Former President Olusegun Obasanjo is the benefactor of President Goodluck Jonathan. But as it is the way of the world, there seems to be a river between them at the moment. We explore the events that led to this ugly development and their political implications.
In Abeokuta last Friday, governors, leaders of the National Assembly and political heavy weights gathered to lay the foundation stone of a mosque at the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library (OOPL) complex. Even former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who has had a bitter political battle with former President Obasanjo, attended the event and donated N5 million towards the project. Conspicuously absent was President Goodluck Jonathan. He was not there in person. He was not represented by any minister or presidential aide.
President Jonathan's absence at an event that touches the heart of his benefactor is one of the manifestations of the divide between the two leaders. Obasanjo it was who influenced Jonathan's political rise as Deputy Governor of Bayelsa State, through Governor, Vice President, Acting President, substantive President and Jonathan's election as president in the 2011 elections. Though unspoken, the feud is now in the open, like a festering wound. Obasanjo, on his part, has kept away from the Aso Rock Presidential Villa in the last few months. He didn't attend the last Council of State meeting in July. His voice was not heard sympathising or commiserating with the first family over the illness of Dame Patience Jonathan and the death of Jonathan's younger brother, the late Meni, respectively. Instead, the volley of attacks and counter-attacks directly and by proxy has replaced the filial relationship between them. Obasanjo even dumped his position as chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) board of trustees - a position he fought very hard to keep. Ever since that decision, things continued to fall apart between the two.
How Jonathan and Obasanjo fell apart
The crack between Jonathan and Obasanjo began to emerge shortly after the 2011 presidential election. A close associate of Obasanjo revealed to Sunday Trust that after the bitter battle before, during and after the polls, Obasanjo asked Jonathan to mend the divide between the North and South by visiting those who contested against him in the presidential primaries and the election. But Jonathan refused to do so. Secondly, it was alleged that Obasanjo warned Jonathan against reducing the presidency to an Ijaw affair, when it was apparent that the president had surrounded himself with his kinsmen, some of them ex-militants. Again, Jonathan ignored him. Then, when Jonathan wanted to constitute his cabinet, it was gathered, Obasanjo recommended some names from the South-West, considering the fact that the region which voted for Jonathan overwhelmingly had no governor. Sunday Trust gathered that Obasanjo was shocked when Jonathan threw away his list, and the South-West did not make it to any of the top 10 cabinet positions. Combined with the suspicion that Jonathan may have deliberately traded the South-West governorship positions with Asiwaju Bola Tinubu's Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) to enable him win the presidential election, Obasanjo felt used and dumped. To worsen the situation, it was alleged that the president stopped picking Obasanjo's calls.
Obasanjo turns critic of Jonathan administration
Indications that Obasanjo accepted his maltreatment and was looking in a different direction, perhaps, to take his pound of flesh, manifested in reports alleging that he was looking North-ward for Jonathan's replacement, come 2015. Though he denied ever endorsing Jigawa State Governor Sule Lamido and Rivers State Governor Rotimi Amaechi as his choices for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP's) presidential flag bearers in 2015, Obasanjo's body language told the world that he had shifted his support from Jonathan. At local and international fora, he took a swipe on the Jonathan administration for wasting the country's foreign reserve, put at about $35 billion in 2007. Obasanjo had said, "We left what we call excess crude, let's build it for rainy day, up to $35 billion; within three years, the $35 billion disappeared. Whether the money disappeared or, like the governor said, it was shared, the fact remains that $35 billion disappeared from the foreign reserve I left behind in office. When we left that money, we thought we were leaving it for the rainy day... But my brother said the rain is not falling now. But the fact is that when the rain is falling, we will have nothing to cover our heads with because we have blown it off. The Chinese do not think that way." The statement was an allusion to the Jonathan administration, as both foreign reserve and excess crude account sank shortly after the 2011 elections.
