Olusegun Obasanjo at 80
By Olusegun Adeniyi
Despite our own personal failings and inadequacies, we expect our leaders to do everything right—from finding solutions to complex problems affecting our lives to having the charisma and prescience to rally millions of people around a perfect vision to saying the right things at the right time. When they fall short, as even the best of them occasionally do, journalists, whose duty it is to hold people in public office to account, do not always show mercy. That perhaps explains why, for eight years, between 1999 and 2007, I was an ardent critic of President Olusegun Obasanjo. But it was not personal.
Since no one leader can be all things to all people, there are also times when we must reflect on the totality of their stewardship to make a more nuanced judgment call. It is in this context that I dedicate my column today to Obasanjo who will be 80 on Sunday. Considering that he himself has confessed in the past that he doesn’t know his actual date of birth, I am aware of people out there who would swear that Obasanjo is closer to 150 than 80. Yet, nature is so kind to Obasanjo that he actually has the physical agility and the presence of mind of a 60-year old man. So, he can adopt any age he likes and we will not begrudge him his good fortune.
Meanwhile, when he was in power as President, I had the privilege of several interactions with Obasanjo either alone or as a group and my take is that most of his problems in office were more the result of style than substance. I believe he could have done some things better by persuading Nigerians to embrace his vision rather than his approach of trying to bully everybody. Yet, for all his imperfections as a mortal (like the rest of us), you need only to travel outside Nigeria to appreciate Obasanjo. That probably accounted for the rather patronizing letter the then South African President, Mr. Thabo Mbeki, wrote him after the collapse of the Third Term misadventure in 2006.
It was the speech Obasanjo made on 18 May 2006 at an emergency meeting of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Abuja where he blamed everybody but himself for the Third Term fiasco that inspired Mbeki’s letter which spoke to the respect African leaders have for Obasanjo. “I am truly inspired that you, a tried and tested leader of the peoples of Nigeria and Africa, spoke to all of us in unequivocal terms to reaffirm our sacred task to entrench democracy throughout our continent. The comments communicate an outstanding act of statesmanship that I am convinced must and will inspire all Nigerians, our own people, and our brothers and sisters in the rest of our continent, as we all strive to empower the masses of our peoples democratically to participate in their own systems of governance” Mbeki wrote in the letter where he admitted that Obasanjo’s speech was for the PDP yet concluded that the message was for all Africans.
That Obasanjo is one of the greatest African leaders of his generation is not in doubt and his place in the history of our country is already assured. By dint of hard work, sharp intellect, luck and an uncommon capacity for long memory (sometimes deployed for mischief), Obasanjo has become in Nigeria almost like the old sorcerer in Paul Dukas’1897 symphonic poem, L’apprenti sorcier, (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) which ends with the timeless invocation that powerful spirits should only be called by the master himself. At different (and critical) epochs in the history of Nigeria, Obasanjo’s interventions have proved to be very pivotal.
However, in interrogating his stewardship as a civilian president, Obasanjo’s basic transformative power on the economy has not been fully appreciated. He unleashed some policies that empowered millions of Nigerians. This he did through two broad sectors, namely telecommunications and banking. Of course I have heard some people dismiss the telecoms sector reforms as no achievement because government made money from it but that precisely is the point. Obasanjo could have handed the GSM licences free of charge to cronies as the late General Sani Abacha did without any result.
With the policy, a sense of inclusion was created by the Obasanjo administration which expanded the national conversation to accommodate the hitherto neglected rural and urban poor. More importantly, it created an army of economic operators as vendors and providers of all cadres of services. Large and small retailers in phone handsets, accessories, recharge vouchers and other cell phone related services became a significant feature of the economy. In the process, millions of Nigerians were migrated from abject poverty.
The introduction of the GSM quickly brought Nigeria in line with global trends and also put the power of communication in the hands of the ordinary people as the cell phone became a tool of egalitarianism, a means of identification and in many ways, a leveller. All phone numbers are equal in the sense that they primarily establish a link between two citizens irrespective of status. And to those still dismissive of the GSM achievement, Obasanjo can take solace in the words of Peter Coestello, a former Canadian Treasury Secretary who once said: “If a business is going well, it’s due to the wisdom of the business owner but if it’s going badly, it’s most probably the fault of the government in power.”
