Taking Obasanjo to task
by Idowu Akinlotan
IT is hard to explain what has led to the distortion of the keynote address presented two Saturdays ago by ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo at the 2019 synod of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), Oleh Diocese Isoko, Delta State. Did his controversial, self-serving and almost narcissistic person get in the way of a proper comprehension of his diagnoses of the national malaise? Or was the controversy and miscomprehension triggered by the present government’s often misplaced and instinctive umbrage? Or perhaps the Information minister, Lai Mohammed, unwittingly draped the whole issue in his customary propagandist response to anything that seemed like a criticism of the Muhammadu Buhari presidency? Whatever it was, Chief Obasanjo’s copious and even remarkable examination (in nearly 10,000 words) of Nigeria’s developmental problems on May 18, 2019 was needlessly entwined in petty controversy, and the public forced into entanglements that further complicate and vitiate a good understanding of the theses he tried to promote.
Of the about 70 paragraphs to which the address was divided, only about two or three appeared to be pointed criticisms of the Buhari presidency. The rest of the speech was taken up by useful dissections of the Nigerian condition, a few barbed references here and there, but on the whole fairly passable and well-reasoned prognostications. The former president repeatedly indulged in idolatrous references to his policy successes, taking particular note of his nationalist credentials vis-a-vis the sectionalist credentials of the incumbent president. He also barely disguised his contempt for many of the shocking shortcomings of his successors. Indeed, a sizable part of his address dealt with counsels to his successors which his own presidency glaringly spurned, and virtues he preached to them which he turned inimitably into personal vices. The contradictions have led many analysts to wrongly focus on his person than on his ideas. Chief Obasanjo cannot by any stretch be regarded as a virtuous man, or that when he seizes upon relevant public issues he can be trusted to offer the right prognoses. He likes to present himself as a man of ideas; but at bottom, he is a man only besotted with ideas.
There is also a second reason many analysts are unwilling to give the former president a hearing. They see him as unalterably opposed to the Buhari presidency and has done and keeps doing everything to ensure its failure. Nothing, they reason (and this is the Information minister’s position) will placate him. Chief Obasanjo may be afflicted with a messianic complex, and may even secretly and controversially nurse the desire to see his successors underperform in clear contrast to himself, but there is nothing sacrosanct about his secret desire to make his successors the failures they have arguably become. He may thus be filled with contradictions, and be even inured to criticisms and abuse, but he has an uncanny ability to ferret out great public issues deserving of attention and deep scrutiny. And because he possesses the name recognition to imbue his criticisms with traction and even nobility, Nigerians may periodically be compelled to give him listening ears in spite of themselves, and must also restrain themselves from outrightly dismissing his interesting perceptions and conclusions.
Chief Obasanjo may not be smart enough to build a great and imperishable legacy for himself, but he was sensible enough to choose the Anglican Synod held in Delta State to focus attention on a number of developmental issues troubling Nigeria. His address, as fairly remarkable as it was, would have been consigned to the archives almost immediately after he delivered it had he not chosen, in a very long speech, to make vigorous references to what he sees as the creeping Fulanisation and Islamisation of Nigeria. He did not put the blame squarely on the Buhari presidency. In fact, he argued that careless domestic policies and issues had combined in a lethal brew with external events and actors to produce and unleash processes that could sunder Nigeria. The former president, not known for mincing words, seemed even uncharacteristically wary of making pointed references to the obvious failures and weaknesses of the Buhari presidency. So he spoke obliquely.
Hereunder are the two main references to the Buhari presidency that have drawn the ire of critics: (a) “Every issue of insecurity must be taken seriously at all levels and be addressed at once without favouritism or cuddling. Both Boko Haram and herdsmen acts of violence were not treated as they should at the beginning. They have both incubated and developed beyond what Nigeria can handle alone. They are now combined and internationalised with ISIS in control. It is no longer an issue of lack of education and lack of employment for our youth in Nigeria which it began as, it is now West African Fulanisation, African Islamisation and global organised crimes of human trafficking, money laundering, drug trafficking, gun trafficking, illegal mining and regime change. Yet we could have dealt with both earlier and nipped them in the bud, but Boko Haram boys were seen as rascals not requiring serious attention in administering holistic measures of stick and carrot. And when we woke up to the reality, it was turned to an industry for all and sundry to supply materials and equipment that were already outdated and that were not fit for active military purpose. Soldiers were poorly trained for the unusual mission, poorly equipped, poorly motivated, poorly led and made to engage in propaganda rather than achieving results. Intelligence was poor and governments embarked on games of denials while paying ransoms which strengthened the insurgents and yet governments denied payment of ransoms. Today, the security issue has gone beyond the wit and capacity of Nigerian government or even West African governments.”
