Obasanjo And The Burden Of History, By Pat Utomi
As with “My Command” his civil war memoirs, Army General Olusegun Obasanjo who served as Head of the Nigerian state in uniform, and years later, in mufti (agbada), has managed to get many hopping mad with his new memoirs reflecting on political life.
He seems determined that whether you love him or hate him, you could not ignore him.
Let us forget for a second that he is an attention-junkie and that he is judgmental about others in a way that bothers on the indecent, the question his new excursion into memoirs writing raises for me is whether there are points in what he is saying we can ignore only at our own peril.
This is important because with the Obasanjo nature it is easy to get so taken by the messenger that the message is forgotten. This course of action is made easier by Obasanjo’s evident split personality which makes’ it easy to say of him, “look the kettle is calling the pot black”.
Take corruption for example. No one is in doubt that corruption was widespread when Obasanjo was president and that there is ample evidence or perception of his use of corrupt means to either secure the impeachment of an unfavoured Senate president or seek a change in constitution to allow him a third term. But is Obasanjo wrong to say corruption is on the increase?
Many businessmen I interact with say corruption, described in the Hope and Chukulo book on corruption and Development in Africa, as systemic in Nigeria; compared to widespread in Ghana and, rare, in Botswana, has truly reached a point of shameless “legitimization’’ in these times. I sat once with a fairly depressed lawyer who described a sad meeting he had just come out of with a minister and some American Businessmen.
The minister had promised to write a simple letter which would have facilitated commitment to an investment initiative. He dictated the letter in their presence. For weeks they went to the minister’s office to pick up the letter but were unsuccessful. On the day in question the lawyer returned to the minister. They were warmly welcomed. The issue was raised and the minister after a while simply asked the lawyer if he was not able to read the tea leaves. He needed his bribe. Lawyer tells minister he cannot advice his clients to do that as they would be liable to a jail term back in their home country for that. All attempts to sell the upside for the country and even personally to the minister got strong push back from the Minister who said such talk was the reason some of his predecessors were languishing in poverty. He wanted his return upfront, not in nominating partners down the value chain.
Bottom line is corruption has had a more crippling effect on economic life today than a few years ago when things were considered quite bad. Inspite of a climb in the transparency index, where Nigeria is up two notches, the consensus is corruption is more rampant now. That is what President Obasanjo was speaking up on and most would agree on that.
Under Obasanjo, a high powered team was empanelled by the Presidency to study and propose a structure for the institutions of transparency and accountability in government. The team included a Deputy Inspector General of Police, Heads of Transparency in Nigeria, Convention on Business Integrity, past president of NACCIMA, Dr. Ngozi Okeke, Prof Asisi Asebie of ASUU and even, a representative of Transparency International from London Neville Linton I was privileged to chair that committee managed by Ambassador Emeka Azikiwe then SA to the President. Little was seen of the report after it went to General Obasanjo yet the truth is that impunity did not harm transparency as much then, as it now seems to.
Another issue General Obasanjo raised in his book in criticism of Jonathan was the attitude of the incumbent, and their Party, The PDP, to criticism. He lashed out in his reflections at a PDP and presidency that sponsors discredited people to smear honest critics, saying a democracy is nothing without critics.
He is quite right in that criticism. The amusing thing for me, as one who has experienced this reaction, from both parties, is that Obasanjo here well describes both now and the time of his watch with those lines.
I had the pleasure of being part, indeed head, of the policy advisory team that worked with candidate Obasanjo in 1998. As President he lapped up all kinds of gossips stemming from my critical views on matters. This is how I had previously come face to face with why it is easy to push back on Obasanjo without listening to him, an irony, because he has poor listening skills, like he never heard of Stephen R Covey, and seek first to understand then to be understood.
Remarkably when by October 1999 there was the view widely held that the Obasanjo government lacked policy direction Gen. Obasanjo invited me to a dinner with his top team including his Vice- President Atiku Abubakar, Finance Minister Adamu Ciroma, Chief Economic Adviser Izoma Philip Asiodu and Secretary to the Government Ufot Ekaete. There he advertised I had worked with him on policy and asked that Professors Dotun Phillips, Ibrahim Ayagi and I join Chief Asiodu to produce an economic policy blueprint that could be carried around like, in his words, “Gaddafi’s green book”.
Having worked closely with him as chair of policy advisory group that met daily with candidate Obasanjo I had come to both respect and feel pity for a man who was obviously his own worst enemy that I was careful just to make my quiet contribution and move on.
On more than one occasion people like the late Waziri, Mohammed and Oby Ezekwesili asked about my membership of AD and my closeness to then Lagos State Governor Bola Tinubu which seemed to upset General Obasanjo. I was never a member of AD and my working relationship the Lagos Governor was a citizen duty. They all concluded too many people were carrying gossips to him and he was getting sucked in, Even if I was AD what business of Obasanjo’s would that be?
When the private sector nominated me as lead person from the sector for national honour I asked them not to bother because I knew how Obasanjo dropped Prof Ibrahim Gambari from the National honours list on petty gossips before some pleaded with him the next year. Was not surprised he did same with me which gave me a chance to tease Sir Remi Omotosho, then Lagos Chamber of commerce Director-General who spent much time trying to persuade me to sign off on the nomination as I argued that I was uncomfortable about signing off on accepting an honour.
Obasanjo is not wrong in his accusing Jonathan on the quality of people around him gossiping. The irony is he is guilty of same.
Another accusation in the book was of killer squads from the Presidency. Being a targeted survivor of the Abacha Killer Squad, that accusation was hair – raising for me. I hope it proves to be incorrect or unfounded, if not, the road feared, which leads to Somalia, may be beckoning. Knowing the chill from reading state security files on how I escaped being target of shooting practice by the Sgt Rogers squad makes me feel for those who could be current targets.
On the insurgency in the North East I think the alert was important, but the key is in keeping so dangerous a challenge to the sovereignty of the country above personal quarrels and partisan quibbles.
The burden of history is on the older man on this issue. The direction of the crises was long foretold. Had President Obasanjo recognized that errors of Judgment on his watch when insipient extremist adherents began to get training in North Africa is the reason it went so bad, he should have taken a different approach. He should have sought to build bi- partisan support as an elder statesman to confront the nascent insurgency. Blaming the incumbent for the mishandling the North East insurgency has valid basis in their early lethargy but with his experience he should have sought to rally the country in a bipartisan war cry, perhaps bringing the concert of former heads of state into it.
The real burden of history on General Obasanjo is that his duty as statesman is being vitiated by a tradition of lack of charity in dealing with others, which today makes it easy for people who should recognize truth when it comes from him, dismissing him as acting in-character without charity. Few men in Nigeria have been given easy passage to immortality by circumstances as Gen Obasanjo. His lack of charity manages to be a tragic flaw that seems determined to consign him to a sad footnote in history. Still this does not mean his voice should be ignored. In his moments he speaks great truth to power and he understands Nigeria better than most. He should not be ignored.
Pat Utomi, Political Economist and Professor of Entrepreneurship is founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership.