Open letters, trust deficit, and red herrings

What a week it was! First, Nigeria’s former President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, sent an open letter to the current President, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, carpeting the later for various misdeeds. Then, as readers were still digesting the content of the radio-active missive, another one–this time from Iyabo Obasanjo to her father–surfaced. As at the time of going to press, both open letters had pried nothing from the addressees by way of a response–unless of course a deafening silence counts as a response. The President was too shell-shocked to respond immediately to the charges in OBJ’s letter. As for OBJ, he must still be consulting with family members on how to contain Iyabo’s insurrection and its fallout.

Silence, as I learnt from my school mates, is the best answer for a fool. But then, those involved in the latest theatrics are no school boys or girls. More significant, none of the characters in the new soap opera is a fool. Therefore, silence cannot be an answer, let alone the best one. Incendiary and widely reported as it was, either letter warrants a sharp and explicit response. Sooner or later, both GEJ and OBJ will have to bite the bullet and answer the charges levelled against them. It is not a question of which letter would elicit a reaction (as both would, in the fullness of time), but which of the two addressees’ reactions should matter to, and be carefully dissected by,Nigerians.

Let us start with the first in the season of “open letters”. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, one-time military head of state and latter-day civilian President, had decided to go public with his grievances against President Jonathan’s handling of matters of state. An adept at political intrigue himself, OBJ had watched in frustration as the latest occupant of the Aso Rock Villa repeats the mistakes of some of his predecessors. Never mind that he was one of those predecessors that Jonathan sought to emulate, OBJ fired off an angry and widely publicised letter to the former on 2 December 2013. Titled BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE, the irrepressible OBJ’s letter starts by noting that none of the four letters he had earlier addressed to the President on weighty national issues was dignified with an acknowledgement. That was by the way. The matter on OBJ’s mind right now was the steady deterioration in the quality of governance and naturally in the quality of life. In case the President and his advisers were wondering what OBJ wants, he obliges them with an answer:

“…I could sense a semblance between the situation that we are gradually getting into and the situation we fell into as a nation during the Abacha era…..(To halt the descent into praetorian autocracy) everything must be done to guard, protect and defend our fledgling democracy, nourish it and prevent bloodshed….(W)e must move away from advertently or inadvertently dividing the country along weak seams of North-South and Christian-Moslem….(N)othing should be done to allow the country to degenerate into economic dormancy, stagnation or retrogression.”

Cynics were quick to call OBJ out on his sudden adoration of democracy. When did a tyrant like him become a born-again democrat? His critics lashed out. They rejected outright the possibility of an autocrat seeing the errors of his ways.

All the same, and regardless of what anyone may think or say of OBJ’s professed love for democracy, his mere acknowledgement of that system of government’s superiority to alternative forms should be welcomed by all well-meaning Nigerians. The first important message communicated in OBJ’s open letter, therefore, is that nurturing our democracy should be our leaders’ number one priority, followed by measures aimed at managing our diversity and creating an atmosphere conducive to growth and development.

What does OBJ want from GEJ? He wants the President to earn and sustain the trust of Nigerians. To OBJ’s dismay, however, the President loves playing hide-and-seek with Nigerians. Instead of honouring agreements, he either feigns ignorance of duly ratified agreements’ existence or looks for exits from their obligations. When he should deploy the immense powers of the presidency to tackle grave socio-economic challenges (like unemployment, corruption, insecurity and crime) and to promote the gross national welfare, the President dissipates the Nigerian State’s energy pursuing short-term, partisan political gains. Rather than waging a frontal war on systemic corruption, the President appears unbothered by the damage that corruption had wreaked on our economy, on the integrity and effectiveness of our institutions, on our moral fibre as a people, and on our international image.

On trust, OBJ recalled that, while campaigning for GEJ in 2011, he (OBJ), in GEJ’S presence, told a large crowd and, in fact, the whole world that:

“There is a press report that Dr Goodluck Jonathan has already taken a unique and unprecedented step of declaring that he would only want to be a one-term President. If so, whether we know it or not, that is a sacrifice and it is statesmanly.”

