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Self-Succession: The Lessons of History




Clinton Chukwu



April 25, 2005



One has to acknowledge, sadly though, that Africa has the remarkably peculiar misfortune of being burdened with sit-tight leaders, regardless of whether they are touching the lives of their citizens positively or not.  Their passion for power is so notoriously deep-seated that they might even aspire to outlast the earth in power (if the biological law could permit it!).  In fact, the disadvantage of advancing age and hostile public reaction to perpetuate themselves in office does not affect their calculation in their desperate bid to became political Methuselah in power!


It is becoming increasingly clear that an intractable virus for remaining in office perpetually infects African leaders, even after they have overstayed their welcome.  Consequently, instead of being loved and admired, sit-tight African leaders end up being tolerated or endured like a stubborn plague.  And in their bid to succeed themselves, they find no shame in bending the constitution and twisting the basic standard of decency to achieve the desperate purpose of remaining in office beyond their terms or the limit of popular toleration.


Worse still, sit-tight African leaders have no God in their calculation as they plot to impose themselves on tired but helpless citizens.  During his desperate bid to remain in office for life or as long as his whims and caprices could determine, the late General Sani Abacha was ready to jail, to persecute or even kill as a means of intimidating opponents of his obsession to remain in office indefinitely.


Ridiculously, in the bid to perpetuate themselves, such power-drunk African rulers use dubious arguments such as “national security” and “political necessity” to justify their continuation in office. Some of Abacha’s self-succession advocates, including the current PDP Chairman Board of Trustees, Chief Tony Anenih, nauseatingly argued that if the General did continue in office, Nigeria stood the risk of imminent collapse!  And as they tempted God, the almighty proved them dead wrong. General Abacha died suddenly on June 8, 1998, and yet Nigeria did not cease to exist!  His persuaders were scattered like sheep without shepherd, looking for places to put their heads in shame because of the damning lesson brought on by General Abacha’s death without warning.


Sadder still, despite the pitiable lessons of history and the sorry fate of leaders who had tried self-succession before, it appears that African sit-tight leaders are impervious to such nasty experiences of others.  And the tragedy is that those around such leaders lack the moral courage to dissuade their bosses bent on self-succession.  Because of the seeming deification of such leaders by their advisers, nobody around them could have the nerve to remind them of the lesson of history.


However, ordinary Nigerians on the ringside of political power have a duty to tell our leaders what those around them cannot tell them honestly for the fear of losing their jobs or certain material benefits that go with power.  Let us share with our leaders a few lessons of history, especially the sorry fate that befell those afflicted by the stubborn virus of self-succession.


When the ambrosia of power struck his head so deeply, former Zambian President Frederick Chiluba attempted to alter the country’s constitution, with a view to continuing in office beyond the two terms defined by the constitution.  Predictably, his party was torn by instant internal rebellion, leading to the defection of key party members.


Frederick Chiluba was not only disgraced out office, but is also today facing trial on corruption charges. Before Chiluba, there was the bitter experience of Mr. Kenneth Kaunda who, despite his record as the man who led his country to independence in the 60s, was thrown out of office when he attempted to rule perpetually.  In fact, Chiluba himself benefited from the fact that Mr. Kaunda had overstayed his welcome.


In Nigeria, we have our own fair share of leaders humiliated out of office in their attempt to succeed themselves. For example, General Yakubu Gowon was disgraced out of office in 1975, when he reneged on his earlier vow to hand over power in 1976 – a date he considered no longer realistic for democratic order to reign!  His government fell in a bloodless coup d’etat, in which General Murtala Mohammed emerged as the new military Head of State.  The suave but obsessively ambitious General Gowon paid the price of overstaying his welcome.


The fate of General Ibrahim Babangida cannot be lost in the memory of Nigerians.  His deliberate efforts to frustrate the success of his own political transition programme, in order to manoeuvre his perpetual stay in office, became his ultimate nemesis.  The June 12 election crisis of 1993, which he mischievously engineered, consumed him along with his ambition to rule perpetually.  His undignified and unenviable exit from power was the price he also paid for attempting to impose himself on tired citizens.


