The politics of comparing Buhari with Obasanjo


On January 1, the former president of Nigeria, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, published a letter addressed to the Nigerian youth. In that letter, he said a number of things, one of which was that the presidency of Major General Muhammadu Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) has been catastrophic.

The letter read inter alia: “The last seven and a half years have no doubt been eventful and stressful years for many Nigerians.  We have moved from frying pan to fire and from mountain top to the valley.

“Our leaders have done their best, but their best had turned out to be not the best for Nigeria and Nigerians at home and abroad.  For most Nigerians, it was hell on earth….

“Those of us who are alive should thank God for His mercies, brace ourselves for the remaining few months of this administration and pray and work very hard for an immediate better future – future of liberation, restoration and great hope and expectation.

“Most of us in good conscience can testify to competence when we see it anywhere. What is masqueraded as ‘competence’ is self-interest and nepotism.”

Obasanjo reminded the youth that the general election next month is another opportunity for them to take back their country and their future from those who have held them down. He stated as follows:

“We have a unique opportunity to correct ourselves by ourselves for the good of ourselves.  Those who are preaching division, segregation, separation, and want to use diversity for their own self and selfish interest are enemies of the nation, no matter what else they may disguisedly profess or proclaim…

“Let me say it again, loud and clear, Nigeria has no business with insecurity, poverty, insurgency, banditry, unemployment, hunger, debt, division and disunity.  We are in these situations because, advertently or inadvertently, our leaders have made the choices.  They have done the best they could do.  Let them take their rest deservedly or not and let them enjoy their retirement as septuagenarians or older.”

Obasanjo went ahead in the latter part of that letter to endorse the presidential candidate of the Labour Party, Mr Peter Obi, as the candidate with the best qualities to turn around Nigeria. Expectedly, that generated criticism from other presidential candidates.

Although there was nothing Obasanjo said in the letter about the regime of Buhari that is different from the situation of things in Nigeria today, his endorsement of Obi overshadowed his assessment of Buhari’s regime. Interestingly, in 2015, Obasanjo was among those who supported Buhari to become president. Obasanjo had three key reasons for that. The first was that justice demanded that after Dr Goodluck Jonathan’s completion of Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua’s tenure and then having a full term of his own, he should leave office for power to return to the North to which the deceased Yar’Adua belonged. Obasanjo’s second reason was that given Buhari’s military background, he would handle the insecurity in the country better. And the third reason was that Buhari, with his famed ascetic lifestyle, would be more disciplined in the management of the country’s resources and robust in fighting corruption.

Many believe that on all those fronts, Buhari has not lived up to expectation. However, Buhari disagrees. He and his aides believe that he is the best thing that has ever happened to Nigeria in terms of leadership. In his response to Obasanjo’s new year letter, the Senior Special Assistant to the President (Media & Publicity), Mr Garba Shehu, said that Obasanjo’s criticism was born out of jealousy.

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He stated, “(Obasanjo) will not stop attacking Buhari because the former President won’t stop being jealous of anyone who beats him to a new record in the nation’s development process.

“Buhari is ahead of Chief Obasanjo in all fields of national development and to do that is cardinal sin to Obasanjo whose hallucinations tell him that he is the best ever to lead Nigeria and there will never be another one better than him.”

That sounds similar to what the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Mr Femi Adesina, said about Buhari in October 2021. He said that no Nigerian – living or dead – “has the kind of attraction, magnetic pull, that Buhari has.” In December, while he was in Kogi State, Buhari declared that the All Progressives Congress under him had delivered on all electoral promises made to Nigerians at all levels.

The problem with this recurring narrative from the presidency is that it is an example of one taking an exam, scoring oneself and announcing the result. Buhari and members of his ruling APC use some of the projects he has executed to assess him. But every administration executes projects. Ironically, the projects executed by Buhari came at a huge cost to Nigeria. Last week, the Debt Management Office disclosed that Buhari will be leaving a N77tn debt behind. If that is divided by Nigeria’s estimated population, it means that Buhari will leave each Nigerian with a debt of about N350,000.

The economy has also fared badly under Buhari, with the naira being most depreciated ever, exchanging for over 700 for a dollar. Late last year, the National Bureau of Statistics reported that 63 per cent of Nigerians were multidimensionally poor. Also, under Buhari, insecurity surged to its highest level, permeating all the six zones of the country.

Based on measurable parameters and indices, no independent analyst would compare Buhari with Obasanjo on leadership. The indices are heavily weighed against Buhari. In the areas of conduct of elections and respect for court judgements, Obasanjo performed poorly. But on the economy, no president has performed better than Obasanjo since the Fourth Republic began in 1999, and no president has been more detribalised and fairer to all parts of Nigeria than Obasanjo.

Obasanjo became president in 1999 when Nigeria was a pariah state and oil price was selling less than $20. He was able to revive the Nigerian economy that had been nosediving since the military, led by Buhari, took over in 1983. Under Obasanjo, the middle class, which virtually disappeared during military rule, reappeared. Nigerians, who had been buying second-hand cars, clothes, shoes, refrigerators, TV sets, etc, began to buy brand-new ones. Under him, the economy grew rapidly and consistently, with no year performing at less than five per cent. In 2002 the economy even grew at a whopping 15.33 per cent. Even though he inherited huge debts, he was able to get Nigeria’s debt written off in 2006 by the Paris Club by paying $12bn. In addition, Obasanjo grew Nigeria’s foreign reserve more than any administration in this Fourth Republic.

The reason Obasanjo succeeded in turning around the economy was that he went for the best hands from all parts of Nigeria, unlike Buhari who has been heavily criticised for displaying ethnic and religious nepotism in his appointments and projects. It was under Obasanjo that Nigerians first heard of professionals like Prof. Dora Akunyili, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, Prof. Charles Soludo, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, etc, who excelled in their fields.

The good book says that “a good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children.” Sadly, Buhari will be leaving a mountain of debt and problems for Nigerians.

However, Buhari has an area where he can excel and beat the record of Obasanjo. That area is in the conduct of free, fair and transparent elections this year. If he succeeds in doing that, then it will be his redeeming grace for which he will be remembered kindly for years to come. Buhari has repeatedly promised to ensure that such is achieved under his watch. The ball is in his court to fulfil that in the elections scheduled for February and March.

– Twitter:@BrandAzuka ,

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