Months later, OBJ was shocked to hear that Jonathan (who had every opportunity to contradict the report of his one-term pledge) was sending signals disowning his “statesmanly sacrifice”. An irate OBJ found this duplicity too much to go unchallenged:

“As a leader, two things you must cherish and hold dear among others are trust and honour both of which are important ingredients of character.”

If anyone ever doubted that a meek character like GEJ could out-perform Machiavelli (and OBJ) in the deception department, OBJ’s open letter dispelled the doubt. As revealed in the letter, GEJ actually ran with the hare while hunting with the hounds back in 2011. In his quest for the presidency on the PDP ticket, Jonathan had concluded secret deals with opposition parties, promising to back their candidates for other slots on condition that their supporters voted massively for him at the presidential election! He basically threw his own party under the bus to get what he wanted.

That was not all. When the PDP broke into two factions, GEJ appealed to unnamed African leaders to talk to OBJ with a view to patching up internal party differences and restoring solidarity within the ranks. When OBJ and Ahmadu Ali went to GEJ to confirm the “good offices” request transmitted via the African Presidents, GEJ disavowed knowledge of any such request. He would rather let the PDP go down under than be seen to be indebted to anybody, least of all OBJ!

OBJ’s letter raised highly troubling questions about GEJ’s handling of security. It alleged that the government, which had sworn to protect the life and property of its citizens, was also the one that, like the Abacha regime, had sent snipers for overseas training in readiness for their deployment against political opponents. Already, the government had placed of up to 1,000 Nigerians on a political watch list. We have heard of the global war on terror! If OBJ’s allegation is proven, GEJ must have denounced his opponents as terrorists and declared war on them.

With regard to Boko Haram, OBJ advised the government to consider other measures besides deployment of troops and declaration of emergency in states overrun by the extremist group. Since the Boko Haram insurgency could not be traced to one single source alone, a purely military solution would not be effective. Different causes require different solutions. As in the case of the rising incidence of violence in different parts of the country, an enduring solution would entail devising wide-ranging measures. The measures must trace the link between on the one hand, the predisposition to crime and violence, on the one hand, and, on the other, psychogenic drugs, indoctrination, gun trafficking, xenophobia, human trafficking, money laundering, poverty, and unemployment. OBJ might as well add corruption (within the law enforcement agencies and without) reckless behaviour and impunity on the part of top government functionaries.

OBJ’s advice on security should in any case be taken seriously. Just a few days ago, on 19th December 2013, to be precise, a few outlaws (NOT affiliated to Boko Haram) walked confidently into a police station in Offa, Kwara State, and demanded the immediate release of a comrade-in-crime. When the officers on duty refused, the bandits, armed with sophisticated weapons, blasted the police guard doors wide open, and released all the inmates–their man included. By the time the criminals were done, seven police men had been killed in cold blood. The robbers later proceeded to raid banks in different parts of the town. Instead of emptying the bank safes and walking away with their loot, the criminals, probably operating under the influence of psychogenic drugs, slaughtered seven innocent and defenceless bank customers. Unfortunately, the police station had not taken adequate precautions to fingerprint and take mug-shots of those in its custody. The criminals are still at large. The probability of finding them and bringing them to justice is almost zero. This is precisely one of the process shortcomings that the Minority Report which I and others submitted to the President in 2012 set out to correct. Unfortunately, that Report (along with its recommendations on performance management and service delivery) is now gathering dust somewhere in the Presidency!

The management of Nigeria’s oil proceeds and corruption are other issues covered in OBJ’s open letter. Overall, only a few snippets in the letter are new. Others were already in the public domain.

