Deconstructing the Obasanjo presidency
Such joy. It was that day in May 1999 when the evolution of the Nigerian nation-state took a remarkable turn with the inauguration of a civilian government. The day that marked the emancipation of the Nigerian people from the jackboots of military occupation that had suffused our polity since the overthrow of the Second Republic government of Alhaji Shehu Shagari.
Large-scale unemployment, a battered and grossly devalued naira, low capacity utilisation, a heavy debt burden, institutionalised corruption, high level of crime and debauchery, gross violation of human rights, a tattered foreign image as well as decayed social and physical infrastructure. These were all the relics of military brigandage. But, as General Matthew Olusegun Okikiola Aremu Obasanjo took office on May 29, 1999 as the elected President of Nigeria, they were suddenly his problems and the Nigerian people surrendered to him their hopes.
Forty-eight months after the ascendancy of President Obasanjo, the tenure of his presidency has been the subject of contextual debate.
It is often said that four years is too short a time to assess the Obasanjo presidency, but as Winston Churchill once said, “What is a short time in the history of a people is a long time in the life of a human being.” Therefore, I have chosen to assess my President during the period he has been steering the ship of state of this country of mine, and with all sense of responsibility, I might add.
I believe that President Obasanjo has done his job to the best of his ability. The rehabilitation of federal highways, introduction of the GSM telecommunications technology, accelerated implementation of the privatisation programme, aviation and port reforms and the improved supply of petroleum products are all the achievements of the Obasanjo presidency.
And then? After all, the Abacha military government embarked on a massive rehabilitation of federal highways, educational and health infrastructure using the Petroleum (Special) Trust Fund. The regime also sanitised the banking industry. The military administration of General Babangida moved us to the age of mobile and digital telecommunications, initiated the privatisation programme and constructed some vital infrastructure such as the second Port Harcourt refinery and the Aluminium Smelter Company. Even in the area of foreign relations, the present positive global perspective on Nigeria is usually attributed to President Obasanjo’s famed policy of waka-waka diplomacy and visits of international personalities to Nigeria, which are rated as major accomplishments. Lest we forget, General Babangida also visited several Western countries such as Britain, Germany, France, and Italy as a military president and was accorded equally warm receptions. General Abubakar even visited more countries than General Babangida did during his short reign. On the other hand, IBB not only hosted people like Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain; Vice President Dan Quayle of the United States of America; President Richard von Weizacker of West Germany; Prince Charles and Princess Diana – the Prince and Princess of Wales; as well as hosting the 1991 Summit of the Organisation of African Unity. He also, arguably, solely negotiated the job of the Secretary General of the United Nations for the African continent in his capacity as the Chairman of the Organisation of African Unity.
However, the choice between civilian democratic rule and military autocratic rule is aphoristic, because, as is self-evident, democracy has in itself, ushered in respect for human rights and the enhancement of individual freedoms.
So it may not really matter to this administration that after four years of Obasanjo’s rule the economy is still amuck, the value of the naira is still wretched, the agricultural sector is still in a comatose state, unemployment is still ravaging our population, vital infrastructures such as power supply are still bedridden, various forms of malfeasances still pervade the corridors of power and many more Nigerians still lack the basic needs of life while perpetually living in a state of fear.
Democratic governance and constitutional rule are by nature conferred certain inherent and distinguishing features and characteristics as opposed to other forms of government, primary of which is leadership.
Nigerians never desired leadership as much as they did on May 29, 1999. We wanted a human symbol of nationhood. On that day and the days after, Nigerians lavished their best forms of goodwill on President Olusegun Obasanjo.
To whom much was given, much was expected.
