Obasanjo’s howitzer

Olusegun Obasanjo


Dr. Olusegun Obasanjo’s letter to President Muhammadu Buhari is, for me, an expression of tough love. Many Nigerians had, before now, commented on the government’s underperformance in various areas. They had complained about the snail-pace of the government, the lopsided appointments in the public service and the absence of a sense of urgency in dealing with matters of state. Apparently disenchanted with the goings-on within the ruling party and government a group that calls itself National Intervention Movement had emerged some months ago. This group considers itself as capable of providing, hopefully, a positive third force since the two major parties, APC and PDP, appear to have lost their way.

Obasanjo’s letter therefore contains nothing that many Nigerians have not said in the last one year about their frustrations with the apparent impotence of the Buhari government even in matters in which he is an expert such as security. The reason Obasanjo’s letter is causing a tsunami is the weight of the letter writer. Like him or loathe him, Obasanjo has a resonant voice, a baritone, in Nigerian affairs, because of his antecedents and achievements. He was a military Head of State and a two-time elected President who is on a first name relationship with many world leaders today. He has made his own string of mistakes and is by no means a saint but as admitted by the Buhari government he is a patriot. A patriot does not have to be an angel, and I see no angels in the Nigerian firmament.

Besides, Obasanjo has paid his dues. He fought in the Biafran war and lived to tell his story. He was thrown into the dungeon by General Sani Abacha on trumped up charges of coup plotting. He survived it. In the search for the Holy Grail of democracy, he organised a series of farm house dialogues at his Otta farm. He has written several books on Nigerian affairs and attended or organised several conferences, seminars or dialogues on Nigeria. So his knowledge of Nigerian affairs is deep. To treat his views disdainfully or dismissively would be a lazy response to his call for national introspection. The important thing is not to throw barbed shafts at him but to engage him on the ideas he has put on the table. Must he be a saint before he exercises his fundamental right to participate in our national dialogue? I don’t think so. I say to you, don’t shoot the messenger. Examine his message.

Obasanjo was one of those who championed the Buhari cause. He put his heavy weight behind Buhari before and after the election. But even at that time he told Nigerians that Buhari’s weakness would manifest itself in economic management and foreign affairs. He believed that the tall, thin man from Daura would do well in security and anti-corruption matters. He, it was who recommended one of Nigeria’s very experienced former super permanent secretaries, Ahmed Joda, for the headship of Buhari’s transition committee. To help the new president to find his bearing, Obasanjo also set up a team of experts headed by the Professor Akin Magobunje. The team submitted their thoughts on the hot button issues of the day. Buhari commended them for doing him that favour.

Obasanjo’s message has three components (a) That Buhari has not performed optimally apparently because of his poor health and or advanced age (Buhari is so far the oldest man to run Nigeria). (b) That Buhari should resist the temptation to run for a second term. (c) That the two leading parties APC and PDP have failed and that Nigeria needs a third force which he calls Coalition for Nigeria (CN). The Federal Government has responded through the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, in a sober and mature manner. It neither called Obasanjo “a wailing wailer” nor did it accuse him of looking for “settlement.” It did not repeat any of those inanely belligerent responses to public criticism of the government. It remained respectful and restrained in its response apparently because it realises that there is a large dose of truth in the retired general’s salvos. Or maybe it did not want to roll out its heavy artillery knowing full well that Obasanjo is a straight shooting, crotchety warrior who pulls no punches, takes no prisoners and is able to give as much as he receives. It has itemised the achievements of the government especially in the economic sector. However, it has left unanswered questions about the skewed appointments, the selective pursuit of alleged corrupt persons and the show of impotence in the management of the Fulani herdsmen’s casual adoption of violence as a problem solving strategy.

The Obasanjo letter has rocked the government and the ruling party with positive effects manifesting. The party which had been prevaricating on the issue of restructuring even after it reluctantly set up a committee on it has just woken up. The Committee Chairman and Governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, has surprisingly revealed the content of the report without a decision by the party. That is Obasanjo’s letter at work. The EFCC has now arrested the former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. Babachir Lawal, for alleged corrupt practices. That, too, is Obasanjo’s letter at work. It is likely that the government’s slow-foxtrot approach will give way to some sprinting now. The government had told Nigerians that when sworn in it would hit the ground running. But it rather hit the ground crawling. It took more than two years to set up its boards and when it did ghosts appeared on the list. It took six months to set up its Cabinet and when it did, no names were attached to portfolios. There were no whizkids from the Diaspora or young prodigies from within the country. Many of them were simply square pegs in round holes, a manifestation of the government’s disdain for expertise. Now the Senate has taken the right decision on this matter since 1999. It has decreed that the Federal Cabinet must be set up within 30 days of the President’s assumption of office with portfolio’s attached to the names of the nominees. That guarantees that the nominees will be properly grilled on the responsibilities of their ministries. But the issue of making some ministers superior and some inferior has been a source of friction since 1999. Many people thought Buhari would settle for 36 ministries and 36 substantive ministers without having Ministers of State serving under the substantive Minister. Some states whose indigenes are Ministers of State feel shortchanged. The Ministers of State themselves feel discriminated against and mount a war every inch of the way with the Minister. This internecine war can be eliminated by removing the dichotomy.

Until recently, I had the impression that the President had done fairly well in tackling the security issues confronting the country. The Chibok girls issue is an unhappy inheritance from the Goodluck Jonathan Government. It is a very complex issue to resolve because no force can be used without endangering the lives of those girls. My prescription has always been for the government to negotiate with the terrorists and get the girls home. I have heard some people say that the government should not negotiate with terrorists. This is a supremely insane principle because no life is worth sacrificing for some worthless principle. The government should intensify its efforts in bringing the remaining girls home by offering the terrorists whatever they want.

In the security sector, the Fulani herdsmen crisis is definitely a fly in our ointment. These fellows are seen everywhere carrying various impedimenta of murder. As bullets keep spitting out of the mouths of their guns, panic is spread everywhere. They have disdainfully despised uniformed authority and created enormous uncertainty and the perception that there is no government in place. The problem with the confrontation between the herdsmen and farmers arises from our failure to acknowledge the country’s diversity. On virtually every issue we prefer to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. This approach tends to ignore the cultural and territorial idiosyncracies of our peoples. The uniformisation of our policies cannot be a cure-all. My view is that the Federal Government should convoke a conference of stakeholders to find a multi-pronged and holistic approach that can satisfy all regions of the country. The attempt to impose a single policy, namely, colonisation has not been welcomed in the Southern states. They should be consulted on what can work for them. No uniform approach will solve the problem.

When state or regional leaders threaten to set up their own militia, or when they tell their citizens to defend themselves that signifies a collapse of governmental authority. It is also an indication of leadership failure in the discharge of its responsibilities to the people. The Federal Government needs to do a lot more to absolve itself of the charge of dereliction of duty or of complicity or condonment in this worrisome crisis. It carries in its womb the seeds of a national conflagration which would be a thankless addition to our current basket of burdens.

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Olusegun Obasanjo
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