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In many ways, High Chief Olusegun Matthew Okikiola Ogunboye Aremu Obasanjo is a great man. In many ways, too, his plebeian irascibility makes him look like a medieval proletarian who gatecrashed into modern high society and feels obliged to play Orunmila.
In case you didn’t know, Orunmila is the Yoruba god of wisdom and knowledge. He is said to have been there at the time of creation, thus possessing a deep understanding of humanity and divinity. Because of his unique advantage and knowledge, Orunmila is said to know the ways of the world and the fate of humankind.
Olusegun Obasanjo is proof that God’s ways are wondrous and that He could bestow his blessings on whomsoever He wills, regardless of merit. If you didn’t believe that the pendulum of Fate can swing in whatever direction Providence wills, consider the fact that it was Col. Benjamin Adekunle, the famed ‘Black Scorpion’ of the 3rd Marine Commando who fought inch by inch during the Nigerian Civil War to secure victory for the federal forces, but it was Col. Olusegun Obasanjo who was posted to succeed Adekunle towards the end of the war and therefore had the honour of accepting the instrument of surrender from the Biafran forces in January 1970 on behalf of the federal government.
About five years later, when the young Turks in the army had had enough of the gentlemanly General Yakubu Gowon, they overthrew him and replaced him with Gen Murtala Mohammed who dragged Obasanjo along as second-in-command. Murtala himself fell to assassins’ bullets in 1976 and the potato of power fell into Obasanjo’s laps at the age of 39. He handed over power to a democratically elected civilian administration in 1979 and retreated to his farm, a much respected statesman and retired general at 42.
From retirement, Obasanjo began a career of public criticism of the government. The Shagari-led civilian government felt beholden to him and therefore tolerated —even celebrated— him. The gun-slide of Major General Buhari which brought the second republic to a miserable end did not last long enough for Obasanjo to make his polemical mark but he soon found his voice after General Babangida kicked the Buhari regime out. His career as a letter writer of note blossomed in the Babangida years.
Babangida handled Obasanjo with a mixture of disdain and rehearsed affectation, benefitting from his international contacts but keeping him at arms length to ensure that he wasn’t close enough to do much damage. When Babangida annulled the 1993 presidential election won by Moshood Abiola, everyone knew that he had dribbled himself beyond the limits of the agreed turf. Obasanjo was missing at the barricades, making people conclude that he would rather the presidency went to someone else. Poor Chief Ernest Shonekan was only brought in to allow tempers cool before the real McCoy of military brutality, Sani Abacha, took the helm.
Taciturn Abacha may not have been cerebrally gifted like Babangida, but he displayed the capacity to rewrite the book of terror all alone. Obasanjo underrated him and continued trying to be a hero. Abacha obliged him and, after a sham trial for coup plotting, put Obasanjo on death row. Again, Providence intervened. Abacha suddenly died. Obasanjo and other death row inmates were freed by the new junta. Then, the military decided that he was the only person they could trust with power. They cracked all the palm kernels on his way and handed power to him in 1999.
Compared to his successors so far, Obasanjo appears to be the best democratically elected president Nigeria has had since 1999, save for Yar’Adua’s brief but promising intervention which was too short for any meaningful comparison with Obasanjo’s eight years. His letter writing career has so blossomed, especially in the Jonathan and Buhari years, that a book has been made of it and his stature as a statesman and meddler-in-chief is all but assured.
In a sense, anyone who has been so favoured by God and his country as Obasanjo has been over the last 50 years may be forgiven if he thinks he is some kind of godlet. Bullying comes naturally to the retired general. The more helpless his opponent, the more virulent his attacks. Gifted with an uncanny ability to steal the thunder of causes originally championed by other people, OBJ, as he was nicknamed in his days in power, is a human paradox— a blessing and a curse.
In the column I ran in Daily Trust in 2012, I said the following about the former president: “Don’t take anything away from the wily general. Obasanjo is as smart as they come. He tries to gauge public opinion and then goes public with his reaction as if he is on the same side with the people. Yet, all his narratives are focused on self.…”
E Dide! E Joko!
Now, to Obasanjo’s latest rude intervention in the public sphere. So much has already been said about Obasanjo’s demeaning of traditional rulers present at the commissioning of the newly reconstructed Oyo—Iseyin highway in Oyo State. As Guest of Honour, Obasanjo did not confine himself to his role but chose to play the part of a sergeant-major. He complained that the traditional rulers present did not rise as protocol demanded when the governor was going to the podium to address the gathering. He first established that he was a senior to the traditional rulers on two accounts: age and position.
He then thundered: “All rise!”
All the traditional rulers rose to their feet.
Then he barked, “Sit down!”
They all obeyed.
Obasanjo took the shine away from the true significance of the otherwise glorious event and the PR mileage that the Seyi Makinde government deservedly expected from its developmental intervention in that rich agricultural belt of his state. If anything was amiss, a wise statesman could have spoken to the kings in private, But that is not the way of bullies. And talking of protocol which Obasanjo made so much noise about, is it conceivable that Rishi Sunak, the British Prime Minister (whose country trained Obasanjo at the Mons Officer Cadet School in Aldershot), would command King Charles to stand up as a mark of respect for him?
In spite of his life achievements — real or imagined, Obasanjo is too insignificant to review the relevance of the traditional institution in Yorubaland. The people revere their kings as custodians of their heritage and they jealously guard how they are treated in society. The kings are the link between the material and the spiritual. They are seen as representatives of the gods on earth and are exalted into the position of deputy deity because of their monarchical duties. Regimes come and regimes go. The kings outlive them all.
By contrast, people like Obasanjo are tenants of power. Once their tenancy expires, they become cantankerous and insist that society accords them perpetual relevance and reverence. No matter whatever else he achieves on this side of the grave, Obasanjo will always be a plebeian. True to type, he insists that he will never apologise for his behaviour. That is the true mark of a lowly plebeian. But a butterfly can never be a bird.
So much for an old man’s bout of Logorrhoea!
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