Book: Watch the Watcher
Reviewer: Professor G.G. Darah
Author: Yinka Odunmakin
This is a provocative and polemical book of memories and reflections by Yinka Odumakin about General Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s military head of state (1976-1979) and elected President (1999-2007). The author was motivated to write the book to challenge exaggerated claims of heroic grandeur and accomplishments made by the former President.
He hopes that the book will add to the collective memory card of Nigerians so that they do not suffer the disease of amnesia which encourages unworthy public men and women to act with impunity “knowing that there is no book of remembrance that will chronicle their doings” and atrocities in office. As the title of the book suggests, even those who claim to be watchers of society are also being watched to account for their deeds. The years covered by the book constitute momentous epochs in Nigeria’s chequered history. For example, at the end of General Obasanjo’s despotic rule in 1979, his military junta presided over a controversial presidential election yet he managed to earn international acclaim by the fact of his handing over of power to an elected civilian regime headed by Alhaji Shehu Shagari. That regime collapsed in four years in 1983, giving way to over a decade of terroristic regimes by military jackboots until 1999 when General Obasanjo came from prison to be elected President.
He was re-elected in 2003 and he handed over power to the civilian government of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in 2007. For someone who rose from relative obscurity, Obasanjo’s record of ruling the world’s most populous country three times should have elevated his stature to that of an epic hero in political terms. General Obasanjo himself has written copiously and spoken tirelessly of his achievements as both military commander and political leader. His latest book of selfpraise bears the tell-tale title of My Watch (2014). However, Yinka Odumakin considers General Obasanjo as an anti-hero whose colossal image in the Nigerian political firmament is nothing short of a disaster. In Odumakin’s words, “Under Obasanjo’s watch, Transparency International (TI) voted Nigeria as the most corrupt country in the world. The level of blood-letting under his regime remains unparalleled in Nigeria’s history, save the civil war years and Boko Haram killings”.
Odumakin spends 280 pages of commentary, testimony, and documentation to establish his case.
The narrative of the book is executed in five chapters. The first one attempts a portrait of the General, digging into hitherto ignored details that raise questions about his pedigree. The second chapter chronicles highlights of Obasanjo’s first coming as military head of state, including the mystery surrounding his role in the military coups in which he managed to be the luckiest survivor and beneficiary.
There some juicy revelations about the events surrounding the February 13, 1976, military coup in which Obasanjo;s boss, General Murtala Mohammed was killed. Odumakin also alerts the reader to re-examine how the General Obasanjo mismanaged the first oil-boom wealth of the country and his bloody suppression of the 1978 students’ uprising against the hike in education costs, otherwise known as the “Ali Must Go Saga”. Col. Ahmadu Ali, now a Senator, was the then Federal Commissioner (Minister) of Education.
The Obasanjo’s military junta did not only decapitate the national student movement by sacking its leaders such as the late Segun Okeowo; a kangaroo trial of radical anti-imperialist scholars and university lecturers recommended their dismissal. They were accused of being the inspirer of the students. Among those sacked were Professors Ola Oni, Omafume Onoge, Akin Ojo, Bade Onimode of the University of Ibadan, and Laoye Sanda of the Polytechnic Ibadan. Also dismissed from their posts were Professor Jacob Ade-Ajayi, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos who was one of Africa’s foremost historians, Chief Ebenezer Babatope, and the Marxist mathematician, Dr. Eddy Madunagu, both of the University of Lagos. Dr. Bene Madunagu of the University of Calabar also lost her job; so did Bassey Ekpo Bassey, a trade unionist in Calabar.
This draconian move against radical students and academics exposed General Obasanjo to the suspicion of being a lackey or comprador of foreign imperialist interests. His offensive offered a model for other military despots like Generals Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida, and Sani Abacha in subsequent years. The hated apartheid minority regime in South Africa operated the notorious Roben Island detention camp off the coast of Cape Town. This was the gulag where revolutionary leaders like Nelson Mandela were jailed for life. Odumakin’s remembrance of Obasanjo’s despotism recalls his setting up of the crocodile-infested Ita Oko detention camp off the coast of Lagos and the barbaric destruction of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s “Kalakuta Republic” in the 1970s.
The next chapter with the title “The Valley” is a brief one, but it is no less explosive and devastating in its revelationss. To Odumakin, Obasanjo does not qualify to “pose as Nigeria’s ultimate patron saint…His history speaks another truth. It was his army which practically waged war against this country with coups, counter-coups and constant bloodletting” (page 35) adding that “Everything which could go wrong with a country, went wrong under his watch” and that if “a man spent more time in the presidency than any other Nigerian but keeps complaining about real and imagined failures of others, who should be talking about his own failures?” (page 36).
