Former President Olusegun Obasanjo cuts an image of what the Yoruba call Abami eda, a short characterization of people with strange behaviours. The late maestro Afro musician, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, took the appellation for his eccentricities. The Owu-born Contrarian also has the same prodigious capacity for doing the unexpected. His knack for stirring controversy is unrivalled. He does so for different reasons and in different circumstances. Most times for self-actualization, ego-tripping, or in a very rare case for the general good of the people.
His recent sabre-rattling over the state of the nation is only the latest lurch in his periodic attacks on the government of President Muhammadu Buhari. Coincidentally, both of them belong to the same constituency, as well as share a similar history of being a former military heads of state and also civilian presidents. None among Nigeria’s past leaders, living or dead, had the same privilege. Either now or later, history will judge them both appropriately for their roles in nation building.
For the records, Obasanjo ruled Nigeria for a total of 11 years; three years, in the first instance as a military head of state following the assassination of General Murtala Ramat Muhammed in a failed coup on February 13, 1976 and eight years as a civilian president. He voluntarily relinquished power to elected President Shehu Shagari in 1979 at a time when Africa was under the control of sit-tight juntas.
That reputation made him a preferred choice of the power cabal who propped him up as candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) at the advent of the present democratic dispensation. His re-emergence as the elected president on May 29, 1999 is a familiar story. Following the prolonged political brouhaha that trailed the annulment of the June 12 presidential election, he was seen as a compromise between the military cabal and the pro-democracy forces. While he held sway as president and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, he ruled with iron fist. His words were order, as he did not hide his strong aversion for criticism and contrary opinion. This, he demonstrated, when he told his team of political advisers during the swearing-in ceremony that their advice was not binding on him.
Now, the old codger has assumed the self-styled role of a public watchdog, holding government accountable for its action or inaction. For the umpteenth time, he expressed concern over the gradual descent of the country into a failed state. While delivering a paper entitled: “Moving Nigeria Away From Tipping Over’ at a consultative dialogue at the nation’s capital, Abuja, he said: “Old fault lines that were disappearing have opened up in greater fissures and with drums of hatred, disintegration and separation and accompanying choruses being heard loud and clear almost everywhere.
“Today, Nigeria is fast drifting to a failed and badly divided state; economically our country is becoming a basket case and poverty capital of the world, and socially, we are firming up as an unwholesome and insecure country.
“And these manifestations are the products of recent mismanagement of diversity and socio-economic development of our country.”
According to the ex-president, Nigeria may disintegrate if not restructured. He, therefore, called on President Buhari to urgently restructure the country to stave-off the threat of imminent collapse. “Nigeria, if not restructured will remain insecure, unstable, non-progressive and stagnated at best or disintegrated at the worst,” he warned.
For crying out loud, his critics say he is magnifying the nation’s problems. He should have addressed those problems when he was in power. That he only wants government’s attention. He bungled the opportunity to restructure the country and so on and so forth. Yes, he has his foibles, but he is only being human. But does that deny the fact that the country is on the edge? No, it doesn’t change the fact that the economy is not in its best shape, COVID-19 notwithstanding. It doesn’t change the fact that Nigeria became poverty capital of the world under the Buhari administration. It doesn’t change the fact that the government is overwhelmed by the menace of Boko Haram insurgents, banditry, killing, bloodletting, and other forms of criminalities.
Regardless of the motive behind the alarm bell, the essence is for the authorities to see the warning as a call for action, a call for an end to the mindless killings in Southern Kaduna, banditry in Katsina, insurgency in the Northeast and the general insecurity in the country. He is simply saying that the country cannot stand like this, that something more urgent, more radical and more inspiring needs to be done to rescue it from the precipice. Part of the general apprehension is the latest global terrorism index, which rated Nigeria as the third most impacted country. These are facts that could not be denied.
But for telling Buhari what he does not want to hear, the presidency reacted sharply, describing Obasanjo as Nigeria’s “Divider-in-Chief.”
The President’s Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Malam Garba Shehu, said: “In his most recent statement, former President Olusegun Obasanjo attempts to divide the nation while President Muhammadu Buhari continues to promote nation building and the unity of Nigeria.
“The difference is clear. From the lofty heights of Commander-in-Chief, Obasanjo has descended to the lowly level of Divider-in-Chief (to adapt the coinage of Time). Observers say history is there to judge who is a genuine nation builder.”
Chief Olusegun Matthew Okikiola Aremu Obasanjo (GCFR) was born on March 5, 1937 in the village of Ibogun-Olaogun to a farming family in Owu. He had major part of his education in Abeokuta, Ogun State. He later joined the Nigerian Army, where he specialized in engineering. His career experience traversed Congo, Britain, and India before he ultimately rose to the rank of major. He served as military head of state from 1976 to 1979 and later as President of Nigeria from 1999 to 2007. In the latter part of the 1960s, he played a major role in combating Biafran separatists during the Nigerian Civil War, accepting their surrender in 1970.
In 1993, when General Sani Abacha seized power in a military coup, Obasanjo became critical of his administration. As such, in 1995, he was arrested and convicted for being allegedly part of a planned coup. He was later granted a state pardon by the then head of state, General Abdulsalami Abubakar (rtd), who subsequently propped him up as his successor. In and out of power, Obasanjo has always played a key role in international initiatives to end various African conflicts.