Inside Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library
The time is 2:10pm. There is a flurry of activities at the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library (OOPL), Abeokuta, Ogun State. As guests hurried through, they could not, however, help pausing for a moment, as the din set up by hundreds of men doing hundreds of assigned tasks in the complex resounded. The architecture is just as stunning as the views: Incredible and very impressive.
“The building has been designed like an outstretched arm to welcome visitors,’’ said one of the tour guides. There are actually about four of them.
The sprawling edifice is not like your local library with its kiddies’ corner, magazines and overdue fines, this little-known institution is a hybrid of historical archive and public museum that tell the story of the man and his times.
Owned by Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, the former President of Nigeria, the library is a historic, tourist and academic centre established as a national archive for preservation of documents and materials used by Obasanjo during his tenure as Nigeria’s President.
Conceived in 1988, the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library remained just an idea until 10 years later when the man in whose honour the project exists was released from incarceration over what turned out to be a phantom coup.
When Obasanjo was elected Nigeira’s second executive president, he established the Office of Presidential Libraries (Libraries, Research and Documentation) whose mission was in part to see the OOPL idea translated into reality.
The first of its kind in Nigeria and probably Africa, OOPL continues the distinguished tradition where a nation’s president bequeaths to posterity, historical documentation of his life’s achievements.
Established in 2005, the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library was fashioned after the United States’ Presidential Library system and culture. As the first on the Continent, the Library is expected to promote Nigeria on the world stage, and inspire other African nations in the advancement of democracy and preservation of the past for the future.
According to the library’s official brochure, “At a more local level the Library will teach children and young adults the essential concepts of leadership and citizenship through the example of a former president. By upholding the critical worth of good governance, the exhibitions should inspire future leaders of Nigeria.’’
It also states: “The OOPL aims at ‘preserving the past, capturing the present and inspiring the future’. It is a historic, touristic, recreational and academic centre, which is regarded as a national archive and a place for the preservation of presidential documents and historical items associated with the office and person of President Olusegun Obasanjo. It will house some cultural artifacts and feature essential vents in the Nigeria history and modern Africa history. The vision of the OOPL itself is to be an evergreen resource for stimulation of the ideas of democracy, good governance and leadership in Africa, with the mission to foster deeper understanding of the life, career and passion of President Olusegun Obasanjo. The OOPL seeks to facilitate reflection on best practices in public service; provide a clearer comprehension of development in Africa, the Commonwealth and the rest of the world, and collaborate with similar institutions in attaining these objectives.’’
The complex also houses The Green Legacy Resort. The resort is said to have over 100 rooms with facilities such as elevated swimming pools (Main & Children pool), a tennis court, a modern well-designed gym, amusement park, sauna among other facilities.
Other facilities in the complex that are already functioning are the Auditorium, Amphitheatre, and the Adire and African Fabrics Centre. And just opposite to the church is another functioning facility, the Children’s Playground. This is a high rise mechanical contraption of automated circular steel and plastic seats which will certainly send children into whoops of joy and excitement.
A tour of the OOPL will take you up hills and valleys, benches, lakes and through parks. If you want to catch a bird’s eye view of Abeokuta, you have to go to the highest point in the complex, the Rock of Inspiration.
From a building that accommodates some Presidential artefacts such as OBJ’s frist car, a well-kept Volkswagen Beetle car, one official car, a jeep, helicopter and a miniature warship, the tour starts this afternoon.
When you walk through the building, Keke Ota is sure to strike you with nostalgia. The bicycle is a replica of what Chief Olusegun Obasanjo used to navigate his Ota farm when he left government in 1979, while he used the Volkswagen car to travel round the country during the war periods.
According to one of the tour guides, “discussions about the Nigeria civil war took place in the car.”
But of utmost importance among the relics is the Nissan Patrol Jeep. “It occupies a special place in Baba Obasanjo’s life. The vehicle conveyed him and his late wife Stella to the State Security Service (SSS) office, when he was implicated in the phantom coup of 1995. The vehicle also brought him back after three years, three months and three days in prison. The car was equally used to campaign before he became civilian president in 1999.”
A bridge links the main building and the others. The bridge is equally significant because of Obasanjo’s pedigree as a military engineer. A part of the museum was being renovated when The Guardian visited. However, as you step inside the main building, with two wings (A and B), the canonical voice of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo welcomes you.
In wing A, you’re sure to find relics around his humble beginning, military career and imprisonment. The first section is Nigeria before 1960. A video plays a documentary, where Obasanjo himself is the narrator. The documentary captures what happened before 1960. There is Nigeria from 1960 section. The political history of the country is also captured.
A section is devoted to Baba’s first steps. This is a pictorial representation of stages in Obasanjo’s life: childhood, school days and military career.
Another important section in the wing is that devoted to the Nigerian child. It is an interactive section and children are allowed to take pictures of their career dream. These pictures are transferred to a screen, where they are now processed. The aim of the section and the pictures is for them to be inspired to attain their dreams. Kids can re-enact important moments on sets replicating the Obasanjo Aso Rock Villa. Exhibits centered on the life of Stella Obasanjo and learn about her sense of dressing.
Our tour guide informed that the library would be stocked with books and educational material from all over the world to aid proper research.
