(Vanguard of Sunday, February 4, 2007)
As the President winds down his administration, many chroniclers will have to take a step or two back into time, to the past, to see where he has affected us, for good or bad. I will sing his praises for his boldness to take decisions, and for his profound love of his country.
But attention must also be drawn to his consistent reluctance, even unwillingness to accept that wisdom is not anchored in one human vehicle, and can never be. And in deliberating on the these three areas, there are many pluses and minuses and it is the minuses that will be the dangerous precedents that those who come after Chief Olusegun Obasanjo may call in aid when they address the problems of this country and the challenges they pose to due process.
There are two pasts now to judge the President by, the past that ended on October 1, 1979 and the past that must end on May 29, 2007. Researchers must put all they have to compare the two pasts so that we can see clearly what those coming may have in their quote books to point to in two years, ten years, twenty years.
Let me tell you about the past that ended on October 1, 1979. I was close by and watching during the build-up to that October, 1979 when General Obasanjo handed over power to an elected civilian government. You may not believe it, but our President was not as dictatorial then as he is accused of being today.
Danjuma was there and so also was Shehu Yar’Adua. There were regular briefing sessions with editors. I remember the President calling me aside during lunch that followed the briefing and saying Shehu told him that I was not persuaded by the argument he put across in respect of an issue that was tabled. Could I come to his office so that we would discuss it? I did, taking my documents in proof of my points.
He had his own files on the issue which had to do with labour and what my labour editor James Umoh had written which I stoutly defended. After a whole hour of looking at decrees which grounded the point, I discovered that he was right. Of course I went to the office and redressed the issue. That was the working relationship that existed between the administration and the press.
But that status was earned. Almost a year earlier, I had gone to see him to protest a statement he was credited with, that Daily Times editors were not patriotic. I was editor of Daily Times and had at least eight other colleagues editing the different titles – Sunday Times by Tunji Oseni, Business Times by Onyema Ugochukwu, Lagos Weekend by John Adollo, Evening Times by Ben Lawrence, among others.
We all had assumed those positions through competitive exams which had been adopted after recommendations of an enquiry into the operations of the Daily Times when some of our colleagues provided the bridge across which government assumed control of the newspaper and thus set it on the path of destruction from which it did not recover. The President must have been shocked when I told him I came to tell him that he was paid to be patriotic and that he can only claim to be as patriotic and Tony Momoh and his colleagues who edit the Daily Times of Nigeria titles.
I told him the media loves Nigeria as much as he did, and that we were all working to grow Nigeria from the different posts of our callings. He had given me only five minutes to see him and say what I wanted to tell him. My point took only three minutes to make and I stood up to go. He ordered me to sit down and I did not leave his office until after almost two hours. Our relationship until he left office showed that he liked people who believed in what they did.
I do not know what others thought about him, but I think that the President consulted more in the 70’s, the first past, than now, this second past. It may well have to do with age, that today he is an elder presiding over affairs where younger ones should be seen, not heard. Or may be he believes that if he was a maximum ruler then without the people’s vote, he should today be a minimizing head chief whose subjects must accord him respect because he sees the mandate the people have given him as the equivalent of the crown of a sovereign.
It may even be because having had the opportunity to survey the terrain outside government, organize workshops on governance (yes, I attended some of them and what brainstorming went into them), and discovered to his discomfiture that there is always this huge gap between pontification about selling eggs and taking the eggs to the market to sell, he decided that this time around, he would call the shots, maximally.
But his opting to call the shots clearly, loudly and audibly, may have been long in coming. From 1999 – 2003, he spent a whole year of the four-year tenure traveling the world as if to make up for his incarceration for a coup he did not seem to know a thing about. It was his second-in-command, Atiku Abubakar, who was in charge, and so much in charge that in the 2003 elections, Atiku held the aces.
His domineering presence must have made the President to make up his mind, that he would never entrust anything to anyone, nor would he trust anyone with anything he held dear. So, in the past that would end on May 29, 2007, we have a President struggling to stamp his picture on the rock at Aso.
So in looking at how the boldness to take decisions worked in the two pasts under review, we can say without fear of contradiction that the President was consulting more during the military era than he has done, especially since 2003. So bold had he become in taking decisions in his second phase of his second coming (2003 -2004) that he disrupted guidelines he set when he left in 1979.
He made the Peugeot our official car, and this sustained the Kaduna Peugeot Assembly plant. Every government since 1979 stuck to this order – Shehu Shagari, Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida, Sanni Abacha, Abdulsalaam Abubakar. Since his return in 1999, Obasanjo had reversed the type of official car for public officers – heavy duty jeeps, some of them, I understand, bullet-proof. The last I heard of the Peugeot Assembly is that it had been sold to one of the distributors of the cars in Kaduna. Did you read that – the whole plant has been handed over to one of the distributors of the cars assembly plant produced!
The President gave us marching orders to sing the national anthem at all public gatherings. And in schools, the children must recite the national pledge. Our pledge is a promise to Nigeria our country that we would be faithful, loyal and honest; we would serve the country with all the strength we have; we would defend its unity, and uphold her honour and glory. And we called God to witness our undertaking, and pleaded for His help.
The President has not cancelled the pledge nor changed the anthem, but they are there as reminders of a dream difficult to fulfil. The story of greed and graft reads more like fiction than fact. Looking at EFCC Chairman Nuhu Ribadu tell a university of Ibadan audience about how corrupt we are, you want to redefine faith, loyalty and honesty as vices that anchor the Nigerian experience at the exit of our President.
So, in spite of his boldness at taking decisions, which we should be looking at next week as source materials for future rulers, we are going to have to part ways with a man who is exchanging canon fire with his estranged deputy on wrongdoings that should make the greatest lover of this country weep that they had harboured a hollow dream. No, weep not child of the giant in the African sun.
What is coming to this country in the next few years can be delayed, not stopped. That is why you must register to make the point at the April elections that you hold the future of this country in your hands and that even those you trusted can never destroy your faith in a country that has God’s anointing.
(Published in Vol. 2 of Democracy Watch, A Monitor’s Diary by Tony Momoh, pages 272 – 275; Lagos, 2008).