by Abraham Ogbodo
Last week, former President Olusegun Obasanjo almost pulled down the social media with his letter to President Buhari advising him to bury the thought of standing for re-election in 2019. Reactions to the letter were mixed. The Presidency, through the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed explained it had taken the letter in good faith but added a dose of achievements of the Buhari government just to underscore why the more than 3500-word document was deliberate misinformation in many regards to create disaffection among Nigerians.
In my days in the university, there was something the great Dr. Akomaye Oko of blessed memory taught us in theory and criticism. It is called Textual Interpretation and it does take place when the text, the subtext and context or maybe the over text, if a notation like that exists, are taken together in the analysis of a composition. He explained, it is the only way to reach the overall intentions of the author in any literary endeavour since most writers including even Obasanjo who has written about 10 books are both overt and covert in their approaches.
This is actually why in the creative enterprise the brain manifests two almost opposing faculties. The one that creates, the creative faculty; and the other that interprets; the critical faculty. Often, the brain that creates does not like the brain that interprets and the two hardly exist in the same person. With President Obasanjo, the former is dominant. His brain creates historical scenarios entirely from his perspective and like every other writer, goes ahead to affirm the stamp of objectivity or even purity on what he has created.
The good thing about Obasanjo is that he does not quarrel with people that interpret what he has written, unlike some writers. And I know he is not going to quarrel with me today. But in theory and criticism what may qualify as the objective perspective almost always belongs to the reader or interpreter. That is why even Professor Wole Soyinka with all his literary prowess still needs an interpreter to interpret his Interpreter. Obasanjo’s love letter to Buhari has been receiving interpretations and the versions are as many as there are readers of the letter. In the end, and whether Obasanjo likes it or not, it is the aggregate sum of these interpretations that shall constitute his real intention(s) in writing to Buhari last week.
For instance, except for Governor Ayo Fayose of Ekiti State, the letter is sitting very well with the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and you should know. The political capital just harvested from that letter by the opposition party is huge, enough to take to the bank in 2019. The same Obasanjo who also wrote in 2014, on one hand, to demote President Goodluck Jonathan from the highest office in the land, and on the other, promote Buhari to the same location, is reversing himself even as he insists on the rightness of the demotion of Jonathan.
The new letter is formatted into 23 paragraphs. Obasanjo who now holds a doctoral degree in Christian Theology mentions God 10 times, youths 5, Nigeria 27, Buhari 10 and himself only three times. I want to add that this lean mention of himself is not a measure of his detachment. A chunk of the content is devoted to all the good things he (Obasanjo) has done for Nigeria. For instance, he has “devoted quality time” even outside government “to the issue of zero hunger as contained in Goal No.2 of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN.”
He also mentions his involvement “in the issue of education in some states and generally in the issue of youth empowerment and employment” stressing “I am involved in all these domestically and ALTRUISTICALLY (emphasis is mine) to give hope and future to the seemingly hopeless and those in despair.” He continues: “I believe strongly that God has endowed Nigeria so adequately that no Nigerian should be either in want or in despair. I believe in team work and collaborative efforts.”
In the sentence that follows, there is a sudden transition from the first person singular ‘I’ to plural, ‘we’. No explanation is given and so I cannot tell with whom Obasanjo had had that collaboration to help Nigeria. Hear him: “At the international level, we have worked with other world leaders to domicile the apparatus for monitoring and encouraging socio-economic progress in our (the first person plural is maintained) Presidential library.”
At last, from the horse’s mouth, the presidential library in Abeokuta for which Obasanjo raised huge funds (about N250 billion) from members of the public, especially corporate Nigeria, while still in office as president and for which he was sharply criticized, does not belong to him alone. There are other stakeholders which makes the inflections in the personal pronoun from ‘I’ to ‘We’ and ‘Our’ most appropriate. Obasanjo goes on to supply further details of his interventions as a patriot and international statesman to help Nigeria.
Sometimes in communication science, we say the message is as good as the messenger. I want to believe that huge efforts by the letter writer at establishing his role, as if same is in doubt, in building Nigeria, is to align the message and the messenger and present both as good. In other words, President Obasanjo who has, according to himself, altruistically done so much for Nigeria, cannot by any stretch of interpretation embark on a mission to destroy Nigeria or serve himself alone with the letter he has written to Buhari.
In fact, some interpreters of the Obasanjo’s message have advised that for the purpose at hand, the message and the messenger should be decoupled if we find the latter is not palatable enough to be swallowed along. The letter should therefore be seen as yet another component of Obasanjo’s national service which he started since 1970 when he helped the Nigerian side to win the civil war against the Biafran secessionists. He is about 81 years old and given his gait and by the special grace of God, he still has more years to offer selfless and meritorious service to Nigeria. Let’s pray for him.
