What a difference a few years make. A decade ago, General Olusegun Obasanjo was hailed as a respected international elder statesman with goodwill at home and abroad. His return to politics has utterly tarnished his reputation and Nigerian newspapers are flooded with daily vitriolic attacks on his leadership, personality and private life. It seems that becoming President for a second time destroyed his legacy. What went wrong?
It seems that Nigerian leadership is a poisoned chalice. Each Nigerian leader is always welcomed with tremendous goodwill, but is usually savagely attacked and their legacy denigrated after leaving office. Prime Minister Balewa is not remembered as Nigeria’s humble golden voiced first independence leader. He is the forgotten Prime Minister that presided over a corrupt regime that was violently overthrown by the army. Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi’s role as the greatest African soldier of his generation is rarely mentioned. He is simply the forgotten leader who could not do anything right. General Gowon is not the magnanimous leader who led the country through its worst crisis and kept the country together after a brutal civil war. He is just another corrupt military dictator who stayed too long. Even the once reverred General Murtala Muhammed is now criticised for desroting civil service morale with his purges, and is often recalled as a “war criminal”. General Obasanjo’s role as the first Nigerian leader to voluntarily leave office is no longer remembered. President Shagari is remembered as a lame duck President that presided over a chaotic administration and who let his Transport Minister loot the treasury. Major-General Buhari is not a principled leader who tried to fight corruption and introduce sanity and discipline into public life. He is a heavy handed human rights abuser. General Babangida is the man who presided over the most painstakingly conducted presidential election in Nigeria’s history, then voided the results. Ernest Shonekan is a footnote. General Abacha was the man who took Nigeria to the depths of hell and ruined its international standing. The second coming of Obasanjo was not a welcome relief from decades of miliary misrule, but was the “worst” ruler in Nigeria’s history. How true? Has Nigeria ever had a good leader?
Have Nigerians been so brutalised by years of misrule that they reflexively criticise any leader? Nigerians are professional complainers when it comes to their leaders. Savage attacks on the country’s rulers in a national past-time. They have not been fair to Obasanjo in this regard. On both occasions that he has ruled Nigeria, Obasanjo has left the country in better shape than he found it. After he left office in 1979, each successive government after him was worse than the one preceding it. Then he bucked the trend when he returned to power in 1999. He inherited a broken, dispirited, bitter, bankrupt and ostracised country that was wrecked by years of misrule, military coups and looting.
Yet Obasanjo is blamed for problems he did not create and which he inherited. Little attention is paid to his accomplishments such as fighting corruption and at least elevating it to a national talking point. In the days of General Abacha, the General’s son was fond of using the Central Bank of Nigeria as a personal bank account and would withdraw raw cash from it. Before Obasanjo, no Nigerian public official had ever been prosecuted and convicted of corruption. Obasanjo’s drive against corruption claimed prominent scalps such as the Inspector-General of Police, and state governors. Such measures were unprecedented. His efforts to reduce corruption also led to Nigeria’s Paris Club debt being paid off, in the process making Nigeria the first African country to pay off its Paris Club debt. These debts it should be remembered, were incurred between 1980-1999 (the exact period of time between Obasanjo leaving office after his first stint as Head of State and returning to leadership nearly 20 years later).
Obasanjo also did something which no leader before him, military or civilian was courageous enough to do. He defanged the military, by retiring politicised officers and professional coup plotters who were responsible for the military coups that constantly stunted Nigerian democracy. Before leaving office and handing over to his successor President Yar’Adua, Obasanjo sarcastically noted the manner in which he is blamed for all of Nigeria’s problems, whether or not in fact he is responsible for them:
“Many of them blame Obasanjo, and like the man in the drama, even when his wife does not have a child, Obasanjo is to blame. And, if he wants only one child and his wife has multiple births, Obasanjo will be blamed. Those who blame someone else for their own inadequacies will want to substitute Obasanjo for Yar’Adua. But it doesn’t work because it’s only when you identify your own inadequacies and correct them that we would move forward.”
Site Updates: please note that the great speeches section has been updated with the speeches of (a) Gen Sani Abacha upon taking power in November 1993, and (b) Gen Abdulsalam Abubakar after the death of MKO Abiola in 1998