In this season of goodwill, it is my sincere desire to express sympathy with the former leader, President Olusegun Obasanjo whose home was partly gutted by fire. We must thank God that the fire was put out before it could consume the entire house. Obasanjo is a man of history and anything that destroys his house will also destroy part of Nigeria’s national history.
In his days, former President, Rt. Hon. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe never recovered from the loss of his rare and precious books burnt by federal troops at Nsukka during the Civil War. For people like Zik or Obasanjo, loss of assets or millions of naira is recoverable, but loss of precious artifacts, records, documents, pictures and other little memorabilia are irrecoverable. Permit me therefore this little prayer: In 2013, may God never allow fire or the locusts to consume our lives’ works and things that we hold dear, in Jesus name! Amen!!! Now, to the business of today’s column. In those days, when General Olusegun Obasanjo spoke, some earth tremors followed his voice.
When the government of President Shehu Shagari floundered so badly in the early 80s, Obasanjo’s voice rang out in rare newspaper interviews condemning the profligacy of the ruling National Party of Nigeria, NPN. Perhaps, Obasanjo’s trenchant criticism of that regime was one of the signals that prompted the military takeover of that government led by Major General Muhammadu Buhari on December 31, 1983.
But then, Buhari’s anger at the purported excesses of the politicians burnt so fiercely that he dumped all the active politicians into jail, some of them condemned to several hundred years of jail term! In simple terms, that meant draconian, retroactive and anti-media decrees.
When you were detained under the famous Decree 2, not even the Supreme Court had the power to order your release, thanks to the ouster clauses which meant that no court had the power to inquire into matters done under those decrees. With Decree 4, for instance, every media story has to be true in all “material particulars”, a short hand way of saying that any news report in print or electronic media which a government official found embarrassing was a good ground to put the reporter away in jail.
Again, in those days, Obasanjo’s voice rang out, condemning the excesses of the regime. It’s not particularly that Obasanjo himself is a model of human rights civility. Or an apostle of press freedom for that matter. Oh no, he liked the media only to the extent that he used them to his own devastating end. As a retired head of state in the ‘80s, Obasanjo was literally above the law. In the gate of his Ota home and farm, dogs and reporters were warned to stay off! In our Sunday Concord days, Mike Awoyinfa, in search of exclusive, went to Obasanjo’s farm in 1984 to request for an interview.
Obasanjo welcomed him to his home and when Mike thought the interview was about to begin, Obasanjo emptied a cup of palm wine he was drinking on the reporter’s head. Mike escaped before worse things befell him! In the Western media, such an affront on a member of the fourth estate of the realm would provoke a global outrage, but in those days, it merely registered in the anecdotal list of Obasanjo’s eccentricities and irascible temperament. But, perhaps, no head of government in Nigeria endured more caustic attacks from Obasanjo than President Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida.
When Babangida was pushing a case for an IMF-induced structural adjustment programme, SAP, Obasanjo panned it as a “SAP without humane face”, a famous attack that all but buried the programme all-together, leaving the government raging.
Babangida’s endless political permutations ostensibly in the guise of transition programme to usher in democracy prompted Obasanjo to declare that the time had come when every Nigerian needed to check their time again if Babangida said good morning to you, for it might well be evening! But Babangida, a devotee of the cult of military discipline, resisted pressures to respond to a senior officer—a tradition he seemed to have broken in recent times with his public spats with his former boss. With Abacha, criticism landed Obasanjo into a life imprisonment, accused of treasonable felony along with other alleged coup plotters. Obasanjo’s recent rebuke of President Goodluck Jonathan, his political protégé, for weak response to the menace of Boko Haram, seemed like the mildest criticism from Obasanjo to any of Nigeria’s past leaders.
The Obasanjo whose voice invoked thunder in those days seems buried in the past. The present Obasanjo has been deeply demystified. Not only do we have Jonathan’s aides tackling him, even political minors from Ogun State had been irreverently taking him to the cleaners. As many would say, he partly deserved it. When a leader of Obasanjo’s stature continues to dip his fingers into local politics, what do you expect? This probably explained why these days, Obasanjo’s voice on national issues is hardly recognized or distinct from the babble.
