No one can guestimate what the degree of damage to Obasanjo’s standing Thabo Mbeki’s disclosure of Obasanjo’s complicity in the ‘third term’ agenda would be if the disclosure had come earlier. The weight would be less coming this time when Nigerians are too engrossed with never seen before level of inflation and insecurity.
Even then, it is still easy to claim from the distance that a Thabo Mbeki testimony that Obasanjo was contemplating a ‘third term’ in office is the last thing Obasanjo would wish to happen. It is decapitation of the man’s denial of having any desire for self-succession, the infraction that has blocked him from the global height he aspired to. Obasanjo would not mind any other African leader testifying to that temptation but not Mbeki. Those who know the two of them would say that once Mbeki says so, so it was.
The two have been interacting since the late 1970s when, as a middle level representative of the African National Congress, (ANC) in Nigeria, Mbeki was meeting Obasanjo who was then the military Head of State. As a member of the Eminent Persons Group which worked on resolving the stalemate in South Africa, the two had kept in touch. Then fate brought them together again in 1999 as the president of their respective countries. It was Nigeria and South Africa, or if you like Obasanjo and Mbeki that were defining the African direction between 1999 and 2007 when Obasanjo left. There were players such as Muammar Gaddafi and Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal who didn’t agree with the Obasanjo-Mbeki idea of Africa but they did not have their way in how the dynamics played out.
Obasanjo and Mbeki constituted the spectacle in Okinawa in 2001, for example. Okinawa in Japan was where the G-8 for that year took place and the two had to attend as the African spokesmen for debt cancellation. Wade was also there but he mustered not much share of the attention. Backed by powerful global civil society actors such as the anti-debt coalition, Africa was on a rhetorical high. When the African case for debt cancellation was articulated to the world press, they all deferred to Obasanjo, with Mbeki calling him the ‘big brother’. When Mbeki added his voice, although he was more conceptual, he endorsed how Obasanjo had put it. Wade did speak too but it didn’t score much ‘halo’ marks.
Mbeki and Obasanjo must surely have become even closer on how to deal with deputies they all saw as unfit to succeed them. While Zuma, Mbeki’s own deputy outsmarted him to become the South African president, Atiku Abubakar barely survived his tenure as his fight with Obasanjo in Nigeria left him, (Abubakar) with severe political injuries. But, while Mbeki was trying to stop Zuma because he did not think Zuma had the ANC grooming to lead South Africa, Obasanjo was fighting Atiku for lack of loyalty and for being too much in a hurry to take over.
It is thus not too surprising that Mbeki did not support Obasanjo’s ‘third term’ in spite of their closeness. It is possible to say now that, as close as they were, there was still the tension between Mbeki, the epistemic party cadre against Obasanjo who is generally regarded as suffering from ‘residual militarism and messianic complex’.
The question would be how far Mbeki and Obasanjo are different from each other. Previous attempts at understanding Mbeki after listening to a speech to African foreign affairs ministers by him on an African wide process that Obasanjo had initiated threw up a certain line of reasoning. The conclusion then is that it is not a question of who is better but that they are products of different temperaments. They certainly have an African identity consciousness but they have become melted in how to go about it. The way the black pigmentation has been humiliated across the world pains them deeply but they are united in approaching the issue craftily as opposed to, say, Mugabe or Gaddafi. Obasanjo and Mbeki are also certainly and completely different from a Benjamin Mkapka of Tanzania who is in a category of his own when it comes to how African leaders conduct business.
But both Obasanjo and Mbeki accept the neoliberal formula. Mbeki, we are told, got his own pro-neoliberalism from the Institute of Development Studies, (IDS) at the University of Sussex in the UK where his dosages of hegemonic theorization took care of him in spite of being an ANC cadre trained in propaganda, in intelligence and as an intellectual. It is probably impossible to understand Mbeki without reading Prof Richard Peet’s 2002 essay titled “Ideology, Discourse and the Geography of Hegemony: From Socialist to Neoliberal Development in Postapartheid South Africa”
Obasanjo, it is argued, got his from his reflection on who saved him from Abacha. The argument is that he came out of that experience no longer sure if anti-imperialism pays although he had to manage the tension between his acceptance of neoliberalism and its reality. Throughout his tenure as president of Nigeria, he refused to privatize certain state-owned industries even as he messed up many. So, Obasanjo is quite complex, raining abuses on IMF/World Bank at meetings but hankering over their formulae, with severe implications for Nigeria. And when Prof Sam Aluko of blessed memory told him that his economic policies would ruin Nigeria, he called him a case of senility.
It is very difficult to say any other thing other than that Obasanjo and Mbeki are two of a kind on what matters most and where it does so!