Obasanjo, Third Term And History
Obasanjo, Third Term And History
Joseph Dangme Rinyom
Self-perpetuation in power in Africa has a long tradition. Countless rulers, military and civilian, have consistently refused to relinquish power even at the cost of their lives. Mobutu Sese-seko, Omar Bongo, Eyadema, Mugabe, Museveni, etc are few of Africa’s many maximum dictators who have held sway over the gradual demise of their various countries. Whereas Mobutu was forced by martial efficiency that led to the unnecessary death of hundreds of thousands in a civil war that has refused to die down, Eyadema was called by a higher power, death, whose inevitable invitation he could not resist. Omar Bongo and Mugabe are still presiding over their enclaves, clinging on to power with whatever little strength they have left to inflict consequential retribution on any opposition. Museveni, after an acclaimed start has joined the bandwagon of permanent rulers in Africa. In a recent constitutional change, he was made eligible to contest elections again, a third time. A similar action is being undertaken in Nigeria to allow OBJ a third term in office should he declare interest.
At all times, there are people who never shy away from stretching their limits, sometimes to disastrous breaking points, to cling on to earthly power. In Nigeria, this is the fourth clear-cut scenario, the previous three having ended in ‘saved’ disasters.
The first instance was General Gowon’s ill-advised attempt to prolong himself in office. After setting up an elaborate political agenda that was to reach culmination in 1976 with a handover of leadership from the military regime he headed to an elected civilian administration, the vultures of opportunism prevailed on him to stay put for a wee longer to finish up whatever programs he had put in place. The economy was doing well, his so-called development plans appeared to be yielding some fruits and the desire to see these projects to their logical conclusion was strong. Unfortunately, his will to resist the temptation was weak and he succumbed. He announced the cancellation of the handover date, indefinitely, in 1974. In 1975, he was ousted in a coup by Joe Garba, Danjuma, Murtala and Obasanjo. Gowon’s cardinal crime, as presented to the nation by these leaders of his ouster, was his inordinate ambition to perpetuate himself in power. Obasanjo became the second in command of the new administration. In 1976, after the death of Murtala, OBJ became the chief beneficiary of a coup that was meant to halt the inordinate ambition of Gowon. To his credit, he handed over power in 1979.
The second attempt was the labyrinth political transition programme initiated and scuttled by the IBB administration. After billions of Naira had been poured down the drains and hundreds of politicians banned and unbanned, the government annulled the fairest and freest election believed to ever have been held in Nigeria. According to his vociferous critics, General Babangida had led Nigeria on a wasteful political transition programme which lasted about eight years (1985-1993) and, which all along had been programmed to fail. IBB and his cronies believed that no one else could carry Nigeria to the Promised Land. He was forced to step aside in 1993. It is on record that none of his critics was ever more articulate and direct in attack than the elder statesman OBJ.
Between 1993 and 1998, General Abacha prepared a war plan against Nigeria that was to see him transform himself from a military ruler to civilian President. Slogans of ‘Tazarce’, ‘After you na you’, etc blazoned across posters of Abacha. Hundreds of thousands of people were induced to a rally in Abuja to express solidarity with Abacha’s closet desire to perpetuate himself in power. Across Nigeria, Abacha’s Committees of Friends offices laced every street corner and the sure way to any government office is to conspicuously spot an Abacha or Maryam (his wife) badge on your clothe. His aides told the world what a great leader he was and how only he can take Nigeria to the Promised Land. The icing on the cake of perpetuation was Abacha’s adoption as a singular presidential candidate by all five political parties in Nigeria. Therein lay the genius of of political sagacity. Everything was now perfect and only the long-awaited declaration of interest by Abacha was amiss. Abacha, in a twist of fate, told the world that he had left this request of Nigerians at the hands of God and asked the nation to pray to God to help him reach a good decision. God took him on his words. He died without any known illness before he could make any final pronouncement. However, suffice it to say that throughout this period of uncertainty, many Nigerians stood up to be counted in opposition to Abacha’s ambitions. OBJ was one such frontline critic that had to be put in the slammers to pave way for Abacha. While OBJ cooled his heels in prison, Abacha died on the tree of inordinate ambition. OBJ became the full beneficiary of Abacha’s death when he was released from prison, pardoned for his treasonable conviction, propped up by the government and elected President by Nigerians in 1999.
Here we are again a fourth time; a Nigerian President attempts to defy history and the nation to perpetuate himself in power. Inexplicably, this is the same man who on three previous occasions had played very prominent and visible roles in derailing the ambitions of past rulers to cling on to power and in the process saved Nigeria from degenerating into one of the many banana republics that populate Africa. On all three occasions, he lay his life on the line- executed a coup against Gowon and openly denounced IBB and Abacha. Once more he lays his life on the line but this time in defense of the very acts he had risked death to prevent. What an irony?
