Olúségun Obásanjó’s mother told him at the very beginning that if pounded yam is not much, it must be made hard and tough (iyán tí kò pò, ó gbodò yi). Read his biographies. Ashabi Obasanjo Bankole had only him and his sister, Adunni. Her hearth had enough embers, her mortar and pestle had diligence but her yam was small and she knew it. So, she did extra work in the making of her Olusegun’s pounded yam. The result is the mouthful which Nigeria has had of the soldier since 1975 – or rather, since he journeyed into the army in 1958.
I am not sure if I meet Obasanjo tomorrow I will greet him. At least, if I can avoid him, I will. And that won’t be because I was not trained to greet elders. I will avoid him because this elder I greeted twice in the past and twice I got the same response: He snubbed me – and you know what snub means: ignore, rebuff, repulse. Those are not nice words. On each of those occasions, what I felt was that the sun should not ignore a village because it is not a city. But I cannot ignore the General’s moves and movements – because they potentially impact me; because I am a Nigerian. And so, I read him left to right; right to left. And I will be shocked if there are not other Nigerians – millions – who do what I do.
Something happened last week in Abeokuta. If you sell your relation for a kobo, you won’t be able to buy him back for a billion naira. That is why it is said that the elderly are brisk with the ears and the eyes, never with the lips. At the June 2018 national convention of the All Progressives Congress (APC) where Adams Oshiomhole was elected chairman, Senator Bola Tinubu had some words for General Obasanjo. He said the former president was a homeless busybody who poked his nose into APC’s affairs by asking Muhammadu Buhari not to seek a second term. “Thank God he (Obasanjo) is not a part of our party; this busybody. Unfortunately he has torn the card of his previous party so he has no home.” That is what Tinubu said. And it was not the only time the Asiwaju of Everybody, an aspiring president, poured odium on the former president. The group he leads has unruly dogs primed to snatch the walking stick from our elders. So, when I saw Tinubu in the home of ‘homeless’ Obasanjo last week, I saw irony in ways my literature teacher couldn’t teach me. If the axe forgot, would the tree forget too? I was eager to know if the Balogun of Owu had a reply for the discourteous Balogun of Borgu. Obasanjo is an Owu man. We are told Owu has no sword for revenge but his tongue talks forever about wrongs done to him. But in vain we waited. Obasanjo did not respond to that past of insults.
There are really very few saints here. The General himself has a nagging past of immolation of his brothers to appease alien gods of Nigeria. In his very private moments, he should be contrite and seek forgiveness.
Why do strong and not strong politicians go to strongmen for electoral support? How many votes do they command? Unless you are in politics you may not know. But will it help if you read Mario Puzo’s The Godfather? You may also check Stan Lee’s Kingpin. People like Obasanjo have special pots of hot water in which they dip unruly buttocks. There was a 19th century warrior in Yoruba land (Fabunmi) whose praise name includes one “who snatches a tree branch from the monkey’s grip.” That line fits Obasanjo, especially when you try to count how many monkeys he has had to grapple with in the last twelve years. And you remember this line in the poem, ‘Elephant’: One “who tears a man like a garment and hangs him up on a tree.” Elephant has very thick skin; his eyes see far and his ears travel beyond the forest, his trumpet shrill as the final call. With his dense temporal lobe, the elephant never forgets. Because he is a moving mountain, ponderous Obasanjo is a perpetual ‘man in the news.’ He was in the news for most of last week – Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. There are videos of Obasanjo trending as I write. In one – with Charly Boy – he describes himself as “father of frustrated Nigerian youths.” I know where he is coming from. Our ancestors said a “child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” Ask northern Nigeria. Today’s terrorists were yesterday’s leftovers. Obasanjo warned four years ago that we “should not reinforce failure.” We did and today Nigeria is homeless home and abroad. He warned repeatedly and was called names. He has also been very loud on those who would make the fighting force of tomorrow’s Boko Haram. He said they are the almajirai of today.
On Friday, 23 September, 2011, I wrote a piece on Obasanjo, man of war and peace. It was to that piece I ran when the APC caravan entered Abeokuta last week. Some of the old lines I repeat here – and there. What I wrote eleven years ago was triggered by his daring march into the den of Boko Haram in Maiduguri in search of peace. The sore hadn’t become cancerous that time. He sat down with the terrorists; they told him their problem with Nigeria; they told him what they would take. The man came back with a report – And what happened to his report? Ask Goodluck Jonathan.
In the Foreword to Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, A life of Service, the biography of his deputy as military Head of State, Obasanjo identifies what he defines as military war and political war. Political war, he holds, is much more challenging and dangerous than nuclear warheads and battle tanks. He thought he understood perfectly the meaning of war in both situations. But he must be taking new lessons now on how to get politicians to be committed to commitments. He held a meeting with those he called “brothers” last week. They begged him to keep it out of the news; he kept it out of the news; those who asked him to keep quiet addressed the press. If that was an ambush, it would appear the attackers picked on the wrong prey. On Saturday, Obasanjo poured water on infantile fires of the Èmi l’ókàn’ people whom he accused of “claiming to be insiders” at his meeting with Tinubu and crediting to him statements he had not made. Silence when you should not be silent, he apparently remembered, begets misfortune.
