Port Harcourt — Soldier, statesman and showman Olusegun Obasanjo released a canon in the direction of a hornets’ nest that has unsettled the insects and set them off seeking the source of the weapon and attacker. He did it in style – as Nigerians welcomed the new year with hoorays and not a few drinks and shuffling of feet, the former head of state launched a tirade against the Nigerian political system in a six-page message to Nigerians. The letter drips with typical OBJ expose of the past, review of the present and forecast of the future. He argues that none of the traditional parties can reinvent the country based on an “All-Nigeria Government” and condemns the Buhari government for moving the citizens “from frying pan to fire” which to say the least, is an appropriate metaphor as Nigerians would be doing a lot of frying during the yuletide! He then shows his hand: “None of the contestants is a saint but when one compares their character, antecedent, their understanding, knowledge, discipline and vitality that they can bring to bear and the great efforts required to stay focused on the job, particularly looking at where the country is today and with the experience on the job that I personally had, Peter Obi as a mentee has an edge. The new year letter is titled, “My appeal to all Nigerians particularly Young Nigerians,” in a clear nod to the support base of the man he has endorsed.
Many of us were relieved to finally know the outcome of the rendezvous between Obasanjo and Obi which straddled indoor meetings and outdoor photo sessions within and outside Nigeria. At one point it was said Obasanjo left his chair for the presidential aspirant at a public event, a gesture which Obidients highlighted as a prophecy from a man who has never claimed to be a prophet! His new year letter which erased all doubt on his position on the presidential race, expectedly rattled the PDP, APC and the Presidency. The APC said the endorsement of Obi by Obasanjo was “useless,” and dismissed the electoral value of the former president. The PDP said, “whether Obasanjo likes it or not, Atiku would be president in his lifetime.” The strongest words came from the Presidency which boasted “President Buhari is ahead of Chief Obasanjo in all fields of national development and to do that is cardinal sin to Obasanjo whose hallucinations tell him that he is the best ever to lead Nigeria and there will never be another one better than him.”
Before you take these verbal assaults to be serious talk, you’ll like to know that all the major parties and candidates had worked assiduously to hold the hand of the man they are now demonising. Asiwaju Tinubu won the presidential primary of the APC in June and met with Obasanjo in August in Abeokuta. The Speaker of the House of Representatives Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila who accompanied Tinubu to the meeting, declared shortly afterwards that Obasanjo had declared support for the APC leader. This was promptly denied. As far back as 2013, Tinubu had begged the man without electoral value to join the APC. Atiku visited his former boss in February even before he clinched the PDP presidential ticket. Spokesman for the Atiku Abubakar Campaign Organisation, Charles Aniagwu openly canvassed for the support of the former leader. “I am confident that the same God that led him to support Atiku in 2019 is still alive and will lead him to know that Atiku has what it takes to rescue our country from where we are at the moment.”
It hurts the parties that Obi eventually won the highly sought-after support of Obasanjo. So, we will be wise not to take their comments too seriously. And I suspect Obasanjo knows this too well to bother. It’s all politics. But why did he make this call and what does it mean for the elections and our polity.? First, you must give Obasanjo kudos for the ability to make up and speak his mind on this important poll. He could have played the ethnic card by throwing his weight behind Tinubu, or pander to the PDP on whose platform he became a two-term president. Long ago, Obasanjo threw away his membership card and said he had left partisan politics. By the decision to back Obi, Obasanjo has also thrown away his ethnic card. This must count as a good moment in Nigerian politics, despite the flak and bad press the decision has generated. We must recognise this whether we agree with him or not. Politicians think of power; statesmen think of the state. I leave you to judge where Obasanjo belongs.
So, does the endorsement bring Mr. Obi closer to Aso Vila? Not necessarily. It boosts morale and makes for good optics but, on its own, cannot and does not alter the terrible dynamics of Nigerian politics. At the end of the day, ethnic and material considerations will decide who makes Aso Villa. Long before Obasanjo spoke, Afenifere leader Ayo Adebanjo publicly declared his support for Obi and the gates of hell opened in his direction, with one APC leader mocking him as “a lonely old man.” Indeed, Obasanjo, Adebanjo and independent thinkers like them are lonely in a political landscape littered with ethnic and religious bigots. If “young Nigerians” do not rise to the building of a new Nigeria and take their stand at the ballot box, we will see Mr. Obi only enjoy the good press from Obasanjo’s endorsement without reaping any fruit.
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