On The Limits Of Epistolary Sanctimony


Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò

By Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò

Ordinarily, I do my best to not react to anything Olusegun Obasanjo says.  I do so not because I have nothing to say about his many effusions going back to his My Command days up to and including his most recent book on remaking Africa.  I have done so because of the kind of society we live in. Ours is a society where our memories are nonexistent and we would do anything to avoid controversy and direct criticism.  Our intellectuals, whose job it is to measure the worth of ideas introduced into the marketplace of ideas, save a handful of our journalists and activists, are, for the most part, waiting their turn at recognition signified by invitation to any of the jamborees, talkfests and other “ìwúyè”-like ceremonies that dominate public discourse—conferences, book presentations [a peculiar Nigerian invention], birthday lectures and the like.  Why spoil your chances of being allowed at the table of the high and the mighty by assuming the role of a gadfly?  Thus, except for Wole Soyinka, rare has been the public denunciation of Obasanjo’s intellectualism and serious criticism of his efforts at being a philosopher or thinker of note.  I have elected to devote my ever-dwindling energies to those I consider worthier thinkers of Nigerian, nay, African, extraction.

His latest letter, though, is a horse of a different colour.  This latest iteration of what I would like to call Obasanjo’s epistolary sanctimony got me thinking.  I hope I am wrong but I have a feeling that this, too, would most likely attract the same kind of reactions that previous chapters did: celebration of his intervention as timely and necessary on the part of some, while others will see it as yet another self-serving outburst of a sanctimonious megalomaniac.  I already see elements of both in the initial reactions from our talking heads on television and other electronic media and from newsfeeds on and offline.  I hope that what I offer below opens a different line of criticism that promises more insight.

First, there is absolutely nothing new in the eighteen pages of this chapter that others have not said in the recent past.  But, as is our wont, now that “Baba” has said or is saying it, it is time to listen up.  Really?

Were ours not a society dominated by gerontocracy, status, and a barely thought collectivism, his letter would have landed with a thud.  The contents of this rather longish opinion piece can be distilled into a few salient points: (1) there was optimism that Muhammadu Buhari could fix what was wrong with Nigeria as at the last go-round under Goodluck Jonathan’s Peoples Democratic Party [PDP] presidency; (2) events since Buhari’s accession to office have shown that he does not have the intellectual heft to govern in the current circumstance; (3) worse, he has certain personal qualities that are not suited to one charged with directing the affairs of a pluralistic, complex polity like Nigeria; (4) he has registered significant gains in the fight against the Boko Haram insurgency and corruption, yet, the security situation all across the country has become more dire.  I am sure that I have left a few things out.  My reaction is, what’s new?

Pray, what is the solution to the problems we all know and acknowledge: for Obasanjo, it is to advise Buhari not to seek a second term.  Instead, the president should retire from partisan politics and assume a new role of statesman à la Obasanjo himself.  Really?

It is not only Buhari who needs to remove himself, Nigerians should also remove his party from power.  What to substitute?  Some inarticulate movement with a name already supplied by our eminent philosopher: a “Coalition for Nigeria”.

This is where I come in.  As we would say in Yorùbá, when someone offers to clothe you, you should first assess the quality of your prospective benefactor’s own vestments.  I am afraid, Obasanjo’s cover in this instance does not impress me the least bit.  I am almost certain that this is one dimension that is likely to be lost in the din of reactions to the letter.

Obasanjo was our military head of state.  After he left office and settled in Ota, he created what he called “The Africa Leadership Forum”.  Given the name of the outfit and its declared objectives, one is right to ask why, in all the years of his public life, we do not see the alumni/alumnae of this training school distinguishing themselves in all areas of our public life, especially when it comes to governance and administration.  Quality leaders often surround themselves with quality subordinates who take the best from their principals and show themselves to be good students by surpassing such principals over time.

I would like to know what Obasanjo has done to nurture the kinds of leaders in whose hands he thinks the destiny of the country would be safe.  Where are the graduates that have benefited from the Obasanjo school of leadership that could make the required difference in our lives now and in the future?

How long has Obasanjo’s Bells University been in existence?  When evangelicals in the United States founded universities in the seventies of the last century, they aimed to create cadres who, with time, will take their idea of leadership into the secular world of government and public administration.  For good or ill, we see the evidence of their products in the administration of George W. Bush and the current one under Trump.  They offer real products that can be assessed for the worth of the vision and institutions that spawned them.  Where are the empirical products of Obasanjo’s vision as a university proprietor and trainer of leadership material for our world within and beyond Nigeria?  No, this is not a charge to level at all proprietors but a man who is quick to let us know that he knows how to do things and is never tired of telling us how well he did them should not be expected to be indifferent to the future placement of the products of the institutions that he founds and designs.

