For those close to Okikiola, the pose fits him like a lion in repose. You saw him the other day on television, planted on a mat against the backdrop of tree roots. Beside him was his wife. School children, in striped uniforms, formed a semi-circle on the edge of the mat in front of the Owu chief.
His head hidden in a two-lipped cap over his buba, Olusegun Obasanjo was reading from his new book, A World of Tortoise, to the wards. The pose on the floor was no showy humility. It was him in his earthy ease.
Civilisation and officialdom compel the Owu chief to mount the luxury highs of upholstery, like the cushioned exotica of a presidential chair. He prefers the earth-bound comfort of a grassy floor, the smell of sand and moist air of herbs. He would rather read from a mat than on red carpet.
Obasanjo has earned his plaudits as one of Nigeria’s men of instinct. A dignified rustic, a village ambassador. When last did you see him in an English suit, or even a tee shirt?
But that is the life of the tortoise. A “bush” man is no country Bumpkin. At least not this one. He cons his environment with his apparent lack of finesse. Yet, no one is more sophisticated than Olusegun Obasanjo. He is the tortoise he was unveiling to the boys and girls. A tortoise telling the tale of a tortoise through the voice of a man. His English is flawless, if wordy. His elocution coarse, but no matter. His grasp of governance is second to none. He wraps his hands around politics like a wrap around pounded yam. A man of wise daring, cunning while seeming a con, a manipulator, a master of deception, a humourist when he is in no mood for banter.
The late debonair journalist Stanley Macebuh, who had worked for him as an adviser in his first incarnation as Nigerian leader, described him: “He is crafty, very crafty.” He even brought this sleight of hand in his engagement with children.
All his life, it was either you saw him or you didn’t. When you didn’t, he seemed to have dodged a bullet. When you saw him, he was collecting the trophy, even if he did not compete. Apostle Paul said, “he that runs a race runs all, but one picks the prize?” Like one defying gravity, the Owu chief could do away with running a race and yet pick the trophy, and no one shouted foul.
Watch his life reel. He was Nzeogwu’s best friend but was out of town when the coup happened. He was quiet for most part during the civil war, but joined the Third Marine Commando, when the war was all but done. A browbeaten Biafra bowed to him in surrender. Black Scorpion toiled but Obj had the spoils.
When Gowon was ousted in Murtala’s coup, he was lucky to be picked as number two. But the bigger one came later. Murtala died in a coup carnage, but Obj was secure and took over. He became the first Nigerian soldier to hand over power to civilians.
We read of Joseph’s prison-to-palace story. He was held by Abacha, but he left, had a world tour, and returned to lead the country. Whoever wins a race when his people vote against him, especially in a country torn apart by ethnic bigotry? OBJ. It turned out he was the one Nigerian who could bring a fragile nation to its peace.
But if he is a man of luck, it is arguable that his career has favoured Obasanjo more than it has favoured Nigeria. He was head of state twice, but he was never known to have engrained what we might call a vision. Some say, he has brought some beauties, one of which was the war on corruption. History will hold him to account why he seemed to have gone after his enemies in the guise of fighting corruption. Yet, he has created a momentum with the EFCC and ICPC that no successor can erase. Again, he left office with Nigerians poorer than he entered.
With his Yoruba group, he is being charged with Awo envy. He never loved or courted friendship with the Yoruba icon. He was said to have once boasted that what Awo sought with all his might, Obj soared into. The story might have been apocryphal, but it reflects the tension between both men. He was believed to be happy to hand over power to Shagari who bested Awo in the controversial twelve two-third 1979 elections.
Again, he once showed up General Oluleye when the latter complained to him that the military elite marginalised the Yoruba. Obj brought in General Shehu Yar’adua and asked Oluleye to repeat his charge against the Fulani elite. Was it an act of betrayal? Was Oluleye naïve? Did Obj believe that if he did not report him, somehow the Fulani elite would hear and think Obj was in cahoots with Oluleye to undermine the military hierarchy, which was potentially career-ending or even life-ending? Those who charge Obj with betrayal may have to rethink.
When a military leader, he relinquished power willingly. When a democratic leader, he would not let go. He wanted a third term.
Like a tortoise, he has been in every tale since the 1960’s and survived all. As soldier, a writer of controversy, a military leader, a civilian leader, a thespian, a disputed romantic, a party builder who ruined it, a peacemaker and bulldozer. A plotter and plodder. The man who wants to be called a democrat introduced a foul phrase: do or die.
Yet, is he a statesman? He is, even if he has not always behaved as one. That epaulette is a reluctant one from this page. He duelled to unite us and intervened twice to lead when we almost fell on our faces.
Soldiers and democrats look to history for models. George Washington saw Roman general Cato as an exemplar of a soldier who turned into a republican maestro. Obj looked to the bush and found one that had wit and wins. Writer Lewis Carroll said of the beast, “we call him tortoise because he taught us.” He has taught Okikiola.