[FLASHBACK] Between OBJ and PMB: The Dangers, The Fear

By Jide Ajani

For two men whose ideas of Nigerian unity are poles apart, one vigorously into farming, and the other a herdsman with a ranch, Nigerians should watch it. Is Olusegun Obasanjo a strategic thinker or a hype-man? Is President Muhammadu Buhari a strong and effective person or an insensitive and ineffectual nepotic leader?

These two issues stick to the core of recent developments in Nigeria regarding the President Buhari governance processes, outputs and outcomes, as well as last week’s scathing special press statement issued in typical character, by former President Obasanjo. However, between the hype-man and the alleged ineffectual leader, Nigerians need to know the workings of the mind of both men of power.

Interestingly, both have age and authority on their sides and, therefore, a frontal, no-holds-barred revelation of the workings of the innermost recesses of these individuals cannot be openly engaged. Yet, this report will show that whereas Obasanjo spoke truth to power, his high degree of complicity in the serial mismanagement of Nigeria’s governance process for decades remains legendary.

The report will also attempt to show that President Buhari runs the risk of being recorded on the wrong side of history if he doesn’t take urgent, concrete and unique steps to correct the plethora of manifest insensitive errors of omission and commission of his administration. Considering the personalities of both men, this latest tiff should encourage well-meaning Nigerians to intervene.

Obasanjo: In 1979, just after one of the executive meetings of the Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN, some concerned members of the then military junta, led by General Olusegun Obasanjo, employed back channels to reach the UPN leadership regarding the choice that had just been made by Chief Obafemi Awolowo. The latter had just picked Sir Philip Umeadi, of Igbo extraction, as his choice for running mate.

Other reports had it that an attempt to pick an elder statesman from the North was deemed a waste of time as, according to a source who played a major role in the events of that era, “the North was not prepared to vote for Awolowo”. Awo, as the UPN leader and presidential candidate for that year’s general elections was fondly called, did not back down on the junta’s request to drop Umeadi from the ticket. He contested the election with Umeadi; and lost. The circumstances which surrounded the outcome of the litigation against his co-contestant, Alhaji Usman Aliyu Shehu Shagari, at the Supreme Court, till date, is alleged, in some quarters, to have enjoyed a tacit support of Obasanjo’s military government.

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Gleefully, Obasanjo handed over to Shagari that morning of October 1, 1979 at Tafawa Balewa Square, Race Course, Lagos. The Yoruba nation never forgot, nor forgave Obasanjo’s perceived theft of the presidency. But here was a man who believed in the workability of a united Nigeria and, therefore, could not come to terms with a political party fielding a Yoruba and Igbo as presidential and vice-presidential candidates, barely nine years after the civil war.

Buhari: In December, 2014, Buhari gave a speech after his election as the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress, APC. His words: “My nomination is not because I am better than any of the other contestants. I see it as a tribute and mark of confidence to carry the torch as we all join hands to rescue our dear country Nigeria, from those who have led us into the current state of insecurity, poverty, sectarian divide and hopelessness among our people.

“What I say today is for all Nigerians: Christian and Muslim, southern and northern, rich and poor, young and old, man and woman. We are all citizens of Nigeria. There is no dividing line among us that I care to honour. Either we advance as one or fail altogether.”

One writer had observed Buhari’s speech thus: “Consider the order of his words: Christian before Muslim, southern before northern and rich before poor.
“Buhari, who had been faulted as a Muslim extremist, chose to put Christians before his fellow Muslims. Said to be a northern irredentist, he chose to put his southern brethren before his northern compatriots and the former head of state, who has been hailed as a champion of the poor masses and a foe of the rich, in his speech, put the rich before his beloved poor supporters”.

In concluding, Buhari had said, “My choice and my colleagues’ choice and wish are that we progress together. Preserving the nation’s future is a sacred obligation to all of us in this party. Leaders should be wholly committed to fulfilling this obligation otherwise they have no business being leaders. Sadly, the current administration does not believe in this obligation. By their actions they are leading us to calamity”.

