Gowon, Obasanjo And Na’Abba’s Regrets

Shuaib Shuaib writes on the import or otherwise of ex head of state Yakubu Gowon’s recollection of how he saved former president Olusegun Obasanjo from impeachment.

Former president Olusegun Obasanjo, famous for writing open letters to Nigerian presidents wrote another one to President Muhammadu Buhari last week / Photo credit: Naijanews.com
Former president Olusegun Obasanjo, famous for writing open letters to Nigerian presidents wrote another one to President Muhammadu Buhari last week / Photo credit: Naijanews.com

In Nigeria today, any attempt to impeach a president will almost definitely lead to an impasse in the National Assembly.

That is regardless of who the president is, which party controls the presidency and the National Assembly.

Even at the state level where an assembly is controlled by the opposition, it is almost politically impossible to impeach a governor, unless it is orchestrated from the presidency with the use of force.

There was a period of time when at least five governors were impeached from office exactly that way, three of the governors within a space of two weeks.

There was even a period in Nigeria when impeaching the president was a real possibility.

That is the period former head of state Yakubu Gowon reminded us of as part of his assessment of the two decades of democratic and the impact it has had on the unity or fragmentation of the country.

Impeachment is a constitutional process that is meant to be a safeguard from bad leadership.

Gowon is a man whose actions have a tendency of changing the course of history. His assessment and recent views suggest he thinks impeaching a president could just as easily be a source of division.

However, what about when the same process is a favourite weapon of the president against adversaries?

Since Olusegun Obasanjo left office as president in May 2007, apart from speakers of state assemblies, the only elected leader to have been impeached from office is Murtala Nyako who was governor of Adamawa. That was in July 2014.

Nyako had become a thorn in the side of the Goodluck Jonathan government, going all the way to the United States to claim the government was complicit in some Boko Haram attacks.

The Adamawa governor also pushed to weaken the ruling PDP by joining forces with four other governors to dump the party ahead of the general elections.

Since Olusegun Obasanjo left office as president in May 2007, apart from speakers of state assemblies, the only elected leader to have been impeached from office is Murtala Nyako who was governor of Adamawa. That was in July 2014

That was a big blow to the party; he as good as pushed Jonathan to the wall. During that period however, and in the National Assembly, there was relative stability in its leadership in the post-Obasanjo era.

The only premature change in leadership was the resignation of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Patricia Ette who resigned in October 2007 to avoid impeachment.

But the period between 1999 and 2007, was one of political turbulence and cannot in anyway be said to have contributed to the growth of democracy.

The list of senate presidents impeached included Evan Enwerem, Chuba Okadigbo and Adolphus Wabara.

All were impeached either because Obasanjo wanted them removed or their colleagues saw them as the president’s puppets.

The procedure of impeaching leaders in the National Assembly is relatively simple. That procedure for impeaching a president has never really been tested.

Last week, former head of state, Yakubu Gowon shared with the public, efforts he made to save Obasanjo from being impeached back in 2002.

Gowon spoke of how, together with former heads of state, Abdulsalami Abubakar and Ernest Shonekan, they pleaded with then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ghali Na’Abba and Senate President Pius Anyim not to impeach Obasanjo for alleged constitutional breaches.

According to him, their reasoning was that the impeachment would have taken our young democracy off the rails and would have made likely, the booting out of future presidents from office by lawmakers.

The curious thing is why Gowon would choose to share that story now. What lessons does he think the country can learn from the episode?

Even more curious is the occasion where he chose to share this memory with the public.

He was speaking at a lecture and on the topic; Nation Building or Nation Fragmentation: Reflections on 20 Years of Post-Military Rule in Nigeria.

Of course the topic was really about assessing where Nigeria is today as much as it is about the entire period of post-military rule.

The immediate impact of Gowon’s words is that it diminishes the stature of Olusegun Obasanjo. They remind everyone that even as president, at point he was so weak politically, he needed saving.

Today, Obasanjo has an image of an all powerful politician who can make or break anyone, even presidents, his failure to topple President Muhammadu Buhari not withstanding.

Gowon’s statement belittles him and also creates the impression that the threat of impeachment back then was very real.

