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Obasanjo’s Challenge Of Buhari By Sonala Olumhense

As one who firmly believes that one Olusegun Obasanjo squandered the finest opportunity of any Nigerian leader since independence, I have often criticized him. 

Between 1999 and 2007, he could have transformed Nigeria into Africa’s most developed, most productive and most functional economy.  The records show that he compounded the situation, and then handed over to his handpicked successors who made matters considerably worse. 

That led, inevitably, to the arrival of one Muhammadu Buhari, who had sworn for years Nigeria needed cleansing, and that he was the man for the job. 

When Buhari was sworn in last year, it was evident that Obasanjo had him trapped.  But Buhari ignored the obvious.

Speaking at the at the first Akintola Williams Annual Lecture last week, Obasanjo sprung that trap, telling Buhari to stop giving excuses and, in effect, to get on with being the savior he advertised himself to be. 

“It is easier to win an election than to right the wrongs of a badly fouled situation,” Obasanjo sneered.  “When you are outside, what you see and know are nothing compared with the reality.”

He showed Buhari the clock: “Now that we have had change because the actors and the situation needed to be changed,” he should install “a comprehensive economic policy and programme that is intellectually, strategically and philosophically based.”

And then he really began to turn the knife.  “…Once you are on seat, you have to clear the mess and put the nation on the path of rectitude, development and progress leaving no group or section out of your plan, programme and policy and efforts,” he laughed. “The longer it takes, the more intractable the problem may become.”

One source of Obasanjo’s anger is Buhari’s insistence that the governments preceding his, since 1999, have been very corrupt.

He dismissed Buhari’s “blanket adverse comments or castigation of all democratic administrations from 1999 as “uncharitable, fussy and uninstructive,” refusing to be lumped together with the others.

And then of course, what is an Obasanjo speech without his taking liberties with the English language?  Addressing Buhari’s $30 billion foreign loan proposal, he manufactured terms aimed at helping—or confusing—Buhari’s political thought and digestion: “Adhocry is not the answer,” he said, warning: “…We must be careful and watchful of the danger of shortermism.”

That from a man who perfected the art of the ad hoc and the loud.  Obasanjo, the same man who plucked the Vision 202020 out of the sky without investigation.  The man who advertised the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy as the final economic plan Nigeria would ever need…but abandoned it just months later.  The man who set up the anti-corruption watchdogs but refused to let them fight systemic corruption.  The man whom, legislators said, bribed them for a third term in office.

To be faithful to sequence, Obasanjo had whispered to Buhari last March that his persistent complaining about the current price of crude oil was growing tiresome, as President Goodluck Jonathan had left $30billion in reserves for Buhari, as compared to 1999 when he only inherited $3.7 billion, and at a time the price of oil was only $9 per barrel.

Buhari has since insisted that he will indeed continue to criticize his predecessors, a task he performed again last Thursday when he received William Symington, the new United States ambassador, in Abuja.

“The corruption we met at personal and institutional levels was unbelievable,” he declared for the 1000th time.  “Corruption was turning into a culture…”

And then for the 2000th time, President Buhari swore to end that culture.

The President’s rhetoric is good, but if it reflects the crime, the quality of his assault doesn’t.  Not only is it curious that only a handful of people are in any trouble, current appointees who face allegations of corruption do not get fired or even have to prove themselves.  It no longer helps Nigeria for anyone to describe how corrupt Nigeria has been in the past 50 years or 16, without demonstrating how the significant persons responsible for it are being stripped to their stolen underwear and tossed into overcrowded jails.

If Obasanjo said anything important at the Akintola Williams lecture, therefore, it was that Buhari should not call his government corrupt unless he can prove it.  That is a fair challenge that Buhari must accept.  In addition, he must systematically publish what has been recovered, as well as identify and prosecute, beginning from the top.

The trouble is that there seems no such clear plan.  Only last week, for instance, the EFCC announced it would prosecute over 100 officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission.

Their offence: they allegedly benefitted from a massive $115m fund distributed as bribes in 2015 by the former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Alison-Madueke, to help Mr. Jonathan retain the presidency.

Few situations illustrate the contradictions in the current anti-corruption initiative better than this.  Mrs. Alison-Madueke’s name is tied to our worst official excesses since independence, and even this announcement pronounces her guilty. 

But she is not being tried.  In other words, we are treating minor symptoms, not the disease.  The anti-corruption masterplan, if there is one, should follow the money-trail upwards, rather than downwards, to identify the sources of the decay, what else was compromised, and how much.

What is the moral justification for prosecuting low-level officials who may perhaps have been threatened?  How does the squandering of resources on their prosecution, rather than on the senior officials who built the farms and sowed the seeds, change the corruption narrative?

Why are there so many former governors who openly looted and openly donated billions of Naira to their parties and officials walking free?  Why do we name suspects in the court of public opinion and publish salacious details about their horrendous escapades with public funds, but stop short of the court of law?

And why does the government shy away from using the vast swathes of information granted by the Central Bank’s Biometric Verification Number inquiry which has made it easy to unveil a “kill and divide” culture running into hundreds of billions since 1970?

These are the reason why a supremely duplicitous and hypocritical Obasanjo, criticizes Buhari fairly.  If Buhari truly means to conquer corruption, his very first step is to leave the rostrum of criticism for the rostrum of rigorous public policy, and seek the experts—not politicians—to get the job done.

Obasanjo may have failed the test of the disciplined and patriotic leadership he professes, but Buhari can still uproot trees and remold philosophical foundations.  But you cannot score a goal for your team with a back pass to your goalkeeper.    

The dream on which Buhari was elected is of a new Nigeria where talent and effort—not chicanery and nepotism—defines who lives or thrives.  To that end, his responsibility it is to seek the answers, using capable men and women who are neither intimidated by challenge nor excited by unearned wealth.

There is no other gift he can offer the masses who granted him the opportunity to open to them the doors that had been slammed against them.  Through those doors lie Nigeria’s fate, for that is where the best of the people can go to work.

Buhari’s choice has never been clearer.

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Twitter: @SonalaOlumhense