Three former Heads of State, Olusegun Obasanjo, Mohamed Buhari and Ibrahim Babangida were reported to have ‘sunk their differences’ at the public presentation of a book in honour of Governor of Niger State, Dr Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu, at Abuja, August 5, 2010. According to several news reports, Obasanjo, while presenting the book entitled, “Praxis of Political Concepts: Clichés in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic” to the public, had to practically drag both Buhari sand Babangida to the podium to help him perform the duty. It was reported that Buhari and Babangida initially resisted but later acquiesced as a result of physical pressure from those sitting around them.
It is an open secret that the three former Heads of State are not the best of friends. Obasanjo, thought to be the main brain behind an anticipated Jonathan Goodluck’s presidential candidacy, has a vested interest in the 2011 election in which Babangida has declared his candidacy, and Buhari is likely to do so under his newly registered Congress for Progressive Change. Additionally, Babangida, believed to be one of the arrowheads for an Obasanjo presidency in 1999, is thought to have felt betrayed by some of Obasanjo’s actions as President and in supporting a Jonathan candidacy for the 2011 elections.
That Obasanjo, who is the oldest of the three, and also their senior in the military took the initiative for that public show of ‘all is well’ (rather than Buhari and Babangida approaching him for pleasantries as African custom demands), could be interpreted in different ways. It could, for instance, be seen as showcasing an Obasanjo, who, contrary to the stereotype of a grudge-bearing man, is actually capable of being broadminded and rising above pettiness. Another possible message is in the power relations purveyed by the symbolism of Obasanjo being the one who ‘dragged’ Babangida and Buhari to the podium. In power relational terms, the one ‘dragging’ is obviously more powerful than the one being ‘dragged’. Is Obasanjo, by that gesture, sending a coded message to both Buhari and Babangida about the game of cat and mouse that the three, (especially Babangida and Obasanjo) are playing on the issues of zoning and 2011 elections?
There could also be a more sinister deconstruction of the ‘all is well’ gesture based on Obasanjo’s history. The Ota farmer has made a career from luring his adversaries into a false sense of security before striking lethally when their guards are lowered. Instances of this are legion. In January 2005 for instance, what was supposed to be a reconciliation lunch between Obasanjo and the then PDP Chairman, Audu Ogbeh, turned out a week later to be the latter’s last supper. After Obasanjo fell out with Ogbeh over the latter’s letter on a suspected interference by the presidency in the then political imbroglio at Anambra state, several reconciliation meetings were purportedly held between the two. To convince everyone that they had truly reconciled, Obasanjo drove in the same vehicle with Ogbeh to the latter’s residence where they reportedly feasted on pounded yam and egusi soup. Ogbeh, fooled by that dummy, went on NTA Network News and announced that any misunderstanding between him and Obasanjo had been settled. Less than a week after this however, the Owu General struck. He invited himself to Audu Ogbeh’s home, not to eat pounded yam again, but to demand for his resignation as party chairman.
There was also Obasanjo’s celebrated quarrel with the late Chuba Okadigbo in 2001. After a seeming truce had been brokered, Obasanjo was on hand to commission Okadigbo’s new residence as the Senate President. They had dinner together and Obasanjo even danced with his host’s wife. Few days after that celebrated dance he engineered Okadigbo’s impeachment. In a similar move, Obasanjo during an official visit to Anambra state in 2006, showed a lot of ‘public love’ for Peter Obi. Barely a day or so after the visit, the PDP-dominated state House of Assembly began impeachment proceedings against the Governor reportedly with the active connivance of the Obasanjo presidency. Atiku was to suffer a similar fate after he had successfully battled Obasanjo’s attempts to remove him as Vice President and prevent him from contesting for the presidency in the 2007 elections. After the duo left office, and with Atiku possibly trying to rebuild his political base through a planned return to PDP, a number of clandestine contacts were said to have been brokered between the two. Lured by a false sense of security, Atiku accepted to meet Obasanjo for what he thought was a secret meeting – without informing his party members. But the wily Obasanjo tipped the press about the meeting in what was thought to be a move to create disaffection between Atiku and his loyalists. It is debatable whether Atiku has fully recovered from the fallouts of that deft move by Obasanjo.
True, Obasanjo has since left office and that gesture at the book launch may be all that was to it – just a friendly gesture. But with Obasanjo you never know. For many years Obasanjo fooled his opponents by projecting the persona of a dullard to mask his extreme cunning and political astuteness. The dummy was of course helped by his dour, uncharismatic personality. Many of his political opponents who fell for the dummy and underestimated him have lived to tell their stories. As the number of political casualties from underestimating him mounted, another image of Obasanjo as an extremely calculating bugaboo began developing. In the new ascribed persona, any move or gesture by Obasanjo must not be taken at face value, with many people routinely warning the late Yaradua and President Jonathan to avoid Obasanjo. Curiously, embedded in this ‘fear’ of Obasanjo is also a narrative of his ever relevance, for never has any one in our political history been so closely identified with the soul of our country as Obasanjo.
My take is that a single storyline of being evil will not appropriately capture the Obasanjo essence. Obasano is more an enigma than evil. He appears to be capable of both good and evil in equal measures. Here is a man who is perhaps the most folksy president we have ever had – comfortable in his skin to speak pidgin English or reportedly stop by the road side to buy cobs of roasted corns from roadside hawkers and yet capable of demonstrating unnerving arrogance and temper to both common and uncommon people. Obasanjo likes to flaunt his religiosity but leaves no one in doubt that he never forgives a wrong; he is adept at building up people from relative obscurity to political leadership roles only to set up such people to fail; he helps to build governments but often turns out a vociferous critic of the same government he helped to create; he brooks no one double-crossing him (and few dare try to do so, anyway) but he has no qualms in reneging on agreements he entered with others. Obasanjo was probably the most hardworking of all Nigerian Presidents, but a good chunk of this hard work was often in plotting intrigues that were aimed at bringing down his opponents, not in bettering the country. Obasanjo’s genius – or notoriety - however remains in knowing when to lend support, when to criticise and when to deliver a mortal strike. So if I were Buhari and Babangida, I would err on the side of caution and watch my back very closely in the next couple of weeks.