VICE-ADMIRAL Murtala Nyako once described him as “the most accomplished Nigerian so far.” I don’t think anyone would be uncharitable enough to contest that. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was the relatively young four-star general who gave meaning to the phrase, an officer and a gentleman whose word is his bond, when he kept his promise and returned the country to civil rule on October 1, 1979.
In 1999, the nation called him back to service as its second democratically elected executive president when the annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election threatened to put the nation through the shredder. The nation needed a man with his moral stature and courage and the respect of the nation and the international community to save it from becoming history, as in the Republic of Biafra. Obasanjo answered the call with obvious sense of personal pride. His eight-year rule was edifying in some respects and scrappily disappointing in others but he did his duty to his country and pulled it back from the brink. Like all big men, he made his mistakes and virtually sabotaged himself when, in defiance of good democratic practices, he imposed his choices for president and vice-president on the country in 2006/2007.
Obasanjo has held the nation by the ear for much longer than anyone else in the country today. He has wisely parlayed his moral stature into a moral authority on both the African continent and the world stage. Wherever statesmen, the world or African, are gathered, our own beloved Sege is a looming presence among his peers. God gave him a lot but not everything. His voice is not as melodious as that of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the golden voice of Africa. And truth be told, he is not a mesmerising speaker who holds his audience spell bound but whenever Obasanjo speaks our nation and the rest of the world listen. I think the tenor of his moral courage that suffuses his speeches makes up for a voice not intended to soothe babies to sleep with a lullaby.
Obasanjo believes that given his sterling professional and political accomplishments, his place as the moral conscience of the nation is a given. And that privilege comes with the right to chide every administration in the country foolish enough to stray from what the former president believes is the narrow path. A bible-thumping student of theology knows the narrow path, of course. I think some people disagree with his omniscient role. Former President Shehu Shagari for one. In his autobiography, Beckoned to Serve, Shagari complains he was told Obasanjo expected him to consult him on all his major decisions. He refused to submit himself to Obasanjo’s daily guidance. When the generals overthrew the president in 1983, Obasanjo did not waste his tears on him.
When Babangida’s structural adjustment programme brought about its so-called pains, real or imagined, Obasanjo told the government to give it a human face and let it produce the milk of human kindness. His statement was a calculated sabotage of the programme. But he believed he spoke as the father of the nation with the moral/fatherly obligation not to keep his leaps sealed when things were going wrong.
I welcome his enthusiastic discharge of his undisputed role as the living conscience of the nation. I have problems with how he carries on.
Two weeks ago, as of this writing, Obasanjo beamed his search light on the national assembly and the state governors. He decried corruption in the hallowed chambers where laws are made for the good governance of our country. And he said the state governors were behaving like emperors. I was intrigued.
I have followed the manner of the man’s criticisms all these years, sometimes with bemusement but quite often they make me marvel at his good-natured self-righteousness. Implied in all his criticisms is that things always tend to go wrong each time he left office. Does he want us to believe that under his watch both chambers of the national assembly smelt like sweet, red roses? You bet. But the facts stubbornly refuse to hold up his assertion.
Corruption in the national assembly and in the state legislatures, is an old story. I was not aware of any particular steps Obasanjo took to curb it. The financial affairs of the national assembly have always been opaque. The Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Commission is the only body lawfully empowered to fix the salaries and allowances of public officers at all levels of government in the country. Yet under Obasanjo’s watch members of the National Assembly helped themselves too much more, making ours the most expensive legislature in the world. It was so under Obasanjo’s watch; it was so under presidents Musa Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan. And it is so under President Muhammadu Buhari.
Under Obasanjo’s watch, ministers paid the legislators to pad their ministerial allocations or even approve what was allocated to them in the federal budget in the first place. This corrupt practice surely was not unknown to Obasanjo. It sank his minister of education, Professor Fabian Osuji, who sourced for the N20 million demanded by the legislators from the parastatals of his ministry to pay up. The practice also abruptly ended the tenure of the then senate president, Adolphus Wabara.
Under the man’s watch, senators demanded money from ministerial nominees for their confirmation. In 2003, the stormy petrel, Nasir El-Rufai, a ministerial nominee, exposed this dirty, corrupt practice. A courageous man, he named names. He said the then deputy senate president, Alhaji Ibrahim Mantu, had asked him for N50 million for his confirmation. I bet Obasanjo was not hearing of that practice for the first time either.
Perhaps, in his book, they did not constitute corrupt practices. Perhaps, as far as he was concerned, those who indulged in them were errant men, the rotten apples found in every barrel. He did nothing about it. It must be noted here that Senate president, David Mark ended these corrupt practices when, from 2007, he decided to turn the senate into a committee of the whole house to confirm ministerial nominees. The confirmation process has been openly televised ever since. It happened after Obasanjo.
When Obasanjo decided to sit tight beyond his constitutional limit of two terms of four years each and needed the constitution to be amended to accommodate him, the legislators put a price to it. They insisted on being paid to oblige him. The senators wanted N75 million each and N50 million for each member of the house. Chief Tony Anenih was allegedly the chief negotiator with the legislators. Both sides eventually agreed on a flat payment of N50 million to each legislator. The payment was huge, very huge. Not all the legislators took the money. Those who did not support the project were true to their conscience and ignored the lure of lucre. Obasanjo, or do I say, Anenih, met his side of the bargain. The legislators did not. It was a shock to the president and his men when the whole thing collapsed on the floor of the senate presided over by the then senate president, Dr Ken Nnamani, one of the very few principled politicians in the country today. Would you say the payment was corruption of the legislators under his watch? Family support, maybe.
Please note that Obasanjo has repeatedly denied he wanted a third term. If it makes you wonder who authorised the huge payments in support of the third term project, put it down to the inherent opaqueness in governments the world over. The more you see, the less you know.
The principal characters in that drama may not speak up because the luck of a national hero, such as Obasanjo, is the obligation by the citizens to ignore his human failings and remain attached to the larger picture of his polished image. Still, no one should be naïve enough to think that corruption in the national legislature is a post Obasanjo practice. It was a well-known practice under his watch. The seeds were planted in 1999 under his watch. They were bound to grow. They did.
(To be concluded)