CNNInternational interview with Nigeria'sPresident Obasanjo and Publisher Chido Nwangwu onDemocracyand Security Issues

"Obasanjo has ruined this country...."
An open letter to Nigeria's President Obasanjo

By Prof. Niyi Osundare

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Dear President Obasanjo:
As you may have noticed, this is my third public letter to you in the
pasttwo years. The situation in our country constitutes the burden ofeach letter, especially the wide, hypocritical gap between your"democratic" avowals and the tyranny in your actual practice. I amassuming the usual epistolary mode once again because of thedirectness of its thrust and the personal implications of its tenor.Here is another sound of alarm, another note of warning, from acompatriot saddened and scandalised by the precipitous deteriorationof Nigeria under your watch.

Let me begin with an episode that bespeaks the horrors of thesetimes. About a week ago, I was on a visit to a family here in Ibadan.A solidly educated family by any standard, one that any progressivecountry in the world would be proud to count among its middleclass.

Our chat ranged over a myriad of issues, from the quagmire in Iraqto the changingfortunes of the Super Eagles in Tunisia 2004, to the price of yam inthe marketplace. "Obasanjo has ruined us", the woman of the houseintoned, her voice slowly assuming a deep, elegiac tone. "Obasanjohas ruined this country. We regret the day this disaster became ourpresident". As if on cue, the guttural signature tune of the NTAsignaled the commencement of the 9'0clock news. As usual, you werethe first news item. As your picture flashed across the screen, thewoman picked up her spectacles, grabbed her glass of water and dashedout of the sitting room as if pursued by a powerful spirit. She woulddo anything to avoid seeing your face on the screen, she laterconfessed. She would like to enjoy whatever is left of her sleepwithout having to grapple with the nightmare induced by yourpresence.

What, you may want to ask, has made you such a persona non gratain the home of a family that happily gave you their vote in the lastelection? Why, how, has the President of our brave Republic movedfrom knight to nightmare? The answers are evident in the physical andpsychological circumstances of the family in question: from therefrigerator standing decrepit in a corner, in need of a compressor,to the family car (or what used to be!) now down on the block,disabled by a knocked engine, to the progressive absence of proteinin the family menu, to nerves that are as frayed as the old blindsstaring languidly from the poorly screened windows.

The man of the house is a retired public servant whose pension hasnot been paid for about one year; his wife a business woman whosetrade has been paralysed by a comatose economy. Forced to share theirparlous plight are three grand children thrust into their care byparents who have not had a job for the past two years.

Mr. President, the condition of this family is emblematic of thewonders that many years of your social and economic "policies" havewrought. Many other families have already lost their homes and havebeen turned into the harsh, unsparing streets. Hordes of unemployedyouth have been forced into armed robbery and prostitution. Many,many others have lost their sanity and become walking shadows in themarketplace. School classrooms are half-empty as desperate parentswithdraw their wards for quick apprenticeship to menial tradesexpected to bring quick returns. The cream of our youth, the flowerof the future, are going through a most corrosive degradation. Who,then, will bring about that "tomorrow" which you are so bravely givento talking about? How "fellow" are the "fellow Nigerians" youharangue in your ceaseless sermons?

Dear President, millions of Nigerians see you as the source oftheir problems. Millions curse you under their breadth. Millions moreloudly pronounce their imprecations at the slightest opportunity. Yourule over a degraded country, Mr. President; your every act hasconsistently contributed to that degradation. In the reckoning ofmost Nigerians, you are the most arrogant, most insensitive, mostcallous, and most self-righteous and hypocritical ruler that thisunfortunate country has ever been saddled with in its hapless saga ofmisrule.Your words, behaviour, disposition, and general track recordseem to justify these negative impressions. Consider these facts: intwo years, you have hiked the price of petroleum products two times.You met a litre of petrol selling for 21 naira; it now goes for awhooping 42 naira in a few places and twice as much in many others.As if this were not enough, you topped it all with a N1.50 levymisnamed "fuel tax". You started by flaying us with whips; now youfleece us with scorpions. What good you thought would come out ofthese hikes, you alone in your unfathomable wisdom will ever know;you and the Mephistophelean PPPRA and your horde of "Specialadvisers".

