Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s former president, has raised alarm about the postponement of presidential elections and has publicly endorsed former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari’s campaign to unseat Goodluck Jonathan.
Gen Obasanjo was in Nairobi to launch a 1,500-page autobiography highly critical of Mr Jonathan, a former protégé whose ascent to the presidency he helped to engineer. The book has been banned in Nigeria pending libel hearings brought by an ally of the president.
“The signs are not auspicious” in the wake of the six-week postponement of the general election, said Gen Obasanjo, who remains an influential, if contentious, figure at home. “I don’t know whether a script is being played.”
Coming from a founding member of the ruling People’s Democratic party, his public endorsement of the main opposition challenger underscores the extent to which Mr Jonathan has lost backing from sections of the establishment.
Nigerians were due to go to the polls this Saturday, with the campaign of Gen Buhari gathering steam in what was expected to be the country’s closest electoral contest since the restoration of civilian rule in 1999.
But the Independent National Electoral Commission last weekend postponed the vote until March 28 after security chiefs said they could not safeguard the polls while launching a regional military campaign to reclaim territory from Islamist extremists.
The delay should also enable biometric voter cards to be distributed to the millions of voters who have yet to receive them and who were at risk of being disenfranchised.
However, the hold-up has raised fears among civil society and opposition activists that the government might seek to use security concerns as a pretext to extend its mandate beyond a four-year term that ends on May 29, and risk plunging the country back into the hands of the military rather than tempt fate at the polls.
Mr Jonathan and the army have publicly pledged to abide by the constitution. Gen Obasanjo said in an interview: “I sincerely hope that the president is not going for broke and saying ‘look dammit, it’s either I have it or nobody has it’. I hope that we will not have a coup . . . I hope we can avoid it.”
Gen Obasanjo, the military ruler in the late 1970s, returned to power as elected president between 1999 and 2007 after his release from prison where he was held as a political prisoner by Sani Abacha, the penultimate and most brutal of Nigeria’s military dictators.
He was instrumental in Mr Jonathan’s ascent from provincial governor to the presidency. But relations between the two men have soured since he chose Mr Jonathan as a vice-presidential candidate in 2007 and backed him as president when Umaru Yar’Adua, the incumbent, died in office three years later.
Gen Obasanjo, 77, continues to play an active international role but says he has no ambition to return to the political centre stage. “I am an old man and I’m enjoying what I’m doing now . . . And then you forget I am a farmer; I have to manage my farm.”
This is the first time Gen Obasanjo has come out openly to support Gen Buhari, 72, who ruled Nigeria briefly in the 1980s after taking power in a coup and has tried three times since to win the presidency, including once against Gen Obasanjo.
“The circumstances [Buhari] will be working under if he wins the election are different from the one he worked under before, where he was both the executive and the legislature — he knows that,” said Gen Obasanjo. “He’s smart enough. He’s educated enough. He’s experienced enough. Why shouldn’t I support him?”
He also believes Gen Buhari would be well equipped to combat corruption and restore fighting spirit to an army that has struggled in the face of the onslaught by Boko Haram, which has seized a swath of territory in the northeast.
“It’s a question of leadership — political and military,” Gen Obasanjo said of the crisis facing the army. “I think you need to ask [Mr Jonathan] how has he let [the army] go to this extent . . . Many things went wrong: recruitment went wrong; training went wrong; morale went down; motivation not there; corruption was deeply ingrained; welfare was bad.”
The former leader also expressed dismay at the extent to which billions of dollars in oil revenues had “all disappeared” since he left office, when reserves had reached $45bn and the government had $20bn more in rainy day savings.
Nigeria’s economy, Africa’s largest, has taken a battering since last year with the plunge in oil prices. Speaking ironically of the negative impact of this on government reserves, Gen Obasanjo added: “There’ll be less in the pot, for stealing or corruption.”
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