Nigeria’s OBJ – Is he a Singaporean LKY?

Olawale Rasheed
The Nigerian Tribune
18 May 07

Lee Kuan Yew (Left), Olusegun Obasanjo (right)Group Political Editor, Olawale Rasheed, assesses how far President Olusegun Obasanjo has gone in doing some things right as he said he learnt from the former Singaporean leader, Lee Kuan Yew, especially from 1999 to date.

One goal very uppermost in President Olusegun Obasanjo’s mind in 1999 was to be a Lee Kuan Yew of Nigeria. His messianic aspiration was to make Nigeria an economically developed nation, a miracle on the black continent. Yew, founder of Modern Singapore, has been Mr. President’s friend right from the 1970s. From the time the Nigerian leader quit in 1979 to the time he returned to power in 1999, Singapore had emerged as an economically prosperous and industrially vibrant nation. That surprised Obasanjo a lot. So, during his many foreign tours in his first term between 1999 and 2003, the president returned to his old friend in Singapore.

Meanwhile, Yew had retired as a Prime Minister while retaining his position as the patron of the Singapore’s only political party. The Nigerian leader narrated that renewed encounter to so many caucuses on his return to the country. It was a life turning narration which has continued to influenced the political direction of Nigeria.

Lee led Singapore to independence and served as its first Prime Minister. He was regularly re-elected from 1959 until he stepped down in 1990. He was educated in England, and under his guidance, Singapore became a financial and industrial powerhouse despite lack of abundant natural resources. He ruled with ultimate authority, and his zeal for law and order was legendary. In 1990, he stepped down (though he remained in the cabinet as Senior Minister) and was succeeded as prime minister by Goh Chok Tong. His views on governance and statehood are very controversial.

As the authors of Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas (1998) point out, Lee rejected “the notion that all men yearned for democratic freedoms, prizing free speech and the vote over other needs such as economic development. Asian societies, he contended, were different, having evolved separately from the West over the centuries”. Lee also argued, “somewhat controversially,” that “notions of absolute rights to freedom for individuals would sometimes have to be compromised in order to help maintain public order and security.” He was, therefore, willing to suspend the right of habeas corpus, “or an open and fair trial, for known criminals or political agitators” on the grounds that “witnesses were too cowed to come forward to testify against them.

In his May 1991 address to the Asahi Shimbun symposium, Lee argued that Asians “want higher standards of living in an orderly society. They want to have as much individual choice in lifestyle, political liberties and freedoms as is compatible with the interests of the community.” He granted that once a country has attained a certain level of education and industrialization, it “may need representative government . . . to reconcile conflicting group interests in society and maintain social order and stability. Representative government is also one way for a people to forge a new consensus, a social compact, on how a society settles the trade-off between further rapid economic growth and individual freedoms.” The Nigerian leader, while not openly expousing all the above which many believed were the foundation of Singaporean miracle, he remains loyal to some of the ideals that explain why almost every who is who in the Federal Government has a copy of a book about the making of modern Singapore.

The president, at a meeting with top military officers in early 2003, recalled what Lee told him as the secret of Singapore’s success. Narrating his return to Singapore and the meeting with the founder of modern Singapore, the president told the officers that he asked the retired leader what accounted for the sudden rise of that tiny island. “The secret is that we consistently do certain things right over a long period of time”, the president quoted Lee as saying. Nigeria, Obasanjo said, must do some things right over a period of time if she is to rise economically. What was Lee doing right consistently over a period of time? Is that all Obasanjo learnt from his friend? Does the Nigerian leader accept some of the controversial political views of Lee?

The answers can best be addressed now that the Otta farmer is leaving for his farm. First, what Lee did so well are two fold. The first was extensive emphasis on education and industrialisation and the second was curtailing of political rights as manifested in the reality today that Singapore is not a true democracy in the Western sense. In the economic sphere, Singapore is an unrivalled success such that the standard of living in that city-state is one of the highest in the world. Lee built Singapore into an economic powerhouse even though it has no natural resources to export. Politically, Singapore is nothing to write home about. Lee’s party is the official national party. Opposition leaders were constantly harassed and elections are nothing but a process of selection by a caucus under Lee’s guidance.

Lee’s philosophy is succinctly exemplified in his comments quoted above. All under-developed societies have no business being preoccupied with representative democracy. Economic development and meeting daily needs to achieve high standard of living take precedence over rule of law and democratic order. How acceptable the above is, is not the issue. The reality is that Obasanjo is indeed a Lee of Nigeria to some reasonable extent. He learnt to introduce and enforce economic reforms which friends and foes agreed have laid the foundation for the economic prosperity in the country. His sectoral reforms compassed in the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategies (NEEDS) point to a decided and determined resolve to pull Nigeria out of the woods and launch it on the path of industrial greatness.

By freeing the nation from the debt trap, Obasanjo ensured freedom to decide on the path of national reform. By creating billionaires out of established entrepreneurs, the administration created national icons who are engaged in co-ordinated industrialisation across the various sectors of the nation’s economy. The stage as at now is set for economic boom if only the reforms, though painful, can be sustained for at least some more decades. Obasanjo, as he did during his first tenure, had established significant landmarks economically. If he cannot claim to have done as much as Lee, he has at least launched the economic blueprint and foundation for a takeoff of a new Nigeria. What about the political sphere? Many felt the president indeed copied his friends in the sphere of political democracy. Those who championed the Third Term crusade were strict Lee ideologists who believed Nigerians should for once de-emphasize politics and face the challenge of economic reforms and subsequent industrialisation.

The third term bid was more of a continuity strategy, having in mind the goal of industrialising Nigeria as Lee did in Singapore. If the amendment to the Constitution had sailed through, the president would have had enough years to change the nation for the better. That third term was attempted confirmed that the president indeed believed in Lee’s political philosophy. But that was not all. The electoral crisis under Obasanjo presidency is considered by many as a reflection of the belief that full blown democracy is a luxury in a backward and corrupt societies. In a society where some citizens are even richer than the state, where voters are all too willing to sell their votes, indulging in representative democracy is adjudged a national disservice. While no government official will openly confirm this, the reality is all over the place, especially with the recently concluded general elections.

Those believing in the Yar’Adua presidency link it with the need for continuity and the need to sanitise the national leadership. If the president cannot secure another term, it was adjudged a matter of national interest for his successor to be a man of the same school and conviction. Lee was more extreme in dealing with opposition figures. Obasanjo, while keeping his eyes on economic development, allows space for opposition activities even though a bit of arm-twisting was introduced to allow the president have his way. A believer in law and order, Obasanjo unlike his friends, refrained from draconian, Gestapo-like handling of the political opposition. Many, however, see the president as a deep believer in limited political rights pending the achievements of economic development. His records since 1999 confirmed this even though he still plays within the democratic and constitutional stipulations in many ways.

Obasanjo had his way on the question of succession. Many believed the president-elect has been sufficiently tutored on the common agenda. The Katsina State governor had indeed internalised it. There is high expectation that the reform launched by the president will be sustained by his predecessor.

But that was not all Lee did. After resigning as prime minister in 1990, Lee stayed on as a senior minister in his successor’s cabinet, keeping tab on the state. In the case of Nigeria, many expect the president to secure the chairmanship of the Board of Trustees of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)…Or will the president also accept a senior ministerial appointment under Yar’Adua

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