Even the most addle-brained wag knows that the moment you hike theprice of petroleum products in Nigeria, the prices of all goods andservices experience an astronomical jump. A few samplers, Mr.President, since your perch in Aso Rock has inoculated you againstthe deadly harshness of our streets and the virulent fever ofskyrocketing prices. Three tubers of medium-size yam costing N80 whenyou assumed office in 1999 now costs N300; a bag of rice which wasN3,200 then now costs N4,800; a bag of cement was N550 in 1999; nowit goes for N1,000.

The vast majority of those you call "fellow Nigerians" have noaccess to a healthful meal, decent education, adequate medical care,and affordable housing. Even at the height of Babangida's ownill-conceived, callously imposed Structural Adjustment Programme(SAP), I never saw so many Nigerians starved, stressed, and literallyslaughtered in the streets.

But bad as your policies are, injurious as their results haveturned out to be, what most shocks "fellow Nigerians" about you isthe insufferable arrogance that attends your pronouncements andactions and the tremendous disdain in which you hold the rest of us.Hiding behind the evil instrumentality of the PPPRA, you sprang thesurprise of your second price hike on your "fellow Nigerians" ontheir very National Day (October 1, 2003) in spite of loud andpassionate protests from the Nigerian people. (The first hike, yourNew Year gift to us, came on January 1, 2002)".

We were still reeling in the turmoil of the aftershock of therecent hike when Your Imperial Majesty decided to slam us with the"fuel tax". Without consulting the Nigerian people, without anynotice to the National Assembly, your Imperial Majesty promulgated alevy, ordered the demolition of all toll gates in the country inorder to give your act a fait acompli effect, then stood in regalsurprise as the people groaning under your yoke erupted in desperaterage. You are reported to have squandered N360 million of our moneyon that misadventure.

Now that public outcry has forced you to retrace your steps, weunderstand plans are afoot to award the contract for the rebuildingof those same tollgates! Mr. President, would you run your personalbusiness this way? Did you ever for one second think about us,Nigerians, hapless enough to have you as our ruler, when you weretaking all those decisions that have now literally turned our livesupside down? The Nigerian people elected you President; now you haveacquired a Kabiyesi (who-dare-challenge-me) posture.

In case you need be told, what you have done is a crime againstthe spirit and body of the Nigerian people, the type of which leadersare impeached and duly prosecuted in saner, more civilised places. Noruler should ever take the ruled for granted or treat them with suchcynical disdain the way you have done us. Every decent, everyreasonable person in this country feels insulted, even affronted, byyour act. They are waiting for your apology and hoping that it willnot be long in coming.

Dear Mr. President, my understanding is that you have taken to allthese draconian, anti-people measures in order to garner some cashfor a national economy already bankrupted by your political andeconomic policies and the insatiable greed of your fellowpoliticians. Consider the billions of naira your great party ("thebiggest political party in Africa"!) squandered on buying votes inthe last election and suborning the entire electoral system. Youcan't pretend not to know the collosal sums that exchanged hands inAbuja in the run-off to and during the delegates' conference thatprovided your ticket for a second term.

The point I am making, Mr. President, is that improvidentpolitical spending drained the national treasury and depressed thenational currency just before your second term. Now, we your subjectsare being asked to pay (as usual) for the criminal irresponsibilityof those who have imposed themselves upon us. Nigeria did notsuddenly become broke; your politicians broke Nigeria.

The second reason for the country's financial debacle iscorruption, that hydra-headed monster that you and your governmenthave said so much and done so little about. Some people say you arenot corrupt personally, but such cannot be said about the politicalprocess that ensured your attainment and retention of power. And Ioften wonder how a sanctimonious sermoniser like you can feel socomfortable in the company of those who reek like a public latrine.For instance, during your first term, over 300 billion naira wasreported to have been voted for works and transport across thecountry. We were assured that bad roads were about to become a thingof the past. Barely four years hence, nearly all of Nigeria's roadsare still death traps while that vibrant eastern part of our countryis literally detached from the rest by unmotorable stretches. Haveyou ever asked, as many of us are doing, what happened to thebillions that were voted for works and transport? Your governmentplays Oliver Twist in the reverse: it robs the poor to pay therich!

