I miss Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
He was a unique politician and the only one I knew who, given his journalism background, never mixed facts with comments.
He recognised and honoured the fact that facts are sacred but comments are free.
He never said anything without providing facts to support his assertions.
Not for him the luxury of throwing opinions dressed as facts at government by way of criticising it.
His facts were always so solid that when the dust raised by them settled down, his critics usually scratched their chins, or whatever, and said, sotto voce, na so fa.
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In 1981, when no one appeared to notice that despite the good times rolling under the NPN government, the economy was not that healthy, the chief said the country was on a steady decline into bankruptcy.
The stout defenders of the government stoutly let him have it, pointing out that because he failed to win the presidential election in 1979, he had imposed on himself the unholy task of mistaking a rat for a wolf and thus sounding a false alarm.
About one year later in the middle of 1982, Awolowo must have chuckled as the Shagari government was forced to watch as the nation suddenly descended into poverty.
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It had to take on the unpleasant task of managing poverty; not easiest task for a government quite unprepared for such an unpleasant task.
Crude oil glut had, like an IMF/World Bank prescription, walked through the national treasury and left a gaping hole in it.
At Newswatch magazine, I used to present to my editors and reporters Awolowo and the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, as two sides of the same coin.
Both of them were unapologetic critics of government and the way we were governed.
But while one dealt with facts, the other offered trenchant opinions in which there was a deficit of facts.
Gani was a courageous critic of all Nigerian governments.
Reporters beat the path to his door to listen each time he laid the cane across the back of a particular government.
We lapped up what he said; it never occurred to us that he was merely exercising his right to freely comment on anything he chose.
He gave us no facts but given the sensationalism of his opinions, it did not matter because newspaper readers usually prefer the sensational to the aridity of hard facts.
I am reminded of this by the sight and the noise of bees buzzing around the ears of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo.
He is today the only former Nigerian leader who refuses to padlock his lips just because he had had his time on the throne twice – as a military head of state and as a two-term civilian president – and therefore, he should let others fumble and learn from their fumbling.
His speaking out is a moral duty he owes the nation because he believes he cannot shirk it if doing so would save this house from falling.
A week or so as of this writing, Obasanjo spoke on “Moving Nigeria Away from Tipping Over” at a lecture in Abuja.
He said: “Today, Nigeria is drifting to a failed and badly divided state; economically our country is becoming a basket case and poverty capital of the world, and socially, we are firming up as an unwholesome and insecure country.
“And these manifestations are the products of recent mismanagement of our diversity and socio-economic development of our country.
“Old fault lines that there were disappearing have opened up in greater fissures and with drums of hatred, disintegration and separation and accompanying choruses being heard loud and clear almost everywhere.”
The presidency and the ruling party, APC, pounced on the general.
His attackers sought to home in on his motive, as if anyone of us says or does anything without a motive, honest or sinister.
Both sides shared one thing in common: no side gave us facts.
We were treated to opinions but opinions, no matter how trenchant or robust they may be, cannot substitute for facts.
Both sides went the way of Gani.
The advantage Obasanjo has over the presidency, APC and their spokesmen is that when a man like him speaks on a matter of this nature, it is conventionally a given that he does so on the basis of privileged facts at his disposal.
He has put the government on the defensive and challenged it to prove him wrong on every point of his assertions.
This the government people have failed to do.
They chose to call the former president names and invited us to see him as a divide-in-chief, not a unifier-in-chief.
Critics can bring the best and the worst out of a government but no government can afford to hear nothing but praises and advise itself to bask in sheer adulation.
Critics offer alternative views that open eyes to what is or what might be.
Well, the brickbats appear to have run their course for now but, as usual, the Nigerian public is not the wiser for it.
Who between Obasanjo and the government is speaking the truth about the current state of our country?
It worries me that successive Nigerian governments have one mindset – and that is that all critics do not mean well; they are motivated by sinister, not altruistic or patriotic motives and what is worse, their one objective is to bring the government down in a hail of opprobrium.
That mindset derives from a non-scientific evidence, to wit, every government is a repository of wisdom.
Critics seek to force the government to dilute its wisdom with foolishness.
I think it is time for the president’s men to change tactics by first recognising the right of a Nigerian citizen, no matter how lowly, to speak what he believes is the truth to government and refrain from treating critics as enemies of the government.
Secondly, the message is more important than the messenger; therefore, it is more important to hear the message and determine how best to respond to it rather than the sensational attack on the messenger.
We, the citizens, need to be well-informed and educated by our government.
Only so can we differentiate between those who speak facts and those who enjoy the sound of their chest beating.
Sensationalism as a response to a criticism has its limitations.
It leaves a hollow void where there should be proper education of the people in arguments between the government and its critics.
I would imagine that if this were an Awolowo administration, the chief would have possibly refuted every assertion made by Obasanjo with facts and put the general on the defensive.
We do know that our country is going through trying times.
It is grossly unfair for anyone to argue otherwise.
Obasanjo might not have said anything particularly new – after all, we know the security challenges, the difficulties in the national economy, etc.
It seems to me that what galls those who would wish the man to be seen and not heard is that he does not tell the truth diplomatically and creates the impression of being self-righteous.
It is his style. Style is still the man.