Every aspect of former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s frosty relationship with President Goodluck Jonathan has been laid bare in an open letter by the former that may prove to be a dead-end in their once flourishing political association. What does this mean for the polity? Vincent Obia tries to find out
The strains in the relationship between President Goodluck Jonathan and his erstwhile political godfather, ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo, were never hidden to the public. Though, they tried to keep up appearances, their aides engaged in occasional public spats.
Yet, most people knew nothing about the details of the frosty relationship between Jonathan and Obasanjo. But the former president decided to lay bare the whole story in an open letter released Wednesday.
‘Before It Is Too Late’
The “letter of appeal to President Goodluck Jonathan,” titled, “Before it is too late,” was dated December 2, 2013.
Obasanjo said he chose to publicise the communication because none of the about four letters he had written to Jonathan in the last two years was replied and people close to the president had been asking what Obasanjo wanted. He said his was a warning about the dangerous repercussions of Jonathan’s presidential performance to the polity, including the chances of falling back into the era of maximum rule like was experienced during the Sani Abacha junta. He warned about bloodshed and division of the country along ethnic and religious lines.
Obasanjo blamed Jonathan for the factional crisis in the ruling Peoples Democratic Party and criticised his approach to the rising insecurity across the country. He said as leader of the ruling party, head of the federal government, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, chief security officer of the country, and the country’s political leader, Jonathan must hold himself “most significantly responsible for what happens or fails to happen in Nigeria.
“I have come to the conclusion, painfully or happily, that if you can shun yourself to a great extent of personal and political interests and dwell more on the national interest and draw the line between advice from selfish and self-centred aides and advice from those who in the interest of the nation may not tell you what you want to hear, it will be well.”
The missive suggests that most of the crises in the polity are linked to Jonathan’s second term ambition, which many perceive as contradicting his promise in 2011 to do only one term. Obasanjo has never been favourably disposed to any second term plans by Jonathan. But the former president was a critical factor in Jonathan’s career rise from deputy governor of Bayelsa State to governor, and to vice president of the country and president.
Great Debt to Obasanjo
The former president’s investment in Jonathan’s political future dates back to 2005, during the travails of the former Bayelsa State governor, Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha. Alamieyeseigha was swept away from power on December 9, 2005 by an Abuja-instigated storm, which also charted the way to the top for Jonathan.
Jonathan was then the deputy governor, but Obasanjo did his best to ensure that Jonathan was insulated from the crisis the consumed Alamieyeseigha’s governorship, in apparent preparation for higher political roles, first as governor and then as vice president to the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.
Even after his eight-year tenure, and as the PDP Board of Trustees chairman from June 27, 2007, Obasanjo continued to give attention to the growth of Jonathan’s political career. He played a key role in Jonathan’s emergence as acting president after the death of Yar’Adua in 2010, and his election as president in April 2011.
But the honeymoon soon ended.
The relationship between Obasanjo and Jonathan began to strain when the latter started to assert his unwillingness to accept the former president’s indisposition to the question of a second term.
Obasanjo believes he had staked his reputation to help Jonathan secure the support of key members of the elite, especially from the northern parts of the country. A large section of the elite in the north had seen Jonathan’s presidency as a usurpation of the region’s presidential tenure that was cut short by Yar’Adua’s death in 2010. The commitment to lead for only one term, which Obasanjo had helped to push on behalf of Jonathan among the northern Nigeria elite, was believed to be the fundamental issue in the negotiations that helped to get Jonathan some support in the north.
Though, Jonathan has not formally declared an intention to seek a second term, Obasanjo said “only a fool would believe that” he would not, “judging by what is going on. I must say it is ingenious.”
On his promise to do one term, Obasanjo told Jonathan, “You may wish to pursue a more honourable path. Although, you have not formally informed me one way or the other, it will be necessary to refresh your memory of what transpired in 2011.
“I had gone to Benue State for the marriage of one of my staff, Vitalis Ortese, in the state. Governor Suswam was my hospitable host. He told me that you had accepted one term presidency to allow for ease of getting support across the board in the north.
“I decided to cross-check with you. You did not hesitate to confirm to me that you are a strong believer in a one-term of six years for the president and that by the time you have used the unexpired time of your predecessor and four years of your first term, you would have almost used up to six years and you would not need any more term or time.”
Other Nigerians, including Niger State Governor Babangida Aliyu, have also talked about Jonathan’s alleged promise to do a single term.
Question of Integrity
To Obasanjo, certainly, it goes against the grain and hurts his political reputation that he had staked in 2011 for Jonathan to seek another term.
Obasanjo had ensured the emergence of Yar’Adua and Jonathan as presidents, and also tried to secure his own post-presidency politics by influencing the amendment of the PDP constitution to reserve the BoT chairmanship for only former presidents and ex-national chairmen of the party. The board was made the highest decision making organ of the party.
When on June 27, 2007 Obasanjo became BoT chairman, he had absolutely no difficulty pulling the strings.
But soon after the inception of the Jonathan presidency, there were attempts to extensively cut down on the powers of the BoT and make it mostly advisory. Obasanjo was, obviously, the target of that effort, which had culminated in an alleged plot to sack him as BoT chairman in September 2011.
