Nigerians are rightfully horrified by former President Olusegun Obasanjo‘s and President Goodluck Jonathan‘s naked dance in the market. Everyone already knows that Obasanjo likes to unleash pent-up rage at political enemies. Ask former Vice President Atiku Abubakar. But we are just now learning that Jonathan, though gentle and genial, is not a timid guy. Jonathan’s letter to his pen pal, Obasanjo, shows that when faced with a threat to his political life, he can as well spew out venom. But the strategic intents of both individuals and their letters’ probable ramifications are beyond mere political survival, which is why Nigerians should be alarmed.
Obasanjo’s motivation can be found in the second paragraph of his letter, which is that he has been progressively marginalized by the Jonathan government. He stated that “… none of the four or more letters that I have written to you in the past two years or so has elicited an acknowledgement or any response.” For Baba, that’s an insult, coming from a so-called political son. He repeatedly hammered Jonathan’s inner circle of “selfish and self-centered aides” who have inserted the President into a bubble and insulated him from Big Brother’s prying eyes. Subtly but clearly, Obasanjo expressed frustrations with his waning influence in the South West, within PDP and, if Jonathan decides to run in the next election, in who becomes probably the next President of Nigeria.
To jolt Jonathan out of slumber, the former army general who helped end the Nigerian civil war needed to rally his troops on the crest of unsavoury popular sentiments about the country’s state of affairs. Clearly, the overarching goal is to take the oxygen out of Jonathan’s second term (or third term?) ambition. Obasanjo’s tactical contours and the timing of his letter are a masterstroke. Consider the implosion within the PDP, the APC‘s new lease of life, heightening insecurity in the country, incessant allegations of corruption – all reinforcing the perception of a rudderless ship of state.
Consequently, Obasanjo sprinkled salt in Jonathan’s open wound in order to further stoke public anger against the administration. Yet Obasanjo audaciously said it was his patriotic duty to do so. Jonathan calls him Baba and, as Chinue Achebe reminds, when a child calls you father, have no hand in his death.
There is no argument that Obasanjo played to Northerners’ sentiments that the presidency returns to that region. By positioning himself as a nationalist, a great apostle of Northern interest, one who handed over power to both Shehu Shagari and Umaru Yar’Adua at different times, Obasanjo’s level of ingratiation becomes odious. Just so we refresh memories, his third term agenda didn’t actually advance Northern interest.
Nevertheless, from a strategic political perspective, his letter must be a net positive. It instantly provides him with a constituency among the rebel governors, emirs, even Northern grassroots population, who have suddenly found one with a big mouth and a loud megaphone to champion their interest. Already, delegations are queuing to pay homage in Otta.
In the manner of the late Obafemi Awolowo who wrote an 18-page letter to Shehu Shagari in 1981, Obasanjo also wants to play the prophet. Awolowo had warned of dire economic consequences unless policies were changed. While Shagari and his team ridiculed Awolowo’s letter as the ranting of a frustrated man, history proved that the late sage was right and Shagari was wrong, as the Nigeria economy subsequently nosedived. Along the same line, sensing the seeming meltdown of the PDP, Obasanjo calculates that should an Armageddon happen, he could easily be touted as one who spoke truth to power – to a President he imposed on the country in the first place. That’s a trophy he would like to keep in his legacy cupboard.
On good authority, Obasanjo’s letter rankled Jonathan and his team who decided it was time to take off the gloves. Jonathan’s response is motivated by several factors, chiefly that enough is enough, that Obasanjo’s closets must be opened so that everyone can see the skeletons in there. Jonathan and his team want to accomplish three things: rebut Obasanjo’s vitriolic criticisms, undercut his argument by damaging his credibility and showcase achievements of the current administration. The jury is still out on this strategy.
