Obasanjo: A Belated Love Affair, by Azu Ishiekwene

Azu Ishiekwene.

Conversation with Azu

If words could make the dead turn in their grave, the founder of the Oodua People’s Congress (OPC), Dr Frederick Faseun, would have rolled over last week, caught between amusement and surprise at a remarkable statement during the first-anniversary lecture of his passing.

On that occasion, former President Olusegun Obasanjo warned that the country risked another civil war if President Muhammadu Buhari’s government continued to ignore the demands for restructuring. That statement, its timing and place were extraordinary.

Faseun would be amused that it took Obasanjo 20 years to get to this point, and at the same time surprised that the man he once publicly accused of betraying the cause, has now received the gift of hindsight and was personally present at his memorial lecture to honour him with this gift.

Restructuring – or true federalism, as it was once called – has many enemies and Faseun died believing that Obasanjo was one of the strong enemies. It wasn’t just what Faseun believed; more important was what Obasanjo did to OPC or anyone remotely connected with the call to restructure the country.

The rise of OPC, the call for a sovereign national conference/true federalism, predated Obasanjo’s second coming. Yet Obasanjo, who perhaps had the greatest opportunity to strengthen the foundation of restructuring, and who in fact profited from it in some way, did more than any president after him to attack and undermine the idea. But what is hindsight, if not the chance to eat humble pie without shame or regret?

I didn’t know the day will come when Obasanjo would be in Faseun’s corner. But there he was, defending him with vigour and tenacity that would have left the first-class surgeon and acupuncture specialist shaking his head in disbelief.

When Faseun started OPC in the early 1990s, there were many genuine concerns about the direction of what appeared at the time to be the emergence of a wild pseudo-military wing of Yoruba political resistance following the annulment of the June 12 election.

But Faseun did his best to curb the excesses of the group (before it splintered), as did a number of the Yoruba political elite who argued, justifiably, that the politics of exclusion was worsening the level insecurity in the country and leaving large sections of the country and millions of young people in despair.

Initially, it appeared that Obasanjo’s government would listen and take steps to address the genuine grievances. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Obasanjo demonised those who expressed the view that his government had been captured by those who installed him. He called the opposition names and rejected any suggestions of a sovereign conference or the prospects of true federalism.

While he bluffed his political enemies or treated them with contempt and indifference for demanding true federalism, he reserved an iron fist for the OPC – the same OPC whose leader he was full of praise for last week.

Obasanjo personally ordered the police to shoot OPC members on sight, brushing aside calls for restraint by Human Rights Watch at the time. At a point, the late human rights activist and one of Faseun’s strongest allies, Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti, was genuinely worried that Obasanjo’s government would eliminate Faseun.

In an interview with The Niche before he died, Faseun spoke about the pain of Obasanjo’s betrayal as if it happened yesterday: “Former President Olusegun Obasanjo was one of the factors that made the OPC come into existence.

“We fought for him, fought for his regime and he ruled this nation for eight years of the constitutional prescription. It was surprising that the same Obasanjo that we protected was the one that said if you see any OPC member, shoot on sight.”

Faseun’s OPC was not the only victim of Obasanjo’s betrayal. The former president sussed out and attacked the Alliance for Democracy (AD), perhaps the most organised political expression of the will to restructure the country at the time.

Asiwaju Ahmed Bola Tinubu and a remnant in Lagos were the only survivors in the Southwest. The former president crushed dissent in his government, regularly purging his party rank and file of contrary voices, and whipping the National Assembly in line.

In a spectacular travesty of federalism, he declared emergency rule in Ekiti and Plateau states and suspended the houses of assembly. On top of that, he instigated a few state houses of assembly to remove governors he didn’t particularly like. Under Obasanjo, the country descended into the insecurity that left a trail of violent killings, including the murder, without recompense, of the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Bola Ige.

In spite of the spiralling violence on his watch and suggestions that decentralised police could stem the tide, Obasanjo stonewalled. The same man who is rooting for Amotekun today, describing it as the best invention since the Royal Niger Company’s constabulary force, would not even brook community police when he was in power.

It was Ok, he seemed to say, for Abuja to use the Federal police to rig elections or intimidate its enemies in the states, but wrong for states to have any security arrangement with sufficient local knowledge to protect their own communities.

His most memorable token to the call for true federalism was a national political reform conference set up on the eve of his departure and whose report he later dumped among the chickenfeed in his farm.

But listening to Obasanjo last week, it’s obvious that all things have become new. Amotekun – the regional policing arrangement by the Southwest – is suddenly a brilliant idea, not in and of itself, but because one of the governors has offered to give the former president special attention in all discussions regarding the formation of the security network.

In order words, it’s not about Amotekun, but Obasanjo being Obasanjo, it’s about Obasanjo. Which is fine. We’re all entitled to the gift of hindsight. If you have led your country not once but twice, and even attempted a third, after which you have remained the busiest former president at 83, and you still can’t shame others with your ego and gift of hindsight, then it’s your fault.

We now know that Obasanjo never opposed true federalism, fiscal federalism, restructuring or whatever baptismal name you choose for it. On the contrary, he said he supported any political tampering that could prevent another civil war but only did not have a name for it!

Yet, Buhari would do well to leave the messenger and face the message. In spite of his best efforts, the country is still in trouble. It is still deeply divided along tribal and religious lines. Widespread feelings of alienation and discontent continue to rise, and current structures are woefully inadequate to contain them.

Change is a moving train. Over the years, states (especially Lagos), have through litigation, managed to wrest from the centre some areas of control, such as land, certain taxes and levies, legislation on sports and lottery, and control of physical planning, among others.

But as human rights activist and senior advocate Femi Falana pointed out, the items on the Exclusive List have been expanded from 45 in the 1963 constitution to 67 in the current one.

The irony, however, is that while states are demanding greater autonomy and castigating the centre for appropriating 52 per cent of federal revenue, these same states insist on treating local governments just as cruelly as they are being treated by the centre.

President Buhari appears uncomfortable with any suggestions of restructuring partly because he belongs to the era that imposed a unitary system on Nigeria, and also partly because he is suspicious that it is a nebulous agenda for mayhem.

But he’s wrong. Necessity, especially economic necessity, is already driving the restructuring that Buhari’s party promised but which it has so far failed to deliver on.

Obasanjo’s latter-day love affair with restructuring should be a parable to those who resist change simply because they think they have a temporary advantage.

If Faseun could give a vote of thanks to Obasanjo at the memorial lecture last week, he would have been delighted that the former president has, finally, seen the light. But then, he might have added in his forthright manner, that even hindsight has its expiry date.

Ishiekwene is the MD/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview.


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