Obasanjo's statements became more and more critical of the Jonathan administration. On November 11, he spoke in Dakar, Senegal about the alarming rate of unemployment in the country, and concluded that the country was sitting on a time-bomb. He told the gathering at an entrepreneurship programme under the auspices of that Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the African Development Bank that when he became president, youth unemployment was put at 72 per cent, but that he reduced it to about 52 per cent. Now, it has ballooned to unmanageable proportion. Obasanjo underscored his fears with this remark: "I am afraid. And when a General says he is afraid, that means the danger ahead is real and potent. Despite the imminent threat to Nigeria's nationhood there is no serious, realistic short or long term solution to youth unemployment."
Though Obasanjo argued that his remarks were not meant to instigate Nigerians against government, few days after the Dakar event, he was in Warri, Delta State to frontally attack Jonathan over his 'weak' approach to insecurity. At the 40th anniversary of Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor's call to ministry at the Word of Life Bible Church, Obasanjo said, "They (Boko Haram) stated their grievances and I promised to relay them to the authorities in power, because that was the best I could do. I did report. But my fear at that time is still my fear till today. When you have a sore and fail to attend to it quickly, it festers and grows to become something else.
"Whichever way, you just have to attend to it. Don't leave it unattended to. On two occasions I had to attend to the problem I faced at that time. I sent soldiers to a place and 19 of them were killed. If I had allowed that to continue, I will not have authority to send security whether police, soldier and any force any where again. So, I had to nip it in the bud and that was the end of that particular problem."
Referring to criticisms that he foisted Jonathan on the nation, Obasanjo said, "The beauty of democracy is that power rests in the people, and every elected person would seek your votes to come back; if you don't want him, he won't come back."
Jonathan fires back
Obasanjo's reference to how he tackled the Odi crisis attracted a length remark from Jonathan during the presidential media chat on Sunday, November 18. The tragedy, which happened on November 20, 1999 led to the killing of many persons in the Bayelsa State community. Though Obasanjo said it halted militants' attacks on the army, Jonathan disagreed, bluntly saying, "When the Odi matter came up, I was the Deputy Governor of Bayelsa State, and I can give you the narratives of what led to the Odi crisis. The peak of the activities of the militancy in Niger Delta was when 12 police officers were killed in a cold blooded murder. That made the federal government to invade Odi. And after that invasion, the governor and I visited Odi. Ordinarily, the governor and the deputy governor were not supposed to move together under such a situation. And we saw some dead people mainly old men and women and also children. None of those militants was killed. None was killed. So, bombarding Odi was to solve the problem but it never solved it. If the attack on Odi had solved the issue of militancy in the Niger Delta, the Yar'adua government, in which I had the privilege of being the Vice President, wouldn't have come up with the amnesty programme. So, that should tell you that the attack on Odi never solved the militancy problems. People will even tell you that rather it escalated it. It attracted international sympathy and we had lots of challenges after that attack on Odi."
Former Minister of Aviation under Obasanjo, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode didn't allow the president's criticism of Obasanjo to go down. He replied Jonathan in a president statement, which he said, Obasanjo authorised. Fani-Kayode said, "On the issue of Boko Haram it is unfortunate that President Obasanjo's comments have been misconstrued and his views misrepresented. He never said that the Odi treatment should be applied to Boko Haram or that such action is appropriate in these circumstances. What he said was that a solution ought to have been found or some sort of action ought to have been taken sooner rather than allow the problem to fester over time like a bad wound and get worse. There can be no doubt that he was right on this because, according to President Jonathan's own Chief of Army Staff, no less that 3,000 people have been killed by Boko Haram in the last two years alone. That figure represents approximately the same number of people that were killed by the IRA in Northern Ireland and the British mainland in the 100 years that the war between them and British lasted and before peace was achieved between the two sides. The same number of casualties that the IRA inflicted on the people of the United Kingdom in 100 years is the same number of casualties that Boko Haram have managed to inflict on our people in just two. This is unacceptable and it is very disturbing.