Dear President, how many more riots, how many more corpses, do youneed to see in the streets before you know that your social andeconomic 'policies' are killing the people you vowed to protect?Deregulation. Monetisation. Privatisation. Words note more worthy fortheir meretricious rhyme than any humane reason.

Take deregulation as an instance. How do you "deregulate" achaotic, import-dependent, foreign-controlled economy like ourswithout running into serious problems? Can you really "deregulate"what you are not in a position to "regulate" in the first place? Nowthat the so-called downstream sector (whatever that is supposed tomean) of the oil industry has been "deregulated", how easy has lifebecome for the Nigerian people? Why is your emphasis always on priceincrease than the efficient running of Nigeria's refineries?

Those so blindly enamoured of deregulation should remember theenergy crisis in the state of California in 2000 when a deregulatedprocess precipitated extensive price-gouging by electric powercompanies, and the world's sixth largest economy was plunged intoexpensive chaos. And that happened in the USA, an ultra-developedstate with a time-tested system of checks and balance! Concerningprivatisation, who stands to profit by the sale of our major nationalholdings if not the already rich and their friends andassociates?

Besides, is privatisation always the answer? Have you consideredwhat happened to British Rail after receiving that economic dose? TheIMF and World Bank nostrums being touted as panacea for our problemswill only lead to greater calamities. I have yet to see one countryin the so-called developing world where IMF conditionalities haveresulted in a wholesome, citizen-friendly socio-economic revival.

Mr. President, we have been told time and again by you and youradvisers that we should be prepared to bear the excruciating paincaused by your economic 'policies' because such pain is a prelude tothe gains of future times. Shehu Shagari told us that. So did Buhari.So did Babangida. So did Abacha. Now you! Why is it that everyNigerian ruler hectors the people on the virtues of pain?

Isn't the essence, the raison d'etre, of any responsiblegovernment the alleviation of pain and the promotion of socialwelfare? Almost invariably, as our rulers preach their gospel of painto the people, they are busy securing themselves, their families, andfriends against the ravages of the beast so sadistically unleashed bythem. Besides, what future 'gains' can accrue from the present"Obasanjonomics" with its rampart fuzziness and punitive anti-people'philosophy'? How can the so many Nigerians perishing from today'spain become the inheritors of tomorrow's 'gain'?

President Obasanjo, wind back the tape to 1999. You rode into thegovernment house on the wave of the tremendous goodwill of a peoplesorely tired of military dictatorship and its ruinous ways. Barelyfive years after, you have cultivated the arrogant, oppressivemanners of our erstwhile masters. Pause awhile and do somestock-taking: you started off with a Poverty Aggravation Pogrom. Youpreach economic prudence and monetary discipline, yet squandered somuch of the country's resources on wasteful, naira-gobbling projectssuch as COJA and CHOGM. Now the party is over, and the Nigerianpeople are being asked again to pay the bill. Mr. President, there istoo much pain in the land.

The people over whom you rule are tired and hungry. And veryangry. You may have been prevented from seeing the corpses in thestreets by the tinted glass of power, the hordes of advisers andspecial advisers whose 'advice' has landed us in this pitiful mess:the sycophantic clergy who keep telling you that you are God-chosento rule Nigeria.

The sermon in the streets is several pains away from the one intheir books. President Obasanjo, as I said in my letter of July 3,2003, no Nigerian ruler has ever been as lucky as you. You ruled us,first as a military dictator, and now as a civilian president. Butwhat legacy would you like to leave behind?

What would you like to be remembered by: the gruesome unresolvedpolitical assassinations so rampant during your rule, or thedangerous abracadabra in Anambra State? The people groan under theyoke of your rule. They yearn for a caring, listening leader, not anarrogant, insensitive, know-all despot. Peep through the tinted glassof power, Mr. President. Can you see the corpses in our streets?
Osundare, Professor of English at the University of Ibadan(Nigeria), poet and prolific essayist is the author of 'Pages fromthe Book of the Sun: New and Selected Poems' published in November2000, and other works, including The Eye of the Earth, and WaitingLaughters. He is the winner of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for1986, and the 1991 Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. His essaysand reviews have appeared previously on andUSAfrica The Newspaper. This letter was written in February 2004.

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