Obasanjo at 80: I am a village boy who did some things by accident
The Guardian Team of Marcel Mbamalu, Gregory Austin Nwakunor, Leo Sobechi and Samson Ezea, met with former President Olusegun Obasanjo, as part of his 80th birthday celebration. He decided to take them with him on a memory lane, through his growing up years, military life and thoughts for Nigeria.
• I Have Nothing To Offer Nigeria Other Than Leadership
• Osinbajo Made Me Sing For Nigeria
• I Don’t Hold Grudges
• Oputa Panel Was Not About Report
Your Excellency, you are 80 years in numbers, but you don’t look it. What is the secret of your strength and stamina?
Grace of God! I told an interviewer from the BBC, when he asked me what I have discovered about myself, that one of the things I discovered about myself is my stamina to go on. I said, ‘look, I never knew I could start work at 8 o’clock, sit down until five, come home and play squash and go on till 2 am, and then try to sleep; wake up at five am, go and play squash again, go for devotion and be at work at 8 o’clock in the morning. Or phone a minister at 1a.m and say, Mr. Minister, what have you done about A B C D?’ I said in that job, I discovered that, and it has become a part of my way of life.
After leaving office, your routine seems not to have changed. How does it feel being out of office?
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. I went to school by accident, joined the army by accident, rose up in the army by accident, went to Congo, came back, and did what is right or what is wrong there. Then, I continued to rise in the army.
What do you mean when you said by accident?
Because some people would say, ‘yes, I came from a military family.’ But I didn’t come from a military family. Some people would say, ‘yes, I planned it and it took me two years to do so, but I didn’t plan it. I didn’t plan going to school. I was going with my father to the farm and one day, as we were returning from the farm, he just said, ‘look young man, is it this farming thing I am doing that you will continue to do for the rest of your life?’ And I replied, ‘yes, baba.’ Then, I had a cousin, who had left the village and went to Abeokuta to become a motor mechanic. So, he asked, ‘you don’t have an alternative?’ I said I had an alternative; that I wanted to be a mechanic. Then he said, ‘you don’t want to go to school?’ School had not crossed my mind, and I said, ‘baba, if you send me to school I will go.’ So, that was an accident. And he brought me to Abeokuta from the village.
I went to five different schools, because we came late, and I was not admitted. So, I stayed with my uncle in-law, my aunt’s husband. After three months my father came and said, ‘Sobo, don’t turn my son into a lazy man like you.’ He said this because I was going with the man to the river to catch fish every night. But my father came and took me with him. That was an accident. At that time, around the end of the year, people in the villages would go round for harvest. When they got to my village, the headmaster of the nearby village school came and after entertaining them, my father said, ‘can you give my son admission in your school?’ The headmaster said, ‘oh yes.’ That was the end of year, so I went. When I got there, the teacher registering new students asked, ‘what is your name?’ I replied that I am Olusegun. He said, ‘Olusegun, what?’ I said I am Olusegun Matthew.’ ‘Matthew Olusegun, what is your father’s name?’ I said, ‘my father’s name? That’s an insult!’
That would have been my first and last day in school, but for the understanding of the head teacher, because I attempted to slap the teacher. How could you insult my father by calling his name? But when I was called, the head teacher said I should lie flat on my stomach, while the teacher should give me three strokes of the cane. I might not have continued; I might have ended my school on that first day. So, when I talk of accidents, these are things you don’t and cannot say I planned.
I didn’t even plan going to war by virtue of the fact that I belonged to the Engineering Corp in the army. I was in Ibadan, when I was called. One Justice Akin, whose house was not far from mine, said after my name was announced, ‘if he is an army engineer, how could he be called to go to the war front?’ But then, at a certain stage in your military career, they did what was called staff and command training, which means it didn’t matter your area of specialisation, as you could go into normal military runs. So, you could be an engineer and command a brigade; you could be an armoured corps and command a brigade or you could be an artillery and command brigade, and so on. I said, ‘well, you (Justin Akin) haven’t offended me, you only expressed yourself because of the limit of your knowledge.’
