The trial of Olusegun Obasanjo
By Reuben Abati
THE on-going House of Representatives probe of expenditures in the power sector during the Obasanjo years has so far resulted in mind-boggling revelations about the abuse of due process, award of contracts to non-existing companies; the use of illegal Special Purpose Vehicles, misappropriation of public funds, and a gross failure of leadership. Reading the reports of the testimonies before the House of Reps Committee on Power, or watching the proceedings on television, many Nigerians cringe in utter frustration.
The power sector probe is the latest in a series of efforts apparently aimed at a systematic dismantling of the Obasanjo era, and the explosion of the myths upon which that government hoisted its claim to importance. The Obasanjo government advertised itself as a government that was committed to due process, transparency and integrity. President Obasanjo, with the EFCC as vehicle, was a corruption cop in power.
Gradually, however, Nigerians are being shown with facts, figures and words, that at work for eight years, under the former President is a tyranny of hypocrisy. The power sector, where $16 billion was allegedly spent and no result was recorded, with the nation in perpetual darkness is only a tip of a shaky iceberg. If the probe were to be extended to other sectors of the economy, it is easy to imagine that more myths would collapse. Former stakeholders in that government are being summoned by the House of Representatives to give evidence. I used the word "systematic" earlier. I do so advisedly. It is as if there is an organised attack on the Obasanjo government by the same government that he helped to bring to power.
This began very early in the life of the Yar'Adua administration with the reversal of some of the policies of the Obasanjo government. President Yar'Adua had campaigned on a platform of continuity. He is not continuing with anything. He has not started anything of his own, but he is subjecting the past to a searing dissection. Obasanjo - his persona, his legacy, his leadership - that is what is on trial. Students of leadership and management should find in the Obasanjo story, an interesting case study on power and leadership.
Why is the Yar'Adua government taking the Obasanjo government apart and exposing it to ridicule? I can hazard two guesses. One, Yar'Adua who began his career as President as Obasanjo's anointed candidate needs to prove that he is his own man, not Obasanjo's puppet. What better way to assert himself than to distance himself from the past? Two, it is possible that President Yar'Adua has been confronted with so much that is rotten in the Obasanjo government that he feels a sense of duty, if not patriotism, to remove the mask and put an end to Obasanjo's grandstanding.
Hence, many of the things done under President Obasanjo are being upturned: the sale of government houses, the monetisation of benefits for public servants; the revocation of plots of land in Abuja, the sale of refineries... And every step that has been taken in these regards by the Yar'Adua government has been met with broad-based public approval. In addition, the de-mystification of Obasanjo on all fronts, has emboldened those who feel aggrieved towards him to take potshots at him.
How does Obasanjo feel? What is going on in his mind? He has been quoted as boasting that he "dey kampe". But is he? Does he not feel hurt? Does he not feel betrayed by a man he had made President because he considers him family and believes he would help to preserve his legacy? Does he not feel helpless, seeing how he has lost his troop of old loyalists? Every leader looks forward to being honoured and accepted after leaving office. Obasanjo, all of a sudden, is a lonely man. His persona is under assault. His legacy is unravelling. His enemies are rolling on the floor holding their ribs as they try to stifle an unending flow of laughter from their throats. I have met only very few people who express any form of pity.
Besides the probe of his government and the exposure of its limitations, there is trouble on the home front too. Obasanjo's beloved daughter who is now a Senator has been associated with a number of controversial deals. Her father of course, is the main target. His son, the most visible of his sons while he was in office, has also accused Obasanjo of incest - of having an affair with his wife, and giving her contracts as compensation. There is problem in the community too. When President Obasanjo was quoted as having said he was trapped in the traffic between Sango-Ota where he lives and Lagos, a concerned public felt he should blame himself. In the course of a trip to Ekiti state, he was booed by his audience.
Across Yorubaland, his ethnic constituency, there are very few places where Obasanjo can give a speech in public and expect an ovation. He is most likely to be heckled. Within his political party, the People's Democratic Party (PDP), the situation is the same, here the storm is heavy. In the run-up to the PDP National Convention held in Abuja on March 8, it will be recalled that General Obasanjo in his position as Chairman of the party's Board of Trustees had openly campaigned for some candidates and particularly for Dr. Sam Egwu, former Governor of Ebonyi state, whom he wanted as Chairman of the Party. This incensed many members of the party.