Equally galling is Obasanjo’s unctuousness at citing his absolute disaster of a first term beginning in 1999 as a model for how Buhari might have proceeded.  He must have convinced himself that, as I said in my opening, we are a people with no memories at all.  But thank goodness for the likes of Simon Kolawole whose 2015 article could use a reprise right now [https://www.thecable.ng/obasanjo-nigerias-moral-compass].  For those of us who take the long view, that was a term defined by incompetence and geriatrics.

This is where the former president might have been better served by studying more philosophy respecting what it is to be a statesman rather than assuming he is one.  Had Obasanjo understood or aspired to genuine statesmanship, his first term would have been his only term.  That ought to have been a term dedicated to clearing the Augean stable of military misrule to which he was a prominent contributor; restructuring the country in all its ramifications or, at least, putting in place the struts for such restructuring; identifying and grooming—this was most important in light of what has happened since—a group of younger successors who would have inherited the foundations of a bold new country ready for the twenty-first century.

Maybe Obasanjo could have used more lessons of his friendship with the late Nelson Mandela who, with his old comrades, were convinced that they were ill-suited to be part of post-1994 South Africa.  Despite the great personal sacrifices that they all made for the liberation of South Africa, not one of them thought the rebuilding of South Africa, post-apartheid, was their ken or what South Africa deserved.  They served one term, stabilized the country, and faded away into the sunset of retirement with dignity.  Not so with Obasanjo and his old gang from 1999 to 2003.

Was there any serious investment in identifying future leadership material during the second term in the run-up to 2007?  Certainly not, and that was how we ended up with Umar Musa Yar’Adua on a ticket with a clueless vice president all of whose attainments in politics were products of happy accidents.  By the time Obasanjo awoke to write his previous epistle on the disastrous presidency of his anointed, Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s “omóye”, to use another Yorùbá proverb, had already announced its lunacy in the market square!

Recall what we are to do with a prospective benefactor.  One would have thought that a man who would like us to believe that he is steeped in the best traditions of leadership, and is a serious thinker of our time, would have paused and asked some severe questions that some of us who never deigned to proclaim the brightness of our lights did back in 2014 in the approach to the elections that ushered in the Buhari presidency[https://opinion.premiumtimesng.com/2014/10/22/why-muhammadu-buhari-does-not-belong-in-our-future-by-olufemi-taiwo/].  The reasons we gave then are now some of the same ones that are being trotted out by Obasanjo.  Mark you, we were very wrong in our prognosis for the election’s outcome but that was not the main point of our analysis.  We are three years into that future and it is clear as daylight that the man is out of his ken!

Back then, Obasanjo was, like the rest of us, more concerned with ending the calamitous domination of the PDP.  The difference was that he had no qualms resting the fate of a tottering country in the hands of a man who had not shown any evidence that, in the thirty years he had been kicked out as a military head of state and three earlier failed runs for the presidency, he had changed one bit in his thinking, grown intellectually nor evinced connections to any social, political, or intellectual network that could offer him sounding boards for his ideas.

I am arguing that people like Obasanjo and many of my friends who were convinced that there was no viable alternative to Buhari back in 2015 owe Nigerians an apology.  In the case of Obasanjo, not only does he owe us an apology, he should give us reasons why we should mind his effusions now as to what kind of leadership we should have in 2019 and beyond.

Do I see any hint of either in this latest epistle beyond the sanctimonious proclamation of Buhari’s unfitness for a second stint in Aso Rock, our military fortress masquerading as a genuine presidential lodge for a democratic polity?

Obasanjo, who bombed in his pick of leaders three times in a row—Yar’Adua, Jonathan, Buhari—does not, in my view, qualify as one whose pronouncement on leadership should be heeded by any serious person.

Perhaps, the most worrisome part of this latest missive is the singular focus on the person and leadership of Buhari.  Yes, I am aware that leadership is the favourite whipping horse of our analysts, commentators, and other intellectuals.  It is why it seems as if, in the three years since the All Progressives Congress [APC] has been in power, Buhari has been the most salient piece of the puzzle of Nigeria’s failures.  This is an inadequate template to work with.  There are two reasons why I think so.

