BY ADEMOLA ADEGBAMIGBE

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo has lately been keeping himself in the limelight through public functions and critical reactions to goings-on in the polity. What exactly does he want?

Obasanjo

Obasanjo

For two days, Friday 18 and Saturday 19 January 2013, the high and the mighty within and outside the country gathered at the Presidential Library Hall, Oke-Mosan, Abeokuta, Ogun State, owned by former Nigerian leader, Olusegun Obasanjo, in what they termed a reception in his honour. There was no particular, recent honour that might have been bestowed on Obasanjo attached to the “reception”, though. Neither was it pegged at a landmark in his life: birthday, anniversary of leaving power, his Baptist Church ordination, Owu Kingdom egungun or new yam festival. Not a few Nigerians believed the “reception” was yet another of the strategems Obasanjo is deploying to put a fine sheen on his image, as well as maintain social and political relevance after giving up his chairmanship of the Board of Trustees, BoT, of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP.

Obasanjo’s activities in the build-up to the event in Abeokuta have been regarded as no less public relations gimmicks. Since last year, the former president has been grabbing media headlines by hauling criticisms at his protégé, President Goodluck Jonathan, over the latter’s handling of the country’s affairs. Some commentators on national affairs described Obasanjo’s brickbats as  attention-seeking gambits geared at settling some political scores, deodorising his wonky image and putting him in the right side of history as he inches towards the twilight of life. Like some controversial world leaders in and out of power, it is like keeping to Rule 6 of Robert Greene’s, 48 Laws of Power: “Everything is judged by its appearance; what is unseen counts for nothing. Never let yourself get lost in the crowd or buried in oblivion. Stand out. Be conspicuous, at all cost. Make yourself a magnet of attention by appearing larger, more colourful, and more mysterious than the bland and timid masses.”

Obasanjo actually made himself a magnet of attention at the colourful ceremony at the Presidential Library, with his political associates pouring balm of panegyrics on him. Present at the occasion were the Senate President, David Mark; Minister of Police Affairs, Caleb Olubolade; Minister for State, FCT, Mrs. Jumoke Akinjide; former governor of Ekiti State, Segun Oni; former Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, governors; past Ministers who served under Obasanjo; former and serving lawmakers, retired military leaders, captains of industry, traditional rulers, diplomatic corps members and other personalities. A former president of Ghana, John Kufuor was also present.

One of the speakers was retired Vice-Admiral Akintunde Aduwo, who was military governor of the now defunct Western State for one month after which Obasanjo announced his removal “to rescue him from the problem of the West which had overwhelmed him”. As if in conformity with the Yoruba proverb that devotees of Sango, the god of thunder, love him (Sango) by force, Aduwo painted Obasanjo’s image white, saying Obasanjo never planned or sponsored any coup as his critics alleged. According to him: “Obasanjo never sponsored any coup and he never took part in anything that can destabilise this great country of ours. He never partook in any coup, even the one that took him to the highest level. Everybody was looking for him then, but he never planned anything with them,” Aduwo remarked. He maintained that the former president had sacrificed a lot for the unity, peace and progress of the country. Obasanjo reacted that he sat down “jejely(quietly) and they invited me and you all know those that invited me, but I never partake in any coup”.

Kufuor, the guest lecturer, described Obasanjo as a living legend who had contributed to the transformation of the economy of Africa and restoration of peace across the continent. “Obasanjo, aside being a Nigerian, is an Africanist who has contributed immensely for the unity and growth of the continent. He has a growing concern and boundless energy for his age and I envy him for that. He played prominent roles in conflict resolution in the Nigeria Civil War, Sierra-Leone, Liberia, Angola, Zimbabwe and Darfur in Sudan. And his brave role in Guinea Bissau to stop the coup by the army is there. We benefited greatly from the economic policy of Obasanjo government then and we will forever be grateful to him,” he maintained.

