(An Open Letter to Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, former head of state, former President, Federal Republic of Nigeria)
I sincerely hope this letter meets you in your usual high spirits.
A boy advising his father is rather a very difficult task. His effort can easily suffer ad hominem (the advice being misconstrued as directed against the person rather than the position they are maintaining). In traditional Nigerian society also, a son cannot chide his father openly. An Igbo adage states, If a boy lifts his father his sight will be covered by the old man (his father)’s scrotum.
However, another proverb in turn says that it gets to the point when some individuals have to wear a mask basket to talk to the king. This situation is similar. Somebody has to talk to our father, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, and appeal to him that it is time he lets go of Nigeria. He has to now take the backseat while allowing Nigerians to make their mistakes and offer quiet advice.
Your Excellency, I was in primary school in the 70s when I first heard your name as a head of the state of Nigeria. I was born around the clamor of the Nigeria-Biafra war and was later to understand that you played a key role in that war, and was the one that history thrust it upon to receive the Biafra surrender. I also heard you were magnanimous in victory and were later to become deputy to head of state Murtala Mohammed, and soon after, head of state of Nigeria yourself. That was when I heard of you for the first time and that was over 50 years ago.
I have read some of your books that are, I must acknowledge, quite intellectually nuanced and thoroughly researched – My Command, My Watch, etc., and one or two others. That’s the stuff philosopher kings are made of. However, your books all have one flaw in common – I, me, and myself. In these books, I noticed that you are not generous in giving others the credit they deserve and you easily came down heavily on contemporaries and adversaries alike with shattering impacts much like killing the fly with a sledgehammer.
One statement you made about Chief Obafemi Awolowo that got etched on my boyhood memory was this: “A man whose life ambition eluded him deserves my sympathy”. I read it in the National Concord or so. As a boy, I found that prosaic expression seductive and profound. But as I matured and read more about Awo and yourself, I reconsidered the statement as unkind. Yet, that is quite your signature and typical of you as such scathing statements lace all your books and open letters.
Persons suffering from egolalalia (the tendency to speak almost exclusively about oneself); or a tendency towards megalomania are narcissistic. They believe the world revolves around them. I am not saying this is your lot. It will take quite a battery of personality tests to establish it. I am only digging around for insight.
Today, over 50 years later, it is still about you. When, then, will it be my time sir?
You are indeed one of the most blessed Nigerians. I am not sure any member of your set in the Nigeria Army is still around. So, you are a living grace of God, a marvel, a legend indeed.
Only you and President Muhammadu Buhari have had the rare opportunity to rule the most populous black nation on earth, a country of over 200m people, twice – as military heads of state and civilian presidents. One thing the two of you have in common is your determination to keep Nigeria as a unitary system in this federal environment and in defiance of the federal system negotiated by the Nigerian founding fathers (Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe aka Zik of Africa, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, etc.) with departing colonial Britain.
As you can well see sir, the unitary system, which the military imposed since its incursion in governance in Nigeria has woefully failed Nigerians as nearly all the powers meant for national unity and economic development are trapped and held in the Exclusive List. Security, power, rail, ports, and so on are all on the Exclusive List. You ensured that all attempts to alter this unitary 1999 Constitution failed in your 8-year presidency. The last attempt, you recall sir, was truncated when the cronies that most reasonable Nigerians believe were inspired by you inserted 3rd term in it.
Two statements you made of late keep some of us wondering as per your actual motive. Sir, you recently said that Nigeria is now ripe for restructuring (i.e. restoration of federalism I believe). But curiously you didn’t allow this in your time. You also said recently that Nigeria is still a country and not yet a nation. You are right on both counts but the question is: what did you do to mitigate the situation and migrate Nigeria from country to nation?
You know, sir, most Nigerians reckon that there is no Nigerian dead or alive that God has placed or positioned to achieve unity and nationhood for Nigeria more than your great self. But you chose to use the divine opportunities to ensure none of the two happened through a natural course.
On national unity particularly, you are of the unyielding view that Nigeria can only be held together by force. Forced unity has never worked anywhere in the world. The classic examples of Yugoslavia, the USSR, and some others are there as historic signposts and constant reminders.
Your Excellency can see himself that centrifugal forces fighting exclusion in the Nigerian polity have continued to create separatist agitations and terrorist groups. Boko Haram, OPC, IPOB, Niger Delta militancy, and the others are all products of our forced unity, which you have relentlessly championed. Why don’t you allow Nigerians to be so that they can negotiate their existence and make progress together or apart?
I am of the firm and informed view that for the country to be pulled back from the precipice, federalism must first be restored to Nigeria. This is in tandem with the agreed formula between the nation’s founding fathers and Britain on how best to organize and run Nigeria.
Nigerian citizens are grateful to the nation’s military for their sacrifices to keep the nation one. But for how long should the retired military brass, led by your good self, hold the nation’s jugular? Yes, it does appear that you and your colleagues are holding onto the nation and her leadership as war booty and Scorched Earth policy. This is no longer justified 60 years after; it has held back development and true unity for too long and dislocated so much that may take decades to fix.
As a forensic/social psychologist that has a bias for leadership, power, and conflict, I find it more and more difficult to understand why you cannot let go. Other former heads of state and former Presidents may be interested in the affairs of the nation and expectedly so. But they do not bear it down the necks of the incumbents. One believes that they reach out behind the scene as should. But you write open letters to the Presidents rather than discuss with them in private using back channels.
