African viewpoint: 'Fools', generals and justice

Olusegun Obasanjo (L) photographed saluting in naval uniform in 2006; Ibrahim Babangida (R) photographed saluting in 1986 OBJ (left) and IBB (right) have both served eight years as Nigerian head of state

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Nigerian writer Sola Odunfa considers the significance of his country's warring generals and feuding justices.

Many people, who did not know Nigeria and Nigerians well, thought last week that the country was tottering towards serious political crises.

Firstly, because of the open quarrel between two ex-presidents who, though retired, were also army generals and secondly, the storm at the apex of the country's judiciary.

Both coming almost simultaneously could have destabilised many other nations but pauperised Nigerians had more important problems than irritations among the elite to grapple with.

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Why then would children not chuckle derisively at the sight of old men mutually describing themselves as fools?”

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Many Nigerians read newspaper reports of the ex-presidential exchange of insults with amusement and poked fun at "shameless old men".

After all it is the Yoruba of the south-west who in their wisdom say that an elder who wears a string of corn on his waist makes himself the playmate of hungry chickens.

In this case ex-Presidents Ibrahim Babangida and Olusegun Obasanjo were not only doing the proverbial naked dance in the marketplace but they also had chickens flying all around them.

Why then would children not chuckle derisively at the sight of old men describing each other as fools?

Septuagenarian spat

The first salvo was harmless enough.

IBB: Ibrahim Babangida, 70

  • Senior officer during Nigeria's civil war, 1967-70
  • Participated in three coups - becoming leader in 1985
  • Survived a 1990 coup attempt
  • Resigned presidency in 1993 after nationwide strikes and protests
  • Nicknamed "Maradona" for his clever political dribbling skills
  • Gave himself the title "Evil genius"

Gen Babangida, known as "IBB", said in his 70th birthday commemorative press interview that in his eight years in office he "was able to manage poverty and achieve success while somebody for eight years managed affluence and achieved failure".

When I read the interview I missed anything personal in it.

As far as I was concerned Gen Babangida, or any other past leader, had the right to describe his governance as the best since creation and whoever disagreed also reserved the right to present his own version of history for us to judge.

Mr Obasanjo was the obvious target of the attack - and nobody messes with a village farmer, notwithstanding his robes at any given time.

His response was immediate and typical, that Gen Babangida was "a fool at 70".

OBJ: Olusegun Obasanjo, 74

  • As an army commander, accepted the surrender of Biafran forces in 1970
  • Became military ruler in 1976 after a coup, handing over power to civilians three years later
  • Retired from politics to become a chicken farmer
  • Jailed by military ruler Gen Sani Abacha in 1995, released three years after Abacha's death
  • Elected as civilian president in 1999 and again in 2003
  • Known for wearing fashionable flowing West African "agbada" robes and his bullish manner

The following day Gen Babangida gave it back, that Gen Obasanjo was a bigger fool. Details expunged!

I can continue this sad story only by revisiting the conclusions reached by Professor Wole Soyinka on the two men after a close study of both in his memoir You Must Set Forth At Dawn.

He says Mr Obasanjo is "pathologically in need of proving himself - preferably at the expense of others" and "intolerant of criticism".

Gen Babangida, he says, is "suave, calculating, a persuasive listener, conciliator - but with sheathed claws at the ready" who "never seemed to mind being proved wrong, he still carried out his own decisions anyway".

Someone must have called the attention of the generals to those descriptions - which are generous compared to what one may hear on the streets - because the exchanges stopped as abruptly as they started.

Gen Babangida was a dismal failure at the last general elections; Mr Obasanjo, who saw himself as the political commander of the south-west, was roundly rejected at the same polls with the routing of the ruling People Democratic Party (PDP) in his home region.

That is the depth of their current relevance!


Far more important and serious is the on-going crisis at the centre of the Nigerian judicial system.

This is knocking at the very basis of the country's democracy and independence of the judiciary.

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The Nigerian Bar Association has accused President Jonathan of throwing away 'a clear opportunity to range himself on the side of rule of law and due process'”

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It stems from a disagreement between the chief justice of Nigeria and the President of the Court of Appeal (PCA).