The Senate President Mark praised Obasanjo’s gallantry when he became the Head of State by appointing him from the Engineering section to be chairman of the Abandoned Properties Committee. As Mark explained: “This man was an icon and a detribalised Nigerian. When he became the Head of State after the death of Murtala Muhammed, he appointed me from the Engineering section to head a committee despite the rivalry that was existing then between the Engineering and the Signal departments.

“There are a few Nigerians either dead or living that love Nigeria the way Obasanjo loves it. On this I stand to be corrected. He eats Nigeria, drinks Nigeria, sleeps in Nigeria and always thinks of Nigeria.”

Also, Chief Ernest Shonekan, Head of the defunct Interim National Government, who chaired the occasion, argued that one thing one cannot take away from Obasanjo is his love for Nigeria. “Today, we are here to give honour to whom honour is due, Obasanjo has served Nigeria and Africa well, he has made many indelible marks on the sands of time. If anything, he will go down in history as one of the best leaders Nigeria ever produced,” Shonekan maintained.

The second day, at the grand finale of the reception at the Ake palace, Abeokuta, President Goodluck Jonathan, represented by Vice-President Namadi Sambo, described the former president as a great leader who had laid a solid foundation for the development of Nigeria. Jonathan also maintained that Obasanjo remains a national leader whose pivotal roles could never be easily forgotten. According to him, “Baba as a leader of our party participated in the drawing of the manifesto which we are still using till today. I want to assure you that we will continue to implement the fantastic programme and it shall transform Nigeria as one of the most developed countries in the world.”

However, Jonathan seized the opportunity to eulogise himself on what he called the improved power supply situation in the country, plans on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, programmes on health, education, job creation and other achievements on other social services, remarks meant to put all his critics, including Obasanjo, on notice that he (Jonathan) is not President-do-nothing.

In his own goodwill message, Secretary of the PDP BoT, Senator Waliu Jubril, sought Obasanjo’s assistance to fill the vacuum he left after resigning as Chairman of the board. As Jubril put it: “Obasanjo is a true Nigerian. I enjoyed working with him as Secretary of the BoT. He is a detribalised Nigerian who every Nigerian should love. The people of the South-west should not see him as their own alone; he is not for you alone but for all of us. That is why we are all here from North, East, West and South to gather at the historic town of Abeokuta to celebrate with Baba.”

Alhaji Bamanga Tukur, National Chairman of the PDP, who chaired the event, described Obasanjo as a living legend and a good statesman.

Obasanjo thanked everyone present for the honour accorded him, saying: “Let us identify icons in all walks of life among us so that we can encourage them and make the necessary sacrifices to move our country forward. Whatever I have achieved, whatever I have done and whatever attainment I have got to, God made it to happen and the glory should be given to him. Secondly, thousands have worked tirelessly with me to achieve the laudable programme. I also thank those who had given me the opportunity.” Obasanjo further charged the PDP National Chairman to be more committed, show integrity and be transparent and he would be spurred to success.

However, in a subtle jab at the Jonathan government, Obasanjo argued that nothing could gladden his heart better than when a government in this country, whether at the local, state or national level, “takes good care of the people”. He added: “Even at doing what is right for the people, a visionary leader must be steadfast and focused. What you have said to us today is that the federal government is doing what they are supposed to have done some years back. It is better late than never.”

It was actually a continuation of Obasanjo’s verbal exocets fired from within and outside the country against Jonathan. On 12 January when an African Institute (which would serve as a cultural exchange centre between it and Nigeria in particular and Africa at large) was established by Valparaiso University in Indiana, United States in OBJ’s honour, he took a dig at the present government. He argued that the Jonathan government must properly identify the remote causes of the activities of the Boko Haram sect, pay more attention to the improvement of infrastructure and fight corruption… He added: “We must develop people and retain them, we must encourage most of them that are in Diaspora, to move back home.”

