Olusegun Obasanjo: Ideas, politics and the love for Country Part 2

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Let me restate the objective of my unending search for the core of the heroism in the Nigerian narrative and my painstaking effort to celebrate and not to denigrate those who have impacted the Nigerian socio-political unfolding, no matter how unpopular they might be in popular imagination. Odia Ofeimun says my search is in “the spirit of an almost occult pursuit of Nigeria The Beautiful”. At the risk of a boring repetition, I took the challenge for this series from Claude Ake who in the foreword to my 1997 biography of Prof. Ojetunji Aboyade said that “the country has no heroes, acknowledges none, and it devalues and derails those who could be.” As is to be expected, I have received tons of comments on this series on OBJ, with some saying, in a manner of speaking, that the only way I would have retained my reputation as an objective and seminal public intellectual in this particular series would have been for me to take the position that affirms their ‘hatred’ for OBJ. I certainly won’t say ‘I don’t give a damn to such suggestion’. Rather, I would say that I belong to the core of those who see deep meaning that is worth unearthing and interrogating in what OBJ stands for even in all its complexity, and that is what I have utilized my being entitled to my opinion to give expression to in this 3-part serial.

That said, permit me to proceed by saying that, since independence in 1960, the Nigerian state has been implicitly searching for a leader, civilian or military, with the right proportion of heroism, steely character and patriotic commitment to direct the ship of state outside of the confines of colonial limitations. All plural states, and especially those that had the unfortunate experience of colonialism, are all saddled with this leadership imperative. Singapore found Lee Kwan Yew. South Africa found Nelson Mandela. India found Mahatma Gandhi. These states share with Nigeria a profound pluralism founded around a cramped national space housing different religions, ethnicities, cultures, nations and languages. Since plural states are combustible, it becomes imperative for them to have a leader with enough charisma and sufficient national perspicacity to hold the country together and lead it to development.

Nigeria has not been that lucky in the art of patriotic (re)engineering. The leadership redemption keeps getting mangled within the fissures of geo-national manoeuvrings. Clearly and indisputably, it was such manoeuvrings that frustrated the patriotic yearnings of the likes of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, often regrettably but unarguably referred to as “the best president Nigeria never had.” Awolowo had all the attributes of Lee Kwan Yew; a transformation disposition, charismatic aura and, most importantly, a framework for change founded on ideas, ideals, dynamics, strategies and processes. Awolowo understood governance and its politics. Yet it was that political configuration he aimed to refine for progress that constrained his presidential aspiration, among many other variables that have been documented in numerous narratives that bear no repeating. He died, as a wasted Nigerian asset of inestimable value, a tragic hero.

It is this same geo-national question of nationhood and integration that threw up Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. The emergence of OBJ into the Nigerian political firmament gives a new twist to the political saying that every state deserves its leaders. Nigeria deserves Obasanjo essentially because her political configuration throws up leaders who must, through the perceptive lens of political realism, explore and exploit all possible political means, negative and positive, to foist a vision of progress on the state. That is what Machiavelli counselled. It is in this sense that OBJ deserves the Machiavellian label. I made the essential point in the earlier parts of this series that no one who understands Nigeria can ever doubt the patriotic zeal of the Obasanjo. But patriotism, most time, makes a monster of those who get caught in its complexities. Call OBJ whatever you might; he was only responding to the demands of realpolitik in the Nigerian state.

Take the third term agenda issue as an instance. There are so many things hidden on this issue that ordinary Nigerians may not know. I confess that I am also not privy to the confusing complex of political gamesmanship that made the issue a spectacle of the public sphere. But I can speculate. The third term agenda smacks of political messianic complex at first reading. This complex derives either from an acute awareness of one’s worth as a political leader or a delusion of grandeur, if you will. There is actually nothing wrong with patriotism transforming into a messianic complex, except that the constitution subverts it as a dangerous and anti-democratic tendency. Robert Mugabe always looms large in this regard. Yet, it was such kind of messianic ethos that Lee Kwan Yew latched onto; and it got Singapore out of the third world! It would constitute a good point of political revelation to know what OBJ thinks of LKY.

