By Chidi Odinkalu & Ayisha Osori
“A man closed off by one means or another from free opinion and advice suffers a kind of mental intoxication. He lives in a world of ideas generated only by himself, a world of make-believe.”
This title, ‘Too good to die’ must have derived from the speech of Senator Mohammed Ohiare (Kogi Central) during the National Assembly Debate on the proposed amendment of Nigeria’s constitution to enable former president Olusegun Obasanjo have a third term in office. It is a research-based work “triggered by a few random questions and a theory: In a country overflowing with talented people, is Nigeria merely unlucky with leadership? Is the fault in our stars or is the course of Nigerian contemporary politics programmed to produce the kind of awful leadership that the country has consistently endured?
The thesis of this book or what the authors regard as a theory is that “the quality of leadership in Nigeria, particularly since the return of elective government in 1999, was no accident.” The authors used The Third Term Agenda as an anchor to explore the history of military intervention in Nigerian politics and the myth of the strong, indispensible leader in Africa. Why did it succeed in other African countries but failed in Nigeria? ‘Too good to die’ has the answer to this and other questions.
In 1997, Olusegun Obasanjo, by then long retired as Nigeria’s military Head of State, found himself imprisoned by the regime of General Sani Abacha. Confronted by the monotony of prison life, he decided to “use the relative isolation and solitude of the prison to reflect and put down for posterity” his views on a diverse range of subjects. In 1998, he published his “views about man and some suggestions on human existence and living.”
Fittingly, for a man whose life had become synonymous with Nigeria, Obasanjo dwelt considerably on his country and its prospects. He pro-posed three measures to guarantee “a solid and firm political foundation” for the country. These were: a national reconciliation conference, a truth and reconciliation commission and “a possible amendment to our Constitution to take account of some clearly articulated concerns.” Obasanjo also dwelt on five priority concerns to be addressed in any constitutional amendment. Among these he listed “a clause for self-determination and self-determination process”, a clause for integration and integration process, and outlawing coups. On this last point, he specifically argued that “for the offence against the Constitution, the officer, his accomplices, his supporters, cooperators and their families must be held liable for life.”
Two other priorities he called attention to were the need to guarantee “a compulsory nine-year free education for all Nigerian children” and “the elimination of capital punishment.”
These ideas were far reaching in their scope and implications for the country. Reflecting perhaps his experience as a man who had lived through and survived many a precarious incident in his time, Obasanjo took an expansive view of a coup d’etat not merely as a military event but as an “offence against the Constitution.” This attitude to coups tallied with his past advocacy within the leadership of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) for both presidential term limits and for outlawing what would later be known within the circles of regional institutions in Africa as “unconstitutional changes in government.” It was both foresighted and radical.
Less than one year after sharing these thoughts, a combination of fate and a healthy dose of fortune not altogether unknown to his life conspired to make Obasanjo the elected president of Nigeria. For the second time in two decades, he was presented with the opportunity to lead his country. In this capacity, he had a unique opportunity to pursue with the vigour and legitimacy of high office, the proposals he had thoughtfully worked through with the clarity offered by the isolation of imprisonment. With no apparent reason or provocation, Obasanjo as president studiously abandoned these ideas, only managing, half-heartedly, to enact a law to guarantee universal basic education in Nigeria in 2004. As a set of accomplishments compared to his set of priorities, this represented a success rate of a mere 20%. In terms of scale, it was much less.
True to his word, as civilian president, Obasanjo preoccupied himself with a project to amend Nigeria’s Constitution but, far from pursuing any of the priorities that he had articulated before entering office, his goal in seeking to change the Constitution was the entirely personal project of prolonging his tenure beyond the constitutionally permitted two terms, possibly creating a life presidency. The narrative that follows investigates why and how this transpired. In Nigeria, as in other parts of Africa, this was and remains known as ‘third term”.
