“Nigeria is on the precipice and dangerously reaching a tipping point where it may no longer be possible to hold danger at bay,” said former President Olusegun Obasanjo in a letter to President Muhammadu Buhari on the deteriorating security situation in Nigeria. His focus in the letter is on Boko Haram and the “herdsmen/farmers crises,” and his sense of urgency is palpable. He writes, “When people are desperate and feel that they cannot have confidence in the ability of government to provide security for their lives and properties, they will take recourse to anything and everything that can guarantee their security individually and collectively.”
The letter is reminiscent of Obasanjo’s December 2013 withering, eighteen-page critique he sent to then-President Goodluck Jonathan. However, there are interesting differences. First, Obasanjo’s language is more respectful in his letter to Buhari than it was in his letter to Jonathan. Buhari is of the same generation as Obasanjo, and both were army generals as well as heads of state. Hence, Obasanjo may respect Buhari more than he does Jonathan, a civilian with whom he broke over the latter’s incompetency. Second, the letter to Jonathan was ostensibly private and was only subsequently leaked to the public. (By whom is not clear.) This letter to Buhari is open “because the issue is very weighty and must be greatly worrisome to all concerned Nigerians and that means all right-thinking Nigerians and those resident in Nigeria.”
Obasanjo’s letter reflects widespread Nigerian frustration over the persistence of Boko Haram, escalating farmer-herder conflict in the Middle Belt, and the current wave of kidnapping—all of which he mentions. But why did he write Buhari now? Some suggestions: First, he is, indeed, deeply concerned about the deterioration of security. Obasanjo is a Nigerian nationalist who devoted his life to nation-building, as he sees it. He may well be deeply concerned that his life’s work is in danger. Second, since he left office in 2007, he has assumed the mantle of an elder statesman. In that role he may well see an open warning letter to the sitting president as appropriate. Third, he may also be concerned about maintaining his relevance to the current political scene. He has now been out of office for a long time; some Nigerians openly say that he is no longer relevant. While this is speculation, the three are not mutually exclusive and are all likely to be true to an extent.
The respectful tone of Obasanjo’s letter is in contrast with the polarizing responses attacking and supporting it. It is unclear what the practical consequence of Obasanjo’s letter will be. His call on Buhari to form a broad coalition to address Nigeria’s security crises is often heard in the context of a “sovereign national convention” that would look at the restructuring of Nigeria. However, there is no national consensus among the elites to undertake fundamental reforms.