Obasanjo’s selective memory

Apparently caught by the bug of re-branding that has since bitten President Umaru Yar’adua’s administration, former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, chose the occasion of a courtesy call last week on the Emir of Dutse, the Jigawa State capital, Alhaji Nuhu Sanusi, to re-brand his self-image as the immediate past  No.1 citizen of Nigeria. The general had been visiting the state to commission a number of projects in

the state at the invitation of its governor, Alhaji Sule Lamido, who, the reader may recall, was at one time the president’s much under-utilized foreign minister, what with the man himself being the most globe-trotting president the country has had.

During the courtesy call on the emir, Obasanjo told his presumably amused audience that he was elected president in 1999 not to build infrastructure and generally improve the lot of the much-pauperized Nigerians but to heal the wounds of deep divisions which previous military administrations, he had said elsewhere, had inflicted on the country. The former president was obviously responding to persistent and widespread criticisms of his record as probably Nigeria’s biggest leadership letdown considering the tremendous goodwill he enjoyed at the beginning of his tenure and the unprecedented oil windfall he had throughout.

“In 1999,” he said, “Nigeria was not looking for a president that will build roads, fix power or provide water. Nigeria was looking for a president that will hold Nigeria together.”

True, Obasanjo was rehabilitated from jail and pressed into service back in 1999 by a select group of military and civilian leaders to heal the wounds of “June 12” inflicted on the country by military president, General Ibrahim Babangida, in 1993, wounds which were deepened and widened by the failed attempt of Babangida’s military successor, General Sani Abacha – his attempt failed because of his sudden and mysterious death in June 1998 –  to perpetuate his tyrannical rule which began in November 1993.

Even then it requires an heroic act of highly selective memory only the likes of Obasanjo can muster for him to now argue that his eight-year misrule of the country should be judged not by what he himself promised Nigerians but by the expectations of  those who pressed him into service.

All you need as proof of the selectivity of his “Dutse Declaration” is his inaugural speech on May19, 1999. If he was elected that year to heal past wounds, that speech clearly revealed that he had other priorities because it contained no sign whatsoever that he had forgiven those who, by design or otherwise, made him “walk through the valley of death” – to use his own words in describing his trial and subsequent death sentence, later commuted to life, by the Abacha regime for complicity in an attempted military coup. Instead of forgiveness, which is necessary for the healing of wounds, the speech showed every sign that the man’s principal motivation in accepting to be pressed into service as president was vengeance.

Perhaps the most glaring early manifestation of this was the Justice Oputa panel he set up even before he had settled down on his seat to examine the human rights records of essentially the regimes of Babangida and Abacha. Along with the limited period he initially chose to cover, the panel’s terms of reference, which was essentially punitive contrary to all its pretensions, spoke volumes about the man’s intentions. Here it is significant that he modified those terms and scope of the panel to include the years of military intervention in politics from 1966 only after widespread public criticisms that it seemed highly selective.

Because his main motive in office was vengeance Obasanjo adopted many policies and programmes that were any thing but reconciling and unifying. This much is obvious from the fact that not since our civil war between 1967 and 1970 had Nigeria witnessed the level of ethnic and sectarian violence it did almost throughout his tenure as president.

Far from the theme of his inaugural speech as president back in 1999 being about healing the wounds of the misadventures of past military regimes, the speech dwelt mostly on his promises and strategies for fighting corruption, mismanagement and poverty. The first six paragraphs of his 40-paragraph speech as reproduced by the New Nigerian of May 21, 1999, were mostly on the ills of past regimes. Only in the seventh paragraph did he say anything about correcting any of those ills. “It does no credit either to us or the entire black race,” he said, “if we fail in managing our resources for quick improvement in the quality of life of our people.”

Somewhat more specifically, he said later in the fifteenth paragraph that “Together we shall take steps to halt the decline in the human development indices as they apply to Nigeria.” Then in the following paragraph he committed himself to the fight against corruption. “Corruption,” he said, “the greatest single bane of our society, will be tackled head-on at all levels.”

Six paragraphs later he gave a long and poorly articulated list of his priorities which contained eighteen items on virtually every topic under the Nigerian sky none of which said any thing about healing wounds and re-unifying the country. In pursuing these priorities, he said, he had “worked out measures which must be implemented within the firsts six months.”

At the end of his tenure eight years later not only did he fail to “halt the decline in the human development indices as they apply to Nigerians”, to use his own words, those indices declined sharply, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), a promoter of those indices. In other words the president was an abject failure by the very standard he set for himself.

For him to now turn around ten years later and tell us that we should judge his tenure not by how much poorer he left Nigerians than they were when he was first elected is not only disingenuous. It is also a heroic but futile attempt at re-branding his record as probably the most divisive president this country has had.

For, whatever the former president and his image makers may say, no president had used every trick in the book – and indeed out of the book – to divide and rule this country in perpetuity – and almost succeeded with his infamous Third Term Agenda – like Obasanjo.

If those who rehabilitated him from jail in 1998 and pressed him into service as president a few months later had hoped that he would heal the nation’s wounds, his inaugural speech as president on that beautiful day of May 19, 1999, and even more importantly, his actions thereafter, showed clearly that THAT was not his priority.