And in his inaugural speech on May 29, 2015, the new President declared that he was “for everybody and for nobody”.

Whereas Obasanjo enjoys the confidence and support of the international community as a statesman and continues to be engaged on the global stage, the former President has an understanding of Nigeria’s unity from the prism which some have continued to describe as an unfortunate standpoint of first being seen as pro-Nigeria, before his Yoruba origin.

Conversely, President Buhari places the primacy of his roots, the Fulani, on the same, if not higher, pedestal than other Nigerians.

Like the late Yoruba sage once noted, you cannot claim to be Nigerian without first acknowledging that you are either a Yoruba man or an Igbo or Hausa. Therefore, Buhari cannot be faulted for showing preference to his people to the extent that he does not cross the boundaries of equity and fairness. But many can see that he has crossed many lines.

In the wake of the letter written by Obasanjo last week, a national newspaper had, in its editorial, observed the following, “This government seems to be alarmingly slow. Buhari set himself up for failure from the outset, ring-fencing his presidency with appointees, mostly from his part of the country, relatives and acolytes. Without regard for the ethnic and sectarian diversity of the country, he loaded the security apparatus preponderantly with northerners and filled vacancies in departments and agencies with northerners.

Of some top 20 security positions, at least 17 are held by northerners. Never in the history of this country has a leader who demonstrated such clannishness and insensitivity. A sharp cleavage is tearing the country apart.”

This was exactly the point Obasanjo clearly referred to in his letter.

Continuing, the editorial made the distinction that “refraining from plunder is not the only test of integrity: fairness and equity, fulfilment of promises and zero tolerance for errant aides and associates also matter. Buhari fails the integrity test by his benevolent treatment of Fulani terrorists, who are on the rampage nationwide; his continued retention of appointees who smuggled in a wanted pension thief, and who, at various times, have hobbled the anti-corruption war.

This indicates that things have changed in worrying ways. Buhari’s record of failed electoral promises such as one to break up the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, whose indiscretions have saddled us with yet another round of petrol scarcity, beggars belief.”

Both men, rather queerly, have this abiding faith in the indissolubility of the Nigerian nation. They have supporters who believe in same.

However, the point of divergence is the near-myopic, Mephistophelean insistence that the structure of the Nigerian state, as it is presently put up, does not really need restructuring. This suggests an unthinking thesis for, contemporary Nigeria continues to wobble on account of the jagged structure which, for years, has been identified as a major source of underdevelopment.

When former President Goodluck Jonathan began driving down the road of ethnicity, Obasanjo was quick to charge at him, insisting such was dangerous for Nigeria’s unity. He has done the same with Buhari in his latest letter. Yet, the same Obasanjo as a PDP member, lampooned his party chairman, Audu Ogbeh, who, by the way, is the Minister of Agriculture, in today’s APC administration, when the latter attempted to prick Obasanjo’s conscience about the shambling polity that Obasanjo’s governance process was producing at that time.

There are unverified claims in some quarters that some of the appointments by this administration that have caused so much angst in the land, because of the lopsided nature, were done by some other people inside Aso Rock Presidential Villa. If true, that, in itself, is an indictment of President Buhari and his governance processes – although his January 1, 2018 speech to the nation pointed at processes as being Nigeria’s problem and not the structure. But his own process too, considering the discounts, may not be tidy enough.

Whereas Obasanjo works very hard – and even tries to make profit of it – to promote and uplift others outside his Yoruba stock, even carrying it to a near-ridiculous extent of denunciation, President Buhari makes no bones about his heritage and its promotion. That is why there is a preponderance of people not just from the North, but from his Katsina State and particularly Daura, in his government.