If you were to recommend a particular lifestyle for today’s young people, what specifically would that be?
A late friend of mine that I used to marvel about his intellect and ability, including longevity, was Helmut Schmidt, the former German chancellor. He died at the age of 96. Helmut was physically and mentally strong and robust, but he did everything you may not want to do. He smoked, used snuffs. He also drank and if a good looking woman went by, my friend would probably say hi to her. When he turned 90, I went to celebrate his birthday with him. And I said, ‘Helmut, well, we thank God for your life.’ He said, ‘this thing they call old age is a bad thing.’ But how can it be a bad thing? We all want to be old. He said, ‘no, it is a bad thing. When you are old, you can’t hear without hearing aid, you saw me put on my hearing aid; you can’t see without wearing glasses, you can’t walk without stick, you can’t eat without dentures,’ but I don’t have dentures yet. He continued, ‘you can’t make love without assistance,’ but I don’t know what he meant by that. So, I think it is the grace of God.
On the 5th of this month, when I will officially celebrate my day, I will play squash. They are doing the squash court and they will have a tournament, which they will cut that morning. And on that morning, between 7 and 9 o’clock, I will be there to play with veterans for 15 minutes. I want to play with the Bellboy for 15 minutes and with the Bell girl for 15 minutes. That is a total of 45 minutes.
Looking back, how did you feel the first time you saw a strand of grey hair on your head?
It didn’t worry me. Why should grey hair bother me? It is part of the ageing process. And except you are a fool, you should know you have to age. So, what you should be praying and working for is to age gracefully and responsibly. Ageing is a process you cannot do anything about. But since I completely shave my hair, I don’t know whether it is grey or white. So, you have grey hair and it is bothering you? You better stop worrying.
At 80, what regrets do you have?
I used to have a friend, Howard, in the UK. He is dead now. When he turned 65, I was in the UK. I said, ‘Howard, I want you to go with me to dinner tonight to mark your birthday.’ And he said ‘ok, you come and pick me at my clinic on Harley Street. I will leave my car for my wife and daughter, because they won’t be joining us.’ So, I went to pick him and we were waiting in front of the restaurant, and I asked this particular question you just asked. I said, ‘Howard, do you have any regrets at 65? He hesitated for almost 30 seconds and then replied, ‘you know I have never thought of it, until you asked this question. But now that you have asked, do I really have any regret;? No, because God has blessed me abundantly. I went to one of the best universities in the world, I went to Oxford.’ At the age of 22, he qualified as a medical doctor.
This was during the Second World War. He joined the army and rose to the rank of a colonel. Before he was 30, he was riding a Rolls Royce. He made money in stock exchange, where he bought shares and stocks. As a doctor, he was fairly successful, and he had three children. He counted and he said, come to think of it, you regret what you should have done, which you did not do and which you can no longer do, either because for whatever circumstances. Then, he started recounting what he had done, and he said to me, ‘the only regret I have is that I had wanted my son to be a medical doctor like me, but he turned out to be a hippie, something like an area boy.’ But that was not of his making, but that of his son.
So, do I really have any regrets? Is there anything that I should have done that I didn’t do, when I had the opportunity to do it? No. Is there anything I would have wanted to do that I did not do? No. Is there anything I have done, which with the benefit of hindsight I wish I hadn’t? No. I always say to my children, ‘my prayer is that I may never do anything that I cannot own up to you.’ And if I can own up to my children anything I have done, I can own up to anyone and even God. When I had the opportunity, I did my best, though you may say my best is not good enough, but that is entirely up to you. Have I done my best? Yes, I have done my best, and have satisfied my conscience and my God.
How you’ve kept such documents as your primary school and entrance results gives the impression of one who is good at record keeping. Right from day one, you knew where you were going. That could not have been by accident…
I didn’t know what I would be in life. Like I said, I went to school by accident, but if you ask, I said here is my card. My interviewer from BBC said he could not even remember where his secondary school card is, not to talk of primary school. It is part of the things one began to do… normally I am very careful, I believe in taking care of small things. My belief is that if you take care of small things, big things will not elude you. 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: Preserve the past, capture the present and design the future and of course, maintain our culture.
