By Azu Ishiekwene
After weeks of shadow-boxing, the gloves are finally off between President Muhammadu Buhari and former President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Obasanjo’s roadshow to drum up support against Buhari’s second term got under his skin. The president, who only weeks ago praised his Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, for his cool and calculated response to the former president, lost his cool and returned fire for fire.
That’s dramatised, really. It wasn’t exactly fire-for-fire. Buhari’s response this week to Obasanjo’s tantrums was false, impotent anger. It was a window on how the public is held in contempt by its leaders, especially politicians.
For years now there has been public outcry that the billions of naira poured into the power sector under the Obasanjo administration has only produced more darkness and misery. Buhari was listening but he wasn’t hearing.
In the past, when he was under pressure to respond to the wasted billions, Obasanjo said it was not $16 billion but $3 billion that his administration spent in a blueprint that was also supposed to integrate independent power producers and double power generation, which was around 2,000 megawatts at the time.
He said that he met things in a terribly bad state and that no investment had been made in infrastructure since he left office over two decades earlier.
He claimed that he did his best to rebuild the sector and blamed his successors, particularly late President Umaru Yar’Adua, for neglecting the energy blueprint and slowing down gains which could have been made.
Again, Buhari was listening but he wasn’t hearing.
Like the typical Nigerian story there was not one credible, coherent version; not even two or three. Investigations by the House of Representatives, Senate and other bodies have produced different accounts, which suggest that contrary to what Obasanjo claimed, sums ranging from $13 billion to $16 billion – apparently more than $3 billion – were spent by his government with little or nothing to show for it.
In fact one report said that between Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and Jonathan, government spent N2.74trillion on power.
When Buhari took office three years ago and decided to prioritise the fight against corruption, not one of these versions was unfamiliar to him.
Whether $3 billion, $13 billion or $16 billion, Buhari knew that billions of dollars had been spent to provide electricity and yet there’s hardly enough supply to power a 60-watt light bulb consistently.
He knew that this nonsense happened largely on Obasanjo’s watch and yet for reasons best known to him, he chose to look the other way, while laying out the red carpet to receive Obasanjo at least five times in Aso Rock within his first one and a half years as president.
As long as Obasanjo was saying what he wanted to hear about his government, Buhari was happy to look the other way.
And suddenly, three years down the line, because Obasanjo is opposed to his having a second term, Buhari is upset; very, very upset, and is forced to conveniently remember that Obasanjo may have misused public funds. But he is not even upset enough to mention Obasanjo by name. He simply described him as “one former head of state”.
He let the press put the name in his mouth. That is how upset Buhari was – enough to get applause in the room but not enough to say what he plans to do after waiting three years of indulging a scandal.
When rolling power cuts threatened to disrupt South Africa, Eskom, the largely state-owned power company, launched the Medupi power station project. Medupi, a coal-fired power generator, comprises six 794-megawatt units. It is the fourth largest coal-powered plant in the southern hemisphere and the largest of its kind with direct dry cooling operation in the world.
That project, which started in 2007 and will be completed in the next two years, has led to the hiring of nearly 20,000 staff. It would cost R145 billion (about $12 billion) at completion and would deliver 4,764 megawatts. Compare this to nearly $30 billion spent on power in Nigeria in 16 years and Obasanjo’s admonition that we should, to paraphrase Femi Falana, connect to pages 41-47 of his book, My Watch, to power our appliances.
Yet, cost is one thing; and the viability of the model on which the billions have been spent in a potentially energy diverse country like Nigeria is another kettle of fish.
Whether it was $3 billion, $13 billion or $16 billion, Nigeria hardly added up to 1,500 megawatts to its generation capacity; yet it has taken Buhari three years and a dissenting view about his interest in a second term to rouse his outrage.
He said it wasn’t impotent outrage, as such. That unlike his former life as military head of state when shooting before aiming was his pastime, the system now makes it incredibly frustrating to tackle crime suspects.
There are certainly more than half a dozen examples of democracies around the world from where he could take a leaf, if he is genuinely interested. For a start, he could ask his older cousin, Mahathir bin Mohamad, how he’s managing to tackle former Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, who left office nearly richer than his country.
And why is it incredibly frustrating to find a way to tackle the Obasanjos of Nigeria, the Mainas and the murderous herdsmen, but not so the El-Zakzakys and the Dasukis?
Whatever happens next, Obasanjo does not appear to care. And he knows that Buhari’s impotent outrage cannot hold him to account.
To achieve his goal of stopping Buhari’s second term bid, Obasanjo has turned to the second chapter of his anarchist cookbook, the same manual from which he joined forces with the bandwagon to frustrate Goodluck Jonathan’s attempt for a second term.
This time though, Obasanjo is going the extra mile.
He’s not stopping at a public letter bomb in which he rated Buhari’s performance below average. He’s not even stopping at forming a movement, even though he had said at some point that he would wash his hands off once the movement becomes a political party. The world’s busiest retired president is on a roadshow rallying old friends and foes alike against his former godson.
Some have urged that we should ignore the messenger and accept the message.
Is it not true that more Nigerians are poorer, in relative terms today, than they were when Buhari came to office? Is it not true, even by the government’s own statistics, that an average of two million people have lost their jobs every year for the last three years under Buhari?
Is it not true that Nigeria is more divided today than it has been at any time in the recent past? And is it not true, as Obasanjo has alleged, that Buhari’s narrow-mindedness makes nepotism look like a virtue?
It’s true, all very true. Except that it’s just as true, also, that Obasanjo is both message and messenger: you can’t take the one and leave the other.
We take his message that Buhari’s government has under-performed but we also remind this messenger who knows where the dead bodies of the unrealised power projects are buried that even though Buhari may have chosen to turn a blind eye, he, Obasanjo, would yet pay his debt to justice someday, somehow.