The Federal Government must cultivate the courage and the political will to stop the killings by Boko Haram and to find a permanent solution to the problem. When President Obasanjo was in power he handled such matters decisively, with vigour and with the utmost urgency. He brought justice to the perpetrators quickly and promptly and he did whatever he had to do to protect the lives and property of the Nigerian people. The truth is that the strategy that he adopted to fight terrorism and mass murder worked very well and it was very effective. For President Goodluck Jonathan to suggest otherwise is regrettable," Fani-Kayode said.
However, the president's reaction to Obasanjo's remarks didn't end there. Last Tuesday, reports emerged that some indigenes of Odi had put together enough data to drag Obasanjo to the International Criminal Court (ICC) over alleged genocide. A report quoted the community as arguing that: "We are dragging Obasanjo before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.... Our people are seeking two things, conviction of the former president for crime against humanity and compensation from the Federal Government for the destruction of Odi. The details are ready with pictures but we don't want to pre-empt the International Court."
Obasanjo came under fire from Jonathan's aides and even former leaders who thought his remarks on Jonathan were some unkind cuts. But the Jonathan administration didn't stop there. The termination of the concession agreement on Lagos-Ibadan Expressway between the Federal Government and Bi-Courtney Highway Services Ltd., whose face is Dr Wale Babalakin, may not be by chance. Dr Babalakin is like Obasanjo's adopted son.
Apart from terminating the multi-billion naira contract, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has taken on Babalakin over an alleged laundering of N2 billion for convicted former Governor James Ibori. Secondly, a former Aviation Minister, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode, is at the same time facing fire. For the fourth time last week, the judges handling the case of an alleged N240 million corruption charge against him have been changed.
The new judge for the lingering case since 2008 is Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia. Other associates of Obasanjo, like Malam Nuhu Ribadu and Malam Nasiru el-Rufai, have not been spared by the administration. The business empire that Barrister Jimoh Ibrahim, another of Obasanjo loyalists, attempted to build, is crumbling under government's sledge hammer. Air Nigeria is off the skies. It is not clear if these are deliberate attempts to get at Obasanjo, but the quick succession in some of the decisions against the former president's 'boys' may not be mere coincidences.
Implications of the face-off for 2015:
Obasanjo does not forgive. Obasanjo has always had the last laugh. These two expressions have become aphorisms in the Nigerian political circle because of some antecedents. Many politicians who attracted Obasanjo's anger regretted it.
Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar; former Ogun State Governor, Otunba Gbenga Daniel; former Speaker Umar Gha'li Na'Abbah, former Senate President Anyim Pius Anyim; the late Senate President Pius Okadigbo, former PDP National Chairman, Chief Audu Ogbeh and even the late President Umaru Musa Yar'adua were not spared. In different ways they disagreed with Obasanjo.
In different ways they lost out. As the political alignment for 2015 intensifies, there are fears that the Obasanjo group could pull the rug off Jonathan's 2015 ambition. In Abeokuta last Friday, many governors from the North, some of whom have presidential ambition, engaged in a closed door meeting with Obasanjo after they contributed to the fund for building the presidential library mosque. If anything, the harmony demonstrated at the meeting pointed to the reality of power shift from the South to the North, a change that Obasanjo has openly canvassed for. The big alliance being planned by the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) would provide a veritable alternative to dissenting groups in the PDP, if Jonathan picks the party's ticket for 2015 presidential election.
