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THE OBASANJO U-TURN

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Former Nigerian President, General Olusegun Obasanjo gathered journalists together at his Hilltop Abeokuta residence on Friday, to disown the claim that he had called for a fresh round of do or die politics in 2011. According to him, he merely sang a song in Yoruba which the reporters translated wrongly. “You people in the press, you must be deliberately ignorant, misinformed, uneducated or mischievous,” the old man who turned 74 (!) yesterday thundered. Obasanjo is probably the most reported Nigerian alive today. He owes the popularity of his persona to the Nigerian mass media whose editors and reporters love to quote him at him every turn, in and out of office. Obasanjo himself knows how to tickle the media with his unending repertoire of wise cracks and antics.


But hardly has he ever shown due respect for the contributions of the media to the making of the Obasanjo persona, or even to the country’s development process, rather at every possible opportunity, he abuses journalists: he either says we are worse than dogs or that we are “ignorant, misinformed, uneducated or mischievous”. Well, to borrow an Obasanjo expression, “I dey laugh o.” It is noteworthy however, that Obasanjo did not deny being the author of the phrase, if not the concept, of “do or die” Nigerian politics. He certainly did not disown his copyright of the phrase. He only said “I didn’t say so this time: I sang a Yoruba song.” It would be interesting to have a full text of that song and to deconstruct its literal and embodied meanings, just to determine who between Obasanjo and the reporters who attended the Lagos PDP Presidential campaign is misleading the public. Obasanjo said he sang “lau erebe..”, a popular Yoruba folk song but which version? Did he modify it? “I still dey laugh o.” Hei he hei…


More rib-cracking laughter is to be further extracted from President Obasanjo’s claim at the Hilltop press conference that he was tricked into attending the now controversial welcome church service for the PDP prison-returnee, Chief Olabode George. Who tricked him? Chief Bode George. How? Hear him: “He (George) sent a passionate message to me from prison, urging me to attend a family church thanksgiving and I believe that whatever reason any family is giving thanks in church or in mosque and he invites me and I am able to go there, whether it is for marriage, burial, housewarming, christening of a child, I will go.” But when Obasanjo got to the church, he suddenly “found that the atmosphere was more than a family affair.” I can’t but laugh. Obasanjo found an atmosphere that “was more than a family affair” when he got to the Cathedral Church of Christ, Marina? And he expects anyone to believe him? Obasanjo travelled from Abeokuta all the way to Marina, in the heart of Lagos to attend a church service for a man who was returning from prison that every day, and he expected that the ceremony will be a simple family affair? Oh, Baba, come off it.


Bode George is not an ordinary citizen, but a Very Important (ex-)Prisoner, just released, a party chieftain who had been jailed for corruption. Still, he had been holding court in prison and Obasanjo himself says he knows this to be so. To have attended a reception for such a man amounts to an expression of support for him, and an endorsement of his conduct. There is no beating about the bush about this. In fact, Obasanjo sat directly behind George at the church service. And yet he says he was tricked? Obasanjo is 74, and very agile, and active. He could not have forgotten so soon that when he himself returned from prison a few years ago, he had a family thanksgiving at the Baptist Church Owu, Abeokuta, and although that was also a family thanksgiving, the church was jam-packed. So, there is no prescribed shape for a family thanksgiving, even if Obasanjo was a different kind of prisoner, and in any case, the Bode George event took place at the Cathedral not in a small, family church or chapel. Tricked? Let us even assume that Obasanjo was tricked; when he got to the church and he discovered that the Thanksgiving “was more than a family affair”, why didn’t he leave the church immediately? Why didn’t he register his displeasure on the spot? It has taken him a whole week to disown the event! This is an afterthought, surely, and it is very much unlike Obasanjo who is so readily talkative when incensed. Seventy two hours after the same church service that he now deplores, the same Obasanjo was sitting in the same VIP stand at the Tafawa Balewa Square, Lagos with the same Bode George, both attending the PDP Presidential Rally! Walahi, I dey laugh too much...


Instead of claiming that he was tricked and taking out his anger on hapless reporters, Baba should just have confessed that he made a mistake attending the Bode George church rally, apologise, and state his position on the matter. Following the Feb. 26 reception, there had been serious outrage in the media, with concerned Nigerians insisting that the loud celebration of Bode George’s return from prison amounted to a disregard for values, and a show of contempt for the Nigerian state, particularly the justice administration system. Obasanjo was a special target of the criticisms: he who had claimed to be an anti-corruption campaigner and indeed a Board member of Transparency International, dancing with Bode George with the prison stink still glued to his robes. Was Obasanjo advised by his friends at Transparency International to disown Bode George, a week after joining others to thank God on his behalf? Wherever the impetus came from, we should take special notice of Obasanjo’s U-Turn on the Bode George case: He says “Bode George did not comport himself properly in the task (port authority assignment) given to him.” That should be comforting to the trial judge who was being made to look like a villain.


Obasanjo adds: “And when he was in prison, he was conducting himself like the Lord of the Manor. I called him and told him that the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo was the original founder of the Action Group but when he (Awo) was in Calabar, he was not running the Action Group and for Bode George to be in Kirikiri prison and still run the Lagos PDP was not the right thing.” Indeed, the conduct of the PDP chieftain while in prison has been a recurrent theme in his story. There may well be a need to order a probe into how the Kirikiri maximum prison became an extension of the PDP Lagos secretariat with Bode George holding court with the party faithful who thronged the prison on a daily basis, and what role exactly the prison authorities played in making such mockery of the justice system. If the latter are found guilty of complicity, they should be sanctioned accordingly. We cannot afford to have a prison system which can be compromised by the highest bidder at will. Obasanjo says he “called him.” Called him? How? I am not aware that the Nigerian prison system allows prisoners to use phones while in custody. And Obasanjo does not know that? Any statement that the ex-President makes a posteriori does not absolve him. He is guilty by association.


