Obasanjo: Blame The Operators, Not The System – By Kazeem Akintunde

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*Photo: Obasanjo *

Former President Olusegun Aremu Okikiola Obasanjo has several appellations. Some call him Balogun Owu, others refer to him as Baba Iyabo, but one alias that he cherishes is Ebora Owu. Ebora in Yoruba dialect is like a deity, a living spirit or jinn. It also connotes presenting an offering. And when the sub-ethnic group where he comes from, Owu, is added, it could mean Owu-born living legend or spirit.

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Since he came to national prominence as a young military officer during the Nigeria Civil War, Obasanjo has always found a way to remain relevant in Nigeria’s socio-political milieu. He remains the only person God has destined to rule this country twice – first as a military Head of State, between 1976 and 1979, and later as a civilian President, between 1999 and 2007. His place in Nigeria’s history is assured. His legacies and controversial moments are also well documented.

A man conscious of history, he diligently put down his thoughts on Nigeria as well as his activities while presiding over the affairs of the country.  He documented his years as a military Head of State in ‘My Command’, wrote about his friend – ‘Nzeogwu’ in 1987, and also authored ‘My Watch’ in 2014, which is an account of his years as a civilian President. There are several other books to his name.

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Obasanjo is indeed, a lucky man. He has severally escaped death by the whiskers. One time was during the Civil war, when he was marked for elimination, and another occasion was when he was sentenced to death by the late maximum ruler, General Sani Abacha, for a phantom coup plot. His death sentence was later commuted to 30 years in prison. He survived Abacha, and from prison, the powers-that-be in Nigeria fetched him to become a civilian President in 1999.

For a man that went through ‘hell’ literarily-speaking under the late Abacha, and with God being kind enough to rescue from the jaws of death, Obasanjo should have used his period in power to correct some fundamental challenges that has been the bane of the country. For instance, he could have restructured the country and put it on a sound footing. He could have managed the economy in such a way that Nigeria should have been, or close to being an industrialized nation coveted by all, by now. He could have selected a healthy man as his successor; one that would have ensured continuity of policies that lay and perpetuate the foundation for Nigeria’s greatness.

But Obasanjo chose not to be our own Lee Kuan Yew. Lee is widely recognised as the founding father of modern Singaporean state. His leadership style, which led to transforming the Island into a highly developed country is still being studied the world over.

Obasanjo, after three years as military head of state and another eight years as a civilian leader cannot be ranked in the same category with Mao Zedong, now popularly known as Chairman Mao, considered as one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. Mao has been credited with transforming China from a semi-colony to a leading world power, with advanced literacy, women’s rights, basic healthcare, primary education and improved life expectancy.

However, since he left power, Obasanjo has turned himself more or less, into an ombudsman, regularly dissecting the state of the nation, but mostly coming up with regrets on what should have been done right by those that came after him as President. He has not for once looked back at his own tenure and put any blame squarely on his table. His mode of reaching out to his predecessors also varies, but he loves writing open letters. And make no bones about it.

The first victim of his letter writing skills was late President Shehu Shagari, the man he handed over power to in 1979. He openly criticized him for poor management of the economy and the level of corruption in the country then. Obasanjo also went after General Ibrahim Babangida (IBB), when he introduced the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), which had escalated the suffering of the poor. The dreaded General Abacha was also not spared from Obasanjo’s vitriolic as he took his administration to the cleaners while delivering a keynote address at The Arewa House and also in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), where he described Abacha’s government as visionless, and for squandering the nation’s resources “like a drunken sailor”. Abacha did not find his choice of words funny, and did not hesitate to rope him into a phantom coup where he was sentenced to death before another panel commuted the death sentence to 30 years in prison.

As stated earlier, it was from prison that Obasanjo was made President in 1999, but he fretted away another golden opportunity to put Nigeria on a sound footing. But once he was out of power, he picked up from where he stopped, writing letters to leaders on what was wrong with the country and turning himself to a moral compass for the nation.

