Ahead of the February 2023 presidential poll in Nigeria, former president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo has released a letter endorsing one of the three leading candidates, Peter Obi of the Labour Party. What that means is that, if he has his way, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress, (APC) and Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party, (PDP) should go to sleep. He particularly drew the attention of the youths to his latest letter to Nigerians. It will not be surprising if Obasanjo’s letter marks the beginning of a series of similar letters, also for Obi by other eminent Nigerians.
In all cases, the letter must be taken as an important part of the big tussle for power among the contending class, regional and generational interests in Nigerian politics. The meaning of that letter cannot be fixed yet. It is about, above and beyond Peter Obi, all at the same time!
To the extent that Chief Obasanjo is unlikely to have put his endorsement of Peter Obi in writing without having reached political agreements in some crucial circles in Nigerian politics and even farther away, to that extent his return to letter writing is an important entry point. Obasanjo is a networker. He could be willy but he is rarely shunned in the many quarters in which he swims. In the north, for instance, he can still reach many of the former military commanders, particularly those who may suspect his motives but would not want an open quarrel with him. Ditto many of the top traditional and religious rulers. As a former president, he has made many people too, many of whom are thriving and would go along with him and they are all over Nigeria. It is debateable if IBB, the other one who also has network, is still stronger than Obasanjo. So, his most recent letter officially and formally endorsing Peter Obi’s presidential bid cannot be dismissed.
There is something in the letter that tries to take care of what can be called the major problem with Obi’s candidature: the fear of what a president of Igbo extraction may do to national oneness. Obasanjo is saying in the letter that he could not support anyone capable of entertaining such thoughts when he is at the same time a warrior for continental integration.
The letter would be welcome in many quarters just as it would not be welcome in many, Obasanjo being a man with many opponents and enemies. No one would read it as a love letter outside of its power intent. Obasanjo, the headmaster of the club of Nigerians labelled as republics within the republic, wants a president that he says has met certain qualities. But, in politics, all qualities are subjective. His critics would easily point out how he has always identified and praised one godson only to quickly fall out with him. The most prominent must be Nasir el-Rufai with whom he appears to have reconciled and then Dr. Goodluck Jonathan whose deserved exit from power Obasanjo was the key architect. So, the question would come naturally regarding what might be the guarantee that he will not soon find Peter Obi wanting.
The bigger question the letter will elicit is the question of what Obasanjo wants. Is it his complexity as a person that compels him to intrude all the time as to who should become president? Or, is it still what a leading Nigerian political scientist has called ‘residual militarism and messianic complex’ that is worrying the grandmaster? Is he afraid of something? Why is he not content with working behind the scenes on this matter?
In particular, why did he not ensure a deliberate elite consensus long before now in favour of a president of Igbo extraction? Such a candidature would have been the ultimate moment for Nigeria and the best epitaph to the past as far as the Igbo question is concerned. The healing effect of that idealism would have unified Nigeria beyond Nigeria. Why entangle the return of Igbo – which is what such would have been – in the muddle and do-or-die culture circumscribing the battle for presidential power in recent Nigeria?
The last point is the near silence on Atiku which could mean one of two things. One possibility is that Atiku has been fixed out of the calculation by now, most likely through the G-5 instrument and he may be considered to be wasting his time and not worth mentioning specifically in the letter. The other possibility is that Chief Obasanjo is expecting the letter to contribute to the unmaking of Atiku. There is a third though most unlikely possibility: all the key fractions of elite Reich have decided that Atiku is not the next president. No one may be sure of the likelihood or otherwise of any of these but all such silences must be interrogated because they are usually meaningful.