Transcript CNN International interview with Nigeria's President Obasanjo and USAfricaonline.com Publisher Chido Nwangwu on Democracy and Security Issues

Nigeria's future and the burden of Obasanjo's leadership


Nigeria's president retired Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo's May 29, 2003 second term inaugural address exhibited no sense at all that things had gone deeply awry in his first four years. Instead, he permitted himself to wallow in self-inflation, self-congratulation, pomposity, and unsupported claims to grandiose achievements. When he conceded the existence of problems, it was only in order to diminish their impact and import. In case Nigerians had forgotten, their president reminded them that he'd rallied them to select him in 1999 with the slogan: "The leadership you can trust." Then, with an immodesty that runs through his entire speech, Mr. Obasanjo claimed he had earned the trust of Nigerians. He suggested that his renewed mandate was "affirmation that our leadership has been accepted as trustworthy." Given the hard facts of the case, Nigerians would be simpletons to find Obasanjo trustworthy. What's truly remarkable is that a man who is president would so gratuitously misread his country. Obasanjo's May 29, 2003 speech is a dismal document, reeking of grand platitudes but containing little statesmanship. It has no societal plan or bold programme. While it mentions "vision" ad nauseam, there's no discernible vision to be derived from it. It will, I fear, appear to future historians to be a ludicrous speech, and a political con job

By OKEY NDIBE

Special to USAfrica The Newspaper, Houston
USAfricaonline.com, The Black Business Journal and Classmagazine.tv

June 2, 2003: Like many Nigerians, I could hardly wait to read the May 29, 2003 second-term inaugural speech of Nigeria's president, retired Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo. I felt certain that what Mr. Obasanjo decided to tell Nigerians, and the accent in which he spoke, would provide a window to the tenor of his second term. There was little doubt in my mind that this would be the most important speech in the man's political career. The moment was undeniably there; the question was: would the man rise to it?

Given the expectations, and the circumstances informing those expectations, I cannot but conclude that the speech was a wasted opportunity. Obasanjo was coming off a deeply marred election, one in which his party displayed little respect for the sanctity of the vote. He had also concluded four years of a first term that was terribly slim on achievements. If, as some of the president's fans suggest, Mr. Obasanjo is about to unfurl a brand new leadership style, shouldn't we expect to hear the man acknowledge the monumental mistakes of his first term? (We note he had ruled Nigeria from 1979-1983 as a military dictator). Yet, one looked in vain to glean contrition and regret in the president's tone.

Obasanjo professed himself "humbled by the confidence reposed in our leadership by the overwhelming response to our campaign for continuity, stability and progress." Then he pledged to invest his God-given ability on "building firmly and decisively on our achievements in the last four years."

In his slim political booklet, "The Trouble with Nigeria," Chinua Achebe concluded that Nigerian leaders live, essentially, in a kind of spiritual exile. In Obasanjo's case, the fact that he spent more than half of his first term abroad raises questions whether he did not, in fact, live in physical exile.

At any rate, it takes a remarkable measure of alienation to affirm, as the president did, that his administration has earned Nigerians' trust. Can anything be farther from the reality? Given the hard facts of the case, Nigerians would be simpletons to find Obasanjo trustworthy. This is a man who, "on my honour," promised Nigerians "regular, uninterrupted power supply come December 31, 2001." I hear that, even in Aso Rock (where there are all kinds of power!), power supply is far from regular! How many Nigerians can vouch for NEPA's improved output, much less regular power? This is a president who swore to combat corruption, but instead began to rock and roll with some of Nigeria's most questionable and corrupt characters. How many in Obasanjo's retiring cabinet can claim that their assets correspond exactly to their salaries and legitimate allowances?

