Cracking General Olusegun Obasanjo’s Staying Power in Nigerian Politics, (Part 2)
By Adagbo ONOJA
In the face of widespread belief that former president Obasanjo is the architect of the failure of democracy to take roots in Nigeria, the muscular, discursive presence of General Obasanjo in Nigerian politics presents an academic/theoretical, journalistic and political puzzle to resolve. The powerful projection of failure of leadership as the trouble with Nigeria as well as the role of individuals in history equally draw attention to that puzzle whereby the former president carries on as a standalone statesman, reminding and/or rebuking the nation as and when he feels like as if he has no baggage. Part one of an attempt to establish why that might be the case tidied a number of fragmentary pieces to arrive at the framework that the former president is driven into that by a certain sensibility to Nigeria underpinned by three subjective features: residual militarism, messianic arrogance and a conception of statecraft.
There was sufficient evidence to prove residual militarism and messianic arrogance in his numerous wars with sundry ‘enemies’ just as there were to prove the feature of deft statesmanship, (Obasanjo having been a factor in the emergence and departure of every Nigerian Head of State since 1978). Arising from the evidence has been a reframing of the original question to how, even as he is not the most senior of the Generals, Obasanjo is still the one who appears to fundamentally construct the consensus of the national cohort and enforces it, especially on the question of succession each time it arose. This question is what this second and concluding part explores.
Residual militarism, Messianic arrogance and statecraft have been key to the analysis so far. But these words do not have static meanings. What is messianic in, say, India at one time may not be so in the US or in Nigeria at a different time. To that extent, we must look for something beyond these concepts in explaining the reality we confront. In doing so, we must locate OBJ in society or we cannot understand his sociability and preferences for action. Locating him in society means bringing in space and time contexts without which society itself would be meaningless. Obasanjo in a space and time analysis takes us straight to the Nigerian Civil War and the period after when the dynamics made him and a small circle of the men under arms who prosecuted the war key players in national affairs. But when we look around today, we find no other personality among his peers who is a politician. Rather, each of his peers has his own chosen way of maintaining oversight on Nigeria as opposed to Obasanjo’s standalone statesman strategy.
Ordinarily, General Gowon is the most senior of them but he is not a politician. He oversights Nigeria through Nigeria Prays, living true to his depiction by the British as an avuncular Christian. General Gowon is not disposed to the rough and tumble of partisan politics in Nigeria: the name calling, the duplicity, the maligning, pulling the carpet from the feet of the other man in the middle of the night, eating in someone’s house and dancing with his wife this night and then drawing political daggers the following morning, etc, etc.
General TY Danjuma follows Gowon in the sense of over sighting Nigeria through the civil society, his own being the T Y Danjuma Foundation. Some people say his intervention in the society both through the foundation and outside of it has been so systematic and elaborate that he would have been exercising a veto power on politics and politicians if he were a politician. But, he is not a politician in that sense, to the extent that the canvass of his intervention is even yet to be conceptually located as for his representation as the most profound change agent in Nigeria in the past two or so decades to seep in and provide a jump off point for others.
General Abdulsalami Abubakar too is basically like that, the strongest evidence being in his rejection of a longer transition in 1998/99. He has found satisfaction in peace making. General Babangida, the other master of the game as far as foxy politics is concerned appears to have been withdrawing from politics for quite sometimes. Shagari and Shonekan, the civilian components of the club of former heads of state are disfavoured by age in terms of the past one decade. That is aside from the point that their style of politics is much gentler.
Obasanjo is thus the only one in that club who retains the politics arena as his own means of over sighting the society. The argument here is that this is the context within which Obasanjo primacy in Nigerian politics can be understood. This context has positioned OBJ to remain the most tested godfather, to pick and chose what the issues can be in politics, who may be decisive and who may not, and to fight whoever stands on the way of such sensitivity with a multiplicity of instruments, particularly in the past one decade. He is additionally enhanced in this by, among other factors, the military culture of seniority. As things are now, even if General Gowon were that sort of politician, Obasanjo would have only him to say Sir to while all others, including Shagari, would have to take cognizance of Obasanjo who preceded him in office. So, we are talking of a huge vacuum in the body politics which someone has to fill, irrespective of who the person is in popular consciousness. It is that gap which explains why OBJ’s tragic errors in power have not silenced him or prevent him from further involvement.
