Letters, messages, and all kinds of intrigues have recently coloured the relationship between ex-leaders Olusegun Obasanjo and Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, with President Muhammadu Buhari. This has sparked various narratives, some of which say it is all power play at high levels. But what does all this mean for the political landscape?
Die-hard supporters of the three retired generals – President Muhammadu Buhari, Olusegun Obasanjo, and Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida – insist that there is no love lost between the trio. However, not all Nigerians, especially the youth who are seen as key to electoral victory, are aware that Obasanjo, IBB and Buhari have many things in common. For those who know them, a disagreement between them should not be seen as strange. All three ‘warring’ retired generals have reached the zenith in their military career, and have fought in the Civil War between 1966 and 1970.
Obasanjo, born on 5th March, 1937 is now 80; Buhari, born on 17th December 1942 is now 76; and IBB, born on 17th August 1941 is now 77-years-old.
The only point of departure is that while Obasanjo and Buhari were at different times Head of State, and thereafter elected president, IBB only served once as Head of State, but later changed the title of his office to Military President, without testing his electoral worth at the polls.
Ahead of the 2019 general elections, which is about a year from now, Obasanjo dropped what has been described to be a bombshell two weeks ago, in what many describe as a new agenda that will continue to dominate the political space as the elections draw nearer. Many Nigerians believe that he is a lucky Nigerian, and he too has at different fora attested to this, saying God always answers his prayers, even though his opponents keep making reference to his failed third term attempt.
Obasanjo seems to have attained notoriety in letter-writing to Nigerian leaders, but little did many Nigerians know that he would deploy his sword-like pen to reach out to President Buhari. To the shock of many political observers, he in the long statement pointedly asked Buhari to go home and rest and shelve the idea of contesting the 2019 election even though the latter has not declared his intention to run.
Obasanjo’s incontrovertibly shook the political space, given the endorsement Buhari received from him in 2015. In fact, the former leader, who openly tore his PDP membership card, did not hide his objection to the decision of former President Goodluck Jonathan to contest the 2015 election, who he had earlier warned in a scathing letter, to retrace his steps. Buhari became his favourite to win the 2015 election, who he viewed as having the experience and knowledge to lead Nigeria.
Obasanjo said, “The circumstances [Buhari] will be working under if he wins the election are different from the one he worked under before, where he was both the executive and the legislature – he knows that. He’s smart enough. He’s educated enough. He’s experienced enough. Why shouldn’t I support him?,” Obasanjo said, in the letter to Jonathan way back before 2015 elections. That endorsement was seen in other quarters as more of an esprit de corps for a military colleague.
In retrospect, while Obasanjo was enlisted into the Nigerian Army in 1958, Buhari joined in 1961 and they both rose through the ranks to become generals, and heads of state at different times.
While Obasanjo was Head of State from 1976 to 1979, Buhari also occupied the position in 1983 to 1985. With the trajectory of their military and political lives, many observers would have expected the sustenance of their camaraderie. But there seems to be no love lost between them. From 2015 till now, it appears the tide has changed and President Buhari seems to have entered the infamous black book of Obasanjo.
In the well-circulated statement, Obasanjo rated the Buhari administration low in the fight against corruption which was the major fulcrum of the administration’s campaign just as he accused him of nepotism and lacking the understanding of internal political dynamics.
“The situation that made Nigerians to vote massively to get my brother Jonathan off the horse is playing itself out again. First, I thought I knew the point where President Buhari is weak and I spoke and wrote about it even before Nigerians voted for him and I also did vote for him because at that time it was a matter of ‘any option but Jonathan’,” Obasanjo wrote. He therefore asked Buhari to take a deserved rest in 2019.
In the letter, titled ‘The Way Out: a Clarion Call for Coalition for Nigeria Movement’, Obasanjo wrote: “President Buhari needs a dignified and honourable dismount from the horse. He needs to have time to reflect, refurbish physically and recoup and after appropriate rest, once again, join the stock of Nigerian leaders whose experience, influence, wisdom and outreach can be deployed on the side line for the good of the country. His place in history is already assured. Without impaired health and strain of age, running the affairs of Nigeria is a 25/7 affair, not 24/7.”
He continued: “I only appeal to brother Buhari to consider a deserved rest at this point in time and at this age. [He] does not necessarily need to heed my advice. But whether or not he heeds it, Nigeria needs to move on and move forward.”
The Buhari administration was tactful in its response to Obasanjo, probably with the intent not to drag the debate beyond. “For the record, Chief Obasanjo is a patriot, and he has proven this time and time again. We appreciate what he said concerning the administration’s performance in two out of the three key issues that formed the plank of its campaign: Fighting corruption and tackling insurgency. Specifically, the former President said President Buhari must be given credit for his achievement so far in these two areas. We thank him for this,” the Presidency said. But Buhari’s supporters did not take it lightly.
Malam Mohammed Lawal who served as Deputy Director, Coordination/Implementation of the APC Presidential Campaign Council in 2015, which worked for the emergence of President Buhari, said people like of Obasanjo are uncomfortable with President Buhari’s ‘pro-masses’ approach to governance. He also accused the ex-president of attempting to sabotage the current administration.
“[Obasanjo] thinks the Buhari era is like the late Yar’adua era or the Jonathan era that he planted. We will not fold our hands this time around. If the Federal Government is careful in speaking out, we the supporters of President Buhari will not sit down and just look,” Lawal said.