There is one fact that faults the third term agenda: Those who conceive it ought to have grasped the limit of patriotism. A third term agenda does not say much about a patriotic respect for the constitution. In this instance, we would be wise to think more of Mugabe than Lee Kwan Yew. But what if the third term agenda had succeeded? With this question, I am calling attention to something more fundamental than the conceited succession plan. Behind the whole drama of the third term agenda, I see the disturbing dynamics of how the national question in Nigeria can corrupt the social question. Put in other words, all the intrigues attached to governing the Nigerian state are so potent as to ruin any good governance intention.

Any well-meaning Nigerian leader will invariably be caught in a dilemma: How to move Nigeria forward within the complex and combustible mix of national limitations and democratic imperatives? How does answering the national question engender the implementation of the vision of a vast social infrastructure that empowers Nigerians? Or, even better still: How to circumvent the national question in order to attend to the more critical social question? Accepted: OBJ is no Awoist. Both were caught in the web of their national visions. Both attempted to break out of the ordinary national mode; the extent to which the two may have lost out or achieved their aim in the process is for posterity to judge. How many Nigerians, for instance, would take kindly to Machiavelli’s assessment of national reform? For him, “It never or rarely happens that a republic or monarchy is well constituted, or its old institutions entirely reformed, unless it is done by only one individual.” Maybe Machiavelli is wrong, and trusting solely in an individual’s force of character is not only anti-democratic but also megalomaniac. But then, who can escape the towering achievement of LKY?

Maybe the national question in Nigeria, or even anywhere else for that matter, is too complex to be left to the imperatives of democracy alone. Maybe OBJ was too much of a visionary or is it a soldier to be patient with democratic niceties. After all, says Milton Friedman, “[Christopher] Columbus did not seek a new route to the Indies in response to a majority directive.” OBJ is not open to a simple or simplistic assessment. On the contrary, he generates thoughts. I have known Chief Olusegun Obasanjo for a while now. I may not agree with his politics, but I have no doubt whatsoever about him and his context.

What is the quintessential OBJ? I doubt if that question can be asked of anyone, or of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo himself. I was once in deep intimate conversation with him on several issues at his Abeokuta home. Two issues stand out as characterising his passion. The first is the need to undermine the messy national structure of Nigeria through a sustained and consistent social infrastructural framework that works for the empowerment of Nigerians. In fact, that passion gives a lot of sense to his “no go areas” clause in the 2005 National Political Reform Conference. One, there is no government that wants to supervise the breakup of Nigeria as is being suggested by those calling for a sovereign national conference. Even the great Abraham Lincoln baulked at that prospect with the United States. Second, the breakup, in OBJ’s view, would be precipitate since Nigerians have never been given the full benefit of a viable and efficient social infrastructural system that could undermine their suspicion about Nigeria. If Nigeria remains intact, then we have more opportunity of translating the “Fundamental and Directive Principles of State Policy”, enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution, into a solid programme of social empowerment and social justice, though that also begs the question of whether the commonwealth could be built on the foundation of injustice.

The second of Obasanjo’s passion is no less patriotic. And it consists in the burning desire to pass on the baton of national consciousness to the upcoming generation of Nigerians. This passion derives from an acute awareness of the failure of preceding generations, though many would ask, and rightly so, was he not the most opportune in his generation? And he is better placed to understand these trans-generational deficiencies because he straddles these generations in his very personality. Nigeria’s preceding and present generational capital has been too caught in the grip of national circumstances and prebendal politics to be utilised for the common good. The African Leadership Forum (ALF) is the first leg in jumpstarting this passion. The second leg derives from the participation of OBJ in the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP)’s Olusegun Obasanjo Intergenerational Platform and Dialogue Series as the institutional plank that connects the old to the young for the sake of Nigeria.

I suspect that the legacy of OBJ in Nigerian politics ought to be reckoned in terms of these components of his political passion. Furthermore, I suspect that it is in this sense that OBJ becomes critical to the success of the Buhari change administration. Beyond the generational capital lost in the dynamics of continuity and discontinuity in Nigeria’s political history, Buhari brings another scarce political commodity to the tablea unique integrity factor that is required to connect passion with the knowledge of how to make Nigeria work.

Whatever we may have against him, Obasanjo is a statesman rather than a mere politician. It will be a grievous sin to consider him otherwise. And why does he qualify for that honorific epithet? Simple: according to Georges Pompidou, the former French president, he places himself at the service of his nation. Every other way we analyse him must not forget that critical fact of patriotism, and his humanity. He is no ordinary human being, but he is all too human.

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