Wednesday, 5 March 2014
Obasanjo And The Curse Of Former Presidents By Tayo Oke, Ph.D
Former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, has had the rare and unique privilege of running Nigeria not once, not twice, but three times within the last forty years and he still remains physically and mentally fit enough to engage with public life almost on a daily basis as he is wont to do. He was the military head of state between February 1976 and September 1979 following the assassination of the then Head of State, General Murtala Mohammed, in a botched coup d’état.
He handed over power to an elected civilian administration on October first 1979, and retired from the Nigerian army to become a “farmer” in his home state of Ogun. Over the subsequent years though, his business acumen appeared to have failed him as life in the private sector did not bring him the monetary rewards that his status as a former Head of State had propelled him to expect. On the contrary, he was, by all accounts, ‘down to his last kobo’ by the end the 1980s, and had started creeping up at the corridors of power, trying to draw attention unto himself. Other Heads of State and civilian Presidents came and went. They saw him as an irritant, but largely tolerated him without availing him of any worthwhile resource. The only one who pointedly refused to tolerate his grumblings was Abacha, who promptly put him in jail for making “too much noise” in an attempt to “destabilise” his regime. It was during his time in jail that he vowed to himself to become stupendously rich if he were ever to regain the reins of power in the country again.
Lo and behold, Obasanjo became a civilian President in 1999, riding on the wave of the emotions generated for the murdered Moshood Abiola, the winner of the annulled Presidential election of 1992. Obasanjo’s rise to power this time was thought to be a ‘gift’ from the North to assuage the feelings of the South West geo-political zone for having deprived one of their own from assuming the Presidency through the annulled election decreed by a northern head of state, General Ibrahim Banbangida. Through the PDP rigging machine, Obasanjo ‘won’ re-election and served another term as a civilian President from 2003 to 2007. It was during these two periods as a civilian President that Obasanjo threw all caution to the winds in terms of his naked acquisition of personal wealth. Details of his many shady deals and contract manipulations are common knowledge to merit an in-depth discussion here. Suffice it to say that Obasanjo is a very wealthy man indeed today, not because of his business acumen or artistic endeavours, but for the sheer fact of having been President of Nigeria for two consecutive terms. If he had left office the same way he did when he was military head of state, he would have gone hungry again in no time. So, he took no chances this time around. He not only made certain of his own massive personal financial security, he made certain of same for members of his family, his cronies and acolytes as well. It is often the case that money power and political power are two of the world’s most potent aphrodisiacs. Possession of one often tempts one to seek the other. Now, then, given that Obasanjo has tasted power, and has accumulated immense wealth, but he is still lurking and sniffing around the political alley ways like a dog. Why?
The simple answer to the above puzzle is wrapped in one word: legacy. In Obasanjo's case the absence of it. He has had three attempts at wielding power as head of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and has left no significant impact; nothing of substance with which to remember him. By contrast, Awolowo served only one term as Premiere of the old Western region and left the indelible mark of modest mass welfarism, which every self-respecting governor in the country today is still trying to emulate. Murtala Mohamed was head of state for just six months before he was assassinated, but left a mark of distinction on Nigeria/Africa diplomacy and the can-do attitude he engendered in domestic affairs. Tunde Idiagbon, the de facto Nigerian leader during the Buhari military administration was only in office for two years, but his time is still fondly remembered for injecting discipline into our public life. Well, Obasanjo has built a Presidential library, created a gargantuan farming business that employs a large number of people hopefully turning in sizable profits for the Obasanjo clan, and set up a private university for those rich enough to afford it. These are great personal accomplishments, but to be a great influence on society, and create a lasting legacy, a person needs to set his sights on something far greater than himself; something that makes other people think and feel different about their personal lives; something that gives people a different appreciation for life in the society they live in. It is a remarkable feat only achieved by truly remarkable individuals and statesmen.
Obasanjo, I am afraid, is none of the above and he is conscious of that himself. This is what both haunts him, and propels his continuing agitation for relevance at the lower rungs of politics today. He is a man with a huge void in his underbelly. He is on a quest for something neither raw power nor raw cash can buy; a dignified legacy. He is like a man lost in a desert with no map and no sense of direction. For a man who accepted the surrender of the Briafran army, and who presided over the affairs of the largest country in Africa three times to still remain a hustler within the dirty, murky world of partisan poli (tricks) is mind-boggling. How hath the mighty fallen!
At this junction, the reader could be forgiven for thinking, well; Obasanjo is not the only one in Nigeria fitting or resembling this description. There are, in our midst, former heads of state who are desperate for a return to power to re-write the history of their own negative influence on the country. Is it not right to highlight their stories as well? The answer is, of course, yes, but our focus this week is on the ubiquitous Obasanjo; the grandfather of all political merry-go-rounds.