As you can see, all these are aspects and the whole content. If you do not know history or you are careless about history, remember that history is your memory. And you don’t want to lose your memory, because if you do, what you ate yesterday, you won’t know. I think it would be tragic not to remember what you ate yesterday. And one of the things we don’t normally take care of, which we take for granted and we are careless about, is what I call institutional memory. We don’t have it; we don’t keep it, as a country. Most of our institutions, like the so-called National Museum, do you see the state they are? So, you see why we have done what we did here, it is not only me. Anybody can build anything and we are never short of buildings or the idea of building, but they are not maintained. So, how do we obtain history? How do we have access to information? How do we retrieve and we treat them as important?
When I became the head of state, I went to Britain and said, ‘look, get me 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. This is leadership. Nigeria sold many barrels of oil in 1970. So, you need information, you need the records, you need the history. In America, they have NARA, which is a government organisation, which once a president builds his presidential library, NARA takes it up to oversee, operate and maintain. Only yesterday, Obama took the decision on the same consultant, RRA and associates that consulted for us. They now consult for Obama in his Presidential Library. Only yesterday they phoned me and said one of the things they presented in their bid is what they have done in our own presidential library. And I said, ‘well you are in good company.’
Looking at the present dispensation, what do you think is currently lacking?
The entire problem is leadership problem. We are just dancing around. In 1998, people came to me, saying you are trying to be President of Nigeria, you may be the last President of Nigeria. Why? They believed by the time I stepped out of office as president of Nigeria, there would be no Nigeria any more. Why, because we had Abacha. And I said, ‘well, I will be president, because, I believe in Nigeria and I have nothing to offer Nigeria other than leadership, which I have offered. They believe if at the end of the day I failed, I would return to my farm. But they were wrong, and I was right, because after me, we have had Yar’ Adua, Jonathan and we now have Buhari. So now, we have had how many years of unbroken democracy? This is the first time we are going to have such a thing. The first time in the history of Nigeria as an independent country, that we would have a peaceful handover from one personality to another was in 2007, in the same party; in 2015 from one personality to another, from one party to another, from ruling party to opposition party, such history is not easy to come by. We should rejoice at that.
When people say, ‘oh they have problems there. Yes, we should have achieved a lot more than we have, but we should also know it could have been worse. I said to my interviewer that people should stop saying Nigeria has not done anything since independence as a country. The generation that gave us independence, you may say whatever you like about them, I may even join you in saying whatever you have to say about them. But they gave us independence; they did that. My own generation, which is the generation that followed, you may say what you like about it, but we fought for the unity of Nigeria. And that should not be taken for granted. How many countries have gone through civil war? So, say what you like. Now we have a democratic dispensation for almost 18 years. We should celebrate that.
How do you feel, when you hear such things as, the last 16 years were a waste and all that?
I just believe it is the height of ignorance and un-appreciation of what God has done for this country. Yes, as I said, I would be the first to admit that we haven’t been where we should have been. But we have also been far from where we could have been.
With the way things are going, are you one of those that believe the unity of this country is not negotiable?
It is a question. I don’t like that word; you picked words that I don’t like. Let anybody who wants to negotiate go ahead to do so. What I believe is that we need ourselves. And if anybody thinks that he doesn’t need that, that he doesn’t need the others, good luck to him. I believe we need ourselves, and it is not question of negotiation. What are you negotiating? Would the Yoruba say they don’t need the rest of Nigeria? I don’t believe they would say that. I always say, look, the fact that you are even asking for more of the cake, which is what I see, is a good thing in itself. Because if you don’t like the cake, you won’t ask for more! It is because you like the cake that you are asking for more. I do understand and know the feeling and plight of the youths, like I said to them the other day they came to me. I told them I sympathise with them.
