Monday Column with George Akume
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo needs no introduction in his home country Nigeria, indeed in Africa and beyond. As a governor elected in 1999, we built a relationship that was based on my high opinion of him, needless to say that he also had a high opinion of my humble self. I remember my discussion with him during his visit to Benue State preparatory to the Jos Convention of 1999, when I referred to what Ken Saro Wiwa wrote about him in his book ‘On a Darkling Plain’.
Recounting his encounter with Obasanjo during the Nigerian civil war, Ken Saro Wiwa wrote that at first sight, Obasanjo’s mannerism can easily make one to believe that since he is not as smart looking as Col. Adekunle, he could not deliver and not be a competent combatant. Ken Saro Wiwa added that to the contrary, in less than a week, Obasanjo had reestablished order in the Division. He ordered soldiers back to the barracks. He watched Obasanjo at close quarters when he was addressing his troops for the final offensive against the Biafran army. He was very impressed. I told the General this comment by Ken contradicted sharply with what Gen. James Oluleye said of him in his autobiography that he was a bundle of tricks.
When I brought that aspect of the book to his attention, he had a good laugh. He solemnly intimated me that Nigeria is a structurally complex and a socially pluralistic country and as such, without tricks no leader could survive. It is an advice Obasanjo must have given himself over and over again. I lamented the very poor showing of our PDP in the South West especially Ogun State, his home state. He regretted that the Yorubas were making a costly mistake about secession. He would not be involved with such a tragic event. The Yorubas would be goaded by the Ibos to make a tragic move with cataclysmic consequences. The Ibos would ditch them, join the north and destroy them in a revenge offensive.
General Obasanjo shot himself into limelight when Gen. Gowon posted him to the 3rd Marine Division towards the end of the civil war in 1969 to take over from the celebrated, courageous, and charismatic Benjamin Adekunle, the Black Scorpion and Commander of the Commandos. The Colonel, it was alleged, had become war-weary, hence the inevitable need for a change of guards.
Fate beckons, during his time as Commander of the Division, Colonel Obasanjo received the instrument of surrender from Col. Effiong the Biafran Army Commander, bringing to a close a very sad chapter in the history of Nigeria. Colonel Obasanjo instantly became a war hero. He wrote the book “My Command”.
Fate beckons. He became the Federal Commissioner for Works; the ascent to prominence and authority had begun. The 1975 coup catapulted him to the number 2 slot in the military and political hierarchy of the country – Chief of Staff, Supreme Military Council. Fate beckons again, with the assassination of Gen. Murtala Mohammed, Gen. Obasanjo became the Head of State.
Along with Gen. Mohammed, they turned Nigeria from 12 to 19 state structure and drew up the roadmap to return Nigeria to participatory democracy. They inaugurated the Constituent Assembly and assembled a committee of 50 wise men, headed by the legal guru, Chief Rotimi Williams, to draft the Presidential 1979 Constitution. Fantastic record.
The “Ali Must Go” demonstrations across the Universities tarnished an unblemished record with the killings of Ahmadu Bello University students on the orders of the Commander-in–Chief. The New Nigerian Editorial entitled: “Our Fatherland, our Honour: where are you?” aptly described the mood of the Nation. But in a deft and sagacious move, Gen. Obasanjo in 1979, to the acclaim and appreciation of the Nigerian students, abolished tuition fees in all Nigerian Universities.
It was against this background that I met our would-be President in 1999 at Hilton Hotel, Abuja. He was agitated at the rise of Ekwueme in the opinion polls. Ekwueme’s surge in the polls was of such a concern to Obasanjo who contended that anybody who tries to dismember Nigeria cannot be Commander-in-Chief. He showed me a huge scar at the back of his right thigh from an injury he sustained when his convoy was ambushed on his way from the frontline, killing 9 out of his 11 body guards. He called Ekwueme a bloody Biafran who cannot be President. I assured him of the full support of Benue delegates at the Jos Convention held in February, 1999. Adding to his already impressive legacy, he went on to win the 1999 elections with a landslide.
Continuing on Obasanjo’s patriotic credentials, despite our occasional differences, he reminded me that he still had a lot of respect for me since our disagreements were on principles. A case in point, he called me to Abeokuta and directed to ensure the defeat of some politicians who were contesting for elective positions in the PDP because of their irresponsibility, corruption and lack of patriotism. Obasanjo recalled many instances particularly the case of my successor for Governor of Benue State whom he called unprintable names. He resisted the young man’s candidature but relented through pleadings.
Yet, this brief portrait of a complex and sometimes contradictory Obasanjo will not be complete if one does not include the heroic sacrifices some members of his family are making in the service of Nigeria. For instance, his, son, Lt. Col. Obasanjo whom I met during my tenure as Governor of Benue State, when he was then a Captain, is a brilliant officer who was recently wounded and eventually evacuated during a battle against the Boko Haram terrorists.