Apart from private channels open to you as a former head of state/former President, there is also the National Council of State, which convenes meetings from time to time where you can even shout at one another and bang the table behind closed doors and out of the public glare. Your letters have not therefore achieved the desired results if their contents are actually what they intend. They amount to doing the right thing wrong. But I also suspect that your actual motive is the optics and public disclaimer. You want to dissociate and acquit yourself in a court of public opinion of the moral burden and economic crisis besetting the nation.
Unfortunately, this will never suffice because you cannot recuse yourself from the crisis facing the country. In this dispensation that started in 1999 alone, you have played a pivotal role – if not singlehandedly – in recruiting the three Presidents that have succeeded your administration. You imposed Umaru Musa Yar’Adua as President. As it turned out, Yar’Adua had a terminal health condition that you claim you were unaware of. “God punish me if I knew”, was your defence.
Yar’Adua was effective only for one year and eventually died in office (may God rest his soul. He was a very good man and a good President). Vice President Dr. Goodluck Jonathan took over. The choice of Jonathan as Vice President was also essentially and entirely your idea; you arrogated the right of PDP members to choose their flag-bearer to yourself and imposed Jonathan. Jonathan turned out to be a very weak President who ended up as your puppet as intended, and the moment he wanted to assert himself, he started receiving your open letters and open rebukes. He could not also work on restructuring or restoring federalism.
We even heard that Jonathan had to use Tippex to cover his signature after assenting to the last amendment that deeply addressed the restoration of Nigeria to federalism. I read his (Jonathan’s) My Transition Hours, hoping to see the reason he declined assent to the 1999 Constitution Alteration Bill, which had been passed by the National Assembly and concurrently affirmed by 24 States of the federation but saw nothing. My point is sir: between your presidency and that of Jonathan, Nigeria could have been fully restored to federalism yet here we are!
Your Excellency, you told the nation that there were five women in the Jonathan administration and Jonathan was one of them and the weakest. But Jonathan never aspired to be Vice President or President. You, playing God as always (no offence intended sir), forced him upon Nigeria. So, why blame the poor, genial fellow who was enjoying his position as deputy governor to Diepreye Solomon Peter Alamieyeseigha of Bayelsa state? Wasn’t that exactly what you wanted? A pliable and weak President who would be at your beck and call, and who you can pull by the ear like a child? Was that not an attempt at achieving by proxy the 3rd Term that Nigerians vehemently rejected?
You are also aware of the domineering role you played in bringing President Muhammadu Buhari to power and leading the campaign to stop the second term bid of your protégé, Goodluck Jonathan. You have also accused Buhari of fulanization and Islamization of Nigeria. But is there anything Buhari is doing today that was not predictable when you led his recruitment drive in 2015? Truth be told: without you, there wouldn’t have been Yar’Adua, Jonathan, and Buhari as Presidents. You chose them, not Nigerians. You should therefore accept the tragedies associated with their times more than anyone else.
How could posterity possibly exonerate you from the disastrous government of the APC? George Orwell said: “A people that elect corrupt politicians, impostors, thieves, and traitors are not victims, but accomplices”. By the same token, those who played roles in recruiting the Buhari-led APC federal government in 2015 must share in the blame, and history will not likely be kind to them. The APC government has failed on all fronts – all the promises they made to Nigerians – insecurity, corruption, economy, employment – have all grown worse. One hopes that Buhari will use the 2023 general election to redeem his gravely suffering credibility and leave behind some sort of legacy.
Again, you are also repositioning for relevance post-2023. You just wrote yet another open letter endorsing Mr. Peter Obi of the Labour Party as your preferred presidential candidate. Lucky Peter! But this endorsement is yet another play to the gallery. If indeed you want to help Peter Obi, you know you have to personally take him to the North to negotiate his presidency. It is not an open letter of endorsement.
My point is that it is now very incumbent that you let go of Nigeria and allow Nigeria to return to federalism. Allow Nigerians to work out their future.
Before your bosom friend Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu led some of your colleagues to disrupt the nation’s democratic life, Nigeria’s democracy and development thrived. That coup remains the worst military adventure in the annals of our nation’s history and avoidable. It culminated in pogroms and ultimately in the Nigeria-Biafra civil war in which over 2m Nigerians died. What is more, it led to ethnic hatred which a section of the country has suffered to this day.
The four regions of the First Republic grew exponentially as peer-reviewed internationally. The Eastern Region’s economy was adjudged as the fastest growing at least in Africa and the Western Region’s economy was so robust that it established the first colour television in Africa and before some countries in Europe. The Northern Region grew as strong as the rest.
Nigeria has to be allowed to return to federalism and stir away from the current unitary system imposed by the military, which has stunted her growth and impeded unity. This is one legacy Nigerians would most appreciate from you.
Your Excellency, make letting go of Nigeria your last legacy and you and the nation will know peace. L’État, c’est moi (lit. “I am the state”) is an apocryphal statement attributed to Louis XIV, King of France and Navarre. But that was centuries ago -1655. Nigeria is a democracy. Nigerians matter too.
We love you and wish you well always.
Dr Law O. Mefor
· Dr Law Mefor, a forensic/social psychologist, is a fellow of The Abuja School of Social and Political Thought and can be reached via 09130335723 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets @DrLawMefor.