Much Ado about a Letter

Any objective person who took the trouble to pore through the controversial letter of former President Olusegun Obasanjo to President Goodluck Jonathan, which has predictably generated a “cacophony from hired and unhired attackers”, would come to at least three conclusions. One, Chief Obasanjo is a nationalist who is deeply passionate about Nigeria, despite his well-known human failings. Two, he is unhappy with the direction to which the ship of affairs in the country is teetering and would want a new direction because he is involved. Three, he believes he deserves the attention of President Jonathan due to some reasons, especially the roles he played in his emergence as President.

Morever, given the raging storm of reactions and counter-reactions that has greeted the letter, at least three conclusions are evident. One, many of those who comment on or react to the letter have actually not read it. Two, Nigeria is deeply polarised and many people only view issues not on their merit but from their parochial ethnic and religious standpoints. Three, the future is ominous if nothing is done to douse tension and reduce the increasing national blood pressure.

Like the unnecessary furor that greeted the publication of “There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra” (2012) by the late master writer, Chinua Achebe, the level of public discourse has been reduced to its lowest ebb. There is no rigour and misreadings are now the rule rather than the exception. It was after reading the work that one came to realise that many claims about the book are incorrect and that rather than play to the gallery, it is always good to seek one’s truth. But the constraint is that we are not a reading nation, we are only a talking/chatting nation.

Though many people have justifiably excoriated the former President for being part of the problems of Nigeria, given the opportunities he had to right some wrongs in the past and his contributions to the emergence of the leaders that succeeded him, that is where that perspective ends. The fact of his past misdeeds cannot detract from the profundity of his present concerns as a stakeholder and we cannot throw the baby out with the bath water.

On his passion for Nigeria, he wrote, “I worked for both President Shagari and President Yar’Adua to succeed me not just because they are Moslems (sic), Northerners or Hausa-Fulani, but because they could strengthen the unity, stability and democracy in Nigeria. We incurred the wrath of ethnic chauvinists for doing what was right for the country. This is the burden of leadership.” This submission is incontrovertible: it is evident in his lack of popularity till today among the Yoruba, who strongly believe he should have handed over power in 1979 to the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo.

About his unhappiness with how things are in the country, the polarisation of Nigeria along ethno-religious lines is even obvious to the blind and it is the duty of leadership not to only rise above that ugly trend but to also curb its cancerous growth. Those who voted and did not vote for the President are Nigerian citizens that Mr President is statutorily bound to serve “with love and strength and faith” and there is no doubt the five feelings of “bitterness, anger, mistrust, fear and deep suspicion” mentioned in the letter are rife in the land.

Part of the problem the letter has is the tone which is both frank and harsh. The frankness is quite in order because of the seriousness of the matters raised. When its author wrote, “Two things you must cherish and hold dear among others are trust and honour both of which are important ingredients of character”, he was being frank. But when he wrote on more than one occasion that the President’s action “is not ingenious” or that “you may wish to pursue a more honourable path”, he was being harsh, which can be interpreted by the less discerning as insulting.

By and large, at the background of this much ado about Obasanjo’s letter is the failure of communication, bordering on word choice and interpretation. In their book, “Using and Understanding English” (1959 p.26), G. B. Birk and N. P. Birk identified the problem associated with the situation under focus. “Wars and frictions between nations and groups are often caused by an ignorance of the true relationship between words and things. Individual misunderstandings are largely the result of similar ignorance and the consequent failure to interpret and communicate effectively, and even the personal and psychological ills of man can be cured by a language therapy which consists in part of putting freely into words one’s deepest fears, desires and inner conflicts, and so being led to analyze them consciously and rationally and perceive their real meaning,” they wrote.

The real import of the letter should not be sacrificed at the altar of “argumentum ad hominem” (argument based on attack on person) because it is a logical/genetic fallacy. One of the claims that the former President made is that he had written at least four letters in the past which were all neither acknowledged nor replied by the President. From the rational perspective, no one would feel happy if he sends ordinary four text messages to another person without receiving a response, not to talk of letters that might run into several pages like the one now in public domain.

What the President, who many people still respect because despite all, he is God’s choice for us now, needs to do is to stoop to conquer and not listen to those who will goad him on to slug it out with his acknowledged benefactor. He should not even think of the purported letter of Iyabo Obasanjo which to me would have sounded more credible if it was attributed to her boisterous brother, Gbenga Obasanjo. Among other things, “narcissistic megalomaniac personality” sounds unlike the linguistic repertoire of the former Senator we know before now.

In essence, like the public relations stunt that Governor Adams Oshiomhole performed brilliantly to shove off criticisms  on his “go and die” widow saga, let the President apologise for not replying the letters of Obasanjo. Let him dispassionately address the issues raised by the Ota farmer and take the current letter generally to be a wake-up call. As someone who has the interest of the nation at heart, let him borrow a leaf from the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) leaders who always win, like they still did recently after all the public gyrations and empty threats, partly because the Union is structured in such a way that its past and present leaders are united by union interests. If our past and present leaders in Nigeria are not at cross-purposes with one another, our national goals will be better achieved and they shall be respected more by the generality, locally and internationally.