Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Mayor of Asobridge

In recent times, President Olusegun Obasanjo has come under serious attacks and criticisms by both friends and foes for his uncanny style of administration. But the President is not a man who easily succumbs to the pains and pangs of leadership. A self-confessed stubborn man of the stoic Owo pedigree, Obasanjo does not fight and run away to fight another day, as the sages are wont to say. He would rather counter-attack and swim against the tide, if need be, to accomplish his mission, right or wrong.

That’s the stuff the Owu warrior and Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces is made of. But a question arises: Is it wise for the President to always fight to the finish? Is it not tactically expedient for a commander to beat a retreat when under persistent enemy fire, especially when there is no sign of imminent ground or air support? The President has fought many unnecessary wars in the past five years which have left the political landscape virtually in ruins. This write-up is not an attempt to bury Obasanjo under the debris but to take a rather unorthodox literary approach to do a psychoanalysis to unravel this enigma wrapped in a mystery.

If Thomas Hardy, English poet and one of his nation’s foremost novelists, were to be alive today, he would most probably be waiting on the wings for the end of Obasanjo’s second term to enable him write a Nigerian sequel to his famous tragedy – THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE – with an Owu setting rather than the fictitious Wessex countryside of 19th century England. Why pick on Obasanjo? The answer is obvious. To a certain degree, the entire ideological universe of the Obasanjo presidency rests on the concept of honour, integrity and transparency. Same goes for the cultural universe of Henchard, the tragic hero in Hardy’s novel. Both share similar characteristics and idiosyncrasies that prop them up as potential tragic heroes because of certain flaws in their characters.

Before we dwell on the particulars of these inherent flaws, however, we need to lay a philosophical framework for such an exercise. Hardy’s definition of tragedy is germane and very instructive. “A tragedy”, he says, “exhibits a state of things in the life of an individual which unavoidably causes some natural aim or desire of his to end in a catastrophe when carried out”. Henchard, Hardy’s hero in The Mayor…, is given to doing unreasonable things. This is much like his other characters which are always going off the handle, doing something nobody would normally do, something unimaginable, something out of this world like Henchard just deciding on the spur of the moment to sell his wife, after having a bottle too many.

The law of retribution cannot be bypassed with this kind of ignoble act which is a blatant violation of a moral order. To heighten his tragedy, Henchard became prosperous as a corn merchant and eventually appointed as the mayor of Casterbridge. But his character continued to pursue him like his shadow. His temperament had no pity for the weak or the strong. He was stubborn, self-righteous and self-opinionated. He suffered no fools gladly. He tongue-lashed both farm hands and customers alike and wrote caustic letters to agricultural extension officers for daring to complain about his farm produce. Out of envy, he dismissed Farfrae, his experienced farm manager, who later turned out to be a more successful farmer.

As his callousness, harshness and pitilessness became more apparent, his fortunes also declined. What started in his desire for a “tussle … at fair buying and selling” soon developed into unhealthy rivalry with Farfrae and eventually led him into economic ruin. His hatred for Farfrae was instantly transferred to whomever had the misfortune of relating to or being friendly with him. If you were not with him (Henchard), then you must be his enemy. Thus, he had no qualms dispensing with both enemy and friend. Yet, Henchard was not like this at the beginning. He was a man of rustic humility, kind-heartedness and scrupulous integrity, one who was ready to pawn his wristwatch in order to help a needy cottager. Ironically, it was this same humane, selfless, unassuming personality that auctioned his wife for the proverbial pot of porridge. It was at the peak of his career as mayor that the furmity woman, who witnessed the abomination, reappeared to expose his ugly past, confirming the Biblical injunction that whatever every man sows, so shall he reap.

Does Obasanjo share similar character traits with Hardy’s hero in The Mayor…? It may be intellectually mischievous to submit that the President is an African reincarnation of a fictitious European tragic hero, but a comparison between the two may not be far-fetched. From the onset, it has to be established that there is no evidence as of today, to prove that the President once violated any moral code with any of his women in his heydays as a young, bubbling, active military officer, despite the latter-day tantrums of the Remis and the Mojis of this world, following their estrangement with him. But whatever Obasanjo could have done, it probably would peter into insignificance when compared with Henchard’s treatment of his own women, namely his wife, and two others – Lucetta and Elizabeth – all of whom he humiliated one way or the other. However, it is obvious to all and sundry that Nigeria has a president who is very stubborn and almost impervious to any advice that does not agree with his mindset. He recently confessed to being an Owu man with the characteristic trait of communal stubbornness and, not quite long ago, he said publicly he was not bound to take the advice of his self-appointed special advisers.

This may not necessarily be a weakness. Some would see it as a sign of sure-footedness. Obasanjo knows his onions and he is proud of his ability and capability. The only problem is that the President may so easily be carried away, like any other mortal being, in the euphoria of his overwhelming, pervasive personal conquest of real and imagined enemies, that he might not know when he crosses the boundary of pride into the twilight zone of arrogance. Paradoxically, Nigeria may be gaining something from this unseeming attribute. For once, we have a leader who can roll up his agbada and walk with a swagger at 10 Downing Street or the Kremlin or the White House and match fellow world leaders wit for wit and grit for grit, without anybody asking, who’s that Johnbull?

