It seems former president Obasanjo would still successfully install the next president of Nigeria in 2019 before people wake up to realise he has done it again as he has always managed to do since 2007 and even much, much earlier. Did he not install Buhari in December 1983? Those who follow Terisa Turner’s repertoire of the rupture between the Shagari Presidency and the retired gentlemen farmers, culminating in the December 1983 coup would agree that Obasanjo did. Turner even listed the names of who was who at the Portharcourt meeting where the demise of the Shagari government was signed and sealed by the ‘men on horseback’, and eventually delivered on December 31st, 1983, preceded by a loaded attack on the Shagari regime by Obasanjo.
So, Obasanjo has been in the business of king making. He only suffered a major setback when he mistook Abacha for the more liberal or tolerant IBB and then Abacha dealt with him as he did with every other notable player that stood on his way to whatever it was that he was looking for. Aside from Obasanjo, Abacha’s victims of maximalist orientation stretched to Abiola, Shehu Yar’Adua, Sultan Dasuki, Oladipo Diya, David Mark, Atiku Abubakar and Ken Saro-wiwa. Profoundly patriotic but Abacha appeared to many to have taken high handedness to a level that was strange to Nigerian politics. An IBB would organise his boys to throw invective at an Obasanjo or most of his traducers but nothing more than that. Not Abacha.
A Political Scientist of note from a Central African country once said Obasanjo is very intelligent. General Danjuma told The Guardian in his acclaimed February 2008 how Obasanjo’s intelligence and hard work drew him to the man, with particular reference to how Obasanjo ended the war. That was before Obasanjo tried what some people say is his trademark attribute – use and dump – on Danjuma and they parted ways. It is not clear if any of the attempts to unite the two has worked or would work. Until it works, Danjuma would be among the four or so most sensational break with Obasanjo. The list would be headed by Atiku Abubakar, then Audu Ogbeh, Tony Anini and Nasir el-Rufai. Of these, only el-Rufai has re-united with Obasanjo if a picture of him apparently explaining something to the former president on a kneeling position not long ago in Daily Trust is anything to go by.
These ones are lucky. They are alive to contemplate re-uniting or not with Obasanjo. An entity such as the PDP does not have such option. The extraordinarily bouncing baby the founding fathers of the party handed over to Obasanjo to nurture was nurtured into such a reckless adult, a hooligan, courtesy of the former president’s rich practice of whims. Last week, he said the party or whatever is left of it is a candidate for intensive care attention. That was, in the view of some observers, a very insensitive thing to say about a party many suffered to form. They point to what he himself said about a strong party in power balanced by a strong party in opposition as about the only way the country can still be saved, of which none of what exist as parties today comes near.
Analysts put such statements as manifesting the impact of the combination of a highly native criteria of judgment, overflowing good luck, lessons from practical encounters in life, advantages of being in government for long and now ample resources that enable Obasanjo to do things that people he is in the game with either think are not important or simply do not know how to do or are doing but differently. A Danjuma can walk to an Obasanjo and tell him not to dare this or that and then walk away, sure that no reprisals will follow but end up handing over to him a new angle of accomplishing the same objective.
In the case of Buhari’s 2015 gamble, Obasanjo was already in motion by 2013. By December of that year, he had invited Buhari to his country home. Buhari who had contested three times could not have been so invited by an Obasanjo who had said not so secretly that he needed to appease the north. Pointblank News, one of the few news outlets that reported the Buhari trip to Abeokuta captured parts of the unfolding drama perceptively by writing that “Political feelers are now coming to terms that the actions of the G-7, House speaker’s recent utterances about Jonathan’s body language and corruption, CBN governor’s letter about some missing monies at the NNPC, and Obasanjo’s letter might all be from the same script”. The letter Pointblank News referred to was Obasanjo’s open letter to President Jonathan in late 2013 which was Jonathan’s dosage of the medicine Obasanjo has served all who succeeded him as Nigeria’s Head of State since 1979 except Abacha whose own dosage was served too early in the life of the regime, enraging him to go after Obasanjo.
At the February 1994 Arewa House Workshop on ‘The State of the Nation and the Way Forward’, Obasanjo who delivered the Keynote Address at the opening session chaired by General Buhari fired at Babangida and Abacha in these words, “There is nothing new in what I have said so far since I have said it more loudly and more pungently when General Babangida was in office, after I had come to understand the game and the character of the man. I need only to add at this juncture that General Babangida is the main architect of the state in which the nation finds itself today and that General Abacha was his eminent disciple, faithful supporter and beneficiary”. On his way to delivering the lecture, Obasanjo was taken to see Abacha. The military officer who facilitated this said in a subsequent interview in The News that Abacha was livid after Obasanjo left, warning him never to bring Obasanjo to see him again. “He thinks he knows everything”, the officer quoted Abacha as saying about Obasanjo.
When Obasanjo said on August 19th, 2016 that he and four others opted to bring Buhari to power, he was not grandstanding. And the pronouncement does not call for some of the reactions to it so far. What it calls for is reflections because should anything happen to Obasanjo today, Nigeria is bound to go in search of another Obasanjo. Obasanjo’s role in leadership selection in Nigeria now is the price a country pays when it cannot abide by national consensus. If rotation of power were followed, leadership succession at the presidential level would not be the quinquennial warfare it is in Nigeria today and there would have been no space for a do gooder. But, imagine what 2015 would have been like if there were no Obasanjo and the national and international interests and forces he could mobilise to overwhelm the incumbent. So, there is something uncritical and wrongheaded in abstracting the Obasanjo person when analysing the king making politics that attended Buhari’s coming in 2015. It is not whether and why Obasanjo and other members of the cohort brought Buhari and every other leader since 1983 but about the context which makes it possible for them to do that.
While it must be true that Obasanjo and other members of the cohort have their personal interests in installing whoever they install, it is even truer that they are only able to push such individual interests under conditions of national helplessness. By December 2013 when he made the initial move for Buhari presidency, whatever personal interests Obasanjo had also coincided with public disenchantment with the Jonathan regime. The rest is now history, not in the sense that he single handedly made Buhari’s return to power possible but he certainly had a lot to do in the discursive and material promotion of that agenda, nationally and internationally.
The real tragedy is that only the members of the cohort are self aware enough in group terms to always identify a candidate, whitewash him, (no her yet) and convince or browbeat the voters to formally endorse such predetermined person at the polls, with the critics emerging in droves only after the king is installed. How does it happen that all the constituencies come alive only after the leader has been installed and begins to do what he wants rather than what people want? With such a crowd, then it could be said that Obasanjo has not even started the business of king making, whether conceptualised as Olusegun Obasanjo or as the leading player in the out-going national cohort.
This piece forms the second and final instalment of a series. The first part was published earlier on in this newspaper under the title “IBB @ 75: Pondering on Nigeria’s Next National Cohort, Part 1”