Olusegun Obasanjo: Ideas, politics and the love for country – Part 1

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Just recently, I published The Labour of Our Heroes, a collection of my newspaper commentaries on issues, and especially on those I call heroes who, in one way or the other, have impacted the trajectory of national progress in Nigeria. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was not on the honoured list of heroes even though he eminently deserves to be among the top list of those who cannot be omitted in the drama of Nigeria’s postcolonial unfolding. His non-inclusion in the book came from the logic of discretion: I was a civil servant when the essays were written and published, and discretion was the very definition of my status. The civil service was already tolerating, as much as it could, my unheard of active writing status as a public servant who is more to be seen than heard. It would be tipping the balance for me to initiate a critical profile of one of my bosses, especially the enigmatic OBJ. But then, I am no longer a civil servant, and it seems the time is now ripe to take on the inescapable – the OBJ of Nigeria!

There is a need to preface this reflection with a confession, some clarification and a caveat. First, this is by far the most difficult commentary I have ever had to write. Like Winston Churchill’s perplexed summary of the Russians during WWII, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo—farmer, soldier, military head of state, prisoner, democratic President, statesman, pan-Africanist, father, husband, sturdy octogenarian and national scourge all rolled into one—is indeed “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” There are so many commentaries that have been written in an attempt to situate OBJ within some specific profile; I doubt if any has succeeded. I doubt if I have what it takes either to get behind the scene and reveal the enigma. The caveat: This is certainly far from an attempt to unravel him. No one can do that and say it’s final and complete.

Olusegun Obasanjo is complexity personified. This is one personality without which Nigeria’s historical narrative would be incomplete. Whether we like it or not; whether we hate him or not, we cannot mention the likes of Obafemi Awolowo, Tafawa Balewa, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Herbert Macaulay, Ahmadu Bello and all the other nationalists without remembering Olusegun Obasanjo. Whether we accept the fact or not, Obasanjo has earned his status as an irreplaceable avatar on the Nigerian political scene. In fact, it is not too difficult to make the claim that OBJ is the most colossal political figure that bestrides Nigerian politics at the moment. And he has been here right from the beginning and right through the major political unravelling of Nigeria from the dark military days to the bright experiment of democratic governance. He is still here through all the current shaping and reshaping of our democratic experiment.
I have always been fascinated with OBJ the same way Chief Obafemi Awolowo fascinated me, especially with his ideas about governance and nation building. My fascination is largely an extension of my being a student of politics and of society. Besides, I have had the privilege of observing the two at very close range. But just as Awolowo has been much vilified in Nigerian politics in spite of his many glaring achievements, OBJ has also come across to many as a modern day Nigerian Machiavelli—a ‘devilish’ manipulator with no iota of public interest and patriotic feeling, as his detractors would like to surmise. Both Awolowo and OBJ are in good company. Over the many centuries since he lived, Niccolò Machiavelli has become one of the most misunderstood historical figures of all time.

“Machiavellian” is now synonymous with being politically cunning and unscrupulous, yet Machiavelli is not Machiavellian. On the contrary, he understood the politics of 16th century Florence, a city caught in the intricate web of zero-sum politics very much like modern Nigeria. Machiavelli’s legacy is simple and brilliant: politics is a matter of what is rather than what ought to be! The set of pragmatic rules and principles Machiavelli gave to the ruler in The Prince was meant to orient him on the practical necessities of realpolitik. So, what is the lesson? To achieve any governance objectives, the politician must first learn how to walk the minefield of political intrigues, murders and limitations that constitute the death of many good governance ideas, insights and policies.

Politics intersects political philosophy in the quest for a social organisation that makes it possible for citizens to live an empowered life in terms of the capacities they have to do what will enrich their lives. While political philosophy is concerned with the question of what kind of social arrangement will make this possible, politics is concerned with the direct use of power for the allocation of resources that will facilitate mutual coexistence. The relationship between politics and political philosophy as well as the ideas and insights the two are supposed to generate to facilitate governance is what links Machiavelli, Awolowo and Obasanjo. Ideas, realism and practicality, in other words, are the essence of politics.