The other school of interpreters wants the message and the messenger to be taken together and dumped in the waste bin for absence of value. For no clear reason, an article written by Mr. Simon Kolawale in Thisday Newspaper more than three clear years ago on January 18, 2015 came so overwhelmingly alive on the social media. I joined the bandwagon and also read it. I remembered reading the first publication but the freshness and tenability of the arguments therein pushed me into a serious contention with my memory.
I called the writer who confirmed the January 18, 2015 date and added his enemies must have been working round the clock to make a possible charge of hate speech against him retroactively. In that article entitled “Obasanjo As Nigeria’s Moral Compass”, my good friend Simon Kolawale dug deeper beyond the surface in the characterization of Obasanjo. He lifted the moral dimension to unassailable heights with facts and as a good writer left the interpretation and ultimate judgment for the reader to make. It was a grand attempt at the demystification and unbundling of the Obasanjo complex in Nigeria politics.
But the myth has endured in spite of the efforts of Mr. Kolawale and many others. Obasanjo seems to be imbued with a tenability that is difficult to explain. Here is one clear example of a prophet that has no honour at home, but manages all the time to pull a mammoth crowd from outside his base during evangelism. Also, there is a measure of accuracy in his messages, of essentially doom, that hangs on him the tag of an oracle in national affairs. Things he says and wants by some string of coincidences get established.
In effect, Obasanjo has power of the tongue. The Yoruba call that gift aashe and it is arindoo among the Urhobo. Right from when he left the presidency as military head of state in 1979 and handed power to Alhaji Shehu Shagari in Nigeria’s second attempt at democratic, almost everything he had said about the national power equation had come to pass. He warned Shagari and Shagari fell. He warned Babangida and Babangida stepped aside hurriedly and unprepared. Abacha who locked him out of circulation did not live to enjoy the fruits of that decision.
With Goodluck Jonathan, Obasanjo was a Doctor Cure and Kill. After nurturing Jonathan, he became Okonkwo in Chinue Achebe’s Things Fall Apart who delivered the machete stroke that killed Ikemefuna, a boy that called him father. Obasanjo is consistent in his narrative. He ascribes no evil to himself. He is the only Nigerian with the keys to unlocking the hidden greatness of the country and he so gladly makes his eight years in power between 1999 and 2007 as civilian head of state look as part of that patriotic process of unlocking the country’s greatness.
The narrative does not just stop there. With the same vigour and gusto with which Obasanjo elevates himself to a national saviuor, he pushes down to hades other leaders before and after him as the national anti-Christs who do not want greatness for Nigeria. Hear part of his story: He had left four thriving refineries behind in 1979 which successive governments had undeveloped into a bunch of engineering scraps in 20 years before his return in 1999. He built foreign reserves to $60 billion which Goodluck Jonathan drew down to $20 billion. He paid off the huge foreign debt of $17 billion which has been built up again to $15 billion under Buhari.
Since the counter arguments have so far appeared less forceful, the bemused Nigerian audience is left with no other good choice than to adopt Obasanjo as the national moral compass. It only shows the man is a better protagonist who develops his plot to ease himself and punish other characters in the narrative. He understands for instance that as a national champion without home support, a restructured Nigeria where the regions will be strong will do so much to depreciate his standing.
To sustain his posturing as a nationalist, Nigeria must remain as it is so that when the Southwest perpetually rejects him, he finds bases elsewhere. He has been saying and doing things to please the North into accepting him as a detribalized leader and with whom the region can cut deals. This, in a nutshell, is what has kept Obasanjo going as an oracle for decades. To unmask and reveal his ordinariness is very simple. Just get Nigeria restructured so that he either learns at age 81 to begin charity at home and remain tenable or live the rest of his life as a stranger even in Abeokuta.
Yes, he may mean very well writing Buhari. But the interpretation of Obasanjo’s letter belongs to us not him. I have just applied what Dr. Akomaye Oko taught me in theory and criticism more than 30 years ago to speak to the letter. The text of the letter is to state the sins of the Buhari administration which are poverty and insecurity in the land; widespread nepotism; incompetence; absence of national cohesion; official indiscipline, hopelessness and so on and the consequences and frustration these have engendered.
The subtext is Obasanjo’s continued quest to play the oracle by repeating, because he has a bigger and louder voice on the national stage, what is obvious and everybody has been saying. And then the ‘over text’ is a desire to create a leeway for the emergence of certain persons in the next political recruitment in 2019 so that he (Obasanjo) can remain relevant in the geo-politics of Nigeria even at 82.
There is, however, a small adjustment in the calculations. The APC’s committee on devolution of power and restructuring led by Governor El-Rufai of Kaduna State submitted its report last week. The party is saying something that sounds like its readiness to accept restructuring of Nigeria. All things being equal, the months ahead, no doubt, shall be very interesting as well as challenging for Obasanjo.
- This piece was written by Abraham Ogbodo/Guardian