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Ex-president Obasanjo and Nigeria’s elites trade pre-election verbal blows

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Powerful members of Nigeria’s elite called former president Olusegun Obasanjo’s latest election interventions the ravings of a “chicken farmer” with “post-power withdrawal syndrome”.

But no Nigerian election would be complete without Obasanjo, twice Nigeria’s head of state — first in military fatigues and then in civilian garb — picking up his pen.

In an open letter entitled “My Appeal to All Nigerians, Particularly Young Nigerians”, Obasanjo, 85, accused the current administration of creating “a hell on earth”, as he endorsed the third-party candidate Peter Obi.

Young Nigerians, who make up the bulk of the population in a country with a median age of 18, could change the course of history, he wrote. “You have the numbers. Get up, stand up and make your numbers count.”

In an interview with the Financial Times in London, Obasanjo shredded Muhammadu Buhari’s presidency, saying he had failed on everything from managing the economy, which has stalled during his eight years in office, to dealing with the wave of kidnappings that blight the lives of ordinary Nigerians.

“There is virtually no family in Nigeria that has not been directly or indirectly a victim of banditry,” he said, referring to how people are kidnapped or snatched en-masse by criminal gangs off the country’s increasingly perilous roads. “Attention has not been given in resolving these issues. People are saying we need to take our country back.”

Obasanjo spent 12 years running Nigeria and has rarely been off the political stage since retiring to his farm in 2007. He said Bola Tinubu, 70, and Atiku Abubakar, 76, the frontrunners for next month’s presidential election, were too old and tainted by the system to run a complex, crisis-torn country of 210mn people.

Tinubu, candidate for the incumbent All Progressives Congress party, rejected the criticism, saying Obasanjo’s endorsement of Obi, a man who was “not a political force”, would not cause him loss of sleep. Months before, Tinubu visited Obasanjo at his residence to seek his endorsement.

Dele Alake, director of Tinubu’s strategic communications, accused Obasanjo of forcing “falsehood down the throats of a demography perhaps too young to comprehend”.

Even the presidential state house could not take criticisms of Buhari lying down. In its own open letter, it accused Obasanjo of suffering from “hallucinations”. He was “jealous” of Buhari’s democratic record for which, it said, without specifying, the president had been “bagging awards and encomiums”.

Behind the colourful language and barbed epistolary exchanges was something more significant, political analysts said. For the first time since the return to democracy in 1999, Nigeria had a genuine three-person race in which, according to opinion polls, Obi was mounting a credible challenge to candidates from established political parties, they said.

“Buhari has been so ruinous that the population is more galvanised,” said Ayisha Osori, a director at the Open Society Foundations. “Insecurity, unemployment, inflation — it’s a cocktail that makes people sit up and say ‘we can’t take this any more’.”

That had raised the stakes in Africa’s noisiest democracy, a country set to surpass the US as the world’s third-most populous nation before 2050, said Dele Olojede, a prominent Nigerian writer and critic.

Behind the “extravagant language”, Olojede detected something more positive — an end to the coup culture that dominated Nigeria’s political life for the 40 years after independence.

“This sort of public bickering amongst the political elites, which does not come with any violence or blood shedding, is the maturing of a democratic process in form if not in function,” he said.

This year’s election was likely to be the best managed and, thanks to electronic voting, the cleanest in the country’s history, Olojede said. “The only thing we haven’t been able to do with our democracy is to have an effective, forward-looking government. But even that may change one day.”

In the interview, Obasanjo said this election was different. “What we’re having today, we’ve never had before,” he said. If young voters, many of whom took to the streets in the 2020 EndSARS movement triggered by police violence, could exert their influence, he said, “that will bring about a new phenomenon in the political architecture of Nigeria”.

Most political analysts said that Obi, 61, a former governor with a cultivated reputation for eschewing private jets and carrying his own briefcase, could not win in the absence of the deep pockets and political machinery of the frontrunners. As an Igbo, Nigeria’s third-largest ethnic group, they said, he would also struggle to pick up votes among the more numerous Yoruba and Hausa-Fulani.

“That is part of what I believe this election must kill,” said Obasanjo. Nigerians were mature enough to vote for the best candidate, not merely the one that supposedly represented their ethnic interests, he said.

The role of money in Nigerian politics, at least once party primaries were decided, was also exaggerated, according to Obasanjo. “The election will be decided by people. And people are no fools.”

Additional reporting by Aanu Adeoye in Lagos

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