said, “You want to threaten me? You can’t.” Then to Douglas who now took his turn to explain the provenance and cultural implications of “Aaahn, Izon!”, Obasanjo demanded an immediate apology, even rushing down from the stage at a point to yank the microphone from Douglas’ hand.
Douglas, at last, did indeed offer an apology thus “in my capacity as a son.” But the president wasn’t done yet. Five minutes later, he turned his attention to Okolo who insisted they were still going to fight and turn Warri and the country to ashes and rubble. “Can you fight? See him face like Ijaw man face,” Obasanjo told the former police officer turned militant youth. The chamber roared with laughter and shouts of “Baba sege! Baba sege!” Modulating his voice as he strutted the red-carpeted center-space on the stage, Obasanjo concluded that meeting with the youths by declaring thus: “Let me say that I totally, absolutely reject your presentation. But the door is open for dialogue and discussion. Thank you.”
Obasanjo would later leave that chamber to address a crowd of Ijaw elders waiting to present their problems to him in a second chamber. He didn’t hide his feelings. He told them that the youths he just spoke to were not the type of children any parents should be proud of. “You have failed to pull them by their ears. We are in danger of having anarchy being unleashed by our youths. But the last thing that I want to have is to see our youths being used as cannon fodders,” Obasanjo told the elders, who included the orator, Chief E.K. Clark. He assured them that he would solve Nigeria’s problems. And Mohammed? Well, he took Dokubo to a corner outside and engaged him in a conversation, after which he handed the belligerent fellow his business card. From then on, Dokubo would become an “important” man in Nigeria.
I have gone to great lengths to dredge up all that in an attempt to offer a window on the military, fighter side of this latter-day democrat, a courageous man who, rather than shrink forebodingly from an acute crisis situation, prefers to tackle it head on.
But confronting an immediate crisis is one thing, tackling long-term ones is yet another. Obasanjo spent eight full years in government as president. Yes, he purged the army of politically corrupt officers and thus initiated an end to military coups. But what else did he accomplish that those who succeeded him could have built upon? I am hard put to recall any. Much of Nigeria still remains in darkness today, with a lot of people pining for the good old days of NEPA to return. Corruption has become more virulent. Our health institutions have become infinitely worse than the “mere consulting clinics” they once were. A lot of people continue to hold him responsible for the two failed governments we have had after him. President Goodluck Jonathan’s sin against Obasanjo was that he alienated himself from the master out of a legitimate desire to be his own man. Disdaining to see his ego bruised and his pride wounded, Obasanjo decided that Jonathan must be punished. Never point a gun to the head of a king, because if he lives, he won’t forget.
Well, here we go again: less than 24 hours after Buhari was declared winner of the March 28 election, and more than a month before he is sworn in to begin his first term, Obasanjo moved with precipitate speed to dash off a congratulatory letter to him. The letter also implored Buhari to address a number of problems Obasanjo thought were vital. He also allegedly indicated his availability in case his assistance was needed. On the face of it, a perfectly nice gesture. But beyond that, I’m inclined to wonder what it is that Obasanjo wants to do for Nigeria at this time that he couldn’t do in his eight years as president. Besides, the idea of a former president writing an open letter to a president-elect doesn’t exactly sound neat. That communication should have been below the radar, or better still, Obasanjo could have waited until Buhari is sworn in, and then pay him a visit to offer advice. Mercifully, it is a friendly letter today. Tomorrow we don’t know how the next and subsequent ones may sound. For that was how it began with Jonathan.
At 78, Obasanjo wants to remain the guest of honor at a funeral and the bridegroom at a wedding. Anyone who denies him such is thumping his nose at orthodoxy. Which is why I predict that soon, Buhari could have hell to pay if he chooses to ignore him. No one, not even Obasanjo, needs reminding that Buhari is no spring chicken. Unlike the two presidents immediately before him, Buhari should have no reason to feel beholden to any political godfather. Like Obasanjo himself, Buhari had been at the apex of government before as a military head of state. He, therefore, has a keen knowledge of the problems this country faces and how best to tackle them. Going forward, I hope Obasanjo would have the goodness to leave the in-coming administration to its own devices, I hope he would let Buhari be.