This week, I went back to watch an April 12, 2015, interview that I had with the then-President-elect Muhammadu Buhari. After watching the interview, I arrived at a clear conclusion: It is all Olusegun Obasanjo’s fault. Nigeria’s final chance to revive itself, to be a fair, decent, and just nation, came in 1999. Posterity called on Olusegun Obasanjo, who came out of prison with a new lease on life, to do Nigeria the honour. But Obasanjo failed. On January 29, 2004, as Obasanjo was entering his fifth year in office, still pursuing shadows, I wrote an article on Nigeriaworld.com titled: Why Obasanjo Failed. At that point, I had determined that Obasanjo was more interested in building a castle in the sand. There was Obasanjo, a president who had a rare chance to transform Nigeria permanently. But Obasanjo lived in Eldorado, interested in turning Nigeria into South Korea when Nigeria’s foundation is worse than Sudan’s. It wasn’t that Obasanjo was oblivious of the issues.
Being a major actor in Nigeria since independence and coming from the South West, he knew what the vexing matters were. But Obasanjo allowed his ego, massaged by budding oligarchs like Tony Elumelu, Cecelia Ibru, Aliko Dangote, Ndi Okereke-Onyiuke, Femi Otedola, Jim Ovia, Festus Odimegwu, Bernard Longe, Fola Adeola, and others, to blind him. Obasanjo inherited a country that was like a vast piece of land with active gully erosion sites. His primary job was to stabilise the estate by channeling flood water away from inhabited zones. In his messianic illusion, Obasanjo chose to use his 200 million shares in the mega-corporation, the Transnational Corporation of Nigeria (Transcorp), to transform Nigeria into a nation of skyscrapers and white elephant projects. As his second term in office was ending, he was fully aware that he had failed. It made him seek a third term in office secretly with the help of his cohorts in the public and private sectors. When that mission failed, he decided to handpick a successor that would have no chance of overshadowing him.
That was how Nigeria got President Umaru Yar’Adua as Obasanjo’s successor. And it was down the hill from there. Yar’Adua begot Jonathan and Jonathan begot Buhari. And in each of these births, Olusegun Obasanjo was the midwife. If Obasanjo had done the right thing between 1999-2007, it wouldn’t have mattered much who came after him. Nigeria would not have been overtaken by erosion as it is today. Now houses, roads and farms are inside the gullies, and some swept away beyond the country’s shores. Yar’Adua could not have saved Nigeria because he was not predisposed to tackle such weighty fundamental issues. Unluckily for him, ill-health sealed his fate by wiping out any chance that he could come to a new awareness. Jonathan assumed power, totally lacking the skill sets needed to surgically extract Nigeria’s cancer cells that were fast metastasizing.
Jonathan would spend five years leaving observers with no doubt that Nigeria’s problem outmatched his abilities. Jonathan’s ultimate failure set the stage for the far-reaching compromises that brought Buhari in. Buhari did not just fail like others before him. He took it a notch up — he lost Nigeria. And that is Nigeria’s greatest tragedy. Buhari lost Nigeria because he suffered from a bigger messianic complex than Obasanjo. His self-righteous indignation blinded him to the most obvious remedies capable of extending the life of Nigeria. Buhari’s allergy to diversity meant that he had only a narrow tunnel view of the country. It ultimately led him to the current end where the tunnel is collapsing in his face, burying him and the nation in its wake. In ‘Why Obasanjo Failed,’ I wrote: “Granted, Obasanjo inherited a fractured country that had been ravaged by years of military misrule. It was a country with so many structural flaws that cracks were visible along its walls, beams, and pillars.
There was no sense of direction and no purpose for the nation and its citizens. The country lacked the institutions to support any democratic initiative. The Nigeria Obasanjo was handed over was a country on its stomach.” “The recipe for failure was put in place when such a country was handed over to someone who had no knowledge and not enough courage to do things that were needed to be done to jump-start the failed nation. Obasanjo was like a partially blind, partially deaf, unskilled driver without any knowledge of the mechanics of machines, who was charged with the responsibility to drive a troubled car in rough weather from point A to point B. It did not take two years before it became clear to serious observers that the man was the wrong choice for that mission.” If Obasanjo was the wrong person in 1999, Buhari was the ‘wrongest’ person in 2015.
