The Choice Before
culled from THISDAY, June 6, 2006
The end of President Obasanjo's
bid for a third term may be the beginning of genuine democracy in Nigeria.
Many of the politicians opposed to his prolongation in office may have been
influenced by the power and money of his opponents but the decisive factor
was the grassroots opposition of the Nigerian people. Many of his would be
supporters were deterred by the hostility of their people, and put this
popular support above the lures of bribes and the fears of Presidential
It is now the duty of these budding democrats to organize their popular base
to prevent the resurrection of uncontained and unaccountable power. They
must recognize that the strength of this inchoate democracy spells the end
of a centralized, imperial presidency, fashioned from the worst aspects of a
military hierarchical structure that descended into barbarism. The tragedy
of military rule in Nigeria is that it was exercised by third rate
'soldiers' without honour, integrity or courage.
These democrats must also realize that enemies of Obasanjo are not
necessarily friends of the Nigerian people. Many share his values but oppose
him on personal grounds because they want to operate the same system that
has ruined Nigeria for the past thirty years. Obasanjo's failure is not
personal but that of a class of Nigerian power holders who have a profound
contempt for their people. The system they operated has failed spectacularly
and it would be a tragedy worse than the third term if politicians worse
than Obasanjo were brought back as 'saviours'.
A whole generation has failed and it is time they recognize this and make
way for leaders of the twentieth century, with the democratic values and
competence to run a modern state. The President once said that Africans do
not know the concept of 'opposition'. This is rubbish, based on his
ignorance and the racism of his colonial masters. There was opposition in
the simplest of African societies but the people attempted to resolve these
through painstaking discussions, not through bribes or threats of violence.
Our ancestors in Sokoto, Zululand or Ghana did not suborn opponents with
fifty million Naira or send the SSS and mobile police to deny them their
The President severely damaged his reputation by linking himself with a
project designed and operated by some of the worst elements of a discredited
political class. While he does not care what Nigerians think, he is very
concerned about the opinions of foreign 'friends'. And while these people
still praise him for his work in places like Darfur, they were alarmed and
disgusted that he tried to bulldoze a project that is opposed by 85% of his
own people from the South West Zone, and 75 to 80% in the rest of the
country. To restore his reputation and leave a positive legacy, President
Obasanjo must accept that Nigerian society has changed, and that he must
choose to be part of the solution or part of the problem.
First he must recognize that there is an opposition in Nigeria whose
interests must be accommodated. The press, even though owned by members of
the failed political class, has achieved a degree of autonomy that allowed
it to take an almost unanimous stance against the third term project. The
President owes his life to the activities of pro-democracy activists who
opposed the dictatorships of Babangida and Abacha and fought to realize the
democratic mandate of the late M.K.O. Abiola. He may despise Soyinka,
Fawehinmi and Wilmot but a mature politician does not formulate policy on
the basis of emotional preferences. History will ask why he chose to
surround himself with Tony Anenih, Ibrahim Mantu, Dalhatu Tafida, Chris Uba,
and Lamidi Adedibu rather than the fighters for democratic freedoms.
The President must immediately consult with the people who opposed him and
come to a consensus on how the most urgent problems of the country can be
solved. This is the African way of dealing with opposition, as seen in the
indaba, majlis, town council, and village gathering. He knows the African
proverb which says 'keep your friends close but your enemies even closer'.
If he considers Atiku, Tinubu and Buhari his worst enemies, these are the
people he should convince that he has the best programs for making Nigeria
The first task should be to guarantee that next years elections are free and
fair. The Nigerian people, like all others, are quite capable of electing
leaders of their choice. They did so in 1993, defying all the stereotypes of
ethnicity and religion, and were frustrated by corrupt military and civilian
politicians. The President must guarantee that the Electoral Commission acts
competently and professionally and that the police and security forces are
not used to rig and intimidate the electorate. Political godfathers should
be investigated and jailed if found guilty. Stringent laws must control the
use of money and public resources.
In the rest of his term President Obasanjo must put in place programmes to
alleviate the horrific poverty of his people by building schools, hospitals,
factories, water-works, roads, power stations; pump resources into restoring
the universities, building communications, saving the environment; must
indicate his seriousness in tackling corruption by investigating all corrupt
people, beginning with those closest to him. All candidates for office in
future must be cleared by both local and foreign anti-corruption agencies,
including forensic accountants.
No 'enemy' or 'opposition' can disgrace the President from office. Only he
and his 'friends' can.