In about 2001, patriotism again manifested itself. On our return from an official visit to Japan, where President Obasanjo was lavishly and affably received by his host, Prime Minister Koizumi, the Presidential Adviser on International Relations, former MD Daily Times and Ambassador to Brazil, Dr. Patrick Dele Cole, was completely enmeshed in diatribe with us on restructuring, resources control and fiscal federalism in vile language. He did not notice the presence of Mr. President. The President launched a counter offensive that badly shook the Adviser. “Today, he roared, you vilify the Hausa-Fulani, Tiv, Bachama, Angas, Birom, Yoruba e.t.c because of oil. Did you plant oil in your soil through hard work?. If not for these people, you would have remained slaves in your region.” Vantage Obasanjo, most of us were impressed with his command of history and facts and display of courage and uncommon sagacity. Three weeks later, Dr. Cole was dropped as his Adviser. Such was his obsession with respect to restructuring.
President Obasanjo is a bag of paradoxes and contradictions that portray him as frequently grandstanding or posturing on critical national issues. That has recently been the case with his shrill and potentially divisive antics as a self-serving restructuring irredentist cum iconoclast. Joining pokers of hate and disunity, President Obasanjo may be cleaning his name from our Nigerian legends list.
It is pertinent to ask what, in his legerdemain-like iconoclasm, Obasanjo means by restructuring.
To some advocates of restructuring, Nigeria should simply be dismembered and let every component unit go its own way. The attempt to restructure Nigeria in this way is not new. In fact an attempt in this direction led to a brutal civil war between 1967 and 1970 in which millions of people died. Some want confederation. Others see restructuring in terms of resource control.
Many want creation of additional states. In fact the 2014 Conference on Constitutional Reforms convened by the government of President Goodluck Jonathan recommended the creation of eighteen additional states to make for a fifty four-state structure.
To many Scholars and Politicians, Nigeria has been over structured since 1914. The 1946 Arthur Richard’s Constitution broke Nigeria into regions – North, East and West. According to Chief Richard Akinjide, the 1979 Constitution of Nigeria is the best and only few aspects on the Exclusive list need to be tinkered with to suit prevailing circumstances. The Constitution of the Unites States is the only constitution that the country has ever had, done over 250 years ago and it is the same Constitution that is in operation today with a few amendments. When that constitution was enacted, there were only 13 states. Today, there are 50 states and they are still using the same constitution. What they do is that apart from making amendments, there are interpretations by the Supreme Court of the United States and that is why the role of the court is very, very critical, Chief Akinjide concluded.
The military intervened in 1966, created a 12-state structure, which culminated into 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory we have now.
Today, at 83, it sounds hollow for ex-President Obasanjo who, until recently, was not an apostle of restructuring to quickly and brazenly become a disciple of restructuring in a more deadly manner: brand new constitution or brand new war. He writes off a democratic National Assembly for being incapable of giving Nigerians the constitution they deserve. Randomly and lopsidedly selected Nigerians by President Jonathan for his own National Conference in 2014 is preferred to the people’s representatives as the call for implementation of the Jonathan National Conference paper gathers momentum in a restricted bracket of the Nigerian populace. Let us not forget about the fact that Southern delegates far outnumbered Northern delegates to the said conference.
With due respect to President Obasanjo, he had the highest opportunity among all Nigerian leaders to restructure Nigeria the way he wanted. Along with the Late Gen. Murtala Mohammed, they restructured Nigeria from 12 to 19 states. Fate beckoned when he became President in 1999 and repeated the feat in 2003, winning his second term with a landslide. Asked in 2003 by a Retired General of South Western extraction, Gen. Obasanjo told his guest that the National Assembly was in his pocket and he was therefore in total control of all the branches of government. A rare opportunity for the President to restructure his country. Having ruled for 11 and 1/2 years – an unprecedented record in rulership for any country-why did he fail to restructure? Do we have to resort to war over restructuring? No, never. President Obasanjo’s attempt during his second term to restructure featured only his third term agenda. Very sad. We fought and defeated this evil plan.
Today, the world is a global village: see Somalia, Rwanda, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Lybia and recall the experiences of Liberia and Sierra-Leone. A war in Nigeria will end with cataclysmic consequences – millions of deaths, hundreds of thousands of war lords, refugee problem (remember the boat people). May the drums of war cease. May the National Assembly be allowed to do its constitutional sacred work. Should we prefer violence, then all passport holders must deposit their passports with the Department of State Security (DSS) while borders will be officially closed to prevent privileged citizens from fleeing the country.
Leadership entails sacrifice and consistency in the face of difficulties and uncertainties. With our leadership potentials and driven by our patriotism, ingenuity and creativity, we must work hard to secure the peace and territorial integrity of our country. Once again, we say no to war and destruction; the march to Armageddon and Golgotha must halt. Let us co-write the history of our greatness today.
God Bless Nigeria
Happy 83rd Birthday Baba.
Sen. George Akume, fnim is
Honourable Minister of Special Duties and Inter-Governmental Affairs, Federal Republic of Nigeria.