He displayed his current hobby at statesmanship in Abeokuta recently when he said that western liberal democracy has not been an effective system of government in Africa because it was forced on the continent. He advocated instead for what he called ‘Afro democracy’. At a high-level consultation on ‘Rethinking Western Liberal Democracy for Africa’, the former President said that the western style of democracy has failed in Africa because it did not take into account the views of the majority of the people. Let me quote him verbatim: “Western liberal democracy is a government of a few people over all the people or population, and these few people are representatives of only some of the people and not full representatives of all the people. African countries have no business operating a system of government in which they have no hand in its definition and design. Once you move from all the people to representatives of the people, you start to encounter troubles and problems. For those who define it as the rule of majority, should the minority be ignored, neglected and excluded? The essence of any system of government is the welfare and well-being of the people – all the people. Here, we must interrogate the performance of democracy in the West, where it originated, and with us, the inheritors of what we are left with by our colonial powers. We are here to stop being foolish and stupid. Can we look inward and outward to see what in our country – culture, tradition, practice, and living over the years that we can learn from, adopt and adapt with practices everywhere for a changed system of government that will serve our purpose better and deliver? We have to think out of the box and after, act with our new thinking. You are invited here to examine clinically the practice of liberal democracy, identify it’s shortcomings for our society and bring forth ideas and recommendations that can serve our purpose better, knowing human beings for what we are and going by our experiences and the experiences of others. We are here to think as leaders of thought in academia and leaders of thought with some experience in politics”, Obasanjo said. 

To underscore how important the event was to him, Obasanjo invited former Governors Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti, Sule Lamido of Jigawa and Liyel Imoke of Cross Rivers states. He also invited the former Minister of State for Defence, Erelu Olusola Obada, among others. Other invited speakers at the event were former Governor of Sokoto State, Aminu Tambuwal and a former Minister of Aviation, Osita Chidoka, who spoke virtually at the event, while 10 professors selected from universities across Nigeria and Ghana delivered papers on the theme.

In his submission, Fayemi noted that there is a trust deficit between followers and leaders in Africa which, according to him, has eroded liberal democracy in the eyes of the people. He concurred that having a more socially and culturally relevant system would address the challenges associated with the practice of liberal democracy. “One that will enable the governed to hold the Governors more accountable, bring government nearer to the people and deliver the goods in terms of quality of life, to the average citizens”.

From Fayemi’s submission, is that not essentially what democracy is all about? Are the attributes he listed not among the core principles of democratic governance?

Obasanjo and many of those who parade themselves as leaders in Africa failed their people and should stop looking for solutions in the wrong directions. Democracy as a form of government is not the problem in Africa, but those who found themselves at the helms of affairs, who know next to nothing about governance, and are in power to feather their nests.

Was Obasanjo not in Nigeria when democracy was priced out of the reach of ordinary Nigerians? When even if you have to sell your entire heritage, you still won’t be able to afford either APC or PDP expression of interest form to run for elections? How much was the form sold in 1999 when Obasanjo became President? Was he able to pay for it from his own pocket? How much was the same form sold during the 2023 presidential elections in all the major political parties?

With the humongous amount of money the forms were sold, we have automatically excluded 95 per cent of Nigerians from partisan politics, leaving the space for those who make their money in an untoward manner or under political godfathers to hijack the political space. And as long as we continue to use our third-eleven, the more things would worsen.

To get things right, we have to come up with a new leadership recruitment process that will throw up first-class brains in our political system, inculcate the love of the country into the mind of both leaders and followers as well as the fear of God.

We need a complete re-orientation of the entire populace for nation building, and we need to put in place, policies that will reduce multi-dimensional poverty, corruption, tribal politics and religious intolerance before we can begin our journey to nationhood. It is when these are done and with good leaders at the helms of affairs that we can be on our way to greatness.

The problems we are currently facing as a continent are not due to the form of government that we operate. There are several countries in Africa that are doing fine, even though majority are at the mercy of dictators. It is the bad leadership structures that we have in most African countries that is the stumbling block to our growth and development as a continent. Unfortunately, Obasanjo is one of them, and he cannot wash himself off the rot with his messianic approach to issues because he is now out of political power. He should blame the operators of democracy in Africa, not the system.

See you next week.

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