Dr. Mark Heckler, president of the 154-year-old university, said Obasanjo’s exemplary leadership in Africa and in Nigeria was a driving force for the choice of honouring him. It was witnessed by Professor Ade Adefuye, Nigeria’s Ambassador to the U.S; Dr. Ewa Ewa, Chief Financing Officer, Illinois Human Rights Commission; Chief Bayo Ojo, former Attorney-General of the Federation and Mr. Frank Nweke, Director-General, Nigerian Economic Summit Group. Others were Professor Julius Okojie, Executive Secretary, National Universities Commission and Nigeria’s Consul-General in New York, Habib Habu.

On a Cable News Network, CNN, interview earlier in the month, Obasanjo went after Jonathan on Boko Haram, saying: “To deal with a group like that, you need a carrot and stick. The carrot is finding out how to reach out to them. When you try to reach out to them and they are not amenable to being reached out to, you have to use the stick.” However, Reuben Abati, the President’s spokesman, wondered why the same former president who beat his chest earlier that his government used force in the same circumstance in Odi, Rivers State, could accuse Jonathan of applying force. Abati argued that the federal government was actually making progress on tackling insecurity.

At the West African Regional Conference on Youth Employment, held in Dakar, Senegal, to appraise the unemployment situation in the West African sub-region, Obasanjo warned of a possible revolution in Nigeria if Jonathan did not tackle the nation’s high unemployment rate, which he put at 72 per cent. And when, in November last year, the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, marked his 40th anniversary as a preacher, in Warri, Delta State, Obasanjo waved off his successor as a sissy who failed to act tough against Boko Haram. But Jonathan responded that using force the way Obasanjo did on Odi would have been futile; it would have, in the same manner, resulted in bloodshed.

On 28 August 2012 when Obasanjo spoke at a lecture entitled, ‘Leadership Foundation and Underpinning’ at a forum of the Nigeria Leadership Initiative, he slammed Jonathan for frittering Nigeria’s foreign reserves, put at about $35bn in 2007. As the former president put it: “We left what we called excess crude. Let’s build it for the rainy day, up to $35bn; within three years, the $35bn disappeared. Whether the money disappeared or it was shared, the fact remains that $35bn disappeared from the foreign reserves I left behind in office. When we left that money, we thought we were leaving it for the rainy day…”

Critics wondered why Obasanjo has, of late, been doing these. A school of thought has it that by nature, he wants to remain the reference point of Nigerian leadership, a state of mind that makes him a perpetual critic of successive administrations. In other words, as a source revealed, “he does not want to be associated with failure, though his administration was not a lily of the valley!”

In 1992 when former military president, Ibrahim Babangida, wanted to extend his rule, Obasanjo released a memo, saying: “Any prolongation of military rule…will not only bring the armed forces into utter disrepute, it will amount to a declaration of war against the sovereign rights of the people of Nigeria to choose their own leader…” The same sentiment was shared by the civil society in what could be termed the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Obasanjo was acclaimed as speaking truth to power. However, the same man who accused IBB of trying to sit tight also wanted to transmogrify into a life president, using the third term ship which, unfortunately, sank along the way. To critics, when Obasanjo raises his voice against a particular government, it is self-serving. That was why a former Petroleum Resources Minister, Alhaji Shettima Monguno, also attacked Obasanjo saying that somebody who “wanted to extend his tenure beyond the constitutional term, someone who tried his very best to extend but was rejected, is now advising government to do the wrong thing”.

Buruji Kashamu, a PDP top notcher in Ogun State, argued that Obasanjo lacked the moral right to criticise over the handling of corruption and the Boko Haram insurgency in the North. He said: “Perhaps, the point should be made – and poignantly too – that the earlier Obasanjo purges himself of his messianic postures, the better it would be for him and the nation at large. He is quick to recount his exploits while in office. But the truth is: the foundation of some of the challenges that we are grappling with today were laid during his last years in office.”

Another proof was when, in 2010, he criticised the late President Umaru Yar’Adua who went for medical trip abroad without transferring power to Jonathan, his deputy. Obasanjo, like a shaggy bear, charged: “If you take up an assignment, a job, elected, appointed; whatever it is, and then your heath starts to fail and you will not be able to deliver to satisfy yourself and to satisfy the people you are supposed to serve, then there is the path of honour and path of morality and if you don’t know that, then you don’t know anything.”

