Retired generals are at it again

General Ibrahim Babangida and Chief Olusegun Obasanjo are in the news again. IBB is campaigning for the presidency in 2011, while OBJ has been busy doing his usual verbal chores all over the place. They are both taking a lot of flak for their efforts. This is not the first time their political histories would be intertwined. OBJ benefitted from a failed coup that killed his boss, General Murtala Mohammed,

while IBB had to stage a coup to put himself in power. IBB was the northern emissary to draft OBJ for the presidency in 1999, while it was OBJ‘s lot to persuade IBB to withdraw from contention in 2007.

Between them, they ruled Nigeria for nearly 20 of the 50 years of post-independence existence. IBB was military President for eight years (1985-93), while OBJ initially became military Head of State for three (1976-79) and later civilian President for eight years (1999-2007).

As rulers, they initially raised, but eventually dashed, citizens‘ hope. Their administrations were blessed with windfalls from oil revenue but marred by corruption. Both wanted to stay longer in power but their sit-tight posture was strongly resisted. While the nation could only point to despair when they left office, they have huge personal wealth and multi-billion Naira mansions to their credit. Their legacies as rulers are at the root of their public resentment today.

However, instead of working as elder statesmen, offering suggestions to the next generation of leaders, these two former generals are still fighting for centre stage. Yet, the more they try to impose themselves on the political process, the more they are resisted.

IBB has been repeatedly reminded that he can never be President of this country again, given the negative testimonial with which he left power ignominiously in 1993. More than any other leader in Nigerian history, IBB left behind far more questions than solutions to the nation‘s problems. Let‘s revisit some of them:

What did IBB know about the murder of Dele Giwa in 1986? Why did IBB refuse to appear before the Justice Oputa panel in 2000 to answer questions about Dele Giwa‘s murder and other issues? Why did he prevent the publication of the panel‘s report through litigation?

At the level of economy, there are also unanswered questions. What happened to the excess oil proceeds between 1988 and 1992 worth over $12 billion, which were kept in a stabilization account that was exclusively operated by the President and the CBN Governor? Why did IBB adopt the Structural Adjustment Programme, which led to irreversible devaluation of the Naira, despite overwhelming rejection of such a measure?

IBB has refused to address questions relating to other issues of serious national importance, especially the nation‘s controversial membership of the Organization of Islamic Conference and the 1993 elections. Why did IBB secretly enroll Nigeria as a member of the Organization of Islamic Conference in 1986? And the most important question of all, why did IBB annul the legitimate election of MKO Abiola on June 12, 1993 and subsequently set up a puppet Interim National Government he knew would crash or be crashed?

IBB‘s evasive answers to these questions created a credibility gap that is too wide and too late for closure. Hafsat, Abiola‘s daughter, who lost both parents to the aftermath of IBB‘s annulment of her father‘s legitimate election, addressed the issue in April 27, 2010 edition of The Punch this way: ”Should IBB wish to be taken seriously … he should seek to close his credibility gap. ‘Maradona,‘ ‘evil genius,‘ and all these other epithets point to qualities of a liar, a dupe, a fraud. That persona may have been an asset in the context of a military dictatorship but in the quest for a leader that can move Nigeria forward, it is a liability.”

OBJ is a different kind of liability. His problem is with his tongue and overbearing posture as the Chairman of his party‘s Board of Trustees. He has been having problems with the fractionalized leadership of the party, lately. For example, he was in the minority that sought Yar‘Adua‘s resignation. Party members who could not look him in the face before told him off.

Similarly, people talked back at OBJ for his instruction to party members in the South-West to ensure victory in Lagos and Ondo in 2011. An otherwise innocuous instruction conjured memories of thuggery, violence, and rigging, which have come to be associated with OBJ‘s ”do or die” politics. This is not lost on voters in Ondo State who had to wait nearly two years before their stolen mandate was restored by the courts.

OBJ has also been taking some flak from Christian leaders for his ”Jesus” comment in Washington in April at the Leon H. Sullivan Dialogue on Nigeria. In reacting to the removal of Maurice Iwu as INEC Chairman, OBJ had said, ”With all due respect, if Jesus Christ could come to the world and be the chairman of INEC, any election he would conduct would be disputed.”

He went on to argue that Nigerian elections have always been disputed, at least since 1959, and that politicians are the ones in need of reform, rather than the electoral process per se. Within the context of the entire speech, OBJ‘s Jesus comment was understandable. The problem is that OBJ has become that proverbial person who robs himself in oil after being marked down for roasting.

The attitude of IBB and OBJ to public disapproval reminds one of Kurunmi in Ola Rotimi‘s play of that name. Asked why he was treating Oyo‘s offer of war with levity, Kurunmi responded by parodying the tortoise: ”When the tortoise is heading for a senseless journey and you say to him, ‘Brother Tortoise, when will you be wise and come back home?’ The tortoise will say, ‘Brother, not until I have been disgraced.’”

Given the notoriety associated with IBB and OBJ, one can only conclude that their plan to influence the political process in 2011 is based on their hope that the electoral system would remain faulty and subject to manipulation. This is why President Goodluck Jonathan should overhaul the electoral system. He started well by sacking Murice Iwu, the erstwhile boss of “electoral malpractices”.

However, Jonathan should move fast. A substantive replacement should be named soon to minimize undue lobbying. Similarly, the National Assembly should complete the reform of the electoral process so that the new electoral boss could move quickly. With the election only months away, the time to act is now.

Professor Akinnaso teaches Anthropology and Linguistics at Temple University, Philadelphia, United States.