From the outset, I must offer an apology for the grave moral offense of seeming to bracket the late sage, Nelson Mandela, with Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan. In a way, the decision was not mine, but Mr. Obasanjo’s.
Last week, the former Nigerian president apparently leaked a letter he had written to President Jonathan. The timing of the leak was in bad form: the same week that South Africans and the world were mourning – celebrating – Madiba Mandela, a man who came to define extraordinary grace and a deeply human vision for our time. Like the rest of the world, Nigerians were engaged in the lofty business of honoring a truly elegant man when Mr. Obasanjo’s letter made its rude interjection. The letter seemed calculated to force Nigerians to abandon a sublime purpose – the extolling of a man who epitomized greatness – in order to obsess over a certified hypocrite’s delusions of moral authority.
Stripped of its verbosity, Mr. Obasanjo’s letter boiled down to this: that Mr. Jonathan was incompetent, dishonest, in thrall to clannish (Ijaw) interests, and deadly. Some of the former president’s specific accusations are that Nigeria’s incumbent president was running a political shop rife with corruption; that, beyond the deployment of troops, Mr. Jonathan had failed to come up with a broad plan for containing the festering scourge of Boko Haram terrorism; that Mr. Jonathan was trying to sidestep an ostensible pact not to seek a second term as president; that, in pursuit of said second term, Mr. Jonathan had kindled the embers of Ijaw militancy and groomed killer squads to take out perceived and real enemies; that Mr. Jonathan, though propelled into office by the Peoples Democratic Party, had brought nothing but misfortune to the ruling party, often working against the PDP’s interests by secretly boosting candidates of rival parties in several elections, including the recent governorship election in Anambra; that, instead of bringing together different factions within the PDP, Mr. Jonathan had compounded the fissures within the party; and that Mr. Jonathan seemed bent on sacrificing democratic norms to his selfish political interests.
Mr. Obasanjo’s letter invoked Thomas Paine, Chinua Achebe and others. It played up the words honor and trust, which he accused Mr. Jonathan of lacking, implying that the incumbent was versed in duplicity and deception.
Being no reader of minds, I don’t feel up to the task of revealing the former president’s motive. Was he seized by envy on witnessing the global gushing of (richly deserved) adulation for Mandela? The former president titled his letter, “Before It Is Too Late”. Was the title self-referential, in other words, did it express Mr. Obasanjo’s rising anxiety that time was running out for him to project himself as something of a midget-Mandela, a miniaturized, Nigerian-made version of the real Madiba? With newspapers and people around the world quoting some of Mandela’s memorable speeches, did Obasanjo, in an access of grandeur, imagine that his letter could have the same fascinating effect on (at least) Nigerians? Was it something even baser, a realization, say, that he and his acolytes had lost out in the internecine battle for the benighted soul of the PDP?
Only Mr. Obasanjo can tell the inmost reason that nudged him to write the leaked letter. But I’m willing to guess, based on Mr. Obasanjo’s all-too recent record, that he was not actuated by a desire to promote good governance or deepen democratic values.
Yet, we must give the former president his due. Some of the particulars in his charge sheet are right on target. President Jonathan has been unable to contain the threat of Boko Haram terrorism. He has not developed a good, much less a bold, program for tackling Nigeria’s myriad crises, including a scary healthcare sector, a collapsed educational system, and wretched infrastructure. He’s just another confounded resident of Aso Rock, a man occupying the space of president and commander-in-chief, without being able to rise nobly to the challenge of the office.
That conceded, it ought to be pointed out that there is not – there should not be – a feud between Mr. Jonathan and former President Obasanjo. As I argued in a column a few months ago, the former is the latter’s worthy successor. Reading the former president’s lengthy public letter, one often had the sensation of reading an autobiographical account of Mr. Obasanjo’s years at Aso Rock Villa.
Obasanjo’s Presidency was so thoroughly committed to the promotion of criminality that I nicknamed the man mischief-maker-in-chief. Lest we forget, Mr. Obasanjo was a callous president. In 2002, more than 1000 people perished when explosions rocked the Ikeja military cantonment. When the grief-stricken victims demanded a decisive response from Mr. Obasanjo, the then president insensitively told them off. “I’m not supposed to be here,” he told the hapless, shell-shocked survivors.
Mr. Obasanjo was a model of cynicism as president. In the early days of his Presidency, he started what he called a so-called “poverty alleviation” program, putting Tony Anenih in charge of disbursing billions of naira. When critics pointed out that the fund had not alleviated poverty in any way, Mr. Obasanjo then increased the funds significantly and launched a “poverty eradication” scheme. Nobody knows where all the cash went.
Lest we forget, Mr. Obasanjo was the president who authorized the wholesale massacres of the people of Odi in Bayelsa State and Zaki Biam in Benue State.
Let’s not forget too soon that Mr. Obasanjo empowered Lamidi Adedibu to operate like a parallel (and more powerful) “Governor” of Oyo State. When Governor Rasheed Ladoja refused to surrender some cash to Mr. Adedibu, the latter – whom Obasanjo flattered as “commander” – mobilized police officers and invaded Government House. Governor Ladoja was to scamper away to safety.
Let’s not forget, too, that Mr. Obasanjo also looked the other way as some two hundred police officers stormed Anambra State and abducted then Governor Chris Ngige. Incidentally, Mr. Obasanjo’s ruling had used rigging to impose Ngige as governor. Why, then, the desperation to sack the governor? Mr. Ngige incurred the president’s wrath by refusing to do the bidding of a coterie close to Mr. Obasanjo. Many Nigerian groups voiced outrage at the use of police officers to commit a serious crime. They insisted that the abductors and their sponsors be prosecuted. But Mr. Obasanjo characterized the felonious act as a mere quarrel within the family, case closed! A few months later, police officers escorted lorry loads of hired hoodlums as they swept through Anambra State burning any state government-owned property in sight. The plan was to instigate a bloodbath in order to offer Mr. Obasanjo the perfect pretext to declare a state of emergency and remove the obstinate governor.
Mr. Obasanjo promised Nigerians, on his honor, to bring to an end the days of incessant electric power outages. He set a promise-delivery date of December 31, 2001, and set up a technical task force to effectuate his pledge. He poured between $10 and $16 billion into what was, in effect, a scam. Once the deadline arrived, Nigerians realized that they had been conned. If anything, power failures have worsened.
Have Nigerians forgotten how Mr. Obasanjo tried to change the Nigerian constitution in order to grant himself perpetual tenancy as president? When that illicit plan was thwarted, the former president virtually imposed the late Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan as the ruling party’s candidates. Mr. Yar’Adua was deathly sick, but Mr. Obasanjo insisted he was a picture of vibrant health. Mr. Jonathan had had a nondescript run as governor of Bayelsa State. Yet, the former president advertised the tag team of Yar’Adua-Jonathan as the only ones in Nigeria’s political universe worthy of succeeding him, continuing his legacy as a self-styled “father of modern Nigeria.” Declaring the 2011 elections a “do-or-die” affair, he did everything to compel Nigerians, like it or not, to accept his anointed successors.
One member of the tag team spent more time tending to his health woes than to the affairs of state, and soon died. The other, Jonathan, is clearly overwhelmed by the demands of statecraft. And here we have Obasanjo, a shameless manipulator if ever there was one, the manufacturer of the defective goods, strutting about the stage denouncing the mess he chiefly authored.
Somebody ought to shoo Mr. Obasanjo off the stage. He must leave us in peace to focus on a true leader – Madiba Nelson Mandela – a while longer!
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Dr. Okey Ndibe is a social critic and first rate public intellectual.