Odumakin’s catalogue of what he calls Obasanjo’s grave failures is stretched out in gorier accounts in chapter four, “The Ogre Returns”. In mythological literature, the word “ogre” conjures the image of a blood-thirsty beast which terrorises and kills its victims. In Odumakin’s assessment, some of the victims of this political ogre are great names such as Chief Obafemi Awolowo, one of Africa’s greatest nation builders of the 20th century. All through the book, Odumakin alleges, through direct charges and innuendos, that General Obasanjo committed much of his career to the destruction of the Awolowo legacy. Awolowo’s loss to Shehu Shagari in the presidential polls of 1979 and 1983 is cited as illustrations of this sinister scheme. Chief Awolowo died in 1987 yet the demolition of his political system did not appear to cease. As a political activist and one of the leaders of the Yoruba Afenifere movement, Odumakin is in a position to be a “watcher” over of the disabling of the best and the brightest in the Yoruba political kingdom.
The next victim of the ogre is Chief M.K.O. Abiola. He was winner of the 1993 June 12 presidential election. The results were annulled by General Babangida, the then military president. The resultant popular uprising to redeem Abiola’s stolen mandate turned Nigeria into the most dramatic scene of democratic struggles in Africa. The National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) was the spearhead of the struggle and movement was headquartered in the Yoruba area of southwestern Nigeria. General Abacha seized the opportunity to stage a coup in 1993; his government massacred, jailed, and terrorised all pro-June 12 persons and organisations. Nigeria and the world were polarised. Democratic nations and statesmen supported the clamour for Abiola’s mandate. At this momentous period, General Obasanjo declared that Chief Abiola “was not the messiah”. As Odumakin observes, “Obasanjo played a very huge role in blocking Abiola’s presidency. He was right in the centre of the protracted June 12 problem. He was never brave enough to carry out his own coup, but he was always positioned to reap from others’ courage and great risk.” (p. 40). If Chief Abiola was not the messiah, who was? This enigmatic question is answered in the second half of the fourth chapter. The narrative is now in 1999. By 1998 Abiola and Abacha had dead and the disgraced military regime was making frantic moves to disengage from power. The transition arrangement throws up General Obasanjo as the favoured candidate and he wins under the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
Odumakin reviews the eight years of Obasanjo’s “second coming” and enters the verdict that Nigeria was no longer at ease, to invoke the title of Chinua Achebe’s 1962 novel. This segment of the account opens with a prophetic prediction by Pastor Tunde Bakare in a statement he issued on March 7, 1999, thus: “Rejoice not oh land, or your joy will be temporary”. In a follow-up message, Pastor Bakare warned that if Obasanjo were sworn-in as president, the family situation in Nigeria would collapse and economic crimes would multiply.
Odumakin offers 30 pages of evidence to justify these inauspicious predictions. His most damning charge is the bloodchilling list of victims of “high profile politically motivated killings under Obasanjo’s regime” at pages 48-50. Some of the most horrendous cases are those of Chief Bola Ige (President Obasanjo’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice), Dr. Marshall Harry of Rivers State, Victor Nwankwo, Barnabas Igwe, Professor Chimere Ikoku (former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Maiduguri), Dele Arojo, and Alhaji Ahmed Pategi. There are a few names left out in the list such as those of Chief Dikibo of Rivers State and Engineer Funso Williams of Lagos, both front liners of the PDP. None of these deaths has been investigated with satisfactory results.
Odumakin’s litany of Obasanjo’s failures is extensive. His anti- corruption project is assessed as a charade as he tended to prosecute those he perceived as his political adversaries. Other instances given by the author are the questionable manner the Transnational Corporation (Transcorp) was acquired, the funding of the Presidential Library in Abeokuta, the reckless use of Excess Crude account, the management of the Petroleum Trust Development Fund, the whimsical amendment to the Revenue Allocation Act in 2002, exploitation of the Land Use Act to acquire personal lands, scandals surrounding contracts by Siemens and Halliburton, and the privatisation of public enterprises. Under these areas of unethical deals fall the cases of the military invasion and destruction of Odi in Bayelsa State in November 1999 and Zaki Biam in Benue State in 2001. The massacres that took place caused grave embarrassment to Nigeria under a civilian dispensation. Another act of political corruption Odumakin levels against Obasanjo is the controversial “third term” gambit which brought indelible opprobrium to his second tenure in 2005.
The fifth chapter is the longest; it covers more than half of the entire book. Under the title, “What They Say About Olusegun Obasanjo”, the author reproduces opinions, comments, and letters which help the reader to have a deeper knowledge of the Obasanjo phenomenon. Having attempted a synoptic accounting of his views on Obasanjo in the previous four chapters, Odumakin appears determined to summon more witnesses to fortify his verdict of “guilty as charged”.