They (Buhari and Obasanjo) both claim to be (and indeed they are) patriots, but their patriotism derives from different sources. While Obasanjo, most times, seeks justification from and mostly kow-tows to the North to prove his patriotism, PMB looks inward, especially to his Fulani heritage, and corals other Nigerians to justify why the nation must remain one. Unfortunately for Obasanjo, some of his Yoruba people perceive him as an outcast, and some of his children don’t see eye to eye with him. Buhari’s Fulani people see him as a liberator – and, indeed, he is, no matter what anybody says.

With a following that is at once fanatical about President Buhari; and an Obasanjo’s voice that is strong in the international community, both men typify the proverbial two elephants set to do battle.

Buhari, in the estimation of the young, uneducated (and even some educated) northerners, is a messiah that is misunderstood but for whom they are ready to do anything – just anything. Therefore, the prospects of a Buhari seeking a second term and losing at the ballot, come with the dangerous possibility of another violent uprising as was the case in 2011, because his people believe that he can never lose a free and fair election in the North.

Since 2003, 2007, 2011, he has always garnered more votes than his opponents, while not doing well at all in the South. Yet, Obasanjo, known for his swashbuckling push whenever he makes such pronouncements as was made last week, never holds back. In fact, to have put himself in the middle of the Coalition for Nigeria, CN, suggests an agenda that has already been rehearsed and well-thought out.

Obasanjo, who once said any Nigerian that is “well-born and well-bred and well brought up, will respect two things, among others: age and authority – and I have them both”- has never been known to be a man who shies away from being heard.

Unfortunately, this time, Obasanjo must bear the burden of the reality that his words will not access the consciousness of those driving the process that has rendered the Buhari administration discombobulate and shambolic. What this means is that Obasanjo, also referred to derisively as the EBORA-OWU (the spirit from Owu), will not back-off. He will dig-in and either say more, or galvanise public opinion.

Take, for instance, the issue of access. Did Obasanjo attempt to use official or backdoor channels to reach the President and ventilate some of the issues he publicly talked about? If he did, was he turned down or pooh-poohed? If not, why did he opt to go public? Well, some believe that it is vintage Obasanjo.

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Remember, there are strong feelings in some quarters that Obasanjo supported Buhari in order to spite Jonathan and get him out of Aso Rock, not necessarily because of his interest in Nigeria; because had Jonathan danced to Obasanjo’s tunes all the way, he wouldn’t have abandoned him.

Buhari, on the other hand, in 2015, sought Aso Rock, because he was convinced to seek the office by some others, and, as a complementary endeavor, there was a need to rebalance the equation – after cumulative 14 years that the North had been out of power. Has he rebalanced the equation? Work-in-progress!

Sometimes, it is as if Obasanjo works so hard to get people to power, watch them flounder, abandon them and wait for their mistakes. It is also as if he does it so that he would still be seen as the best ever to have ruled. The editorial earlier quoted also noted that whereas President Buhari is “the chief host when Nigerians record accomplishments and the chief mourner when they are in distress, the Fulani herdsmen killings have brought impunity to a spectacular climax”.

It added, “But Buhari did not visit when 73 persons were slaughtered in Benue State, over 100 in Numan, Adamawa State, and 19 persons butchered in Rivers State on New Year’s Day. Everywhere else, leaders share in the triumphs and grief of their people. Buhari only donned military fatigues to inaugurate an army battalion to combat cattle rustlers in Zamfara State, as if cattle are more precious than human lives”.

This type of world view – even if it is mere perception – is dangerous in a polity of clashing interests.
Did Obasanjo need to speak out? Yes.
Has Buhari become this bad? Yes and no!
Because the political firmament is near-bare for now and even the birds flying about do not in any way present a veritable option, sans nepotism and insensitivity of this administration, things can still be put right should the famed owners of Nigeria decide to fully engage President Buhari and help him come to terms with the realities of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-interest Nigeria, and move Nigeria towards the progress and development which he promised and for which he amassed so much goodwill.

*This piece was first published in 2018 after former President Obasanjo wrote his first letter to President Buhari.



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