If Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the first premier of Western Region and opposition leader in the First Republic, was, as the late rebel leader, Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu described him posthumously, the best leader Nigeria never had, former president, General Olusegun Obasanjo, who celebrated his 76th birthday yesterday, will probably go down in history as Awo’s anti-thesis of sorts; arguably the most endowed Nigerian leader who had the opportunity and luck Awo never had but blew his chance to be truly great.
General Obasanjo is probably the most hard-working and energetic leader Nigeria has had. The story is often told of how, as chief of staff of the assassinated head of state, General Murtala Mohammed, he would work into ungodly hours after council meetings to prepare notes on what actions needed to be taken and by whom, and yet be the first on his desk the following morning. Today at 76 – probably older as his estranged son, Gbenga, has said – he has remained as hard working and energetic as ever.
Not only is the young septuagenarian probably the most hard-working and energetic leader Nigeria has had. He is also one of the country’s most intelligent and knowledgeable, as anyone who has had even the most casual interaction with the man will testify. His intelligence and knowledge is also pretty evident in several of the books he has written and in his media interviews and public speeches, especially those delivered off the cuff.
Again, the man has proved himself as effective and decisive a leader as any in the world. Issue after issue, the man took decisions quickly and pursued his goals with single minded determination.
Not least of all, the man is probably Nigeria’s luckiest leader. From being the field commander on hand to first accept Biafra’s instrument of surrender after his predecessor, General Benjamin Adekunle had virtually finished all the dangerous fighting, through surviving the coup attempt of 1976 and succeeding his assassinated boss, General Mohammed, to returning to power in mufti after barely escaping the gallows at the hand of his near-nemesis, head of state, General Sani Abacha, Obasanjo seems to have the knack, or the luck, if you will, of being at the right place at the right time.
The trouble with the man is, first, he was never really as disinterested in power as he or his friends and associates would like the world to believe. Second, it is pretty obvious to even someone with half an eye, that the man, at least in his second coming, put his virtues more in service of himself than in that of his country.
As we all know the man became a world celebrity when he apparently kept the word of his boss and surrendered power in October 1979 to an elected government. The operative word here is “apparently.” Apparently, because, as I have pointed out on these pages more than once, there is evidence to suggest the man didn’t really want to leave back then. That he eventually did was partly because his putative attempt at getting the last summit of the then Organization of African Unity he attended as head of state in Monrovia, Liberia, to include a statement in its communiqué that Nigeria was not ready for democracy, failed. He also left because three of his most powerful lieutenants, his second-in-command, General Shehu Musa Yar’adua, his army chief, General T.Y. Danjuma, and his police chief, Inspector General of Police M.D. Yusuf, insisted the men in khaki must return to the barracks where they belonged.
Whether the man wanted to leave or not, the fact was that he was sensible enough not to risk being thrown out. To that extent he deserves credit for leaving. However, after tasting the forbidden fruit of power, in a manner of speaking, the man apparently developed a huge appetite for it. One evidence of this was his failed, perhaps at that time, unrealistic, ambition to become the Secretary General of the United Nations. Another was his initial acceptance of an offer by military president, General Ibrahim Babangida, to him to head an interim government after Babangida “stepped aside” in 1993, the interim government which was eventually headed by his fellow Egba, Chief Ernest Sonekan.
Probably the most conclusive evidence that the man’s eventual return to power in 1999 was not mere accident but a thing he had deeply desired was a story my friend, Mr. John Dara, the presidential candidate of the National Transformation Party in the 2011 elections, once told me on a visit to his rather modest office in Abuja.
Pretty early under General Sani Abacha’s regime in 1994, he said, Obasanjo once asked him through one of his brothers-in-law to become his presidential campaign manager. Apparently Dara came highly recommended to Obasanjo as a chieftain of the powerful Middle-Belt Forum and the man who managed the improbable success of Chief Otedola in beating Alhaji Lateef Jakande in the Lagos governorship elections conducted under General Babangida’s transition programme. Dara also had a reputation of being a big thorn in the flesh of the late Dr. Sola Saraki, the undisputed godfather of the politics of Kwara State where they both came from.
At first, said Dara, he declined. Not long after that he was approached by a younger brother of General Sani Abacha through a friend to also manage the general’s plan to swap his khaki for mufti in spite of his promise that his regime will be brief. Again, said Dara, he declined.
However, after persistent pressure from his friend, he relented somewhat and agreed to meet Abacha’s younger brother. Still the meeting, he said, did not produce the desired outcome for his host. His argument was that Abacha was likely to face at least two formidable, possibly insurmountable, obstacles – General Yar’adua, whose presidential ambitions as a retired officer was an open secret, and General Obasanjo who had become a credible and effective moral voice at home and abroad against military rule.
Following this observation, he said, his host revealed that in a matter of weeks these obstacles would be removed. Thus sufficiently alarmed, Dara said, he contacted Obasanjo’s in-law and told him he was now ready to meet with the general, not to handle his presidential campaign as such, but to warn him about the danger he faced. The meeting eventually held and he warned Obasanjo of the danger. The general never heeded the warning – not even after it was confirmed by his friend, former American president, Mr. Jimmy Carter, when he warned the general not to return home from a trip abroad.
Obasanjo, never one to be accused of cowardice, returned home from his trip. The rest, as they say, is now history; he, along with Yar’adua, were duly picked up by Abacha’s security men as coup planners and sentenced to death. International pressure on Abacha forced him to commute the sentences to life but only Obasanjo came out alive following the mysterious death of Abacha in 1998.
He was soon drafted, seemingly reluctantly, to become the president that would heal the deep wounds inflicted on the country by, among other things, the crisis of the cancellation of the presidential election of June 12, 1992 whose presumed winner was the late Chief M.K.O. Abiola.
Sadly and tragically, instead of healing wounds, Obasanjo allowed himself to be consumed by vengeance for the wrongs he suffered. Instead of leaving vengeance to God, as a self-declared born-again Christian, he went after everything he apparently believed Abacha stood for. Presumably, as he approached the end of his second term in 2007, he came to the sudden realization that he was leaving little of a legacy behind by which history would judge him kindly.
Predictably he tried to secure a third, some would even say, an indefinite, term with its obvious implication of diverting resources, material or otherwise, from serving the public interest. Equally predictably – Nigeria has for long proved the political graveyard of anyone who thought he was indispensable – his bid failed.
At the same time, the man who first left office in 1979 with a reputation of someone who did not abuse his office to amass great wealth, today has the sad reputation of a man living in soulless opulence. It was as if in his second coming, he’d concluded that his relatively Spartan conduct in his first coming was a mistake.
All his recent efforts at revising the record of his public career notwithstanding, history will certainly not be as kind to him as a leader with his great qualities deserved. He had the opportunity to use those qualities in his country’s best interests like no Nigerian leader ever had, but he blew it.