But the Action Congress (of Nigeria, now), through its publicity secretary, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, did a psychoanalysis of Obasanjo with regard to his attack on Yar’Adua. The party argued that Obasanjo was trying to exonerate himself from the guilt of rigging election for Yar’Adua, a sick man. “The old fox is at it again, trying to ride on the crest of widespread disenchantment with the constitutional crisis that has been created by President Yar’Adua’s failure to legally transfer power to his deputy while on a prolonged medical treatment in Saudi Arabia.”

Mohammed added that Obasanjo cleverly waited until Nigerians had started massive demonstrations against the crisis, which left Nigeria without a leader for nearly 60 days, before making his clearly cheeky statement in which he asked President Yar’Adua to take the path of honour and resign. “Obasanjo, ever willing to reap where he did not sow, waited until the courts have started ruling on the several cases aimed at ending the unnecessary crisis, before suddenly pitching his tent with Nigerians. In other words, he wanted to know where the tide will turn before taking a public stand on the issue. But Nigerians are not deceived.” Had Obasanjo himself taken a path of honour, the AC spokesman argued, “he would have first apologised to his compatriots for short-changing them through the imposition of a sick and incompetent leader; had Obasanjo taken the path of honour, Nigeria would not have been in this mess in the first instance because he would have allowed the people to freely elect their leader.”

Critics say Obasanjo has the penchant to diminish other great men whose image loom larger than his. This is to say that he wants to be seen as the only authentic statesman this side of the Atlantic. In his book, Not My Will, Obasanjo argues that Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, a former president of Nigeria has whittled himself down from the pedestal of Zik of Africa to the Owelle of Onitsha. But an observer pointed out that Obasanjo, former Nigerian president and national leader himself now presides over the Ibogun Day celebrations in his rustic Ibogun village, Ogun State.

In the same book, Obasanjo also waves off the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo as a tribal irredentist. Obasanjo argues that when the federal government appointed Awolowo Chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University, the sage would visit the institution, carrying his own food and water. Recently, the issue of Awolowo as the Yoruba leader came up again when debates raged over Chinua Achebe’s postulations in his book There Was A Country on the role Awolowo played during the civil war. Obasanjo reacted that Nigerians should put the civil war fought over 43 years ago behind them “in the interest of the progress of the country.” But one of the dignitaries who attended the Abeokuta reception where Obasanjo said this argued that “the former president didn’t say that because of altruism or patriotism but because Achebe’s book inadvertently threw up arguments which tend to once again start celebrating Awolowo in a way in Yorubaland.”

Critics also refer to the way Obasanjo treated his old school mate, Moshood Kashimawo Abiola, winner of the 12 June 1993 presidential election. He was alleged to have promised Abiola that he would help him see some northerners to actualise his mandate but, as an Abeokuta source revealed, “When he got there, he started singing a different tune.” And when he ought to defend Abiola in the international community, he maintained that the latter was not the messiah that Nigerians were expecting.

Not a few Nigerians believe, therefore, that these antics by Obasanjo are meant to repair his image now that the international community would be making demands on his time. That was the reason he gave when he resigned from the BoT. According to a critic, “Obasanjo wants to be seen as a celebrity at home, a philosopher king who operates above the common run.”

The only trouble is that just as aggressive advertisement or marketing presupposes that either a product is bad or is facing challenges, Obasanjo is seen by many as a painted sepulchre. His government was considered corrupt, his land grabbing propensity and monopoly over the Nigerian poultry business show that he does not hesitate to profiteer.

It is for these reasons and more that Karl Masters and Andrew Young of Goodworks International, a firm of public relations consultants still have Obasanjo’s retainership.

Will this laundering give the former president a front row seat in the hall of fame or will he end up in the scrap heap of history? Opinions will surely be divided.

 •Additional reports by Folarin Ademosu and Abiodun Onafuye 

.This article originally appeared in TheNEWS magazine of 04 February 2013