By Obi Nwakanma
Now, you can’t touch: Mathew Olusegun Aremu Obasanjo, General and Commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria, former President of the Republic, ex-this and that, felt the pull in his patriotic heartstrings last week, and he penned a most acerbic letter to his “acolyte” – President Dr. Goodluck Jonathan. General Obasanjo is known to rise to the occasion with his letters. He wrote Shagari, he wrote Buhari; he wrote the famous letter urging Babangida to “put a human face to SAP;” heck, he wrote to himself! Now, he has written Jonathan.
There are those who have come to compare Obasanjo’s public letters to sitting heads of state to the proverbial dark shrieks of the owl, which presages some ominous event, namely, a coup. But we must not be superstitious. We must regard the letters for what they intend to be: the clarions to public duty. But the remarkable thing about Obasanjo is that he has all the answers when he is not in government. General Obasanjo is the greatest beneficiary in his generation of all that a nation can bestow on an individual. He has attained the highest power and authority in the land, both as military dictator and an elected president. The problem is Obasanjo’s legacy in power. Among his legacies is the election of President Goodluck Jonathan.
Maybe we should refresh the memories of Nigerians at this point: in 1999, Obasanjo was backed by a powerful alliance of the Nigerian elite and some of their international sponsors who had sold the fiction that only Obasanjo was created by God to keep Nigeria from breaking apart at the end of the military era. The soldiers had acquired extraordinary power at the expense of the nation – great personal wealth; great capacity for violence; suffuse and blanket power that alienated the citizens, and a corrupt machinery that gave them the resource to determine the will of the nation without recourse to law.
Nigerians had fought this clique and by 1998, tried to restore the republic. But the Generals knew that they could not withdraw in disarray, and that they needed to protect their already entrenched interests, and so they took Obasanjo from jail and made him president. Nigerians could live with that. Of course, a wide swath of the citizenry felt that the nation should make a clean break from military rule, and understood that Obasanjo was merely the proverbial Greek gift to a wracked nation desirous of change and an end to military tyranny by all means. Nigerians nonetheless thought Obasanjo had learned some lessons from his humiliating time in jail and that he was reformed from his past. His first four years in office was a disaster – wasted years that saw neither the expected transformation in the lives of Nigerians nor in the democratic change that was anticipated. Obasanjo ceded the secular authority of the state by allowing the legal secession of Zamfara and the rest of the Sharia states, and in doing that failed to uphold the constitution which he swore to defend and live by. The Sharia movement exploded into what we now call Boko Haram, the current albatross of the Jonathan administration. Between 1999 and 2007 when Obasanjo was president, real income declined; there was a massive level of corruption which led to the establishment of the EFCC, based on a most flawed legislation which gave the president the instrument to harass his opponents rather than prosecute real corruption.
Indeed, in the eight years of Obasanjo’s presidency, oil proceeds were not accounted; Obasanjo took the portfolio of oil minister and there is no Nigerian alive who knows exactly the true quantum of revenue accruing to Nigeria in those years. President Obasanjo operated the oil ministry like his private estate, and there is still, no visible trail of the revenue; no visible impact in its use to elevate the quality of lives of the Nigerian.
Nigeria continued to experience massive infrastructural decay; as indeed the massive hemorrhaging of public funds in the energy or power projects that did not come to stream. Political violence was at its deadliest. The assassination of the likes of Harry, Dikibo, Bola Ige, Chimere Ikoku, and so many whose unexplained and unsolved deaths still haunt the nation happened under Obasanjo’s watch. The manipulation of elections and the distortion of the public mandate was a key feature of Nigeria under Obasanjo. The Third term project, and the corrupt sale of Nigeria’s public investment to friends, concubines, and cronies happened under Obasanjo. Basically, General Obasanjo stripped Nigeria to the bones, was unable to solve the massive unemployment situation which is the nuclear-bomb waiting to explode in Nigeria, and the introduction of vigilante justice, kidnapping and assassinations was at its peak under Obasanjo. Perhaps he has forgotten, or perhaps, he was far too occluded and far too secure in the reinforced walls of Aso Rock to take note.
What Obasanjo’s letter in sum does is to really indicate that the aphrodisiac of power wears off very quickly when you leave the enclosure of power. And so, Obasanjo, who had more than a hand in the emergence in power of his acolyte, the president, who is following in his exact policy footsteps: his economic, political, and security policies which basically mirror Obasanjo’s to the detail, is like a wasted mea culpa. In his letter last week, Obasanjo may just have been writing to himself. He has touched upon key truths which the current incumbent must note, because, though Obasanjo is as guilty of the things he has written against President Jonathan, they are issues which this president must quickly resolve and contain: the question of public accountability; of the lack of transparency in the oil revenue accounts; the deadly national security situation; his narrow and diminishing political base; the very fact that he was elected president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and not an “Ijaw president.” All are sound political advice.
One advise that the president must however not feel obligated to is the question of his choice and rights to seek re-election. It is his political right, and the decision on whether he remains president or not should be left to the courts and the electoral choice and decisions of Nigerians in an open and transparent ballot. That said, it is clear that Obasanjo’s letter, dripping with frustration and his growing impatience with the president signals a critical open shot in the drama leading to 2015. But it should do more: it should lead to the airing of all our national dirty linen; the hidden and unresolved secrets that have remained a millstone on the neck of Nigerians. Obasanjo is not one of my favorite people in the world, but the president must certainly not discard the message in spite of the messenger. Interesting times are upon us.