Awolowo had this understanding. The ‘wild wild West’ had some valid resemblances to wild Florence that brought out the genius in Machiavelli. Awolowo owed his political brilliance to his capacity not only to understand human nature but also how to bend it towards edifying political objectives. How did we know this? We simply examine the policy architecture and infrastructural masterpieces that made the western region the wonder of the Nigerian First Republic. For Harry Truman, the former US president, “A politician is a man who understands government, and it takes a politician to run a government.” In another breath, OBJ is the politician par excellence. I suspect that Machiavelli would have approved of Olusegun Obasanjo as an appropriate master of political realism. And just as many scholars failed to understand the republican credentials of Machiavelli, so most Nigerians have not been able fathom the nationalist credentials of OBJ.
Let us be clear: Nigeria is a tough and intractable political terrain, the sense in which Awolowo was and still is right to describe it as a “geographical expression” still struggling unsuccessfully to transform into a “cultural expression”. Since independence, the full weight of the postcolonial realities has unfolded to a point that has transformed Nigeria’s fortune negatively. The rough political manoeuvres of the First Republic that led to the Civil War was also responsible for the succession of military administrations and political dynamic, one of which threw the young Olusegun Obasanjo right into the maelstrom of Nigerian politics. Obasanjo cut his political teeth as part of a revolutionary or is it radical military regime that meant well for Nigeria in its determination to pursue change with a big bang, contrary to the global democratic suspicion of all military governments.

When General Murtala Ramat Muhammad came to power in 1975, his band of revolutionaries, including the then Brigadier Obasanjo, was confronted with a post-civil war Nigeria that was already too far away from the euphoria of independence, and a larger continental space that was still under colonial denigration largely represented by apartheid South Africa and strangulating colonial presence in Namibia, Algeria, Angola, and so on. The range of policy rearticulation which the Supreme Military Council undertook between 1975 to 1976 when Murtala Muhammad was assassinated and up unto 1979 was sufficient enough to open the eyes of the younger Obasanjo to the intricacies of governing of Nigeria’s complexities.

It was as if providence conspired to steer OBJ’s course away from his beloved professional military life, even if with its nuanced bureaucratic politics, by dragging him into the whirlpool of politics and government. By his own admission, “By training, inclination, and aptitude, I was averse to being in government.” Yet, willy-nilly, he had to undergo what he called his “first step into government” when General Gowon drafted him as a federal minister of works. The ministerial appointment did two important things which would later prove to be preparatory template for a mind that would confront Nigeria. First, he had to take mandatory visits around the lengths and breadths of Nigeria to ascertain the extent of his brief as commissioner for works; and he saw firsthand the bureaucratic manifestations of the civil service and how it limits the working of government.

Finally, as if his tutelage was not complete, the mantle of governmental leadership fell on his shoulders immediately after the assassination of Murtala Muhammad, and it is instructive that the defining act of his administration was his supervision of Nigeria’s first transition to civil rule in 1979. And was it just coincidental that Obasanjo was also the first one on the saddle at the inception of the democratic experiment in Nigeria in 1999?

From 1975 till date, Obasanjo came of age politically under a vibrant barrage of acrimonies, political intrigues and doubtful legacies. Of course that is the uneasy lots of any who is courageous enough to desire the crown. John Webster, the English playwright, puts this poetically better:
A politician is the devil’s quilted anvil—
He fashions all sins on him, and the blows
Are never heard.

Against all the odds of life, OBJ waded through uncertainties of military hierarchies, through the horrors of the civil war, through Abacha’s gulag, through the perils of political disaffection and disjuncture and at that having more genuine claim in truth and in spirit to what really should be the brand identity of a truly Nigerian leader: “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody” which as history is proving so very fast, is easier said than done. He came, he saw but did he achieve all that his noble national intention imposed upon him?
Walter Lipmann, the legendary writer, once remarked that “Politician tend to live in character.” One way to read this statement is that in most cases, a politician’s temperament colours his politics and relationship. And there is no one that is as characteristic as OBJ. His historical match would probably be the irrepressible SLA himself—Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola, though a product of an entirely different dynamic. But I will take OBJ over SLA for the simple reason that Chief Olusegun Obasanjo has national and global credentials that captures the whole of Nigeria as its geopolitical space. And of course, there is always a steep price to pay for any patriotic endeavour that takes on the whole of Nigeria.

Dr. Olaopa, Executive Vice Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP), Ibadan