On Monday morning, Olusegun Obasanjo – the former military leader, then two-time elected president, and now the elder statesman-in-chief of Nigerian politics – parted ways with the ruling People’s Democratic Party, the party he founded and led to two election victories.
In front of a loyal audience in his home town, he announced his departure in the most public fashion possible, instructing a local government leader to tear up his PDP membership card on his behalf. “If this is why we cannot have the Nigeria we desire, I am no longer part of this,” Obasanjo said, referring to the divisive leadership of current PDP leader and Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan.
Obasanjo’s decision did not come as a surprise. He has been a vocal critic of Jonathan (who, admittedly, has deserved much of it), and a constant thorn in the side of his administration.
“The writing has been on the wall in terms of where Obasanjo is putting his tent,” said Olusegun Akinsanya, a regional director for the Institute for Security Studies and a former Nigerian ambassador to the African Union.
In late 2013, Obasanjo wrote an 18-page open letter eviscerating the president for destroying party unity, betraying God and the Nigerian people, and failing to confront any of the country’s main issues, including corruption, the economy and Boko Haram.
More recently, Obasanjo questioned the motives behind the postponement of the Nigerian presidential election, originally scheduled for 14 February but pushed back to 28 March because of security fears. “I sincerely hope that the president is not going for broke and saying ‘look dammit, it’s either I have it or nobody has it’. I hope that we will not have a coup…I hope we can avoid it,” he said at a press conference to launch his new autobiography in Nairobi.
Even worse, Obasanjo then appeared to endorse Jonathan’s opponent in the coming polls, General Muhammadu Buhari. “He’s smart enough. He’s educated enough. He’s experienced enough. Why shouldn’t I support him?”
In Nigeria, Obasanjo’s opinion matters, and his constant sniping from within the party was becoming a serious headache for Jonathan’s campaign. In fact, according to the Vanguard newspaper, the party leadership was already mooting plans to suspend Obasanjo, who then jumped before he was pushed. Now that he is liberated from any sense of party discipline or loyalty, we can expect Obasanjo’s criticism to be even more caustic in the weeks ahead – and that this could have a bearing on the direction of the election.
“There is no doubt that Obasanjo, when he speaks, he speaks with authority,” Akinsanya told the Daily Maverick. “Over the years, even with disagreements, he has continued to support the ruling party. What has happened now will definitely be a twist. Leaving the ruling political party at this time has quite a lot of implications. He’s still a major player.”
Just how major is cause for some debate. One theory doing the rounds is that Obasanjo is positioning himself to lead some kind of interim national government in the event that Jonathan’s term expires and no poll has been held. This has been denied strenuously by Obasanjo himself.
More plausible is that Obasanjo’s departure will boost the Buhari’s All Progressive’s Conference (APC), the opposition coalition which is providing the PDP with its first genuine electoral challenge. The APC itself certainly think so: “For Obasanjo, a highly respected figure not only in Nigeria but the world over to dump his party, it is a plus for the APC,” said one official, speaking ThisDay.
APC Senator Bukola Saraki, himself a defector from the PDP, agreed. “I think for sure it is a big blow to the PDP…Obasanjo has followers and they were all waiting for him to take this action. Definitely, it will have a spiral effect on PDP. Many of his followers will soon join him.”
The PDP, meanwhile, is doing its best to brush off the former president’s exit, although the more it tries to downplay Obasanjo’s importance the more it seems to imply the opposite. “We direct all our members across the country to remain focused on our campaigns and not to be distracted on this issue. With an array of credible candidates led by our Presidential flagbearer, President Goodluck Jonathan, we are sure that we will emerge victorious,” said Chief Olisa Metuh, the PDP’s national publicity secretary.
The PDP shouldn’t be quite so sure. With Jonathan and his lieutenants struggling on several fronts (most notably to contain the growing Boko Haram insurgency), they need all the support they can get if they are going to win the March election fair and square. Losing Obasanjo’s won’t help. DM
Photo: Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo leaves after a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy along with a delegation for the Africa Progress Panel, APP, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, on 15 February 2011. EPA/IAN LANGSDON
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