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Nigeria's Two-Time Leader Backs Ex-Military Ruler as the Best of a Bad Bunch

Olusegun Obasanjo said there are "millions" of Nigerians with the capacity to lead the country, but none of them are coming forward. So he'd prefer Muhammadu Buhari to win the delayed presidential election in March.

by Sally Hayden
Feb 16 2015, 5:05pm

Photo by Sally Hayden

Former Nigerian military ruler and civilian president Olusegun Obasanjo has heavily criticized incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan's leadership, while suggesting that he will support another former military leader — Muhammadu Buhari — in the country's presidential election that was recently postponed until March 28.

Speaking to VICE News, Obasanjo said: "Since 2009 Boko Haram have grown in brutality and violence, everything, and that can only be as a result of inadequate action."

He added that any move that Jonathan, of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP), had made against the militant group had failed "both in terms of stick and in terms of carrot." 

Obasanjo, who was Nigeria's military ruler between February 1976 to October 1979 then democratically elected president from May 1999 to May 2007, continued: "I have always maintained that with Boko Haram, it doesn't matter what you do, at the end of the day it will require stick and carrot. And if you only use stick, you are postponing or you are suppressing, you are not dealing with the situation's stem and branches."

He spoke to VICE News before the London launch of his new memoir, My Watch, on February 11. Wearing a turquoise grand boubou — Nigerian traditional dress — he held court at the head of a dining table in a conference room at the Royal Society of Medicine. Several members of his entourage relaxed on seats nearby.

Obasanjo's 1,500-page book has been published in three parts and is currently banned in Nigeria pending a libel action by Buruji Kashamu, one of the current president's aides. Some Nigerians — including Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka — have accused him of lying in the text. Obasanjo has since also reportedly torn up his PDP membership card, prompting a backlash from party members, and leading to reports that he has been expelled from the PDP.

"It's like being blind and deaf": We spoke to some of the Nigerians displaced by Boko Haram. Read more here.

Obasanjo initially hand-picked Jonathan to run as deputy president in the 2007 vote that saw Umaru Yar'Adua elected as president. When Yar'Adua died of heart failure in 2010, Obasanjo continued to endorse Jonathan, and encouraged him to take over as Yar'Adua's successor. However, their relationship has since soured, with Obasanjo writing in his memoir about Jonathan's "inability to deal with Boko Haram," along with his "ineptitude," "inefficiency," "carelessness," "callousness," and "insensitivity."

In an interview with CNN, also on February 11, Buhari, this year's opposition candidate from the All Progressives Congress party (APC), said that he welcomed Obasanjo's "endorsement," which would "certainly bring more supporters."

"General Obasanjo is highly respected and as far as the Nigerian nation is concerned there is no serious issue that can be discussed without people seeking for his opinion and listening to it," he said.

"I didn't endorse him as such," Obasanjo said at his book launch, however, adding that he felt there were "millions" of Nigerians with the capacity to lead the country, but unfortunately none of them are coming forward. "Based on my own assessment I will support the candidate I believe has the best track record," Obasanjo said.

* * *

Nigeria's leadership is important in a global context. With 178.5 million people, the country is home to about 2.5 percent of the world's total population. The economy is also expanding rapidly, with Nigeria expected to overtake the UK as one of the world's top economies within 35 years.

Given that the country is so big, many Nigerians identify with their ethnicity before their nationality, and usually vote accordingly. In this context, Jonathan is a Christian southerner from the minority Ijaw group, while Buhari is a northern Fulani and a Muslim. The coming elections — in which these two men are the frontrunners — are expected to be the closest fought since military rule ended in 1999.

Recently, the APC has accused the military of colluding with the Jonathan administration to destabilize and sabotage the election.

In January, the Nigerian Army held a press conference where they announced that they did not have original education certificates from Buhari. On February 2, they pledged to provide security during the election, but did an about-turn three days later and told the Independent National Electoral Commission that this could not be guaranteed.

Nigeria postpones presidential election due to Boko Haram insurgency. Read more here.

Obasanjo has suggested that Jonathan may be trying to indefinitely postpone the election until he is certain of a victory, possibly because he is fearful that if Buhari wins he will be sent to jail. In an interview with the Financial Times last week, Obasanjo also warned of the possibility of a coup led by Jonathan, saying: "I sincerely hope that the president is not going for broke and saying 'Look dammit, it's either I have it or nobody has it.'"

Obasanjo told VICE News that he thought at the moment the army would obey any democratically elected government, but added that if a situation arose where that didn't happen, he's not sure what the outcome would be.

Later, he also spoke about the missing Chibok girls, whose abduction on April 14, 2014, drew widespread outrage and precipitated a huge cascade of international pressure on the current Nigerian leadership, particularly because the government appeared to be doing very little to address or even acknowledge the issue.

Obasanjo said that a local pastor told him that Chibok officials were aware in advance that Boko Haram militants might be coming that night "to make trouble." Members of the group arrived at 11.15pm. According to Obasanjo's information, the militants originally didn't plan to kidnap the girls, and spent five hours searching for vehicles to transport them in. "It was not their intention originally to carry the girls. From about midnight to 5am they were looking for vehicles to carry the girls," he said. "If they had come with the intention to carry the girls they would have come with vehicles."

'Nigerians are the largest black race in the world. Now that imposes a certain amount of responsibility on us.'

Obasanjo added that the state governor must have heard the news early that morning, and that information would then have been imparted to the president. "No action was taken. In fact for a long time, and even until today, some people are doubting if some girls were really abducted."

