Former President Olusegun Obasanjo has continued to demonstrate his undying patriotism and determination to ensure that Nigeria continues on the path of moral rectitude and good leadership.
The former president’s contribution to Nigeria’s political development, especially through conversation for democratic growth are unquantifiable. From being a navigator for leadership selection to his numerous public letters, Obasanjo had never failed to show zeal for the country’s survival.
Towards the build up to the 2019 general elections, the former president canvassed the need for an alternative political platform to check what he called the excesses of the two major parties – the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
That was when the word ‘Third Force’ entered Nigeria’s political lexicon. After destroying his PDP membership card, Obasanjo announced his decision to quit active participation in partisan politics as well as his intention to play the role of statesman to guide the country’s leaders.
He did not waste time to tell the world that APC under President Muhammadu Buhari, which he supported in 2015, has failed to guide the ship of state aright. As a former military head of state, Obasanjo declared that Buhari, who served in his regime as Minister of Petroleum, has failed to manage the economy very well as well as the fight against insurgency and corruption.
Last week, the former president dropped a hint, suggesting that he was about setting of on another path, which would involve developing another script that could guide Nigerians as they prepare for the 2023 presidential election.
Recall that Obasanjo had previously held a series of meetings with some notable politicians in London, including Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike, presidential candidate of Labour Party (LP), Peter Obi, Governors Samuel Ortom, Seyi Makinde and others.
The former president also met with former military heads of state, Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Abdulsalam Abubakar in Minna, Niger State to discuss his agenda for the country as the election approaches.
However, his series of meetings both home and abroad have continued to elicit criticisms and applause from Nigerians who are curious about what the former general has to offer having ruled the country as military head of state and a two-term civilian president.
He is undoubtedly one of the most respected Africans in the Western World. Being the first military head of state in Africa to voluntarily hand over power to a democratically elected president, the late Alhaji Shehu Shagari in 1979, projected his image among world leaders, especially in the United States of America and United Kingdom.
Despite being a Christian and a Yoruba, Obasanjo, also fondly called ‘Baba Iyabo’ is one of the few Nigerian leaders that have projected himself as a committed nationalist. Throughout his eight years of civilian administration (1999-2007), he could hardly be accused of marginalisation or sectionalisation. Hardly could Obasanjo be ‘substantially’ accused of nepotism, corruption and other vices that are synonymous with other leaders.
It is indeed strange that majority of those who have accused Obasanjo of marginalisation are mostly his Yoruba kinsmen. They alleged that during his eight years in office, he probably did more for other regions and that, in terms of appointments, he favoured even the Southeast region better. This is unlike the current administration where the Fulani kinsmen of President Muhammadu Buhari are allegedly dominating all the key and strategic positions in the polity including the sensitive security sector.
Obasanjo’s words are weighty and he is always a newsmaker. Since Nigeria fought the three-year Biafran Civil War (1967-1970), his name and influence have continued to reverberate in the politics of the country.
In the struggle for actualisation of the annulled June 12, 1993 Presidential Election, believed to have been won by the late Chief M.K.O Abiola of the defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP), Obasanjo became relevant again in conversations, though he neither supported IBB over the annulment of the June 12 1993 Presidential Election nor the late Abiola, whom he described as “not the messiah Nigeria needs.”
He challenged Babangida when he founded the Association for Democracy and Good Governance. When Obasanjo suspected that Babangida was reluctant to leave office, he convened a summit on May 25, 1993, at his Ota farm, which was well attended. Among the retired military generals he assembled to discuss the state of the nation were President Buhari; his former deputy, Tunde Idiagbon; former Army Chief of Staff, Theophilus Danjuma; former Chief of General Staff, Ebitu Ukiwe; former External Affairs Commissioner, Joe Garba and another former Chief of Army Staff, Alani Akinrinade.
From the political class came Olusola Saraki, Adekunle Ajasin, Datti Ahmed, Margaret Ekpo, Lateef Jakande, Mahmud Waziri, Onyemobi Onuoha, Rufus Mohammed, Olu Akinfosile, Abubakar Rimi, and few others. Proferssors Adebayo Adedeji, Bolanle Awe and David Iornem represented the academia.
In his opening address at the meeting, Obasanjo expressed concern about the increasing demands for secession and threats to national unity, among other issues.
“You can probably understand my personal anguish as a man who had fought for the unity of Nigeria with men who lost their limbs and lives when I hear people propound the theory of break up. Brothers and sisters, we will not be twice lucky. The world has changed somewhat since 1960s. There are so many forces and interests out there that will successfully militate against Nigeria surviving a second secessionist attempt,” he said.
