Obasanjo, Buhari and the impending political dogfight

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Buhari may have finally decided to accept the challenge thrown by former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Speaking while receiving members of the Buhari Support Organization led by the Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Customs Service, Col. Hameed Ali (retired) at the State House on Tuesday, May 22, Buhari accused Obasanjo (without mentioning his name) of spending $16bn in the power sector without anything to show for it. He was quoted by ThisDay of May 23 2018 as saying: “You know the rail was killed and one of the former heads of state between [sic] that time was bragging that he spent more than $16 billion, not naira, on power. Where is the power? Where is the power? And now, we have to pay the debt.”

It should be recalled that in January this year, Obasanjo, famous (or infamous – depending on where you stand in the divide) for propping up governments and pulling down the same governments he propped up, published a long letter condemning the Buhari government. Such condemnatory epistles are usually a prelude to the Owo General taking down a government he previously supported. Titled ‘The Way Out: A Clarion Call for Coalition for Nigeria Movement’, Obasanjo accused the Buhari government of performing far below expectation and advised him against seeking re-election. He also accused the Buhari government of “clannishness, lack of understanding of the dynamics of politics, and his tendencies to pass the buck of his government’s inadequacies to the immediate past administration.”

Obasanjo wrote a similar letter in December 2013 to Goodluck Jonathan, whom he literally made the country’s President. He titled the letter to Dr Jonathan “Before it is Too Late” and in it highlighted the numerous failings of his government. He capped his criticisms of the Jonathan government by dramatically tearing his PDP’s membership card. He was gladly appropriated by the then opposition APC as a statesman who courageously spoke truth to power.

After Obasanjo’s bombshell on Buhari in January 2018, the Daura General reportedly advised his aides not to move against the octogenarian, who recently bagged a PhD in Theology from the Open University. Thus, in the government’s formal reply to the Obasanjo epistle, Lai Mohammed, the Information Minister, was uncharacteristically very deferential:

“For the record, Chief Obasanjo is a patriot, and he has proven this time and time again. We appreciate what he said concerning the Administration’s performance in two out of the three key issues that formed the plank of its campaign: Fighting corruption and tackling insurgency....

“Apparently, the former President believes that the Administration does not deserve a pass mark in the area of the economy, which is the third of our three-pronged campaign promises....

“We believe that Chief Obasanjo, because of his very busy schedule, may not have been fully availed of developments in the government’s efforts to revamp the economy, which was battered by the consequences of over-dependence on a commodity as well as unprecedented pillaging of the treasury.”

If the government hoped that its ‘softly-softly’ approach would mollify Obasanjo, it obviously miscalculated for the Ota farmer, rather than being pacified, has been ramping up his criticisms of the government and engineering initiatives for him to be voted out of power. It could therefore be argued that Buhari’s recent veiled criticisms of Obasanjo are because he felt he was left with no option but to accept the former President’s challenge for a political dogfight.

As Buhari accepts Obasanjo’s challenge, the scene is set for a real ‘roforofo’ because Obasanjo never ducks a fight – just as the Daura General is hardly fazed by intimidation. Already Obasanjo has given indication of the possible tone of the impending political nuclear war. Replying to Buhari’s Tuesday jab through his media aide Kehinde Akinyemi, Obasanjo said Buhari’s allegation that he wasted $16bn on a power project that produced no power was “based on ignorance” and recommended that the President and his “co-travellers” should read his book, ‘My Watch’ where he said he had exhaustively discussed and put the allegation to rest. He added for effect: “If he cannot read the three-volume book, he should detail his aides to do so and summarise the chapters in a language that he will easily understand.”

The opposition PDP, SDP and other motley opposition groups, will happily appropriate Obasanjo as the Father of modern Nigeria, who is not afraid to tell truth to power – just as the APC did in the run-up to the 2015 elections. Is it not true that what goes around comes around, and that the more things change, the more they remain the same? In the ensuing political battle, expect all manner of weapons to be deployed – our fault lines of religion and ethnicity, lying with statistics, glorification of alternative facts and hate and offensive speeches. Also expect ‘do gooders’ like traditional and religious leaders to become ‘killjoys’ by prematurely seeking to mediate and separate the combatants before they even land the first few political punches. Unbeknown to these ‘killjoys’, many people long to see laughter on their faces in this season of anomie and if the dust from this impending political fight will freshen the political air from its drabness and lift up people’s spirit, even if temporarily, then it is all well and good.

But as we prepare for the impending political warfare, let us not lose sight of the fact that Obasanjo and Buhari have far more in common than their differences: they are both inherently dictatorial (while Buhari ran the worst military dictatorship in the country aside from Abacha, Obasanjo’s civilian presidency holds the record for worst human rights violations in the current civilian dispensation). Again both retired military Generals are stubborn and have deep convictions that bother on messianic complex: while Obasanjo uses his government as the benchmark for measuring any other government and feels compelled to work to remove any government he feels is underperforming, Buhari believes that there has been no proper governance in the country except when he was a military ruler and since May 2015 when he became the president. Again both men often take liberty with statistics. For instance Buhari’s claims about the price and production of petroleum from 1999 till 2015 in his veiled attack on Obasanjo represents alternative facts just as the statistics often used by Obasanjo to attack his opponents – such as on Jonathan’s and Buhari’s economic underperformance are sometimes dodgy. Buhari and Obasanjo also like to play the ostrich. For instance while Obasanjo routinely accuses every government he is not running as corrupt (including the National Assembly), he demurs when questions are asked about the sources of his current wealth (given allegation that he had only N20,000 in the bank when he was released from Abacha’s gulag in the run-up to the 1999 election). In the same vein, Buhari’s supporters market him as frugal, Mr Integrity and the poorest President the country has ever produced and yet they feel uncomfortable when questions are asked why the President does not want to do full public asset declaration as his campaign promised or the sources of the funds he used in sending his children to elite school in England or for his presidential campaigns since 2003 or for his son, Yusuf’s, luxury power bikes.

But despite their weaknesses, I believe that both Buhari and Obasanjo have done their bits for the country and that their places in our political history are assured. They are elder statesmen that deserve respect – despite their shortcomings. So when the inevitable political fight starts, we will engage them with the respect they deserve.

As I look forward to the coming political slugfest, I have proclaimed myself completely non-aligned and certainly not to become a cannon fodder. In the coming political battle, I will stand on the side of the truth (as I see it) irrespective of who spoke it. I have seen too many political dogfights in this country in which supporters of the political combatants lose their means of livelihoods and even their lives only for the former warring enemies to quietly make up, without consulting them. The impression I get is that it is all about ego, power and its appurtenances irrespective of the way they package themselves or are packaged. Jideofor Adibe

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