Here is why the likes of Obasanjo, Buhari, Jonathan, and others before them will continue to recur in our polity.  Even when we invoke the idea of collective responsibility in our current presidential system, we seem to think that everything should be about the president and his failures or successes.  Let us assume that Buhari is responsible for all the mistakes that we all have ascribed to him.  The big question to ask is, do the people who surround him every day, from his vice president to his top advisors to his cabinet, who all serve at his pleasure, not see the same problems or do they think that the problems are not serious enough for them to begin to question the propriety of their continuing to serve in a government that has shown itself to be lawless, selective in its applications of sanctions to erring top Nigerians, whose leader is unquestionably nepotistic, and so on, and so forth?

At what point do ministers stop rationalizing the failures of the man at whose pleasure they serve and stand up for what is right, not for the moment, not for the party—as we all know, party loyalty in our current situation is an oxymoron—and not for the president or governor, as the case may be, but for the country and for posterity?  Why the unseemly focus on the president when he is surrounded by a bevy of enablers whose heads are so into his rear that their olfactory nerves have shut down?  Meanwhile these same enablers are your future governors, senators, analysts, etc.; there is no price to pay for messing with the fortunes of a people where Nigeria is concerned.  If they are on all fours with the leader, it is unproductive to narrow our focus to the president.  There are many more responsible agents.  I am even ignoring the National Assembly who, for the most part, are no less time servers.

Finally, there are at last count 68 political parties in Nigeria.  Who needs a so-called “Coalition for Nigeria” if the movement’s mandate is limited to making the current incubus called Nigeria to work?  This, for me, is the ultimate crux of the matter.  For Obasanjo and many of us in Nigeria’s elite classes, the very idea of Nigeria is never up for negotiation, discussion even.  All that is required is to figure out ways to make it work.

I am afraid that is a forlorn dream.  Leadership, even made up of geniuses, cannot make Nigeria, as is, work.  Unity is neither Nigeria’s problem nor does she need it.  It does not matter how much we chant that mantra, it cannot and will not translate into a reality.  You cannot decree unity.  Remember Yugoslavia? USSR? Even small two-nation Czechoslovakia? Sudan? Ethiopia?

Nigeria’s elites, no thanks to the lingering effects of the tragedy that was military misrule, look at Nigeria as if it were a big city with governors as the chieftains of its respective quarters.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Nor does it matter that we continue to humour ourselves by insisting on calling it a federation.  The beginning of wisdom is confronting the reality that Nigeria, like almost every other country in the world, is an artificial agglomeration of many diverse national and ethnic groups who were arbitrarily brought together originally for the administrative convenience of our colonial rulers.

Unity in diversity cannot and should not mean the dissolution or abridgement of diversity.  Yes, over time there have emerged some shared meanings and collective usages but those have been at the level of ephemera, not in terms of an esprit de corps, a sense of belonging in a common, larger whole that is the hallmark of a true supranational identity in a pluralistic formation.  We are happy to trot out our disunity and claim it for purposes of titillation and enjoyment in the many misbegotten “cultural festivals” we enact, complete with the mandatory Dubai-sourced kitsch we adorn ourselves with in those fests.

But when it comes to making that same disunity the cornerstone of negotiations for how we might live together for mutual benefit, for the likes of Obasanjo, that is verboten.  We are always reminded that the idea of Nigeria is not open to negotiation.  We need be reminded that wishing that something were so does not make it so.  Belgians, Canadians, Swiss, Italians, Spaniards, do not ignore their basic disunity to focus on a forlorn unity as the basis of their political existence.  No, they confront it and summon all their intellectual energies to continually work out the most workable schemes for making disunity not be a drag on their common lives.  They negotiate the terms of their living together within a contrived unity that has to be continually reinforced and perfected.  In Nigeria, acknowledging disunity is almost criminalized!

Every political plan that places a premium on the “unity of Nigeria” is doomed to failure.  This is not the place to make the case but those who are interested in my modest articulations of how we might proceed may want to see [http://staging.pmnewsnigeria.com/2016/06/16/you-want-federalism-fight-for-it/ and https://opinion.premiumtimesng.com/2016/08/11/time-call-question-biafra/].

Any coalition for Nigeria that wants to continue to make the present structure work is, ultimately, going to come to grief.  It does not matter who the leaders are.  Believing in the indissolubility of Nigeria is the totality of Obasanjo’s muddled statesmanship.  It is time to call it what it is: a nonstarter.

So, Mr. President, give us a real analysis.  By all means, please, spare us the sanctimony.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò teaches at the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, U.S.A.  He was recently a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.