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Obasanjo’s Last Stand



In most parts of the world, adopting democratic rule is enough to sustain a plural, multicultural and multi religious society. A few countries though adopt additional majors that are peculiar to them. The best example of that maybe Lebanon where the president has to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister Sunni Muslim and the speaker Shia. Changes in demographics had early pushed the country to a civil and today it still pushes its politics to the edge. What keeps it in check however is that this formula is protected by the constitution. Nigeria’s constitution offers no real recognition to differences in identity but yet it’s politics is dominated by these very differences. The rise of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo in the politics of Nigeria is in so many ways synonymous  with the conjuring up of the idea of zoning or rotating the office of president between the six geographical zones and in particular, the major tribes of the country. While the idea still has no constitutional basis and defies the logic of democracy where the majority gets to rule, it was a way of keeping the peace in the short term in a country fraught with ethnic and religious tensions and rivalries. The long term impact is another matter entirely.
But the making of the man Obasanjo is also so much more than placating one ethnic group. His rise in part has been symbolic of the dominance of the military over all aspects of governance and at the same time, a search for a religious balance in the make up of the country’s leadership. It’s a story of first a military officer, then politician handpicked, for the sole purpose of serving the needs of others, to be the representative of one social grouping against the dominance of another. It was why he was selected as number two to former military head of state Murtala Mohammed, subsequently succeeding him in that position in the late 1970s and it was why his former military colleagues picked him to be president back in 1999. But it was in his second coming that saw him dismantle the structures that helped his benefactors maintain a dominance in the polity, a dominance that to some extent was shaped by ethnicity, religion, geography and the military uniform.

In a way, Olusegun Obasanjo can be described as the architect of modern day Nigerian politics. It was under his guidance that the country adopted the presidential system of governance back in 1979 and he has dominated the politics of the country for close to 20 years now; a godfather-like role of dominance he inherited from Ibrahim Babangida who himself served as president for eight years. On Babangida’s part, it wasn’t until he failed to win the PDP presidential ticket for the 2011 elections, an outcome Obasanjo was partly responsible for, that he realized it was time for him to throw in the towel. As for Obasanjo, his influence is waning and his last ditch effort to have President Muhammadu Buhari replaced maybe an attempt to slow the inevitable. But there is confusion about where Obasanjo is heading with his politics, starting from the point where he encouraged Jonathan to run for president against the misgivings of the founding members of his party who had crafted the idea of zoning. Obasanjo was particular in restricting his support for Jonathan to just one term, believing it would settle the minority issue, which is where the confusion arises. He has never really explained what he meant by that. But it almost suggests a need to get minority tribes out of the way after which the major blocks would now fight each other for dominance.

Muhammadu Buhari on the other can be described as the opposite of all that Obasanjo represents. Buhari shows no inclination to being a political godfather or placing his lackeys in strategic positions across the length and breathe of the country to carry out his will when called upon. As military head of state, Buhari was the very face of dominance of the northern  establishment rather than its proxy. That image alone is enough to fuel resentment among those who see the rule of everything he represents as oppression and a disorder. And as an elected president, it was in defiance of the established order set up by former military colleagues. His own second coming was by popular demand succeeding against all odds and if he is dismantling anything, it is a corrupt order.

Buhari and Obasanjo also share different politics and governing styles. Obasanjo is more inclined towards disregarding constitutional order and breaching processes so as to impose his will. The former president has himself suggested that Africa needs both strong institutions and strong leaders pretending not to understand that one always has to give way to the other. Breaching the electoral process weakens all the institutions involved, the political party, electoral umpire and the judiciary while strengthening the leader. On the other hand, a leader who respects the process and accepts that he can’t always have his way strengthens electoral institutions. Within the PDP, when and where did Obasanjo ever allow a free and fair process in conducting party primaries either at the state or federal levels? The election that brought Buhari to power in 2015 may have been the best thing to have happened to the country’s democracy considering that an incumbent accepted defeat. In Nigeria, it is something that happens only once in a lifetime.

Tying Buhari to Fulani herdsmen who have been on a killing spree in recent times has been a key strategy in raising opposition to the president. But the resentment felt towards a president identified as Fulani is enough for Obasanjo to believe he is more popular, accepted and trusted by the majority of Nigerians. Today, Obasanjo has supposedly quit partisan politics and is living in retirement. Yet he wants to search for a new president or he at least believes the country needs his help to search for one. Chances are high he already has in mind who he wants as replacement to Muhammadu Buhari as president. Going by the PDP presidential primaries he presided over for the 2007 elections, he alone will decide the nominees for president and vice president. He has finally decided on a political platform, ADC after initially vowing not to engage in partisan politics. He will naturally go through the motions of organizing party primaries in his new party with a show of an open and fair process but will ultimately ensure that his chosen candidate emerges victorious. As expected, he will extract from the candidate the promise to serve only one term in office. Though it is a lot to ask of any candidate, it is a promise most politicians will accede to before being elected to office only to later renege on that promise.