The expression ‘third term’ may have become a proper noun in the lexicon of Africa’s contemporary political economy but it can be misleading. It is founded on the hope that a ruler who contrives to change his country’s basic law in order to stay in office for longer than the Constitution allowed at the time that he ran for office, would somehow thereafter, discover the virtue of fidelity to term limits. In the African experience, only once did that in fact happen: Namibia amended its Independence Constitution in 1998 to create an exception for the founding president, Sam Nujoma, to serve for three terms. All subsequent presidents were limited to not more than two terms of five years each. In all other cases in Africa where presidents have lifted constitutional term limits, they have found ways to continue in office interminably. With the exception of Gabon’s late president, Omar Bongo, all the African presidents who travelled this path were either former soldiers, liberation leaders or guerrilla fighters. They all have military backgrounds.
President Obasanjo was not the first African president or former soldier-politician to seek to portray himself as indispensable or to seek to perpetuate himself in office. Many more before him tried. Mobutu Sese Seko in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), Mua-mmar Ghaddafi in Libya, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Gnassingbe Eyadema in Togo, Idriss Deby Itno in Chad, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, were all former soldiers who successfully transitioned themselves into sit-tight presidents and indispensable men. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe led a liberation movement to power at Zimbabwe’s Independence in 1978.
Coming after these men, Obasanjo had a rich set of examples from which to draw inspiration. In their wake, he became the first former African general to fail in his effort to change the Constitution in order to extend his tenure and succeed himself. Since that effort, many more former African soldiers, including Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore, and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame have changed their national constitutions in order to entrench themselves in office. Some of them, such as Presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi and Blaise Compaore, would subsequently be swept from power in popular uprisings while Yahya Jam-meh had to be pried loose of power by a regional West African force after refusing to quit office following elections that he clearly lost in 2016. In 2017, after 37 years at the helm, Robert Mugabe grudgingly succumbed to the pressure from his party, ZANU-PF, backed by the tanks of the military and voluntarily resigned.
The exceptionalism of Obasanjo’s failure to make himself another indispensable African general is curious and worthy of deeper examination. Even more important than the story of what inspired it, it is necessary to understand why it was unsuccessful and what consequences the attempt has for the project of establishing statehood founded on legitimate institutions in Nigeria and across Africa.
There is clearly a pattern in Africa, of soldiers taking power by force of arms and then trading in their fatigues for civilian clothes and electoral legitimacy. Many of them have gone on thereafter to change their national constitutions in order to make themselves life presidents. The many examples of former soldiers who have followed this script make this pattern more than a mere coincidence.
There is more than one way to explain this tendency. Indeed, there could be three. First, it is possible that there is something in the political economy of African countries that lends them to military opportunism, life presidency or to presidential self-succession by soldiers who shed their fatigues.
Second, in the aftermath of the colonial incursion into Africa and, in most countries, its hasty retreat, the idea may have emerged that Africans cannot be managed except by the force of a strong man. The strong man in this context is epitomised by the soldier-president. If longevity in office in this sense is seen as a measure of strength, then achieving constitutional life presidency may be regarded as the gold standard in longevity or, indeed, a pre-condition for such longevity.
Third, it could also be that despite knowing their profession carries inherent threats to mortality, there is something in the training or psyche of the average military officer or in the regimental doctrines of the military generally that contradicts this knowledge and imbues them with the belief that they are gods; too good to die or simply beyond the laws of both nature and politics. Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe, who fought in the Second World War and survived to become the most senior military officer in Nigeria after the second military coup in July 1966, is recorded as having remarked after that coup that “it is not in the nature of officers with my upbringing to want to interfere in politics; we are taught to be good soldiers not politicians.”
The upbringing he referred to was the traditions of regimental training and doctrine under the British Empire where the authority of the civilian sovereign was well established and accepted by both the general population and the military. If this is so, then the notion of the military as the supplier of politicians who are too good to die could be Africa’s contribution to leadership and governance and may have emerged after Independence. Its origins are well worth examining.