The resurrection of ex-Brigadier Buba Marwa's bid for the Nigerian
Presidency indicated that President Obasanjo had foreseen defeat, or was at
least preparing a fallback position in his bid for a third term. Marwa's
first bid was encouraged by Obasanjo as a ploy against his Vice-President.
When Babangida came out against the third term it was a sign he knew
Obasanjo had failed. A coward like Babangida is like a hyena, he does not
attack a leader capable of striking back at him, but scavenges where genuine
predators have struck. Criticizing the third term means 'Maradona'
considered Baba impotent, politically castrated.
The fatal flaw of the third term bid was that it was organized by those who
tried to perpetuate Abacha in office. Abacha was a failed soldier without
shame and did not care how ridiculous the antics of Nzeribe and others made
him look. But Obasanjo prided himself as a democratic reformer, and thrived
on the approval of President Bush, Prime Minister Blair, and the leaders of
the anti-corruption charity, Transparency International, where he was once a
While Abacha set up and controlled parties which made him the sole
candidate, Obasanjo could not even control the factions of his own People's
Democratic Party. He could not shut down the vibrant media which opposed the
bid, or assassinate all his critics as Abacha did. The late Bola Ige's
description of the general's parties as 'five fingers of a leprous hand'
made no impression on Abacha who did not read the papers.
Even the strong arm tactics used by his henchmen such as Tony Anenih,
Ibrahim Mantu, and ex-Colonel Ahmadu Ali, were undermining the President's
democratic credentials and making him increasingly unpopular. Like Abacha
his popularity had reached its nadir, even before his second term, and the
'elections' of 2003 were considered a civilian coup. Rumours have it he had
to prostrate to Atiku to win his support during the primary since the VP
controlled the governors and other influential party barons.
The Abacha-style bid was thus undermined by the necessity to pay lip service
to democracy, to amend the constitution by violating constitutional
provisions, and bribing members of the House of Assembly to vote for it. But
even the lip service was undermined by the man appointed to spearhead it.
Ibrahim Mantu, the Deputy Senate President, is one of the most unpopular
politicians in Nigeria, currently being investigated by several committees
in the Senate, and subject to recall in his own Plateau State. For an
'anti-corruption' president to use Mantu was like a hungry man sending a dog
to buy a piece of meat.
Mantu was alleged to have approved fifty million Naira to rent his own house
in Abuja, and forty million to furnish it. He is unpopular among Moslems for
ruining the last two pilgrimages when he was appointed Amir ul Hajj. And
he's alleged to have misappropriated most of the funds allocated to bribe
members of his Senate sub-committee to spearhead the amendment.
To gain support for the bid the governors were also promised term
extensions, and expected to pressure members of the National Assembly from
their states. But Obasanjo's strategists concluded that most of the
governors were so corrupt and unpopular that keeping them in the plot would
jeopardize his own position. Leaving them out, however, added them to his
list of potential opponents since they would face the backlash if Obasanjo
succeeded without them.
In addition to the President's unpopularity, several other factors denied
him the numbers he needed. His unpopularity was not based on the fickleness
of the electorate: electricity generation was less than a generation ago;
there was no town with constant supply of light or water, unemployment was
high, education dead, health care, housing and public transport almost
non-existent. In addition those closest to the President were the most
corrupt ñ Chris Uba in Anambra and Lamidi Adedibu in Oyo state confessed to
rigging elections and defrauding the public without being touched by the
Electoral Commission, Police, or the EFCC.
The image of a democratic statesman he cherished in the West was also
undermined by the agitation or expatriate Nigerians. Jack Straw was in
Nigeria in February and warned, though with the usual British ambiguity,
that he should not run. Sources in the State Department and White House
indicate that Foreign Secretary Rice was considerably less diplomatic when
Obasanjo offered to trade Charles Taylor for Bushís support for the third
term. ëNo horse trading!í, sheís alleged to have shouted in the Oval Office.
Bush was alleged to have refused him audience unless Taylor was arrested,
which may explain why SSS operatives who were leading him to freedom changed
In the end Obasanjo's quest was defeated by the interplay of money and fear.
The Americans and British wanted their oil companies to keep making money
and feared the third term might lead to civil war in the Delta. Money for
bribing politicians meant little where Atiku and Babangida could match the
government dollar for dollar. Assemblymen feared political suicide if they
backed one of the most unpopular Presidents in history. And the governors
feared that if they let Obasanjo through, without themselves on his coat
tails, he would lock them up to convince his Western backers that the Third
Term was his only way of fighting corruption.
But they should fear even now the gambit has failed: given his 'born again'
belief that he's on a mission for God, he could exercise the Sampson option
by destroying all the corrupt people in the whole discredited political