Former President Olusegun Obasanjo yesterday returned to the instrument of a scorching discourse of the nation which, in spite of its concessions to the Buhari administration especially in the area of fighting corruption, signals fundamental elite fragmentation. The bone of contention is the anti-corruption war which Obasanjo accepted in principle but argued against the blame worthiness of his regime for the current crisis. In other words, he rejects insinuations that the probing of past administrations should go beyond the Jonathan administration right down to the beginning of the Fourth Republic in 1999. Rather, he urged on Buhari to face up to governance and stop relapsing into the past, a position the president has rejected before by saying he would always contextualise the current crisis in what he calls PDP misrule.
Obasanjo’s intervention which came in the First Akintola Williams Lecture in Lagos yesterday did not say anything new as such which has not been covered in the deluge of criticisms of Buhari, bordering on excessively blaming the past, exclusionary tendency in making appointments, a very slow attitude to governance, the lack of a coherent economic policy framework and, recently, the propriety of taking a $30b foreign loan. The point, however, is that Obasanjo is no ordinary critic and his criticism of every government in the past has been followed by one calamity or the other for such a regime. This has been the situation in 1983, 1985; 1992, 2010 and 2014. From this list, only the Abacha administration has been the exception in terms of immediate calamity but Abacha did collapse eventually and was, in truth, succeeded by Obasanjo. Obasanjo is Nigeria’s most tested godfather.
The question on the lips of readers of Obasanjo’s long winding lecture which relied a lot on ancient literature by quoting books written in the early or mid 1970s is what might have triggered it. Against the accepted wisdom that Generals do not disgrace each other, what might have pushed the former president to dance naked in the arena? Three views are predominant. One view is that President Buhari might have refused to oblige Obasanjo a certain request. No one has an idea of what such a request could be. A second view is that Obasanjo might be anticipating an impending Buhari move while a third position insists that it is because Obasanjo must have finally found a candidate for 2019.
Each of these three dominant positions has its analysts, with analysts of the third view, for example, saying that while Buhari was needed to get Jonathan out in the 2015 elections, he has served that purpose and is now basically alone with only a CPC governor. Meanwhile, the consortium of political parties that gave APC coherence has disintegrated into the component parts, leaving Atiku Abubakar with leadership of the ‘new PDP’; Bola Tinubu with that of the essential ACN, the return of CPC to itself as well as APGA. Subsequently, Obasanjo, for instance, has since started talking of the inevitability of a ‘Third Force’ because, in his argument, neither the APC is a strong ruling party nor is the PDP a strong opposition.
Some analysts have, therefore, been projecting a repeat of 2003 when Obasanjo declared ‘investors’ in his presidency in 1999 as having lost such investment because he wasn’t going to accept any Mandela option. It is now trite to say that he had his way and did enjoy a second term. The question is whether that is also what Buhari would do, assuming he is not forced by any other factors to be content with just one term.
However viewed, most observers agree that Obasanjo’s lecture does indicate the fracturing of the power oligarchy or the small circle of powerful individuals united by the experience of their participation in the Nigerian Civil War and who have hitherto but collectively exercised tremendous hold on Nigeria. It would seem that the kind of organic solidarity that made some of them say in 1998 that they would go on exile if a particular member of that cohort did not win the 1999 presidential contest no longer exists. Contrary to the assumption that this caucus brought in Buhari as an elite consensus to fight corruption and discipline Nigeria’s unruly capitalism, what seems to be happening is a disagreement on who should be included in that disciplining and who should not. That disagreement appears to be the source of the tension which the president referred to the second time recently when he said that those with cases of alleged corruption were fighting back but that his regime would win. Capitalism can produce its own contradictions, an unravelling in which Western Europe and North America are the most entertaining spots currently.
Against this background, might the section of the lecture that decried corruption in the National Assembly and the military have been brought in to strengthen the public service content of the lecture? It must be the boldest and most relentless exposure of the military as well as the National Assembly. Obasanjo’s endorsement of the ‘sting’ operation on the judiciary as a necessary evil stands completely at the opposite end of Speaker Dogara’s position describing the DSS ‘sting’ operation against judges as untidy. It could be also be argued that Obasanjo was replying the military, a section of which had said, in obvious reference to Obasanjo, that some past Nigerian leaders accepted the advice of foreign countries to reduce the size and funding of the military and that such leaders did so “without considering the nation’s peculiar characteristics as a third world country which lacked the advantages of modern technology to compensate for the costly reduction in size and strength”. This was, for example, the position of Air Chief Marshal Alex Badeh, the immediate past Chief of Defence Staff in his valedictory speech on July 29th, 2015 at his pulling out parade in Abuja.
The most revealing part of the lecture though would be the confession, for the first time, why the military regime carried out the 1975/6 purge in the federal civil service. According to Obasanjo, it was because the bureaucracy was perceived to have grown too powerful for the Nigerian State. Obasanjo argued that there had been the collapse of every form of political control of the bureaucracy, that this enabled the bureaucrats to hijack power and to act as a decision-making organ and that this created what he called “the bureaucracy’s unholy romance with politics”. And that the bureaucracy had become a festering ground for corruption which no longer conformed to Max Weber’s conception of it.