It appears that the Nigerians who have been waiting with bated expectation for who blinks first between President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB) and former president Olusegun Obasanjo (OBJ) will be waiting for a long time. This is because, although the gregarious OBJ has fired salvos of public condemnation against PMB’s governance style and policies, which some have alleged is aimed at heating up the polity, but being Mr. Taciturn, PMB has cleverly denied the ex president the opportunity to raise the political temperature by restraining himself from responding to OBJ in kind.
Not even a chance meeting during the recently held African Union (AU) meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where they exchanged pleasantries could steer OBJ away from the collision course that he had intended, ab initio via the public letter.
Incidentally, OBJ and PMB are the only two Nigerians that have served both as military heads of state and democratically elected presidents in Nigeria.
OBJ ruled Nigeria as a dictator from 1976-79 and later as president from 1999-2007 and PMB ascended the Aso Rock throne since May 29, 2015 after serving as military head of state from 1983-85.
It is said that lightening does not strike twice but with OBJ and PMB, the aphorism has lost its essence.
This is because OBJ became head of state by sheer happenstance as the opportunity was thrust on him following the assassination of former military head of state, Murtala Ramat Mohammed to whom he was deputy.
And about 20 years after, as a fall out of the tragic demise of MKO Abiola, the acclaimed winner of June 12, 1993 presidential election, which was annulled by then military head of state, lbrahim Babangida (IBB), OBJ once again had the leadership of Nigeria thrust on him.
It is an open secret that the emergence of OBJ as presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was a sort of appeasement of the Yoruba nation, which was incensed by the brazen robbery of the mandate Nigerians bestowed on MKO Abiola, their kinsman.
Thus, once again the military class, which compelled OBJ to reluctantly step into the shoes of Murtala Mohammed in 1976, this time led by IBB and Theophilus Danjuma etal, ostensibly in the interest of peace and Nigeria’s unity, (but clandestinely to protect the interest of the military), are believed to have brokered the arrangement which ensured that OBJ, an ex military brass and Abiola’s kinsman became PDP’s presidential flag bearer in 1998.
Making OBJ president was a convenient arrangement that pleased both the military, which needed protection against the probe of past administrations which had been dominated by them and therefore requiring a member of their constituent to be on the saddle. Just as it also served the purpose of assuaging the anger of the Yoruba nation, which had been unfairly denied their seat in Aso Rock via Abiola’s presidency before it was aborted by IBB.
So, to some extent, making OBJ president was a sort of atonement for IBB who wronged the Yoruba by aborting MKO Abiola’s presidency.
From the facts outlined above, it is significant to note that planting surrogates in power to succeed incumbents did not just start with politicians but the practice was prevalent during military rule. It means that the culture was introduced by the military and only entrenched by politicians.
While Obasanjo became military dictator without plotting a coup but as a result of a national tragedy between 1976-79, in a similar fashion in 1999 he benefited from another misfortune when he once again mounted the Nigerian leadership horse due to another national calamity and without the rigorous and treacherous process of politicking from the grassroots to the top.
It has remained the subject of discussion in political circles that OBJ’s victory over the frontrunner Alex Ekwueme of blessed memory during the PDP primaries held in Jos, Plateau State in 1998 was achieved through a sleight of hand in his favour by the forces that were bent on planting him in power.
That is in sharp contrast with the circumstances surrounding the emergence of PMB who now holds sway in Aso Rock villa as elected president.
According to records, PMB led a bloodless coup on December 31, 1983, which toppled the democratically elected government of Shehu Shagari.
If per adventure, he had failed in his new year eve putsch, perhaps he might not have been alive to win a democratically conducted election in 2015, which today entitles him to the presidency he now bestrides.
After being ousted in less than two years of being on the saddle of leadership as a military head of state, 30 years after, through grit and grim, Buhari reclaimed the mantle of leadership in Aso Rock via a democratic process.
From the foregoing historic account, in more ways than one, OBJ and PMB have a lot in common.
