Thursday, December 12, 2013


By Biko Agozino

Did General Olusegun Obasanjo plagiarize his so long a letter from Achebe’s There Was A Country without crediting the author? Obasanjo cited an academic research paper on allegations that Nigerian politicians are protecting an indicted drug dealer who is a member of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party even after the trial and appeal courts ruled that he should be extradited to the US for trial. This unusual reference to an academic source in Obasanjo’s self-opinionated lambasting of an administration that he helped to arrange is the only content that appears original compared to the contents of pages 243 to 258 of There Was a Country, a book that Obasanjo pretends not to have read or heard about. According to Achebe in part 4 of the book:

‘The post Nigeria-Biafra civil war era saw a “unified” Nigeria saddled with a greater and more insidious reality. We were plagued by a home-grown enemy: the political ineptitude, mediocrity, indiscipline, ethnic bigotry, and corruption of the ruling class. Compounding the situation was the fact that Nigeria was now awash in oil-boom petrodollars, …. A new era of great decadence and decline was born. It continues to this day’ (p. 243).


If Obasanjo's ghost writer had done basic literature review for his term paper-like letter, he would not have tried to reinvent the wheel of Achebe and he would not have placed all the blame on one individual party leader, President Jonathan. Achebe saw the problem as a task not just for the politicians but also for the followership and especially the ‘intellectuals, particularly writers’ who faced the ‘conundrum’ and tried to find solutions instead of blaming the problem on ‘our complicated past and the cold war raging in the background.’ He charged the intellectuals with the task of developing a new program, from the grassroots, through which to rescue the nation. But Obasanjo atomized the problem by blaming it all on one man. To Achebe, Nigerians needed to fight this enemy with every means at our disposal rather than abandon it to the rulers as Obasanjo seems to suggest.

Of course, Obasanjo appears to be in agreement with Achebe that the first task for Nigerians is to ‘identify the right leader with the right kind of character, education and background.’ But whereas Obasanjo focused on Nigeria almost chauvinistically, Achebe saw the problem as one that faced all of Africa – the problem of ‘where Africa had been, and where it needed to go’ (p. 244). Goodluck Jonathan is not the president of every state in Africa but the problems identified by Obasanjo do not apply exclusively to Nigeria. Achebe correctly identified the problem as that of the second struggle for libration: ‘For the second time in our short history we had to face the disturbing fact that Nigeria (and Africa by extension) needed to liberate itself anew, this time not from a foreign power but from our own corrupt, inept brothers and sisters!’ (p. 244).

Achebe confessed that after waiting around for a while, he and other intellectuals decided to enter into partisan politics to see what difference they could make from within. He and others (such as Eskor Toyo, Bala Mohammed, Wole Soyinka, Bala Usman and S.G. Ikoku) joined the ‘left-of-center Peoples Redemption Party’ of Malam Aminu Kano and Achebe was elected the Deputy National President. Their goal was to stir Nigerians into asking critical questions such as how to conduct a free and fair election, how to elect the right kinds of leaders who would not seek to prolong their tenure or turn into a dynasty as Obasanjo attempted in his Third Term bid and as he now accuses Jonathan of planning to attempt. Achebe concluded that his 'sojourn in politics' was completely disappointing and that he was frustrated to realize that despite the fact that some upright politicians like Aminu Kano existed, the vast majority of the politicians were there for selfish greed (as Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe predicted in his 1983 essay on ‘Entreeism’). The intellectuals had grand ideas all right but Nigeria lacked the ‘strong leader’ who would implement them, an idea that Obasanjo echoes in his long-winded letter.

Unlike Obasanjo who obsessed with one single leader in his letter, Achebe declared that the problem of leadership exists at every level from the local government council to governors and all the way to the presidency. As a dictator, Obasanjo may be more accustomed to thinking of the leader as a maximum superhero who swoops down from Asokoro Mansion and takes care of his cronies but that is proof that he does not understand the extent of the systematic problem that Achebe analyzed. Achebe specifically identified the problem of godfatherism as one that Nigerians must get rid of from the political process but Obasanjo still fancies himself a godfather of sorts and asked Jonathan to forward his open letter to some other godfathers who allegedly share his concerns. Achebe used the model of Igbo democracy to illustrate the emphasis on achievement as opposed to ascribed monarchical privileges and challenged Nigerians to deepen democracy as the very antithesis of military rule whereas Obasanjo warns of the possibility of return to military dictatorship based on his understanding that it is one Ijaw man, rather than the ‘ruling class’ that Achebe fingered, who is destroying Nigeria, warning that he may be the first and last Ijaw man to rule the country. Why?

