When Mathew Okikiola Aremu Olusegun Obasanjo was born there was no record of his birth date because his father was illiterate. When he met an Indian astrologer he thought he had found the answer to his puzzle but the astrologer only told him that he would be a great man and he would also live long. Both predictions have come true. He has occupied the coveted office of the president of Africa’s most populous nation. And he is 80.
Obasanjo first became Nigeria’s head of state in February 1976 after the assassination of the charismatic head of state, Murtala Muhammed. Obasanjo promised to hand over the affairs of state to an elected President on October 1, 1979 and he did. Handing over the reins of government to President Shehu Shagari as scheduled made Nigerians to think of Obasanjo as a promise-keeper. He too, must have felt a whiff of contentment despite the election controversy that he had done his best for his country and decided to go back to his farm at Ota and turn his attention to chicken matters.
He spent many years soiling his fingers at the farm and also jawjawing with the cognoscenti who dropped by at the farm under the auspices of the Africa Leadership Forum. His Ota farm became the gathering ground for people of knowledge. Little did he know that the Sani Abacha government was becoming extra sensitive to his activities especially his campaign for the restoration of democracy. Before he knew it, he was arrested, tried and bundled into jail on trumped up charges of coup plotting. For most people who knew him, the charges were simply fake, an ingenious device to put an outspoken man away.
Obasanjo is a reform-minded, not revolution-minded man. He had not participated in any coup during his military career so it would have been preposterous to think of it when he was outside the Army. It is possible that his friend Chukwuma Nzeogwu knew that Obasanjo would not be interested in the planning of the January 15, 1966 coup and so he kept it from him and him from it.
After three years three months and three days in the bowels of Nigeria’s filthy prisons Obasanjo breathed the air of freedom offered by the Head of State, Abdulsalami Abubakar only to learn that his tormentor had passed on. Like Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s incomparable superstar, Obasanjo took a short walk from the prison to the presidency. From the depth of the valley he rose, once again, to the top of the mountain. His journey is an incredible journey, the type from which fairy tales are woven. Let us just call it his odyssey.
He fought in the Biafran war and survived to become the historic field commander who received the instrument of surrender from Col Phillip Efiong after Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu fled to Ivory Coast in “search of peace.” By our experience coup plotters hardly ever live to tell their story except their coup succeeds. Obasanjo lived to tell the story of his innocence and to mark his 80th birthday with pomp and panoply. If you live long enough in a country like Nigeria to the ripe age of 80 there is every reason for celebration because many things can take you to an early grave: armed robbers, hired assassins, pension problems, Boko Haram, kidnappers, hit and run drivers, contaminated water, fake garri from India, electricity generator fames, medical misdiagnosis, fake tyres from China, collapsing buildings etc. So Obasanjo has every reason to break into song and dance. He escaped all these.
Obasanjo has chalked up several firsts: first military leader to hand over power to a civilian government, first Nigerian leader to run the country cumulatively for 11 years; first civilian president to hand over to another civilian president; first person to lead the country both as a military and a civilian leader; first leader in Africa to establish a presidential library; first Nigerian President to personally document the achievements of his administration in several books. Obasanjo has shown himself to be a leader who believes in matters of the mind. When he was elected in 1999 he quickly set up the T.Y. Danjuma Committee that worked on producing a blueprint for his government. Those volumes produced a roadmap for his government although critics allege that the government did not implement most of the recommendations. And when President Muhammadu Buhari came to power in 2015 Obasanjo’s team produced volumes of documents for the incoming administration. It is not clear how much of what was contained in those documents has been implemented by the Buhari administration but the gesture was commendable.
In furtherance of mind matters, Obasanjo set up a presidential library which was commissioned a few days ago. It is a culture that is unknown to Africa but the Americans have institutionalised it since President Franklin D. Roosevelt kicked it off. Roosevelt’s presidential library was dedicated on June 30, 1941 at Hyde Park. Obasanjo’s library which is located in Abeokuta is an opulent affair. It contains 15 million documents, two million books, 4000 artefacts and memorabilia, a hotel, a cafeteria, museum and tourist artefacts. It is an invaluable, historical monument that will give researchers an open window into the Obasanjo Presidency and the Obasanjo persona.