The latter accused the chief justice of meddling in an election petition before his court, resulting in the matter being declared in favour of the gubernatorial candidate of the ruling party.

He swore an affidavit in support of his allegation.

The PCA was then taken before the National Judicial Council, found guilty of perjury and ordered to apologise.

Rather than tender an apology, he challenged at the High Court the power of the National Judicial Council to adjudicate in the matter.

Before the court could sit over the case, the council suspended him from office and recommended to President Goodluck Jonathan that he be sacked.

Over the weekend, the president did appoint another justice in his place in an acting capacity.

The Nigerian Bar Association has risen against both the suspension of the PCA and his replacement, accusing President Jonathan of throwing away "a clear opportunity to range himself on the side of rule of law and due process".

The body says it is withdrawing its members from the National Judicial Council.

Opposition political parties, groups of activist lawyers and many civil society organisations have already staged protest marches in Lagos and in Port Harcourt, where lawyers are holding their annual national conference.

The Nigerian judiciary has won overwhelming public praise in the four years since the end of Mr Obasanjo's time in office for its courage and forthrightness, especially in determining election matters.

This led leaders of the ruling party to accuse the judges of bias against the PDP.

Now the institution is under close public scrutiny for signs of weakness under political pressure.

If you would like to comment on Sola Odunfa's latest column, please use the form below.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    These men should bury their heads in shame. Each of them had golden opportunity for 8 years to leave their footprint on sand of time in Nigeria. They only only left marks of poverty and ineptitude: Babangida will be remembered for SAP, 'June12' , strings of assassinations and 'legalization' of corruption; Obasanjo for general ineptitude and the death of Bola Ige

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    The retired generals, IBB and OBJ, are now very idle and age is not helping matters. It's better we leave them in their "new" world! As for PCA and CJN, I think the parties, ACN and PDP, should be allowed to try them in their "courts" at least for once. The only problem is deciding which is the "superior court".

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    This 'ex-presidential' feud is not newsworthy! Odunfa gives an undeserved limelight by highlighting it, but at least he got the commentary right. As for Jonathan's unhealthy meddling in Judicial affairs..its not a new phenomenom in African politics, unfortunately the 'honourable' justices in all likelihood play characters that live as tainted an existence as that of any other Nigerian politician.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I love Odunfa's way of handling serious problems. With the typical Nigerian gallows humour. Suffering & smiling. I wish he had a daily blog. I rely on him for analysis of news from home.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    “Section 292 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended, which deals with the removal of top officers of the judiciary, including the President of the Court of Appeal, states clearly.“In accordance with the provision of this section, the President can only remove any top judicial officer, acting upon an address supported by two-third majority of the Senate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    i believe the problems facing our country are huge. no social infrastructure,lack of basic amenities and security. not to mention religious tensions and tribal divisions. For a country blessed with so much natural resources , we need to focus on maximising our potential which also includes a very industrious workforce . that is the real challenge facing our leaders. nigerians deserve better .

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    Comment number 8.

    I'm dissapointed the OBJ/IBB show stopped, t'was fun while it lasted. For the Judiciary; It's politics:(1) Though the CJ has just a few days before the end of his term, he's bent on achieving his aims (2) The Court of Appeal's decision gave more victories to the opposition (simply because the elections were rigged) (3) GEJ must align himself with the NJC/CJ as his election case ends up with them

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The former leaders can brag about their service because Nigeria has not had the courage to ask past corrupt leaders to return their loots. How many jobs did any of them create to help millions of Nigerian youths that have long given up hope for employment? And if the judges are genuinely serving in the interest of the Nigerian people and not the governors, we will see none of these disagreements.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    OBJ & IBB both acquired enormous wealth while in office at the expense of average Nigerian. Who cares if they get into a fist fight? They both have nothing to show for their time in office.We need "Nigeria Spring " just like the "Arab Spring " spreading across the middle-east. A few in power& their friends are rich from the nation's treasury, while the masses wallow in misery and abject poverty.


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