By Duro Onabule
In any society, anybody of the status of former President Olusegun Obasanjo would be a national asset, revered for carriage, self-respect and diplomacy. They abound all over the world – Jimmy Carter, George Bash snr., Bill Clinton, George Bush jnr, and very soon Barack Obama (United States) John Major, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown (Britain) as well as former German Chancellors, ex-prime ministers or former presidents of various European countries. On this score, even lately, Africa can boast of the Thabo Mbekis, John Kuffours, Abdou Diouf, Abdoulwaye Wade and Malawi’s Joyce Banda.
Here in Nigeria, we have General Yakubu Gowon, former President Shehu Shagari, ex-President Ibrahim Babangida and former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar. There is a level of conduct largely common to these statesman and women, which they all strive to maintain. Anything lower is bound to generate controversy. That is the lot of Obasanjo, with members of Nigeria’s National Assembly who, led by Senate President Bukola Saraki, have thumbed him down.
One lesson from Aesops fables is that “those who assume the character that does not belong to them always betray themselves by overacting it.” That is a major mistake Obasanjo makes in craving for some distinction, as a letter writer. In the First Republic, politicians, especially Nnamdi Azikiwe and Obafemi Awolowo wrote themselves largely to humour their respective supporters. But those were active politicians, struggling for power and were seen as exercising legitimate campaign tactics.
In contrast, Awolowo in 1981 wrote a well-meaning open letter to the then President Shehu Shagari, expressing concern on the deteriorating economic situation. Even though Awolowo’s concern was not even ignored by Shehu Shagari but by NPN leadership under A.M.A. Akintoye, yet, that was the only letter Awolowo wrote, maintained his dignity and public respect, as he waited for time to vindicate him.
The national impact of Awolowo’s open letter to Shehu Shagari obviously was not lost on Obasanjo, who now believes; rather wrongly that he is copying Awolowo. Desperation to be recognised as an intellectual or philosopher is quite noble. Self-assumption as a saint is also legitimate. But when that self-proclamation is stretched to the ONLY saint Nigeria ever had, Obasanjo’s critics will always take him down. His books, My Command and Not My Will, contain such revulsive self-glorification.
Hence, war veterans like Brigadier-General Alabi Isama, who really experienced fireworks have had to, in their memoirs, produce a truer picture.
When Awolowo wrote his open letter to President Shagari, he (Awolowo) was on safe ground as nobody could fault him for maladministration or ruining the economy as ex-premier of the defunct western region or federal commissioner for Finance under General Gowon’s regime.
Virtually every recognised Nigerian leader had, at one time or another come under Obasanjo’s hammer – Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Shehu Shagari, Aminu Kano, Ibrahim Waziri, General Gowon, General Buhari, General Babangida and even General Abdulsalami Abubakar, the man who released him from prison and pardoned him to make him eligible for Aso Rock. On BBC television Obasanjo described the late President Umaru Yar’Adua, while still in office, as a good man but “that does not make him a competent President.” Yar’Adua’s offence? He reversed some of Obasanjo’s policies, the very same decision Obasanjo took on policies of his predecessors when he (Obasanjo) assumed office in 1999.
Exchange of letters between Obasanjo and ex-president Goodluck Jonathan is unforgettable with Obasanjo going to town on allegations of corruption against his successors. Restraining his aides from responding, Jonathan eventually dazed Obasanjo with counter implied allegation of corruption, specifically on the Halliburton issue, which Jonathan said was the subject of careful/special investigations. Obasanjo said henceforth, he would make no further comments on his polemics with Jonathan.
Perhaps, Obasanjo is well intentioned in his written criticisms of his successors, such should not necessarily be made public or the idea is created that the whole effort is aimed at remedying media attention deficit. Also, the crude language of such criticisms will always not merit the necessary serious attention or response from those concerned. Obasanjo disclosed last time that he was making his letter to Jonathan public because he had no response from Jonathan. That was still wrong. In his eight years tenure as an elected president, did Obasanjo receive written criticisms of his administration from any of his predecessors? None of them tried to run his government for him.
If he received such written criticisms, did he ever respond or did any such critic (among his predecessors) ever go public thereafter? Did Obasanjo accept criticisms of his administration? More damaging is the fact that Obasanjo renders himself vulnerable by the dent of his tenure as an elected president. What is more, all over the world (see the list above), no past leader interferes in the administration of his successors. Only recently, former American President, George Bush jnr., was asked by journalists to comment on an on-going political controversy; he declined on the ground that he had served his time. Why does Obasanjo keep dancing round new administrations? Does Thabo Mbeki constitute himself into a lecturer for Jacob Zuma in South Africa? Do Ghana’s past leaders, Jerry Rawlings and John Kuffour, breathe over the necks of their successors?
