You are currently viewing 2023, Obasanjo and Obi, by Dehinde Akinlotan
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He will probably deny he has unequivocally endorsed Labour Party (LP) presidential candidate Peter Obi, but after months of dithering, ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo all but let the cat out of the bag last week in Enugu. There had been rumours that Mr Obi was his preferred candidate, but every time he was confronted about his choice, he either quibbled or tried to deflect it. Nearly all the serious contenders for the stool had visited him in Abeokuta, seeking, for whatever it was worth, his endorsement. He left them guessing. When the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, visited him in company with a host of highly acknowledged Yoruba leaders, they also left his presence thinking that they had won the elections. Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, who spoke with the press after the visit, stopped just short of saying Chief Obasanjo had endorsed Asiwaju Tinubu. But the Speaker exuded so much infectious confidence that no one thought the ex-president would ever gesture in another direction.

Nigerians underestimate Chief Obasanjo. He is capable of incredible somersaults, including making the hound and the hare think he is hunting and running with them. But the elections are just a few weeks away, and the former president is as anxious about framing the issues that should influence the presidential poll as he is about determining who wins. His remarks after he signed the condolence register opened by Ohanaeze Ndigbo in Enugu in honour of the eminent First Republic Minister of Aviation, Chief Mbazulike Amaechi, who died on November 1, were however such that it would be difficult for the former president to walk back his decision to throw in his lot with Mr Obi. The LP candidate was also there, obviously not a coincidence. So, too, was the dour factional leader of Afenifere, Ayo Adebanjo, whose open and long-standing endorsement of the LP candidate had received much flak in the Southwest.

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Chief Obasanjo had remarked on the occasion: “So, if I put my hand on someone, it means that comparing with the other, I see that there is a merit that will be of benefit to Nigeria…And I believe that Chief Adebanjo stands for the same thing…What I believe, and what I think Pa Ayo Adebanjo believes, is not ethnic, it’s not sectional, it is not religious, it is Nigeria. I believe in equity, I believe in justice, I believe in one Nigeria.” According to newspaper reports, he went on to explain that Nigeria was at a critical moment and she needed someone with the character and capacity to turn things around. Character and capacity to turn things around? And yet he endorses Mr Obi? Well, only Chief Obasanjo is capable of reconciling the irreconcilable. As far as endorsements go, the former president is also in controversial company with other power brokers in Nigeria, particularly former heads of state. The others may not have made unequivocal statements about their choices, but the media suspect that a few key northern leaders are split between supporting Mr Obi and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Atiku Abubakar.

It is reassuring that no retired general is in the race for the 2023 presidency, else the retired generals might be forced to coalesce into one jaundiced and nightmarish pigeonhole, as they did in 1999. It is also reassuring that finally, Nigeria’s power brokers, who had for decades influenced who became president, are about to lose their deposits. After cajoling and railroading the electorate into embracing selfish choices for decades, the country had still not fared any better. In fact, Nigeria had fared much worse. Now, the country is truly at a critical juncture, with fissures manifesting openly and precariously. Whatever choice it makes this time will determine whether it survives as a nation or finally become a failed state. The electorate may not have the dispassion and education to make the right and informed choice, especially seeing that many intellectuals and educated citizens themselves yield incredibly to sentiments and prejudices, but every cloud has a silver lining and voters may this time make the right choice.

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Chief Obasanjo and other past Nigerian leaders are unlikely to be counted among those who do right on leadership selection even by mistake. They never seem to want a president who would surpass them, someone with a mind of his own, someone competent and knowledgeable about how modern economies and states should be governed and would not need their help or sanctimonious talk and input, someone who would disgrace their past puny efforts. Sinking into that sort of irrelevance is too high a price for them to pay, and so they have often been irrational in supporting candidates lacking in self-esteem, and incomprehensible in analysing the qualities a leader must possess. Chief Obasanjo demonstrated this shortcoming once again in Enugu last week when he openly pondered the character of the leader Nigeria needs at this time. He, however, did not elaborate.

