Former President Olusegun Obasanjo remains well and truly an enigma in our national politics. Someone once asked the question: What does Obasanjo want? The answer, unfortunately, resides with Obasanjo. Between the end of his second term as President and now, Obasanjo has interjected no fewer than three times in national politics through the public release of critical statements directed against sitting Presidents.
Sometimes you have to wonder what it is that drives Obasanjo’s intrusion into national politics. Is Obasanjo a serial pest or an elder statesman? The answer, I would suggest, depends on who you ask.
In his latest criticism of the government of President Muhammadu Buhari, Obasanjo said he was compelled to issue his special statement because the nation was drifting perilously and there seemed to be no one in charge. He said his intervention was driven by the need to protect the greater interest of Nigeria rather than his relationship with Buhari.
Drawing on the dreadful metaphor of lice, Obasanjo identified serious problems that have overwhelmed Buhari’s government. These include “poverty, insecurity, poor economic management, nepotism, gross dereliction of duty … lack of progress and hope for the future, lack of national cohesion and poor management of internal political dynamics and widening inequality.”
Obasanjo’s criticism of Buhari’s government has divided the nation. Some people see the criticism as appropriate, justified, and a timely intervention to ward off imminent disintegration of the country. What did Obasanjo say about Buhari’s government that has now dominated discussion in the public sphere?
There are key issues that stand out in Obasanjo’s criticism of Buhari. First is the poor quality of leadership that Buhari has provided for more than two years. This has manifested through poor economic management. Effectively, Obasanjo declared Buhari’s government a total failure that cannot be salvaged. The only solution, in Obasanjo’s view, is for Buhari to step down at the end of his first term rather than aim to seek re-election in 2019.
Obasanjo also touched on an issue that many people had talked about but was ignored by Buhari. Right from the inception of his government, Buhari showed unprecedented bias in the appointment of key cabinet members, most of whom were drawn from the President’s region. Buhari and his spokespersons defended the appointments, claiming they were based on merit, thus giving the ludicrous impression that other regions were incapable of producing men and women qualified to serve in the Federal Government. Against this background, Obasanjo hit the nail on the head by identifying clannishness as one of the weaknesses of Buhari.
Here is a President who said openly during his inauguration in 2015 that he would govern for all Nigerians, but quickly turned away from that pledge to show his preference for people from his part of the country. That President cannot claim to govern in the interests of all Nigerians.
Obasanjo hit Buhari hard when he said the President lacked basic understanding of the forces of politics, including the Presidency’s constant evasion of responsibility through references to the previous administration as the cause of the present government’s failure.
Perhaps the most vexatious aspect of Buhari’s pattern of apathetic leadership and failure that Obasanjo identified was the callousness and brutal manner with which itinerant herdsmen destroyed farms, brutalised rural residents, kidnapped ordinary people, and killed villagers with little regard for the value of human life. Buhari’s lack of response to the killings perpetrated by the herdsmen, particularly the massacre of innocent citizens in Benue State, was bizarre and disappointing. By silently supporting his kinsmen in their murderous activities across the country, Buhari showed his senses have become clouded and are now ruled by prejudice as well as ethnic, religious and regional sentiments. Most unsettling is the fact that Buhari has not found reason and the heart to visit Benue following the annihilation of ordinary citizens by the marauding herdsmen.
Long after the carnage in Benue State, Buhari has maintained the strange position of the three monkeys that chose to see no evil, hear no evil and perceive no evil. But that position is ill advised. If he could not say some words of condolence, at least the President ought to visit the victims and their families. Human lives matter because we are all human beings. Buhari’s insensitivity to the massacre that took place in Benue must be condemned.
It is coldhearted, uncaring, heartless, and mean for a President to sit quietly and watch as the very citizens he is required by the Constitution to protect are slaughtered by armed thugs. When Fulani herdsmen successfully wipe out the Nigerian population, who will the President protect? Buhari is constitutionally bound to provide for the safety, welfare, wellbeing, and security of Nigerian citizens. So far, the President has abdicated that responsibility and this is not because Obasanjo said so.
Across the country, people have been sneering and swearing at the President for his nonchalance at the unwarranted destruction of the lives of ordinary people by herdsmen. Buhari must cast aside his prejudices and rise to call evil by its proper name. Silence in the face of tyranny cannot be a symbol of strength or power or authority. The entire world is watching.
All this is not to say that Obasanjo the messenger is flawless. The problem is that the messenger here is less credible than his message. Obasanjo crafted his message to project himself as the invincible leader that Nigeria needs at this difficult moment. He sees himself as that special citizen to whom we should rush whenever things start to go wrong in the country. Let me make this clear. Obasanjo has his blemishes and they are too many. He has numerous character flaws and contradictions that have continued to expose his life.
Perhaps we should scrutinise Obasanjo much more closely. If you want to understand Obasanjo, you have to speak with his peers and his superiors with whom he served in the army. They would provide you with that unadulterated character statement on Obasanjo. One such character statement was provided by Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma, former Defence Minister and former Chief of Army Staff. In a two-part interview published in The Guardian on Sunday, February 17 and 24, 2008, Danjuma described Obasanjo as the craftiest military politician that Nigeria ever produced. Worst still, Danjuma described Obasanjo as “the most toxic leader that Nigeria has produced so far.”
Another contradiction: Some years ago, Obasanjo said openly that Nigerian newspapers do not attract his interest and, therefore, he does not read them. In his latest criticism of Buhari, Obasanjo cited a newspaper columnist to buttress his argument.
It is easy to understand why Obasanjo still yearns for the respect and popularity he enjoyed when he occupied Aso Rock. Unfortunately for him, good things don’t last forever. He must accept that he is no longer President and he cannot impose his views on the nation, regardless of his freedom to express those views.