It also explains his acceptance by the elite, an acceptance proved by the number of times and frequency they troop to his Ota farm, irrespective of religion, regime, party or region. Even the incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari has gone to Ota just as Atiku Abubakar, Bola Tinubu, Bukola Saraki, Modu Sheriff, Nasir el-Rufai and so many of them. Recently, former president, Goodluck Jonathan was there.
Social scientists who argue the limits of charismatic leadership in Nigeria might have to take another look at what is going on empirically. They would be forced to ask if it is possible to ignore OBJ, irrespective of whether his interventionism is for public good or personal interest since the public/private dichotomy is elusive. For, while the trooping to his farm suggests the imperative for the kind of intervention being sought by that, there is acute shortage of sources of such interventions for the reasons adduced above. That is, the peers from whom the challenge to OBJ primacy could come are not there and no newer or younger alternatives are emerging.
If we take Atiku Abubakar from among the traditional politicians, he definitely has a mental hold but on members of his political network that he can call to a meeting from which they will come out with their own standpoint. Although this is a national network, it is exclusionary for those who are not in that camp or tendency. So, he doesn’t make the OBJ waves. What wavelength he operates is that of a traditional politician, not the space sense which informs OBJ’s politics. This is not to say that he cannot overwrite his opponents the moment the sort of ideas he subscribes to should resonate with the national mood, leaving his critics and opponents stranded.
Though a military man still active in politics, there are no signs that David Mark intends to oversight society in the Obasanjo way. There are no signs that Bukola Saraki might move that way either. This leaves Obasanjo to be engaged in what looks like assisting politicians to do politics, like constructing alliances as he is doing now.
It is a prominence in politics that many people cannot reconcile with the shortcomings associated with the totality of General Obasanjo’s leadership of Nigeria, especially when the shortcomings are matched against Obasanjo’s pedigree. By TY Danjuma’s account in his February 2008 interview in The Guardian, General Obasanjo conceived of a strategy of bringing the Nigerian Civil War to a close. Although the idea was rejected by the hierarchy, he went ahead to implement it and became the hero for it by receiving the surrender instrument. This is one of the reasons General Danjuma gave for respecting General Obasanjo. The import is that he could have been court martialled if his strategy failed. TY’s second reason is what he regarded as Obasanjo’s clinical efficiency as Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters under Murtala Mohammed. Warts and all, Obasanjo also handed over power to the civilians in 1979. Thereafter, he anticipated and globalised his horizon. He has not been a rabid, insular player. In 1999, he was acceptable to the Western world, the military and security establishment in Nigeria and almost all the other regions except his Yoruba people. Of course, he had gone to jail and survived it. He had made the critical statement about the imperative for SAP to have human face. All of these made him the most ready made material Nigeria could ever have even if those who packaged him had not done so.
It is this background that makes it incomprehensible how 1999 to 2007 turned out in Obasanjo’s hands. Just a few examples: He reconciled the nation in relation to June 12 even as he himself was the anti-thesis of reconciliation; he made himself the father of the political platform which brought him to power but only to preside over the murder of the bouncing beautiful baby; he restored stability in Nigeria but violence proliferated throughout his two terms; he consolidated democracy but constructed it in his own image; he institutionalised anti corruption war but only for corruption to become a national festival under his watch; more money meant more misery under his tenure; he took Nigeria back to the world but the world of his preference; he was a beneficiary of a succession plan but only for him to handpick his successor; he came in through an election adjudged to be sufficiently free to sustain his mandate but he could not conduct a single election that was popularly adjudged credible. Above everything, everyone is surprised that Obasanjo did not kick start Nigeria’s industrialisation. This is why many believe that Obasanjo has another book to write which would deal with that.
This is the contrast between promise and performance that observers cannot reconcile with his continuing pre-eminence on the political horizon. But only the dynamics of space and time would cut out OBJ primacy in Nigerian politics, not our love or hatred of it.
General Obasanjo may be a perfect case study at the level of Nigeria but what is at issue is the age old problematic of structure and agency or the significance and insignificance of the individual. The Marxists who have devoted the most time to it call it the role of the individual in History. The classic wisdom there as handed down by Karl Marx is that men make their history but not in the manner they choose but in circumstances dictated by the social configuration in which they act. “Dissidence” scholars have accepted this formulation but with the critique that men is not a prisoners of their circumstances. That is to say that those who dismiss Obasanjo, for example, could be making a big mistake.