The former president’s resignation as BoT chairman on April 3 last year was a clear fallout of the attempt to weaken the board that he led and also weaken him. He had said in a statement to announce his resignation, “By relieving myself of the responsibility for chairmanship of BoT of the PDP, I will have a bit more time to devote to the international demand on me.” He added that his resignation would give him time “to give some attention to mentoring across the board nationally and internationally in those areas that I have acquired some experience, expertise and in which I have something to share.”
In reality, however, resignation from the BoT chairmanship seemed to offer Obasanjo ample time and space to fight to keep his political influence. The strategy, many believed, was to get Jonathan to abide by his promise to do only one term, as a way of trying to right some of the wrongs Obasanjo was accused to have done to have done during the Yar’Adua succession politics.
A section of the elite in Northern Nigeria had vehemently opposed Jonathan’s election in 2011, seeing it as a usurpation of the region’s eight-year tenure under PDP’s rotation arrangement, which Yar’Adua could not complete. Obasanjo played a critical role in the sidestepping of that arrangement to elect Jonathan.
Apparently, Obasanjo sees fulfillment of the alleged one-term pledge as key in efforts to ingratiate himself again with the northern elite.
Disagreement between him and Jonathan over the second term issue had resulted in a war of nerves that was initially waged in hushed tones.
Things came to a head on November 18 last year, when during a media chat the president openly derided the Obasanjo administration’s 1999 bloody invasion of Odi, a community in the president’s native Bayelsa State, an effort to rid the place of militants.
Jonathan said the Odi invasion was a needless massacre of innocent locals that never helped to reduce the problem of militancy in the area. He was, apparently, responding to criticisms about his handling of the Boko Haram insurgency.
Obasanjo responded swiftly through Mr. Femi Fani-Kayode and insisted that the Odi invasion actually achieved its purpose of minimising militant activities in the area. That public spat erased any doubts about the strained relations between Jonathan and Obasanjo.
Following his resignation as BoT chairman, the former president had traversed the country, trying to build alignments and realignments for an apparent two-stage fight against Jonathan’s ambition. The first was waged at the BoT chairmanship election in February, when Obasanjo lost out with the emergence of Chief Tony Anenih as PDP’s BoT chairman. The second fight would be waged at the PDP presidential election primary, and Obasanjo is determined not to lose out again.
Against Obasanjo’s Men
As part of the move to weaken Obasanjo, Jonathan had also moved against supporters of the former president in PDP. Olagunsoye Oyinlola was removed as PDP national chairman, Bode Mustapha was sacked as national auditor, and Segun Oni was removed as PDP National Vice Chairman, South-west. The party got a leeway from previous court judgements it had been reluctant to obey.
On January 11, a Federal High Court in Abuja sacked Oyinlola while ruling in a suit filed by an anti-Obasanjo faction of PDP in Ogun State led by a businessman, Buruji Kashamu. In the suit filed by the chairman of the state chapter, Adebayo Dayo, and secretary, Alhaji Semiu Sodipo, the plaintiffs challenged the retention of Oyinlola as PDP National Secretary despite the voiding of the zonal congresses that produced him by a Lagos Federal High Court. The court, presided over by Justice Abdul Kafarati, agreed with the plaintiffs and sacked Oyinlola.
The said South-west congress of PDP was held on March 21 last year, but it was nullified about one month later by the high court in an order of April 27 that was reaffirmed by another judgement on May 2. But the PDP national leadership chose to ignore the court ruling. It elected to retain Oyinlola, a nominee of Obasanjo who was widely believed to be supported by the PDP governors, following his election at the party’s national convention held on March 24 last year.
The PDP National Working Committee proceeded to sack Mustapha and Oni as the party’s national auditor and National Vice Chairman, South-west, respectively. It also removed the entire South-west zonal executive that had emerged from the March last year’s congress and constituted a 17-member caretaker committee to run the affairs of the party in the zone pending the conduct of a fresh congress to elect new officers.
All the decisions were based on the court nullification of the party’s South-west zonal congress. But if Oni, being a zonal officer, was directly affected by that court order, the cases of Oyinlola and Mustapha remain unclear because their election was conducted in Abuja, not at the South-west zone. They were also not nominated at the zone. In fact, in the case of Oyinlola, the person that was nominated at the zone for the party’s national secretary position was former minister, Chief Ebenezer Babatope.
With Obasanjo now openly in the camp of those opposed to Jonathan’s re-election bid, many believe the president is up against a much more formidable opposition than he had met at the 2011 election. Though, Obasanjo does not seem likely to align with the opposition All Progressives Congress, his latest position is bound to complicate Jonathan’s 2015 ambition.
It is believed that the open letter by Obasanjo to Jonathan may open the floodgates to similar communications, publicly and privately, by more groups and individuals, as those opposed to the president’s second term become more emboldened.
But Jonathan, on the other hand, may increasingly resort to unbridled – sometimes, illegal – exercise of power as a measure to give himself an advantage in the ensuing political battles. The expected resistance to the draconian measures, many fear, may result in crises with dangerous consequences for the democracy.