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Obasanjo: Going, going...

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Fifteen Minutes with Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed

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It is not what you are called, but what you answer to — Kikuyu Proverb

A few months ago, a spat between two former Nigerian Heads of State, Obasanjo and Babangida held a bemused nation's interest for a brief moment. Two former leaders who between them had been Heads of State for 18 years had fallen out in a media war over their records in office. They traded insults, and the media stoked up the fire. Former President Babangida reportedly blinked first, and dismissed the quarrel as the handiwork of the media. He said he couldn't have taken up Obasanjo, a respected senior, in a public quarrel.
Babangida had stepped aside from many conflicts and confrontations in the past, the most famous being after aborting the elections of the late M.K.O Abiola, and finding that his career as a scheming tactician at the head of a military which had become complacent over demands of leading a restive nation, was coming to a dangerous end for him. Since he would not write his own history, those who wrote his history to date have defined him by those terminal events, and his profile has remained limited by the quicksand that almost swallowed him, the military institution and the nation.
Last week, former President Obasanjo also stepped aside. If he had the time to look up the history behind Babangida's stepping aside, he may see how uncannily similar their circumstances are. Like Babangida, Obasanjo had lost his grip on the instruments of survival; and to push on would have been foolhardy and dangerous. Both former leaders had attempted to create conditions for virtual, perpetual control, and both had miscalculated the volatility and dynamics of changes on their fortunes. Both had reached ends they had not foreseen, and have been victims of the scheming which made them the only sources of power when they ruled.
Few people will believe that Obasanjo resigned from the chairmanship of the Board of Trustees of the PDP which he practically wrote himself into for life, out of choice. Most keen followers would say the writing has been on the wall for him for quite some time. It is possible that Obasanjo may have less friends than any Nigerian alive today, and he himself will acknowledge that he has not cultivated life-long relationships. He has fallen out with the surviving officers whose coup d'etat in 1976 gave him a number two position, and later still, the number one position, albeit with some reluctance. There are still elderly Yoruba people who will not forgive him for not handing over the Presidency to Awo in 1979, and although Yoruba people made a tactical decision to work with him and tap into the immense patronage available to him as president until 2007, they have retreated back into their tribal cocoon. He has fallen out with virtually every politician who worked to make him President in 1999, and northern politicians in particular are bitter that he paid them back by systematically dismantling the northern political establishment, and impoverishing the region.
Obasanjo learnt, the hard way, that power must be jealously guarded, or it could slip away irretrievably. Wily politicians showed him the value of a substantial war chest to oil a strong political structure in which loyalty is absolutely owed only to him. He supported the democratic process, to the extent that it was amenable to his control. He systematically lowered the quality and clout of the people around him, until he became absolutely the only source of power. He recognized the immense powers of the legislature to challenge his dominance of the political terrain, and worked to limit its potential damage to his interest by engineering and influencing the emergence and loyalty of its leadership.
He recognized the damage of pervasive corruption, but used institutions meant to fight it to achieve his political objectives. He took no prisoners, and he made legions of enemies and tolerated people who exploited his position to make untold wealth which reinforced his powers.
When it became obvious he had to go in 2007, Obasanjo re-invented himself in the Presidency that succeeded him. He installed a sickly President and a deputy whose political career appears to have been designed by pure providence. With his people in the Villa, he re-wrote his party's rules to make himself its Board of Trustees chairman for life, if he wanted to. But not even Obasanjo could control all events. Tinubu rolled back his party and influence out of the southwest, and the new president acquired new mentors and handlers who kept him at a safe distance from Obasanjo. Without a political base and with the shifting locus of power to the south-south and south east, Obasanjo was fast losing his grip.
The last PDP convention must have shown Obasanjo that quite a number of people in his party have learnt lessons on how to keep power, but they are not with him. The tradition he started of keeping a firm hold on party leadership was sustained, with even more decisiveness than he did. Consensus in his party has been elevated to the status of the holy grail, and every element of decision - making in the PDP is now the exclusive preserve of a few people. There are new actors in the block who are willing to challenge the old order, and without bridges to fall back on, the old General read the writing on the wall.
It may be too early yet to sing hallelujah for Obasanjo's  retirement. The old man will be chased by old enemies and adversaries all the way to his end, so he is unlikely to even give up all his defences. Obasanjo may write his own history, but there will also be many other versions. One of these may say that he was a man who had a historic opportunity to lay the foundations of good governance in Nigeria, but failed to do so. The party whose BOT chair he has given up is not exactly a shining legacy to leave behind, in a nation desperate for evidence that it can build a working democratic system.

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