Olusegun Obasanjo is one of the most influential Nigerians alive or dead. As a soldier, a dictator, a national leader and a permanent actor in our political process, Obasanjo is an important part of Nigeria’s post-independence historical trajectory. His role through it all has been quite dramatic, often akin to a fiction more than reality. Within his constituency of sycophants, he was once touted as the “founder” of modern Nigeria, especially during the orchestrated campaign for his self-succession in 2007. But let the truth be said, irrespective where we locate the generis of “modern Nigeria”, Obasanjo has been a crucial actor in shaping Nigeria’s fortune or misfortune. If modern Nigeria as it stands today is an enviable polity, Obasanjo has a legitimate entitlement to the credit. If it is not; he sure has a good measure of ownership for the rot. And it is not
The recent release of Obasanjo’s political memoirs and the ongoing controversy it has generated provokes some reflection on Obasanjo, the man. The more one tries to grapple with him, the less one comprehends. His account of his exploits during the Nigerian civil war in My Command (1981) generated a lot of controversies that have since given rise to counter narratives. Similar responses may come in the wake of My Watch. His early contemporaries and later day associates have dissimilar accounts of his enigmatic status. Most agree on his shrewdness and craftiness through which he managed dramatic political circumstances of his career. Some call him brave, other call him cunning and cowardly, leaving critical observers to make up their mind.
Whatever he is called, no one can deny that Obasanjo does not shy away from controversy. He actually hugs it whenever it can be found. He is also not afraid of his critics, unless those he deliberately chose to ignore for strategic reasons. Fela was one of them. The same appears to be the case with the respected cleric, Tunde Bakare. Obasanjo, it was who recommended a juju approach to ending the apartheid system in South Africa. And it was not a joke; he gave the theory some opening for intellectual traction. That is Obasanjo, the African traditionalist, with the courage of his own conviction.
After successfully handing over power to President Shehu Shagari in 1979, Obasanjo, the dictator became Obasanjo the international statesman. His voluntary relinquishing of power as a military dictator to a democratic order seduced the world. As a good opportunist, Obasanjo capitalized on that goodwill, and worked hard to embellish and polish his image. He became a sought-after international statesman and troubleshooter across Africa and the globe. He still is. The highpoint of his profile as an international statesman was his desire to become the Secretary General of the United Nations. The prospect of Obasanjo being world’s number one diplomat had many holding their breath. For a guy with undisguised hatred for the media and a known short fuse, the stakes could not be higher. Fate, however, could not send Obasanjo to New York. It is hard to conjecture what could have been.
But Obasanjo remained engaged in Nigeria’s political life, from Shagari’s presidency to Buhari-Idiagbon and Babangida dictatorships. He was one to scold Babangida with the famous remark that SAP must have a human face. He always had direct access and influence within the corridors of power. His running with Abacha made him the guest of the hangman. In part, that experience transformed Obasanjo into a philosopher and theologian of sorts, as glimpsed from his treatise, This Animal Called Man (1998). But like the biblical Joseph, Obasanjo left the prison for the palace in 1999 this time as Nigeria’s democratically elected president. Some argue that the electorate did not have much to do with that transition. They merely stamped a fait accompli plotted by Obasanjo’s retired military comrades: Abdulsalam Abubakar, Ibrahim Babangida, Theophilus Danjuma and others.
Obasanjo’s second coming was an unprecedented development. When the agitation for revalidation of the annulled June 12, 1993 presidential election won by MKO Abiola needed a boost, Obasanjo added a chill. He told us that Abiola was not the messiah we needed. Yet Obasanjo became the greatest beneficiary of Nigeria’s democratic struggle as symbolized in Abiola’s selfless sacrifice. Instead of making June 12 our democracy day, he chose May 29, the day he ascended into power and preferred to not recognize Abiola’s legacy. The exceptionally lucky Obasanjo spent the maximum of his democratic mandate: two terms of eight years allowed under the constitution. Within that period, he restructured Nigeria’s politically addicted military. He presided over the selling off or transfers of Nigeria’s huge pubic assets under the corruption-ridden privatization process. Despite huge funds dedicated to the power sector, the country remained in the dark. Impunity reigned supreme, as an elected governor of Anambra state was kidnaped by Obasanjo acolytes, those Achebe called renegades. Obasanjo signed off on the military decimation of Oddi community in Bayelsa State. Sharia law was introduced in different parts of the country but Obasanjo ignored the option of a constitutional challenge, a development that has since partly emboldened Islamic fundamentalism in the country. Nigeria lost a chunk of its territory to Cameroon when it could have eschewed subjecting itself to the international court of justice. Election and electioneering were declared do-or-die affairs. Executive legislative relationship was toxic. The presidency was a theatre of in-fighting between Obasanjo and Abubakar his Vice President. Then, the campaign for Obasanjo’s third term preoccupied the business of governance. After its abortion, the whole drama culminated in a hurried recruitment of Umaru Ya’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan, an unlikely pair onto the presidency.
Obasanjo would have us all believe that he could be exonerated from the current state of affairs in Nigeria. That is exceptionalism! Like two different individuals with radically different backgrounds, clearly Obasanjo and Jonathan have run two different presidencies. But given Obasanjo’s role in the making of the Jonathan presidency, his membership of the ruling party, he could have vicarious exposure for the failure or success of the Jonathan administration. Deflating some of the low ends of his presidency, even known disagreements within his immediate family into his relationship with the current presidency is suspect, if not disingenuous. Certain things are left for self-vindication or inevitable vilification as the case may be. The truth cannot be caged as it needs no management.
Obasanjo is in deed and in truth the personification of Nigeria in its inherent contradictions. His patriotism and sacrifice for this country is hardly in doubt. Those who have worked under him know how passionate he is about Nigeria. He is a very hardworking man, one open-minded to recruit talented Nigerians to national service. Not many can keep pace with his work ethic. But yet he launched his presidential library while he was a sitting president and ignored the ethical imperative. He gave the anti-corruption drive a boost. Neither Yar’Adua nor Jonathan presidencies since came close to Obasanjo’s record on that front; notwithstanding that he was accused of using his government’s anti-corruption agency to harass his political opponents.
Like most mortals, Obasanjo is self-evidently a deeply flawed man in many vulnerable departments as can be glimpsed from Oluremi Obasanjo’s Bitter-sweet (2008). He was a polygamist before he was monogamist. He is a high chief, the Balogun of Owu, and he is a born-again Christian, a Methodist, wedded to a Catholic. He is a loving father, with both devout and errant offspring -- biologically and politically; a military man who rose through the ranks but developed and pursued unquenchable intellectual thirst. But he has little, if any commitment to democracy. He does not have strong political followership or constituency, yet he had always secured the ultimate political prize.
Obasanjo’s inclination to pass judgment on his friends and foes in My Watch is an attempt at self-absolution, an extension of the Obasanjo exceptionalism. But he does not have the final say. History does. Like all leaders, Obasanjo will not escape the verdict of history. Through his writings, he has ensured that his voice would not be missing when history scrutinizes him, despite his inclination toward exceptionalism. I salute Obasanjo’s courage for enriching Nigeria’s political history with My Watch.
Chidi Oguamanam is a Law professor at the University of Ottawa, Canada. Twitter: @chidi_oguamanam