One must reach into the old proverbs of Yoruba society to adequately sum up the current whirlwind that has captivated the Nigerian political environment: "When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” The media has been awash with stories relating to two political juggernauts who both once held the reins of Africa’s most populous nation.
The pair fell out over comments made by former military ruler, Babangida, during a press conference to mark his 70th birthday celebrations. While answering questions being fielded by journalists at his home in Minna, Niger state Babangida belittled Obasanjo’s achievements during his second term as president (1999-2007). This exchange signals the collapse of relations between two men who were once unlikely political allies.
General Olusegun Obasanjo first ascended to the seat of power in 1979 after the assassination of the then military head of state, Murtala Mohammed, and would cement his name in history as being the first military head of state in Africa to hand over to a civilian government in 1979.
General Ibrahim Babangida led the coup d'état that ousted the heavy-handed regime of Muhammadu Buhari in 1985, before being himself removed in 1993 due to the outcry of the disillusioned Nigerian people.
Yet it was through Babangida and his far-reaching influence that Obasanjo, who had just been released from a prolonged bout of incarceration, was eventually handpicked to run under the banner of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the 1999 presidential elections. Obasanjo, with the help of Babangida and the previous military establishment, defeated his closest rival Chief Olu Falae by eight million votes, signalling the beginning of Nigeria’s fourth republic and Obasanjo‘s second and longest stretch as Nigeria‘s president (1999-2007).
However, all seems far from well between the two right now. At his 70th birthday Babangida claimed that Obasanjo, even with the monumental amount of funds at his disposal, failed to improve Nigeria’s power supply. Babangida would further highlight the fact that during his time in power the price of oil stood at $10 per barrel in comparison to $100 per barrel at the height of Obasanjo’s tenure. Babangida would further state that, given a fraction of the $16 billion frittered away by Obasanjo, he would have built Nigeria’s first nuclear power plant with the view of having a regular and stable supply of electricity throughout the country.
Babangida’s comments were uncharacteristic of a man known for his savvy media management and careful commentary, and such statements could only be perceived as an unwarranted attack on Obasanjo.
Former President Obasanjo, who is the current chairman of the People’s Democratic Party Board of Trustees, initially questioned the veracity of the comments, but once he had confirmed them, Obasanjo satirically suggested that Babangida should be pitied, rather than condemned.
Obasanjo went on to say: “I think one should probably do what the Bible says in Proverbs chapter 26, verse 4. It says don’t answer a fool because you may also become like him. When you go to the same Proverbs, chapter 26, verse 5 says answer a fool so that he will not think he’s a wise man. So, I am now torn between which of the two verses I should follow in this respect.”
Obasanjo, a seasoned veteran in the political arena, can hardly have been unaware of the furore his comments would cause.
Babangida was quick to respond, calling Obasanjo “a greater fool”. He added that "When he was released from prison and granted state pardon, bathed in cerebral ornaments and clothed in royal beads and later crowned as President of Nigeria, IBB was not a fool then."
Allegations, accusations and grandstanding over past achievements had been sandwiched into the middle of this drama, with each camp trying to affirm their superiority in terms of past projects initiated and completed. Yet the manner in which this is unfolding is unbecoming of men of their political stature, age and importance. Both past leaders are viewed as king-makers in their own right and cannot shy away from their responsibility to promote politics devoid of rancour, loose comments and mudslinging. Political differences may lead to confrontation, yet to draw such issues into the public domain is bound to heat up the polity. If not checked, this could create a divide in the ruling party in which both hold sizable stakes.
Comments and counter comments serve no benefits to Nigeria’s development and cannot show the way forward for what could be a great nation. Nigeria’s media fraternity should do their best not to fuel the fire of discontent, in order to make this argument simply a minor one between two of the nation’s most recognisable and influential figures. The wider implications should be considered thoroughly alongside the need to continue as revered elder statesman. Because when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.
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