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Much Ado about Obasanjo’s Endorsement


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BY SIMON KOLAWOLE

My friend sent me a WhatsApp chat shortly after President Olusegun Obasanjo announced his endorsement of Mr Peter Obi, the presidential candidate of the Labour Party. “What does the Obasanjo endorsement mean?” he asked. I smiled to myself and replied: “It means he is bored!” Like him or hate him, Obasanjo is a headline maker any day. With him, downtimes are rare. He has consistently inserted himself into public consciousness since he left power as military head of state in 1979. He is not one former leader who waits for things to happen. He makes things happen. How can any general election come and go and Obasanjo won’t be at the centre of action? God forbid!

Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) who was vice-president to Obasanjo from 1999 to 2007, has kicked, saying his former boss was only looking for a “third term” through Obi. For those who may not get the gist, Obasanjo’s foot soldiers unsuccessfully tried to amend the constitution in 2006 to allow Obasanjo run for a third term. When he anointed Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua above Atiku as his successor in 2007, the accusation was that he was trying to do a third term by proxy, although President Yar’Adua turned out not to be a lackey. By the way, Atiku did not talk about “third term by proxy” when Obasanjo endorsed him in 2019. Just saying.

Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), has also taken a swipe at Obasanjo for endorsing Obi, likening it to “the blind leading the blind”. Tinubu said that “one who doesn’t know the way cannot show the way”. He also reminded Nigerians of how Obasanjo and Atiku fought naked “in Wuse market” when both men were in power. However, Tinubu was silent on the fact that he and Candidate Muhammadu Buhari led a team of APC leaders to Obasanjo’s Abeokuta home in 2015 in search of this endorsement. If I recall, they had only glowing words for him and even took a memorable picture with him in front of his house. Politics!

I have heard people dismiss Obasanjo’s endorsement as not carrying any political weight because he is not an electoral asset. Well, that is one line of argument. If you are going to enjoy the endorsement of anybody, it should be able to bring votes. However, Obasanjo has never really been a vote machine. Before he was elected president in 1999, he was a political lightweight, heavily propped by northern elements and supported in the south-east and south-south. He did not win in the polling booth in front of his house in the December 1998 council election, although a special arrangement was made for him to win on his street in the presidential poll to save his face.

Nevertheless, Obasanjo offers something else. As a statesman who inspires headlines, Obasanjo is someone you would want in your corner. As Yoruba elders would say, a prayer is better than a curse. Even if the prayer will not be answered, it is better to say: “God bless you.” You also don’t want Obasanjo to be on your case, supplying damaging words to your opponents. If Tinubu and Atiku had their way, they would want him to endorse them even if it would not bring votes. Why do politicians keep flocking to Minna to see Gen Ibrahim Babangida, former military president, every election year? How many votes can he deliver when he himself could not stage a comeback as he desired?

This time, Obasanjo was never going to endorse either of Atiku or Tinubu. Despite endorsing Atiku in 2019, he would say, in June 22, that picking him as his running mate in 1999 was a mistake. That is deep. He endorsed Atiku in 2019 just to spite Buhari. Simple. The bitterness between Atiku and Obasanjo will never fade away, even though it is also clear that Obasanjo wants the next president to come from the south in the spirit of national unity and equity. At least, he is known for promoting this and he privately gave it as a reason for backing Buhari in 2015, insisting that Jonathan had agreed to do only one term so that power could return to the north following Yar’Adua’s death.

Also, Tinubu was never an option for Obasanjo. Some have argued that Obasanjo wants to be the pre-eminent Yoruba in the history of Nigeria and that was why he never supported Chief Obafemi Awolowo (in 1979) and “betrayed” Bashorun MKO Abiola (in 1993). It is thus argued that he would never want another Yoruba to be president. I wouldn’t want to pursue this line of argument. What I do know, however, is that there has been no love lost between Tinubu and Obasanjo from time immemorial. In fact, if Obasanjo had had his way, Tinubu’s reign as governor of Lagos state would have been terminated in 2003. After all, PDP took the other south-west states with one blow.

I don’t know the origin of the war. I know that Obasanjo did not score 25 percent in any south-west state (bar Ekiti) in the 1999 presidential election and this was a major embarrassment for him. His rivals in the PDP used it to haunt him ahead of the 2003 elections. He was not even sure of getting PDP’s return ticket. In 1998, the PDP had to jettison a requirement that the presidential aspirants should deliver their states in the council elections. Obasanjo’s nemesis was the Alliance for Democracy (AD), the south-west party where Tinubu and co called the shots. Tinubu later upstaged the likes of Chief Abraham Adesanya and Chief Ayo Adebanjo to become the Yoruba political leader.

That Obasanjo desperately wanted Tinubu out in 2003 was not hidden. The rumour was that Atiku undermined Obasanjo’s moves to displace Tinubu, and Tinubu paid Atiku back by supporting him in the “Wuse market” fight with Obasanjo. Tinubu would give the presidential ticket of the Action Congress to Atiku in 2007 after Obasanjo had successfully blocked him in the PDP. We should also recall that Obasanjo seized Lagos council funds over the creation of local council development areas (LCDAs). Obasanjo declared them illegal, although the Supreme Court ruled that he did not have the power to seize allocations. He also tried to stall the construction of the Fourth Mainland Bridge.