Democracy bestows an enduring confidence in man therefore Lord Bryce asserts that “perhaps no form of government needs great leaders as much as democracy”. Out of the bowels of democracy a leader emerges to inspire and motivate his people and challenge them to reach the commanding heights of their potentials as they assert their intelligibility. A leader offers the finest gifts of democracy. Leadership sustains democracy. This is the democracy dividend Nigerians have waited for. This is the democracy dividend Nigerians wanted from President Obasanjo. In response, he ordered soldiers into Odi and later Zaki-Biam; pestered the National Assembly; supervised the fraud during the PDP convention at Eagle Square in 1999; awarded the contract for the construction of the Abuja National Stadium without budgetary provisions; refused to implement Appropriation Acts he signed into law; perpetrated the Electoral Act fraud; told the displaced, homeless and crying victims of the Ikeja Cantonment bomb blasts to “shut up!”; wrought confusion on the conduct of the Local Government elections as at when due by refusing to release funds to INEC for the review of voters’ register; watched officers of the Nigeria Police go on strike, for the first time in the history of Nigeria, over non-payment of salaries; “loves to travel and occasionally visits Nigeria” (according to Chief Peter Enahoro); continually disrespects constitutional limitations on power while perpetually exhibiting a messianic complex conduct; among other presidential absurdities. Today, about 80% of Nigerians still live below the poverty line and it is safe to say that 50% of Nigerians live in abject poverty.
For four years, President Obasanjo was unable to communicate his vision in a language that ought to promote the tone of our politics. He does not exhibit the capacity for persuasion in order to win the consent of the governed. He does not recognise or appreciate the desirability and inevitability of dissent and opposition to check the intrinsic delusions of power.
However, all these whimsicalities pale in comparison to the recently conducted elections, now rightly referred to as 4/19. Unknown to the President, 4/19 and the days after will erode much of what is left of his goodwill.
Very few Nigerians occupy President Obasanjo’s place in our national psyche, history and what we have to offer the world. As a respected nationalist and revered international statesman, the onus was heavily on him do whatever it would have taken to deliver a semblance of free, fair and transparent elections.
Early last year, a knowledgeable analyst was so captivated by President Obasanjo’s place in Nigeria’s electoral history that he posited that, should the President ensure free, fair and transparent elections, he would be standing between a golden stool and a golden bed. If he wins, he goes back and sits on his golden stool, if he loses, he will proceed to lie on a golden bed. Either way, he would be ‘on gold’. That analysis stuck in my mind as we prepared for the elections. After 4/19, I called him and he could not hide his utter disappointment at one ‘golden’ opportunity flung away. Our President opted to hold on to power, by hook or by crook. In doing so, he showed the entire world that he was no different from other African maximum rulers of his generation and ilk such as Gnassingbe Eyadema, Mobutu Sese Seko, Robert Mugabe, Blaise Campaore, Yoweri Museveni and the rest. Recall that he vehemently detested any comparison with Nelson Mandela early last year.
During the run-up to his election as President in 1999, Candidate Obasanjo’s publicists presented him as “the leader we can trust” in appreciation of the vital role trust plays in leadership. Just the other day, I was reading an essay to the 2002 World Economic Forum by Jim O’Toole, a Research Professor at the University of Southern California in the United States of America and titled ‘Re-evaluating Leadership and Governance’. In it, he described trust as the “secret ingredient” of leadership. In the essay he writes, “In practice, trust is created by the behaviour of leaders toward followers: when leaders treat followers with respect, followers respond with trust. Leaders show their respect by always treating followers as ends in themselves – and never as means to achieve their own ego or power needs, or even to achieve the legitimate goals of the organisation.” He also submits that when followers trust their leaders, they are more willing to stick their necks out, make an extra effort, and put themselves on the line to help achieve organisational goals. I wonder and ask myself, how many Nigerians can really, at this time, stick their necks out, make that extra effort, and put themselves on the line to make President Obasanjo achieve national goals? Little wonder the next Obasanjo campaign impedimenta opted to avoid a replay of the ‘trust’ phrase in his campaign for re-election. They now know better. We all do.
As a people, we can do without the inadequacies of President Obasanjo. All the same, as must be pointed out, he honestly believes that he is doing his job to the best of his ability and understanding, which demands that he exercises power but not exert influence; exacts compliance and not consent; has an entourage and not a following; and is surrounded by subordinates and not imitators.
We know a free and fair election when we see one. This is no democracy neither is this a democratic government. To the realist it will just be a civilian government and to an idealist it will be a constitutional government but definitely not a government of the people, for the people and by the people.
He may remain as our President, but he will never be revered as our leader.