When I left secondary school, I had job offers in five places. I got job in UAC, I got at the Government Printer, I got at the Medical Store, as well as the School of Agriculture and then, a while later, I got a teaching job. Today, if you leave the university, what are the chances that you will get jobs in two places? So, I told them they have more facilities than I had in my time, but less opportunity. In my time, there was only one university, but today there are 150 universities; more facilities but less opportunity. So, what do we need to do? Create more opportunities! How do we do that? It is not by condemning everything. If you agree that the generation before us gave us independence, then go ahead and say whatever else you want to say about them, but that you cannot take away from them. Our generation fought for the unity of this country, and we also laid the foundation for democracy. What is your generation going to do? You ask yourselves what your own generation is going to do. What are you going to build on the edifice that you have, or what block are you going to take away? That is the way to think. And those countries, where things are working, some people made sacrifices for those things to work. And whatever you may see as bad in your own society, some other countries have also had it.
Somebody was telling this story, that there was a time in America, when a judge would go to deliver judgment with two judgments in the pockets. And both of them would be equally sound, depending on the higher bidder. He would ensure that the complainant is on the left, and the defendant on the right, so he wouldn’t make any mistake. They have gone through all that and have put it behind them. And I say whatever you may say about Trump in America, it is an indication that democracy is not perfect; it does not view the best man for the job. It gives you the chosen man for the job. And what you now have to do is how to make use of what you have. I was one of the first people to congratulate Trump, because that is what his country has chosen. And whether we like it or not, for four years, we have no choice, but to work with him, unless he is impeached. So, it is not for you or me to complain, but for us to see how we can get the best out of the situation that the Americans have given the world.
What do you have to say about the recycling of leaders in Nigeria?
And the ones that you haven’t recycled, what have they done? Tell me, what have the ones you haven’t recycled done? Were Ibori, Alamieyeseigha and Fayose not given the opportunity? So, what the hell are you talking about? Come off it. You see that is the type of thing I find absolutely unacceptable. What more opportunity do you want? In my own cabinet, I had four ministers aged 30. Fortunately, they performed well, but what do you mean by that they were not given opportunity? You see, that is where you miss the road. If that is your way of thinking, then you are wrong. Leadership is not a matter of age; rather, it is a matter of the quality of the individual.
You were quoted as saying it is the turn of Igbo to contest the presidency in 2019…
Again, I did not say so. You people say what comes to you. Look, the Ogun State chapter of Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) came to see me and they asked me to brief them on situation in Southern Kaduna. By then, the governor had briefed me; Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, who comes from that area, had briefed me. I had also been briefed by General Martin Luther Agwai (retd.), who also comes from that area. And I gave them my own understanding of the situation. I said, ‘look, the Southern Kaduna issue is historical, cultural, religious and political. So, if you now want to resolve the issue, you have to take all these issues together. And I said the problem is when we fail to attend to what is important promptly and then it boomerangs on our face, we don’t have anybody to blame. I said here in Ogun State, we have a bit of the Southern Kaduna problem. I said since Ogun State was created, we have had four elected governors. We have three senatorial districts— East, Central and West. The governorship has rotated between East and Central. And I said the West has not produced a governor, I don’t know when you will get there, but if you don’t get there when you should get there and the West decides to go into agitation, then you have yourself to blame. I said the same applies to the Nigeria nation.
At independence Nigeria, had three regions, what you call the tripod— the North, East and West. The North has Hausa/Fulani as major tribe; the East has the Igbos, while the West has the Yoruba. The Hausa/Fulani in the North cannot complain, the Yoruba cannot also complain, whether you like it or not, even those who did not vote for Obasanjo the first time, they have to accept. I said the Igbo haven’t had that chance. Now, we must be mindful that we do not ignore that, as it must be taken care of, that’s all. So, if you want to interpret it whichever way you like, that is your own look out. But it is a fact that if you don’t take care of it, even the minority has been taken care of.
A nation realises its mistaken path and decides to make a U-turn. Two years into the present administration, what direction do you think we are facing?