In all there are 25 materials of various subject matters and temper. Perhaps the most devastating are those by members of the Obasanjo family. The first of these is the opinion published in November 2008 by Dr. Reuben Abati, then of The Guardian newspaper, being a review of the autobiography by one of Obasanjo’s wives, Mrs. Oluremi Obasanjo. The title of the autobiography is Bitter- Sweet: My Life With Obasanjo. The review is vintage Abati, a scintillating and graceful essay that unearths some of the murky details of the conjugal drama involving the couple. The third supplement is the purported petition/affidavit by the first son of Obasanjo, Gbenga, over allegations of infidelity against his wife. The document is already public knowledge, having been published in some national newspapers when the matter was in court. This is followed by the letter by Senator Iyabo Obasanjo to his father with the title “Your Madness is Part of Societal Madness”. The version reproduced in this book is attributed to the Vanguard newspaper of December 18, 2013. It would be recalled that this letter came in the wake of the December 2 diatribe that former President Obasanjo addressed to President Goodluck Jonathan accusing him of sundry malfeasance.
Other open letters to Chief Obasanjo reproduced in this section include the one by Professor Chinua Achebe rejecting a national honour by Obasanjo’s government for the reason that “Nigeria’s condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence”. Achebe cited the instance of his own “state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom.
I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the Presidency.” (page 107). The letter to President Obasanjo by Professor Niyi Osundare is no less ruthless, concluding that by “May 2007 you will have ruled this country for a total of eleven years. That is about too much for one man to ask in a country of 120 million human beings”. Osundare was inveighing against the terror of the “third term agenda” then in vogue. From Gani Fawehinmi, the late stormy petrel of human rights, Obasanjo’s rule by 2007 was “eight years of self-centred disposition, eight years of wayo, eight years of deception, eight years of creating a few rich people….eight years of dictatorship…” Odumakin agrees with Fawehinmi in his angst against President Obasanjo’s economic mismanagement, especially as he pauperised millions of Nigerians by increasing the prices of petroleum products about eleven times in eight years. Colonel Abubakar Umar’s letter at pages 131-139 is of a similar genre.
Yet that by Chief Edwin Kiagbodo Clark of January 7, 2014, is in a class by itself. Clark’s letter, “Let the Truth Be Told Before It Is Too Late” was a brave and peppery rejoinder to the ill-motivated one Obasanjo did to President Jonathan in December, 2013. Having refuted all the sinister allegations Obasanjo levelled against Jonathan, Chief Clark adds this clincher paragraph: “You are today one of the richest men in Nigeria if not in Africa. In 1999, it was widely reported in the media that you came out of Gasua Prison very broke. As a matter of fact, it was stated that you had N20,000 in your bank account as declared in your Code of Conduct Bureau Form.
In just 8 years, as President of Nigeria, you metamorphosed from a struggling ex-head of state into a life of opulence. You must tell Nigerians the magic behind the sudden affluence. When corruption is mentioned, informed Nigerians know those that foisted the malady on our nation. The Halliburton bribe scandal and the Siemens case were lightly touched by President Jonathan in his open reply to you. These two high profile corruption cases happened during your tenure as President”.
Of the other thirteen documents, the interview by Chief Ayo Adebanjo deserves special attention because he is one of the few revolutionary Awoists who has seen it all and survived it all. Asked to assess Obasanjo as a Yoruba leader as the only Yoruba to have been President, Chief Adebanjo charges back thus:
“Leader of the Yoruba? Who said? Is he even the leader of Egbaland?…Have you found any genuine Yoruba person saying he (Obasanjo) left a worthy legacy? He has left a legacy of poverty for the Yoruba people…” The views of two distinguished scholars that follow are equally noteworthy, one by Professor Akin Oyebode of the University of Lagos (pages 179-182) and the other by Professor Omo Omoruyi (pages 213-240). Readers who seek further verification of President Obasanjo’s authorship of the “third term” gambit are advised to read the interview by Senator Adoplphous Wabara at pages 195-197. The title is “I Was Offered N250m for Obasanjo’s Third Term”.
Let us take the final verdict of these supporting documents from Chief Ayo Opadokun and Chief Segun Osoba. First, Chief Opadokun, a veteran of the June 12 struggle:
“The exposure of his mental gaffe and debilitation through self-glorification, in classifying himself as one of the greats from Ogun State, while Chief Obafemi Awolowo could not count as one of them, is a further exposure of Obasanjo’s moral personality” (page 201).
Here is the judgement by Chief Segun Osoba, former Governor of Ogun State: “He (Obasanjo) has not only been tamed in Ogun State, he has been caged in the entire country. The 2011 elections have put him where he belongs. It has put him in an iron cage where he cannot escape. He should now go and live the rest of his life in peace and learn to keep his mouth shut.
No more grand standing and I have my reasons for saying so…I pity him that in his life time his fraudulent political activities are being exposed…” Yinka Odumakin’s Watch the Watcher: A Book of Remembrance of Obasanjo’s Years offers additional iron cages of morality with which the victims of President Obasanjo’s politics would want to tame and cage him. It is expected that the book will provoke more polemical debates and disclosures that will empower Nigerians to expose and cage all their oppressors in shame and silence.
*This was published in the Daily Times dated Tuesday, December 30, 2014