I once asked General Ibrahim Babangida why he never moved against General Obasanjo, despite the unrelenting criticisms of his regime and person, while he clamped down on other critics of his regime. His answer gave me an insight into the psychology of power in Nigeria, and the subjective, even personal and vain preferences, which determine what otherwise, should be serious matters of national development. Babangida said there were only four full generals in the Nigerian army: Yakubu Gowon; Olusegun Obasanjo; Sani Abacha and Babangida, himself. So because of that fact, he chose to respect these individuals to the point of near-indulgence. Of the quartet, Obasanjo has been the most indulged. He was plucked from hiding (some say he was under the late Chief S.B. Bakare’s bed!) to be made Head of State in 1976 and was spirited from prison, pardoned, rehabilitated and made President in 1999. Obasanjo therefore suffers a messianic delusion about his good fortune; especially poignant also, is the fact that he rightly saw, that by being made president, he was actually made to pull the chestnut from fire, by his colleagues in 1999, in the wake of the crisis which trailed the annulment of the June 12, 1993 elections.
Obasanjo expected Babangida to remain perpetually loyal and grateful, that he diffused the tension which almost scattered Nigeria. Babangida was visited with all manners of indecencies and humiliations by Obasanjo, in the period between 1999 and 2007, by the man he worked to return to power. He stomached these assaults stoically, while looking for spaces of counter-punch which came, in the shape of the coalition that defeated Obasanjo’s Third Term Agenda and the interview and the subsequent Argy-Bargy of the last week. Those who argued that the gloves were off, in the deeply pretentious relationship between the two generals are right; but they probably under-estimate the vicious, personal rivalry. When Obasanjo handed over to President Shehu Shagari in 1979, he retired to his farm and crafted a new life as a pseudo-intellectual and statesman, becoming an effective voice against SAP and other excesses of the Babangida regime.
There was a personally troubling matter for Obasanjo,in the much-vaunted charisma, influence and alleged wealth of his junior colleague, Babangida. It was never openly stated, but it bred a deep level of envy in the older dictator. When the near-bankrupt, Obasanjo returned to power in 1999, he abandoned pretences about nationalism and embraced the corruption which privatization and crony capitalism offered, as Transcorp; investments in Ethiopia; and the Senate privatization probe have all revealed. One of the driving forces of Obasanjo’s envy was to become richer than Babangida; outshine him politically and be more influential. It was part of the rivalry that Obasanjo also built a hilltop mansion in Abeokuta, just like Babangida did in Minna!
For Obasanjo, there cannot be a place for the two men in the space of influence and wealth; Babangida must be trounced permanently! The June 12 annulment remained Babangida’s ever-lasting albatross, but he guessed rightly, that Nigerians remember more vividly the wasted years under Obasanjo and his subsequent demystification. The near-universal loathing for Obasanjo in Nigeria, emboldened Babangida to question Obasanjo’s record in power as well as the riposte issued, when Obasanjo lapsed into his uncouth abusiveness! But in the face-off between the two Generals, there was nothing about the interest of the Nigerian people. It is professional and personal rivalry taken to the height of absurdity. It is frightening to imagine that this is the context from which our country has been run for years!