“A rattlesnake that doesn’t bite teaches you nothing.”- J. West
AT the zenith of his power, President Olusegun Obasanjo was credited with the quip that you should check your watch every time President Ibrahim Babangida said good morning to you.
True or not, the point was to emphasise how wily or deceptive Babangida had become. Chances are that Babangida would have heard of the popularised caution, and it is quite possible that he took it in his stride.
After all, the leaders who hold out all their cards for all and sundry to see are soon run out of the game. These days, a new caution is in the making. It may come out in any form, but it will basically suggest that the best political strategies are cleared only when you know where President Obasanjo’s camp is. If you do not build him into your calculations, you could suffer a damaging ambush.
If you underrate his strength, your assault or defence could be shredded to smitherings. If you overate his power, you could end up misallocating resources and designing the wrong strategy for the right battles.
The politician in President Obasanjo must be relishing all this attention. And why not? Life has been kind to Obasanjo.
He was part of a military that shot itself into power in 1975. When another set of coup plotters shot dead his boss, Murtala Mohammed, he was the principal beneficiary, becoming the Head of State. He resisted the pressure to submit to ethnic pressure by handing over the President Shehu Shagari in 1979, becoming a pariah among Yoruba, and a hero in the North.
When he fell foul of a more intolerant Sani Abacha, he was promptly slapped with a treason trial and sentenced to death. His international connections saved his neck from the noose, and God intervened and took away Abacha.
The military released Obasanjo, dusted him up and presented him as its candidate for the Presidency in 1999. A North which had been placed on the defensive over the aborted 1992 elections saw in an Obasanjo presidency, a win-win situation.
Yoruba people sulked and turned their backs to him. The nation moved on, under the leadership of a man with a personality that could barely be accommodated by a fragile democratic system.
With every one of his eight years as president, Obasanjo grew in confidence that the President should run the government and the party exactly in his own image. Huge powers and massive resources give the Nigerian president awesome opportunities to create wealthy people, wreck political careers, make bold policies even against resistance by the legislature, and abandon them at will. Obasanjo learnt quickly that a President needed to have the legislature in his pocket; the party at his beck and call, and a war chest to fight elections and the opposition.
But eight years is all the constitution allows the President, no matter how powerful. In those eight years, with such awesome powers, he must have stepped on many toes; initiated many policies; kick-started many political careers and built up many rich and powerful people, all of whom could suffer massive setbacks when he is no more in power.
Above all, he would have become hooked on the power to influence events, and the prospect of irrelevance in the face of legions of enemies who would want to rub his face in it would spur on even people with weaker personalities than Obasanjo’s.
And so a larger-than-life personality is unleashed on the political terrain who haunts it at every turn. Years out of power, Obasanjo’s uncanny capacity to re-invent himself is being played out even as we speak.
One day after encomiums were poured on him in far away USA during the inauguration of the new Africa Institute at Valparaiso University, Indiana, the former vice-presidential candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), Pastor Tunde Bakare told his congregation that President Obasanjo is responsible for just about everything bad in Nigeria today.
He said Obasanjo imposed a weak and sickly Yar’Adua, squandered the nation’s resources, promoted corruption and turned Nigeria into a makeshift nation without vision or goal.
Pastor Bakare’s swipe from the opposition merely repeats everything that has been said about Obasanjo, and it is unlikely to even generate an acknowledgement or a response from a man neck-deep in other battles in his own party.
The falling out with President Goodluck Jonathan is now out in the open, in spite of spirited efforts to paper them over. The manouvers to determine who has the final say over 2015 are very visible.
The messy fights over the Adamawa State Executive of the PDP; the fight over the chairmanship of the Board of Trustees of the PDP and the visible efforts to build an anti-Jonathan northern front in the PDP by Obasanjo are only some of the more obvious signs that Obasanjo is determined to remain firmly at the heart of Nigerian politics.
This determination will not go unchallenged. President Jonathan’s political future hangs on it. Governors will lose or gain power depending on who ultimately loses out.
These two will split the right party down the middle, before either huge resources, political clout and incumbency win, or it loses to opportunism and the capacity to exploit weaknesses of President Jonathan’s administration and ineffective control over the PDP.
Northern governors in particular will be key in deciding the outcome of this epic battle, and both Presidents are likely to sap their energies and exploit their weaknesses as well.
The Obasanjo phenomenon is a complex one. In a nation which desperately needs to build and strengthen its institutions and democratic values, the dominance of powerful individuals like Obasanjo is a major liability.
President Jonathan needs to stamp his authority on his administration and the party, yet much of the space is taken up by relics from a past he himself had benefitted from.
A relatively young President is surrounded by geriatrics who have made a life career of politics, all of whom will do much more damage to him in opposition, than benefit him if they are part of his team.
He is being torn by the need to focus on governance threatened by insecurity, violent crimes and corruption on the one hand, and the temptations to play the 2015 game on the other.
His opposition, both within the party and outside it, will exploit his weaknesses in both areas. His own party, the PDP will be the battlefield, and the opening skirmishes being witnessed are vital to his position both in governance and in the political field.
The continuing influence of President Obasanjo may be testimony to the resilience of a personal character, but it reflects very poorly on the PDP. Its two most outstanding features are that it has been in power at the centre and much of the states since 1999; and its character has been essentially defined by one man: Obasanjo.
It has never outgrown its basic problems, and it does not appear on the threshold of a revolution that will transform it from a party of a powerful man or handful of men, to a party which retains power because it is genuinely elected by millions of loyal party men and women.
If, in addition to exposing the weaknesses of the Jonathan administration, the opposition takes it upon itself to lampoon Obasanjo as well, its poor record of denting the PDP’s stranglehold on the nation will be that much more challenged. President Obasanjo is likely to be a constant factor in Nigerian politics in the near future.
Whether that turns out to be for better or worse depends largely on whether those who wield power today, and those who want to replace them, intend to change the way the game has been played, or submit to the old way of doing things.