There was nothing in Chief Obasanjo’s Enugu remarks to show he appreciated the character of the leader he glibly spoke about, seeing especially that he is himself a former leader, military general in wartime, military head of state in peacetime, twice elected president also in peacetime. He was expected to have a metaphysical grasp of leadership character. But there was nothing he said last week that showed he understood the essential Mr Obi beyond the candidate’s superficialities, that he knew the substance of the man and politician, nor did he give the public any indication that whatever character the LP candidate possessed was either suitable for these times or capable of ‘turning things around’. He should have stuck to Chief Adebanjo’s rather simple ratiocination of what qualifies Mr Obi for president – his ethnicity, to which is leashed the dubious virtue of ethnic (geopolitical) fairness or equity. But in Enugu last Monday, Chief Obasanjo tried to disavow the ethnic component influencing his choice, insisting with tons of contradictions that his preference was shaped by character and capacity. Nothing he said on that occasion, however, corroborated character or capacity, nothing except that he identified with Chief Adebanjo in suggesting that since they as Yoruba men both support Mr Obi, an Igbo, then the support could not be ethnic. This is syllogistic recklessness.

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Chief Obasanjo is of course at liberty to endorse anyone who catches his fancy, but as a former leader, he owes the country a better explanation for his endorsement than he has given. This is not to say that his more than one decade in office as a leader entitles him to that better understanding of the fundamentals of leadership and the intricate and esoteric essence of character. No, not at all. The relationship between leadership and character, as the increasingly incompetent flow of leadership all over the world demonstrates, is not always directly proportional. Chief Obasanjo, by his sheer longevity in office, has admittedly been the most astute and hard working leader Nigeria has produced to date. But even he falls far below the great standard. He knows little about leadership beyond presiding over the affairs of a country and having the smartness to survive in office, both as military head of state and elected president. In both, there were precious few occasions in which he showed the discipline and intellect required to envision the future for his country or altruistically back the right candidate for office.

Having backed the wrong person as his successor in 2007, and refusing to allow democratic process to prevail in determining his successor, it was clear he knew little about the character he now prescribes and assigns to his choice for 2023. Writing in The Edge of the Sword, former French leader, Charles de Gaulle speaks of a man of character as someone who “finds a special attractiveness in difficulty, since it is only by coming to grips with difficulty that he can realise his potentialities.” In which year out of the eight he spent as Anambra State governor did Mr Obi demonstrate character? At a book launch, the hyperbolic Chief Adebanjo also spoke of Mr Obi glowingly as “a person that would cool me down for a better tomorrow,” adding, “your future is in your hands and your positive action will make Peter Obi the next President.” Not for once did any of the two endorsers mention Mr Obi as fulfilling the great test of character a leader must pass before he is recommended for higher responsibilities. Indeed, in that same book launch, the chairman of the occasion also spoke of “Peter Obi (as) the Moses of our time. He is blessed and anointed to change the whole vices and I assure you that he and Datti will take us to the Promised Land.” Donning Mr Obi with the messianic garb of deliverer has in fact become customary with the church, where he has been promoted to the level of transcendental leadership. How gullible can people be?

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Mr Obi, as a matter of fact, cultivates and deceptively politicises the church to augment his electoral chances. Whether this is advisable or not remains to be seen. But he was at the last Shiloh, the Winners Chapel annual retreat and spiritual conference in Ota, Ogun State, where his presence politicked for him far more than any ecclesiastical statement. There, as has become the custom in all the churches he has visited, he received deafening acclamation after David Oyedepo’s second-in-command, David Abioye, introduced him. Bishop Abioye is perhaps Mr Obi’s most frenetic supporter, and has sought openly and unapologetically to sway the church to support the candidate of his choice. It is, however, significant that the more subtle Bishop Oyedepo summed up that what Nigeria needs in 2023 is a deliverer, not a leader. It is not clear whether he spoke knowingly of the qualities the next president must possess or he chanced upon that logic and argument, but he at least prefers a deliverer, whatever that means. Whether he knows that Mr Obi is not a leader, and has so far not shown the gifts a leader must possess, is also unclear. Even then, drawing a dichotomy between a deliverer and a leader is indeed problematic, for a leader must have, among other gifts, the capacity to deliver the people from their woes, and vice versa.