During the meeting, participants at the summit expressed the fear that Babangida would not hand over power because of his winding and prolonged transition. They also expressed worry about the inability of the political class to present a common front against the military president. They called for the decentralisation of resource control within a strong and united Nigeria. The meeting also set up a new body known as Association for Democracy and Good Governance in Nigeria (ADGN), to further promote their agenda against the Babangida regime.
Before the summit, Obasanjo had informed Babangida of his plan to host the meeting at the Gateway Hotel, Ota. But curiously the junta tried to abort it. Unknown to government, the former head of state secretly provided another venue – his farm.
Four months after the summit, Babangida hurriedly left power and fled to his home town, Minna. That was after he deceitfully organised a presidential election, which he claimed was inconclusive.
Obasanjo was later tried for planning a coup and jailed by the late head of state, the late Gen. Sani Abacha (rtd.) for criticising his administration in 1995. Many people believed Obasanjo was deliberately framed up because of his fierce critique of the Abacha government.
In 1998, former head of state, General Abdusalam Abubakar pardoned him (Obasanjo) and subsequently handed over power to him as the first elected president of the Fourth Republic on May 29, 1999.
Unfortunately, Obasanjo’s first unpopular action in power was his blunt refusal to recognise the June 12, 1993 Presidential Election and how he failed to ascribe any honour to Abiola throughout his eight years in office.
He also seized the allocation of Lagos State when former Governor of the state, Bola Ahmed Tinubu increased the 20 Councils in Lagos to 57. The matter was dragged to the Supreme Court where Lagos won but the Federal Government of Obasanjo refused to release local government allocations meant for the state until he completed his two-term tenure in 2007. His successor, the late Umaru Yar’Adua later released the accumulated allocation to Lagos.
In 2003, when he was seeking re-election, Obasanjo allegedly destroyed the major opposition party, Alliance for Democracy (AD) when he coined the slogan ‘Operation Capture Southwest.’ AD eventually lost five states out of the six it controlled in the zone in 2003 except Lagos. The leadership of the party believed that Obasanjo deceived them.
Obasanjo came back to the scene after the death of President Yar’Adua when some forces wanted to deny former President Goodluck Jonathan, who was then the vice president, to assume power. The Balogun of Owu was among those who stood by Jonathan to step in as acting president and later in 2011, as elected president even when some stakeholders in the North kicked against his choice. Jonathan eventually won the PDP presidential ticket by defeating former Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar.
By December 2013, however, Obasanjo had turned a critic of the Jonathan-led administration and he wrote an open and well published letter, expressing concern and displeasure about the direction of the administration, it was clear Obasanjo was on a familiar mission.
In the 18-page letter, dated December 2, the Balogun of Owu, expressed disgust at the way the Jonathan administration was handling the affairs of Nigeria, alleging threat to national unity.
He also complained about the president reneging on a promise he made in 2011 to spend only one term of four years in office. He flayed Jonathan over the increasing cases of corruption in government and the alleged training of snipers ahead of the 2015 general elections, among others. Again, series of reactions greeted the letter with some people calling on Jonathan to give Obasanjo the Abacha treatment.
But in a reply letter, dated December 20, Jonathan described Obasanjo’s letter as a threat to national security. The former president denied all allegations leveled against him in the letter.
Undaunted by the development, in November 2014, at a book launch in honour of the pioneer Chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, Mustapha Akanbi, Obasanjo went ahead to rate Jonathan’s performance as “below average.” He also said the nation’s economy “is in doldrums, if not reversed.”
Following that, Obasanjo accused the Jonathan-led administration of squandering $2 billion Excess Crude money left by his administration. He also said his administration left $25 billion for his successor, Umaru Yar’Adua who subsequently raised it to $35 billion. He said he left $40 billion in Nigeria’s foreign reserves account after paying the nation’s outstanding debt at the time and that Yar’Adua raised it to $60 billion. He, however, regretted that the Jonathan administration depleted the reserves to $40 billion.
As at 2015 when Obasanjo launched his book entitled: ‘Under My Watch,’ he technically endorsed the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and its candidate, President Muhammadu Buhari, against Jonathan, who was the candidate of his own party, the PDP.
Despite coming out to clarify that he didn’t endorse Buhari then, Tinubu and other members of the APC-led Buhari went to meet Obasanjo in Otta and he (Obasanjo) later left PDP on whose platform he ruled the nation between 1999 and 2007.
In the 2015 general election, Jonathan eventually lost to Buhari, making him (Jonathan) the first seating President to lose election and concede defeat in Nigeria.
Not later than two years after Buhari assumed office, Obasanjo picked on his administration and began to criticise him of several misconducts.
