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How wide is Obasanjo’s way out?
By Kayode Komolafe
Any response that is less than charitable to former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s yesterday’s “Special Statement” stands the grave risk of being misunderstood given the widespread mood of despair in the land. This is because of the complexity of the situation.
In the statement entitled “The Way Out: A Clarion Call for Coalition for Nigeria Movement,” Obasanjo calls for a third political force having ruled out the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) as forces capable of dealing with the problem at hand. Yet what the nation sorely needs is a critical engagement with the moment and its definitions from various perspectives. The mood also calls for a sincere political introspection.
To start with, the former President deserves a salute for his courage of conviction. His voice came yesterday when such a loud voice was needed from such quarters. The voice would doubtlessly resonate with many people who are legitimately displeased with the state of things. It was as someone put it, “Obasanjo said what the people want to hear and his statement is well timed.”
Now, the beauty of Obasanjo’s politics is that he has emerged as a historical figure that cannot be ignored in any circumstance. Maybe, that is because he is the luckiest political figure ever in Nigeria despite his moments of tribulations. Yesterday’s statement again justifies a tribute often paid to Obasanjo of which even his harshest critic cannot deny him: in any situation Obasanjo would stand up for Nigeria.
His entire career is a proof to this assertion. Obasanjo is as constant as the northern start on the side of national unity. That cannot be said of many political figures in Nigeria. President Muhammadu Buhari said this much in his contribution to a book of tributes published in 1995 to celebrate Obasanjo’s birthday while the General was imprisoned by General Sanni Abacha, who probably was preventing this sort of statement being made by Obasanjo about his regime. The book edited by Hans’s d’Orville is entitled Leadership in Africa. That is the stuff for a statesman’s profile.
So the wise thing to do is for political actors and even observers is not to dismiss Obasanjo’s powerful intervention. The statement should reinvigorate the needed national conversation at this time. There should be a critical reflection on Obasanjo’s own definition of the moment and his prescription of what should be done to solve the problem.
It is salutary that even at his age Obasanjo has put himself in redoubtable position of being part of the solution. After all, historically he has been a central part of the problem. It is important to stress that Obasanjo’s narrative of how Nigeria got wet in the rain is not a complete picture. Well, self-criticism may not be one of the virtues of Obasanjo. While his sharp criticisms of APC and PDP as well as the administrations that have come after him are quite valid, his answer to the question of where the rain began to beat this nation is not quite correct. In order to tackle the crisis of governance bedevilling Nigeria, that question should be answered honestly and fully.
For instance, an uncritical reader of the statement might go away with the impression that 1999-2007 was the Golden Age of economic management and politics in Nigeria. That would be a blurred reading of the nation’s recent economic and political history. In the statement, Obasanjo laments the state of underdevelopment and poverty in the land. No rational person can fault the grim picture he has painted. Who can deny the mass poverty, ignorance, disease, poor housing and hunger in the land? However, it is worth stressing that development is a process with stages. That is why in the developed capitalist world, contemporary leaders do not have to restart the stages of development already accomplished by their forebears.
Perhaps, if certain development efforts were accomplished at the stage when Obasanjo was responsible for governance, the succeeding administrations would not have to be repeating the same steps. Despite his best efforts at governance and the recorded achievements, Obasanjo’s economic management had its profound flaws. The Obasanjo administration only began to articulate an economic strategy during his second term. As a result, it was late in the day when he began to take the policy steps in some sectors and the programmes could not be consummated before his exit. The most poignant monument to this late policy implementation was, perhaps, in the power sector.
This legacy of failure is very conspicuous in the economy. Obasanjo came into office in 1999 in a Nigeria of poor electricity supply; by the time he left in 2007 there was hardly any improvement in the power sector. In 1999, Nigeria had the national shame of importing fuel; by the time Obasanjo left office the illogic of a crude-oil exporting country that is importing fuel continued. In his eight years, Obasanjo never took any remarkable step of infrastructural revamp. Even Obasanjo is on record to have admitted at the twilight of his administration that he was ashamed of the state of federal roads.
The collapse of public education continued steadily during those eight years due poor funding and an ill-conceived market solution to the problems of the social sector. His administration had a running battle with university teachers with intermittent strikes with the resultant effects on the quality of education. Joblessness defined the Obasanjo years just as it did in the periods before it and as it has defined the periods following it.
There was no appreciable poverty reduction during the period as Nigeria rated poor in the global Human Development Index. The story is the same in some other sectors. On the political front, the spectre of the allegation of a quest for a third term would continue to haunt his legacy. Above all, given his formidable political weight in 2007, if his management of the politics of succession had been imbued with the type of vision he now enunciates, maybe the post-Obasanjo political landscape would be different.
The historical opportunities of the eight years of Obasanjo as President and his huge political stature as a national rallying point placed him squarely at a vantage point to recast the political economy and enhance the polity. He failed in these respects.
For sure, the fact that Obasanjo failed to advance development in some areas does not disqualify him from making the sort of intervention he is making at the moment. Yes, Obasanjo is a positive force for national unity any day. On that note, his pronouncement could be as magisterial as much as possible. However, it is doubtful if he is suited to be the arrowhead of a third force for the type of change being canvassed in many serious quarters.
Obasanjo’s important statement would be read by many discernible minds with a lot of caveats. He is too prominent a figure in the old order for any fresh intervention to make him an exponent of change for the sake of progress. It is a contradiction that Obasanjo with his ideological mindset is now the symbol of a third force which hopes to draw on the demographic asset of the youth. In any case, his prescription is rather ambiguous. He says he is out of partisan politics, but the Coalition for Nigeria (CN) would aim at power employing the ballot. However, only registered political parties can field candidates for elections. Apart from the APC and PDP there are dozens other political parties waiting with their virtually empty political sacks to be filled with contents so that they can stand in 2019. So shouldn’t the energy, time and resources be put on strengthening the existing parties for elections rather forming fresh ad hoc coalitions?
In sum, Obasanjo is entitled to his own diagnosis of the Nigerian condition. He has fulfilled a patriotic duty by making this intervention. However, the way out of the problem that he has prescribed for Nigeria looks narrow. A wider way out is what is needed at this time. It is also important to put the prescription in the context of the recent history of this country in order to understand it better and possibly predict its efficacy.