I don’t know your right or wrong direction. But what I know is that President Buhari has not disappointed me. From what I know of him and what he has done, he has not disappointed me. So, you can come to whatever conclusion you like. In my book, I said that it is not running him down or anything, when you he is not strong on the economy. And he is not. In fact, I also said he is not strong on foreign affairs, though he has improved somewhat in that area. But in areas we know he is strong, he has done his best. He has done his best in fighting insurgency and has done his best in trying to fight corruption. So, where you are facing is entirely up to you. You may be facing the east, west or north.
Ever since you aspired to be the UN Secretary General and Prof. Wole Soyinka kicked against it, you don’t seem to have forgiven him, even in your writings…
You are absolutely wrong. I don’t hold grudges. Wole Soyinka is not God. And I don’t believe there is any human being that is absolutely right. Wole Soyinka has what he has; he is a gifted person in his own way. But Wole Soyinka is not an oracle. I won’t accept it, when WS makes cathedral statements on everything. I don’t believe that anybody is God. No. So, it is not question of forgiving or not forgiving. When WS does what I believe is right, I will commend him, when he says what I believe is wrong, I criticise him. WS is a populist, which I am not. So, that you got wrong and you should get it right.
The National reconciliation committee you set up, why was the report not made public?
The report did what it was meant to do. You are talking of the Oputa Panel. But it was not meant to start writing about changes. What it was meant to do had to do with where we have offended ourselves. Let me give you an example. I went before the Oputa Panel twice, as a president. Some people said, ‘but president, you shouldn’t go.’ And I said, ‘why shouldn’t I?’ I set it up and I believe in it. And I made my point on issues that have ever since been buried. What happened to Kalakuta Republic? I went there and explained. Secondly, Mrs. Elizabeth Pam was a member of that panel. Ben Gbulie killed her husband, James Pam, who was my own boss in the army. And Mrs. Pam asked, ‘why did you kill my husband.’ And then Gbulie said, ‘your husband was one of those that were corrupt because the politicians gave him money to build a house.’ And Mrs. Pam said, ‘no, my husband borrowed money from the bank.’ She brought documents to show for it, and said, ‘it was seven or eight years after my husband died that we finished paying for that house.’ And Gbulie said, ‘with this explanation, madam, I am sorry.’ And Mrs. Pam said I am happy that the air is cleared.’ So, what do you want the report to do? And then the report said I should apologise generally to everybody, which I did. What else do you want?
The relationship between you and your former vice president…
It is not an issue. I am not saying anything on that.
Do you think the National Political Conference report can help resolve political crisis in the country?
I didn’t even read it. So, how can I say anything on what I didn’t read? I don’t believe it was necessary, because if you start going into our situation from the Constituent Assembly of 1977, the one that Babangida did and the one that Abacha wrote, I didn’t read them. I believe it was a distraction.
What do you wish for Nigeria?
The best; the present is a passing phase. I am looking forward to the future. And my future is that I have hope.
What informed your decision to go back to school and read theology?
Because there is no age to learning. It is not influence. I said I want to learn more about my God, so that I can worship Him better. But if that is a problem to you, that is your look out.
How did the benediction song to Nigeria come about?
Let me explain. I did not take credit for that. The credit should go to vice President. I don’t know how he came about it. But he called me and said there is this thanksgiving. It was really difficult for me, when he spoke to me and said there is something he wanted to get done and if I was not there, it would not be complete. I said, ‘Mr. vice president, if you said this, I will go.’ So I went. And we went to the church, after which we went to his house and they gave us breakfast. As soon as we finished breakfast, he took us to where we were to sing. It was a part of his house, it was properly laid out and we did it. And I thought it was good. In my mind, I felt that GOD has been kind to Nigeria and we have to appreciate that.
The Presidential Library must have occurred to people as odd..
The Presidential Library is not in the line of things you do because you want to make money, so you could even say, what is this madness? Just like somebody said my farm was some kind of madness. He went round the farm and said, ‘this is madness.’ I said, ‘yes it is madness.’ If you want to do something that is not popular and easy, you must have a touch of madness.
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