(b) “I think it is like a building, which once the foundation is faulty, becomes wobbly with the tiniest turbulence. Consequently, the issue of national identity, values, ethics and national dream must be settled once and for all. This may require a global national meeting. If Miyetti Allah is truly encouraging herdsmen violence and killings and truly they have to be appeased or placated with 100 billion naira and they are equated to Afenifere, Ohaneze Ndigbo, etc, then we have to appease those other organisations similarly or be ready to allow them to unleash havoc of their own. We need politics of a united Nigeria for all Nigerians not one for Yoruba, one for Ibo, one for Hausa-Fulani, one for Ijaw, one for Nupe, one for Tiv, one for Kanuri and one for Isoko. If we fail to do this, I am afraid all the EFCC, ICPC, Plans and Strategies and the rest of the political re-engineering and manoeuvres such as creation or contraction/merger of states, forms of government, attempts at ethical re-orientation, constitutional amendment, etc, may not usher in the much desired peace, stability, national development, and of course, improvement in the quality of life of the majority of Nigerians…”
Both statements of course describe the failure of the Buhari presidency and insinuate the government’s abject lack of capacity. But they are nevertheless issues that are quite in the public domain, and except the country is living in denial, they are issues that strike at the core of the country’s stability and survival. In the second quotation, the former president spoke somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and even seemed to have permitted himself a few rumours, but no one can deny that the Buhari presidency has not carelessly submitted itself to the politics of Miyetti Allah, the umbrella body of herdsmen. Chief Obasanjo was not exaggerating by dragging in the Miyetti Allah issue into his discourse as an indication of the weakness, if not complicity, of the government in the massive insecurity inundating the country. The presidency has denied budgeting N100bn to appease herdsmen, but it is incredibly setting up a radio station for their affairs, as announced by the Education minister, not Information or Communications minister. Such abominable decisions speak to Chief Obasanjo’s fears that this government has become so insensitive to its political, social and cultural surroundings that it has become tone deaf and listens only to itself. Chief Obasanjo’s person may obtrude arguments, but it does not rob him of the capacity and judgement of correctly deciphering some of the nefarious decisions being made by this government.
But perhaps the most controversial part of Chief Obasanjo’s address are his thoughts on the Fulanisation and Islamisation of Nigeria and West Africa using the amenities of herdsmen invasions and Boko Haram insurgency. Again, whoever Chief Obasanjo may be and whatever policies he had enacted in the past do not necessarily negate his observation or vitiate its accuracy. There is nothing in his statement that suggests that he concluded that the Buhari presidency had determined to Fulanise or Islamise the country, even if that ambition was secretly nursed. The former president’s argument is in fact very simple. By allowing Boko Haram insurgency to fester for so long, which predated the Buhari presidency, and the herdsmen rampage to be treated rather cavalierly as in fact this administration is doing by its many exculpatory and vexatious arguments, the stage was being set for the balkanisation of Nigeria. Chief Obasanjo drew on the example of Somalia to illustrate his general argument about elite irresponsibility and dishonesty in tackling vexing existential problems. Who can fail to be moved by the fact that Nigeria harbours two of the world’s deadliest terrorist groups? Who can fail to be affected by the fact that herdsmen sack villages and occupy them in a country that has borders, laws and governments? For instance, last year, the Plateau State government, responding to entreaties by community leaders who said some 54 villages had been sacked and renamed by herdsmen, promised to prosecute land grabbers. Nothing has, however, been done.
The Information minister describes Chief Obasanjo’s criticisms as divisive. Others see the former president as unqualified to raise the issues he felt were destabilising the country. Both are wrong. They may not like Chief Obasanjo, and the former president himself may be guilty of some of the wrongdoings he is alleging against the current and previous administrations, but he has sensibly drawn the attention of Nigerians to the divisions and acrimony destroying the unity of the country. The attention must not be on the messenger, particularly this deeply flawed messenger; the focus must be on the issues. The greatest issue today is that the country, particularly the North, has spawned a nest of vipers brimming with insurgents and militant herdsmen who are picking the country apart. If nothing is done very urgently, as advocated by Chief Obasanjo, this increasingly divided and misdirected country will go up in flames. Nigerians will be living in denial not to see and feel this danger. It is worse when they seize upon Chief Obasanjo’s personal flaws to deny the existence of the existential crisis facing them.