Obasanjo's main supporter was Alhaji Lamidi Adedibu who boasted that Obasanjo would have his way. On March 8, both men were made to eat their words. A section of the party is even agitating for a review of the party's Constitution and Obasanjo's removal as Chairman of the BOT. In the past, no one would dare oppose Obasanjo. He held both the party and the country under his grip. His word was law. But now, on a daily basis, Obasanjo is being reminded that he no longer wields power. He had used power so viciously that Nigerians whenever they are privileged to do so, feel obliged to remind him of the change in his status. March 5 was his 71st birthday; there were very few congratulatory adverts in the papers.
When he turned 70 in 2007, the Baba-kee-pe adverts in the papers were so many. At a recent event in remembrance of his late friend and colleague, General Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, Chief Tony Anenih who was asked to give the opening prayer, had turned the prayer into a verbal assault on Obasanjo who was present at the occasion. Anenih had prayed that God should grant President Yar'Adua the courage to investigate the rot left behind by the previous administration. Anenih's prayer may reflect public sentiments, but he, Anenih is part of the rot that he was praying about. He used to be Obasanjo's friend.
For the better part of the Obasanjo era, Anenih was known as "Mr. Fix-It." He helped to fix most of the rot. If Anenih's prayer must be answered, the probe that he called for must include putting him in the box and asking him to account for the over N350 billion that was allegedly spent on Nigerian roads under his watch as Minister of Works and Housing. He'd need to explain what happened to all that money with Nigerian roads still in a state of disrepair. Anenih's attack on Obasanjo clearly shows the depth of Obasanjo's loss of goodwill.
Everyone is taking potshots at him - the most vicious in recent times coming from Col. Abubakar Umar and General T.Y. Danjuma. And the most damaging coming from security men at Aso Villa who at a post-PDP Convention Dinner on March 9, forced him to queue up for dinner according to the order of protocol. Twice, he was reportedly returned to his seat and asked to wait! He tries to bluff his way through either by ignoring the attacks or by fighting back. But Obasanjo is in a position of weakness. His humiliation, I repeat, is self-inflicted. In his days as President, the Nigerian mass media had tried so hard to tell Obasanjo the truth. But he and his aides were intolerant of criticism.
President Obasanjo not only called journalists names in official speeches, he even once declared that he does not read Nigerian newspapers! Obasanjo as President had a problem of style. He was a dictator in a democratic system of government. He ended up burning his bridges. But his greatest shortcoming: he was surrounded by a group of sycophants who told him what he wanted to hear, so they could pursue their own selfish agenda. They called him Baba. They told him he was the father of modern Nigeria. They advised him to seek a Third Term in office. They told him he was the best political leader since Winston Churchill. Anytime journalists criticised his government or any of his policies, they told him they had information that the journalists were looking for money or positions. And he believed them. These were the Obasanjo boys and girls, the inner caucus, the special team. They were voluble, abusive, unduly aggressive and terribly rude. They behaved as if they knew it all.
They are the architects of the rot that is now being associated with the Obasanjo era. And not surprisingly, they are not speaking up to defend the man. They are conveniently silent. They cannot be bothered. But this is easy to explain: Obasanjo is no longer in a position to help them; and they do not want to offend the new man in power. If Yar'Adua offers them a job tomorrow, they will jump at it with the enthusiasm of a goat.
But the bigger problem for Obasanjo is his loss of face in the international arena. When he left office in 1979, he immediately became the beautiful bride of the international community. Everyone wanted to meet the man who ended years of military rule in Nigeria. He was rewarded for his faith in democracy. Nigerians also loved him: they called him "Uncle Sege. They laughed at his jokes. The media promoted him as an African statesman. Today, the same international community is ignoring him. Nobody has invited him to mediate in Darfur, or Kenya or Zimbabwe. With his government's mismanagement of the 2007 elections, nobody is inviting Obasanjo to give a lecture on democracy, good governance and national development. With the rot in the power sector (Where was the EFCC, by the way?. Where was the National Assembly then?) and the scandal of his alleged involvement with his daughter-in-law, nobody is asking OBJ to pontificate on transparency and integrity as he would have wished. If anyone is still laughing at his jokes, these would be his workers at the Ota farm. To have been given so much and yet to have lost so much: this is the tragedy of Obasanjo's adventures in power.
However, the Yar'Adua government may be busy helping to expose the misadventures of the Obasanjo years, but that is not enough. This government must go beyond histrionics and staging a little grandstanding of its own. It should set up a judicial panel of inquiry. Besides, when will the Yar'Adua government begin to initiate its own programmes and show the capacity to deliver on its promises? It is now accepted knowledge that so much was wrong with Obasanjo's style and with his government and the hypocrisy of his loud-mouthed assistants. But Yar'Adua, please do something.