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For Jonathan, Obasanjo As Parable

May 2, 2011

Unless the equivalent of a judicial earthquake happens, it is safe to assume that Goodluck Jonathan is going to spend the next four years at the helm of Nigerian affairs. What manner of leader does he plan to be?

Unless the equivalent of a judicial earthquake happens, it is safe to assume that Goodluck Jonathan is going to spend the next four years at the helm of Nigerian affairs. What manner of leader does he plan to be?

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As he grapples with that question, he would do well to remember how former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s legacy now lies in ruins. And Mr. Jonathan had better take stock of the fact that the Yoruba themselves – the ethnic stock out of which Mr. Obasanjo rose – took a decisive hand in consigning him, mercilessly and definitively, to the rubbish heaps of history.

Given the all-too recent unmasking of Mr. Obasanjo, our current resident of Aso Rock has a forewarning of the political fate that awaits him should he choose the path of perfidy and mediocre statecraft. Obasanjo is there to serve as a daily reminder to Mr. Jonathan that Nigerians, and history, do not – will not – overlook shabby performance. Especially when such wretched record is willful, deliberate – as in the case of former President Obasanjo. 

When the history of the 2011 elections come to be written, one certain focus – ranking above the ruling party’s invention of new, more sophisticated rigging technologies – would be the clinical thoroughness with which the people of the southwest rejected Mr. Obasanjo and his bad works. A man given to delusions of grandeur (recall how he got his acolytes to dress him in the absurd toga of “founder of modern Nigeria”), Mr. Obasanjo and his band of disciples have been utterly vacuumed out of political relevance. Since the elections ended, nobody has heard the chastened Obasanjo voice his rustic, tasteless joke and favorite joke, “I dey laugh o.” No, his own people have seen to it that this man will never again laugh at us without revealing self-mockery. They’ve curbed if not permanently checked his habit of laughing disdainfully in the faces of a people whose lives he ruined during the eight years of his presidency – and then another four in his capacity as the meddlesome, hectoring chairman of the PDP’s board of trustees. 

The prospects as a leader – if we judge, as we must, from his record – are far from inspiring. One of the bizarre developments in the presidential election was the refrain by many voters that they chose Mr. Jonathan despite their grave misgivings about his People’s Democratic Party (PDP). That sentiment is curious precisely because Mr. Jonathan’s political career, in style and substance, stipulates that here’s a man who, by conviction and temperament, is wedded to the PDP. Nothing buttresses this fact more eloquently than Mr. Jonathan’s closeness to President Obasanjo. In the year that he has spent as gratis president, Mr. Jonathan’s dependence on the former president’s counsel often exasperated some of his closest aides – and baffled many Nigerians.

Despite his roots in academia, Mr. Jonathan exhibits only little appetite for spelling out the minutiae of policies. No stickler for a politics driven by issues, he is more apt to settle for the kind of imprecise, if not hollow, rhetoric that speaks of “delivering the dividends of democracy” or “moving the nation forward.”

Now, with his own mandate in hand, this aptly described “luckiest man” in Nigerian politics must confront the implacable beast called legacy. And he has to do so in the shadow of the example that voters in the southwest have made of a man, Obasanjo, who went out of his way to commit many cardinal sins against his own people. For all his pretensions to a modern outlook, the former president will be remembered for empowering a man like the late Lamidi Adedibu. Mr. Adedibu was a veritable thug, but one admired by Obasanjo. Thanks to that presidential admiration and support, Mr. Adedibu sought to remotely control a state governor. When the governor resisted, the old exponent of amala politics marshaled a combined force of police and thugs to lay siege on Government House, Ibadan. Mr. Obasanjo was unfazed as he watched his out-of-control friend and fiend sack a governor.

The southwest could not forgive former President Obasanjo for saddling their lives, from Oyo to Ekiti, with politicians whose political impulses were inelegant and worse. Under his watch, characters like Alao Akala, Iyiola Omisore, Gbenga Daniel, and Ayo Fayose rose to prominence. After promising to solve the murder of the late Bola Ige, the nation’s attorney general at the time a band of assassins walked into his bedroom and ended his life, Mr. Obasanjo ended up insulting the memory of the man. And then there was his defiance of a clear court order to release local government funds he had withheld from Lagos State over disagreements with the state’s decision to create new local government units.

The foregoing is a partial list of Obasanjo’s many transgressions in the southwest. His villainy touched every corner of Nigeria. In my view, the southeast was worst hit. It is impossible to forget, or ever forgive, Mr. Obasanjo’s coddling of Chris Uba, a so-called godfather who once made Anambra a war zone. For three days in November, 2004, hoodlums swept through Anambra State in many trucks and set fire to numerous state-owned establishments, including television and radio stations, hotels, legislative quarters and the governor’s office. The point was to create enough destruction and death to enable Mr. Obasanjo to declare a state of emergency in the state – and to remove an imposed governor who had then refused to hand over the state treasury to a group of Obasanjo’s friends. If any doubt existed that the mayhem was ordered and approved at the highest quarters, it was easily dispelled by the fact that police officers gleefully escorted the arsonists. Nobody was ever arrested or tried. Obasanjo never saw fit to question or discipline the police chief for standing akimbo as wreckers strutted through a state. Quite simply, we must conclude that Mr. Obasanjo, though sworn to protect lives and property in Nigeria, did not mind that Anambra was besieged.

Mr. Jonathan has the landscape of the Obasanjo presidency to instruct him. As one has argued elsewhere, the trouble with Obasanjo was not mere incompetence. In fact, Nigerians are generous enough to brook, and forgive, ineptitude in a leader. What set the former president apart as a particularly execrable figure was the impression he left that he set about to do the wrong thing. In other words, he calculated, designed and effected choices that were meant to shock and awe Nigerians – to deepen our collective misery.

To echo Chinua Achebe, it is morning yet in the calendar of Mr. Jonathan’s presidency. At the end of four years, what kind of mark would he have made? What imprint, for good or for ill, would he have left on Nigeria?

Ultimately, the answer will depend on several factors. One, is Jonathan capable of defying his own personal history as well as the history of his political party? His history has been one of extraordinary luck, of being catapulted by sheer luck into one exalted political post after another. His record as governor of Bayelsa was forgettable, but he could blame it on the tumultuous circumstances of his emergence. In 2010, he became Nigeria’s acting president on the wings of something called the “doctrine of necessity.” His greatest accomplishments in the task consisted in sweeping away the likes of Michael Aondoakaa and Ojo Maduekwe from the federal cabinet, appointing the energetic and results-oriented Barth Nnaji to head a task force on power, and so scaring the previously invincible James Ibori that the former governor scampered away to Dubai. There, vigilant British law enforcement officials invoked an extradition treaty to snatch him to London where he’s answering money laundering charges.

As presidential achievements go, these were indifferent, but Mr. Jonathan’s supporters often made the (not so persuasive) plea that their man labored under severe strains, that he governed on time borrowed from the late Umaru Yar’Adua.

Mr. Jonathan can no longer enjoy the luxury of making excuses. Henceforth, he must rise or fall on his own steam. For one, his success is likely to depend, to a large extent, on the number of political IOUs he had issued to reactionary interests within and outside his party on his way to Aso Rock.

(To be continued next week)

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