Obasanjo And The 3rd Term Flu
THIS DAY, February 16, 2006
Sometime in April last year, I wrote my column on the move by some do-gooders to
get an extension of tenure for President Olusegun Obasanjo through a political
sleight of hand, if I may use such phrase. The piece was titled 'Aso Rock
Cardinals and the 2009 Conclave'.
That time, the plot was to get an extra two years through the National Political
Reforms Conference and some Presidential aides actually came out openly to
rationalise the idea. My piece centred on the roles played by some of these same
politicians under the late General Sani Abacha until they eventually pushed him
into the abyss.
Following the publication, I got several reactions from readers who not only
praised the piece but also confirmed that they had all forgotten what transpired
in that unfortunate era when five political parties considered only one
‘reluctant’ man worthy as presidential candidate in a nation as vast as Nigeria.
But even though I stated on this page that I had started writing on the last 100
days of Abacha, I really didn’t work much on the idea until one morning,
sometime in June, when I got a call from a presidential aide who asked when my
Abacha book would be published, adding, ‘the president is interested in the
book, he asked about it this morning.’
Of course, I did not believe the bit about the president asking for the book I
had not written just because I expressed an intention on this page, thinking the
person was merely trying to flatter me.
But even while I dismissed the idea, I would be lying to say I was not excited
by the prospect that the President might actually be interested in reading
whatever nonsense I was about to write. Well, with the intervention of Nobel
Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, (an interesting story on its own) I did
complete the book and as it would happen, a day after he did the public
presentation for me. On September 15 last year, my Chairman, Mr. Nduka Obaigbena,
who was at the World Bank meeting in Washington, called that he met the
President that morning and he asked that I send a copy of my Abacha book to him
through a designated official.
The same official, one of the highest in this government, later called to give
me appointment as to when I should bring a copy each for himself and Mr.
President. At that point, it dawned on me that Obasanjo was actually interested
in knowing more about the role played by key characters during the Abacha era
when he was in incarceration, perhaps so he could learn some useful lessons.
I did send copies of the book as directed and I want to believe the President
has read it because what I did basically was to show the kind of pressure
African leaders go through when it comes to political transition and while it is
convenient to blame Abacha today because he is dead, there were many willing
collaborators in that period who are playing exactly the same role today for the
incumbent. I did the exercise as a sort of autopsy which is more relevant for
the living than the dead.
I am, however, of the strong conviction that Obasanjo will not seek a third term
in office, not because the proposition is not attractive or that there is no
‘pressure’ on him to do so. No, I believe there are great temptations but that
he would not seek a third term because when the chips are down, he would weigh
the consequences of the option and the enormity of the cost involved and at that
point, common sense would prevail.
I have in the last couple of weeks received mails and text messages asking why I
have not commented on the third term flu that is fast spreading across the
nation with many otherwise sane governors now behaving like Daniel Kanu of
Abacha’s YEAA (Youth Earnestly Ask for Abacha) fame. But, as I have told those
who asked, the reason I have not written, and still will not write, on the issue
is because I want to give the president the benefit of the doubt, after all he
has said he will go and we have to take him at his words.
But of all the comments I have read about the issue, the one I consider most
profound is that of Prince Bola Ajibola, former Attorney General of the
Federation and erstwhile judge of the International Court of Justice at the
Hague. Ajibola, a friend, former schoolmate and Owu kinsman of the president
said: ‘The reason for those clamouring for his (Obasanjo) third term is not far
fetched. Keeping him there will keep them there too and they will be milking and
will continue with their selfish agenda.’
I quite agree with Ajibola because Obasanjo has become a mere tool in the hands
of some aides who see him as a vehicle with which they can hold on to power and
at the fullness of time, he will come to realise this and tell these people to
back off. What, however, interests me about this third term palaver is that most
of the people, especially the governors and some Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)
demi-gods, who shout it on the rooftop say other things behind closed doors,
which means there is no conviction to their campaign.
This was exactly what happened under Abacha when people were acting out of fear
and such an agenda cannot be sustained, it will crumble and the earlier the
President was told the better. Let me briefly outline the varying groups in this
third term campaign. The first, already identified by Ajibola, is peopled by
those who have never been in government or power and most of them, now
catapulted from penury to stupendous wealth, would do anything to preserve their
positions and only Obasanjo’s continuation would ensure that. So, it is natural
they would be telling him that he is the only man who can rule Nigeria, he is
the only man who can continue the reforms agenda, he is next to God in wisdom
and all sorts of craps leaders hear when they are held hostage, as it is most
often the case in Africa. I believe Obasanjo, with all his experience and
exposure, is too wise to fall for this line.
