By Joe Iniodu
If Nigeria has ever produced a leader with capacity for mischief, that leader is undoubtedly Chief Matthew Okikiola Olusegun Obasanjo, a one time military head of State, 1976-1979 and former President all in Nigeria-1999-2007. His mischiefs have broached all fronts – domestic where he is perpetually in conflict with his children and family members; Ward where he aggresses the ward leaders as the instance of ordering the ward Chairman to tear his (Obasanjo) PDP card; community of Owo where he once exhibited unpresidential conduct when his anointed candidate for the throne of Owu of Owo was on the verge of losing to a more acceptable person; the State where being in conflict with his State Government is a norm; South-West where his vitriolic barbs have been distributed generously to many personalities of that zone to the nation where every occupant of the office of president of the nation is his butt of attack as past time. Obasanjo’s capacity for mischief is often expressed in uncouth behaviour, unsavoury comments cast in dour language and sometimes belligerent dispositions. His intemperate behaviour, unrefined conduct, ill-tempered acts and even pettiness often give many reasons to wonder how the nation coped under the watch of a man of such uncivilized temperament.
The chicken farmer’s mischiefs are innumerable and sometimes most appalling. Many believe he has a tendency that is skewed strongly on the side of sadism. Even if this may not be wholly true, the Ota High Chief has done very little to change public perception of his person. His opinion, perhaps, is that it does not matter what people think of him but what he thinks of himself. Such notion or thought is defective in realization. No man is an Island onto himself. What people think about one matter especially if those with the opinion are in the majority. But Obasanjo cares less about this inviolable opinion which has continually stood the test of time.
In 1976, Olusegun Obasanjo came into power as military head of State after the assassination of General Murtala Mohammed in a botched coup led by Lt. Colonel Buka Suka Dimka. The little known Obasanjo whose only public rating was the receiving of the flag of surrender from General Philip Effiong became a circumstantial head of State with General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua as his second in command. In that government, it was not long to know who was in charge as General Yar’Adua took centre stage while the colourless Obasanjo was relegated to a ceremonial head of State supervising and participating in aberrant behaviours. For instance it was during that period that he built Ita-Oko detention camp, a place in a crocodile infested island where opponents of his government were to be aerially deposited into a confinement that served as a detention camp. It was also during that period that he promulgated the Land Use Decree that many think he used in appropriating large chunks of land one of which is Ota farm to himself. The era witnessed many aberrations but Nigerians tolerated him in expectation to a handing over which he promised. Obasanjo did one of the noblest things of his life by handing over on the set date.
The action of Obasanjo in 1979 was widely applauded and the Ota High Chief was buffeted with honours from within and without. The honours which bloated his ego impinged negatively on his temperament. He became ill tempered and intolerant. Stories of his anti-social behaviour towards workers at his business outfit of Ota Farm were woeful tales of agony and anguish. He behaved as a medieval emperor and was generous in inflicting the harshest of punishment on anyone perceived to violate the rule of Ota Empire. Many of them we are told encountered nasty experiences with tell tale signs and some with visible scars to accentuate such gruesome past.
Obasanjo’s uncivil temperament was more of a badge of (dis)honour for the General. In the early eighties, a policeman of Ibo extraction stopped a Mercedes Benz car conveying an apparent dignitary at Ojota bus-stop. Unbeknownst to the officer, the occupant of the chauffeur driven car was a former head of State. In line with his duty, he had ordered the driver to disembark and open the booth of the car. An orderly in mufti who was sitting in the front seat of the vehicle and fully aware of his Oga’s tempestuous temperament asked the overzealous police man if he knew who was in the car. The officer retorted curtly that he does not care. That remark earned him a sad tale as the infuriated Obasanjo stepped out of the car with a service pistol. In a gestapo style, he ordered the soldier into his car, took him to Ota Farm and got him severely beaten and denuded of the police uniform he wore. It was an extreme action not expected of a man who once presided over the affairs of the country. Of course the police officer roamed the length and breadth of the country in search of justice which continually eluded him. Obasanjo got away with that brazen violation of human right and the unconscionable desecration of an institution of government.