To a foreign visitor, it offers a unique way to see Nigeria. It reflects choices made by the president himself, from its location to the initial contents of the museum. This is where the president wanted to be remembered and the displays reflect how he wanted to be remembered.
The idea of a Presidential Library started in the United States. Prior to the establishment, Presidential papers were kept as private property and later sold, destroyed, donated or preserved by heirs.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt believed that Presidential papers- an important part of national heritage- should ultimately be made accessible to the public. The country passed into law in 1955, the Presidential Libraries Act to formalize this project for national archive of all American Presidential documents and materials in office.
By donating both his personal and Presidential papers to the Federal Government, he inspired the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955. Since then, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) maintains the 13 official Presidential Libraries from Herbert Hoover onward.
The Presidential Records Act of 1978 established that the Presidential records that document the constitutional, statutory, and ceremonial duties of the President are the property of the United States Government. After the President leaves office, the Archivist of the United States assumes custody of the records. The Act allowed for the continuation of Presidential libraries as the repository for Presidential records.
The Presidential Libraries Act of 1986 also made significant changes to Presidential libraries, requiring private endowments linked to the size of the facility. NARA uses these endowments to offset a portion of the maintenance costs for the library.
Chief Obasanjo told The Guardian that the Presidential Library “is not in the line of things you do because you want to make money, so you could even say, what madness is this?” If you want to do something that is not popular and not easy, you must have a touch of madness to do it.
From the care in preserving such minute minutiae, including his primary school report cards, could it be that the young Obasanjo was prescient, knowing that he would grow to be president? “I didn’t know what I would become in life,” the former President had said. “I am what I am, a stupid village boy, born in the village raised in the village, grew up in the village and did a number of things by accident.
“Went to school by accident, joined the army by accident, rose up in the Army by accident, went to Congo, not by accident, because I was in the Army I went to Congo came back, did what is right or what is wrong there; then continued to rise in the army.”
He continued: “My belief is that if you take care of small things, big things will not elude you. I take care of small things. That is number one. Number two, I believe that history is very, very important. And what we have done there, which is also our slogan or our mission is to preserve the past, capture the present and design the future and of course, maintain our culture.”
“If you do not know history and you are careless about history, history is your memory. You don’t want to lose your memory, because if you lose your memory, what you ate yesterday, you will not know.
“I think that would be tragic not to remember what you ate yesterday. So for us, history is the memory. And one of the things you don’t normally take care of, you take for granted we are careless about them is what I call institutional memory.”
Although he said he does not have regrets at 80, Chief Obasanjo, lamented that “most of our institutions, like the so-called national museum is in bad shape, stressing that that is “why we have done what we have done here.”
What other difference does the Presidential Library offer to Nigerians and Africa? “Anybody can build anything and we are never short of buildings or the idea of building,” the Octogenarian argued, if they are not being maintained, how do we obtain history? How do we have access to information, how do we retrieve, how do we keep as key?”
He recalled how when he became Head of State in 1976, he went to Britain and asked to be given a bureau of statistics, “whereby I can press a button and I know how much or how many barrels of oil we have produced in Nigeria since 1965.”
“There is nowhere you can do that in Nigeria today, but if you go to London, you will get it. It is leadership; there is nowhere you can do that today. Nigeria sold many barrels of oil in 1970. So you need information, you need the records, you need the history.”
Drawing analogy from America, Obasanjo said: “What they have done is that each president does more or less out of there, the only difference is that they have NARA, which is a government organization, which once a president builds his presidential library NARA takes it up to oversight, operate and to maintain.”
He recalled with relish that “only yesterday (Thursday February 23, 2017), Obama took the decision on the same consultant, RRA and Associates that consulted for us.” “They now consult for Obama in his Presidential Library. They phoned me and said one of the things they presented in their bid is what they have done in our own Presidential Library. So I said well you are in good company.”
There had been efforts in the past at building a Presidential Library in Africa. For instance, Samia Nkrumah, daughter of the late Kwame Nkrumah, who led Ghana to independence in 1957, is building a presidential library called The Kwame Nkrumah Presidential Library in honour of her father. The library is designed as a large square that represents knowledge. This structure is a channel tool for society and a confidential engine for social modernism.
The project is confined to a small area to Akosombo, near Lake Volta, the largest artificial lake in the world, a supply of drinking water and fish site for more than two million Ghanians. Then there is a bioclimatic building that is part of the Kwame Nkrumah’s Presidential Library which is able to maintain high levels of thermal, visual and audible comfort through out the whole year due to the balance of a few elements such as shape, materials, and technology.
A primary concern for the establishment of a presidential library is first to acknowledge the contributions of, at any one time, the occupier of Nigeria’s most important political office. It is also generally acknowledged that, there is a gap in understanding the complex conditions that prevail or act upon important decisionmakers when they occupy their positions.
Beyond the relics, artefacts and sundry items available at the two wings of the library, there are spaces that are allocated to reading and consultation, at the same time; there are spaces for the creative arts.
You can give your kids a new perspective on history by adding the nation’s only Presidential Library to the next family trip itinerary. This amazing museum is not only fun for kids, it’s empowering, and puts school lectures, textbooks, historic movies, world news, and even daily conversation into a whole new perspective.