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Sun Tzu vs. Clausewitz: Obasanjo and Babangida compared

The dust had not properly settled on Obasanjo’s call on Buhari not to seek a second term when Babangida, Nigeria’s only military President, in a statement issued on his behalf  by his long-term spokesman Kassim Afegbua, reinforced that message by suggesting that Buhari, as an ‘analogue’ leader, should step aside for younger ‘digital’ leaders to take charge. However barely 24 hours after Babangida’s uncharacteristic straightforward message, came another press release, personally signed by Babangida himself, in which he repudiated the earlier statement issued on his behalf by Kassim Afegbua. In his purported repudiation of Afegbua’s press release on his behalf, Babangida claimed that as a former President and elder statesman, he has “unfettered channel of communication with the highest authorities without sensational public correspondence, therefore those views expressed over there are personal views of the writer”. Confusion.  

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Though the second press release also commented on the state of the nation, whatever point it wanted to make could only be deciphered by inferences and reading whatever one wants to read into it. In the midst of the confusion, Babangida was to confirm to ThisDay that his “original statement stands” and claimed that the second statement was issued by friends and that it had nothing to do with him.

Babangida has received some hits from the press for his seeming equivocation, obfuscation, speaking from both sides of the mouth and double talk on the two circulated versions of letters to Buhari. He was unfavourably compared with Obasanjo, who, in his intervention, clearly pointed out the areas the Buhari government has underperformed and unambiguously called for Buhari not to seek re-election. He also promised to be part of a movement to ensure that neither the PDP nor the APC wins the presidency in 2019.

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I do not subscribe to the notion that Babangida is a coward or does not know what he wants. Certainly you cannot call a man who has taken part in virtually every military coup in the country a coward. Nor can you call a military ruler who was able to rule a difficult country like Nigeria for eight years a fool.

I believe that to understand the differences between the two retired Nigerian generals one needs to understand the strategic theories of two important military generals and philosophers – Sun Tzu and Carl Von Clausewitz – to whom they appear to differently subscribe.

Sun Tzu was a Chinese general, military strategist and philosopher who was believed to have lived in ancient China from 544-496 BC. He was thought to be the author of the highly influential book, Art of War. One of Sun Tzu’s cherished strategies in battle is deception; hence he declared:

“To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” 

Other quotes from the book which gives an insight into his military philosophy include: 

 “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.” 

“The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”

“When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.” 

 “The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent.” 

Babangida, from what we know of him, and on the basis of which he was nicknamed ‘Maradona’ and ‘evil genius’ is a disciple of the Sun Tzu School of military philosophy.  Veteran writer and one of the founders of the iconic Newswatch magazine, Dan Agbese, in his highly regarded biography of the Minna General (Babangida:  The Military, Soldiers and Politics in Nigeria, 2013) tells us that Babangida does not like to be predicted and will do anything to ensure his moves are not predictable. This probably explains why in his speeches he is a master of obfuscation and ‘on the other hand’ type of analyses. He always seems to need enough room to wiggle out when he is about to be boxed in.

As a military president, his strategy was to go into alliance with any group, from any part of the country, to accomplish a set of objectives and then move out of that alliance as quickly as the objective is accomplished. He may next go into alliance with a group he was allied against a few months earlier. In this way the groups and individuals he had been in alliance with across the country at different times regarded him as their friend.  For individuals that became too critical of his government, he would fight and then rehabilitate them without trying to completely annihilate them (remember the late Tai Solarin or his public spat with Obasanjo whom his government later supported to run for the post of Secretary General of the United Nations?) Babangida also used co-optation into the system with appointments to muffle the voices of strident critics. Basically, like Sun Tzu, Babangida believes that to defeat your enemy without a fight is the acme of skills. Unlike Obasanjo, Babangida rarely pronounces one an enemy and there would often be rehabilitation after harsh encounters with foes.

If Babangida is a student of Sun Tzu’s school of military philosophy and strategy, Obasanjo is a good student of Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian general and theorist who lived from 1780-1831. His book, On War, was a major work on the philosophy of war. It was unfinished when Clausewitz died. Clausewitz is the opposite of Sun Tzu in many ways. Unlike Sun Tzu who believes you can win over your enemy without a fight, and that even when you fight, you must not press your foe so hard that you do not leave him any room for escape, Clausewitz advised: 

“Kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat the enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds; it is a fallacy that must be exposed: War is such a dangerous business that mistakes that come from kindness are the very worst.”

Unlike Babangida who will rehabilitate a previous foe, Obasanjo, following Clausewitz’s quote above will probably see this as dangerous, hence his reputation for being unforgiving of his opponents until they are completely annihilated. Other quotes from Clausewitz may throw more light on Obasanjo’s mode of engagement:

“War is a continuation of politics by other means” (Does this sound like Obasanjo’s ‘politics is a do or die affair’?)

“Courage, above all things, is the first quality of a warrior” (Obasanjo shoots from the hips).

“Pursue one great decisive aim with force and determination” (Obasanjo’s ‘garrison commander politics)’.

“To secure peace is to prepare for war”

“War is an act of violence to compel our opponents to fulfil our will”

Let me mention that both Obasanjo’s Clausewitzean approach to politics as an art of war and Babangida’s approach to it as an art of deception can sometimes leave sour taste in the mouth. Obasanjo’s Clausewiteazn belief that you need to completely annihilate your enemy to ensure he does not regroup against you makes him come across as unforgiving and a bully. In contrast, Babangida, relying on cunning wants to win everyone (or as many as possible) on his side, which, to his critics, makes him seem to stand for nothing substantial or perpetually speak with both sides of the mouth.  His admirers however see this as a sign that he is a gentle man who wants to take all contending perspectives into account in his interventions. In the same vein, while  Obasanjo’s admirers will see him as a courageous man who  shoots unpretentiously from the hips and leaves no one in doubt where he stands with them,  his critics often call him a bully, who is unforgiving. 

Remarkably in my book both Obasanjo and Babangida, despite their different strategies and personal shortcoming, are the best we have had in this country in terms of political engineering. While Babangida’s strategy makes him embrace groups and individuals from across the country without discrimination,  Obasanjo, though seen as  bully, is respected as  ‘an equal opportunities’ bully or one who respects the application of ‘federal character principle’ in his choice of both victims and allies. Both men in my book, and despite their numerous shortcomings, are also in a special class when it comes to understanding Nigeria and managing the optics of nation-building in the country.

Following from the above, their letters to Buhari,  rather than being compared in terms of display of courage or cowardice, should be seen as merely amplifying the differences in the military philosophies and strategic theories as enunciated by Sun Tzu’s (embraced by Babangida) and Carl Von Clausewitz’s (embraced by Obasanjo). 

 

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