Whereas Obasanjo cited the Central Bank of Nigeria in accusing the Jonathan administration of not accounting for a mere $7 billion in oil revenue, Achebe quoted the World Bank as estimating that Nigerian rulers had stolen $400 billion from the public since independence. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation immediately attempted to correct the accounting of the Central Bank of Nigeria and suggested that, ironically as Fela Kuti put it during Obasanjo’s military dictatorship when $12.2 billion went missing and they set up an enquiry that concluded that ‘money no loss o, them dabaroo everybody’, naming Obasanjo personally as the conductor of what Fela called a system of International Thief-Thief; NNPC suggests that no money is missing today.

Achebe indicated that Nigeria was ranked at number 14 on the Failed States Index in 2011 and while Obasanjo openly accused the Jonathan administration of running a killer squad, Achebe concluded that; ‘In many respects, Nigeria’s federal government has always tolerated terrorism’ by turning a blind eye to ‘ferocious and savage massacres of its citizens – mainly Christian Southerners; mostly Igbos and indigenes of the Middle Belt and others – with impunity’ (p. 251). Achebe saw the solution in the dismantling of the 'conveniently incompetent' Nigerian federal government and its culture of mediocrity through the democratic political process. Obasanjo’s solution appears to be that of entrenching his own discredited political party in power by humiliating the figure head out of office for a candidate of Obasanjo’s choice to enter and use what he called 'carrots and sticks' to fight insecurity rather than rely mainly on the militarist strategy of the present administration, a strategy that Obasanjo himself fashioned and implemented in his previous administrations.

It is welcome to know that President Jonathan has avoided a public mud-slinging response to Obasanjo’s letter and opted to pay him a personal visit to discuss the important issues raised in the letter. The president should thank Obasanjo for his rightful contribution to the national conversation but remind him that the problem goes beyond any individual and envelopes all Nigerians as Achebe pointed out. Obasanjo should also be advised to avoid claiming that it is African leaders and foreign investors who begged him to help the Nigerian government because it is his patriotic duty to help his country given his position as a past president who is a member of the national security council and also a leader of the ruling party. Obasanjo’s identification of quality education as one of the solutions to what he called a ‘culture of hatred’, insecurity and poverty is a solution that could have been lifted out of Achebe’s book except that Achebe privileged free and fair elections as the foundation for all the solutions, a foundation that Obasanjo failed to lay. Achebe concluded with a postscript in which he called on Africans to emulate the example of the great Madiba who was wronged but habored no bitterness and who relinquished power after only one term despite a claim recently by Obasanjo that he had tried to persuade Mandela to stay on in power.

Beyond Achebe’s focus on the ineffective rule by an inept ruling class, Biodun Jeyifo, in his epic review of There Was A Country, has also called attention to the exploitative nature of the economic system in the country as deserving a transformation. Three good pieces of advice that Obasanjo gave to all Nigerians, not just to Jonathan, are that those in leadership position should not see critics as enemies to be eliminated, that the military alone cannot defeat terrorism and so by implication, some carrots need to be extended to the victims of terrorism as reparations despite President Jonathan having inexplicably ruled out reparations, and that leaders should not see themselves as representing only their own ethnic groups. Such pieces of advice are straight out of Achebe’s There Was a Country

All Nigerians should be required to study Achebe's book and they will agree with me when I say that the answer to the question in the title of this blog is no, Obasanjo did not plagiarize from Achebe; some of his complaints are voiced by the masses in the country all the time. President Jonathan should respond to ex-President Obasanjo with humility, admit his short-comings and ask for even more constructive criticism from all Nigerians. Truly, Obasanjo has sinned (like all) and come short of the glory of critics but the testimony of a rogue who flips to become a prosecution witness against his accomplices remains admissible in a court of law and in the court of public opinion. Set a thief to catch a thief.

Dr. Agozino is a Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies, Virginia Tech.