As Obasanjo Ditches Yar'Adua

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo's prayer at the Annual Trust Awards that God should punish him if indeed he deliberately chose as his successor a sick man so he would not be able to perform and possibly outshine him, has drawn quite a number

of Amens from the public with the outrightly cynical insisting that God is already inflicting punishment on the former President. The reference to God often drives up sentiments among Nigerians and in an overtly religious society such as ours, every appeal to God is intended to have a special effect. It is a psychological fact that pastors rely on so well, and which Obasanjo often deploys in seasons of doubt. It is possible to be emotional in responding to his latest intrusion into the public space. But more benefit could be derived from looking at the facts of the case, and why Obasanjo has chosen now to speak up on the subject of the President's ill-health, and what message(s) he could possibly be sending across to the public and certain stakeholders. Obasanjo not only ditched President Yar'çdua publicly, he also advised him to resign if his health has failed him. The wily OBJ talked about the path of honour and the path of morality.

In Yar'çdua's case both are obviously currently conflicted. The Obasanjo that spoke at the Daily Trust event tried to project himself as a patriot who is more interested in national progress. Now that we know where Obasanjo stands in this matter, when next Professor Wole Soyinka, Pastor Tunde Bakare, Femi Falana and others want to embark on another "Enough is Enough. To Save Nigeria" street march, they should remember to invite him along! But is Obasanjo now one of the progressives? Or he is merely playing to the gallery? Or he is trying to absolve himself of blame? Some of his friends have praised him for lending his voice to the calls for Yar'Adua's resignation.

There is nothing original in him position though. He is waking up to the truth, more than two years late. Is this not the same Obasanjo who only a fortnight ago pointedly refused to comment on the President's health? If it was not safe for him to pass a comment then, why is it now safe for him to do so? Or was he waiting for the right platform? Telling Yar'çdua to get out at an event in his own backyard, seems a clever way of loading a statement with appropriate weight. Or could it be that Obasanjo already knows something that is not yet public knowledge and which puts him in a safe position to fulminate? For a man who has been to jail and back, simply because he was critical of a sitting Head of State, and who himself does not suffer fools gladly when he wielded power, Obasanjo must be sure that it is only safe to step on a dead cobra's tail. So what are we dealing with? Opportunism? An attempt at self-ingratiation? Rather than applause, Obasanjo's statement, arguably his most poignant public statement, since he left office in May 2007 should invite more questions. President Yar'çdua's ill-health has set an invidious power game in motion and OBJ is trying to get on top of it. But not so fast, sir.

According to the former President, at the time he decided to support President Yar'çdua's candidacy, he was looking for three qualities: intellectual capacity, integrity and broad-mindedness. In 2007, Candidate Yar'çdua was not the only man in the PDP Presidential race who could boast of these three qualities. That was a fact. Another fact: Obasanjo and his agents had made up their mind that it was Yar'çdua that they wanted. He even told Nigerians at the time that he knew those who would not succeed him. One by one, those who showed interest in the race were arm-twisted, or frightened, out of it. Long before the PDP Presidential primaries, it was common knowledge that both the PDP Presidential ticket and the Presidency had been willed by the man in power to the then Governor of Katsina state.

Yar'çdua was a reluctant candidate, the most reluctant of all the candidates. Obasanjo also wanted Yar'çdua in order to spite Abubakar Atiku, his Vice President with whom he had serious problems. Atiku is a product of the General Shehu Yar'çdua political dynasty, and the leader of the late General's wing of the PDP; the once powerful People's Democratic Movement (PDM). In 2002/3, Atiku had made the mistake of boasting that it was he and the PDM machinery that he inherited that brought Obasanjo to power. At the PDP Presidential primaries in 2003, Atiku and his PDM supporters almost humiliated Obasanjo. He was forced to eat the humble pie. What better way to divide and demolish the PDM in 2007, than to hand over power to the junior brother of the founder of the PDM? Handing over power to Yar'çdua was a cold-hearted, Machiavellian move on Obasanjo's part. With due respect, it had nothing to do with all that rhetoric about intellectual capacity, integrity and broad-mindedness. How much of these three, now presented by OBJ as if they are divine imperatives, did we get from the eight years of the Obasanjo administration?

