Obasanjo: In The Eyes Of History
IT was during the peak of the civil unrest that greeted the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections won by businessman politician, Moshood Abiola, after a protracted but obviously deceitful transition programme under the Ibrahim Babangida military regime and the nation was dangerously perched at the edge of a precipice.
A mammoth crowd had massed at the Sango-Ota junction, blocking traffic along the Lagos-Abeokuta road and expressing defiance to the new announcement by the junta that another election would be organised even though it was apparent that the military was inadvertently oiling the centrifugal forces threatening to tear the country apart.
The anger and frustrations of the crowd, which was evident on their faces and in the various placards they displayed was exacerbated by the arrival of a detachment of soldiers from the Ikeja Barracks who made attempt to disperse the gathering and remove the obstacles placed on the road.
As the crowd charged towards the armed men and the soldiers beat a retreat towards the nearby police station which had earlier been sacked by irate youths, it was clear that a bloody encounter in which the civilian population would be at the receiving end, was about to take place.
As if from nowhere, General Olusegun Obasanjo, former Head of State and civil war hero, appeared in a car driven by Kola, son of the assumed winner of the controversial poll and with the agility of a young man that belied his age and frame, he mounted the roof of the car and immediately arrested the attention of the crowd.
With the aura of someone who understands the use of authority, the general commanded the soldiers to leave the place and go back to their barracks.
And with brisk salutes, the soldiers jumped into their vehicles to the admiration of the crowd, which hailed them as they departed before listening to Obasanjo who addressed the now enthusiastic gathering, saying elders of the country will not fold their arms and watch the country degenerate into anarchy and that as somebody on the side of justice, the people should count on him for support in their agitation.
Some weeks after this open support for the actualization of the annulled mandate, Obasanjo, an international statesman and member of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) that was engaged by the Commonwealth of Nations to facilitate the end of apartheid at the twilight of the discriminatory regime in South Africa, was in Harare, Zimbabwe, where he was quoted to have said that Abiola, with whom he shared the same alma mater, Baptist Boys High School, Abeokuta, was “not the Messiah Nigerians should be looking for.”
This art of shiftiness, a war strategy that successful generals employ to create a false sense of dominance in the enemy camp is one of the traits that define the personality of Obasanjo who, like a bulldozer, does not blink an eye in removing all obstacles, human and otherwise, on a path he chooses to tread.
Obasanjo could be in the house of a political adversary eating pounded yam and making merry and minutes later, remove the ladder on which his host climbed his lofty heights and like a Lion bidding its time before attacking a prey, stalk his enemy for years before doing him in at the last minute.
He could sit atop the largest democracy in Africa and the Black World as the president and product of participatory governance, yet disallowed simple balloting in the selection of the traditional ruler of his Owu ancestral enclave where he holds the title of Balogun by tearing the ballots and imposing his preferred candidate as the monarch.
He could tell an agitated crowd of victims and survivors who assembled to listen to their president on the second day of the ordnance explosions at the Ikeja military cantonment that he doesn’t “have to be here” yet castigate a Jonathan for not brave being enough to visit Chibok, where scores of school girls were taken away by dare-devil terrorists.
While his critics see this trait as the hallmark of an inconsistent man who swings moods to satisfy some personal ego, his admirers see it as characteristic of a brave leader who doesn’t shy away from taking hard decisions, not minding whose ox is gored.
The pronouncement against Abiola in Harare got him a lot of bashings from members of the human rights community and those clamouring for the retrieval of the June 12 mandate for taking a position that many saw as being against the popular wish of a people that demonstrated preference for a particular candidate in a democracy.
Six years later and after a stint behind bars for his alleged involvement in a phantom coup plot, Obasanjo emerged as the beneficiary of the long-drawn struggle for democracy that claimed many lives as he was picked by the power-brokers as the next president to assuage the feelings of the South West over June 12 annulment.
As an elected president, Obasanjo’s background as a military dictator had more than its share of influence in a democratic setting, making some analysts to conclude that under him, what Nigeria had civilian rule and not a democracy.
Although many blamed Obasanjo for allegedly unleashing the anti-graft agencies, like the nine offspring of Mollie and Jessie in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, as attack dogs on perceived enemies in a system where obnoxious decrees cannot be made, the current soft-glove handling of corruption has put the retired general on the positive side of history.
Analysts believe that the high level of corruption in Nigeria today would have reduced considerably if the Obasanjo style, which claimed high profile personalities that include ministers and a serving Police Chief, had been sustained.
Perhaps, the most outstanding attribute of Obasanjo is his confessed love for Nigeria. Anybody can blame him for taking hasty and harsh decisions or bringing military tactics into the art of governance in a participatory democracy, or even putting self before others by trying to ram his preferences, but he does not shy away from fighting a national fight.
For a man who was on the front line in the war to keep Nigeria one during the troubled early years of independence and who played a decisive role to secure victory for the unity of the country both in battle and as the officer that received the instruments of surrender from secessionist forces, Obasanjo has seen it all.
His knowledge of the country from the early days, his role in stabilizing the polity, his involvement in the nurture of the country and his acclaimed loyalty to nationhood may have placed him in a vantage position where he sees others as not as committed as him thereby dressing himself in a toga that his critics see as “Holier-Than-Thou”.
Unlike other political figures in the country, Obasanjo prefers to see himself first as a Nigerian, perhaps before belonging to any ethnic grouping and this may be responsible for the sparse political following he has at home or the perceived “neglect” of the South West when he was in political authority and could dispense favours towards his home state and region by locating projects and giving preferences to some home boys in the national political calculations.
Many are quick to point to the sorry state of the Lagos-Ibadan expressway and the non-completion of the Lagos-Abeokuta and the Ibadan-Ilorin roads, which are key transport arteries in the South West during his administration as a negative side of a man that should see himself first as an ethnic champion before being a national hero, but Obasanjo would have none of that. To him, Nigeria should be seen by every citizen as the first constituency.
His handling of affairs as the leader of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the party that sought him out for the presidency in 1999 is similar to the iron-grip he sought on the control of Nigeria as many who crossed his path were forced to either leave the party or tow his line. Those who refused to get his blessings were denied their trophies even if they won the primary elections of the party.