It is a season of contentious open letters in Nigeria. In a space of two weeks, two former heads of state – Olusegun Obasanjo and Ibrahim Babangida – have made major interventions on the state of the nation. As expected, their stinging assessments of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration have generated tension and mixed reactions in the polity. While the duo and their co-travellers bear an important message, which is the ineptitude, divisiveness and sectionalism that the Buhari government represents, their motives may not altogether be altruistic. Nigerians should beware of this as the journey to the 2019 elections gathers momentum.
In the first letter early in the year, entitled: “The Way Out: A Clarion Call for Coalition for Nigeria Movement,” Obasanjo raised a storm of allegations against Buhari. He accused him of bad policies and poor choices that have left the country sharply divided. Although the two-time head of state commended Buhari on fighting Boko Haram and corruption, he berated him for his handling of the Fulani herdsmen atrocities, his sectional appointments in key security positions and his naïve muddling of the economy. For this, Obasanjo advised Buhari not to seek a second term in 2019.
Babangida’s controversial letter on Sunday – “Towards a National Rebirth,” touched the same raw nerve. He argued that Buhari had failed to weld a fragile country together and he should pave the way for a “new breed” of young leaders in 2019. Obasanjo strongly alluded to this in his own letter with his support for the formation of the Coalition for Nigeria Movement (or a Third Force) to take over power from Buhari. It is a familiar ritual.
But there are good reasons for Nigerians to reject this political posturing. There is something depressingly drab and predictable about the interventions from the “military wing” of the Nigerian cabal. Like a leech, it has held on to Nigeria since the January 15, 1966 coup, inflicting atrocities on the people and unrelentingly manipulating the political and economic process, always deceptively couched in the language of patriotism and “national unity.” Manipulation is their permanent vocation, their all consuming passion. Instructively, Obasanjo does not believe in a restructured Nigeria. The oppressive and corruption-riddled regime of Babangida exemplified this in the eight years he ruled as dictator. His convoluted, dishonest political transition programme ended in the criminal annulment of the June 12, 1993 elections, alienation of a generation of seasoned political actors and enthronement of a worse military dictatorship.
It is worth remembering that from 19 states decreed into existence by the Murtala Muhammed/Obasanjo regime in 1976, Babangida raised the number to 30 that reached 36 under his vile successor, Sani Abacha. By successive similar arbitrariness, the number of local government areas had reached 774 and were outrageously inserted into the 1999 Constitution to perpetuate Northern advantage in revenue sharing.
On their watch, the military government’s centralising ideology created the present overbearing centre that has been hobbling the economy and retarding national development. With their ill-digested knowledge of national integration, they wrested the ownership of schools away from missionaries, charities and universities from the states into a federal overlordship that set up JAMB, NUC and 104 “Unity” secondary schools. The paths of their administrations are littered with unresolved scandals, including the missing Gulf War oil revenues variously put at between $7 billion and $12 billion; the long running Halliburton scandal; fraudulent oil block sales/allocations, and abandoned projects across the land.
But the greatest danger in succumbing to their manipulation is their terrible and cynical choice of leaders to foist on Nigerians. Those old enough would easily recall that as five candidates vied for the presidency in 1979, Obasanjo as head of state, dropped all pretence of neutrality, to declare that the best may not necessarily win, thus paving the way for the emergence of a weak, ineffectual leader whose incompetence provoked a military takeover four years later. Babangida, instead of bowing to the wishes of the electorate that gave Moshood Abiola a resounding victory, annulled the 1993 presidential polls, installed an enfeebled interim government headed by Ernest Shonekan, but planted Abacha as the real power, who promptly seized it 83 days later to launch another round of brutal dictatorship.
With Abacha’s death and Abdulsalami Abubakar in tow, the cabal plucked Obasanjo from prison and seized control of the major party to make him president in 1999. In March last year, Babangida had boasted: “We are the military wing of the PDP… I thank God that we came up with the concept that the PDP should rule for 60 years.” Obasanjo also demonstrated poor, manipulative judgement by foisting a sick Umaru Yar’Adua on his party and ensured his flawed victory with his notorious “do-or-die” 2007 election mantra. He worsened it by handpicking Goodluck Jonathan from the array of contestants as his deputy whose ascension to the presidency condemned Nigeria to five years of cluelessness and record-level corruption.
It should be admitted that Nigerians are finding themselves at this crossroads of having to entertain the antics of the manipulative cabal once again because of Buhari’s betrayal of the trust they reposed in him. They feel betrayed because Buhari’s claim to “belong to everybody and belong to nobody” has turned out to be a ruse; he actually belongs only to a section of the country. While Fulani herdsmen are bringing unthinkable and dreadful tragedies on the country, Buhari is completely lost on how to arrest the criminality. He has managed to squander all the goodwill of the people because of his poor handling of the Fulani herdsmen terrorism, poor economic management and unmitigated clannishness in appointments to federal institutions.
What to do? The challenge is one to which Nigerians across the spectrum must rise. This is the time to do away with a political class of schemers altogether. Henceforth, choices of elected leaders should be theirs, not of a cabal. For so long, some expired rulers have also deployed religion and ethnicity to manipulate the people. But it is the people that make the difference through the choices they make via the ballot box in other countries. Liberians recently yearned for change and voted George Weah and his party to power in a presidential election last December. In France too, the people abandoned the old order and elected an upstart, Emmanuel Macron, as president last year. He contested under the umbrella of his La Republique en Marche (Republic on the Move), a party he formed just in April 2016.
The need for reform is obvious. Nigeria has been crippled for too long by its deformed federalism. Obasanjo and Babangida’s solution is a sticking plaster for a patient that is terminally ill. They represent a continuation of the status quo. At no time in our recent history has the clamour for a restructured Nigeria been more resonant than now. This is why Nigerians must seize the momentum to achieve the devolution of powers. It should define their choice at the polls in 2019. That choice should not be made for them by a tiny cabal. Nigeria’s long suffering people are still waiting for a real change. But, Obasanjo and Babangida platform is a quicksand.