In the world these days, it is impossible to have a nuanced discussion about too many things. The lure of 140 characters disincentives the complexity that ideas sometimes demand, and until we evolve to that point where we can condense complicated thoughts into this inevitable format, we have to struggle a bit.
One of those struggles is via something that business theorist, Jim Collins calls the ‘tyranny of the OR’.
The tyranny of the OR represents much of the world’s popular thinking that one cannot hold two thoughts that are essentially different at the same time without them being opposing. It is “a restrictive approach to decision-making that dictates a solitary choice between one of two seemingly contradictory strategies or outcomes — facilitating the necessary exclusion of the other.”
Once you are for A, you must of certainty be against B.
But F. Scott Fitzgelad tells us “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Collins calls this “the genius of the ‘and’”
So let’s try this ‘and’ for size with regard to Nigeria: 1. Olusegun Obasanjo was an impressive president with a bold vision and sterling successes and 2. Olusegun Obasanjo was a flawed man whose weaknesses significantly slanted the judgement of history on his time in office.
I am one of the harshest critics on a personal level of Obasanjo, and that is because anyone who pays attention to the man who has led the country thrice knows that he has greatness in his veins, after all said and done. He has always demonstrated the capacity to do more, and to be more.
Unfortunately, at the end of his second term in democratic office, a collusion of an ill encouraged third term bid and the fault lines of a succession planning that could only be charitably considered the results of an uncharacteristic naivety managed to botch the legacy of what could have been a glorious remembrance.
Now when you speak about Obasanjo to everyday Nigerians, or at least as far as can be tracked on social media, what you hear is the Odi Massacre, the Third Term ‘debacle’, the foisting of a sick Umaru Musa Yar’Adua on a hapless nation, and allegations of corruption so deep and so vast that surely he must be worried as to how many people casually conclude that Ota Farms, Bells University and anything else associated with him come from the proceeds of unrepentant corruption.
But is this really the full picture of the man’s presidency, or is that the single story that he has somehow allowed to calcify?
It is important here to note that when Obasanjo was in office, much of what I felt towards him was anger. He was too vindictive, too self-righteous, and too given to small-mindedness in the ways that he attacked friends, foes, and allies. But in all of that visceral personal reaction to him, I didn’t lose sight of the one thing he was above all else: he was effective.
As he turns 80 this month, and the nation pays attention to its most significant leader alive, it is important that his legacy be interrogated with calm and deliberation.
It is easy to forget now, but upon resumption in office, Obasanjo became the architect of the economy and polity that we have now, and he did an impressive job of laying the foundations of the modern Nigeria that found its place in the comity of nations.
Obasanjo built institutions.
The Debt Management Office, the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the National Food and Drug Administration and Control, the Nigerian Universities Commission, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, the National Orientation Agency, the News Agency of Nigeria, the National Bureau of Statistics, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission … all of this and a roll call of many more got life under his administration as he took the careful steps of rejuvenating their purpose, securing effective leadership and giving them the political will to remake society.
In addition to this was the careful curation of effective leaders all across his administration – he literally went across the world identifying and appointing Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Obiageli Ezekwesili, Mansur Muktar amongst others, and discovering local stars including Nuhu Ribadu, Dora Akunyili, Nasir el-Rufai who significantly re-ordered the affairs of the nation and earned the adoration of a grateful public.
Obasanjo built, or re-built, institutions, and this is easily his most important legacy. Today, we see many of those institutions from NAFDAC to the NDLEA retaining the vestiges of systemic rejuvenation that his government engendered when Nigeria began its journey into normalcy – despite the onslaught of redundancy occasioned by his two consecutive successors.
Ironically, it was also Obasanjo that created the systemic weapons to fight corruption that significantly made it difficult for public officials to boldly launder money, and put paid to the institutional acceptance of drug lords, and the attendant destruction of the Nigeria brand.
We forget that, because of him, it became attractive for diaspora Nigerians to return home with their investments, and he methodically rebuilt Nigeria’s relationships with the rest of the world, and with it our international reputation.
Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product recorded its highest growth at 14.6 percent under him in 2006, he – with a stroke of genius – supervised the team that dislodged our national debt, and Foreign Direct Investment finally began a crucial uptick, not just because we had returned to democracy, but also because he deliberately and passionately, reopened our markets to the world.
We can say all of this; we can admit all of this, while still saying he messed up the results of those gains by his succession manipulations, and while still reasonably accusing him of questionable enrichment and the expansion of the People’s Democratic Party behemoth.
We can say all of this while making the clear point that, as the man who stood while Shehu Shagari twelve-two-thirded his way into the Nigerian presidency and as a card carrying member of Nigeria’s mediocre leadership establishment, he bears as much responsibility as any for the collective sorry state of our nation. But we can say that while also admitted that he was an impressive political engineer.
We can say all of that while admitting that, of all the people who have been president of Nigeria since I was born in 1985, Obasanjo is head and shoulders above the rest of them. None even comes close, including today’s menu.
Why is it important to state this? Because if we do not acknowledge our successes, we stand the risk of losing both the gains and, more crucially, the lessons.
Properly situating the context of Obasanjo’s leadership decisions and the outcome of his long-term strategic thinking aids us in locating the governing philosophies that drove his victories, the fault lines that generated his failures, and in navigating the pathways to a sustainable future.
I believe strongly that Nigeria and Nigerians have nothing positive to learn from the forgettable presidency of Yar’Adua and very little from the embarrassing presidency of Goodluck Jonathan. But we have abundantly plenty to learn from the meticulous nation building of Olusegun Obasanjo.
An evidence-based discussion of that crucial juncture in history will lead to a complete, textured picture not only of an iconic leader, but also of the true possibilities of leadership in a complex nation.
It is understandable that a large swatch of the Nigerian populace is enraged at the man. It is reasonable that a huge part of elite consensus converges on the paucity of his truth-telling capacity, the extent of his vindictiveness, and the unanswered questions on his apparent vast wealth.
But nation building, as far as modern societies go, is hardly an exercise in finding saints and killing sinners. It is a pragmatic process of isolating models, amplifying victories, and accelerating pathways.
We still have Obasanjo with us, at least for another half-decade. He needs to evince the humility to provoke this conversation, and we need to find the restraint to engage for our own good.
We have so few models of democratic success for us to be choosy about the ones we have no choice but to interrogate.