Friday 20 March 2009

Nigeria: Obasanjo's Hard Talk

Hard to talk

First draft plus - probably now fine.

One can say Stephen Sackur of the BBC Hard Talk programme found it hard to talk with President Olusegun Obasanjo, the erstwhile president of Nigeria on his programme which was aired this morning on BBC One [1].

In the preamble that accompanies the interview. Mr. Sackur was looking for the answers to two pertinent questions.

Does Africa have leaders capable of solving Africa's problems?

Does his (Obasanjo's) record inside Nigeria lend him any credibility as a regional statesman?

I am not sure throughout that interview we came close to any plausible answers but the exchanges were nonetheless engaging.

Favoured without telling

On the matter of the first question, the interview covered the appointment of President Obasanjo as the UN Special Envoy to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); now this is the second international appointment of Obasanjo to matters of conflict in Africa. In the 1980s, he was a co-chair of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group on South Africa that recommended sanctions as a way to persuade the then South African apartheid government to begin negotiations.

I reckon, Mr. Sackur had to ask the same question twice about the joint military operations between the DRC and Rwanda against the Hutu rebels – the question was whether Mr. Obasanjo favoured those activities.

We were first taken on rigmarole about the realities of a monumental humanitarian crisis before some meeting in November 2008 to confirm Mr. Obasanjo’s status and function as a facilitator and mediator.

The interviewer’s impatience a bit evident hammed on the original question and in a roundabout way, we found that Mr. Obasanjo supported those actions because he recognised that in November Mr. Kabila of the DRC and Mr. Kagame of Rwanda – the presidents of the respective countries were not talking and by January, they were involved in a joint military exercise.

Never direct

It is not clear if Mr. Obasanjo was trying to take credit for that reconciliation, but he was elusive when direct answers were required and noncommittal when opinions of a person with his status were required.

He was particular about not being referred to as an adviser of any of the parties involved and did not aver that Kabila could bring essential change to the DRC but suggested Kabila could lay the foundations of lasting peace being the first leader of that country to have any legitimacy by reason of democratic elections.

There was a tendency to the legalistic where ifs were followed with requirements of evidence to support allegations and issues being discussed.

Darfur is invisible

When pressed on the matter of the indictment and warrant for the arrest of the President Bashir of Sudan about Darfur, Obasanjo felt no evidence had been presented to make President Bashir culpable of the atrocities committed in Darfur.

In fact, in asking what crimes were committed by Bashir and how they could have been committed by Bashir, he questioned the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court and impugned its impartiality by suggesting that it was political in its actions.

It would appear Obasanjo is in some way oblivious of the happenings in Darfur, but then in my opinion, this represents the kind of leadership in Africa that ignores the people for the propping up of illegitimate rulers.

The test of reasonable doubt cannot really be applied in the indictments and warrants for arrest - that kind of test is done in the courts, it was disingenuous of Obasanjo to demand that test before arraignment in court.

On that score, in response to the first question one can say that Africa does not for now have leaders capable of solving Africa's problems – the leader of Africa’s largest country by people for 11 and a half years in total could not rise to that occasion, I am afraid to say.

Allegations are nonsense

Moving on to the second main question, which centred on his record in Nigeria lending him credibility as a regional leader, I was at pains to glean a good answer and quite unimpressed in the end.

President Obasanjo’s record has been under great scrutiny and most especially in the words of the current president; corruption went all the way to the top.

Obasanjo made the case that any accusations made against him should be fully substantiated with incontrovertible evidence or they were nonsense and as far as he was concerned quotes attributed to others against him would be repudiated because he believed the persons were not referring to him.

I am not corrupt

He concurred that people in his government were corrupt but there was no evidence that he was corrupt and he offered that at least four top people in his government were charged for corruption, however, when read in detail, only one case was concluded with the conviction of the Inspector General of Police, one died and the other cases – one wonders.

I would suppose Obasanjo considered it an achievement that people were charged at all or that he was investigated by the anti-corruption agencies that most of the cases might have been bogged down in bureaucracies or influence peddling did not matter, edgeways he got to hang out his estranged vice president as probably corrupt.

When Sackur raised the issue of his daughter whose allegedly corrupt activities were topical for most of last year, Obasanjo exculpated himself from her activities saying she was responsible for her actions and would not brook the idea that their father-daughter relationship meant that he could be impugned. African ethical standards, I presume.

I am not responsible for my daughter, he said.

That persecution complex

However, the complete low of the interview came when Obasanjo took offence as Sackur pressed on those questions about corrupt influences by association or indifference at which point he said, “Will you ask that of a European leader?”

Thankfully, that broadside badgering did not work on Sackur – personally, I think Africans and African leaders sometimes exhibit a persecution complex and where they seem to be cornered on matters of principle, they lash out with the accusation of racism.

For a man who has achieved so much, surely he could have resisted taking the interview down that line but any opportunity for a Mugabe-like jibe at the white man cannot be missed.

Nigeria’s potential

When Sackur suggested Nigeria was one of the richest countries in the world, he was corrected that Nigeria was potentially one of the richest countries in the world.

For the reason why a third of the population is in poverty, Obasanjo suggested our income per head in a country of over 150 million people would be considerably lower than that of Saudi Arabia or Kuwait which both produce a lot more oil but have a considerably lesser population.

In fact, that is a plausible argument, but many would contend that if only 20% of the oil income were properly invested in Nigeria, a lot more people might be lifted out of poverty.

Problems as lapses

Where it was suggested that Nigeria has not used its resources to the best of its ability, the man who has ruled Nigeria the longest ever said the opposite and for all the problems we have had in Nigeria, they could all be classed as lapses.

When asked to comment on the current president’s performance, he said it was too early to comment and then damning President Yar’Adua with grudging praise he said, “A good person is not enough to make you an effective, successful and great president”

I would suppose Obasanjo was talking about himself – Hard talk indeed, with all questions barely answered. This is probably the most pressing interview we would ever get from "Baba", as he is known in some quarters, our local press emasculated by obsequiousness would not have dared ask half the questions and instead thrown him soft ball platitudes to elicit preposterous gloating.


[1] BBC NEWS | Programmes | Hardtalk | Olusegun Obasanjo

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