Bigger Than Obasanjo And Ogbeh


Obasanjo and OgbehWe are accustomed with spoken and written words warning past and present Nigerian leaders of the declining conditions of our nation. However, the unique thing about the letter that the Peoples Democratic Party’s Chairman, Chief Audu Ogbeh’s wrote to President Olusegun Obasanjo is that it came from not just a member of the ‘family’ but its de facto head.

In the letter, which has very much become a scenery in public discourse, Chief Ogbeh wrote, “In life, perception is reality and today, we are perceived in the worst light by an angry, scornful Nigerian public for reasons which are absolutely unnecessary.” He made gloomy comparisons between this PDP-led government and the one led by the National Party of Nigeria that was vacated from office by the military in 1983. Chief Ogbeh subsequently warned, “I am afraid we are drifting in the same direction again” and called on the president to act because the buck stops on his table and he (Ogbeh) dared “to think that we can, either by omission or commission allow ourselves to crash and bring to early grief, this beautiful edifice called democracy.” And he is the Chairman of the party in power!

But before the military struck on December 31, 1983, another letter was written but this time by a leading opposition figure, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. In his letter to then President Shehu Shagari, dated July 1, 1981, Chief Awolowo wrote, “There is a frightful danger ahead visible for those who care and are patriotic enough to look beyond their narrow self-interest. Our ship of state is fast approaching a huge rock, and unless you, as chief helmsman, quickly rise to the occasion and courageously steer the ship away from its present course, it shall hit the rock. And the inescapable consequence will be an unspeakable disaster such as is rare in the annals of man.”

Ogbeh may not be an Awolowo but what is worrisome is that he is a leading member of the present ruling elite. After all, when Dr. Alex Ekwueme complained about the conduct of the 2003 presidential primaries in the PDP, Chief Ogbeh reminded him that no individual can lay claim to a monopoly of integrity and when Major General Muhammadu Buhari protested the conduct of the 2003 general elections and threatened mass action, Chief Ogbeh responded that the PDP had what it took to “crush” any such action.

But what unites both letters is that Awolowo implicitly drew attention to perception and Ogbeh was explicit about it.

As the President of the World Economic Forum, Prof. Klaus Schwab, once said, “success depends on perception.” I had written in the past that the present government must change the perception of the people to make reforms work. In another commentary, I warned that it is the sacred duty of the reforms agenda to ensure that democracy does not perish in Nigeria. Perception makes reforms and governance work. Leadership sustains perception.

Perception sustains democracy. That is why on that morning in December, 1983 as we heard martial music blaring from our radio sets and later a voice saying “I, Brigadier Sani Abacha, of the Nigerian Army address you this morning on behalf of the Nigerian Army . . . .”, we simply returned to our beds and finished our sleep. Nobody went out to the streets to protest or speak out for the civilian government that claimed to be a product of democracy because when the voice behind the broadcast referred “to the harsh, intolerable conditions under which we are now living”, Nigerians knew what he was talking about. The broadcast went on to articulate what we always knew about the government in power. In truth, perception is reality. It is the binding thread in the triangulation of people, policy and politics.

Sadly though, the military wrought an era of developmental barbarity on the nation such that the choice between civilian democratic rule and military autocratic rule is aphoristic, because, as is self-evident, democracy has in itself, ushered in some respect for human rights and the enhancement of individual freedoms. The military subsequently handed over power to civilians in 1999 to begin the hard work of rebuilding a traumatised nation on the foundations of democracy and economic development.

We did not expect President Obasanjo to transform Nigeria into a Singapore, Malaysia or even Botswana overnight. But Nigerians know a government that is working for them when they see one. The sad truth is that they do not see it in this government.

That is what happens when the pump price of fuel is increased ostensibly as a result of a rise in crude oil prices but there is no reduction when crude oil prices fall by as much as 25%. That is what happens when the president says with all authority that there is no abject poverty in the Niger-Delta region yet we know that abject poverty can be defined as that experienced by those who do not have enough food to remain healthy, a situation that is prevalent in the region and the rest of the country. That is what happens when the president (who retains the portfolio of petroleum minister) says that he did not know that kerosene costs more than petrol and orders a concomitant reduction but many weeks after the presidential order, kerosene still sells more than petrol (yet kerosene is the staple fuel of many Nigerians). That is what happens when the governor of Anambra State is not only abducted but the physical edifice of government in that state is desecrated and reduced to ruins and ashes. I can go on and on to point out the reasons why Finance Minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, ‘accused’ Nigerians of being “ungrateful”. We are becoming a country where Professor Pat Utomi wrote that “impunity is the norm”.

Democratic governance and constitutional rule are by nature conferred certain inherent and distinguishing features and characteristics as opposed to other forms of government. In a letter appointing his son, Abdullah, as Crown Prince in January 1999, late King Hussein of Jordan described his countrymen and the roles expected of the future king in words that are instructive to Nigerian leaders on Nigerians: “They have never shirked their duty and never disappointed their leadership and their nation as they have always been loyal to their nation and capable and ready to confront difficulties and challenges. (They) have the right to expect from their leadership to work for their present and future and to achieve for them a dignified life and the protection of their rights as provided for in the Constitution.” (Emphasis mine)

The most difficult tasks in a democracy are done by everybody but it is impossible without leadership and that is the democracy dividend that Nigerians have waited for. That is why the issues involved in the exchange of letters between President Obasanjo and Chief Ogbeh seem to be bigger than both of them. Nigeria is losing capital by the day. Many more Nigerians are losing faith in their country. A larger number of Nigerians no longer believe their government and the leaders. A lot of Nigerians will go to great lengths to leave this country and go anywhere. Social capital and values are in deep recession. There is a receding horizon.

But it is not late in the day to make hay while the sun shines. I draw inspiration from Turkey under current Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. He inherited what Newsweek International magazine’s Owen Matthews described as a dysfunctional police state and an economic basket case. Erdogan has only been in power for just 20 months but has led Turkey to turn the corner such that the country is now considered to be a very good candidate for entry into the European Union. Where there is a will, there is a way. Nigerians have the will and they expect the government to lead the way.

I am very worried about Chief Ogbeh’s comparisons between this government and the government that collapsed in 1983. I am also very worried that we are also in the mood to return to our beds and finish our sleep. This ought not to be so because democracy still needs defenders.

So, on behalf of his fellow Nigerians, the patriotic and well-meaning people of this great country, President Olusegun Obasanjo ought to do something about this raving despondency in the land, because it does not usually matter who may leave “penniless”.