Obasanjo’s outspoken comments come against a backdrop of growing discontent at Buhari’s stewardship of Africa’s most populous nation, which since 2015 has suffered recession and a slew of security concerns.
Buhari’s own wife, Aisha, has herself appeared to align herself with his critics by retweeting videos of opposition lawmakers lambasting the government’s performance in office.
With polls approaching in February 2019, it is Obasanjo’s comments that have caused alarm within the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).
Following the statement, presidential aide Bashir Ahmed said Buhari was locked in “a closed-door meeting” in Abuja with leading APC members, including party founder Bola Tinubu.
Obasanjo, who headed a military government in the 1970s and was Nigeria’s first president when civilian rule was restored in 1999, said Buhari needed a “deserved rest”.
His former army comrade had proved weak on the economy and foreign affairs, and had a “poor understanding” of Nigeria’s complex internal politics, he suggested.
To ask increasingly divided and embattled Nigerians to vote for him again was “unrealistic,” Obasanjo argued.
It “will only sentence Nigeria to a prison term of four years, if not destroy it beyond the possibility of an early recovery and substantial growth”, he added.
– ‘Dignified dismount’ –
Buhari, 75, spent most of last year receiving treatment in London for an unspecified illness, leading many to wonder whether he is fit enough to serve another four-year term.
In 2015, he became the first opposition candidate in Nigerian history to unseat an incumbent, defeating Goodluck Jonathan at the polls.
Obasanjo, now 80 and still an influential political figure, ripped up his membership card of Jonathan’s ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) just before the last election.
He claimed Jonathan was trying to stay in power “by hook or by crook”, questioned his fitness to govern and said he was surrounded by corrupt cronies and “greedy hangers-on”.
But despite initially giving his backing to Buhari, he said his performance had not delivered the change he promised three years ago.
There had been a lack of progress in tackling poverty, improving governance and, while Boko Haram Islamists had been weakened, new security threats had emerged, he said.
He acknowledged some progress in fighting corruption but said there was nepotism “bordering on clannishness” in Buhari’s administration, in a clear reference to his inner circle.
Aisha Buhari has similarly criticised the so-called “cabal” around her husband, suggesting they held the real power.
Obasanjo said Buhari’s “place in history is already assured” and called for a new “coalition for democracy, good governance, social and economic well-being and progress”.
“President Buhari needs a dignified and honourable dismount from the horse,” he said, suggesting he could still play a role from the sidelines with other former leaders.
– Political operator –
Political analysts sensed calculation on the part of Obasanjo, a canny operator whose backing has been seen as essential to get ahead in Nigeria’s patronage politics.
Commentator Chris Ngwodo said the former head of state had “read the groundswell of discontent” with Buhari, just as he did with Jonathan in 2015.
“At the very least”, his comments will see an erosion of the overwhelming support that brought Buhari to power, he said.
Cheta Nwanze, head of research at the Lagos-based advisory firm SBM Intelligence, said Obasanjo’s statement “will do a lot of damage to Buhari’s second-term ambition”.
“Many who were hitherto afraid to speak out will find their voices and there will be a realignment,” he told AFP.
“If the security services move against Obasanjo it places Buhari in an even poorer light.”
Both Ngwodo and Nwanze identified the former Kano state governor Rabiu Kwankwaso and the current governor of Sokoto, Aminu Tambuwal, as possible challengers to Buhari.
Kwankwaso came third in the APC presidential primary last time round behind Buhari and Obasanjo’s former vice-president Atiku Abubakar. Abubakar has since rejoined the PDP.