Obasanjo dramatically switched to Atiku, who he once said was unfit to rule the country. Recall that Atiku was the vice president under Obasanjo for eight years.
In a move that also attracted members of the Yoruba socio-political group, Afenifere, Obasanjo who has never shown serious commitment to the demand for restructuring of the country began to romance leaders of Afenifere and also aligned with the demand that the country needed to be restructured.
He held several meetings with leaders of Afenifere towards the end of 2018 when some Afenifere members described him as a born again democrat because of his new romance with the slogan ‘restructuring’. Atiku then promised to restructure the country if he won. The political strategy did not work out.
In his usual character, Obasanjo wrote a letter to President Buhari, urging him not to seek re-election in 2019, saying that the incumbent had failed to fight terror successfully and revive the economy. The hawks surrounding Buhari would not waste time like Jonathan, they instantly hit back and worked relentlessly to stop Obasanjo before he stopped them. Their response yielded results and Buhari won a second term in 2019.
But as Nigeria warms up for the 2023 general elections, Obasanjo has started his agenda again though he is yet to disclose which among the 18 presidential candidates he would support.
Interestingly, many of the candidates have visited him to seek his support including Tinubu, the flag bearer of APC for the 2023 general election.
Many stakeholders are wondering whom he is likely going to support this time. Although the influence of the former leader was not a factor during the primaries of political parties, nearly all the presidential aspirants took their turns to visit him.
Atiku held a meeting with Obasanjo in Abeokuta, shortly after unfolding his aspiration. Recently, the Labour Party (LP) candidate, Peter Obi, visited him. The visit was dramatised in the media by the “Obidient” faithful as an endorsement. Tinubu’s visit to Otta Farm however attracted more attention than other visitations, but also generated controversy. Agenda In Whose Interest?
AS the 2023 election approaches, observers do not see the former president nor any of his junior officers, Babangida and Abubakar having any significant influence on the outcome. For them, the factors that will determine the outcome of the next presidential election are still very complex and unfolding. For instance, Atiku has the serious infighting in PDP over the demand for the immediate resignation of the National Chairman of the party, Senator Iyorchia Ayu to contend with. While Tinubu is carrying the burden of the unpopular policies of President Buhari, Obi and his ‘Obidient Movement’ are regarded as mere ‘social media’ rabble-rousers.
Besides, some of them have also dismissed Obasanjo’s homilies on good governance and guides to occupants of leadership positions as mere attempts to remain relevant rather than in the national interest. They contended that while in power, he perpetrated some of the ‘crimes’ that he has tried to carpet subsequent administrations for.
They listed his attempted third-term bid in office, massive failure of multi-billion naira investments in the power sector, failure of his government to attend to infrastructural deficit, especially road infrastructure, and even paying lip-service to restructuring, as some of his failings.
Meanwhile, immediate past Governor of Jigawa State, Alhaji Sule Lamido, says until the contents of Obasanjo’s national agenda are known, it would amount to speculation to talk about the implications, stressing, “let me know the agenda first. Or do you know?”
But reacting on the remarks by Obasanjo that he (Obasanjo) has no preferred candidate among the presidential flag bearers, former National Chairman of Social Democratic Party (SDP), Dr Olu Agunloye said the comment was a good omen for Nigeria because it would have been disastrous and disappointing if he had come out to say his preferred candidate.
“We must also realise that the fact that he said he is yet to see his preferred candidate does not mean one of the flag bearers would not emerge. Although people may expect Obasanjo to come out and pick one now; that may be too early for him to do.”
In another reaction, Tanko Yinusa, a stalwart of the National Conservative Front (NCFront) that is backing the Labour Party (LP) candidate, Peter Obi said kudos should be given to Obasanjo for his statesmanship endeavour all the time Nigeria is in need of it.
He has gone to prison for Nigeria with a near death experience, he has ruled thrice as military Head of State and two-term president but in all of this, Obasanjo stood for the unity and corporate existence of the country.
According to Yinusa, “What Obasanjo is trying to do by that comment is to see a situation where all the candidates would come together and the best among them would be selected.”
Meanwhile, a prominent leader of Southeast region, Chief Goddy Uwazurike, defined what Obasanjo said about having no preferred candidate as reference to Nigeria’s future.
According to him, “I have an idea of what the former president was trying to say. And simply he doesn’t want the country to continue with the old order but to inject fresh blood. But how would one have expected him to pick a preferred candidate now. As an elder statesman, he wouldn’t do that, otherwise it will create crisis. The fact is Obasanjo is committed to the unity of Nigeria.”
Seye Olumide is Guardian’s Southwest Bureau Chief