In the eyes of Obasanjo

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Olusegun Obasanjo

Since he vacated office in 2007, ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo has been characteristically wise after the fact in assessing Nigerian presidents.

Falling out with his successors, not to say his predecessors, has not tamed his caustic views of how and why they failed to remake the country.

In the eyes of the former president, there are better ways to run Nigeria, as he illustrated when he gave the 2020 Sobo Sowemimo lecture at the Abeokuta Club on June 26.

And for the first time, he even seems to acknowledge that he made mistakes during his presidency, but that it would be pointless for critics to seize upon that fact to deny the need to remould Nigeria or gift it a new constitution.

The lecture was neither as controversial nor as pungent as would have served his purpose, but it was perhaps the first time he came nearest to going beyond criticising and making a hideous portrait of his compatriot presidents to recommending the way forward through a new constitution.

Chief Obasanjo has acquired some experience in disembowelling other presidents, even becoming adept at it, and has often used caustic language that leaves no one in doubt what he thinks of his subjects. He is, however, yet to mature as a prognosticator.

It will take time. Whether the rigorous process of becoming a dialectician will be gentle on him, or age will permit him the luxury of time, is hard to say.

At 83, he does not appear to have too much time, a fact that explains the stridency of his language and awful tone of his discourses.

Reading his letters and criticisms over the years since he left Aso Villa, it may be possible to plot a graph of his conversion from conservatism to an inchoate form of radicalism.

But it is not altogether clear even to himself that he has successfully made that transition, nor whether his new beliefs will accord with all the finer elements of radicalism.

He has always been eclectic, sometimes cavorting between disparate ideological positions, including being an African and a Nigerian nationalist; but as far as he sees it, his successors are not attentive to their environment, and must be taken to task.

In the Sowemimo lecture, Chief Obasanjo identifies a few elements that should help persuade the president and the current political establishment into remoulding the country, even mocking their unease with the word ‘restructuring’.

Most Nigerians will find his analyses and recommendations stupefying, particularly the messianic fulcrum upon which he and his generation simplistically rest their prognostication, but it is a fact that the former president has simply gorged on the unprovable and unworkable beliefs and sentiments of his generation.

Looking at Nigeria’s complex ethnic tapestry, and how despite challenges over the decades it has continued to defy the odds of wear and tear, he sighs that the country must be God’s creation.

To that extent, and in many annoying sentences, he presumes to describe Nigerian unity as inviolate, in the same way past and present governments, military or elected, see it.

Admitting that the national fabric is badly strained, he admonishes everyone to eschew ‘papering over the cracks’ because it would be counterproductive.

It is not clear why he thinks the constitutional change he advocates is not irreconcilable with his anachronistic presumptions of territorial inviolability.

He also offers his audience the interesting bon mot about Nigerians doing their best to avoid a break-up, why a break-up is undesirable, and why indifference in the face of national political and economic challenges is irresponsible.

He adds that since everyone is feeling the pinch, particularly with insecurity, they may be more amenable to less fractious efforts to fix the country.

He excoriates irredentists who speak of maintaining a messianic grip on the country, a mentality he argues, doomed and balkanised the former Republic of Sudan.

But he also suggests unambiguously that the present government is at its wit’s end in grappling with the challenges hobbling the country.

Deploying innuendoes, the former president says many other things about the Muhammadu Buhari presidency, describing it as unwisely ensconced in a dangerous cocoon and incompetent to handle the country’s affairs.

As interesting and pungent as Chief Obasanjo’s lecture was, it is important to take issue with one principle plank of his worldview: his constant misinterpretation of the role of God in national destinies.

Here is how he puts it: “The issue of Nigeria’s future as a result of our current security situation must not be taken non-seriously as I see it as a matter of life and death for our country which must not be toyed with.

I very much believe that God created Nigeria to lead the black race as the Americans lead the white race for now and the Chinese lead the brown or yellow race.

We must do everything to actualise the plan of God for Nigeria not minding the great crises of the past and gross under-performance, incompetence and failure of the present.

This makes me ask the question, ‘Is 1914 a mistake or the act of God through the instrumentality of man?’  I do not believe God makes a mistake and He has His hands in the affairs of any man or woman and in the affairs of any nation.

God is purposeful and His mystery may not be easily comprehensible.  Nigeria, to me, is a creation of God for justice, fairness and equity amongst its component parts.”

