Nigeria: Prometheus Unfound

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo has traversed the entire length of that road less travelled by other mortals--from a position of power as befits a former potentate, he has gone to prison, from where, saved from the gallows, he has again, like a phoenix, risen from the ashes of humiliation to the presidency

Old soldiers never die; they just change office. Coming from the gate of death, he found himself entrusted with the power of life and death over all he surveyed, which is what Nigeria's presidency has become; and precious few are the ones who can resist the lure of absolute power, whose corruptibleness is absolute.

From getting it 'against my wish and disaya,' he has come to wield, enjoy and savour--and worship--political power in its own right. It is not the ultimate aphrodisiac: it is the bride; and what the electorate has put together, let no constitution put asunder. Like a political Oliver, Obasanjo twisted and turned: he wanted more of it but unlike Oliver, he wouldn't--couldn't--ask for more.

If, even for the election of his successor to the office, it could be for him a matter of life and death, what it must have been for his own election and stay in office was better left to the imagination. He therefore did all he could and even all he couldn't to succeed himself; and when at long last that proved impossible, he became more interested in deciding who succeeded him than in governing the polity or leaving a worthy legacy.

And when it became clear that he had to go, he faced three major problems. First, aware that he had blown away his golden opportunity to make solid, indelible name in the Hall of Fame of true national greatness, he suddenly became interested in being succeeded by a mediocrity that would not expose his deliberate incompetence. Second, with his tenure characterised by, and reeking of, a level of corruption that was all out of character, he couldn't afford to be succeeded by the opposition or by a party man who couldn't be managed. And third, he was ever conscious of what the international community thought of him.

He therefore wanted and accordingly planned to rule by permanent proxy that would last beyond his successor's period of gratitude and presidential term; and either by design or coincidental happenstance, for president he got Umaru 'Yar'adua, who was sick--very sick indeed; and for vice president, by good luck or by fluke, he got Goodluck, who is safe--and a safe bet.

Jonathan knew it was Obasanjo, with the help of three members of his ruling council [or did they call it an economic council?], who made him president. For, without their intervention, the president today will have been Dr Peter Odili. These members were the ones who had made him governor before that and Jonathan had been grateful to all of them ever since.

Towards the end of his second term, he had for some time toyed with the idea of getting across to General Muhammadu Buhari, and it was not clear whether it was to smear him or be reassured by him; but he let it be known that he was considering handing over to Buhari in view of the fact that he couldn't see himself handing over to any of those in the People's Democratic Party who had shown interest. In other words, he could have considered handing over to him despite the difference in political party allegiance. His complaint, one emissary said, was that Buhari was not attending his functions, had not formally recognised his government; and, on top of all, Buhari was not even speaking to him. He wanted a gesture--any gesture--to reassure him.

And as recently as six months ago, the Obasanjo camp was indirectly and informally making overtures to Buhari. Aware that Buhari must be part of any free and fair winning combination, but unsure what fate and political fortune awaits him and his group in the event of a Buhari victory, Obasanjo has remained ambivalent towards making a direct approach. Finally, he decided to err on the side of caution and settled on 'Yar'adua and Jonathan.

But at a certain stage, a falling out of sorts seemed to have occurred between Obasanjo and the president, after the latter had apparently become a new hostage to a different set of captors. With corruption enjoying such unprecedented prosperity, and with insecurity becoming a way of life, and the government's laissez faire, and almost encouraging, attitude towards it, it became clear to Obasanjo that his handpicked successor group was proving an unmitigated disaster to the nation. And when the matter began threatening to really get out of hand, Obasanjo found it necessary and expedient to write the president a devastating letter, accusing the government of several serious infractions.

Even though he had been somewhat demystified by General Sani Abacha, Obasanjo remained an untouchable quantity to this government that he singlehandedly chose, planted and nurtured. But he was clearly out in the cold and looked defeated: he left the chairmanship of the ruling party's board of trustees, and withdrew from active participation in other party affairs. But the matter has now come full circle.

Today, Obasanjo is the delectable 90-year-old bride being chased and wooed and sought after all over the place by the very people who should have made him politically irrelevant by now. Here is a man without a constituency who has effectively come to dominate the entire political environment

As a political Prometheus, Obasanjo had, as it were, stolen the fire of democratisation and handed it over to the nation, and had, since 1979, basked in the glory of that one great act, an act that had not been diminished even by his reputed bid for an unconstitutional third term. And now, both the ruling PDP and the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), are falling heads over heels and over each other to reach Ota first and to win Obasanjo's political heart and live happily ever after. Entreaties had been made by former Ogun State Governor Otunba Gbenga Daniel and Senate President David mark, but these were clearly outdone by Alhaji Ahmed Mu'azu, PDP chairman.

Mua'zu almost tearfully and carefully-practiced filial sycophancy, implored the Boss to forgive, to forget and to come back home. "I want to join OGD [Otunba Gbenga Daniel], I want to join my dear senior brother and indeed all the teeming members here to very sincerely apologise to our leader, to our Baba, my Baba, General, President Olusegun Obasanjo to forgive us," he said...

"As we say in our Lord's Prayer: 'Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who trespass against us.' Baba, you have to forgive us. I beg you in the name of the Almighty God, so that you too are forgiven. We are your children. We are making mistakes; we have made mistakes [and] we have apologised. We will not agree even if you want to throw [out] the baby with the bath water, the baby will not go....

"So please Baba, we apologise. Come and lead us. Even the president is waiting for you. Come and lead us. You are our leaders. We appreciate you. We thank you for your leadership. We thank you for your courage. And we assure you that, by the grace of God, we are all good boys and girls." Phew!

On the other side, in a more sober style, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu led the opposition party team to Obasanjo almost panhandling, cap in hand asking for his support. Savouring the new role of supra-kingmaker, Obasanjo decided to be noncommittal, at least in the open, reiterating perhaps tongue-in-cheek that he was still a card-carrying member of the PDP.

It is not clear whether it is Obasanjo who will have eaten his words if he turns around and embraces the president, or it is the president who will have become two per tuppence if he takes that embrace. After that devastating missive, it will be difficult to see the ground on which Obasanjo can again lend his support to Jonathan or if or why or how Jonathan can forgive him. As Cicero, assessing a situation not altogether different from ours, once said: '[a] nation can survive its fools and even the ambitious, but it cannot survive treason from within.' Or can it?

Clearly, he has at least four options before him. First, he can decide to forgive and take the vice presidency for a protégé and return to active service in the PDP and campaign for the re-election of President Jonathan. Second, he can decamp to the APC with his entire political group. Third, he can direct the rump of this political machine, which consists of three to five governors, to decamp to the APC without him; so that, fourth, he can continue to play the role of a nonpartisan statesman. Of these four options, he may choose none.

Prometheus is still out looking for fire; the people are out looking for, and looking up to, Prometheus; but the one has not found the other, nor has the other found the one. Which is why it is going to be the same old story. Yes, same old story.


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