One can also not forget the fact that it was in his reign that soldiers stormed the house of Fela’s mother and hurled the woman who was then over 70 from a storey building to the ground. Of course, the woman’s instalmental death started from there and she was to finally give-up the ghost shortly after. The period also witnessed a rash of human rights violation, brazen impunity and massive corruption. It was the period of public outcry over the loss of US$2.8 billion dollars from the Federal Ministry of Petroleum Resources where the current APC presidential candidate served as the federal commissioner. It was also in Obasanjo’s era that students of Universities of Ife and Lagos were gruesomely killed for protesting over acts of indiscretion on the part of government.
During the Babangida administration, Obasanjo’s irresistible past time being mischief and excoriation of the occupants of the high of President or head of State office came into display. He defied the many known channels opened to him like the National Council of State meeting or personal contact to advise government and instead went to the pages of newspapers. He had advised Babangida to give SAP, an economic programme then a human face. It was an advice he would have given the then military president without making it attract public attention but in obedience to his tendency for mischief, he adopted that populist approach to give accentuation to his not so noble intention. Of course he also dredged up other reasons to harshly criticize Babangida despite the latter’s respect for him as a former head of State.
After the annulment of the election of June 12, 1993 which had Moshood Abiola as the leading candidate was announced on June 24 of the same year to the consternation of Nigerians, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo in far away Harare issued a statement stating that Abiola was not the messiah Nigerians were waiting for. It was the height of mischief in that critical moment of the Nigeria’s history. It is said that for the statement gave impetus to the conception of an Interim Government with the Ota High Chief in active connivance. It is also said that he was part of that interim contraption which to all intent and purpose was an aberration to all known democratic norms.
He was, however, not so lucky in his practice of mischief with the maximum ruler, late General Sanni Abacha. The latter arrested and prosecuted him on charges that were widely believed to be trumped-up and jailed him on account of those charges. Obasanjo spent about three years in Abacha’s gulag and was given reprieve at the demise of the maximum ruler. While Obasanjo was in detention, many Nigerians especially journalists and human rights activist took to the trenches to fight for his freedom. But upon his release and enthronement as President of Nigeria, he turned against these segments of the society calling them disparaging names. It was his peculiar way of showing gratitude to people who put their lives on the line for him.
His reign as a democratically elected president was not dissimilar from wholesale dictatorship. From brazen impunity to disrespect to the rule of law, Obasanjo ruled as an emperor with scant regard to the interest of the people. Corruption took on a life of its own with only people out of favour with his government punished for breaches. His government became a reference on how democratic governance should not be operated. Odi in Rivers State had tales of woes to tell. Zaki Ibiam was not spared of similar tales of woes. Extra judicial killings were common place. Political assassinations were rife with its characteristically unresolved burden. Yet the same man is accusing a government that has not recorded any political murder, no wanton invasion of communities, no disrespect to the rule of law of railroading the nation’s democracy to perdition. What a paradox! This comment exemplifies a curious form of hypocrisy. For a man who attempted to change the constitution to accommodate his selfish ambition to grandstand so duplicitously signposts the misfortune that visited our country with his leadership. His continuous haranguing of the Jonathan administration for reasons many feel has arisen from the President’s mild refusal to be totally under the former president’s control is proof that he has little or no love for this nation that has done him great favour. We urge the former President to undertake a self audit and offer a dispassionate and fair judgment on whether he has done to Nigeria what Nigeria has done unto him. If he is convinced, let him go on but if he is scrupulous enough to identify misdeed, let him change his style to enable him ascend the statesmanship status he so badly desires but so far away from because of his uncouth tendencies.
Joe Iniodu is a public affairs analyst.