Assuming that the chosen one would be a Northern candidate, Obasanjo will most probably insist on Olagunsoye Oyinlola being the vice presidential nominee. Back in 2014, it was a condition he gave the then opposition APC for his support. Oyinlola had to be Buhari’s running mate. Of course the APC did not deem his support important enough to concede the vice presidential slot to Obasanjo. Besides, he had already committed himself on working against Jonathan. And more importantly there was an understanding between Bola Tunibu and Buhari that they would be running a joint ticket as it was the whole point why APC was formed. Obasanjo was instrumental in setting the public against such an arrangement over objections to the Muslim-Muslim ticket. Back in 2010/2011, virtually every single candidate for president made the promise to spend a single term in office, it was one Buhari made. Atiku Abubakar and even Ibrahim Babangida vowed to serve only one term and according to Obasanjo so did Jonathan. It was a promise that would ultimately ruin Jonathan because a number of prominent politicians, particularly governors who also fancied themselves as president set their sights on replacing him and they had four whole years to plan for it. It was Obasanjo that drafted Jonathan into the presidential race in the first place against the wishes of the seasoned politicians like Adamu Ciroma along with other party stalwarts, and it was Obasanjo that led the charge in PDP to unseat him.

From the choices he has made since emerging as civilian president in 1999, it can be inferred that Obasanjo has a grand vision of where he wants Nigerian politics headed towards in the next couple of decades and his own place in it. It centers around gradually altering the balance of power between the regions and six geo-political zones. But whether it is further aggravating the country’s many divisions and fault lines or easing them is up for debate. Giving power to any group be it military, ethnic or religious is no different from giving an individual. It is hard to relinquish and when you do, you want it back immediately. Even more questionable is whether it is sustainable for a democracy to be hinged on minority rule in the long term without constitutional guarantees. It is the poor prospects and thoughts of this path being unsustainable that drive ideas of ethnic nationalities and restructuring even though they are ideas that promise a bleak future for everyone. The influence that the former president wields today in Nigeria stems from the eight years he was able to spend as president. Never mind that he spent his first term in office globetrotting and making friends around the world, which in turn made him very unpopular at home.

He became so unpopular that a good number of PDP governors rallied around his vice president Atiku Abubakar to be the party’s presidential candidate for the 2003 election. It was a slight Obasanjo never forgot nor forgave. Whether he actually has a master plan on how to actualize his vision or is making decisions as he goes along in this democratic journey is hard to say. But here is the effects of his politics; it takes away any numerical advantage of zones and regions may have, breaks regional bonds, with their ability to shape the politics of the country gradually being eroded. The advantages are instead placed on a feudal-like system  or in the hands of groups and political affiliates who are the most entrenched in government over the years. That was why it was crucial to restrict Jonathan to one term and that his region got to rule in the first place was a favor bestowed to them by Obasanjo. It was always about Obasanjo being in control.

And where Buhari as a two term president fits into all this is the potential for the president and his innermost circle to consolidate power and disrupt that vision. In effect, they and the politics they represent will not only shape the institution of the presidency but what comes after the Buhari presidency for another 12 to 16 years, only a little different from how Obasanjo has forcibly set the political trajectory of the country since 1999 up until this point. But in 2019, the former president won’t have the police and army at his disposal, INEC chairman and Resident Electoral Commissioners at his beg and call to impose his candidate on the people. Beyond President Buhari and his innermost circle, for Obasanjo, ensuring that no one outside his control is able to consolidate power makes it harder to depose him as godfather and Kingmaker.

The truth however is that he has already lost out but at the same time, both Buhari and his closest aides are too old to have any meaningful impact on the future direction of Nigerian politics. Obasanjo left office more than 10 years ago, yet some of the aides he had then are today still younger than the youngest of Buhari’s ministers. There are only a handful of middle aged people around the president and young ones are even harder to point out, a fact Obasanjo appears ready to take full advantage of. The bottom line is that Obasanjo seeks to go toe to toe with Buhari in a popularity contest but needs a front. And for each and every politician that joins his coalition and adopted party, he will be staking his ambition and betting that Buhari is so unpopular, opposing him can get you into elective office.

All over the world, democracy supposedly offers every citizen of a country the opportunity to vote and be voted for. The reality everywhere however is that the opportunity to govern is a members only club. Those that are likely to disrupt the order are hardly welcomed. That in part was responsible for the resistance to the Buhari presidency. What he is disrupting is the class order. It is however a different kind of disruption that Obasanjo seeks, one that demands more loyalty to his fiefdom and could see Nigeria implode. Africa has had leaders that believe nothing should be without them. Long-time leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mobutu Sese Seko infamously said; there was no Zaire before, there will be no Zaire after me. It is hard to say whether the politics of the former president and his push to keep the contest for power between the regions wide open by undermining the ability for any one region to consolidate power rather than develop a permanent understanding of how political power should be shared and distributed in the country is sustainable. Without any constitutional safeguards, what is guaranteed by the uncertainty of an unsettled system is that it will continue to raise tensions, the kind that characterized both the 2011 and 2015 general elections. And the period we are in is not so much about good governance but getting the politics right after which everything else will fall into place. It is really poor politics on the part of the presidency that is driving the resistance to Buhari in large parts of the country rather than an inability to govern effectively. And it is easy to confuse the the two.

    -Shuaib is a public affaires analyst.


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