March 17, 2009: On March 18 in London, a group of Nigerians will take advantage of the right of protest and picket against the presence of Olusegun Obasanjo, a man who, a few years ago, could easily have gunned them down in Abuja for doing so. The protest is being organized by the Nigeria Liberty Forum (NLF).
Obasanjo will be the guest of the London School of Economics and Political Science at a seminar on “Eastern DRC: what should the international community be doing?”
The Democratic Republic of the Congo epitomizes instability in Africa. With wealth in its soil beyond compare, the DRC has not known many years without conflict since it became independent of Belgium in 1960. The faces keep changing, but the violence, particularly in the east, has baffled observers throughout the past decade. It is not out of place for an academic institution such as LSE, to hold a public gathering of this nature in an effort to develop its understanding of a particular issue among its faculty and students.
Obasanjo was invited by LSE in his role as the Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General to the DRC. Fresh from eight years as Nigeria’s president, the UN appointed Obasanjo as a Special Representative of the Secretary-General last November. But it was obvious even as the announcement was being made, that it was one of convenience for the UN.
For the people of Africa, it was a terrible mistake. An important role was being assigned to a man who has demonstrated no commitment either to peace, or to development. Not only had Obasanjo spent eight years and billions of dollars running Nigeria into the ground, he was a serial human rights abuser.
Oh, he is loud at proclaiming the right principles and policies, but he is no democrat. And he is no fan either of political or human rights. “My Life With Obasanjo,” a book by his former wife, Oluremi Obasanjo, presents the image of a ruthless, self-serving man whose only interest is himself: his baser instincts, his greed, his ego. Obasanjo’s tenure in office, on the other hand, is a grim reminder of how a nation can be deceived everyday in every way. He never curbed corruption or fostered development.
Indeed, in 2006, with only one left of the eight years he had awarded himself through elections that were internationally certified ‘R’—that is, Rigged—he went further: he wanted a third term. Ignoring every outcry and every advice, he embarked on the most manipulative and pernicious measures to try to circumvent the constitution and remain in power. He was willing to spend any amount of money, in any currency, at any hour of the day or night, in any country of the world, in his ambition to get it. In the end, it was only by the grace of God that Nigeria averted that nightmare.
But Obasanjo was not done: ignoring rule and every decency, he handpicked a candidate and imposed him on the country a candidate so flawed he was officially dumping Nigeria in a hospital ward. Today, Nigeria is in almost every sense an under-developing nation. It is unclear who, or what, is in charge, or where we are going. It is the kind of script only Obasanjo could have written. The UN has expressed doubt, for instance, that Nigeria will implement the Millennium Declaration Goals. Of course not: Obasanjo, whom the same UN is trying to pass off as a top statesman, had eight seven years to implement them, but he did not. His successor does not talk about the MGDs.
Before the eyes of the world, OBJ turned his anti-corruption crusade into his anti-corruption crusade: a personal laser gun he aimed at his opponents. No wonder the war collapsed even before he left office. Before the eyes of the world, Obasanjo left Nigeria drained of any hope to power its electricity, and the electricity to power its hope. The transition from him to his chosen successor defines our journey to nowhere.
None of these is a mystery at the United Nations—if one were to look at the annual UNDP reports, for instance—or at the LSE. Still, the UN invited Obasanjo, and gave him his most coveted makeover as a statesman. It is an easy way of understanding why multilateral diplomacy does not work: the UN makes a star of a vicious dictator that has taken his nation several decades back. Eventually, it will hold a lavish event to examine why that nation is a failure.
Today, Obasanjo is such a man, armed by the UN with free travel vouchers to go anywhere and engage anyone in a game of “Let’s Pretend.” LSE is his forum of choice on Wednesday, and he will play the part of a statesman with a robust understanding of the challenge of the Congo (remember he served there as a soldier in 1960, before most people in the audience were born). Already, he has recommended more troops for MONUC, the UN peacekeeping mission in the country, and that ‘the leaders of Congo and the Great Lakes region and the international community … put their heads together’. Apart from an extensive travelogue, it remains to be seen what else he tells LSE.
But I doubt he will ask them to “Shut Up!” That is a privilege he reserves for Nigerians. He will not tell them to consider themselves lucky he had honoured them with his presence, as he told bereaved and homeless residents of Ikeja in 2002 after explosions at the military cantonment had killed hundreds. He is unlikely to dismiss them with such talk as “LSE my foot!” as he did the Chairman of the Plateau State Christian Association of Nigeria in 2004 who dared ask him an uncomfortable question. And he is unlikely to respond to any member of the audience with the final words he left with that gentleman: “You are an idiot, a total idiot, and I have no apologies for that."
On the contrary, Obasanjo will pose as a highly-respected statesman, and the LSE will protect him from every inconvenience to his dignity. The worst part of all this is that the LSE, like the United Nations, knows about Obasanjo’s ambivalence. They know how he exploited and deceived his people.
Why, then, do they continue with their patronage? Because it is a game, and this keeps the game going. And a man as colourful as Obasanjo probably makes it interesting.
The UN, LSE and other institutions know that the road to the future lies in reliable, selfless leaders who are committed to good governance, not opportunists. The paradox is none of them will support tomorrow’s protesters whose message is good governance. Among the lessons that Obasanjo left Nigeria with is that poverty and hypocrisy are the most powerful forms of violence any leader can visit on his people. But they are exactly what Obasanjo ruled with, and left Nigeria with.
It is clear that he is not capable of bringing to another country the same peace he denied his own people. And this is a man who knows that peace and development go together; you need the one in other to chase the other. He had a total of 13 years to make an absolute difference in Nigeria, but he chose himself. Worse still, he left office having mortgaged the future of Nigeria for his own ends. I am mystified as to how such a pathetic resume qualifies a man to be considered a statesman.
Given Obasanjo’s record, his appointment as a UN envoy and he status of celebrity he is nurturing are an insult to the cause of both peace and development in Africa. Africa is an old game, but Africans are not. A part of the problem of war and peace in Africa is that the international community has often chosen to ignore the quality of dissent until it hardens into violence. The UN has extended this old approach by choosing Obasanjo, a man who has tremendous difficulty accepting the right of anyone to a different opinion—let alone a strong one—to lead the charge in the DRC. How will he earn the respect of the rebels?
Another question is whether, given Obasanjo’s record in Nigeria, he truly cares for progress in the DRC or anywhere else. My answer is: certainly not. Obasanjo is in this for Obasanjo, not for Africa or the cause of peace. Remember, crisis and bad governance on the continent traditionally provide Obasanjo with opportunity.
But whether he makes any progress in the DRC or not, the UN should never have rewarded him with the task in the first place, on account of his monumental failures and compromises in his own country. This political and philosophical error is responsible for the public relations mess the LSE now faces over Obasanjo, for which it has chosen to add its own errors.
Still, the NLF should take advantage of the opening offered by the LSE and submit a clear and concise statement of its position to the institution, and as background material to the press. In terms of strategy, sometimes you start a fight not because you are capable of winning it, but in order to elevate your profile. You then convert your higher profile into greater capacity. Then you prepare for the future.