How many can Obasanjo himself vouch for? This is a man who promised Nigerians a quiet first lady, but looked the other way as his wife unleashed herself on Nigerians in a vulgar promotion of "first ladyism." This is a man who voted billions of naira to "alleviate poverty," then billions more to "eradicate" it. Four years later, who but some of his sheen-faced former ministers can claim that poverty has receded in Nigeria? One of the areas where Nigerians can count on Obasanjo keeping his words is in raising fuel prices! In doing this, the president has paid little mind to the misery and suffering inflicted on ordinary Nigerians. Nigerian universities have been shut for half a year, but our trustworthy president has remained unruffled, at ease, unconcerned!

The question, then, is whether Nigerians can trust Obasanjo to know that, in the first four years, he earned little trust. In fact, that he established a firm reputation for betraying trust. Why, then, did Nigerians reward Obasanjo and his party with "a landslide victory"? That question, dear reader, is best answered by Mr. Obasanjo himself!

In the midst of questions surrounding the recent elections, it is amazing that Obasanjo would elevate Mr. Abel Guobadia's INEC to "a place of honour in our history and among other electoral bodies in the world." The kindest thing to say about the president's glowing evaluation of INEC is that he and Guobadia deserve each other! Despite the gloating in Abuja and several other states (Anambra being one of the more shameless cases) many Nigerians will continue to see purloined mandates as morally reprehensible.

If Obasanjo is to redeem something from his presidency, he must begin by admitting the substantial gaps between his promises and his actions. He must see that his duty lies, not in continuity but a break with his past style and policy direction. There's a real opportunity to stop posturing and start governing a deeply fissured, wounded nation. It would pay Obasanjo to recognise that it is tiresome to invoke God while consistently acting in a fashion marked by little piety. He must understand that Nigerians deserve better than being hoodwinked, flim flammed and deceived!


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In inviting Nigerians to accept his version of an improved, hopeful existence, the president's inaugural address came across as a political con job. With no whiff of irony, Mr. Obasanjo thanked God for for finally removing "the beast of ethnic politics after over fifty years of its influence on the Nigerian political scene." But the celebration of the death of ethnic politics is chastened, noted the president, by "the tragic appearance of religion in our national politics." He admonished fellow citizens that "religion mixed with politics in a multi-faith country like ours portends destruction and devastation of our social fabric and our entire structure."

What's truly remarkable is that a man who is president would so gratuitously misread his country. On what strength did he reach the remarkable conclusion that ethnic jingoism is moribund? And why did Obasanjo fail to detect the irony in his bemoaning the deleterious effects of religion on the polity? As chief executive, Obasanjo has been one of the biggest exploiters of sectarian religious sentiments. He announced that he had applied to God for a go-ahead to run for re-election. He ascribed his wangled victory at the PDP convention (another travesty of democracy!) to God. Last year, to mark his third anniversary in office, Mr. Obasanjo asked Nigerians to "pray and fast for three days." A man who mistakes the task of running a country for being a pastor to his nation should not complain if his competitors also invoke God in their equally cynical, often destructive, purposes.

Beginning with Obasanjo, Nigerian leaders ought to cease their relentless hypocrisy that must "shock and awe" God. If a true sense of God were present in the hearts of a fraction of Nigerian politicians who daily "give all thanks and glory" to Him, then Nigeria would be a paradise on earth, not the dungeon of corruption, rigged elections, 419, depravity and decadence it has become!

For anybody wondering what to expect from Obasanjo's next four years, the prognosis was writ large in his inaugural speech. It is a dismal document, reeking of grand platitudes but containing little statesmanship. It has no societal plan or bold programme. While it mentions "vision" ad nauseam, there's no discernible vision to be derived from it. It will, I fear, appear to future historians to be a ludicrous speech. The president's handlers should have given him a cleverer script to read, even if the goal was to continue business as usual. If public deception was the purpose, then at least provide a motivation for most citizens to be hopeful.
Ndibe, a U.S.-based scholar and novelist, is a contributing editor of USAfricaonline.com. His first novel, Arrows of Rain was reviewed specially for USAfrica The Newspaper by Prof. Niyi Osundare.


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