NIGERIA: A New Mecca Opens in Ogun State

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 Either at his Abeokuta hilltop mansion or the famous Ota farm, the deluge of visitors reaching out to former President Olusegun Obasanjo at this material time says more about the influence of the man than any existential misgivings. Ojo M. Maduekwe writes

After several attacks like the allegation that the president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan was training snipers and that his government had squandered so much from the excess crude account as well as the country’s foreign reserve, former President Olusegun Obasanjo finally got the attention of President Jonathan.

For Jonathan, who is generally considered in the words of the Governor of Ondo State, Dr. Olusegun Mimiko, as “cool and calm as cucumber”, it was a sign that the president may have had enough of Obasanjo, when he reportedly referred to the former president amongst others as behaving like a “Motor Park tout”.

No one was sure if Obasanjo saw Jonathan’s outburst as meaning he was ready to ‘negotiate’. But that may have been the case because even when Jonathan during the outburst had threatened that “at the appropriate time Nigerians will know all of us”, many thought his campaign was going to be an exposé of the well-kept-secrets of some former Heads of States.

Those who were expecting to see Obasanjo’s dirty laundry in the public would have been disappointed seeing him at the wedding ceremony of Jonathan’s daughter. At the event, the exchange of banter between the two presidents did not give them away as being at daggers drawn.
It was reported that Obasanjo’s arrival at the wedding ceremony has elicited excitement from those present. Even Jonathan in his vote of thanks appreciated the former president for attending the event. “Let me appreciate our father, President Olusegun Obasanjo, for being here with us. Thank you for coming,” he said.

Jonathan, too, must have interpreted Obasanjo’s presence at the wedding to mean that the former president was opening his doors for ‘negotiation’. Thus, a visit to Obasanjo at his Otta Farm residence in Ogun State was to follow. But, as if to test Jonathan’s willingness to sit at the negotiation table, Obasanjo was reported to have sneaked out and refused to meet him.

But eventually they met and in the presence of the General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), Pastor Enoch Adeboye, and Bishop David Oyedepo of the Living Faith Ministry. Jonathan was only able to meet with Obasanjo because for those who know him, the former president is said to have respect for religious leaders.

The person who invited the men of God and the decisions reached at the meeting are not exactly known. While one report has it that Obasanjo wanted the two men of God present as witnesses, another said it was Jonathan who enlisted their support to help talk to Obasanjo to sheathe his sword.

Question is: why is Obasanjo, who allegedly picked him as the running mate to the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, fighting Jonathan? Judging from another account in el-Rufai’s book, Obasanjo wants to control Aso Rock. According to the former minister, who is now the  Kaduna State governorship candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Obasanjo’s dream since leaving office has always been to lead Nigeria from Abeokuta.

“Well, nothing will change, you know. I will be in Ota but we will be running things. Everything will remain the same, you know. You will remain in the government, the economic team will remain. Nothing will change. Only I will move to Ota and Yar’Adua will be here but we will be running things,” el-Rufai alleged in his book mentioned earlier.

This allegation was corroborated by Jonathan when he referred to Obasanjo and some other elder statesmen who criticise his government as “Motor Park touts”, whom he asked: “Are you planning to set the country ablaze because you did not get that particular thing you want?”
Although Jonathan called Obasanjo an “ordinary politician”, his visit to the former president seems to suggest that he recognises the influence still being wielded by Obasanjo. The former president’s house has now become some kind of Mecca for the two main political parties and their leadership.

Last year, before the emergence of General Muhammadu Buhari as the presidential candidate of the APC, the party’s national leadership had visited Obasanjo for his input on who should fly the APC presidential flag. Having emerged, Buhari himself had visited Obasanjo.
The thing is Obasanjo is conversant with the turn of his residence to a Mecca of sorts in the last few days. Being a beneficiary of endorsement himself, he understands the difficulty for a president desirous of a re-election, but suffering from a dwindling popularity among some people considered influential powerbrokers.

When he was seeking re-election, allegation was that he had gone to his then deputy, Atiku Abubakar, on bended knees. Obasanjo and Atiku were at loggerheads, and without Atiku’s support, whom it was said was in charge of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) structure at the time, the former president, many believed would not have gotten the re-run ticket.

El-Rufai, in his book, ‘The Accidental Public Servant’, wrote that “The stakes were high enough for Obasanjo to swallow his considerable pride and go to Atiku on bended knees. Obasanjo had no problem going down on his knees to beg for what he thought was impossible to obtain any other way.”

According to el-Rufai in the book, “The political bricksmanship got so bad that Obasanjo had to visit Atiku’s residence unannounced to plead for Atiku’s support. Upon arriving at his deputy’s residence, he reportedly knelt before Atiku and begged the vice-president to remain onside, thus guaranteeing the support of the 17 PDP governors.”

Obasanjo is therefore familiar with what is currently playing out and according to those who know him – he is taking his time and playing it safe. While the former president publicly maligns Jonathan’s administration, he has not come out to publicly endorse Buhari. Also, while he engages in what has been termed anti-party activities, he has not defected to the APC.

That Obasanjo seems to be playing it safe, and according to several persons, opening himself for bargaining from either Jonathan or Buhari is indeed evident when the APC and Buhari recently paid him a visit. The APC, probably expecting Obasanjo to make public his endorsement of Buhari, did not get one, but instead were asked to make their campaign issue-based.

“Let me say that for those of you that are campaigning all over, it is better you tell the people what you will do for them, campaign based on issues and not on frivolity or abusive languages. Every party has its good and bad, which you always use to campaign against yourselves but when government is formed, we must all come together for the betterment of the country,” Obasanjo was quoted as saying.
There are reports that Obasanjo has been secretly supporting Buhari, and his failure to endorse him publicly, according to a report by TheCable, could be either of two things: “The first is that he does not want to be seen to be openly working against the PDP; after all, his professed problem is with Jonathan. The second interpretation is that being Obasanjo, he is holding out for a deal.”

Citing el-Rufai, TheCable argued thus: “In 2011, according to Nasir el-Rufai, minister of FCT in Obasanjo’s government, the former president called a few of his loyalists together and asked them to work for Buhari against Jonathan. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was to be drafted in as Buhari’s running mate. Recounting the story in his book, ‘Accidental Public Servant’, el-Rufai said as soon as PDP gave the controversial Ogun west senatorial ticket to Obasanjo’s daughter, Iyabo, the former president backed out of the deal.”
According to TheCable, “In Jonathan’s camp, therefore, there is optimism that Obasanjo is still ‘available’. Their prayer is that at least if he won’t campaign for Jonathan, he should stop campaigning against him.”

Following the visit, it is not clear what Obasanjo’s stand would be in the coming weeks leading to the February 14 presidential election.
But the question remains that what influence would the former president have on the voting population if he decides to back-pedal and endorse Jonathan for a second term? Would his support save Jonathan? According to some, accepted that endorsing Jonathan may not change how people vote but, daily criticising him would make worse the president’s re-election chances.

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