The second group is what the Yorubas would call ‘ojuorolaris’, the elements in
the private sector who, because they have been given access to the Presidential
Villa, which also allows them to some crumbs from our oil wealth, now campaign
for Obasanjo to stay there forever. This is the most dangerous of all the groups
because it would give impression that it is pushing the agenda for altruistic
reasons and can always cite some half-digested Asian examples to sell to the
gullible, even when the circumstances are completely different. I am not yet
ready to take on this group, which is led by an otherwise respectable CEO of a
The third group is peopled by political time-servers who like to deify anybody
that is in power at any and every period. If it was not Obasanjo, it was
Babangida or Abacha and when the next president comes and time for him to go
arrive, they would say Nigeria would collapse without such a person. To this
group, this is a rather lucrative enterprise and one can only hope Obasanjo
would see through them too. The fourth group is that of public officials who
have things to hide and therefore believe urging Obasanjo to continue forever
would give them some sense of security. If there is any group Obasanjo should
fear most, it is this category of politicians because while they may shout third
term in the afternoon, they are doing another thing at night.
There is, however, a fifth group that genuinely wants Obasanjo to continue in
office beyond 2007 and they are in three categories: Businessmen who would
rather stay with the status quo than gamble with another president whose
disposition they cannot guarantee; some professionals who believe in Obasanjo’s
reform agenda and sincerely want him to continue, especially when the
alternatives they see out there scare them; and then some Yoruba elements who
prefer their kinsman to be in the saddle for purely sentimental reasons.
When I consider it imperative to write about the third term issue, I will take
on the arguments as well as the counter-factual from each of the groups but for
now my consolation is in the fact that Obasanjo himself has come out to say he
would not stay beyond his current mandate. At a retreat held for key government
officials last December, the president assured his audience that he would keep
faith with the constitution by quitting in 2007 when he would have spent the
maximum eight years allowed by law. Perhaps to leave no room for misconceptions,
he said he had "a little more than one-and-a-half years to be in office."
There are two basic reasons why I am almost certain Obasanjo would not pursue
the third term route. One, given the current state of the nation, to secure the
constitutional amendment that would give him an extension of tenure under any
guise, he would have to bribe members of the National Assembly very heavily.
Is he prepared to do that and risk the local and international backlash? The
second is that to pull the sit-tight agenda through would require draconian
measures. Already, politicians, businessmen and women, academics, clerics, civil
rights advocates and the media are highly mobilised against the idea. All these
could culminate into a strong national resistance that may engender instability
and violence. The implication is that for Obasanjo to force his way on the
issue, he would have to resort to arresting and killing people because there
will be many ‘dissidents’ to deal with.
Will he also do that? Obasanjo, to me, does not appear like a suicidal person
who will destroy all that he spent his life to build just to stay in power.
Whether we like him or not, the reality is that there is no time the history of
Nigeria would be written without the achievements of his cumulative years in
government, the longest by any single individual. And he has been fortunate to
arrive at crucial epoch in our history and this places him in a unique position
above every other Nigerian, living or dead. Will he now do violence to himself
and the nation just to stay in office?
My answer still remains No and for that I will not comment on the third term
issue, at least not yet.
Incidentally, I have been in Abuja since Tuesday morning and the only issue in
town seems to be this third term palaver. But while the flu may have caught some
governors or ministers or some corporate jokers, I am still of the opinion that
the Balogun of Owu is too strong to be infected with such ailment. He has made a
solemn commitment that he will go in 2007. Until he says, or does, something to
the contrary, I choose to believe him.
Still on Niger Delta
One of the first text messages I received after publishing the first part of my
piece, ‘The deal with Hostage Takers’, reads: ‘I am impressed by your factual
disclosure on the Niger Delta crisis. Though I am a real Northerner, I
appreciate the issues involved but whatever the case may be, these boys should
also understand the role being played by their leaders in causing their plight.
But all the same, their grievances are genuine and should be addressed’. When I
replied that I am also a marginalized Northerner, the guy wrote back: ‘I am a
Fulani man from Taraba State, another ‘Niger Delta’ in the North East. But I
have confidence that despite our collective shortcomings, there is hope for
Nigeria. The good thing is that our people are gradually becoming aware of the
real issues as distinct from sentiments. I look forward to the continuation of
your write up on Niger Delta.’
That text says a lot but I have discontinued, at least for now, the piece on
Niger Delta because when I went there my intention was not to glorify violence
or hostage taking but rather to draw the attention of people in authority to the
problems on ground. Because of what is happening there right now, and given the
concerns already expressed by some people, I have deferred my writing on the
issue to a more auspicious moment.