The main difference between both leaders is that while OBJ’s palm kernel – as the African proverb goes – was cracked by the gods to facilitate the opportunity to rule Nigeria twice, first as a military junta and later as a democratically elected president, PMB plotted and executed a coup, (although bloodless) before contesting for the presidency, which he won on his fourth attempt, between 2003-15.
Considering the circumstances under which OBJ obtained the privilege of leading Nigeria twice, the expectations of most Nigerians that OBJ would not be arrogant or haughty, was not unreasonable.
But, instead of being humble, OBJ has gradually taken on the toga of an oracle, if not a demigod in Nigeria that must be appeased by anyone who aspires to lead the nation from the centre.
Having been assisted to lead Nigeria twice by terrestrial powers or the so-called Third Force manifesting as good luck, OBJ may have justification for believing that he is a special one.
So far, evidence abounds that he has successfully played the role of an avatar or sentinel in previous political developments.
For instance, leveraging on his power of incumbency, as he was exiting office, he thwarted his Vice President, Atiku Abubakar’s presidential bid after a nasty public fight that entailed the washing of dirty linen in public.
Curiously, muckraking which are usually the fallout of his previous letters to sitting heads of state, has not been recorded in the current open confrontation with the government in power. That may be due to the fact that PMB might have chosen to observe and honour the military ethos of Espirit de Corp and respect for hierarchy strictly.
In order words, since the military hierarchy is always respected whether serving or retired, Buhari the current Aso Rock villa occupant might have made the decision not to openly take the battle back to OBJ, his superior in the military as others before him who suffered OBJ’s caustic tongue had done. Even when lBB ousted PMB as the military head of state on August 27, 1985, (in an equally bloodless coup) he only put him under house arrest.
And make no mistake about it, the respect for the military code is observed even beyond the Nigerian shores as reflected by what happened in Egypt when the military ousted Hosni Mubarak and kept him under house arrest.
Mubarak enjoyed that privilege simply because as an ex military man, having served in the air force before transiting into the political realm, he was superior in rank to General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and co who removed him in a putsch paving the way for Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi to step into power.
Not being a soldier, Morsi tried, convicted and jailed Mubarak, but the military stepped in again and gave Mubarak a soft landing.
Given the scenario above, it did not surprise some of us that the usually very combative presidential spokespersons and equally loquacious information minister have been tame and nuanced in their response to the very incandescent missive that OBJ addressed to their principal.
For the likes of Garba Shehu, senior special assistant and Femi Adesina, special adviser on media to have kept their usually poisonous arrows in their quivers and allow only Lai Mohamed, the usually pugnacious information minister to try to deodorise the otherwise very pungent, if not toxic public umbrage against PMB by OBJ, there must have been clear instructions from the commander-in-chief to hold fire.
To properly understand the promises or perils of OBJ’s open letter to PMB, we must look beyond headlines to unearth underlying factors.
Obviously, OBJ has now become a serial public letter writer lambasting heads of Nigerian government. This is by virtue of the fact that he has authored similar explosive mails to IBB, late Sani Abacha and Umar Yar’Adua of blessed memory as well as Goodluck Jonathan in the past 40 or so odd years since he first ruled Nigeria.
However, when he made the infamous miscalculation of engaging in the “busy body” action of castigating the no nonsense Sani Abacha, OBJ was arraigned on charges of treason. He was on his way to the gallows for his alleged role in a coup d’etat before the mysterious demise of Abacha, who reportedly ingested some passion fruits offered to him in Aso Rock villa by some comfort women of Indian extraction.
That the Third Force worked for OBJ again by mysteriously terminating Abacha’s life before he could take him to the gallows further strengthens the mysticism of OBJ phenomena.
In the light of his close shave with death, if OBJ was an ordinary mortal, he could have learnt a lesson or two but as some have noted, OBJ is mystical hence he has defied all odds and continues to imperil himself by literarily stirring the hornet’s nest in writing inciting letters to his predecessors.
Apparently, PMB’s strategy to be taciturn either in deference to the unwritten rule in the military not to engage in public spat with superior officers or in furtherance of his legendary style of taciturnity, has paid off.
This is because members of the public who form the support base of PMB have seized the opportunity to pick up the gauntlet by releasing a tidal wave of bile and vitriol against OBJ in an equally open letter accusing him of the crimes he levied against PMB which amounts to hypocrisy.
