The battle between President Muhammadu Buhari and former President Olusegun Obasanjo, was long expected, but slow in coming. The relationship between incumbent and the former remains chequered. Shortly after the assassination of the late military head of state, General Murtala Ramat Mohammed, in a coup d’état in 1976, General Obasanjo stepped into his shoes and appointed General Muhammadu Buhari as federal commissioner for Petroleum.
It happened that at that epoch, the sum of N2.8billion got missing or was reported missing. Investigation suggested that the money traveled to an account in Midland Bank in the United Kingdom. But as is usual with things concerning public theft and inquiry in Nigeria, not much was heard, shortly after which middle-aged lady lost her job at the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA).
Nigerian citizens swallowed hard as the army arrangement went into the garbage heap of history. That ugly incidence was supplanted by a perceived happy one that had to do with the plan to take the country through the path of constitutional democracy in what was called the Constituent Assembly.
From the constituent Assembly came the Presidential system experiment and in no distant time a general election was announced, which produced the much-anticipated transition to democracy.
Having grabbed the uncommon honour of voluntary handover of political power to a civilian regime, General Obasanjo went into private life, pursuing his vaunted interest in agriculture and food production.
On the sidelines, the former head of state experimented with the idea of organization of Eminent Persons of Commonwealth. As the democratic structures he helped put in place continued in its trial and error, Obasanjo continued to take passing interests in the issue of leadership and social commentary.
And The Table Turned
But just as the Presidential system and constitutional democracy, which he facilitated was to complete four years of incubation, the civil regime was sacked and the military boys returned.
It happened that the bloodless coup d’état, which ushered in another military interregnum, brought in the former federal minister of Petroleum Resources, General Muhammadu Buhari, as the new head of state.
Although conflicting accounts trailed his direct participation in the coup and level of involvement in the planning, nonetheless Buhari became the leader of the junta. Assisted by a no nonsense officer from Kwara State, Brigadier Tunde Idiagbon, the military regime ruled with iron hand and draconian decrees.
The lack of humanity of its style and the choking social condition it created, combined to make the regime unpopular, such that barely 20 months after, the regime was also ousted in a palace coup.
Citing lack of consultation and inclusive leadership, the coupists placed the deposed head of state, Buhari, on “protective custody”. The former head of state swallowed hard as the new set of jackboots led by general Ibrahim Babangida, improvised a coy administrative style.
Eight years after twists and turns, the Babangida regime stepped aside for an interim Government of National Unity (GNU) that was set up in the wake of a disputed Presidential election. However, the GNU was sacked in a military putsch that elevated the former Secretary of Defence, General Sani Abacha, as head of state.
With the new set of military leaders, the former military ruler, Buhari, was rehabilitated through appointment as chairman of Petroleum Special Trust Fund (PTF), an intervention agency that handled civil works and provision of social amenities.
After Abacha died General, Abdulsalami Abubakar, took over. Under intense pressure, both locally and internationally, General Abubakar announced a timetable for the return of political power to the civilians.
Back To Old Future
The return to civil rule of the Abubakar transition brought back Chief Olusegun Obasanjo as the civilian president. Obasanjo navigated the nation’s nascent democracy driven by the goodwill from his voluntary handover to the civilians in 1979.
Eight years after, Obasanjo presided over the first civilian-to-civilian transition of power in the country. But Obasanjo’s successor, late Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, could not last the full term of his mandate as his deputy succeeded him after his decease.
The elevation of former Vice President Goodluck Jonathan was novel as it challenged the zoning arrangement of the ruling party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). From serving out the remaining years of the original mandate that brought him and his former principal to power, Jonathan went on to contest and win the Presidential election in 2011 for a four year term.
And due to a combination of factors, including breach of zoning arrangement and promise to serve just one term, Jonathan and his party lost the 2015 Presidential election to another former military head of state, Muhammadu Buhari.
Prior to the 2015 poll, Jonathan and Obasanjo had disagreed over the propriety of the former continuing in office and seeking another term. Buoyed by that divergence, Obasanjo was courted by the inchoate opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) to serve as its navigator to get Jonathan and PDP out of office.
However, back in office, Buhari, who was a mere minister under Obasanjo forty years before, decided to be his own man and forgot those who assisted his ascendance. It did not take long before Obasanjo and the President parted ways, which culminated in a public statement on January 21, 2018, in which he admonished the President to play the statesman and shun another term in office.
Simmering Conflict, Verbal Warfare
It is against the foregoing that the recent altercation between the former military leaders could be understood. Although Obasanjo fired what could be called a soft salvo in his patriotic opinion about the propriety of a 75-year-old man with health challenges seeking another presidential term, not many Nigerians expected President Buhari to attack the former President’s integrity and performance in office.
Addressing members of his supporters’ group that paid him a courtesy visit, Buhari had said: “You know the rail was killed and one of the former heads of state between that time was bragging that he spent more than $15 billion, not naira, on power. Where is the power? Where is the power? And now, we have to pay the debt.”
Given that it has been three years that he mounted the saddle, many Nigerians, upon hearing those scathing remarks in allusion to the Obasanjo administration wondered why the President chose now to deliver that opinion.
It is possible that the President, who must have been riled by the various demarketing posturing and utterances of his former principal, decided to fight back. At least, coming from the same military background as his traducer, Buhari seems to recall that the best form of defence is attack and decided to engage Obasanjo.
How far could that war book strategy assist the President in his envisaged electoral battle, knowing that Obasanjo is definitely not going to be on the ballot in 2019? Only Buhari and his handlers could hazard a guess, but there is the possibility that deep secrets could begin to migrate to the public square.
Would the verbal combatants spill the beans about what really happened with the missing N2.8billion from the accounts of Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), when they served as head of state and minister respectively?
Furthermore, did espirit de corps play any role in the hooding of details of the operation of PTF interventions? Would Nigerians be treated to another proxy war between the military boys, who were divided by coups and counter coups along the pro-Abacha and Obasanjo camps?
There are no immediate indications that things would get to that level, but Obasanjo has found a strong footing to continue on the path he has chosen, including interrogating leadership pedigree.
For instance, in his response to the veiled allegation of corruption in his signature power programme, the former President alluded to the incumbent’s poor cognition and leadership failings.
He said: “It is doubtful that a President with proper understanding of the issue would utter such…To inform the uninformed, the so-called $16billion power expenditure was an allegation against Chief Obasanjo’s administration and not his claim.”
If Buhari accused Obasanjo of being a braggart, Obasanjo used his response to underscore the President’s literacy record. Insisting that issues surrounding the power project have been exhaustively thrashed even in his book, My Watch, Obasanjo said if the President “cannot read, the three-volume book, he should detail his aides to do so and summarise the chapters in a language that he will easily understand.”
It is not easy to speculate how the ongoing altercation between the two leaders, may end, but it could as well serve as a commencing metaphor about the deconstruction of the alliance that led to the first defeat an incumbent by opposition.
Propaganda and probity may meet together, while Nigerians take to fact checking. For instance records show that only $3.7b was actually disbursed from the original $10b budgeted for power within the period under reference, while the balance of $6.3b was kept in an escrow account at the Central Bank of Nigeria. As such Obasnjo spent $3.7b and not $16billion.
Did Buhari make a mistake in going public on the matter? Does that give an indication of how his campaigns for second term would look? The days ahead would reveal.