The Choice Before Obasanjo


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The Choice Before Obasanjo




Patrick Wilmot



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 retribution.

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 democratic rights.
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 better.
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 high official.
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 their minds.
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 class.



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