Fate and faith as Obasanjo turns 85 years
On Saturday, 5th March 2022, many friends and family, even those who disagree with one of Africa’s most revered public figures and former Nigerian President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo rolled out the big drums, to celebrate him as he clocked 85 years of age. Interesting though, many of his contemporaries at his incipient places of schooling, that is Abeokuta Day School and Baptist Secondary School, both in his hometown, are all near nonagenarians, lending credence to the hushed gossips about his real age. This is however, otiose, as matters of periodization in African historiography and Oral Tradition, are tied to events; in this case to a particular “Iwo” market day. So, case closed. Enigmatic, courageous, interestingly intellectual and no less, habitually controversial, ‘Baba’, meaning in regular African parlance “revered old man”, remains a figure of great interest.
In these older years, OBJ as he is also publicly initialed, has also proved his mettle as a prolific writer and scholar, doing very in-depth and advanced studies in diverse areas: Development Economics, Politics, History, Philosophy, Religion, Biographies, etc. Of exceptional note, his lucid chronicles of the Nigerian Civil War, seen from the lens of a firsthand witness, remain classicus exceptionaire. Also, of great readers’ delight is his political satire, ‘The Animal Called Man’, partly ruminating on the contours of life’s journey and his ordeal as a death-row political prisoner, who escaped the hangman’s knot by the whiskers.
He also keeps a world record, not yet listed on the Guinness Book, as the oldest former national leader to have returned to school in search of knowledge. He started from first degree, ultimately earning a PhD in Theology from the Open University of Nigeria at the age of 80.
Untiring Life Of Service
Obasanjo continues to glide the global political landscape as one of the leading statesmen of the second half of the 20th century, now entering the nascent years of the 21st century. For one, he is the only Nigerian to have ruled the country as a military Head of State and successfully completed eight straight years as a democratically elected President. (This is an aspiration which many Nigerians hope that incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari will also join).
So, in several forms for the past 60 years, OBJ has been at the vortex of Nigeria’s post-independence nation building process. His contributions as a military officer exuded the highest level of professionalism. Even during the very sad experience of the Nigeria civil war, which remains the palest memory for all of the country, in a manner ace playwright, J.P. Clark rightly declared, “we are all casualties”, Obasanjo’s war records remain devoid of the kind of controversies that are still haunting some of his peers even in death.
He had the burden of coming into the Third Marine Commando in Port Harcourt, taking over from the dreaded Colonel Benjamin Adekunle (1936-2014) who was better known by the sobriquet “Black Scorpion”. OBJ however, conducted the business of defending his own front which was the epicenter of the war, Port Harcourt and its environs, being home of the oil fields which were important to both sides in the unfortunate war, with relative dexterity. Good fortune smiled on him as he became the messenger of peace in ending the fight, on January 11 1970, as he received the Instruments of Cessation of Hostility by Biafra at Owerri, from the hand of Biafran Chief Justice, Sir Louis Mbanefo (1911-1977), who indeed was the first lawyer from former Eastern Nigeria and Mr. P. I Okeke (1920-1995), its Inspector-General of Police.
This appeared to have been the beginning of his unending national service, as his performance easily earned him the highest levels of governance in the years ahead.
As the war ended, he was invited by the then Nigerian Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, who himself was just 36 years old, to join him in the government as Commissioner (Minister) of Works. In that capacity, Obasanjo became intricately connected with the implementation of a major aspect of Gowon’s post war mantra which was, “Reconciliation, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation”. He also had the opportunity to implement Nigeria’s Second National Development Plan (1970-1974), focusing on massive construction of major national infrastructure in Nigeria including public highways, airports, etc.
The hand of destiny again worked in his favour as change in power equations arising from the peaceful overthrow of General Gowon on 30th July 1975 led to Obasanjo’s elevation to the position of Chief of Staff, Supreme Military Headquarters. In those days of military rule, that office was defacto Vice President. It is worth mentioning, that the rather affable Gowon was overthrown by associates led by his own Minister of Communication, General Murtala Mohammed (1938 – 1976) while he was attending a summit of African Heads of States under the auspices of the defunct Organization of African Unity in Kampala, Uganda.
The government of Murtala/OBJ enjoyed sufficient support and appeal despite some controversial decisions such as the needless sacking of a lot of the best brains in the public service. This notwithstanding, their early resolve to transfer power back to civilian rule by appointing a Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) was received with wide national applause.
On the world scene, the steps which Nigeria took to fight Racism, Apartheid and Decolonization, placed the country in its rightful place of its manifest destiny as the veritable leader of the Black and African Peoples. The duo of Murtala and OBJ easily saw the independence of Angola and brought about global abhorrence towards racial segregation as a whole.
To be continued tomorrow.
Igali is a retired Ambassador.