IN its issue number 35 of August 30, 2004, Tell magazine published an engaging cover story with the rather surprising headline: The Imperial President, Obasanjo’s ruling style. The magazine anchored its story on what you might think was beneath Obasanjo as president: the election of a new Olowu of Owu that year. It bears a brief recap, if only, as the magazine intended, to show the extent to which Obasanjo exercised his imperial powers – given, assumed and appropriated.
The former president comes from Owu, one of the four quarters in Abeokuta, Ogun State. He is the Balogun of Owu and thus one of its kingmakers. Sometime in August, 2004, the eight Owu kingmakers, including Obasanjo, met to elect the new Olowu of Owu. Five of them voted for one of the candidates. He was not Obasanjo’s choice. So, he imperially annulled the election and subverted both the tradition of his people and the will of the kingmakers. His candidate it had to be; his candidate it was.
The president of Nigeria is unarguably the most powerful man in the world. Why would Obasanjo involve himself in a rather obscure chieftaincy matter such as this? It hews to the man’s definition of power and how it should be exercised. In Obasanjo’s book, power is power. It ranks the same on the national level as it does in ancestral quarters. Could this be the philosophical anvil on which he forged his style of governance? Says Tell: “With a military background and a predilection for dictatorial excesses, Olusegun Obasanjo exploit(ed) the flawed 1999 constitution to become an imperial president.”
Underline the phrase: dictatorial excesses.
I don’t think he merely exploited flaws in the constitution to substitute imperial powers for presidential powers. He exercised his presidential powers like an emperor because it gave him greater latitude. A president is hemmed in by constitutional clauses that give him so much room and no more. Not so an emperor. Imposition of candidates for elective offices in his party became the cardinal principle of his imperial rule. In his recent criticism of the behaviour of the state governors, Obasanjo said they have turned themselves into emperors. His statement implied that this is a new trend in the style of governance that emerged after Obasanjo left office. As you can see, the contrary is nearer the truth. Obasanjo was the first emperor. The state governors became his pikin emperors.
Given his accomplishments, Obasanjo towered above institutions and men. He felt too big to be circumscribed by the niceties of constitutional limits to his presidential powers, hence he opted for imperial powers. To borrow from Pastor Enoch Adeboye of RCG, Obasanjo had become wiser than the wisest; more powerful than the most powerful and more knowledgeable than the most knowledgeable.
Tell: “We are having something like an emperor. Something very imperial now about Obasanjo.”
The constitution irritated him. He treated it with disdain. He disobeyed court rulings at will. He was always right; the courts were always wrong. He withheld the statutory allocation to local councils in Lagos State because the state governor, the wily politician called Ahmed Bola Tinubu, refused to give into Obasanjo’s orders that he should either cancel the new councils or do as other governors in a similar situation did: downgrade them into something unknown to our constitution called development areas.
The Supreme Court said the president had no constitutional powers to withhold the statutory allocation to local councils in Lagos State. Obasanjo stuck to his gun – no pun intended. I felt pained when then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mr. Justice Mohammed Uwais said: “A government that does not obey the court is a bad government.”
As Tell pointed out, the man saw himself not just as the president of Nigeria but as the Nigerian state itself. He did not respect the separation of powers. The legislature surrendered its power to him. He assumed the right to handpick the principal officers of the national assembly. When the late Dr Chuba Okadigbo slipped through to the throne as senate president, against all the Obasanjo forces assembled against him, Obasanjo instantly brought him down. He was not his choice as the head of the second arm of government.
Obasanjo also tried to frighten the judiciary into submission. When this did not prove entirely successful, although there were men and women on the bench who were too eager to please him, Obasanjo took to undermining the integrity of the judiciary by a subtle campaign of calumny and alleged corruption. His anti-graft war had the objective of portraying him as the only clean and upright Nigerian standing. He did not mind the obvious implication of this: of the 170 million Nigerians, only he would be clean enough to saunter through the pearly gates into heaven; the rest of us would gnash our teeth in hell. My goodness.
Emperors do not share powers. Ever heard of a deputy emperor? Obasanjo’s disgraceful and shabby treatment of his vice-president, Atiku Abubakar, flowed from his view of his imperial as opposed to his presidential powers. Whatever needed to go wrong with our democracy went wrong with it under his watch because of the manner he exercised his acquired imperial powers. He decimated the other political parties, corralled their leaders into PDP and imperilled our multi-party democracy.
Said Tell: “In a bid to make Nigeria a de facto single-party state, the Obasanjo administration maintains the façade of democratic institutions while the values that underpin them are brazenly subverted.”
Under his watch, the state governors became executive governors. That was not an innocent, ego-tripping on their part. By clothing themselves with executive powers, they became more powerful than the office created by the constitution. And like Obasanjo, they treated their deputies with the same crass shabbiness, humiliation and disdain. They replicated Obasanjo’s powers and his excesses at the state level.
If today, as the former president alleged, the governors are acting like emperors, he should have the grace to admit that he created these monsters. An emperor grows more powerful in direct response to the accumulation of powers. Local council chairmen even replicate the imperial powers of the state governors. They are executive, not ordinary, chairmen. We must accept that one of Obasanjo’s fine legacies is that Nigeria has the largest number of emperors in the world today – big emperor, medium emperors and small emperors.
Obasanjo bulldozed his way into the states and their legislatures, exemplified in the rash of so-called impeachment of state governors, in the unholy name of the anti-graft war. In Anambra State, the state house of assembly removed the state governor, Peter Obi, in a session held in a hotel in Asaba, Delta State; in Oyo State, governor Rashid Ladoja was similarly removed from office with the legislators sitting in a hotel owned by Lamidi Adedebu and in Plateau State, six of the 18 members of the state house of assembly removed Joshua Dariye from office. Each case breached the constitution. Yet Obasanjo endorsed these and other instances of the apparent rape of our constitution and the subversion of the rule of law. Haba.
God bless Mr. Justice James Ogebe. He gave our country and our constitutional government back to us when he the quashed the so-called impeachment of Ladoja. He said in his judgment: “The court is the primary custodian of the constitution.”
Other justices found the courage from that point on to protect our constitution. As they say, it is not yet Uhuru but it could have been worse, much worse if Ogebe had deferred to the emperor instead of the law and the rule of law.