The response of the National Assembly, reminding Obasanjo of the level of corruption in his days at Aso Rock is surely not an excuse to justify today’s inconsiderate opulent remuneration of National Assembly members. Unfortunately, again, Obasanjo’s tenure always renders him K-legged in his criticisms of corruption. Under Obasanjo, House Speaker, Ghali Na’Abba, was considered too independent-minded. Nigerians were, therefore, shocked when seven members of House of Representatives displayed half a million naira each, which they described as bribe from Aso Rock (occupied by President Obasanjo) to influence the impeachment of the House leadership.
Following moves by the House of Representatives to probe the allegation, some members were induced to challenge their colleagues in a court. The traitors were granted a perpetual injunction, which, till today, halted the probe. What happened to the total sum of three and half million naira?
There was the Senate probe led by Ndoma Egba into the accounts of Petroleum Training Development Fund (PTDF), which reported that a quarter of a billion naira was taken from that account to pay Obasanjo’s personal lawyer. The money was never refunded. Similarly, National Assembly members each reportedly was mobilised with fifty million naira in the vain attempt to keep Obasanjo in power beyond the constitutional tenure of two terms. The saviour was the (then) Senate President, Ken Nnamani, who insisted on live media coverage of the fateful proceedings of the combined National Assembly to enable Nigerians see from the comfort of their houses whoever were their representatives, leading them into the potential serfdom of the third term agenda.
Towards the end of his administration, Obasanjo rushed through series of contracts for refurbishing various teaching hospitals. One of the contracts was awarded to an Austrian firm for the sum of N29 billion. Suddenly, a consultant to the Austrian firm emerged in the person of Obasanjo’s daughter, Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello, who, at that time, was Commissioner for Health, Ogun State. That was conflict of interest, since code of conduct bars a public office holder from engaging in private business. To worsen matters, Obasanjo’s daughter falsely obtained a Nigerian passport in the name of her grandmother. Was the grandmother alive at that time? If so, how old was she, and what was the age on Iyabo’s passport obtained with false declaration of documents?
That was at a time Obasanjo was harassing General Abacha’s children to refund money alleged to have been looted. As correct as that might be, should an offspring of Obasanjo have been caught in criminal transaction? Such incident in a decent society, would have led to Obasanjo’s resignation. But with the posture of the “ONLY SAINT” in Nigeria, nothing of such happened. Should the daughter of President Muhammadu Buhari or daughter of Senate President Saraki be so indicted today, Obasanjo, as he is wont, would even have forgotten his own past on the same issue and would have considered it his public duty to write another letter. That is the irritating hypocrisy that makes it convenient for those on the receiving end of Obasanjo’s stricture to remind him (Obasanjo) that issues of corruption in the present dispensation commenced and thrived under Obasanjo’s eight years, as elected president.
If at the level of Obasanjo’s daughter, a serving Commissioner for Health at that, a public office holder, could engage in such corrupt tendencies – false declaration to obtain international passport, Nigeria’s image can only be imagined, not just at the Austrian embassy but all European and American embassies in Nigeria. Corruption does not come worse, moreso in the desperation to secure commission as an emergency consultant to a foreign company awarded by Nigerian government.
Asked on a BBC television programme, HARD TALK, to explain this particular corruption scandal, Obasanjo blackmailed the interviewer, Steven Suckur, that he (Obasanjo) was being so humiliated because he is an African leader. Obasanjo was lucky that his interviewer was the urbane Steven Suckur. Another BBC journalist, ruthless Jeremy Paxman, would have insisted for the next two minutes that Obasanjo should answer the question.
All said, National Assembly members cannot escape the criticisms of corruption and abuse of office. Why, for example, is the House of Representatives probing an alleged bribe of fifty million naira each to members? For what purpose is the bribe? And why is the probe in secret? These are some of the related pungent questions reporters should have asked Senate President Saraki rather than the “arrangee” questions on Obasanjo’s letter. Afterall, Saraki’s foot-soldiers in the Senate and House of Representatives already repulsed Obasanjo’s hostile shots.
The issue is not that Obasanjo’s observations on corruption in the National Assembly are misplaced but that with his clay feet, Obasanjo is not well-suited for that task. The conduct of National Assembly members in our current economic emergency is that of some foreigners, who are neither prepared nor should be compelled to experience the sacrifice Nigerians are being called upon to make.
Billions of naira set aside to purchase vehicles for members and chairmen of various committees? Who is that member of National Assembly not included in the membership of the committees?
The last word from President Buhari was that there is no money for such luxury. We are waiting.