Their moral burden
Here is something you should find as interesting as I do. We have a huge national asset that we seem to ignore as we cast about in search of a formula for building or rebuilding the nation. We have seven surviving former heads of state and presidents. Together, they are a unique national asset whose varied and unique experiences in nation-building should be the compass we need in these times of anomie to face the right direction in the swirling seas made choppier almost daily as groups dust off their grievances and try to widen our fault lines.
The gentlemen are, in order of their time on the national stage since August 1966, General Yakubu Gowon, General/Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, Major-General/President Muhammadu Buhari, General Ibrahim Babangida, Chief Ernest Shonekan, General Abdulsalami Abubakar and Dr Goodluck Jonathan. Five military men and two civilians. Given their combined experiences in political and economic engineering nothing should go this badly wrong in our country.
Each man was in his own way committed to building an egalitarian nation, to borrow an important phrase from the Second National Development Plan, that is just and fair to all its citizens and in which our rainbow collection of tribes would be a veritable source of our unity and strength. Each of them diagnosed the ills of the country and set about applying the cure. More importantly, each of them faced challenges not of their own making and set about tackling them. They loved and still love Nigeria. Their patriotism is beyond reproach. We can look back to their days and see that our yesterday was much better than our today – an anomaly in human development. Let me recall briefly each man’s time in office and what it meant then for the giant of Africa now looking up to the pigmies of Africa.
General Yakubu Gowon was a 32-year-old middle ranking army officer in August 1966 when the heavy burden of saving a nation in crisis and facing the clear danger of unravelling, was thrust upon his youthful shoulders. He bore the burden, fought a 30-month civil war, crushed the rebellion and thus did his duty to his country. In his 12-state structure of the country, he applied a pragmatic solution to a problem the colonial authorities refused to touch even with a long pole. His post-war healing programme was a courageous rehabilitation work that did not discriminate between those who took up arms against their fatherland and those who fought to save the nation. No one was punished for our collective errors of the head.
General Obasanjo, once described by Vice-Admiral Murtala Nyako as “the most accomplished Nigerian so far,” prosecuted the transition to civil rule programme begun by General Murtala Ramat Muhammed to the letter and ended military rule on October 1, 1979. His 1979 constitution, the first in our country that could be said to reflect the views and the voices of the people, replaced the British parliamentary system with the American type executive presidential system. He was the architect of our present system of government and laid the foundation for our democracy in 1999.
Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, the incumbent president running his second four-year term in office, came on the scene in 1984 because he felt that the politicians were trying to give corruption a good name. It is still the battle he is fighting as president.
General Ibrahim Babangida spared none of our political, social and economic problems. He shook all of them in a genuine effort to make us evolve new political, social and economic culture. His controversial structural adjustment programme sought to free the country from being a dependent nation. It was killed by politics.
Chief Ernest Shonekan was brought into government by Babangida. But he lasted for only three months as head of state. We would never know what plans he had for moving the country forward.
General Abdulsalami Abubakar ran the shortest transition to civil rule programme in the country – eight months. He walked out on power to save the country reeling from the crisis in the wake of the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election from further trauma and the increasing threat to its existence.
President Goodluck Jonathan was a one-term president. He did not do titanic things because there were no titanic things for him to do. But he piloted the country along the path of security and peace with a clear management of our diversity.
Each of these gentlemen served the country, each in his own way. I am sure, they and the rest of us, looked forward to a new nation no longer burdened and hobbled by its primordial fears and divide. But, perhaps, kismet is laughing at us because Nigeria has moved down from being a potentially great nation to a nation desperately trying to catch at the straw as it contends with induced ethno-religious divisions and existential threats. It is crippled by poverty. The jarring sound of the drums of ethnic championship is getting louder and more ominous.
The crises facing the Buhari administration are rather overwhelming. And each of them is heavy enough to threaten to sink the ship of state. Even as I write this, I am a bit jittery about suggesting that our former rulers can and should join hands to save our country. People see them as have-beens who had their time and have nothing new to contribute to the nation. Those who hold this view are wrong. The good thing is that each of them shows continued concern over the affairs of the nation and a willingness to help any way they can. In the thick of the #EndSARS crisis, they collectively held a virtual meeting with Buhari to register their concern and encourage him to do the needful to pull the nation out of the crisis.
Gowon leads Nigeria Prays group to keep the almighty looking over our shoulders; Abubakar heads a peace committee to make the politicians observe the basic rules of seeking political power as a civilised contest, not war. He is an international envoy. Jonathan has virtually become the country’s envoy to crises in other lands. Obasanjo, an irrepressible man who does not feel bound by the tradition of a former president not criticising a sitting president, has written at least three important open letters to Buhari pointing out where things were going wrong and what he must do to steady the ship of state. Sadly, he is treated with contempt as a letter writer and condemned as divider-in-chief.
Each of these men knows that he has a huge moral burden that cannot be discharged by sitting on the fence. Perhaps, they won’t write open letters but silence has never been that golden. Problems do not solve themselves. As Vice-Admiral Murtala Nyako likes to say, problems are created by man and must be solved by man. What is Buhari afraid of in positively responding to the demands for restructuring endorsed by the El-Rufai committee set up by his own political party, APC? What does he lose by rejigging the security architecture, not merely to satisfy public demands but more importantly to replace an architecture that has served him and the nation poorly?
What can our former leaders do to help the president? Perhaps, they too are fenced out; perhaps, they do not want to be seen as interfering; perhaps they trust that an administration burdened by insecurity, poverty, loans and a rapidly decaying infrastructure, must bear its burden. But need I remind them that this is the country they built with their sweat. They did not make so much sacrifice to see Nigeria become a failed state in which the future is uncertain and life has become increasingly cheap. Yes, I believe they can help.
It is important to remind ourselves that while we engage in the unproductive labour of fishing for and ascribing sinister motives to all those who dare to say that the existential threat to our nation is real, we are fast losing time. Even Rip Van Winkle eventually woke up. So must we.