There is no doubt that Jonathan hit Obasanjo below the belt, even acknowledging in his letter that “the grapes have gone sour.” But Jonathan also took serious risks by describing the former leader’s letter as “distinctly ominous” and a “threat to national security as it may deliberately or inadvertently set the stage for subversion.” Simply put, you can’t accuse anyone of threatening national security and let them go free. If the law must apply, then the stage should be set for Obasanjo to answer a few questions from investigators. Given that no pot is big enough to cook Obasanjo (to paraphrase Tony Anenih), the President may have inadvertently weakened his hand.
Of course Jonathan also hopes that the timing of his letter takes Obasanjo off his imperial pedestal. The former President’s daughter, Iyabo, had allegedly asked her dad in another open letter whether Nigeria belonged to him. By discrediting Obasanjo’s moral high ground, Jonathan’s henchmen believe they can seize the narrative and nip in the bud, once and for all, the antics of an overbearing former leader.
But the problem with Jonathan’s approach is that he is the President. People care less about what happened in Obasanjo’s government many years ago; people look up to the current leader to fix things. That’s why they hired him. Second, by taking on Obasanjo in a tit-for-tat manner, Jonathan elevates a citizen (it doesn’t matter if he’s an ex-President) to a level of an alternate President. Third, Obasanjo’s vituperations are good ammo for the opposition and each day that Nigerians debate this issue, he wins and Jonathan loses. Fourth, Jonathan’s letter was more defensive than substantive, appearing more like a desperate attempt to maneuver out of a rope-a-dope situation he had been boxed into. Leadership 101: when a President takes on an individual who espouses popular sentiments, there can only be one loser: the President.
The tone of Jonathan’s letter also suggests a siege mentality, if not insensitivity, to current economic, security and political situations in the country. Simple logic: Nigerians believe the country is not doing well. Obasanjo says things are bad. Jonathan says things are good. Therefore, Obasanjo is on the side of the people. Ask the millions of unemployed youths if they are happy with their leaders. Ask the families of those whose loved ones have been murdered in cold blood if there is security in Nigeria. Ask those who have to pay bribes everyday to get the simplest things done if there is corruption in the country.
Jonathan has a point that previous leaders left him a mess and they are now accusing him of not cleaning the mess fast enough. But Nigerians know of only one President and his name is Goodluck Jonathan. A President soaks in insults, even those from predecessors. It’s part of the job. The popular leadership refrain is, if you can’t stand the heat, don’t get in the kitchen.
Jonathan’s letter was ill-advised because it accentuates the key issue in the debate, which is, are Nigerians better off today than they were in the past?
Unfortunately for Jonathan, there cannot be an objective response to that question because memories are often like the morning dew: they disappear in no time. Winston Churchill won World War II and lost the next election. George H. Bush won the first Iraqi war, continued Ronald Reagan’s economic prosperity policies, but he never got reelected. No one talks about how Obama liquidated Osama Bin Laden. Charles Taylor is still wildly popular in Liberia despite his despicable past. Buhari is perhaps the most popular politician in the North yet only few remember the terror he unleashed in 1985 when he became Head of State.
Jonathan can rightly claim some accomplishments but these have been tamely promoted. Therefore, the more this debate continues, the more it chips away at his credibility. Presidents are politicians and needn’t fight a fight they will not win because the cost of fighting is far greater than the cost of peacemaking. Joe Machin, a top US senator from President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party, harshly criticized the President the other day and even accused him of policies likely to result in an economic meltdown. Obama’s response is hush! hush! Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona, United States, a Republican, was photographed wagging fingers in Obama’s eyes in a frightening spectacle of blatant disrespect. Days later, Obama cooled tempers saying that she was merely passionate.
The frozen relationship between Obasanjo and Jonathan is unlikely to thaw. So is that of the President and Speaker Aminu Waziri Tambuwal. So is that of the President and the rebel governors. So is that of the President and certain regions. Perhaps so is that of the President and some former leaders (If you believe Obasanjo). The opposition is beating the drums while PDP is engaged in a macabre dance. There’s only one way out: ignore the hawks; embrace the doves. Try one more time, Mr. President, to make peace with all and salvage your government – and your legacy.
Asueliment Aisabokhala is a leadership expert based in the United States
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of SaharaReporters