The Nigerian Statesman That Never Was

The Nigerian Statesman That Never Was
Olusegun Obasanjo, former President of Nigeria from 1999 to 2007

‘Treachery with a smile,’ were the words Margaret Thatcher could summon when describing arguably the most bitter moment of her political career, after one-by-one, her cabinet ministers effectively told her it was finished. As far as Thatcher loyalists are concerned, their great leader was ‘stabbed in the front.’ Thus, a cold morning in November 1990 saw the Iron Lady bid farewell to a country she had wholly dedicated her life to, for good or for ill.

In Nigeria, we also had a leader who dedicated a significant amount of his life to service for good or ill. In his second and third coming, he was the undisputed 'gaffer' who commanded respect both at home and abroad. For the few who dared to annoy him, he managed to strangle political life from their throats, which saw his former deputy later leave the ruling party to lead another.

Another giant of history, Winston Churchill, said that history will justify him because he planned to write it. Indeed, history has continually been written by victors in whichever space they occupy, and countless autobiographies and political memoirs have attempted this feat with varying degrees of success. The Downing Street Years is the title of the memoirs in which Lady Thatcher had her final say. In the chapter titled ‘Men in Lifeboats’, Thatcher derided men like Geoffrey Howe, who played a critical role in 'front-stabbing' her. She referred to Howe’s fateful speech as an act of ‘bile and treachery.’

Tragically, one book that will not lie in the great archive of political memoirs is President Obasanjo’s My Watch, which is unfortunate for a strong Nigerian leader with much to say. In 1999, Nigeria emerged from the dark shackles of oppressive military regimes to an uncertain future. Given the spectacular failures of previous democratic governments to command the confidence of the country, democracy brought a dark cloud of history with it – one that all too often ended in bloodshed and the emergence of another military junta. A stability candidate emerged, and that is how people of my generation (Y) began our relationship with politics and with it, President Obasanjo. We were free from baggage – we shared no memories with Easterners, who remember General Obasanjo won the last decisive battle of the Biafra War; we bore no grudge like that of the Ransome-Kuti’s who see Obasanjo as responsible for the action of soldiers who killed their matriarch.

In his second coming, Obasanjo’s record in government was a mixed one. There were macroeconomic successes – technocrats brought into government and an enabling policy environment, without which GSM may not exist. Politically, his shrewd manoeuvres and firm hand are widely regarded to have kept Nigeria from any regression to war or coups. His longevity, gravitas and anti-apartheid fervour from the 70’s also gave him and in turn, Nigeria, some international clout. Even with the corruption that flourished in that period and a succession plan which we now appreciate for its sinister feebleness, Obasanjo had something of a record to defend.

With this in mind, it is easy to see him as a slightly flawed statesman worthy of admiration. After-all, perhaps he embodies some of our collective vices as Nigerian 'big men' - brashness and a penchant for philandering. This is all until you encounter his memoirs! Pervaded by the most petty gibes and discourteous personal insults, it reads like the high school diary of a popular girl who discovers that her followers on the cheer-leading team did not actually like her much.

Obasanjo claims that one of his most loyal ministers, Nasir El-Rufai, piled the 'greatest insult' on him by accusing him of driving a third-term agenda. El-Rufai's book, Accidental Public Servant, is filled with huge amounts of praise for Obasanjo for recruiting technocrats like himself and Obiageli Ezekwesili, and using his clout to protect them politically. Furthermore, El-Rufai praises him for decisive leadership but saves criticism for the third-term issue, where he states that the President was encouraged to pursue a third-term agenda by selfish factions and was somewhat complicit.

In response, President Obasanjo wrote "...I do not hesitate to point to Nasir's naivety and immaturity... and his inability to sustain loyalty for long." Not only is this poor writing, it is probable that Obasanjo's presidential library in Ota may be missing a copy of El-Rufai's book. Obasanjo called him "...a pathological purveyor of untruths... with... no regard for integrity." Tragically, the President went on to call himself a statesman just three sentences later. Not only is that claim made ludicrous by the other contents of the page, being a statesman is like being cool, it should not be self-proclaimed. Well, in statesman-like fashion, he finished off with fine rhetoric: 'he is...nauseating' and a victim of 'small man syndrome.'

El-Rufai is just one of a few that got this noble treatment, and Vice-President Atiku and President Jonathan are the focus of similar diatribes. However, El-Rufai makes for a good case study because, unlike the others, he openly admires Obasanjo. While Obasanjo characterised Atiku as a 'shameless liar,' and an 'ambitious but unwise... impatient deputy,' it has always been clear that they had deep problems. With former President Jonathan, he describes him as the weakest leader Nigeria ever had (and much more), using the same personal insulting approach. Thereby, he does not just ridicule a man but an important office. At least, that office should be worthy of some respect from a 'statesman.'

None of these four men are without flaws, but Thatcher has shown us that there are ways to strongly express fury without resorting to juvenile language. Unfortunately, too many of us will say that 'that is how Baba is' or that it is authentic to get personal. However, we will be a better country when we learn to acknowledge nonsense when we see it, regardless of who it is from. First his ex-wife, and then his daughter and son lashed out against his character and actions, but we were comforted by the thought that their issues are truly personal. While it was at least clear that he was no family man, his own memoirs confirm a darker truth: he is no statesman.


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Afiola Etomi

Afiola Etomi

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