Obasanjo also added: “I don’t see why PDP as a national party that is trying to form a national government and in 27 states in the federation would be celebrating criminality because whatever we may say, the reason Bode George went to prison should be condemned by everybody and I have condemned it because he did not go to prison for political offence. PDP as a party must dissociate itself from celebrating criminality.” How nice it would have been if Obasanjo had said exactly this at the Bode George event on February 26. But even as an afterthought, it is very well articulated. Obasanjo is Chairman of the PDP Board of Trustees.


His condemnation of criminality within the PDP is well taken, particularly as this is coming at a time when the party is fast developing a reputation as a party of bomb throwers, kidnappers and ex-convicts. For the PDP to dissociate itself from criminality, its leaders and foot-soldiers must resolve to go to the 2011 polls to play fair politics, not do or die politics, and they must dissociate themselves from Bode George’s promise of “tsunami politics”. Obasanjo has disclaimed Bode George, so who is next? Perhaps the Cathedral Church of Christ, Marina, which lent its premises and pulpit to the Bode George jamboree? And still on the Obasanjo attack on journalists, has anyone noticed the ironic fact that Baba may also soon enrol as a member of the Nigeria Union of Journalists? He now writes a weekly column titled Global Connection, for the Saturday Mirror newspaper. In a sense, Obasanjo is in fact, one of us – “people in the press.” I kuku ma still dey laugh o…


II: Politicians And Their Campaign Methods
That the campaigns for the 2011 elections have started in earnest is no longer news. Across the country, at state, ward, and national levels, the politicians are practically on the road, trying to catch the attention of the voter. But the same electorate appears to be the victim of the methods being adopted by the politicians, raising questions about the need to monitor campaign methods closely and to ensure adequate security at campaign venues, and by extension to protect the larger community.


In Port Harcourt recently, a rally by the presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) resulted in a stampede which left scores of persons dead and injured. The gates to the stadium had been locked, leaving only one exit point open, a clever way of detaining the crowd to avoid having empty stands when an audience is needed most. A careless security agent fired into the air and the people rushed for the exit. In Suleja, Niger state, hand-held explosives were reportedly thrown into the venue of the Niger East PDP senatorial campaign flag off by unidentified persons on Thursday, March 3.


Two weeks ago in Enugu state, Governor Sullivan Chime narrowly escaped death when an explosive device which had been planted under his seat was discovered by the police, before the commencement of his flag off campaign for a second term in office. In Plateau state, the flag off of the Labour party Gubernatorial campaign, led by Pauline Tallen was almost marred by the involvement of twelve of the party’s supporters in a ghastly motor accident on their way to Jos. They died on the spot. Others are in hospital with injuries. The police suspect foul play. In Benue, an on-coming vehicle also ran into Governor Gabriel Suswam’s convoy; three of the journalists who had accompanied the Governor to distribute relief materials, were injured. The Governors’ convoy sped off immediately, and the journalists were abandoned for a while at the scene of the accident.


When Chief Bode George returned from prison, the thanksgiving service according to Obasanjo was almost taken over by “area boys,” that is thugs. No political event is complete these days without the presence of thugs, and the likelihood of raw violence. Decent debate is so difficult to organize among the politicians. There is too much desperation in the air. In Abia State, the State Governor stormed out of a debate organized by the Catholic Secretariat insisting that the Catholic Church conference hall had become “a hostile environment” hijacked by “a partisan crowd.” Indeed, the entire campaign process is defined by sheer hostility. Newspapers refer to the campaigns as “the battle front” (ThisDay, March 4 at page 20).


In Ihiala, Anambra state, on February 26, an event organized by the Ihiala Leaders of Thought was disrupted when gunmen suddenly stormed the venue brandishing dangerous weapons, and started shooting. The big men in attendance had to flee. In Uyo, Akwa Ibom state, the state government reportedly organized a cash donation of N3.1 million to unemployed graduates and students in the state, to be distributed to the beneficiaries at Ibom Hall. The stampede that followed resulted in the death of two persons, with others injured. The police had to unleash canisters of tear gas, and their gun butts and batons as the youths scrambled for N3. 1 million! What a way to empower unemployed youths! In Benue state, the ACN alleged that its offices in Adikpo, Zaki Biam, Sankera and Katsina-Ala were burnt down by the opposition. A House of Reps member, Mzenda Iho also reported that an attempt was made on his life by opponents.


The politicians’ campaign methods make or less no sense to decent people. In Lagos, whenever either the ACN or the PDP holds a rally at the Tafawa Balewa Square, Central Lagos simply shuts down, and the politicians really do not care about the discomfort that they bring to the people and the insecurity that their poorly organized rallies encourage. The ACN may soon cause a scarcity of brooms in the market, and force prices of the commodity to rise. Sheer madness will ensue if PDP members also decide to start parading umbrellas at their rallies! In every regard, the campaigns have not been different from the party primaries which were also marred by violence and irregularities. The big challenge however is in ensuring that the security agencies are more pro-active in checking the reign of impunity in the land. Last month, the Inspector General of Police admitted that his command had been given N50 billion to prepare for the 2011 polls. Hopefully, that will be measurable in terms of efficient performance.

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