A year and some weeks short of the 2019 presidential election, President Muhammadu Buhari experienced the infamous black arts of sanctimony from ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo. On one or two occasions, I had joked that Obasanjo would send Buhari “the letter” as he did with his predecessor. I was therefore not surprised when he eventually fired a missive from his lofty throne as the self-appointed custodian of Nigerian virtue on Tuesday. Obasanjo, in and out of government, has built a reputation for playing the venerable role of the country’s “big daddy” and writing righteous letters is one of the few responsibilities he bestowed on himself.
In January 2016, he accused members of the National Assembly of corruption and greed in one of his infamous letters, excoriating the legislative branch over their unbridled greed. Previously, in December 2013, Obasanjo fused a chain reaction against the Presidency of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan when he wrote a damning letter of “Any option but Jonathan.” In that searing 18-page letter, he accused Jonathan of corruption, bigotry, and crass incompetence which he, Obasanjo, observed, were virtually tearing the country apart.
Like his present 18-page letter to Buhari, it was timed to forestall Jonathan’s presidential ambition, knowing that he would give his opponents – and those disillusioned under him – a wide enough tent to pontificate their grievances. Ironically, those who criticised Obasanjo’s audacity to take down a sitting president in 2013 are now cheering him for daring to speak the truth to power as if the man’s criticism of Aso Rock occupants is a new thing. Obasanjo has heckled other leaders in power in an irritating manner he himself would barely tolerate if it were done to him.
PHOTOS: Obasanjo’s letter to Buhari on sale in Abuja
It is also instructive that Obasanjo’s letter coincides with Aisha Buhari subtle criticisms of her own husband. Opportunistic strikes are hypocrites’ best chance of maximum wounding. From within and outside his household, Buhari thus faces multiple battles that might jeopardise his presidential ambition if and when he chooses to announce it. There are two ways this might go: the letter might either have a damning effect on Buhari who has fallen into disrepute with virtually everyone lately. Or Obasanjo, by deploying the same weapon that has worked in the past against a cultic figure like Buhari, might end up finding out the weight of his own importance in national reckoning.
Despite the temperate language Obasanjo deployed in writing to Buhari as a fraternal figure being advised by his elder brother who has seen it all, Obasanjo’s letter still rankles. Brazenly, he asked Buhari to find a dignified and honourable means of dismounting from the Nigerian horse. Obasanjo uses this undemocratic metaphor of a horse rider several times in his letter. I find it problematic that Nigeria, in his imagination, is a horse to be mounted and dismounted by inept jockeys.
If a nation’s leader is a horse rider, then who is the horse other than the people? And if the people are the horses, it means they can be treated like one. They can be trained into submission, held by the neck with ropes, whipped into submission, and made to perform tasks. The horse owner decides whether they will be a work horse, race horse, or even a carnival spectacle. As horses, it also means servitude: they carry their leader any, and everywhere he wants to go. Their uneven relationship with the rider places them at the mercy of the rider. As Nigerians, we are not Obasanjo, Jonathan, or Buhari’s horses. And before any of Obasanjo’s supporters chalks down his imagery to an inexpert use of language, they should remember that Obasanjo is neither a novice in the art of writing nor is he a political neophyte. His metaphor of leadership as horse riding is not only a revelation of how he perceives leadership and power, but how he himself saw, used, and abused power.
Today, when Obasanjo complains about corruption in Nigeria, all we should do is laugh in his face. We will be merely insulting ourselves if we pretend his holier-than-thou stance on Nigeria’s problems is worthy of intellectual engagement. Nothing he said about “brother Jonathan” or “brother Buhari” government is different from the way he himself operated as President. Was there corruption in Jonathan and Buhari’s government, enough to raise any reasonable Nigerian – and, Obasanjo’s – ire? Yes! But was there not corruption in Obasanjo’s government himself? Yes, lots and lots of it too! So, from where does any legitimacy of his grandstanding and self-righteous peroration over Nigeria’s future come from?
Under Obasanjo, Nigeria had the Halliburton scandal, the Siemens scandal, the power probe scandal, Transcorp, electoral fraud of unimaginable percentage votes, allegations of open bribery of members of the National Assembly and the famous printer’s devil omissions and additions during his desperate bid to run for a third term. Will it be out of place to state the obvious today: Obasanjo’s government is the template for governance since 1999! If, from Obasanjo to Jonathan, and to Buhari, the same problems of corruption and violence keep recurring, it means we are trapped in an absurd vortex of state dysfunction we got into when he steered the affairs of the state.
Somebody needs to remind Obasanjo what his daughter, Senator Iyabo, told him in an open letter she fired to him in 2014: Sir, back off! Nigeria does not belong to you. I would urge anyone who has forgotten the road that led Nigeria to this place and wants to start praising Obasanjo’s concern for Nigeria’s future to refresh their memories by reading Iyabo’s letter to her father. How does a man so capable of mischief get to play the messiah? He keeps vowing that he is ready to sacrifice his life for Nigeria over politics even though he watched as the country was plundered of material goods through mind-boggling corruption? Obasanjo’s scolding of his successors over their poor human rights record recalls his own similar moral failures. We do not need him to teach us any lesson with his letters, we are not unaware and some of us have been bellowing them even while Obasanjo himself was praising Buhari!
It is time we blew the whistle at Obasanjo’s self-seeking attempts to infantilise the rest of us by turning himself into the moral compass of the nation; the Deus ex machina that reaches out to save us from the same mess he threw us into; the Judge Judy of Nigerian politics. When Nigerians are ready, they will summon their own strengths to push out Obasanjo and his brothers, the horse riders of the apocalypse so they can mould their own destiny. Obasanjo, like other leaders he runs down, are symptoms of our national malaria; the cure does not lie with them. We do not need the Obasanjos of this world swooping into the national conversations and taking over the whole space with their paternalistic ideas of how our future should be run. For eight years, he had that charge until he was made to relinquish it under near-duress.
He cannot now package himself as the Messiah on a horseback whose triumphant ride to Jerusalem is heralded by our shouts of Hosanna! Thanks to him for his suggestions on the way forward but none of them is particularly new. They are not different from what Nigerians have said in the past and he cannot now take credit for them. Nothing his essay says is insightful, what is different this time is that the man knows how to make grand entrances and turn all the attention on himself. But we will not let him hijack our story; neither will we let him be the one to adjudicate which places in history the likes of Jonathan and Buhari would be consigned. It is not his call.