Presidential aides declined to make comments on the cold war between Jonathan and Obasanjo. Many calls put through to Dr Doyin Okupe, a Senior Special Assistant to Jonathan on Public Affairs, were not answered. He did not respond to text messages sent to his mobile phone, explaining what this newspaper wanted him to clarify. Subsequent calls made to Dr Okupe after the text messages had been delivered were not attended to. Also, Dr Reuben Abati, the president's Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, did not respond to our reporter's calls and text messages. The president's Special Assistant on Political Affairs, Malam Ahmed Gulak, also refused to respond to calls and text messages to his mobile telephone. However, in his response to criticisms by former leaders of Jonathan last Friday, Gulak had said, "They have had their opportunities to rule this country before. Some have done eight years; some have done 12 years, some have done seven years, they have done their own bits. Therefore, what we are saying is that, they should be elder statesmen; give advice from the sides, not to dabble into creating crisis within the system."
According to Gulak, he agreed that nobody could deprive people of their rights to air their views on any national issue, including how they are governed, but such criticisms should be constructive. He argued that when such criticisms come from those who had been privileged to have led the country in the past, they should be moderated, not to create social disharmony in the country.
In his reaction to the face-off between Jonathan and Obasanjo, the National Publicity Secretary of the Conference of Nigeria Political Parties (CNPP), Mr Osita Okechukwu, described it as 'nemesis at work'.
Okechukwu recalled how Obasanjo also treated the likes of former military leaders, such as Ibrahim Babangida, Abdulsalam Abubakar and T. Y. Danjuma who worked for his election as civilian president.
He said "if Mr President is actually ready to transform the country, he must not only detach himself as a puppet in the hands of the Ota Chief; but must muster the political will to expose the perfidy, culture of impunity and arbitrariness, which is the metaphor of Obasanjo regime."
He stated further that "The altercation between President Goodluck Jonathan and the ex-president Chief Olusegun Obasanjo can best be termed nemesis at work; for it is the same bowel Chief Obasanjo used in feeding his mentors who rescued, rehabilitated and enthroned him as president for the second time, which is being used to feed him. One recalls the petition we wrote then, pointing out that going by the Decree which governed the 1999 presidential election, that the chief was not qualified to be president. Our argument was that Chief Obasanjo is an ex-convict, the next day, the then Head of State, Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar repealed that section. Or do we forget how Gen. Ibrahim Babangida coerced everybody to queue into the Obasanjo for president project, hoping for reward, which never came.
"General T. Y. Danjuma threatened to leave the country if the chief was not crowned. When he became president, the result was the revocation of oil block licence allocated earlier to him by General Sani Abacha. Suffice it to say that the tale of the dosage of ingratitude of Chief Obasanjo is legendary," Okechukwu said.
The CNPP spokesperson added that "President Jonathan has been dealing with Chief Obasanjo with kid-gloves and, therefore, must learn from American dictum, which admonishes that you don't pull the pistol without shooting. Too bad.
"Where does one start from to mention a few of the asset-stripping, subversion of the constitution and havoc visited on the Nigerian people in the eight years of the Obasanjo's regime. His privatization programme was highly flawed and at variant with the intendment of the exercise. He embarked on undue patronage of his cronies, and to crown it all, the revenue realized from the sales is steamed in controversy.
"We cannot as well forget the reckless allocation of 500 hectares of Sirajo District to Nigerian cronies of Chief Obasanjo and some Malaysians without due process. The hype that greeted the launching of Malaysian Garden, by Chief Obasanjo hit high roofs upon which a lot the Nigerians invested and 6 years down the line the controversy has not ebbed."
Also speaking with Sunday Trust on the development, Daniel Richards, Adamawa State born political strategist, queried the sincerity of Obasanjo over the choice of his successors.
"If you look at the PDP wholly, we agree that Obasanjo played a role in Jonathan's emergence. Let's not forget that Obasanjo too wanted to perpetuate himself through the third term agenda. For me, on the emergence of Yar'adua and Jonathan, I don't think Obasanjo had good intentions. And if you look at what characterised Jonathan's emergence, you will find out that there is a motive behind bringing him as vice president," Richards said.
The divide between Jonathan and Obasanjo may influence the country's future political leadership. An intense power struggle may be in the offing in 2015.