In Obasanjo’s world, officialdom is anachronistic while protocol is dated. This, perhaps, explains why he can personally seize the koboko and beat the daylight out of an erring security agent at a public function. Henchard did a similar thing. He marched one of his farm workers, Abel Whittle, off to work without his breeches on, thereby both exposing him to public humiliation and whittling down his self-esteem.

When the heat was turned on Henchard, he fought back with every available means to sustain himself in power. He went for the supernatural by visiting the seer who predicted good weather and bumper wheat harvest. It was a prediction that went awry. Obasanjo, back from prison, showed to the world that he is not given to the supernatural but to the Holy Spirit through the newly recrudescent trend of “Born-Againsm”. The Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, in turn rallied round him as a grand patron but, as students of Aristotelian tragedy would say, character is fate. Sometime in the year, Obasanjo, in a fit of anger, mortally wounded the bond existing between him and his Christian supporters with his now ‘famous’ “CAN my foot!” verbal explosion during the religious uprising in Plateau State.

That’s not unusual, though. The President is often given to a 250 KmPH racy temper that is virtually difficult for any antilock-braking system, ABS, to hold. His appetite for the trite, the ridiculous and the ungentlemanly belies his high office and his intellectual attributes. He does the right thing at the wrong time and says the wrong thing when the entire world expects a sublime, if not erudite, espousal of his government policies. Are there some internal harpies directing his ways and making sure he puts forward the wrong foot most of the time? Or is it what the Yoruba call asasi, evil spell, that is worrying him? For instance, why does the President always take it upon himself to write to every ‘offending’ Dike and Haruna and expose himself to vitriolic attacks from all and sundry?

He has written letters apparently to cut literary icons and political juggernauts to size because they refuse to look at a national issue from the same prism of partisanship and parochialism. Among others, he has exchanged epistolary blows with Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate, and recently, Audu Ogbeh, PDP chairman. Their offence? They wrote to advise him on burning national issues. If we may ask, is it really an offence for the captain of a drifting ship to be advised on how to avoid a wreck and how the passengers could be rescued in the case of an accident? “The trouble with Nigeria”, says Chinua Achebe, “is simply and squarely a failure of leadership… The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership,” affirms Achebe in a political treatise on Nigeria.

Has President Obasanjo risen to the challenge of responsibility? In fairness, to some extent, yes. Like his alter hero in The Mayor…, the society that Obasanjo came to preside over had had a history of corruption and violent crimes. On his part, Henchard meant well but both his past and character were his Archilles’ heels. Obasanjo, too, wanted to make a difference as he started very well trying to demolish all the entrenched obstacles to progress. In the process, he stepped on erstwhile sacred, untouchable toes and fumigated the establishment to get rid of parasites who feed fat on the nation’s oil wealth. For him, it was no longer business as usual. But no matter how well you prepare ebolo soup, as the Yoruba proverb goes, its aroma will still give it away. The character of the man, Obasanjo, seems to be catching up with him just as Henchard’s did.

Today, Obasanjo has become the proverbial ill-fated man who drinks water and it gets stuck to his teeth. Whatever he says or does now brings public ridicule and odium even when he means well. Yet, here is a man who was hailed as a ‘messiah’ after the exit of the bandits who stole the people’s mandate. The military, the civilian power bloc, CAN and Southerners thought a new lease of life was in the offing. Now, it appears many have given up hope on him. To them, the sleep that lasts from one market day to another has become death. Obasanjo needs to be told to wake up to the reality of his exalted position as the president of the world’s largest black democracy. But who will bell the cat? Who will look Baba in the face and tell him to soft-pedal on his 67-year-old temper that blows fuses so easily like an overloaded NEPA transformer?

Like the tragic hero in the book, Obasanjo seems being propped up by some unseen forces for a catastrophic denouement. In Henchard’s case, his original offence against the normal order of nature, his tempestuous character and his over-reliance on the supernatural were responsible for his tragic fall from the chair of mayor. Obasanjo’s fate seems to have a ring of self-inflicted injuries and, perhaps, a little bit of the supernatural, too. The theme of character is fate has been extensively treated but the supernatural factor is beyond any empirical or scientific proof. It is only germane to ask: why does the President always have the tendency to do the wrong thing at the wrong time? Why does he do things that contradict his avowed beliefs and principles? For example, why did he admit, albeit inadvertently, in his letter to Audu Ogbeh that he knew that Chris Ngige, the embattled governor of Anambra State, did not win the 2003 governorship election? Is Obasanjo not really being haunted by some unseen powers bent on seeing him off from the pinnacle of honour and dignity, like Henchard? Could the President have done something against moral order when he was a young man? He may not know it but as the Igbo would say, the thing that beats the drum for ngwesi is inside the ground. The President may want to open his ears to listen to the loud grumblings in the land over his penchant for always stirring the hornet’s nest and heating up the polity for no just cause. In lambasting His Excellency, however, care must be taken lest we turn him into the lonely bat in the proverb who said he knew his ugliness and chose to be flying by night so as to hide his shame. The President’s persona may not be as pretty as we all want it to be but his vision of a new Nigeria is, no doubt, beautiful. It’s too early in the day to be flying in the night because this president has a lot to offer Nigeria, if only he could change his style and listen to better counsel. He cannot afford to fail like the mayor of Casterbridge. The repercussions would be too devastating for the cause of democracy, not only in Nigeria, but also in the entire continent.

TELL, January 3, 2005

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