Like many other presidents before and after him, Chief Obasanjo’s public affairs notions are severely limited in scope and hamstrung by lack of intellectual discipline.

Since empires and states began, their borders and territories have changed and morphed from size to size over millennia.

Before 1914, Nigeria was unknown, being an agglomeration of various kingdoms and empires. There is nothing to suggest that, like the old Soviet Union, it will remain as it is currently constituted in the next 100 years, or that somewhere along the line, God’s plan and purpose cannot be fulfilled, either through a dismembered Nigeria or an even bigger Nigeria swallowing a few neighbours.

There were empire builders in the past; there will always be empire builders in the future. Could changes in territories limit the God Chief Obasanjo constantly insinuates into national borders and state formations? As a former soldier, is Chief Obasanjo unaware of the many wars fought in Africa, Europe, Asia or the Americas?

Have their borders and territories remained the same, let alone be inviolate for thousands of years? Rome fell, Greece fell, Babylon fell, and the European Union is in a state of flux. As the former president admits in his lecture, change is eternal.

Chief Obasanjo’s idea of national unity and territorial integrity is simplistic and unworthy of someone who presided over the affairs of the largest black nation on earth.

He speaks of nuances when he berated the Buhari presidency; it is alarming that probably the hugest historical nuance involving God and shifting borders escapes this former soldier and statesman.

But probably the most frightening of his prognosis is his assertion that  God designed Nigeria for a special reason.

According to him, Nigeria is meant to lead the black race just like the United States leads the white race, and China leads the yellow race. Strange indeed.

China didn’t always lead the yellow race; at one time, the Mongoloid Empire of Genghis Khan did. The US didn’t always lead the white race; before Pax Americana, there was Pax Britannica, and before Pax Britannica, there was Pax Romana.

It is exasperating when a leader purporting to inhabit the ambitions of black people cannot stretch historical analysis beyond a couple of hundred years.

It is even more pertinent to ask at what time it dawned on Chief Obasanjo that God designed Nigeria to lead the black race — when he ruled for eight years and had no conception of the structures needed to guarantee the stability and greatness of Nigeria; when he rode roughshod over the judiciary and humiliated the courts and insulted the Supreme Court; when his Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), whose chairmen he dethroned at will, became a hideous antidemocratic monolith; when he mocked the states by deploying the EFCC to unconstitutionally orchestrate their governors’ impeachment?

With a smirk, Chief Obasanjo’s lecture insinuates the superiority of his government over other successive Nigerian governments.

He is unfortunately right. President Buhari’s conception of democracy is deeply controversial and does not speak boldly and logically of the intricacies involved in projecting Nigeria as leader of the black race.

At least Chief Obasanjo has belatedly spoken to that ambition, and probably has a good grasp of what he is talking about.

The Buhari presidency, as Chief Obasanjo gleefully suggests in his lecture, is too distracted by its own self-delusions to conceive and embrace that globally ramifying ambition.

Would the Buhari presidency experience an epiphany in the next three years? It is hard to say, for its instincts naturally war against that global ambition.

Chief Obasanjo has spoken and will probably continue to speak sensibly and soundly about how Nigeria could be better governed. His critics cannot, however, understand why he seemed to become wise only after leaving office.

Frustrated, they will continue to denounce his analyses and sneer at his panaceas. They think he is merely grandstanding.

They think he is so sanctimonious that at bottom he is not even persuaded by his own logic. They insist that the moral codes that undergird his private life have no relevance to the codes that enfold and animate his public life, and that his public statements fight and undermine his private beliefs.

They think he is in fact suffering from a split personality. Chief Obasanjo must groan under that burden and those contradictions until he departs.

He has said many fine things and given many fine suggestions; but by failing to heed his own counsel when he was president and even now, he cannot really explode the myth of his altruism. Like Cassandra, his foresight is fated to be scorned. He had his chance and blew it.

Worse, even years after he left office, his private morals have remained as controversial as his public morals. But it would be a double tragedy for the country to look at the disagreeable and ossified person of Chief Obasanjo to judge the relevance of his ideas and suggestions.

Indeed, as the former president suggested, Nigeria should aspire to lead the black race. It is a noble ambition, and the former president speaks grandly and admirably about it.

Yet there is nothing to suggest that because of its smaller size, Ghana cannot also possess that ambition, and run with it. After all, England and Greece touched the fingers of God with their outsized deeds of valour and cultures.

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