A man trained in the cold-blooded art of war, Obasanjo swore to fight on land, sea and in the air in defence of the fatherland. He took the solemn military oath to die for the nation. But his life has not been about just dying for the nation, he has also perfected the art of living for Nigeria. His biographer, Onukaba Adinoyi Ojo, quoted the poet, Odia Ofeimun, as describing Obasanjo as “a small man striving always to rise higher” and though “not without warts”, he is simply “a dutiful human being… readier to shine than he is to be charitable to other stars.”
A man of destiny, it would appear that his lot had been to have others work hard enough for him to climb higher. He took over the command of the Third Marine Commando from his course mate, the “flamboyant and courageous” Black Scorpion, Brigadier Benjamin Adekunle, on May 12, 1969 and by 12th January, 1970, Biafra surrendered to him. Five years later, he did not know about the coup that ousted Yakubu Gowon but inscrutable fate made the coup plotters insist he joined Murtala Mohammed to run the new government. When Murtala Mohammed, the first Kano man to rule Nigeria, was killed in Col. B. S. Dimka’s abortive coup of February 13, 1976, Obasanjo inherited the throne. When Sani Abacha, the second ruler of Nigeria from Kano, died on the throne like the first, it was nature’s way of preparing the throne again for Olusegun Obasanjo.
In “military wars,” he always escaped the bullets, even having the other person take them on his behalf. Benjamin Adekunle told a story which Obasanjo denied: At the Regular Officers’ Special Training School, Teshie, Ghana in 1958, there was a parade and Obasanjo moved the wrong leg. In the military, every wrong move has a punishment. There was for this particular one; the expatriate Company Sergeant Major (CSM) thought Adekunle was the culprit, coughed and ordered the Nigerian to open his mouth for his phlegm. “How does it taste?” What would the cadet say other than “Fine sir”? In the 1976 Dimka coup, a deadly version of the bullet-swap happened to then Colonel Mathew Ray Dumuje; he took the route Obasanjo was meant to take and the coupists thought he was Obasanjo; they shot him. In March 1961, he was in the Congo on United Nations Peacekeeping mission when Congolese soldiers abducted him. He was seconds away from execution when a counter, superior order came that Lieutenant Oba must not be killed. Some others were not that lucky. Five years later in January 1966, Obasanjo arrived in Nigeria the night of the first coup and was, in fact, housed by Major Kaduna Nzeogwu, one of the masterminds in Kaduna. And when his host’s coup failed and southern officers were mass-murdered, Hassan Katsina, who had emerged leader of northern region’s band of vengeful military officers, was quoted as saying “We must do everything to protect Obasanjo from harm. Nigeria will need him in future.”
A man not given to orthodoxy, at the height of the battle against apartheid in South Africa, Four-Star General Obasanjo publicly prescribed African juju as the weapon to chase away the white supremacist. And he fights his own wars (cowards use proxies); every day presents fresh opportunities to test his biceps, his ever-ready prowess. His tough, deliberate physique advertises him as an elephant ready to uproot any stubborn forest on its path. He does not mind stepping on toes if it is in pursuit and attainment of his goals. He has the mindset of a messiah, although he does not see the other person as a possible messiah. He is an enigma who does not care what the world says about him, and about his private and public actions.
Like Mark Twain’s Henry VIII, Olusegun Obasanjo loves women. He loves money. He loves power. He covets and cuddles all these. He does not joke with anybody with any of these three prima indices of raw success. The old man updates himself like a sloughing, molting snake – growing, gathering and shaking off parasites. He loves knowledge for his person – e.g. getting a PhD at old age. And I think I read somewhere that twelve of his children have PhD. He enjoys showing off his native intelligence and deep understanding of the ways of man. He is the quintessential king, “in his bloom… a blossom”, coveting the good things of life and fighting his battles without giving anybody a chance. His critics say sometimes he repays good with the opposite of good. A man who was heaved out of jail and deposited onto power by the traditional kingmakers of Nigeria, Obasanjo waited till after the 1999 elections to announce to his backers that if they saw their moral and financial support for his aspiration as an investment, they were mistaken. “They just lost that investment,” he gleefully declared. Those financiers were soon to know the currency of truth spoken by a daredevil soldier.
Despite the hubris that drags his ponderous frame, however, even his most ardent critic would refrain from faulting his patriotic commitment to the Nigerian nation. How wise that is in the light of current structural realities, I do not know. But I know that in critical moments in the nation’s history, he always showed up to lead the pull-back from the precipice. His September 2011 expedition to bloody Jos and to terrorist Boko Haram in Maiduguri was a continuation of the story of one man whose history and that of Nigeria conjoin. Perhaps in his passion for Nigeria, warts and all, and for its continued peaceful existence, Obasanjo is just showing gratitude to God for making him the greatest beneficiary of the amalgamation of 1914.
The Yoruba content of the APC who routinely use elders as their chewing stick were in the old soldier’s home last week in search of power. Political playboys are adroit at taking preys to bed -in repeated times. If Obasanjo was their navigator in 2015, why not in 2023? Last week, he received them warmly and held their hands; he wined and dined with them. He cracked jokes too: “Èmi l’ókàn; Eléyi; Ó lu’lè – I don’t know if they are good words, but we will be using them.” Obasanjo is an Owu man. Olowu was that king who went out at dawn with six subjects. He returned at dusk with one lonely one. What did he do with the remaining five? He fed them to the gods of vengeance. There is a tree in Yoruba forest called Ìrókò. You can abuse Ìrókò; you can even curse it. Ìrókò does not reply insults; it kills – but definitely not immediately.
*Dr. Olagunju writes for the Nigerian Tribune on Mondays.