"If it was your own children would you feel that way?" Obasanjo asked. "And as I said, today it's Chibok, tomorrow it will be my village, or the president's village, or the village of any of you."

"Those girls, you can never have them together again," Obasanjo said. "For decades to come, the story of Chibok girls is filtering out. Either one of them will come out after producing children or whatever, and tell their whole story. But what is important is that we must not forget and we must also make sure that it does not happen again."

* * *

Obasanjo, now 77, has played a huge role in Nigeria in the 54 years since gaining independence from the UK in 1960. He was born to illiterate parents, and grew up in a village surrounded by poverty. He joined the army and trained in Britain, before returning home to fight in the civil war against the self-proclaimed Republic of Biafra.

He became military head of state in 1976 after Murtala Muhammed, to whom he was deputy, was killed in a botched coup. Obasanjo stayed in the position for three years, during which time he prepared the country for elections. In 1979 he became the first military Nigerian head of state to transfer power peacefully to a democratically elected civilian president, Shehu Shagari, who was in turn ousted by a military coup instigated and led by current presidential candidate Buhari. 

Buhari and Obasanjo have since competed for the presidency — Obasanjo said that he forgets how many times. In 2003, when Obasanjo apparently won by more than 11 million votes, Buhari claimed the result was "fraudulent."

Niger joins multinational fight against Boko Haram as residents flee Nigerian border. Read more here.

In the 1990s Obasanjo spent three years incarcerated as a political prisoner of Sani Abacha, the penultimate and most brutal of the country's military dictators. He holds a unique position, having served both as a military ruler and, from 1999 to 2007, as a democratic president. Though Obasanjo's leadership was not without controversy, criticism, and accusations of political repression, he still maintains a widely revered position as a powerful figure in Nigerian public life. He remains both the longest serving president to date, and the only Nigerian president to complete two terms and step down.

Now he resides on a chicken farm in Otta, Ogun State, but his pride in his country is evident. "Nigeria is the biggest country in Africa," Obasanjo said. "Nigerians are the largest black race in the world. Now that imposes a certain amount of responsibility on us."

* * *

One of the major issues hampering the Nigerian army's ability to combat Boko Haram has been rampant corruption, something that Buhari has promised to tackle. Nigeria currently ranks 136 out of 175 countries on Transparency International's corruption index. In terms of transparency, the anti-graft organization describes Nigeria's "budget openness" as "scant or none."

Though Nigeria is Africa's largest source of energy exports, the local population sees few benefits, with the country only generating enough electricity to power one toaster for every 44 of its own citizens. "Unless Nigeria kills corruption, corruption will kill Nigeria," Buhari told CNN last week.

This corruption is also believed to extend to the resources available to the military. "We know the Nigerian army are competent," Buhari said, but added that if he wins the vote, his government would make sure that the money given over for recruitment and training was properly utilized, which he doesn't believe it is at the moment.

'If things are going bad and you know things are going bad, and you do not speak out you are an accomplice.'

However, there are also worries that Buhari has little respect for democracy and for democratic institutions. In a 2004 interview with the BBC's Hardtalk program he refused to engage on the issue, saying: "If you choose the correct leadership there won't be any need for the military regime."

Buhari claimed that he carried out his coup in the 80s because the country was being "mismanaged." He told the BBC: "When a government does not perform and the evidence is clearly there you don't fault the system, you fault the operators."

During that interview Buhari also said that he changed his views on democracy after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but refused to show regret for how he treated journalists and dissidents during his time in power. He also denied ordering the military to whip people who stood out of place in bus queues, but said he didn't disapprove of it. "It was part of process of disciplining a society," he said.

* * *

Boko Haram was founded as a militant group in 2002, though only began its mission to form an Islamic State in northern Nigeria in 2009. Since then, they have been steadily gaining ground and power, meaning that Nigeria is now facing its one of its biggest territorial threats in decades. This uncertainty, and a failure to properly combat the group, poses a challenge to the country's still fledgling move away from military rule. Speaking at a Chatham House event in London on January 22, Sambo Dasuki — a national security advisor to president Jonathan — said that Nigeria had experienced an "unprecedented decade and a half of uninterrupted democracy," something that he hoped would continue.

In regard to the upcoming elections, Dasuki also voiced concern about the failure of the government to distribute biometric ID voting cards to some 30 million residents. Last week, 19 million of 70 million registered voters still hadn't collected their voting cards. This figure includes an estimated 1.5 million displaced Nigerians in the north of the country.

While Dasuki called for a delay on the election to ensure greater participation, the actual postponement of the election by six weeks — from February 14 to March 28 — was officially done because election officials were advised by security agencies that they needed more time to divert their resources into launching a major offensive against the militants in the northeast.

Obasanjo said he could not make a ruling on the legitimacy of the reasons for the postponement. "I was out of the country when the postponement took place, and for me to be able to make an informed judgment and statement I need to know what really transpired... There's a lot that I need to know on the ground and when I do that you will know my opinion."

When asked whom he thought stood to benefit from the deferral, Obasanjo said: "We have to ask those who caused the delay."

He also said, despite a backlash in his home country, he is not sorry about speaking of his disregard for Jonathan. "If things are going bad and you know things are going bad, and you do not speak out you are an accomplice," Obasanjo said, before adding: "If you love Nigeria more than I do good luck to you, and good luck to Goodluck."

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd