In this interview with ENIOLA AKINKUOTU, a former Political Adviser to ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo, Mr. Akintola Osuntokun, speaks about his time in the Presidency as well as the 2015 general elections.
How is your relationship with ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo?
My relationship with him is good, it is cordial.
Not long ago, Obasanjo wrote an open letter about some things he was not impressed with in the President Goodluck Jonathan administration. Now, you’re openly supporting Jonathan for a second term. Who do you think is right between the two?
That is a difficult question and as far as I see, it is a bit sensational. Look, I am over 50 years old and I should be able to make my own decisions independently. That does not mean that the relationship that I have with the ex-President is any less cordial on account of that. I disagree with my own dad and uncles, so, it has nothing to do with my relationship. In any case, remember I was his adviser.
On who is right between the two you know the buck stops on the President’s table. He is the President of Nigeria today and in that position, he is exposed to criticism, condemnation and things like that and President Obasanjo knows that he held the position before and how he was the butt of criticism. A lot of criticisms were unfair. You see, one of the things I find striking in today’s politics is the inconsistency of people.
A lot of people who condemned President Obasanjo as the worst thing that ever happened to Nigeria are now calling him a great statesman. When he was President, there were some newspapers that to pick them up to read, I find it difficult and my hand would be shaking. They criticised him to the point of his physical attributes but today if you open those same newspapers, you see them calling him a great statesman. So, that is Nigeria for you.
As for the letter the former President wrote to the incumbent President, it is left for President Jonathan to take what he wants from the letter but there are inadequacies. I can’t say the letter is devoid of shortcomings. The letter was written in anger and when you write in an angry mood, there are some things which you would not ordinarily say that you would say. I want to say it was in good intention even though it was condemnatory in tone but it is left for the President to take what he should.
But do you think Jonathan has done well in fighting insecurity and corruption?
Well, you know ordinarily, the problems of Nigeria are overwhelming. I have told a number of people that the possibility of any President of Nigeria being popular is not realistic in the nearest future. You see, every aspect of society in terms of infrastructure is in an emergency situation.
Power alone can absorb the entire annual budget of Nigeria and people may not still see what you have done and now you will have to address so many of these problems at the same time. My honest opinion about the government of President Jonathan is that well, he is confronted with an obstacle. We have never had a challenge like Boko Haram before, so, we have to take into consideration the limitations and constraints within which he is performing.
And also the circumstances of his coming to office. If at all he had any presidential ambition, he probably would have been thinking in terms of eight years. Secondly, I am privileged to know that he was not thinking in terms of becoming the Vice President or running mate as of the time he was called upon to do so.
And of course, he is a recessive person. He is not an aggressive person, he is temperate. Ordinarily that is a virtue but in the context of a very rowdy country like Nigeria, it is going to count against him. There are things we will need to do in Nigeria that you must put your foot down and just say look, this has got to be it. I will give you an instance, one of the credits that was given to President Obasanjo’s administration was the war against corruption under the leadership of Nuhu Ribadu of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.
If you ask any Nigerian lawyer today about the performance of Ribadu, they are not likely to be enthusiastic as you and I because he (Ribadu) contravened the law and did a lot of things to achieve the success he achieved. So, if we have a president who doesn’t have that kind of will and assertive mentality that regardless of the niceties of the law, he needs to get this done? So, the temperament of President Jonathan is not a very aggressive one.
As I said in a recent interview, he is not a war-time President. To all intents and purpose, Nigeria today is at war. And Nigeria ordinarily is a difficult and complex country to govern and we now have a low-intensity civil war that you call the Boko Haram insurgency. Having said all that, in substance, I don’t think he compares badly with his predecessors.
Well, he has a lot of vulnerabilities in terms of style. He tends to be slow in taking decisions, he tends to condole impunity and honestly speaking, there are some functionaries of his government that I feel that either he is slow to call them to account or he has not done anything about. There are one or two of top functionaries of his government that if I was to genuinely advise, I would say they should not be there for another second but that is that.
You were the director of Publicity for Obasanjo/Atiku Campaign Organisation in 2002/2003. Now Atiku has declared his intention to contest for the presidency on the fact that he is more experienced in handling the security challenge of the country. What is your opinion about this?
I never worked closely with the former Vice President except maybe one or two months during the campaign. That campaign was also marred by a crisis of confidence between him and the former President. But you have to look at my response to this question against the background that I am a member of the Peoples Democratic Party.
So, you don’t expect me to be extolling the strong points of a potential presidential candidate of an opposition party but my honest opinion of him is the instability and inconsistency he has demonstrated since maybe 2002. First and foremost, if you are no longer able to work with your principal because we only have one President in the country and he picked you as his running mate; so, for me, you should resign.
It was very peculiar having a Vice President who was totally at war with his principal, who is the President, I thought that if you felt that bad and even if your principal was at fault, I think it would have counted for him positively if he had resigned. I mean here we had a peculiar situation of him joining another party and going on to be the presidential candidate of that party. He was a Vice President on a joint ticket with President Obasanjo, you were elected to implement a manifesto on a particular platform and that was the basis on which the Nigerian electorate elected you into office.
The moment you now go to another party, that means you can no longer be the presidential candidate of another party and still be seen to serve the purpose or the vision which you sold to the public. So, personally I had a problem with that.
And then you know from there, he left the Action Congress of Nigeria and then returned to the PDP to again contest the presidential primaries. Controversially, he emerged as the northern consensus candidate but lost the primaries. After losing the primaries, he left the PDP again and went to the All Progressives Congress and is now seeking the presidential ticket.
So, in terms of handling security, I can say he did very well when the Sharia crisis started in the North. He was in a difficult situation because he was from the North and was a Muslim and was the highest northern political office holder at that time and he maintained a very temperate stand.
He took a stand that was not very popular with that constituency even though it was the correct position to take and if an issue has become so explosive, any responsible leader should find a way of calming the situation which he did. Again, there a was a Council of State meeting at the height of the Sharia crisis and after the meeting, he held a press conference where he said members had agreed that those agitating for Sharia should retain the political status quo and his contender now, Muhammadu Buhari, who was a member of the council, went onBBC to accuse him of lying and said no such agreement was made and you saw how the consequences of what Buhari said added fuel to the crisis.
And two of them are now seeking to become president and I think that should be the parameter with which to measure the two of them. Atiku is a temperate person, he is cosmopolitan and gets along with people very easily. In other circumstances, I think he would have made a good Nigerian President. He is a good mixer, he is not welded to any fanaticism.
As an insider then, what can you say characterised the feud between Atiku and Obasanjo?
Well, it was the ambition of Atiku that caused their problem. I think he had this aspiration and was being encouraged by a lot of people to first hold Obasanjo to ransom to serve for just one term like Nelson Mandela and this introduced division into the presidency.
Obasanjo gave him a lot of latitude in terms of patronage and appointment and the unfortunate thing was that people thought it was given to them as a personal favour from the Vice President and so they were loyal to him which was very unfortunate.
Obasanjo told me before the campaign that the unstated reason he travelled a lot during his first term, apart from trying to rehabilitate Nigeria in the comity of nations, was also to give his Vice President ample room to grapple with domestic governance and that he was going to reverse the role during their second term. He would stay at home and encourage his Vice President to be active at the international level and familiarise himself.
That was his own programme of succession for Atiku so that by the time he is done with his two terms in office, Atiku would be fully prepared to assume that office. Now, this was Obasanjo’s vision for Atiku. But there was also another dimension to the crisis of confidence between the two of them. There were highly placed people who could be considered as political rivals of Atiku who worked to ensure that Atiku did not succeed Obasanjo, especially people from the North.
So, there were people who deliberately sowed a seed of discord between the two of them. I have had the occasion to tell Atiku this. He never knew that there were people goading him to fight Obasanjo and the agenda of those people was to ensure that Obasanjo made it impossible for him to progress in his presidential aspiration.
There was a rumour that in 2002, Obasanjo felt he could not win the primary without Atiku’s support and then knelt down before him to beg for his support?
(Laughing) So, you want me to confirm or deny that? You see, it will forever remain a rumour because I cannot confirm it. If anything of such happened, it is only the two of them that would know. Any other thing is speculation. But I think it is irrelevant. But when you say Atiku was very powerful, he was because Obasanjo made him powerful. Obasanjo gave him power of patronage and appointment and by Atiku’s own submission, Obasanjo made him the most powerful Vice President in the world or something like that.
Did you advise Obasanjo against running for a third term?
As his political adviser, there was never a time he told me about going for a third term. I was the one who went to him to tell him that the reason people are saying he wants to have a third term was because he was not grooming a successor. That was the only time we discussed a third term. There was never a time he told me or those that worked closely with him that he wanted a third time. However, it is also a fact that he did not discourage those that were campaigning for it.