General Sani Abacha, who overthrew the Interim National Government headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan, also tried his own tricks to perpetuate himself in office by methods that were by far cruder and more brutal, if not downright preposterous.  He forced the then five government-sponsored political parties to adopt him as their joint presidential candidate in the most peculiar arrangement in any genuine democratic order!

Despite his audacity, General Abacha maintained hesitation about a public declaration to succeed himself without risking a hostile international reaction.  And as the General and his supporters were praying of how to go about it, fate suddenly threw a spanner into their works and the ambition of self-succession perished with him!  Isn’t that a good lesson, even to the deaf, especially when we don’t reckon with other influences beyond our power, in our bid to impose ourselves on citizens openly tired of us?


One of the reasons why President Olusegun Obasanjo is widely respected internationally is his advocacy for human rights and democracy.  Besides, his strident criticisms of Generals Babangida and Abacha for attempting to bypass or distort democratic norms also made him a domestic hero of democratic voices.


While General Babangida tolerated him (Obasanjo) then, General Abacha did not have the patience of tolerating open opposition to his ambition to remain in office.  General Obasanjo, then as a social critic, probably misread the mind of Abacha and sustained the attacks on self-succession.  Abacha’s patience finally snapped and threw Obasanjo into jail and convicted him of a controversial coup plot in March 1995.  Save for international pressures, General Abacha would have killed Obasanjo for standing in his way.


How come then, that today General Obasanjo is infected by the very disease he was trying to attack?  Why did self-succession, which he previously treated with repugnance, suddenly become such an attraction or obsession to him?  Although he repeatedly dismissed any suggestions of such perpetual ambition to continue in office beyond 2007, unfolding events are not helping his case.


He recently admitted in Germany that he was facing pressures to continue in office or succeed himself in 2007, although he was quick to add that he was not ready to succumb to such silent persuasions. Should we take the President at his words even as emerging events are confirming public suspicion of self-succession?


The “mysterious” federal government constitution smuggled into the political reform conference is fuelling suspicion of a self-succession agenda.  And the alleged remarks by the President that he is not ready to hand over to anybody who could “rubbish” his achievements did not help matters in dousing the fire of suspicion of a hidden agenda.  This posture suggests the moral superiority of the President over members of the country’s political class.  And the fear is that, to get the country “moving” in his calculation, he has to succeed himself.


Again, Nigerians are worried that some of the professional persuaders, who led General Abacha down the garden path of self-succession, are still exerting influence on President Obasanjo.  And the fact that he cannot shake these fellows off his back means they might use him and destroy him politically, if not morally.


The President’s credibility as an acidic critic of self-succession in the past would suffer enormous damage.  Emerging events are contradicting whatever denials the President ever made or hopes to make with respect to self-succession.  Since no known promoter of the President’s to continuation in office beyond 2007 was removed or publicly repudiated, it logically follows that public suspicion is well founded.


It is not the number of years that we serve that matter, but how well we serve.  Those around the President goading him to continue in office are his real enemies and not Nigerians on the political periphery, dissuading him from such course of action.  The recent appointment of a high-powered “media committee”, staffed by senior administration officials and the so-called pillars of the Obasanjo reforms to manage information emerging from the presidency is only adding fuel to the speculation of self-succession agenda.  This media committee is packed with notable Obasanjo loyalists who silently believe in his continuation in office so that they, too, can sustain their privileges.  Whatever conviction he may have about his moral superiority over the political class, President Obasanjo should thank his stars, finish his term in 2007 and make his exit in dignity.


He can ill afford a situation in which the mood of the public degenerates from admiration to contemptuous toleration.  If, in eight years, his performance is not good enough to meet the expectation of Nigerians, he should simply bow out and give other Nigerians a chance to lead the country.  The greatest tragedy for any leader, however good he imagines himself to be, is to attempt to push his luck too far.  Having the President continuing beyond 2007, after his term expires, is against the democratic aspirations of Nigerians.  Such move is an imposition, because it might involve the manipulation of the constitution, intimidation and blackmail.  And as Abraham Lincoln had warned, “no man is good enough to govern another against their will.”  Such is what self-succession, unfortunately, is seeking to do.





Department of political science,

Abia State University, Uturu.


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