Obasanjo: An Exit Strategy


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Obasanjo: An Exit Strategy



Reuben Abati





culled from GUARDIAN, May 12, 2006


The President's political strategists, faced with the widespread opposition to the now infamous third term agenda, are reportedly working on what the media has termed "Plan B". The original plan was meant to ensure an amendment of the 1999 Constitution to offer the President an additional period of four years in office. The on-going debate of that proposition in the National Assembly indicates that it will be difficult for the "third termers" to gain a legislative two-thirds majority in that regard. Plan B is designed as a face-saving option.


The failure of the third term proposal on the floor of the National Assembly translates simply into an open demonisation of the President and his supporters. The President in particular, has suddenly become an enemy of democracy who must be stopped at all costs. A Plan B which, as proposed, would offer him a two-year extension in office as President could reduce the effect of this open disgrace. Its architects obviously do not want the Presidency to be ridiculed. They can pretend that their plan is to protect the Presidency as a key democratic institution.


What Baba's political strategists should be working on however as Plan B is an exit strategy. There is no difference between their Plan A and the present Plan B as reported in the media. Any attempt to manipulate the Constitution to give advantage to the President, and to the President alone, phrased in whatever idiom, would continue to unite the opposition, and sharpen the edges of criticisms against the President. There are two basic laws of power at play. One, a leader must never isolate himself. An isolated man is fatally vulnerable. He is without any walls of defence. On the third term question, the President has definitely made the mistake of isolating himself. For more than a year, he made ambivalent statements about his intentions only for him to emerge at the last minute, to be the main architect of the third term agenda. How different it could have been, if it were the ordinary people of Nigeria, asking out of appreciation, for a continuation of the Obasanjo era?


The people of Nigeria are not the owners of the third term agenda but they do not necessarily hate Obasanjo. On the contrary, they are fond of him. They remain so in spite of the exposure of the President's flaw of character. The people cannot understand why a man who has been so blessed, who is obviously a product of luck and destiny, would tempt fate so brazenly. The ordinary man is opposed to third term politics not because he has been listening to the media, or to the opposition, or to third term debaters in the National Assembly but because he pities Obasanjo. Every hero in time becomes a parody; but only those heroes who allow their character flaws to dominate their personality.


In eight years, if President Obasanjo and his strategists had managed to establish a reputation of benevolence, perhaps the support-base for third term would have been broader. That would not make it right, it may still not succeed, but the associated public debate would have produced a more rigorous and kinder assessment of Obasanjo's tenure than the platitudes being mouthed at the National Assembly. The President has also further isolated himself by uniting the opposition against himself. Even within the PDP, he stands alone, otherwise it should have been easy for a PDP-dominated National Assembly to endorse the third term proposal without any rancour. The present situation exposes the President's weakness. The debate in the National Assembly is a reflection of his standing in his own political party.


The second law of power at play is: a leader must know when to quit. He must know when to give up. Power is about being a good student of human psychology. Before now, the President had been told that the third term agenda was being opposed by only a handful of journalists. But the opposition to third term now goes beyond the media. Even the President's supporters are afraid to speak up for him in public. It is curious (not so?) that even his own Ministers (those who are benefiting from his government) have all cleverly withdrawn into their shells. Conveniently, they would claim that they are professionals in political office, not politicians. They are so concerned about their own future and reputation, they do not want to be dragged down along with the President. Each one of them is playing safe.


Let the President organise a public debate on the Third Term agenda among his own Ministers and Special Advisers, in the full view of television cameras, with every sound and word recorded. He would be surprised that there are not too many of those men and women who would be willing to queue up behind him. And should the President succeed with the Third term agenda, he can only succeed in creating a crisis. If he wins an election, his government would have problems of legitimacy. That future Obasanjo government would be challenged endlessly by the opposition. Obasanjo would have unwittingly energised the civil society coalition, and so many groups and individuals would take advantage of his failures to assert their own relevance. Already, third term politics is selling newspapers and magazines! It is making television more exciting. It is lending voice to persons who had hitherto lost relevance.