The face-off is now a proxy war as OBJ’s supporters, on and offline in the social media have also been lambasting PMB.
It is a case of my enemy’s enemy is my friend.
To demonise OBJ some of them had resurrected a vitriolic letter written by OBJ’s daughter, Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello, who had engaged her father in a public brawl, ostensibly for being a very bad dad owing to his alleged megalomanic tendencies.
By publishing the public letter of five years ago as if it was currently written, OBJ’s antagonist’s aim to tarnish the OBJ persona by creating the impression that as a man who has serious blood feud and was not credible. Gbenga, OBJ’s first son, had also publicly accused his father of incest by alleging that his father shared his (Gbenga’s ) matrimonial bed with his wife and mother of his children, he.
Curiously, in spite of the damning and ignoble parenting flaws exposed by OBJ’s scions about him, the political capital of the self-appointed moral conscience and messiah of Nigeria, has not been diminished.
It is therefore safe to conclude that despite all the warts being exposed, particularly his characterisation as a moral degenerate, there are still quite a lot of Nigerians who idolise OBJ.
His hero image is perhaps derived from the fact OBJ seizes opportunity to stir up controversies that elevate him by playing to the gallery of the long suffering and unwary members of the public, whose emotions he manipulates by pretending to be the champion of their causes.
Against the backdrop of the narrative above, is OBJ an opportunist, a genuine and concerned patriot or just a mystic?
It can be argued both ways because his latest letter to PMB could be both a problem and an opportunity.
Clearly, OBJ was on point, as all the concerns contained in the letter are quite cogent and already being expressed by a broad spectrum of patriots nationwide.
But the only snag is whether OBJ has the moral authority to pontificate as he did in his message to PMB.
Love or loathe him, OBJ’s timing is always right because he only cashed in on the opportunity to be the voice of the voiceless when the back of Nigerians were literarily pushed against the wall owing to hardship arising from a perceived derelict leadership.
That is why, to me, this is a kind of déjà vu encore.
In 2015, candidate Buhari similarly capitalised on the suffering of the masses ostensibly due to the ‘clueless government’ of Goodluck Jonathan, which was accused of monumental corruption and rode into Aso Rock on that premise.
In 2018, owing to the absence of a credible presidential candidate with mass appeal to challenge Buhari, it became inevitable that OBJ, as ex head of state who still has political firepower in his belly to galvanise public angst against his targets, would seize the moment to muddy the 2019 political water for PMB via his letter.
As we all know, nature abhors vacuum, and to that extent, it can be argued that OBJ is only filling a political void.
And this belief is underscored by the fact that he is not only tagging PMB a bad product, but he is also marshalling his support base through a political platform aptly tagged Coalition for Nigeria Movement (CNM) also known as the Third Force which is a mystic nomenclature aimed at spoiling the chances of the ruling and main opposition parties, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and PDP in the 2019 general elections.
And by so doing, OBJ may be finally stretching his narcissistic traits to new levels by taking the moral high ground of being all-knowing and perhaps the one appointed by God to save Nigeria. An attitude which his antagonists have alluded to in their scathing responses to OBJ’s letter.
In 2007, OBJ pushed for Nigerians to vote for late president Umar Yar’Adua and they did. A little over two years into his tenure, he became gravely ill and OBJ tried to convince Nigerians to vote against him if he fails to resign and even nudged the National Assembly (NASS) to impeach him. But the man passed away before OBJ’s fury could become a storm.
Again he cajoled Nigerians to replace late Yar’Adua with then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan.
Nigerians obliged him and a few years after, he literarily bayed for the blood of his ‘blue eyed’ political prince-Jonathan when the latter sought a second term.
Anybody else but Jonathan, he sermonised.
OBJ had his way with the incumbent President Buhari taking advantage of the void created by the schism within then ruling party, PDP which he masterminded by dramatically tearing up his membership card of the party on whose platform he ruled Nigeria for eight years.
OBJ’s larger than life image can be situated within the foregoing strings of successes in determining the direction in which Nigeria’s leadership pendulum swings.
