Obasanjo, grandmaster of timing, changes calculations for 2019
I was already researching for an article on Obasanjo following his recent successful defence of his PhD thesis at the National Open University of Nigeria at the age of over 80 when the breaking news came that the ‘oracle at Ota’ had ‘bombed’ Buhari.
I have always been intrigued by the Obasanjo persona – a man that embodies extreme contradictions – yet a trail blazer on many fronts. As a military Head of State he handed over power to elected civilians in 1979 at a time when such was a rarity in Africa. He became an instant global statesman by that singular action and has been able to leverage on it to grow even bigger in global stature. Obasanjo’s think-tank – the Obasanjo Leadership Forum – which he set up after his first coming – was one of the first think-tanks set up by any former African leader. Obasanjo has also probably written more books than any other African leader – and remains active and in high demand globally as a mediator in regional conflicts, despite his age and shortcomings at home.
Obasanjo’s attack on Buhari was not altogether unexpected. He has played a leading role in the emergence and bringing down of all Nigerian civilian presidents since the Second Republic. And even the military regimes that he had no hand in propping to power such as IBB’s and Abacha’s (as far as information in the public domain is concerned), he made uncomfortable – at the opportune time. Based on his antecedents, many people felt that Obasanjo moving on Buhari and his government was only a matter of time.
The early signs that Obasanjo might be positioning himself for an attack on Buhari came at a lecture he delivered at Oxford University on January 8 2018 on Africa’s transformative leaders. Obasanjo omitted Buhari’s name in what appeared to be a deliberate act (not that some of us believe that Buhari qualifies to be included in such a list). Not only that, when Thisday asked him shortly after the lecture whether he would support Buhari for a second term, Obasanjo retorted that it was not the right time to talk of supporting Buhari’s second term ambition. It was obvious something was ominous.
Obasanjo’s letter to Buhari of January 23 2018 entitled ‘The Way Out: A Clarion Call for Coalition for Nigeria Movement’, was a mixture of bitter home truths, patronising comments and harsh words which will resonate well with Buhari’s critics.
Basically in the letter Obasanjo advised Buhari not to go for a second term – mentioning his weaknesses in the areas of handling the economy, foreign policy and his poor understanding of the “dynamics of internal politics”. He rejected both the APC and the PDP as likely to lead the country out of the woods and called for a national movement, which he called Coalition for Nigeria. As he put it:
“We need a Coalition for Nigeria, CN. Such a Movement at this juncture needs not be a political party but one to which all well-meaning Nigerians can belong. That Movement must be a coalition for democracy, good governance, social and economic well-being and progress.
“Coalition to salvage and redeem our country. You can count me with such a Movement. Last time, we asked, prayed and worked for change and God granted our request. This time, we must ask, pray and work for change with unity, security and progress. And God will again grant us.”
There are several observations regarding Obasanjo’s latest intervention:
One, Obasanjo embodies so many contradictions. Whatever he accuses any regime he wants to bring down of – from corruption to impunity – he was also probably guilty of such during his time either as military head of State or during his eight years as civilian President. This has made some people to dismiss his interventions as self serving and undeserving. I believe such a manner of viewing Obasanjo’s interventions is simplistic and naïve. The point is that whatever one thinks of Obasanjo, he remains one of the most respected African statesmen by the international community. He leverages on this by choosing the time and place to launch an attack on a government he wants to bring down. Quite often when Obasanjo begins his attacks (and largely because he waits until there is an undercurrent of momentum against such a government), those criticisms often become self-propelling both at home and abroad. Obasanjo has a 100 per cent track record in bringing down any government he comes after. And that is not a joke!
Two, whether Buhari heeds Obasanjo’s advice or not, the letter, just like the one he wrote to Jonathan in the run-up to the 2015 presidential election, has irrevocably changed the permutations for 2019. For one, the letter is likely to embolden several people within the APC to mount a challenge against Buhari’s candidacy.
It is possible that the letter may have an opposite effect on Buhari – heighten his resolve to contest even if he had not made up his mind to do so before the letter. Certainly as a retired General, he may not want to be seen as chickening out of the contest because of Obasanjo’s letter. If Buhari decides to go for a second term (as I believe he will do), and if Obasanjo’s antecedents are anything to go by, he will most likely constitute himself as the spiritual director of the opposition –both at home and abroad. Since Obasanjo is not a man known to go back to his vomit, he is unlikely to be persuaded to drop his opposition to Buhari’s second term ambition. We are therefore likely to be in for a dog fight.
Three, largely because of Obasanjo’s track record in bringing down governments and his international connections, the letter is likely to impact psychologically on Buhari’s cabinet and close advisers. We will therefore be watching out for the fickleness of human nature. I will not be surprised if some of the Governors, advisers and members of the President’s inner cabinet who always pretend to love Buhari more than God loves him (even though many can see through their sycophancy that their only loyalty is to their ambitions and pockets) begin to gradually distance themselves from him. We are likely to witness ‘doublespeak’ as these characters begin scheming for relevance in whichever direction they believe the next dispensation will come from.
Four, while the issue of whether a government has performed well or not will always be subjective in our type of clime – depending on which side one finds himself/herself in our fault lines or active controversies of the day – Obasanjo’s solution, a national movement, Coalition for Nigeria (CN), can be interrogated: The first challenge for such a coalition is whether its members will fall from heaven or whether members will still be adult Nigerians who have already internalized the ‘Nigerian factor’. Another challenge is that such a movement will inevitably be a special purpose vehicle (SPV) just to remove Buhari from power – just as the APC was an SPV used to remove Jonathan from power. Coalitions of this nature are by definition assemblages of people with different ambitions, ideological inclinations and political tendencies. Once the main goal of the SPV is accomplished, the internal contradictions within the movement will come to the fore – as we have seen with the APC. Additionally, a movement, such as that proposed by Obasanjo, is inherently unstable and suffers from problems of routinization because such movements are usually held together by one or two charismatic individuals. Once such leaders are no longer with the movement, it begins to crumble. Remarkably Obasanjo did not specify how such a movement will field candidates for offices and whether it will be lawful for movements that are not registered as political parties to contest for offices.
Five, it can also not be ruled out that at least part of the reasons for Obasanjo’s proposal for a Coalition for Nigeria is to ensure that his sworn enemy, Atiku Abubakar, if he emerges as the PDP’s presidential candidate, does not benefit from his move against Buhari. If this hunch is true, it raises questions of whether Obasanjo’s solution has been well thought-through or whether he will also turn on the beneficiaries of the movement soon afterwards – if he succeeds in removing Buhari.
Six, given Obasanjo’s excellent track record in bringing down any government he moves against and equally extremely poor track record in leadership recruitment (he has been dissatisfied with all the leaders he handpicked and anointed), it may be germane to find a way of harnessing Obasanjo’s skills in pulling down unpopular governments while making up for his poor skills in leadership recruitment. One solution may be the Alan Greenspan option:
Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States (the equivalent of our Central Bank) from 1987 to 2006, was once asked the secret of his success as ‘Washington’s resident wizard.’ His answer was that he always did the opposite of advice proffered by the IMF. May be since we know Obasanjo skill is in pulling down unpopular governments but not in leadership recruitment, we may move against anyone anointed by Obasanjo and choose from the pool of those he refuses to approve.
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