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Obasanjo, the message, messenger and presidential election

By Editorial Board
08 March 2023   |   4:10 am
The public reactions that greeted the call by former President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo for cancellation of the February 25, 2023 Presidential and National Assembly elections in areas where violence was recorded and where the processes were not transparent were expected.

[FILES] Obasanjo. Photo/FACEBOOK//MrUdomEmmanuel

The public reactions that greeted the call by former President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo for cancellation of the February 25, 2023 Presidential and National Assembly elections in areas where violence was recorded and where the processes were not transparent were expected.

By virtue of his status and huge profile, Obasanjo cannot be ignored ordinarily, or treated as just another aggrieved Nigerian. He is influential and seen by many as a role model. Therefore, his public speeches, or letters he had written on several occasions to sitting presidents and international agencies have a tendency to attract wide reactions, including criticisms that he had ample opportunities as two-time head of state to correct issues that he complained about; but that he not only wasted such opportunities, he in fact adopted policies that aggravated the issues or set the tone for them.

In this regard, a major criticism against Obasanjo is that having openly supported one of the numerous presidential candidates in the last election, his complaint about the process is nothing more than a show of support for his preferred candidate. Obasanjo will have difficulty in dismissing that notion, more so that he failed to garner majority support for that candidate even in his (Obasanjo’s) ward or polling unit in Abeokuta.

Recall that on January 1, Obasanjo openly endorsed the presidential candidate of the Labour Party, Peter Obi, as his preferred candidate for the February election. He said, “None of the contestants is a saint but when one compares their character, antecedent, their understanding, knowledge, discipline and vitality that they can bring to bear and the great efforts required to stay focused on the job particularly looking at where the country is today and with the experience on the job that I personally had, Peter Obi as a mentee has an edge.”

Speaking about journalism in one of his wry, sardonic and humorous quotes, Mark Twain was reputed to have said: Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please. It would seem that Obasanjo, as an elder statesman and former President, was in too much hurry that he could not wait for the conclusion of the 2023 election results collation before he called for the cancellation of parts thereof.

Barely 24 hours after the conduct of the Presidential and National Assembly Elections, Obasanjo called for their cancellation in all violent-prone areas.  He made the call in a statement titled, “2023 Nigeria Presidential Election: An appeal for caution and rectification,” saying that the presidential election failed integrity test. Obasanjo asked the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, to save Nigeria from the looming danger and disaster waiting to happen.

Obasanjo also alleged that INEC officials at the operational level had been compromised following the manual transmission of results which he alleged had been manipulated and doctored. He told President Muhammadu Buhari that “tension is building up and please let all elections that do not pass the credibility and transparency test be cancelled and be brought back with areas where elections were disrupted for next Saturday, March 4, 2023 and BVAS and Server officials be changed.”

For a man of his stature in Nigeria and in international reckoning, a more pensive and nuanced intervention was expected given the possibility of heating up an already tense political environment; and also given that his assertions were not backed with substance and constituted mere allegation. As is well known even in more advanced democracies, election periods are charged periods when contending forces whip up sentiments to woo the polity to their sides. Obasanjo’s intervention was therefore hasty and not measured as expected of him. But that was not the only problem with his call for cancellation mid-count.

As pointed out by many commentators, the antecedents of the former president do not lend itself to easy emulation. Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, a former Minister of External Affairs, described Obasanjo as part of the foundation of the problem he purports to solve. The former Minister, a foremost political scientist, said he could not take the message and ignore the messenger and advised Obasanjo to emulate other former leaders of Nigeria like Generals Yakubu Gowon and Abdulsalami Abubakar. “You’ve had your term; you’ve had your innings,” Akinyemi said.

To the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), Obasanjo’s call was capable of unleashing anarchy on the polity. The body advised that anarchy was not an option in a democratic system. The NANS was referring to the possibility of replacing a legal process that the electoral body was going through, with the fiat of sudden cancellation. This point is germane as there are legal processes of redress laid down in case of any infraction.

The Coalition of Northern Groups (CNG) noted that Obasanjo’s call was capable of inciting public disorder and setting the country up in flames for the sake of his personal political interest in one of the candidates. Of all the former leaders of Nigeria, Obasanjo is the only one known to have openly endorsed and canvassed for one of the candidates in the 2023 elections. By joining the fray, he has lost the moral high ground to give unbiased admonition.

The Federal Government through Information Minister, Lai Mohammed, said it was alarmed that a former president could throw around unverified claims and amplify wild allegations picked from the streets against the electoral process. While noting his partisanship the Federal Government also accused him of organising perhaps the worst elections since Nigeria returned to democratic rule in 1999. The Federal Government was referring to the 2007 elections widely believed to have been largely flawed, a fact that the beneficiary president, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua tacitly admitted.

These antecedents could not but becloud Obasanjo’s message to his nation. More so, he had been quoted to have described an election as a “do-or-die’ affair. But there are also those who are saying that the message should be the focus and not the messenger. The desire to have a free, fair and credible election is a universal desire and any deviation from that path should be condemned by all, saints or sinners. But as noted by Shakespeare, the nature of a message affects the bringer. To extend the saying, the nature of a message also affects the listener.

For Obasanjo, statesman, big player in the international political arena, accomplished soldier and civil war hero, a little more caution is expected when he intervenes in public discourse. One other reason for caution is the fact that he has unrestrained access to those in authority both in his personal capacity and as a member of the Council of State. He could express his concerns to them without the panoply of public display. In African tradition, the big masquerade does not dance too often. When the big masquerade surfaces, the audience must not doubt that a big occasion is afoot.

His constant and controversial foray into the public space is potentially a negative factor that devalues his status as a big masquerade. His image will benefit from more measured and nuanced interventions, preferably directly to those concerned.

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