There are a few achievements that define the Obasanjo presidency. He was the one who took us out of the debt trap some years ago when we asked for debt forgiveness and the creditors gave us a resounding No for an answer. At the time he took over in 1999 the debt had been piling, multiplying and growing at a geometric stride. He knew that allowing it to skyrocket was the easiest way to send Nigerians to a life of future servitude. He promptly paid off the debts and set us free from the intimidating knock of the creditor on our door. After his exit we crawled back to the money lender. Now, we are in front of his door, the front door, waiting for him to open. Experts may argue about the merits and demerits of being in debt. That is their business. For me there is no doubting the wisdom of the ancients that “he who goes aborrowing goes asorrowing.”
Another achievement of the Obasanjo presidency is the telephone revolution. At the time Obasanjo came into office in 1999 there were just about 450, 000 phone lines. To get a phone at the time you had to pay for the phone, pay for the wire, pay for the ladder, pay for the vehicle and finally pay for the technician. Today, everybody has a phone or two-messenger, herdsman, maiguardi, farmer, carpenter. The phone revolution is here.
Obasanjo embarked on the privatisation of government enterprises, a good idea that was badly managed. The full fruits of that effort are difficult to find today. As far as that goes we are still in an entrepreneurial wilderness.
The purpose of this piece is not to do a recitation of Obasanjo’s achievements and failures but to give a bird’s eye view of the Essential Obasanjo, the nationalist and internationalist. His fight for decolonisation of Africa was legendary. His military government was the first to spread the welcome mat for liberation movements such as SWAPO (Namibia) ANC (South Africa) and MPLA Angola and to push for the granting of membership status for them in the OAU.
In pushing for the eradication of apartheid in South Africa he pulled no punches. In August 1986, he told the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher: “I must tell you that many people around the world view your continued opposition to sanctions as founded on instinct not logic and as displaying a misguided tribal loyalty and myopic political vision. Those who seek to minimise sanctions and their effects will have the blood of thousands, if not millions, of innocents on their hands and on their conscience. My heart will be heavy but my hands will be clean. Will yours?” Pretty strong stuff. On another occasion, he said with reference to Thatcher. “She is called the Iron Lady, why does she suddenly become the Wooden Lady? How does she become an exponent of avoiding unemployment in South Africa when her policies have created unemployment for about three million people in Britain?” You bet such verbal tsunami is not for the faint-hearted. But sometimes Obasanjo is ready to go beyond verbal assaults. At a reception held for him at Ilorin during the early days of his presidency a security man was busy whipping people at the venue of the reception. Obasanjo moved out briskly, grabbed the cane from the security man and gave him a taste of his own medicine. As he whipped him the crowd roared in retaliatory approval. No other Nigerian President would do that but Obasanjo is simply an enigma, a man of deep complexity and inexplicable simplicity. In a radio broadcast on October 1, 1939, Sir Winston Churchill had described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” That description fits Obasanjo like a glove.
In December 1985, he had asked me to come and have a conversation with him at his Ota Farm. I was to spend the night on the farm. That weekend his friend President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and his entourage were to spend time on the farm too. They took all the rooms at the farm so I decided to use the sofa in the living room. He graciously invited me to come and sleep with him in his room on his bed. I accepted the kind offer and we had a long conversation that night. I assure you that nothing else happened. He is not one of them. Neither am I. I wonder whether any other Nigerian of his caliber would let a reporter come that close. That level of simplicity and openness is simply awesome.
Another story of his openness. When he was the President of the Federal Republic I met him at Aso Villa and asked for his telephone numbers. A senior official who was present promptly offered me the general numbers through which he knew I may not be able to reach him. As soon as the official left Obasanjo gave me his direct telephone numbers including the bedroom number. I never ever spoke to him on the bedroom number because I thought it was a privilege that didn’t need to be abused. But one day I called the number at 10 p.m. No one picked it and when I met him I mentioned it and said: “But I don’t get there until about 3 or 4 in the morning.” I could not possibly call a president at such an unholy hour in his bedroom. But it is obvious that Obasanjo is a certified workaholic, a 20-hour a day workman. He drives himself hard, very hard and so does he drive all those who work with him.
He is a very outspoken man who does not care whose ox is gored. He says it as it is; he does not mind proffering an opinion that is on the opposite side of the majority once he is convinced about it. He does not bend with the wind. And when he speaks he does so in a manner that is unforgettably vivid. Part of that acknowledged vividness is his accustomed pidginisation of governance. He says happily, “I dey kampe” to indicate that he is very well and when he invites you for a conversation he says “come make we knack teeth.” Such down-to-earth mode of communication makes him a grassroots politician because he is on the same page with the hoi-poloi. He has no airs around him. Eventhough he is a somewhat permanent fixture in Nigeria’s governance architecture he wears his power very lightly.
Let us just call him the big enchilada.