When the first shouts of a conspiracy were uttered, many thought it was unnecessarily alarmist. The government came out in clear denial but as time went on and the conspiracy, now dubbed ‘Third Term’ crystallized, the very people that had denied its existence have been very busy trying to justify it. Laudable projects are being executed, economic reforms need a steady hand to see to its logical conclusion, corruption is being defeated, the nascent democracy deserves a tested hand to nurse it to full growth and the foreign reserve has never been better and no one can be trusted to manage it better than OBJ. These and many more justifications have been presented. Unfortunately, steps have been taken to actualize this third term. The Constitution has been reviewed and National and State Assemblies are being lobbied to pass it. Political opponents are being harassed and once again God has been dragged into the business again. The decision once more rests with Him (God).
There is no doubt that the present regime has undertaken some commendable projects many of which are still ongoing. The fight against corruption, though perceptibly skewed against those who are known opponents of the administration, is a good starting point. Never before in the history of Nigeria have well-placed persons, such as ministers, congressmen and governors, been arraigned before a court for corrupt practices. Even an Inspector General of Police was retired, prosecuted, convicted and served prison term for corruption. It has never happened before at this scale and level.
However, it is important to note that the fight against corruption is a continuous process that will never be completely won in any lifetime. Unless the institutions that wage war against corruption are strengthened, the war is lost and there is no best way to do it without actually acculturating the people into accepting it. The best way to make people accept it is to ensure that justice is served fairly, to friends and foes alike. Unfortunately, Nigerians have become disillusioned that only those that have risen to be counted against the administration, though corrupt they may be, are made to face the music. Others, more corrupt, are protected by the very office that claims to fight the disease of corruption. A hundred years of selective justice will not attract acceptance on the part of the people. So no matter how long OBJ stays in office, selective justice will never amount to justice.
Secondly, economic reforms are equally a continuous process. There is no government in the entire world that has not initiated economic reforms. The success or otherwise of radical reforms as is being credited to this government may never materialize in a short time. Consequently, no one person can ever pull it through alone. If you asked Omar Bongo and Mugabe, both of which have ruled their countries for more than two decades, they will inform you that they had, at the beginning or somewhere along the line of their endless tenures, initiated radical economic reforms that are still being reformed and which are showing signs of needing more reforms in the very near future. So how can OBJ see the fruition of his economic reforms when the seed takes decades to germinate? At what point will the reform have succeeded enough for him to relinquish power? Know it that it need take only one year of a useless leadership to destroy a hundred years of hard work.
It is great to have such a huge amount of foreign reserve. The question is: will OBJ stop the accruing of such money in the foreign reserve in his third and last term so that his successor may not blow it out? If not, is it not logical to assume that at the time OBJ may be prepared to leave power, the foreign reserve may have doubled in value? And if so, what guarantee is there that he will choose to leave. For instance, if he cannot detach himself from a mere $30 billion foreign reserve, what sense does it make that he will willingly go away from a $50 billion foreign reserve in 2011? This so-called justification for third term makes no sense at all, except if he plans to leave an empty coffer as he did in 1979 again.
Another very important issue is the adulteration of the Constitution to accommodate a mortal god. The imminent danger is the degree to which such a precedent can be adopted by more power drunk and hungry rulers in the future. And such people may not necessarily be any good or mean the country well. Once the third term passes as law, nothing stops the President, be it OBJ or someone else from setting up ten Mantus to review the Constitution one more time and abolish any provisions of tenure of offices. A dictatorship then sets in. Any promises of this being the last or any so-called safeguards to ensure only one more term for OBJ is a non-issue for if the President and his group cannot be trusted to keep to the oaths they swore by this Constitution, then there is no guarantee that they will keep their words next time. Moreover, OBJ is the one person who has consistently gone back on his words. He has refused to acknowledge the promise he made to a roomful of people who supported him that he would agree to ensure a rotation of power after his second term; he contested the elections in 1999 after vehement refutations to the idea that he would run for President; he remembered he forgot something in Government House after he had embarrassed Gowon for wanting to contest elections; he is seeking a perpetuation in office after opposing IBB and Abacha who attempted to do so, etc. There is little doubt that amendments to the constitution are desirable but the tenure of office for President and Governors is not one, at least not yet.
It is said that a leader is only as good as his advisers. However, in a democracy the leader chooses his advisers, so the latter can only be as good as the former. OBJ has parted ways with his friends and peers who could stand up to him. He has disposed of the founding fathers of his party who would not kowtow to him and surrounded himself with sycophants who lack integrity and would tell him just about anything he wants to hear. However, OBJ can still redeem himself by renouncing the third term plot and make history as the first military ruler to willingly hand over power to civilians and the first civilian President to pass on the baton to another civilian. What a record that would be!
Integrity demands that OBJ rejects the temptation to go for a third term. Vanity, which he never seems to overcome, beckons that he continues on this path of defiance to the will of the people, dishonor to himself as a longstanding respected statesman and desecration of the hallowed Constitution he swore an oath to uphold and defend. Let those who believe, fatalistically, that in a population of over a hundred million people, only OBJ can pull Nigeria out of the doldrums remember that he is but mortal. Such views only betray them as incurable pessimists who have lost faith in Nigeria and therefore do not deserve to hold any positions of leadership. Left to the pro-Abacha group, which unfortunately are now the OBJ group, Nigeria would die without Abacha. They did not give Nigeria a chance of surviving Abacha. Nigeria still lives today, and OBJ rose to power only because death did.