But in each case, the doctrine of desperation steeped deep into the fear of losing the country threw Obasanjo and Buhari up as the easiest of all viable options. For a country like Nigeria that loves the path of easy resistance, Obasanjo in 1999 and Buhari in 2015 became the default candidates. In “Why Obasanjo failed,” I noted the following: “Obasanjo’s job is not to give billions of naira to certified crooks for the maintenance of the refineries, only to spend more billions importing fuel to avoid the shortage we saw during Abacha’s time. His duty is not to spend billions of naira in Tony Anenih’s road contracts without having roads that lead to a brighter future. Obasanjo’s responsibility is not to scold us for expecting a lot and abuse us for being impatient; rather his task is to provide hope. Unfortunately, Obasanjo could not get over himself. He allowed his exaggerated sense of importance to prevent him from achieving a victory for the Nigerian-kind. “The litany of crises we are witnessing is the product of the intentional decision by Obasanjo and his cohorts in the ruling PDP to ignore the fundamentals. Basically, they made a deliberate decision to continue from where the NPN of the early 80s stopped, as if all that transpired in the late 80s and all of the 90s were of no consequence.
In a more sophisticated way, Obasanjo and his friends embarked on a mission to plunder what remained of Nigeria’s wealth, wellbeing, and welfare.” The Buhari team has essentially followed the same path. They have plundered Nigeria just like all the successive governments before them. “Any other PDP candidate of 1999 who fought to lead Nigeria might have spared the nation Obasanjo’s truckload of embarrassments, arrogance, pettiness, vindictiveness, and blatant ignorance, but working within the principles of PDP and with the certified criminals who fill its ranks and file would have also ended up a failure. As long as the fundamental problems of Nigeria, like the very nature of the union, resource control, judicial reform, relationship between the state and the federation, etc, are either ignored or shied away from, all efforts at reform, especially the half-hearted ones, would amount to nothing… “The primary reason why Obasanjo has failed is his stubborn refusal to implement a deep-rooted structural reform of Nigeria. Obasanjo, full of himself and trusting in his military drill-sergeant mentality, thought he could order around a wounded country.
Obasanjo’s resort to patching the wall, managing one crisis after another instead of tearing down the walls and rebuilding a nation has become his waterloo. His choice of actions, or inactions, is the style of cowards and men without vision.” When it became obvious in 2004 that Obasanjo had failed, this was what we did. “Interestingly, we have counted out Obasanjo and have plunged into a vigorous search for another personality on whom we shall hang our hope. We are once again refusing to insist on reforms that would guarantee progress irrespective of who occupies Aso Rocks. For some reason, we continue to have the hope that those unprincipled men and women in the National Assembly have in them the right mantle needed to chart a decent course for us. In our stupidity, we are once again betting our survival on some proven crooks, expired characters, and loudmouthed egoists. We are propping ourselves to be satisfied in the realization that any of them would be better than Obasanjo. Just like we once convinced ourselves that, come what may, Obasanjo would be better than Sani Abacha.” We are already doing this again.
We are looking up to the National Assembly to amend the constitution to take their mouth off Nigeria’s breast where they feed fat. We are looking up to the like of Bola Tinubu, Nasir el-Rufai, David Umahi, Yemi Osinbajo, Atiku Abubakar, Peter Obi, Kayode Fayemi, Yahaya Bello, Orji Uzo Kalu, etc, to save us from the rot they created – the same rot that they still depend on for their sustenance. We are again sure that any of them would be better than Buhari. If that is not a form of mental illness on our part, then I do not know what it is. The truth is that, unlike in 2015, something has fundamentally changed in Nigeria. Buhari did not just fail spectacularly; he also lost Nigeria in the process. Nobody on the Nigerian stage today can save it. None. What will save Nigeria is no longer deep reforms, restructuring, repentance, and reconciliation. Unfortunately, the window for that kind of intervention is closing up fast, if not closed entirely.
Secrets that were once hidden are now revealed; irate giants that were once asleep are now awake; and barrels of blood that were shed on the altar of Nigeria for decades are now choking the life out of the country. It is no more Obasanjo’s or Buhari’s grandfather’s Nigeria. The hornets will sting those who disturbed their nest. No amount of prayers will stop it. Nigeria is beaten up, pushed down the hill, and the country is grudgingly marching down to Golgotha. Nobody can carry its cross. The only path out of this valley of death is via reincarnation. In our own eyes, Buhari dragged Nigeria across the Rubicon. And as Julius Caesar said, “alea iacta est”— the die is cast. Not even Obasanjo can say that Nigeria still dey kampe.
• Rudolf Okonkwo is a Nigerian Journalist and Writer