John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Babangida, Obasanjo, and Nigerian Governance

by John Campbell
August 23, 2011

Nigeria's former military head of state Ibrahim Babangida, former president Olusegun Obasanjo and former head of state Muhamodu Buhari (L-R) pose for a photograph at the end of a book launch in Minna, north-central Nigeria in this picture taken August 5, 2010. (Afolabi Sotunde/Courtesy Reuters)

The public feud between former heads of state Ibrahim Babangida (IBB) and Olusegun Obasanjo (OBJ) is an occasion to reflect on the high price the Nigeria has paid for poor governance.

The two have been military colleagues since the Biafra War (1967-1970) and are an integral part of the patron-client system that runs Nigeria. IBB was the military chief of state for eight years, while OBJ was the military chief of state for three years and then the nominally civilian elected president of Nigeria for an additional eight years. Within the Nigerian military, OBJ was senior to IBB, though both are four star retired generals. They are about the same age and both made their fortunes via the access that military power provides.

IBB used the occasion of his seventieth birthday to compare favorably his time in office to that of OBJ. More specifically, he said that OBJ had wasted some sixteen billion dollars on power projects. OBJ responded by calling IBB a fool, citing conflicting verses from proverbs about whether he should respond or not. (He chose to do so.)

IBB’s initial salvo surprised me because in the past he has said that public condemnation of a senior colleague violates good military discipline

Press commentators are having a field day, accusing both “big men” of pettiness, lack of decorum, and of suffering from an “embarrassing disdain for intellectual rigor.” One observed that IBB and OBJ are “united in greed and personal aggrandizement,” and noted that both are living in “opulence.” Others have made the point that poor leadership and bad governance, of which both IBB and OBJ are guilty, are a direct cause of Nigeria’s failure to develop. Yet others are embarrassed for Nigeria by the public spat between “two old men.”

Other than exposing two of Nigeria’s biggest “big men” as petty and lacking decorum, it is unclear whether there is a larger significance to the spat. Both IBB and OBJ still have links into the military. Both are immensely rich. Both fancy themselves as kingmakers. IBB was an active presidential candidate in 2011, and he may harbor resentments that he failed. OBJ remains president of the ruling PDP’s board of trustees. They are certainly yesterday’s men; the question is whether they think they have a future.

It is positive that the spat has led Nigerian commentators to acknowledge directly the country’s abysmal history of poor leadership and bad governance. Confrontation of that reality can only promote better governance in the future.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Anthony Nwafor

    Please could you clarify what “nominally civilian elected President of Nigeria” means (with respect to Obasanjo).

    In any case, both of them are yesterday’s men.

  • Posted by Lolade

    Officially, OBJ is older than IBB by four years.

  • Posted by Eje

    History should have it that the leadership of IBB was more productive than OBJ’s leadership. During the presidency of IBB, he gave Nigerian’s little hope by his creation of more Community Banks and financial institutions to allow Nigerians have access to banking systems with hope that could help small businesses to create job for the masses. That attempt failed as a result of greed from the governors and bank managers. while in OBJ’s regime, he spent more than five years of his regime to fight and distroy his enemies businesses and to prolong his time.

  • Posted by csmp

    OBJ should have set a positive political pace by all means during his civilian tenure. Mandela is a good example. Now Nigerian politicians know that with money and power you can manipulate the political machinery in your favour and as such the people’s voice will hardly be heard.

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