By saying the three of them, along Abdulsalami and Shonekan, also pleaded with Pius Anyim, not just Na’Abba, Gowon believed the National Assembly could have succeeded in removing the president.

Gowon is a man whose actions have a tendency of changing the course of history. His assessment and recent views suggest he thinks impeaching a president could just as easily be a source of division

Then comes the aspect of reflection on the 20 years of post-military rule in Nigeria and how the country fared under Obasanjo.

Gowon genuinely believed that by saving Obasanjo, they helped save Nigeria’s democracy. But did he? Or did he put it on the path of dictatorship?

When Obasanjo came back for a second term, he ruled like an emperor. The amount of power he wielded as president and commander in chief of the armed forces was not enough.

He had to take political control of states whose governors he disagreed with. And this he did by using the instruments of state, the SSS, police and EFCC to arrest and harass state legislators until they agreed to do his bidding and impeach their state governors.

His first taste of the powers he possessed and how he could take control of states was the May 2004 declaration of a state of emergency in Plateau and the removal of Joshua Dariye as governor for a six-month period after sectarian violence went on for months in the stated unabated.

In making the declaration, Obasanjo said this about the governor, “If anything, some of his utterances, his lackadaisical attitude and seeming uneven, handedness over the contending issues present him as not just part of the problem but also as an instigator and a threat to peace.”

Today, there is almost a consensus that there are limits to presidential powers and a state governor cannot just be removed from office even with a declaration of an emergency and a resolution of the National Assembly.

But those limitations are yet to be tested in court.

After that initial removal Dariye, impeachment became the preferred modus operandi of the Obasanjo government and state lawmakers acted under duress and sometimes without even forming quorums.

Under the orchestration of Obasanjo, the first to be impeached was Bayelsa governor, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha in December 2005.

All that was left was to coronate Obasanjo as life emperor. And the plan was to have the National Assembly amend the constitution to allow him serve a third term in office

Then came the impeachment of Rasheed Ladoja, governor of Oyo in January 2006. On November 2, 2006 Peter Obi of Anambra was impeached.

Eleven days later, precisely on November 13, 2006, Dariye who had previously removed for six months was finally impeached.

Then came the impeachment of Ayo Fayose of Ekiti on November 16, 2006. By this time, Obasanjo was at the pinnacle of power.

He was even at war with his Vice President and would have had him impeached if it hadn’t been politically impossible.
Still he stripped Atiku of everything he was constitutionally entitled to.

All that was left was to coronate Obasanjo as life emperor. And the plan was to have the National Assembly amend the constitution to allow him serve a third term in office.

During this period, anyone showing an interest in running for president was hounded by the EFCC.

Na’Abba acceded to the pleas of Gowon and Abdulsalami. But that decision also proved to be the end of his political career. Obasanjo ensured he didn’t get the PDP ticket for re-election into the House of Representatives. And since then, the former speaker has not recovered politically

The lawmakers who were saddled with the responsibility of amending the constitution were apparently offered cash inducements in figures that appeared unimaginable.

Now how could that period be described as a “post-military rule”? With one man unable to let states function independently as constitutionally guaranteed, can anyone say it was a period of nation building?

A good person to answer these questions would be Ghali Umar Na’Abba. There is no doubt that all Obasanjo did was an abuse of power.

Even by flirting with the idea of impeaching the president, was Na’Abba doing the same or was he genuinely trying to put into motion, the constitutional safeguards against corrupt leadership?

He and the dozens of other lawmakers wanted to impeach Obasanjo for alleged constitutional breaches, mostly for reasons that would later appear trivial considering the many infractions, disregard for the constitution and laid down procedures Obasanjo would engage in.

Na’Abba acceded to the pleas of Gowon and Abdulsalami. But that decision also proved to be the end of his political career.

Obasanjo ensured he didn’t get the PDP ticket for re-election into the House of Representatives. And since then, the former speaker has not recovered politically. It would be good to hear from Na’Abba on whether he has regrets retreating from the impeachment plans they had and what he thinks Nigeria would look like today if he had succeeded.

Written by Shuaib Shuaib

Shuaibu, a former Editor of the LEADERSHIP Newspapers, is based in Abuja.

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