Meanwhile, with the banking consolidation came modernisation of the financial services sector. That money could now move from location to location and account to account within seconds owes largely to the banking sector reforms started under Obasanjo. The main thrust of the exercise was to expand the population of banked Nigerians with the attendant increase in financial awareness. The use of debit and credit cards that followed inaugurated an era of increasing cashlessness in the nation’s payment system while hundreds of thousands of Nigerians have embraced the stock market by investing in invisible assets of stocks and bonds.
It is also noteworthy that Obasanjo could do what he did essentially because he was a secure leader, confident enough in his own abilities to draw talents from all over the country, most especially outside his own ethnic group. Therefore, while in power, there was no distraction of the usual charge associated with a Nigerian leader of trying “to promote ethnic agenda” on practically every conceivable policy. He was and remains pan-Nigerian in all his dealings.
Perhaps this was why he was also able to draw more attention to the endemic problem of corruption that has, more than any other malaise, threatened to pull down the essential fabric of our nation. His institutional approach (again some may argue that it was self-serving) to the challenge gave rise to the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC), both of which at least serve as a constant reminder of the challenge of transparency and accountability in the Nigerian public space.
It is true that many Nigerians see Obasanjo as unnecessarily ebullient and sometimes tactlessly meddlesome. Also, a certain messianic complex often manifests itself in the feeling of personal indispensability that has become common to him. But through a rare combination of native common sense, guile, sense of purpose and sometimes sheer brutality, Obasanjo has remained literally a man for nearly every season. At 80 and still bristling with good health and robust intellect, he is not about to fade into irrelevance.
For sure, Obasanjo has his issues, and I have written volumes about many of them in the past. But I am also well aware that when the credit and the debit sides of his stewardship in Nigeria (and Africa) are weighed, they would add up heavily on the credit side. I therefore wish him happy birthday and many more years of active service to his beloved Nigeria.
The Peril of Praise!
So David went out wherever Saul sent him, and behaved wisely. And Saul set him over the men of war, and he was accepted in the sight of all the people and also in the sight of Saul’s servants.
Now it had happened as they were coming home, when David was returning from the slaughter of the Philistine, that the women had come out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with joy, and with musical instruments. So the women sang as they danced, and said: “Saul has slain his thousands, And David his ten thousands.” Then Saul was very angry, and the saying displeased him; and he said, “They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed only thousands. Now what more can he have but the kingdom?” –1 Samuel 18: 4-7
It is just as well that the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, who is currently acting for his boss, President Muhammadu Buhari, is a Pastor. So he must be very familiar with the foregoing Biblical story and the danger of praise singers. While David earned his stripes under King Saul as a faithful servant, he also knew that the surest path to his blessing was not to undercut his boss or listen to the mischievous praise singers who were not there when he was just a shepherd boy tending his father’s sheep in the wilderness.
Without any doubt, Prof. Osinbajo has been handling a most delicate assignment with the utmost sense of responsibility and a refreshing style. But he can do all that because President Buhari provided the enabling environment for him to operate and has trusted him enough as to hand him significant powers. Under the environment we operate and given the bit that I know about presidential politics in Nigeria, it is to the credit of both Buhari and Osinbajo that the administration has been able to function rather seamlessly in the past six weeks. It is in our collective interest as a nation that things continue that way. This is therefore not a time to spread dangerous rumours.
The presidency is one and Buhari remains the man with the mandate with Osinbajo there to fill in the gap for him in moments like this. And he has been doing that creditably well. That is why I will caution those who are ascribing imaginary accomplishments to Osinbajo in the bid to put down Buhari to desist; if their interest is really to help the man rather than bring him down. But the administration’s media managers must also be aware that messaging is very important at a moment like this so it is better to keep quiet when they have nothing to say. They should also spare Nigerians all the tales about the number of phone calls or text messages they exchange with their principal every minute. It is ridiculous. And pointless!