In those days, an Obasanjo interview shook the government in power and often led to national security meetings! Today, his voice no longer guarantees front page like before, perhaps, a testament to a waning personal political brand cycle. Is Brand Obasanjo outliving its shelf life? Just before you cast your final vote, something near the vintage Obasanjo spoke to Sunday Guardian last week in an interview by a veteran journalist, Basil Chiji Okafor. Probably because the reporter went to him not with the typical pedestrianism of some typical reporters who only scratch the surface of trending issues, but with some sense of context and historical perspective, Obasanjo opened up, revealing things that should generate discussions.
In the interview, I was intrigued by Obasanjo’s insight into how Governor Ahmed Sani Yerima engineered a Sharia movement in the north, turning it into a potent political tool that shook the very foundation of Nigeria’s corporate existence. In some past interviews, Obasanjo had confessed that containing the Sharia fever in the north was the greatest national security challenge of his regime. Obasanjo had been asked by his interviewer why he didn’t crack down on Sharia movement as he cracked down on Odi and Zaki-Biam revolts. In the case of Sharia, Obasanjo claimed that the matter was “different.”
In the days when the EFCC was beginning to bite, it turned out that Governor Yerima was under security heat, ostensibly from the supporters of Obasanjo’s national security adviser, who were collecting documents (invoices and receipts) that could have been used against the governor. After repeatedly pleading with Obasanjo to tell his men to back off him, Yerima threatened to make himself “untouchable.” Obasanjo must have thought that making himself untouchable was in the manner of a local abracadabra or mere shakara from a desperate man, so Obasanjo asked him to go ahead. In turn, Governor Yerima inaugurated Sharia law in Zamfara State which soon spread like a wildfire throughout the northern states. Inaugurating Sharia law in most of the northern states became a matter of political expedience—something you either do or risk a loss of power.
But to Yerima and fellow governors, it was a political Sharia, rather than the religious Sharia. At the heart was not a devotion to tenets of Islam, but a political cover to escape the menace of EFCC and other political threats! Obasanjo added this clincher: “Look, this young man think I’m a fool. He wants to lure me into a killing ground. I won’t fall for that. And, as I said publicly, ‘if this is genuine Sharia, well, it will survive, but if it is not genuine, it will fizzle out.’ And it fizzled out without my raising a finger.”
It is likely that President Jonathan is waiting for the menace of Boko Haram to fizzle out too. Since the dormant waiting game earned him power during the President Umaru Yar’Adua’s ailment, lucky Jonathan must have concluded that doing nothing is a surefire strategy in management of power. He must have picked his lessons from the Zamfara rather than Odi and Zaki-Ibiam model. But this choice betrays an obtuse diagnosis from perhaps, a poor—or a timid and risk-averse—student of history.
A tragic failure to understand that in power game, anything permitted grows. If he had consulted even dovish former President Shagari, he would have told him this, citing the example of his crushing blow against the impudence of Maitatsine zealots that he stamped out in his time—the forerunner of today’s Boko Haram. Whatever became the future of Boko Haram, history would record that under Jonathan’s watch, what started as a simple tumour that could have been promptly surgically excised by a decisive leader had since metastasized into a monstrous malignancy spread all over the north, destroying lives of Christians, churches, houses, shops and ultimately, the entire economy of the north.
Even though this seems to be no longer news, as I write this, I am looking at a plaintive SOS to CAN leaders from Borno forwarded to my phone on Christmas Day, pleading, “Sir, am a woman who is troubled concerning the slaughtering of Christians in Borno (and) no one is saying anything, not even CAN.” The “slaughter” allegedly claimed the lives of six persons, including a pastor with “twenty churches burnt”. This is a raw field report, no doubt, subject to official verification, but it signals that tougher days are ahead for us all.