The Presidency was still struggling with OBJ’s open letter when another one–the one addressed to OBJ himself by his daughter–came out of the blues. Senator Iyabo Obasanjo’s rocket-propelled attack on her father’s character is, at best, a family squabble mismanaged, at worst, a matter that has no bearing on, and is in fact, a calculated attempt at diverting attention from, the weighty issues raised earlier in OBJ’s equally acerbic dispatch to the President and Commander-in-Chief. Depending on how one reads Iyabo’s letter, she comes off as someone with a deep sense of hurt and betrayal. Hints of jealousy, resentment, malice, and vindictiveness are not hard to find in her letter. They stick out on almost every page. She bears grudges against the Nigerian State for consistently letting her (and the rest of us) down. She inveighs against her father for promoting the late Stella over and above her own mother; for the shabby way OBJ treated the womenfolk in general, and her mother in particular; and above all, for OBJ’s meanness to his children, including herself, OBJ’s perceived favourite.

OBJ may be all those bad things catalogued in Iyabo’s letter–autocrat, wife beater, womanizer, uncaring father, self-conceited brute, megalomaniac, hypocrite, liar, incurable ‘Mr know-all’–possibly other things too horrible to print and too numerous to list. But what else is new? Haven’t we heard worse things said about OBJ in the past? OBJ may be an officer, but a gentleman he never once called himself. This is what makes the motive or intent of Iyabo’s letter puzzling. The timing is particularly suspicious. And for all we know, there may be a lot more to Iyabo’s estrangement from her father than meets the eye. Until we hear both sides, it is better to suspend judgement.

Even on the off-chance that Iyabo’s letter is not a red herring, and that its appearance (almost immediately after OBJ’s letter to GEJ) is purely coincidental, we still need to ask what any of OBJ’s perceived shortcomings has got to do with the current state of our nation? Admittedly, the faults traced to OBJ are exactly those that we do not want to see in any person entrusted with the immense powers of President and Commander-in-Chief of our nation. But that is precisely the point–the issue which Iyabo poignantly raises but disingenuously tries to turn into a non-issue. She condemns her father for being cynical and deceitful. However, when OBJ, who should know the risks that cynical and deceitful leaders run, advises GEJ not to repeat his own (OBJ’s) mistakes, Iyabo is suddenly up in arms. In Iyabo’s queer logic, if OBJ was a two-faced leader, he had no business fingering other double-dealing leaders. In simple English, there is nothing wrong in OBJ’s successors perfecting the art, and perpetuating the legacy, of deception.

I beg to disagree with Iyabo for a number of reasons. First, the father whom she despises (contrary to the tenet of filial piety) has done his part and quit the scene. No matter what he does or says, he is no longer President and Commander-in-Chief. And he has not declared his intention to run for any state office now or in the near future. Second, and notwithstanding the fact that he is a spent force, OBJ has a right to mend his ways and atone for his past sins. What better way to do that than alerting the nation when he spots danger on the horizon? Third, and assuming that OBJ is merely playing to the gallery, God Almighty, might in His own wisdom, decide to use a bad person to accomplish a good deed. If it pleases our Creator, this (allegedly) bad person might be one of the tools that the Almighty would use to fix this broken nation.

By the same token, Iyabo’s letter may yet prove to be more than a distraction, and instead turn out to be helpful in identifying the qualities needed in current and aspiring leaders. It should not be otherwise. After more than sixty years of independent nationhood, now is the time when Nigerians should come together and hold their leaders to minimum moral and performance standards. OBJ’s letter to GEJ and Iyabo’s blindsiding letter to her father, should be viewed not only as an indictment of leaders, past and present, but it should also open the eye of the average citizen to those leadership failings that had for too long gone unnoticed and unpunished. The trust deficit is one that should no longer be left to widen. Trust, after all, is essential to the survival of any cooperative endeavour. It should now be the litmus test of leadership. A leader’s word must now be his/her bond.

Happy Holidays!


  1. What an unedifying season of open letters we’ve just witnessed. Featuring stilted dialog of the deaf pitting one-time political allies against one another. Undiluted ugliness pitting daughter against father.

    Our political discourse has now officially descended from sorry soap opera into unmitigated farce. Every time one assumes that things could not possibly get worse, one is proven spectacularly wrong – yet again.

    And so it goes in our dear nation, I feel that somehow, we have all been collectively lessened by the spectacle we have just endured. What new depths shall we plumb next?

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