Obasanjo: Hero Or Villain?

Obasanjo: Hero or villain?
here is no question about the enviable place of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo’s place in the history of Nigeria. When the historical and political accounts of the country in the last half of this century is written, Obasanjo’s name, doubtlessly, will stand tall in the hall of fame or infamy- depending on which side of the divide you belong when assessing the controversies and the role of a man that, as they say, has bestrode our chequered history like a colossus.  In the eventful years he has spent on earth before arriving the ‘departure lounge’ as an octogenarian, Obasanjo has trudged through life as a war general, a three-term president, a political prisoner, a farmer and an avid polygamist (legend  says his harem is from all the ethnic groups in Nigeria). But the man, Obasanjo remains largely controversial-maybe a mystery. As a national figure, he means different things to different people. To some, he is a statesman or an unrepentant federalist. Others view him as an opportunist or at best a divisive figure who has profited largely from where he had not sowed.  To the many who have encountered the enigma, the picture of a man who is highly opinionated, unforgiving, vindictive, and thinks himself as the best thing to have happened to this part of the world since slice bread add to the OBJ riddle.

To the Northerners, Obasanjo is a true ally- a friend they can trust; a man who ensured that their “presidency-as-birthright” mindset is always assured. It happened in 1979. It happened in 2007. The North can trust Obasanjo to keep his promise. To the Igbo, Obasanjo is neither a friend nor an enemy- but an opinion poll among the Ndigbo today may tilt to the latter.

There will always be suspicions about a man who played an (in)glorious role in ending their succession bid as a commander of the fearsome 3rd Commando Division of the Nigerian Army that took Owerri,  a move that effectively brought the civil war to an end. To the minority ethnic groups especially the people of Odi in Bayelsa and Zaki Biam in Benue states, where entire villages were left in ruins after a military invasion ordered by Obasanjo,  his name will be etched in their memory as a frightening agent of the oppressive Nigerian state. To his fellow Yoruba, he is a man they hate to love. There have even been doubts about his being an authentic son of Oduduwa (the progenitor of the Yoruba). Claims of Obasanjo’s alleged lineage have been traced to the Eastern part of the country-precisely in present day Anambra State. But this historical probing of his family tree has led to nowhere. As of today, Obasanjo has stayed true to his Owu heritage- as a Balogun (war general). His fiery temper seems to align with the Owu warlike characteristic; a trait that defines the sub group. But still the Yoruba have dealt with Obasanjo with the proverbial long spoon of the devil. In the highly intriguing politics of the South-West and their relationship with national politics, which has often pitched the conservatives and progressives of the region together in a battle of wit, he has deftly stayed a step ahead of his detractors.

After his boss, the Head of State, the late Gen. Murtala Muhammed, was killed in a coup d’├ętat in 1976, Obasanjo stepped in his shoes-because the North trusted him. Within four years, he organised an election which returned power to civilians. Expectations were high among his fellow Yoruba that the deadlocked presidential election which pitched the revered Yoruba leader, Obafemi Awolowo, against Shehu Shagari, a candidate of Northern extraction will be determined against the North. After all, their “son” was the Head of State. Many had thought that Obasanjo being Yoruba should have influenced the votes and the decision in favour of his race. Alas, the courts decided that Shagari had won. The Yoruba were bitter. It is not certain if he had been forgiven for such a monumental ‘betrayal’. The relationship between Obasanjo and Awolowo has not been a subject of official historical and intellectual discourse. But many still harbour the assumption that Obasanjo envies the deification of Awolowo to the status of a god among his people. One prominent family that was at the receiving end of Obasanjo’s fury was the Ransome Kuti family.  Fela’s Kalakuta Republic was razed down by soldiers during Obasanjo’s reign and his family members beaten. His political activist mother, Funmilayo, was killed. Her coffin was carried to Dodan Barracks. Obasanjo was thought to have ordered the invasion.

During the struggle to unchain Nigeria from the shackles of military dictatorship under the late Sani Abacha, Obasanjo again showed up to lend his voice in condemning the excesses of the regime. It earned him a prison term having been roped into an alleged phony plot. He ended up in prison but thereafter emerged to become the first civilian president in the Third Republic, two decades after handing power to Shagari in the Second Republic. But his Yoruba kinsmen voted against him. They still had grudges of the past; especially his being against the rigorous quest to revalidate the election won by Chief M.K.O. Abiola in 1993.

These aggregates of issues made the Yoruba suspicious of him and they expressed this by massively voting against him in 1999. Call it providence; one may not be far from the truth. How Obasanjo emerged with the highest diadem of that era will be the subject of historical discourse in the coming years. How the progressives in the National Democratic Coalition alliance yielded the Presidency to the conservative camp having fought and struggled more for democracy is confounding to those who were part of the politics of that era. Obasanjo showed the brilliance (or brigandage?) of his politics in 2003 when he led his party, the Peoples Democratic Party, in a clean sweep of the South-West much to the consternation of the progressives. But it was his stewardship in the eight years he spent as president that will inform an assessment of his role as a Nigerian hero or villain. Was Obasanjo a successful president? Is he the father of modern Nigeria? The jury is still out on his eight long years tenure. Obasanjo has recently stuck his chin out for sucker punch by his critics in offering controversial opinions on national issues. His warning of a revolution; condemnations of states for withholding local government funds and labelling lawmakers as a bunch of “rogues and armed robbers” have added to his controversy. His criticism of the Jonathan government has also caused the searchlight to be beamed on his tenure in office.

The former president recently said his party was not sufficiently disciplined and questioned President Jonathan’s handling of the Boko Haram crisis as not impressive. Are the criticisms justified? Is Obasanjo the right person to criticise a government he helped install? That the former leader is the luckiest Nigerian alive today is in no doubt. He is, of course, the envy of his contemporaries having ruled the country for 16 of the 52 years of its existence. But does this make him a Nigerian hero or a sad part of the extinct clan of corrupt leaders who should be consigned to the dustbin of our tragic past? Only time will tell.
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