The only man who cannot afford to laugh at his own parody is President Obasanjo. The only way the third agenda can be forced through is for the President to sack the National Assembly and that he cannot do. Every option therefore leads to a moral and political cul de sac. Obasanjo's strategists must return to the drawing table. Let them begin to work out an exit strategy. The purpose of that exit strategy should be three-fold: (i) to rescue the President from contempt (ii) to re-define and preserve his legacy and image and (iii) to protect him out of power from an emerging process of demystification.


President Obasanjo's place in history lies in part, in the fact that up till now, he was one of Nigeria's most respected leaders. In 1998, he was head-hunted for the job of President. He was seen as the man who would help stabilise Nigeria, and raise the country's profile. Persons went to his homes in Ota and Abeokuta to beg him to come and lead Nigeria. He gave conditions. He had never been a politician. Politicians who had set up platforms handed over their constituencies to him. He did not have money. Fund-raisers came to his rescue.

Those who had office spaces donated campaign centres. Owners of hotels offered their rooms to the campaign office. Today, he has offended the same men who did this, so much they are all abusing him. His Vice President, Atiku Abubakar has become a sworn enemy. General T.Y. Danjuma , his former friend and Defence Minister describes the third term proposal as "evil". Internationally, Obasanjo was regarded as a world statesman. He was the first military leader in Africa to hand over power willingly to civilian successors. Today, America, Russia, and other countries are unsure about their old friend.


The total destruction of the Obasanjo persona is a disaster that the President's strategists must not allow to happen. The first plank of an exit strategy is for the President to come out openly, and disown the third term process and insist that even if the Constitution is so amended, he, Obasanjo does not intend to benefit from it. He should issue a strong statement defending the integrity of the office that he holds and his commitment to his oath of office. His critics and opponents would claim victory for this. But he would have put an end, summarily to their contempt and restored the moral strength of the Presidency. Once he shoots down the third term agenda, he would immediately become the darling of those who would like to succeed him. He may have been wounded but the opposition should be smart enough to realise that a wounded lion is a carnivorous animal still. Thus, the exit strategy that we propose must begin with Obasanjo himself.


How, then does he protect his legacy? His strategists would first have to define what that legacy is. In the face of "third term politics", the Obasanjo persona has been reduced to the level of some of the odious figures in African political history: Abacha, Mobutu etc. Africans find it easy to compare situations. They find it easier and fulfilling to celebrate the downfall of heroes. Shorn of the baggage of Third Term, the President will have to befriend the Nigerian people anew. He is still in a position to make amends. Let him embark on farewell tours across the country, and attend send-forth parties. Let him be seen physically relocating to Ota and Abeokuta. Let him begin to speak as a statesman and not as a Presidential contestant. His strategists can then use the opportunity to remind Nigerians of the achievements of his administration in the last eight years. There must be things that they can talk about. But let them not mention power supply, please.


The third strategy would be how to protect the President out of power. In eight years, the President has acquired lorry-loads of enemies who would like to ridicule him when he is no longer in office. The third term agenda is driven mostly by fear. There is a lesson in this respect for all men of power. Not too many Nigerians in positions of authority remember tomorrow. This is why they end up turning their position into shields of protection. The President and his supporters have been quoted as saying if he leaves office in 2007, a future government could reverse the reform process; squander the country's foreign reserves, and empower present opponents of the government. They are also afraid that those who can possibly succeed Baba, and are parading themselves as loyalists, may actually be double agents who may become treacherous tomorrow. They are also driven by a deep-seated fear of Atiku. They don't want him anywhere near Aso Villa in 2007. The best form of protection that they all need however is counselling. In the end, this country is bigger than any individual. If in eight years, President Obasanjo has not been able to groom a successor or possible successors, the joke is on him, not Nigerians. But he needs not fear what tomorrow would bring. One of the hallmarks of democracy is the right to make mistakes. He should be more concerned about his place in history.


If anything has been gained, however, in the last week, the third term debates in the National Assembly have shown us the quality of men and women in the legislature. Parliament is traditionally a place for the display of reason and elocution. How on earth, did we vote for these characters who lack debating skills, these men who can hardly express themselves? A review of the quality of the debates so far is an open embarrassment to the entire country, a sad comment on Nigeria's education system which has produced these shallow-brained and mis-educated parliamentarians we have been watching on television. It wasn't this bad in the First and Second Republics.



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