Obasanjo hard choices
I know Chief Olusegun Mathew Aremu Obasanjo. He is Abeokuta most famous resident, Nigeria’s longest ruler, Africa’s pre-eminent elder statesman, farmer, soldier, author, agent-provocateur and international trouble-shooter. But it is not entirely correct to say I know Chief Obasanjo for he remains an intriguing enigma. Where does he get his drive, his relentless capacity to get things done and his indomitable spirit? Anyone who has been watching Obasanjo over the years, would notice his changed fashion taste. He is now more dapper in fashionably made three-piece agbada and occasional kaftan. The person responsible for this is Bola, his magnificent wife, who hover over him like a Guardian Angel.
Last Sunday, March 5, Obasanjo marks his official 80th birthday. He is 80 according to the records of the Nigerian Army, the successor institution he joined in 1958. But in reality, the nearest Obasanjo knows about his date of birth was that he was born on “Ifo market day!” Ifo is a town not far from Abeokuta, the capital of Ogun State.
In 1991, I had been invited to participate in the Farm House Dialogue organised by Obasanjo African Leadership Forum at the Otta Farm House of the general. Our topic was the role of traditional rulers in an emerging democracy. In attendance were several top Nigerians, including members of the traditional aristocracy including the Osile Oke-One Egba, Oba Dapo Tejuoso and the Isekhure of Benin. Professor Akin Mabogunje, the famous geographer was the chairman while Baba Obasanjo served as the moderator. I was the rapporteur. We closed late on the first day and after dinner we were ready to retire by 10 p.m. The second session was to resume the following morning at 8.30 a.m.
“Dare,” Obasanjo beckoned to me as I was about to go to my room. “Let’s meet at 7 a.m. to review your report!”
By 7 a.m., he was waiting for me. Luckily for me, I had the report ready, having worked on it most of the night.
Obasanjo was born into challenging circumstances and he knew early in life that if he was to make something different from the easy choices around him, then he had no other choice that to work, work and work. Though where just in March, I am sure he must have travelled to at least 10 countries in 2017 pursuing his post-retirement career as an international peacemaker, goodwill ambassador and advisors to governments and international institutions. There are few Nigerians who may be logging more miles in the air than Obasanjo, not even our Minister of Foreign Affairs. Sometimes ago, someone asked him with evident mischief: “Baba, when are you visiting us again in Nigeria?”
One continues to ask what has kept Obasanjo relevant in national and international affairs for half-a-century. He is a man of keen native intelligence and profound perspicacity. As a young officer, he had led his troops to the Adamawa hills where there was some uprising against the then Northern Regional government of Alhaji Ahmadu Bello. About four weeks into the operation, about 10 of his soldiers reported sick and they had to see the doctor. They all had the same type of gentleman disease. Obasanjo met the doctor.
“It seems certain that my men are all meeting the same woman,” he told the doctor. “We need to get this woman or else, she would disable the entire force!”
Soon the woman was brought. She denied she had any form of venereal disease, though she admitted that the soldiers were her customers. The woman was treated by the doctor along with the soldiers.
Later, he led the same set of troops to Shagamu during some local disturbances.
“In this place,” he told his troops. “Don’t touch anybody’s wife here. There is no injection against magun!”
What could be responsible for Obasanjo staying power? Luck? On January 13, 1966, Obasanjo had arrived in Kaduna after a military course in the United Kingdom. He decided to put up with his friend, Major Chukwuemeka Kaduna Nzeogwu, an instructor at the Nigerian Army. That night, the two friends shared the same bed. The following day, Nzeogwu left at dawn and he was not to return until the following morning with a bandaged hand. Unknown to Obasanjo, Nzeogwu had been busy leading Nigeria’s first military coup. He had also led the assault on the official residence of Ahmadu Bello, the powerful and much respected Premier of the Northern Region, killing him and one of his wives and bringing into a sorry end, the First Republic.
If Obasanjo had arrived a week earlier, he would have been told about the coup by his friend and may be would have become part of the plot. But it was still a dangerous thing to be associated with Nzeogwu, the assassin. Soon, some soldiers and civilians seeking to revenge the killing of Bello and some top military officers, were looking for Obasanjo to add him to the statistics of death. He went underground. The new ruler in the North, Colonel Hassan Usman Katsina, the first military governor of the defunct Northern Region, decided to send him to a safe place in Maiduguri. “That young man has a future in Nigeria,” Hassan Katsina said. He could not have been more prescience.
