The fact that former president (now “doctor”) Olusegun Obasanjo courts controversy is apodeictic. Hard to agree on, though, is whether the ruckus generated by his recent missive to our incumbent president is more divisive than an earlier one to another sitting president. Much of the conversation around his new letter reprises the responses to the former one, however. More noticeable, though, is the fact that the tension between the “message” and “messenger” that’s increasingly become a feature of the template with which Dr. Obasanjo’s interventions in the polity are evaluated is swinging towards a less charitable view of this ex-president’s contribution to our space.
However Dr. Obasanjo’s legacy shapes out, his solipsism would be a major ingredient of this assessment. For him, the “I” is all there is. Thus, whether it’s his written account of his role in the civil war, or of his recent foray in government as an elected president, his exploits regularly take the “S” off Superman’s garment. In consequence, as “superhero”, his universe of spectators is bifurcated into adulating (brown-nosed?) fans on one hand, and opposing villains (to be put down with extreme prejudice?), on the other. Thus afflicted, it was always inevitable that the nation’s recollection of his 8 years in office (from 1999 to 2007) were going to continuously labour under his authoritarian impulses, and the apparent attempt towards the end of his second term in office to extend his tenure beyond constitutional limits.
Some would argue that this reading of the ex-president isn’t sufficiently nuanced. Be that as it may. By far the bigger consequence of Dr. Obasanjo’s outsized ego is that once persuaded that he is the grand solution to the country’s many woes, it was only likely that he would have wanted to stay in office until the last of such difficulties was surmounted. In this sense, his continued interventions simply extend this logic that much farther. And yet, Baba Iyabo, as those with a more favourable view of him call him, is no Narcissus. He may pine away at his reflection in the mirror, but is often practical enough to prevent from turning into a flower.
Accordingly, a significant part of the groundwork for legislation that the country needs to function at the cutting edge of growth and development were laid during his tenure. The 2004 Pension Reform Act provided the basis for the transfer of pension administration in the country from the defined benefits to the defined contributions model. Thus, addressing (potentially) the problem of underfunding of many public pension schemes. The Fiscal Responsibility Act and its focus on ensuring a prudent public expenditure management process was just as important as the change to the enabling statutes of the central bank, which ensured that an independent central bank could pursue monetary policy without the threat of fiscal dominance. Then, there was the concern around the fidelity of the annual budgeting process that led to the setting up of the Budget Monitoring and Price Intelligence Unit (the “Due Process” office) in the presidency.
Cynics could argue that not even the Obasanjo presidency lived by its own rules. The problem with this perspective is that the same argument could also be made in explaining the failure of successive federal governments to strengthen these functions. To take but one example, evidence abounds that, today, the Central Bank of Nigeria, despite the administrative and goal autonomy embedded in its main statute, is in the grip of fiscal dominance as debilitating as it was before 2007. Describing the problem posed by this for the economy, a recent analysis of the 2018 Appropriation Bill refers to the “gaps (in the bill as)…likely indicated in overdrafts from the Central Bank of Nigeria to the FG; these jumped from N1.76tn (in December 2016), to N2.63tn at the end of fiscal year 2016 (2017?). Worth noting is that the FG’s indebtedness to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) was worth a significantly less N349.7bn, as at October 2014.” In addition, the “due process” function is increasingly indicted as one of the structural bottlenecks impeding the implementation of the capital expenditure portion of the federal budget.
Beyond these concern over quantities, it is hard, also, to point to the same ferment of ideas in the governments (all put together) that have succeeded Dr. Obasanjo as there was in the debate leading up to the negotiation and agreement in 2005 of the deal with the Paris Club that saw US$18bn of the country’s debt written off. Yet, a critical part of the response to ex-president Obasanjo’s recent criticism of the Buhari presidency have heard mentions of the Buhari administration achieving more in the three years it’s been in office than did the Obasanjo administration in 8 years.
True, the Obasanjo years were excessive in certain respects. The military incursion in Odi may have violated human rights conventions. And few who tried to stare down the then president lived (politically) to tell the story. But all the main indices speak of an economy that has worsened since Mr. Buhari took over: unemployment/underemployment, inflation, the economy’ debt burden, domestic security (touted as President Buhari’s forte in the run-up to the last general elections) ― the list is near endless. Then there’s the danger that these numbers do not quite capture the deterioration in adjusted quality of life measurements over the last three years. Anecdotal evidence suggests worsening living conditions for most Nigerians.
For these reasons alone, men of goodwill owe a duty of concern over the economy’s trajectory. And it shouldn’t matter that much that, once, this particular elder tried to asphyxiate our infants. It’s enough that, today, he’s pointing us away from choking off whatever life is left in our poor little ones!