But given that under his watch nothing spectacular happened in Nigeria in terms of deepening of democracy or growing the economy and he has continued to coax or sometimes coerce Nigerians into voting-in or voting-out of office of at least two presidents that he handpicked after his exit from power, where does OBJ derive his authority or audacity to keep twisting Nigerians between his fingers?
One intriguing answer may be rooted in the new zeitgeist reality that moral decadence does not play critical roles in the process of choosing leaders.
Not in Nigeria and not even in the USA, the acclaimed reference point for liberal democracy.
Adjunct to that is the ability to identify the prevailing sentiment or resentment of the masses and key into it.
The assumption above is derived from the fact that Americans elected President Donald Trump a year ago into the White House despite evidence of misogyny supported by video clips of his boast about groping women and after a handful of women stepped out to accuse him of sexually assaulting them.
What earned Donald Trump the presidency is his America First philosophy, which is borne out of the feeling by rural Americans that they were losing their country to immigrants like Mexicans, Arabs and Africans.
The sentiment is a resurgence of the principles behind Nazi anti Semitism propagated by Adolph Hitler and racial segregation hitherto practiced in the USA and enforced by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
Following the same principle, in Nigeria any promise to empower the masses against the elite who are believed to have been emasculating them energises the masses like opium to the addict.
Interestingly, Trump who has vociferously denied all the charges by referring to them as fake news, has effectively leveraged his media prowess, particularly Twitter to drown the voices of his accusers.
By the same token, in Nigeria OBJ’s voice has been very loud through his public letter writing just as PMB had also effectively used the media to gather the momentum that propelled him into Aso Rock villa in 2015.
Arising from the above, one clear thing that can be gleaned from both Trump and OBJ’s narcissistic and megalomanic tendencies is that he who shouts the most and panders towards populist ideology by zeroing in on the interest of the downtrodden masses, gains the most public sympathy and support.
So, often times political success boils down to the ability of a candidate to fully harness the awesome power of the media in the mobilisation of citizens towards achieving set objectives.
In the light of the above, the following three-pronged posers are in order:
Has lyabo’s letter damaged OBJ enough for PMB to continue to ignore him; has OBJ overreached himself this time as his support base might have seen through his subterfuge and will the mission of OBJ-led new coalition of politicians dubbed The Third Force movement to torpedo the ruling and main opposition parties APC and PDP be accomplished?
The answers to the foregoing questions lie in the belly of time.
Nevertheless, and in the mean time, it will be foolhardy for PMB’s government to like Jonathan’s rely on power of incumbency and awesome financial war chest to win the presidency again in 2019.
Today, every average Nigerian appreciates better the power of his/her voters’ card, which now counts mainly due to the improvement on the integrity of voting via the introduction of electronic voting.
Presently, Nigerians are like the proverbial Catalonian bull seeing ‘red’ as a result of the socio/economic and political quagmire that is currently strangulating the country.
It is a no brainer to foretell that in 2019 the electorate will vote with their hearts as opposed to being tele-guided. As such, a simple antidote to the looming risk of being booted out of power is for the government in power to develop all the concerns raised in OBJ’s letter into an action plan for urgent attention before 2019.
Put succinctly, OBJ’s letter should be deemed and adopted as a position paper from an experienced consultant to an organisation that is seeking remedy for a malignant tumour that has the ability and capacity to become cancerous and terminal.
Happily, PMB has taken the first positive step by putting his ego aside and swallowing the humble pie as he has taken the criticism with equanimity.
Other leaders with fragile ego could have described OBJ’s ‘red flag’ as the ranting of an ant that would be of no consequence. But reason seems to have prevailed over emotions, hence there has been no exchange of brick brats but rather we seem to be seeing the required process of engine overhaul which appears to have been activated.
In conclusion, l am convinced that in the fullness of time, the latest OBJ intervention will help to further mystify or demystify the brand and phenomenon known as OBJ, so we wait.
*Magnus Onyibe, a development strategist, an alumnus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Massachusetts, USA, and a former commissioner in Delta State, sent this piece from Kaduna.