But that would not have occurred but for the happenstance in the Congo after the first prime-minister Patrice Lumumba was assassinated and Obasanjo and many Nigerian troops had served as peace-keepers under the United Nations flag. A group of Belgian nuns were captured by the rebels and their fate can only be imagined in the hands of those rough men. Obasanjo was sent by his commander to go and negotiate the nuns’ release. Instead of peace, the rebels captured him, drove him away in the booth of their car and when they got to their camp, decided to execute him.
But it was Obasanjo lucky day. One of the rebels would not agree to his execution. As an officer, he was entitled to a pack of cigarette per day. Obasanjo, a discipline teetotaler, would freely give away his stick of cigarettes, including to total strangers. One of those who have benefitted from that generosity was the rebel soldier who was now pleading his cause. Soon a superior rebel officer came to intervene and Obasanjo was freed. Happenstance had saved him.
But then Obasanjo is capable of making hard choices. In 1993, General Sani Abacha had toppled the regime of Chief Ernest Adegunle Shonekan, former corporate titan, who was the Head of the Interim National Government. In the fevered atmosphere of that era, General Oladipo Diya, Abacha’s deputy, had pronounced that “our stay will be brief!” For Abacha however, that was an elastic term which he wanted to interpret in his own way. Soon forces were coalescing to demand a definite date for the return of civil democratic rule. Leading the movement at the Constitutional Conference was General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, who was Obasanjo deputy during his first incarnation as a military Head of State.
Events were to turn nasty when General Yar’Adua was arrested and charged with alleged coup plotting. Soon other serving and retired officers were corralled into the coup dragnet including the likes of Colonel Lawan Gwadabbe, Colonel Gabriel Ajayi and retired Major Akinloye Akinyemi. Many civilians too find themselves in the strange coup dragnet including the willy Chief Adisa Akinloye, former Minister in the old Western Region who was the chairman of the defunct National Party of Nigeria. The media was not spared. Chris Anyanwu of the defunct The Sunday Magazine, George Mba of Tell, Kunle Ajibade of TheNews were in the dragnet. One of the biggest catch for Abacha was the great human right crusader, Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti, a generally unflappable person whose steely resolve was only be matched by the great dramas of his family history including the saga of old Abeokuta and the inspiring story of his mother, Mrs Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti.
Obasanjo was abroad when Yar’Adua and the others were arrested and brought into detention in Lagos. Some of his friends met him and tried to persuade him to stay away. Why go home to certain arrest and possible incarceration or worse? Obasanjo thanked them and headed home to embrace his grim fate. At the Murtala Muhammed Airport, which he built and then named after his illustrious predecessor, his passport was seized. He was allowed to drive home under the shadow of the Directorate of Military Intelligence, DMI. It was the twilight period of the Nigerian journey into darkness under the Abacha dictatorship. Obasanjo had made his hard choice and it was to lead to three years, three months and three days in various prisons and detention centres.
Of course, Obasanjo has made many other hard choices since then. When President Umar Musa Yar’Adua was terminally ill, it was Obasanjo intervention that woke Nigeria from its stupor and gave us the Doctrine of Necessity. It was also a hard choice for him to confront his protégé, Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, who wanted a second term in office and Obasanjo said no way. With his choices, Obasanjo has helped propelled President Mohammadu Buhari to power.
The highpoint of Obasanjo 80th birthday was the grand opening of the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library, in Abeokuta last Saturday. Who else but Obasanjo, could have dared to embark on such a gigantic project in retirement and passed his active years? It is the first on the African continent. Many people had collaborated with him to make this dream possible: Chief Olusegun Osoba, the journalism icon who made the land available when he was the Governor of Ogun State, Obasanjo former Special Assistant, the inimitable librarian, Nyaknno Osso and the ageless triumvirate of Ambassador Carl Masters, Dr Christopher Kolade and Professor Akin Mabogunje.
It was indeed saddening that our distinguished colleague and friend, Dr. Adinoiyi Onukaba, had attended the event that Saturday, only to die that evening in an accident induced by robbery on Ilesha-Akure road, in Ondo State. Onukaba was one of those young persons attracted to Obasanjo in those days when the Farm House was the magnet for young intellectuals and journalists. He was to prove his mettle as a writer, playwright, journalist, managing director of the old Daily Times, media aide to Vice-President Atiku Abubakar. His biography of Obasanjo, In the Eyes of Time, is one of the best biographies ever written on a Nigerian public figure. Last October 10, he was the reviewer of my book, One Day and A Story, the Reminiscences of an African Journalist which we presented in Lagos. Incidentally, the book dwells extensively on the life of Dele Giwa who was also the subject of Onukaba’s book, Born to Run, which he wrote in collaboration with Dele Olojede. Now he has gone to join the ancestors. I commiserate with his bereaved family, especially his very young wife.