To all intents and purposes, former President Obasanjo wanted Umaru Yar'çdua as president because that was what would serve his own political interests then. Eye-witnesses to that campaign process will recall that it was President Obasanjo that did most of the campaigning. At several rallies, the man who wanted to be President was not allowed to speak. Obasanjo did all the talking, and subsequently, he would raise Yar'Adua's hand. At a point, there were comments about the need for Obasanjo to allow the PDP candidate to speak to Nigerians. The first time we heard of the seven-point agenda was on inauguration day! Yar'çdua became President without Nigerians really knowing him. Now, Obasanjo says don't blame me. He gave me a medical record which said he was in good shape. Obasanjo was Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. A Presidential aspirant gave him a sheet of paper certifying himself fit and he Obasanjo did not deem it necessary to entertain doubts!

The subtext of the Obasanjo comment is that Nigerians not he, made President Yar'çdua president. Nigeria 's big men are very good at revising history. In the light of available evidence, it seems to me that even if OBJ had full knowledge of the risk factors in making a man who had had a kidney transplant President, he would still have chosen Yar'Adua. If the man was so fit, why was Obasanjo the one selling him to Nigerians, instead of allowing him to do more of the talking? So grateful was the Yar'çdua family after the Presidential elections and the inauguration of Yar'çdua as President that three women from the Yar'çdua household including the brand new President's mother, and his late brother's wife went to Ota specially to thank Obasanjo. They did not issue a statement thanking Nigerians. They went to Ota! And now, Obasanjo ditches the same Yar'Adua.

The timing of his latest politics is suspicious but his outburst is understandable. The Atiku threat no longer exists. The PDM is in disarray. Atiku who wanted to replace Obasanjo and in the process became an issue in Nigerian Presidential politics has since gone to Obasanjo's home to pay homage. All the other candidates, North and South in the PDP who wanted to be President have been driven into their shells, with some of them still battling with the EFCC yoke that was slung around their necks. But Yar'Adua on whose behalf all that effort was made has shown no gratitude to former President Obasanjo. The Yar'Adua government began at the centre with a systematic assault on the Obasanjo legacy. Obasanjo and his spin-doctors used to boast that the dividends of democracy that Nigerians wanted so badly would fructify in the fullness of time on the altar of sustainability.

If they thought Yar'çdua would sustain Obasanjo's reform agenda and programmes, they made a mistake. These were the first set of pillars that the new government pulled down. Many Obasanjo boys who had worked tirelessly on the Yar'çdua-must-be-President agenda suddenly found themselves being treated as persona non grata. They have been chased out of government, into exile, or into EFCC detention centres. Under Obasanjo, there was something that assumed a political shape called Corporate Nigeria, the jet-riding set that donated money to political causes and strolled into the Presidential Villa at will. They owned the biggest businesses in town and they didn't hide the fact of their closeness to the President. More than two years later, the Yar'çdua government has successfully castrated this group.

The 24-hour gate passes to Presidential Villa that they used to brandish have been withdrawn! Some of them have lost their banks and are now struggling to stay out of jail. Even those who thought they knew Yar'Adua ( "he was my senior in secondary school"; "I know him") have all been shocked: if they thought they would prosper politically under him, the man gave them poisoned gifts. Obasanjo himself has not been spared. Yar'çdua and his team have not treated him as the Godfather of the administration. His position as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the PDP has been rendered almost useless. He has been turned into a laughing stock in the company of those he once said would never be President. Ordinary Nigerians may regard President Yar'çdua as a weak leader because of his illness, but his power-politics has been very strong and he may have made great strides in that direction that could affect Nigeria in more fundamental ways than we may realise. But Obasanjo is smart. He is choosing his own time to strike back. But why strike a man when he is weak? Whatever may be Obasanjo's shortcomings, his voice still carries weight in Nigerian politics. By coming out against Yar'Adua, he will be setting off a chain of reactions that should be closely watched. What will be the Katsina response to the bomb from Ota? And why has Obasanjo suddenly become freshly voluble at the time when Vice President Goodluck Jonathan is said to be taking charge gradually at the Presidency?

It is a game of musical chairs, not yet an end game. Two or three newspapers have suggested that President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua may show up in Nigeria next week, looking healthy and strong enough to carry on. Should that happen, it will be not necessarily a miracle, but a political masterstroke. Some people may have to leave town. For there could be serious reprisals from the Yar'çdua end which may not have demonstrated a capacity to keep promises, but remarkable adroitness in teaching ambitious men and women bitter lessons about the game of power. Even if the man does not return next week, with INEC poised to announce the time-table for the 2011 elections in March, the professional political class will see the need to engage in further mischief.

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