All said, in the pool of four strong presidential candidates, Obi was the only option for Obasanjo. Alhaji Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP) and Atiku are northerners, so they were not going to figure in the spirit of power rotation. Tinubu is Obasanjo’s eternal enemy and rival. Obi, who is enjoying the backing of many young Nigerians, is the only option for Obasanjo, who would also want to go on record as supporting the election of the first executive president from the Igbo nationality (Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe was a ceremonial president in a parliamentary system). Obasanjo did his maths very well: history will be written in his favour even if Obi does not win.

What an irony. It was the same Obasanjo that presided over the massive rigging of the 2003 general election in which Obi’s victory in Anambra governorship poll was brazenly stolen from him. I was a sympathiser of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) in those days. I knew, based on solid evidence, that the results coming out of the south-east were massively rigged in favour of the PDP. It was only Obi (then in APGA) that was able to reclaim his mandate after three years of litigation. If the Uba brothers had not fallen out with Dr Chris Ngige, who had been declared governor and inaugurated, Obi could not have reclaimed his victory. It was their falling-out that helped him.

Obasanjo was solidly behind the Ubas. Ngige was just a few weeks into his tenure as governor when he was kidnapped, falsely imprisoned and forced to sign his resignation by some Anambra gangsters because they said he failed to do their bidding. He managed to survive the coup. But Obasanjo refused to recognise him as governor of Anambra thereafter, even withdrawing his security protection. Ngige started using what looked like Man O’ War as security. The gangsters wanted Ngige removed at all costs and went on the rampage, burning down the Government House in a bid to force the declaration of a state of emergency. The resilient Ngige survived all the schemes.

However, Ngige could not survive the election petition. He was a goner the moment a police officer, who was a handwriting expert, showed up at the tribunal to testify that all the result sheets from the local governments with which the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) declared the winner were filled by the same person. No police officer would testify against INEC in those days without the authorisation of the federal government. It further helped that Obi presented the original result sheets. That was how he was declared governor. It was not as if Obasanjo loved him so much — it was more because he needed to do everything to remove Ngige and pacify the Ubas.

Many of us who knew Obasanjo before Twitter was invented are not always ecstatic when he pulls his stunts. But give it to him: he knows how to seize the moment. He knows how to ride the waves. His endorsement letter was addressed to the youths, which, in my opinion, is a fantastic tactic. He always manages to deodorise his past with his present. He constantly writes and rewrites history. Most strategically for Obasanjo, Nigerians can never be united in their opinion of him. Those who abused him in 2011 praised him in 2015, and those who abused him in 2015 praised him in 2019. Now, those who abused him over the Civil War and the Anambra shenanigans are hailing him.

Still, there are merits to Obasanjo’s endorsement. I like it that Adebanjo’s Afenifere also endorsed Obi. Nigeria can do with cross-ethnic and cross-regional endorsements by eminent Nigerians, not the usual faceless hirelings. It would be nice for the Northern Elders Forum to go outside their regional enclave and endorse someone from another part of the country. We need this positive signalling for national healing, peace and progress. This is the Nigeria I want. It is also good that old men like Edwin Clark, Obasanjo and Adebanjo endorsed Obi. That is cross-generational. Agreed, Obasanjo’s endorsement cannot make Obi president, but it carries a good message — no matter the motive.

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AND FOUR OTHER THINGS

FINANCE KILL

There seems to be something cynical about the way and manner the Finance Bill 2022 was passed by the National Assembly. President Buhari has thankfully refused to give assent on the ground that there were irregularities. While I commend the president for preventing what could lead to a serious crisis for businesses because of the implications of some of the provisions, I am at a loss as to why the legislature would rush such a critical bill without properly engaging with the stakeholders who will bear the brunt. How can the senate give a 24-hour notice for the public hearing on something that important? The house of reps that gave three-week notice passed it before the date. Shame!

CASHLESS NAIRA

Is it me or are the new naira notes just difficult to lay hands upon? We have less than three weeks to dispense with the old naira notes in our wallets, but I have not yet set my eyes on the redesigned naira. Even the ATMs are still dispensing old notes. I can cope with the deadline. I will keep doing electronic transactions despite the technical challenges that we are still battling with. Your account may be debited and the vendor will not receive payment, and you have to wait for days or go to a bank to get it reversed. Those I pity the most are those buying and selling suya, onions and boli. They could be in for a rough time. I just hope we won’t ruin what is left of the economy. Caution.

DEATH AND DESTRUCTION

Lt P.P. Johnson, a young army officer, was declared missing after visiting the Aku-Okigwe community in Imo state. The search continues. She is believed to have been kidnapped by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). We have to keep hope alive because those IPOB guys could be extremely brutal. The Aku-Okigwe community has denied claims that Johnson hailed from the area or that she went to visit her relatives. They also denied that she was abducted in the community and have accused the army of “indiscriminate rampage and killing of innocent residents” in search of Johnson. Let us pray the officer will return alive and that the army will follow the rules the rescue mission. Heartbreaking.

NIGERIA DECIDES

In less than seven weeks, Nigerians will go to the polls to elect a new president. Not so long ago, it looked like ages to come. Now we are counting weeks and days and hours and minutes. We need a transparently credible general election to rekindle the faith of Nigerians in the system. Though there are challenges here and there, the electoral commission has kept us updated on its activities and has also been responsive to complaints and observations. Politicians have been campaigning and the courts are still busy. There have been cases of violence, though not widespread. But, generally, I still look forward to largely peaceful polls. However, it is the duty of everybody to play fair. Imperative.

Credit: ThisDay

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