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Nigerian Presidents Club


Olusegun Obasanjo

Perhaps we need to borrow a leaf from some salient features of the American presidential system since we have adopted their system line, hook but apparently without the sinker.

The past presidents of the United States of America since the time of President George Washington to date are members of The Presidents Club. The Club, according Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy in a book of the same title, was founded by Washington at the inauguration of his successor, John Adams, in 1797 making it a club of only two members.

It was to expand later when at the inauguration of Dwight Eisenhowers, in 1953 two former presidents, Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover, decided to establish the club firmly with rules and regulations with unofficial code of ethics –  including the code of silence that forbids any former president from openly  attacking another member,  especially  the sitting president – through open letters and  blistering press statements. Still this does not prevent them from engaging in endless rivalry for a favourable verdict of history.

A man of ideas and great vision, whatever Washington did as president became a precedent on which some of the great institutions were built. The club is regarded by historians as the second best thing he did, the first being his willingness to become American president in 1789.  Having assumed office, he had at the back of his mind the verdict of history. He was not like Winston Churchill who was confident that history would treat him fairly because he would write that history himself.

Washington wrote himself into history by his presidential acts which were not ill motivated and self-serving. For instance, he accepted to be paid salary as president even though, as he said, he did not need it. He did so as precedent so that those coming after him did not need to be rich either before they came to office or after leaving office. He it was who chose the title Mr President instead of Your Excellency so that latter presidents, despite the awesome powers they wielded, did not need to have their heads in the air to be effective.
Despite the general acclaim, staying in office was, for him, not a do or die affair. After two terms, he voluntarily relinquished office, so he would not transform himself into American President for Life.

Since we have chosen this system of government is it too much for us to imbibe both the nuances and the practice of this system? Apart from the National Council of State which is not exclusive to our former presidents and the incumbent, there is nothing that binds the old guard together. If we have an unofficial code of silence, former President Olusegun Obasanjo would not, despite his  level of national frustration, resort to his perennial  open letters to the incumbents. 

From President Shehu Shagari, through Babangida to Musa Yar’Adua to Jonathan and now President Muhammadu Buhari, President Obasanjo had not spared any of them, prompting some people to read bad motive into his actions.
The man who suffered more than others in the hands of Obasanjo, sitting on  and pontificating from his high moral horse, was in my view  former President Ibrahim Babangida. But today, the man, fondly called IBB, is embroiled in a controversy over his open statement on President Buhari’s management of national affairs. He concluded in that statement authored by his media aide, Prince Kassim Afegbua, that Nigerians should co-operate with President Buhari to complete his first term in office with a clincher that he should not run for second term in 2019.
But not one for taking his inordinately splendid time to act or react, Babangida quickly disowned the statement. He said as former military president of this country, he had untrammelled access to the highest authorities in the country and he did not need an open letter or a press statement to convey his feelings about the goings on in the country.

Reactions to Obasanjo’s letter, especially the one from the government was very measured, civil and respectful. It was authored by Lai Mohammed, minister of information. Said the minster: “ We believe that Chief Obasanjo, because of his very busy schedule, may not have been availed of developments in the government efforts to revamp the economy.” To the best of my knowledge no other responsible official of government threw himself into the fray to defend the government. With Babangida disowning the Afegbua’s statement, there is indeed no need to expect any reaction from the Presidency.

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But in the absence of any code of silence on the part of past presidents, these people are as free as the rest of us to exercise their freedom of expression as provided for in the constitution. And it behoves the government of the day to carefully and critically examine the points raised and take corrections appropriately instead of reading bad motives into the actions of critics.
In recent times, APC and its candidate, Muhammadu Buhari had enjoyed both solemn and theatrical interventions when it matters most. Obasanjo’s famous letter to Jonathan before the 2015 presidential election came like a silver bullet for APC and Candidate Buhari. Not only did the letter rattle the PDP and its candidate, it galvanised support for APC. When the same Obasanjo went theatrical by openly tearing his PDP membership card in the clear view of members of the public who were hooked to their television sets, naturally the APC supporters nation-wide went wild with jubilation.

As if on cue, President Babangida, though a kingpin of PDP and apparently a strong supporter of Jonathan, was forced by the resort of Jonathan’s men to religious politics to sound a note of warning. He said the unwholesome antics of the Jonathan campaign was antithetical to national unity and, in response to “espirit de corps”, they could be provoked into defending their own.
In the current exchanges, there is a disturbing trend, which is both laughable and lazy – the actions of those who have taken it upon themselves to defend President Buhari represent the worst ways of offering an intelligent defence.  

Immediately Obasanjo’s letter to the president was published, these shabby defenders of the president republished Professor Iyabo Obasanjo’s letter to her father and made it look like a current statement by Obasanjo’s daughter rebuking her father for criticising the President. That letter came into the open in 2015 when Obasanjo launched his blistering attack against Jonathan. Not done, a column written by Simon Kolawole in 2015 to query the moral compass of the ex-president went viral as if Kolawole was defending Buhari against the irrepressible Obasanjo.

And a lot more from such lazy critics. Most of them have queried the moral authority of the chicken farmer to pontificate and pronounce on the affairs of this country as if a repentant criminal cannot preach against crime, as if a born-again armed robber cannot advise youths against taking the dangerous path to making blood money. In this wise, a drug addict who had completed a long process of rehabilitation lacks the moral authority to preach against illicit drugs and to be named ambassador of illicit drug war.

I can imagine that those who engage in this shameless sycophancy would quarrel with the category of people I have mentioned, but they did not attack Obasanjo when he pronounced guilty sentence on Jonathan in favour of Candidate Buhari and they did not insult Reverend Mbaka when he advised Jonathan not to waste his time with 2015 presidential election which Buhari was fated and destined to win. The same Mbaka has advised President Buhari to keep his house in order and refocus his attention on the totality of the country if he needed an easy ride in the 2019 election.

The sensible, respectful and civil reply from the minister of information to Obasanjo’s letter, may be an indication that President Buhari intends to do the needful and put his administration on the path of peace and progress – and purposeful and pragmatic official action to stop the on-going blood-letting and promote peace and unity.

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Nigerian Presidents Club
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