By Sufuyan Ojeifo
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo on January 30, 2019, at the annual business lecture of the Lagos Island Club delivered by a former Vice-president, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, who was at that intersection the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), called out the president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, on the issue of integrity. Obasanjo had cynically dismissed what he described as Buhari’s “sanctimonious veneer of bogus integrity.”
Such a remark, coming from Obasanjo, carried some approbatory weight simply because of his pedigree as former military head of state and former President. Recall that Muhammadu Buhari worked as Federal Commissioner of Petroleum and Natural Resources in the late 1970s under Obasanjo as Head of State. Obasanjo’s self-imposed role of a moral compass continues to be questioned because of the nuances of his doubtful ethical conducts while in office both as military Head of State and as civilian President.
To be sure, Obasanjo’s administration from 1999 to 2007 recorded a number of blights that have made it impossible for him to occupy a moral high ground from which to speak magisterially about the perceived shortcomings of his successors in office. But trust Obasanjo! His claim to self-righteousness – the holier-than-thou attitude – is legendary.
While I was ruminating on Obasanjo’s off-the-cuff remarks about his referenced Buhari’s “sanctimonious veneer of bogus integrity”, it became very clear to me that his remarks were simply self-deprecatory. What he admitted willy-nilly was that since as Head of State and President, he could not be beyond reproach like Caesar’s wife, nobody else could. But Obasanjo missed the point. He should have been specific or better still, he should have particularized the variant of “bogus integrity” he was referring to. Covering the field as he had done in the circumstance of his malicious declaration was demonstrably unfair to Buhari.
But then, to be sure, Buhari is not a saint. Far from it! Besides, sainthood is not a parameter for election into the office of the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. To that extent, he has his foibles just as all of us have ours. You could accuse him of nepotism; you could slam the charge of religious bigotry on him; you could even accuse him of being an ethnic jingoist; these are all moot gravamina. One thing, however, that you cannot accuse Buhari of is financial corruption. As it was in the beginning of his public office engagements-as governor of Northeastern State (August 1, 1975 to February 3, 1976); Governor of Borno State (February 3, 1976 to March 15, 1976), Federal Commissioner of Petroleum and Natural Resources (March 1976 to June 1978); military Head of State (December 31, 1983 to August 27, 1985), and Chairman of the defunct Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) under the Abacha regime, all through the trajectory, free from the snares of filthy lucre and far away from the cookie jars of financial crimes; so he is in the saddle as President with coterminous supervision of the Ministry of Petroleum Resources. In all these “juicy” offices, who is ready to take up the gauntlet of calling out Buhari on how he outright stole money and directly or indirectly mismanaged or diverted or instructed the diversion of public funds? I doubt if there is any, not even his worst critic(s), is ready to cast the first stone.
In the 2003 presidential poll, I made sure I cast my vote for Buhari. Reason? My late godfather, Chief Sunday Bolorunduro Awoniyi, the Aro of Mopa, was Buhari’s friend. They worked together in the Petroleum and Natural Resources Ministry-Buhari as Federal Commissioner and Awoniyi as Permanent Secretary. We always had discussions on the politics of Nigeria. It was in the course of discussions on diverse subject matters that he told me a story of how Buhari and himself negotiated some contracts for building of tankages (I cannot quite remember vividly the description of the contracts) with some foreigners and were able to save humongous sums for the country despite the shenanigans of the foreign contractors who wanted to compromise them by asking them to furnish the company with their foreign account details where a percentage of the contract sum could be paid. Awoniyi said both of them pushed the back of the foreigners to the wall, telling them point blank that they were not interested in kickbacks and had gone ahead to capitalize on that opportunity to further negotiate the contract sum downwards in the national interest. That was how he won me over to Buhari without knowing it. I was very convinced that Buhari was likely to be the real McCoy in the agenda of realizing the Nigeria Project. I believe he is in the process of doing that. He has about two more solid years to build and bequeath that legacy to posterity.
Back to the matters that arose from Obasanjo’s remarks at the Lagos Island Club lecture, which I had once written about. A friend, who remains so passionate about the Nigeria Project, and particularly enamored of the Buhari persona, had spoken glowingly of the financial integrity of the Daura-born leader in a way that touched my sensibilities in a season of self-doubt about the management (or mismanagement?) of our public finance and common patrimony.
In our telephone conversation, he picked out some officials of the administration and the monuments they had either built in parts of the country, particularly Lagos in the name of multi-billion-naira estates and other items of property. When I told him what Obasanjo had said at the Island Club lecture, he fired back: “Have you been to the Hilltop Mansion of Obasanjo in Abeokuta and his Presidential Library? We must question the source of the money with which the edifice was constructed.”
My friend also spoke about the mansions built by some other former leaders in their hometowns, which according to him, helped to validate the near pristine integrity capital of Buhari in the midst of the festering rot. He spoke of the simple residence of Buhari in Daura and possibly the simple one in Kaduna while saying he was not sure he has any home in Abuja. He was of the view that even if he has one in Abuja, it would not be as palatial as they come for former Nigerian presidents.
Interestingly, he had challenged me to counter his rhetorical narratives. According to him, “there must be a new attitude, a new narrative about exemplary leadership. Buhari is certainly not a saint, but he has very largely demonstrated capacity for propriety and accountability in public office. With the support of the vast majority of Nigerians, the anti-graft war will be rejigged to gain firmer and clearly-defined traction. That is my reasonable expectation from Buhari, talking about legacy-building.”
I quite understood the drift and the crux of his argument that has continued to resonate in my consciousness months after. It is reflective of his belief that Buhari represents the last man standing in the community of honest leaders that has become almost extinct in Nigeria’s governance architecture. And, because there is a dearth of men of integrity, a manifestation of one or two archetypical leaders in the matrix of government produces some effects, such as the Buhari effects in the praxis of the anti-graft war.
Therefore, in order to deconstruct Obasanjo’s verdict that seemingly tended to discount Buhari’s integrity capital, it was important to indict the obvious context of intense partisan frenzy in which the magisterial declaration was made and I did just that. It was the nature of our nation’s cloak-and-dagger politics. Nevertheless, Buhari as the President is subject to open scrutiny, the basis of which should find anchorage in some comparison of his individuality with his predecessors’ individualities.
Surely, none in our recent history will be able to compare with Buhari’s Spartan lifestyle that feeds his revulsion for financial corruption and unconscionable acquisition of wealth through plundering and pillaging of public treasury. I have advisedly qualified Buhari’s integrity in the context of management of our nation’s financial resources to mean financial integrity because that is fundamentally the main purpose of governmental exertions: to manage the nation’s resources for the wellbeing of the citizens in the sphere of provision of infrastructure, et al.
If many administration officials are stealing public funds, and for which the leading opposition party is constantly sounding the alarm, it has not for once said that Buhari is the one stealing Nigeria’s money. When he was Head of State at a much younger age, he did not pander to the allure of material things, not even the temptation to award his company (does he even have one?) or cronies oil blocks could be that overwhelming as to denature him and undermine his integrity capital, let alone now that he is 78 years old and has become a member of the pantheon of disciplined leaders, one who is well advanced into the evening of his life and times. Nigerians know the elements in the Buhari administration who are helping themselves with our common patrimony and judgment shall speak in the street when the time comes.
▪︎Ojeifo contributed this piece from Abuja via [email protected]com