Nigeria has been independent for some 62 years. Either by military coups or elections, it has nevertheless been unable to put the right leader with character and competence in office. Those who shot their way into office ineluctably became leaders without the requisite qualifications. Chief Obasanjo was one of them. Having assumed positions they did not merit, and having learnt little after they vacated office, they have struggled to identify leaders imbued with character and capacity, and had often backed the wrong horses. They are repeating the same mistake. Do not believe them when they isolate age, among other things, as a prerequisite for leadership; after all, most of them assumed leadership in their youth and made a hash of ruling Nigeria. Even the iconic Murtala Mohammed inspired policies that virtually upended Nigeria and catapulted it into the fast lane to nowhere. Chief Obasanjo, despite his two terms as elected president and about three years as military head of state, has still proved unable appreciate character and capacity, let alone see them in the men he has spent his infatuations promoting.

Nigeria is not just 62 years old; it has also teetered badly between military dictatorship and civilian rule. Some 24 years into democratic rule in the Fourth Republic, national leaders have been unable to appreciate the urgent need to reform or even recreate the country’s democracy, either by substantial constitutional amendments or by total recreation of its constitution to produce a unique democracy anchored on leadership recruitment processes more inspiring and enduring than just elections. Given the endorsements by Chief Obasanjo, former leaders, religious groups, not to say the appalling incorporation of misbegotten factors in leadership selection, the country will be fortunate to avoid a mediocre choice in 2023. If with all their years in and out of office, Chief Obasanjo and others, including church leaders, can still not identify the salient factors to guide their preferences or appreciate what leadership character entails, how on earth would the ordinary voter, some of them poorly educated, be trusted to back the right candidates?

The media, as the spat between ThisDay publisher Nduka Obaigbena and APC presidential candidate’s media handlers show, is sadly not immune to the mediocrity inundating the rest of the society. Media outfits can of course support and advocate for their candidates as they please. But to do it irresponsibly and arrogantly while hiding disingenuously behind the constitution reflects a corrosive whittling of media ethics at its worst. The APC candidate’s handlers may have had the upper hand in the eyes of the public, but they should brace for far more insidious, subterranean and perverse responses from their opponents in the guise of fair reporting. The denudation of public morality and professional ethic has trickled down from incompetent national leadership and snowballed into an avalanche. The corrosion will continue, for there is nothing in the horizon to arrest the drift, not from past leaders so-called, not from the larger society that can hardly tell its right from its left, and obviously not from the media which the association of newspaper owners and broadcast stations have carelessly left over the years to be hijacked by unscrupulous elements.

In aligning themselves behind one candidate or the other, most of Nigeria’s past leaders showed a dismal capacity to even contemplate the future. The country is unraveling before their eyes; and they are fiddling with shortsighted glee. In 1993, Gen. Babangida was too self-centred to appreciate the dangers he was exposing the country to by annulling the presidential election of that year. He still defends his folly. In 1999, Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar failed to appreciate the benefit of delinking the democratic experiment of that year from any military hangover. He still smugly defends his direct and simplistic approach to returning the country to civil rule. In 2007, Chief Obasanjo cajoled his party into embracing his choice for the presidential election of that year. His party was cowed, and the former president still justifies the ensuing debacle, insisting offhandedly that his support for an aspirant did not necessarily translate into doing the job for him. Now, in the name of fairness and democracy, President Muhammadu Buhari has been standoffish about the next president, a clear indication that he is unable to summon the depth and vision to put the country in safe, courageous and competent hand.

Yet, millenniums ago, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar was agitated about what would come after his reign and was anxious to do the right thing to ensure his empire lasted. Julius Caesar went out of his way to identify his sickly nephew (Octavius) Augustus in order to sustain the Roman Empire’s greatness. And the Ottoman emperor Suleyman the Magnificent identified the most competent among his children as successor, with a little help from his wife of course, just like King David and Solomon.

And then there is China today with its unique leadership recruitment process that enables competent administrators to assume office at various levels. Unlike Nigerian leaders, these all had the altruism and depth, of almost ethereal proportion, in appreciating leaders with character and capacity. The fear today is that Nigeria is in a frenzy of emotionalism regarding their choice of the next president. Intellectuals, political partisans, media essayists, presidency officials, and religious leaders appear to lack the ability to appreciate competent and visionary leaders. Should they get it wrong this time, especially at a time when the choice is even far easier to make than in the past, the country may be unable to survive the folly.


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