July 29, 2013 |
Remember that some older columns are available
evidence yet of Nigeria’s despairing circumstances could be glimpsed in
the fact that Minna and Abeokuta have become major destinations for a
certain kind of political pilgrim.
In the last two weeks, a number of governors from the northern part of
Nigeria have visited two former Nigerian rulers, General Ibrahim
Badamasi Babangida (ret.) in Minna, and former President Olusegun
Obasanjo in Abeokuta. Both pilgrimages were seen, above all, as part of
the tactical maneuvers for the 2015 elections.
Yet, that the governors consider Mr. Babangida and Mr. Obasanjo worthy
of consultation or enlistment speaks to the bankruptcy of their – and
Nigeria’s – project. Babangida and Obasanjo are alike in several vital
respects. They’re big-time authors of Nigeria’s misfortune, vectors of
the political, social and economic crises in which the country is mired,
and eloquent examples of failed leaders.
What does it mean, then, that all political roads are leading to both
men’s doors? In a few words, that Nigeria is in big, big trouble – if
not altogether doomed. The voyage to the hearths of the two men is akin
to trusting that a problem is the solution.
To cast both men in negative light is not to suggest, however, that
anybody who came before and after them was stellar. No, Nigeria has been
luckless in its leadership and, in fact, in the quality of its broader
elite. But Babangida and Obasanjo found ways to intensify Nigeria’s
malaise, their policies and style helping to amplify and entrench some
of the most debilitating symptoms of a sick, floundering country.
Take Babangida. He became Nigeria’s military ruler in 1985, unseating
the duo of Generals Muhammadu Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon that had imposed
a plastic version of discipline on Nigerians. A charismatic man with a
ready, gap-toothed smile, Mr. Babangida seemed the perfect corrective to
Buhari’s (and Idiagbon’s) dour, cheerless mien. Before long, however, it
dawned on Nigerians that real leadership demanded much more than
It may well be the case that the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP),
the centerpiece of Mr. Babangida’s economic policy, was both inevitable
and the perfect panacea for the country’s indolent, over-regulated
economy. What was undeniable, however, is that SAP almost overnight
zapped Nigeria’s fledging middle class out of existence, creating two
veritable classes: the opulently wealthy and the desperately wretched.
It was a thoroughly painful adjustment, an era in which civil servants
could not afford to buy decent cars and some lecturers took to driving
cabs in their spare time. Through it all, Mr. Babangida preached
patience, assuring us that the gains of policy awaited us at the end of
It would have been marvelous if he adopted his own counsel. The
evidence, clearly, is that he did not. While Nigerians writhed in pain
and did their inventive best to scrape through harsh times, their ruler
was in plain view accumulating riches for himself, acquiring a hilltop
mansion that would provoke an Arab oil sheik into fits of envy, and
amassing a huge cache of cash. In other words, the man who asked the
rest of us to accept privation for a period of time did not have the
discipline – the vision and temperament – to take his own bitter pill.
Babangida compounded his awful statecraft when he announced an
ostensible program to return Nigeria to a liberal democratic culture.
Unwilling to contemplate his eventual withdrawal from power, he turned
the time-table for democratic transition into an expensive, deceptive
scheme. In the day, he pretended to be committed to ending military
rule; at night, he and his cohorts plotted to sabotage the process – the
better to perpetuate himself in office. The culmination of this charade
came in Mr. Babangida’s annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential
That remains a defining part of Babangida’s legacy. In some ways,
Nigeria is still reeling from the aftermath of that act of perfidy.
And then there’s Obasanjo. This man may well be the luckiest Nigerian,
alive or dead. Born into poverty, his childhood ambition was to be a
roadside mechanic. Instead, he found his way into the military, rose to
be a general, and made two tours as Nigeria’s ruler – once as a military
dictator, the other time as an “elected” president. His “election” in
1999 completed a script that had slight echoes of the experience of
Nelson Mandela, the South Africa sage who commands near-universal
admiration. Mr. Obasanjo had emerged from (Abacha’s) prison to become
Gifted with a unique opportunity to become a true hero, Mr. Obasanjo
seemed determined, instead, to surpass Mr. Babangida in all the trivial
ways. He may have set up two anti-corruption agencies, but his
administration was notorious as an enabler of graft and money
laundering. He exhibited a shocking propensity to dine with and empower
all manner of shady characters, the exceptions being those who were
reluctant to massage his imperial ego. For all the speeches he read on
accountability and transparency, he ran a shop where – under his very
gaze – his confidants and associates stole Nigeria blind.
As I stated, Obasanjo’s one obsession seemed to be to best Babangida in
some egoistic game. He dwarfed his rival by becoming, by far, the person
with the longest tenure as president. He and his coterie acquired enough
riches to tower over the man from Minna and his crowd. A slave to
imitation, he acquired his own hilltop mansion in Abeokuta.
Obasanjo’s gravest crime was not that he was a mediocre leader. In the
end, mediocrity in a leader is forgivable. His greatest blemish was to
participate, actively and fervently, in the devaluation of Nigeria and
the debasement of the Presidency. How did he do so? He empowered rustics
like the late Lamidi Adedibu and Chris Uba to use police contingents to
sack or hijack two governors. He belittled the judiciary by ignoring
judicial verdicts that went against his government. He squandered cash
in the neighborhood of $10-16 billion on a scam announced as a mission
to offer Nigerians “regular, uninterrupted power supply.” He looked the
other way – and compelled the anti-corruption agencies to do the same –
when his political friends pillaged public funds. He weakened the
National Assembly by constantly meddling in its affairs, including
dictating who their leaders must be.
Instead of lending himself to the goal of strengthening democratic
values, Obasanjo became an apostle of do-or-die, a zestful rigger of
elections. Drunk with power, he was willing to gut the Nigerian
constitution in a bid to grant himself a third term in office – and a
virtual life presidency. As Nigerians groaned for infrastructure and
livable wages, Mr. Obasanjo mindlessly sank billions in scarce funds to
bribe his way to a third term – all the while denying that he wanted to
stay on. Denied his illicit third term dream, he imposed Umaru Yar’Adua,
a feeble, dying man, and Goodluck Jonathan, a nondescript governor, as
the PDP’s ticket – and then imposed them on Nigeria.
This architect of Nigeria’s misfortune appears to cherish some
Nigerians’ proclamation that he was a much better “leader” than, say,
President Jonathan. Such flattery proceeds from a short memory as well
as a profound misreading of Obasanjo’s role in misshaping our present.
Properly understood, Yar’Adua and Jonathan are part and parcel of
Obasanjo’s legacy. If the current president’s performance is subpar,
perhaps we should ask Obasanjo, again, why he guaranteed to us that he’d
chosen the perfect team to take over from him.
In a society where leaders are held to strenuous standards, neither
Babangida nor Obasanjo would be able to show his face in public. That
some northern governors – and other politicians – are flocking to both
men’s separate hilltop is a clear sign that Nigeria will remain a mess
for a while to come.
Please follow me on twitter