Another Buhari supporter, Aminu Dan Malam, said Obasanjo’s ranting will fizzle out. “He is not a kingmaker, and has never been one; and contrary to insinuations, Buhari’s popularity is soaring. Just look at the sea of people that turned out to receive him in Nasarawa State few days ago. And importantly, Obasanjo never won an election on his own because he has never been a party man. First, he came as military head of state through the support of other generals such as T.Y Danjuma. In 1999, he never knew anything like PDP, he was in prison when they brought him out and crowned him and in 2003, Atiku Abubakar who was then vice president would have smartly taken over the PDP ticket,” he said.
Malam added: “And the circumstance that led to the emergence of late President Umaru Yar’adua is not something that we should revisit; the case is the same with the second coming of Jonathan. So, Obasanjo should simply keep quiet; he is envious of Buhari.”
Many say the Obasanjo-declared Coalition for Nigeria Movement (CNM), which he said is not a political party but an alternative to unseat Buhari, is simply out to cause confusion. The movement, greeted with suspicion and misgivings, posed a question: What is Obasanjo after? While many politicians and political observers align with Obasanjo on some issues raised in his letter, they are not convinced about the sincerity of the former President.
This is why the formation of the coalition being championed by some ex-governors, especially former governors Olagunsoye Oyinlola (Osun) and Donald Duke (Cross River) has been greeted with snide remarks by major political players, who see the group as being populated by the same old politicians of the ruling party, and PDP stock.
Assessing the letter, Barrister Monday Ubani said Obasanjo’s advice to Buhari not to contest is not binding, more so when the ex-president is not known to have followed advice when he was in power. “[Obasanjo] is not a minister, he is not in government. He is just an elder statesman. There are issues which he raised, accusing him of running a government of the north, that appointments are a bit lopsided. There was allegation of herdsmen who are also killing with so much impunity and the government has not sent the military the way it did when the IPOB issue arose. But one also cannot forget Obasanjo and his government in a hurry. He was the first person to say that he has ministers who he has appointed to advise him, but that he is not bound to take their advice.”
Ubani also wondered: “Is his advice laced with poison, or is it offered with some sense of altruism, or for selfish interest? Even though some of the messages he passed have some measure of truth, my problem with him as a messenger is that those things he was advising about, he was more guilty of. Whatever problems we are facing today in Nigeria, Obasanjo played a very big major role in creating them. But we cannot throw away all the messages. Sometimes we overlook the messenger and take the message.”
A chieftain of the PDP in Lagos said the promoters of Obasanjo’s ‘coalition’ are jokers. Declining to be named, he said, “They are just wasting their time. They want to adopt the strategy of the APC and I don’t see them making any impact.”
A university don, Dr. Kayode Esuola, told Daily Trust that the coalition would not work as it was formed by the same political elites that have contributed to the mess Nigeria has found herself in. According to him, the coalition is a conspiracy of the elites that is bound to collapse in no distant time.
“Ideologically speaking, one will not really expect it to work. It is the same coalition that manifested in a different scenario to form APC that has disappointed everybody today, including former President Olusegun Obasanjo,” Esuola said.
The Babangida letters
The letter(s) written by IBB, called ‘Maradona’ because of his slippery approach to issues has also remained a subject of dispute.
Babangida, in a statement he personally issued in Minna, Niger State, distanced himself from an earlier one issued on his behalf by his spokesman, Kassim Afegbua, which claimed that the ex-military ruler had advised Nigerians to vote out President Muhammadu Buhari in 2019. “Let me categorically state that as former president and statesman, I have unfettered channel of communication with the highest authorities without sensational public correspondence, therefore those views expressed over there are personal views of the writer,” he said.
Babangida described his statement as ‘My Counsel to the Nation,’ a caption seen many as a move by the ex- president ‘to tactically depart from how ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo passed his message to Buhari. According to him, “Recent happenings and utterances by political gladiators is alarming and not in the interest of common man that is already overstretched and apparently living hand-to-mouth due to precarious economic conditions. I am a realist that believes in all issues in a democratic atmosphere are sincerely discussed and resolved in the spirit of give-and-take.”
IBB, who joined the Nigerian Army on 10 December 1962, is a retired general who was president of Nigeria from 27, August 1985, to 26, August 1993. He joined the Army just one year after Buhari, who was enrolled in 1961.
Babangida was a key player in most of the military coups in Nigeria (July 1966, February 1976, December 1983, August 1985, December 1985 and April 1990). He took over from Buhari after a purported palace coup, and some people are jokingly saying he wants the incumbent out this time around through the power of the pen.
A look at Babangida’s second letter is not much a departure from the initial one issued by his spokesman. Credible sources said Afegbua is only a victim of circumstances, saying as a professional journalist, “he wouldn’t have created the story because he stands to gain nothing from it.”
In a phone interview with the Daily Trust on the day the two letters were released, Afegbua, who has become the guest of the Police and DSS said he stands by the first letter. “The statement is in order. IBB did not hold any press conference in Minna. It was overzealous people that issued that statement of his denial. I wouldn’t issue any statement without his approval. Go ahead with the statement. I have spoken with him and he said he has not recanted the statement,” he said.
Analysts believe that considering their personal and collective experiences, the recent exchange between Obasanjo, IBB and Buhari is not surprising for students of politics, who believe that many factors might have come into play, including patriotism, ego clashes, and to a certain extent, greed. While some say he should bow out when the time comes, many feel he should be allowed to take a decision or whether to run again or not, considering that the ultimate decision lies with the electorate.
While Obasanjo will never vie for the presidency, IBB publicly retired from active politicking. Buhari, who is now on the saddle, still has the room to go for a second term. And that is probably why Nigerians have not heard the last of this battle of generals.