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Obasanjo, Tinubu and the sour taste of an old romance

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H.E. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, Former President, Federal Republic of Nigeria at #AfreximAM18


It is an irony that the two leading Yoruba personages in pubic space today may not share similar view of the future. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, the energetic retired President of the Republic has stated his objective clearly: he does not want President Muhammadu Buhari to run for a second term because of what he considers Buhari’s disastrous record in managing the nation’s security. Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu was the political genius who created the All Progressives Congress, APC, from an amalgam of disparate groups. He is an ally of Buhari whom he helped installed in power in 2015. Whether Buhari remains his ally is another matter.

Obasanjo was brought up to distrust politicians. In contrast, Tinubu grew into politics under the wings of the formidable Alhaja Abibatu Mogaji, the legendary amazon who as the leader of Lagos market men and women, was a deciding factor in Lagos politics for several decades. The 2019 elections would be a litmus test for both Tinubu and Obasanjo and both have shown capacity for national relevance. Both of them fought the last general elections in 2015 as strong allies of President Muhammadu Buhari. 2019 may be decidedly different.

As a young subaltern of the new Nigerian Army, Obasanjo was drafted into the Congo, where the politicians, Patrice Lumumba, the Prime Minister and Josef Kasavubu, the President, disagreed on how to govern the newly independent country. One day Obasanjo was captured by rebel soldiers. He was miraculously escaped execution. He returned to Nigeria later only to meet a country messed up by politicians until the soldiers, led by his bosom friend, Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, ended the life of the First Republic during the first coup on January 15, 1966. Nzeogwu had opened the Pandora box.

Worse days were to come. The soldiers could not manage what they inherited and like the Congo, Nigeria was plunged into a civil war and Obasanjo again found himself on the war front as the General Officer Commanding the Third Marine Commando Division. One day he drove into an ambush, was wounded and carried the scar till today. When his friend and boss, General Murtala Muhammed was killed during the abortive coup of February 13, 1976, Obasanjo became Nigerian ruler “against my personal wish and desire.”

He did the uncommon when he handed over power to elected President Shehu Aliyu Shagari on October 1, 1979, leading the military back into the barracks. One day he attended the Council of States meeting in Doddan Barracks which the politicians have renamed State House Ribadu Road Ikoyi. Shagari tabled the government’s effort to tackle wide spread hunger in the land by setting up a Presidential Task Force for Rice Importation. Obasanjo flared up, calling Shagari a shameless President. “You are not ashamed to eat rice grown by farmers of other countries!” he growled at the President. “You cannot set up a Presidential Task Force to grow rice!”

It was to be the beginning of Obasanjo clash with his successors.The new path was to ultimately lead him into prison and ultimately back to power when he returned as an elected President 20 years after he retired as military ruler. After eight tumultuous years, he installed his successor, President Umar Musa Yar’Adua who died in office and was succeeded by his Vice-President, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan. Obasanjo clashed with Jonathan, and helped to install his former officer, Buhari, in his stead. Now he has taken on Buhari and that is pitting him against Tinubu who in their brief romance, once described Obasanjo as the national “navigator” of the impossible alliance that Tinubu cobbled together to bring Buhari to power.

Though Tinubu has been restrained in criticizing Obasanjo, there is no doubt that the romance is over. Tinubu’s odyssey has taken a different path from that of Obasanjo. He came into national prominence when became one of the leading lights of the Social Democratic Party, SDP, during the closing days of General Ibrahim Babangida ultimately futile transition programme. He was one of the youngest members elected into the Senate and when the June 12 crisis exploded on the national stage, he was one of the most trusted supporters of Chief Moshood Abiola. In the wake of the crisis, he fled into exile becoming one of the leaders and financiers of the external wing of the opposition National Democratic Coalition, NADECO.

The struggle against the dictator, General Sani Abacha, who had imprisoned Obasanjo and many other opposition figures, put him and Tinubu on the same side. By the dawn of the new republic in 1999, Obasanjo was President in Abuja and Tinubu governor in Lagos. They were to clash several times, including over Tinubu’s attempt to create new local government areas in Lagos. Obasanjo was of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, while Tinubu was the Alliance for Democracy, AD, governor of Lagos State which in alliance with the All Peoples Party, APP, had fielded Chief Olu Falae, the only opponent of Obasanjo at the 1999 presidential election. Both Tinubu and Obasanjo left power at the same time in 2007 but have remained in politics since then. The 2015 general elections was the first time both of them would be playing on the same team. They won. Now the brief flirtation seems to be over.

What is at stake may be more than the job of Buhari. Since Obasanjo left power, there have been a stirring in the land which has now grown into a loud chorus that Nigeria needs to restructure its polity. In the beginning, many of the leading lights of the APC, especially the old ACN faction headed by Tinubu, had claimed ownership of this movement for restructuring. Its members spearheaded the publication of The Yoruba Agenda which called for the grouping of the Federation into more viable regions with the states of Oyo, Osun, Ekiti, Ondo, Ogun and Lagos constituting one region. When the Jonathan Constitutional Conference recommended the same panacea, it was felt that the politicians were reaching something close to a consensus on the matter. However, since Buhari got to power, there seem to be distaste for new constitutional arrangement among members of the Buhari court.

Neither Obasanjo nor Tinubu has made categorical statement on the kind of future constitutional arrangement they envisioned for Nigeria. However, Obasanjo has been flirting more with Buhari’s opponents who are now claiming ownership of the call for constitutional reforms and restructuring. In the emerging coalition are also disparate forces and seasoned carpetbaggers who seem to be interested more in the juicy fruits of power. The drama is taking new dimensions including the violent participation of shadowy Fulani herdsmen and the terrorist group, Boko Haram. Despite Buhari’s claim to spending billion of naira on security, the army of evil remains active in the Nigerian commonwealth. In the league are the likes of kidnappers, cultists, robbers, drug dealers and peddlers and they appeared emboldened because past perpetrators or seldom caught and rarely punished.

In the struggle to keep Buhari in the saddle or topple him through the ballot box the Buhari coalition would have more than Obasanjo and his team to deal with. The failed romance of Obasanjo and Tinubu is an indication of the slippery terrain of Nigerian politics. More so, it advertises the inability of our President to keep his friends and presides over a far-flung political empire. This is a fundamental flaw on the part of Buhari. A President who cannot keep his friends may hardly be expected to have the wherewithal to win over his foes.


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