Hard talk: When the BBC grilled Obasanjo on his record
Two weeks ago, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) repeated a recent interview with former President Olusegun Obasanjo on its popular HARDtalk programme. The interview was first shown in May this year. It was a historic interrogation.
Historic? Yes, it was that important. For the first time, perhaps, Obasanjo was challenged, in a way he hadn’t previously been, about his record in office, and about the moral authority he now claims to harangue African leaders about governance. The interview was a masterpiece of journalistic inquisition. The interrogator, Stephen Sackur, was unrelenting and hard-hitting. Of course, being Obasanjo, Baba fought back. It was a gripping encounter, thoroughly unmissable!
The interview was, supposedly, to discuss Obasanjo’s latest book, titled “Making Africa Work – A Handbook”, which he co-wrote with Greg Mills, Jeffrey Herbst and Dickie Davis. Sachur introduced Obasanjo and asked him about one of the book’s themes: overpopulation in Africa. Looking serious, Obasanjo said: “My greatest worry about Africa is demography”, and then added: “It’s a ticking bomb”. He said Africa’s population would be “over 2 billion” in 2050, and Nigeria’s would be “450m, from 45m at independence”.
But don’t appear on HARDtalk if you are not ready for some hard talk! Sachur refused to let Obasanjo regurgitate statistics, sound didactic, feign righteous indignation or take the moral high ground. First, he accused the former president of hypocrisy for warning about a demographic ticking bomb when he alone has “20 plus children”. Then, he moved on to the hard-hitting question that defined and dominated the entire interview.
“What kind of credibility do you have”, Sachur began menacingly, “demanding of African governments they take seriously the need for structural reform, political reform and clean governance, when you were a two-time president and signally failed on all of those tests?” Looking flustered, yet steely, Obasanjo retorted: “No, I did not fail, Stephen”, and started listing his achievements. He said, for instance, that he started a five-year railway programme to connect Nigeria, “but those who took over from me decided they would not go on with it”. Exasperated by the self-congratulation and blame-game, Sachur hit hard, “You have a great capacity for putting a very rosy tint on your record”, adding: “I am judging you this way because you made so many claims to be a crusader for better governance and clean government”. By now visibly angry, if calm, Obasanjo protested; “But I am”!
Yet the attack became more ferocious as the interrogation turned to the sensitive issue of corruption. Sachur reminded Obasanjo of what the National Assembly said about him. “What did they say?”,Obasanjo hit back. “Do you want me to read what they said?”, Sachur asked, teasingly. “Read what they said”, Baba replied, looking edgy. Sachur started reading: “Lest we forget, they said, the person who introduced corruption to this National Assembly is Chief Obasanjo”. Baba fired back: “They are talking rubbish”.
But, like a lawyer conducting cross-examination, the BBC interrogator pulled a rabbit from the hat: “Have you forgotten the sack of money that was displayed on the floor of the National Assembly, being used for bribe?” he asked.Obasanjo asked where the bag came from. “You tell me, you were in charge”, responded Sachur. “You should ask the man who brought it on the table”, Obasanjo insisted. To which Sachur replied: “He (the man) said, and I am quoting him directly, ‘You are the grandfather of corruption in Nigeria’”. Livid, Obasanjo retorted “No, I never gave anybody a dime, Never! Never!”, adding that “The EFCC investigated me thoroughly and completely absolved me of corruption!” But Sachur was not convinced and needled Baba more. “Why is it that many Nigerians do not believe you?” Obasanjo protested: “Many Nigerians believe me”.
As I said, this was a gripping encounter. Here is a former Nigerian leader and an international icon being pilloried and savaged by the world’s most popular broadcaster, BBC, on his achievements in office, his legacy and, indeed, his claims to be Africa’s moral conscience. What was supposed to be an interview to discuss Obasanjo’s book on making Africa work became an equivalent of a Spanish Inquisition on his record and moral authority.
But what lessons do we draw from this? For me,the interview exposes the key weakness of leadership in Africa. African leaders have taken their people for granted for too long. They are self-referential. They set their own exam papers and mark them themselves, and expect the world to applaud their “achievements”. Yet, while they can get away with impunity and hubris at home, they should not expect to be treated with kid gloves abroad.
Now, let’s face it, was Stephen Sachur right to say that Obasanjo failed as president of Nigeriaon structural reform, political reform and clean governance, which his book prescribes for Africa’s prosperity? Well, for me, the picture is mixed. In fairness to the former president, he made some efforts on structural reform and clean governance. He tried to liberalise the economy, although he was more interested in promoting crony capitalism than building a truly liberal economy; he created billionaires at the expense of expanding the middle class. Of course, he also ran a fairly technocratic government by bringing some clever technocrats into his government. On corruption, Obasanjo created anti-graft institutions yet the phrase “Ghana must go”, a euphemism for political corruption, was invented during his administration!
In truth, Obasanjo scored well on efforts but woefully on results, enduring results. It is legitimate to ask: if all he claimed he did as president are true or real, where are the results today? He constantly blames his successors for setting back the clock of progress that he set ticking. But who handpicked the successors and imposed them on Nigeria?Truth is, Obasanjo is much like President Kagame of Rwanda, about whom I wrote last week: technocratic yetautocratic. But everything falls apart once an autocratic technocrat leaves power. This is because they build everything around themselves, instead of around independent social, democratic and political institutions that can sustain structural changes.
Obasanjo’s book recommends political reform to African governments. But he failed woefully to engender one in Nigeria as president. Even now, he is opposed to political restructuring in Nigeria. Obasanjo was, of course, serially anti-democratic. After leaving office as a military head of state in 1979, he was advocating one-party system in Africa. Then as a civilian president in 1999, he neutered political opponents and hobbled the multi-party system. The two elections conducted by his administration, one for his re-election in 2003 and the other for the election of President Yar’ Adua in 2007, were massively rigged, as even international observers confirmed. And then, he tried to change the constitution so he could run for a third presidential term. These are the contradictions that Stephen Sachur sought to expose in that hard-hitting interview.
Sadly, Nigerian journalists are too deferential, too timid and too compromised to hold their leaders to account in that way. Yet, as the Economist magazine once said, “A sceptical lack of deference towards leaders is a democratic virtue and the first step to reform”. But, think of it, even if a Nigerian journalist is bold enough to challenge Obasanjo the way Sachur did, Baba would call him “stupid” and “idiot” several times. I mean, last year, Obasanjo called a judge who gave a ruling he didn’t like “an idiot”!In 2006, the Chief Justice of Nigeria lamented “the disposition of the Executive to wanton disobedience of and non-compliance with the orders of the court”. That was a reference to Obasanjo’s administration.
To be sure, Obasanjo is a respected Nigerian and African statesman, but his anti-democratic credentials, his lack of regard for an independent judiciary, the rule of law and freedom of the press, will always raise people’s hackles whenever he preaches loftily about democratic governance and reform in Africa. And even if Nigerians or Africans hero worship and swallow everything such leaders say hook, line, and sinker, foreigners won’t, as Stephen Sachur, of the BBC’s HARDtalk programme, showed in that combative interview.
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