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Olusegun Obasanjo: The triumph of intellect


Olusegun Obasanjo

A doctorate degree in Christian Theology, another proof positive that when Olusegun Obasanjo, former military head of state, former democratically elected president of Nigeria and  distinguished chicken farmer set his mind on any goal, he would strive earnestly to achieve it, not minding the personal discomfort, the grit and the pain that go with that territory. Last Saturday, the man at 82 years of age, bagged a doctorate degree, the first to be awarded by the National Open University of Nigeria.

The general has had, for the best part of his life, a romantic embrace with fate and he was generously rewarded with numerous achievements. Colonel Obasanjo, an army engineer who took over from the dreaded Colonel Benjamin Adekunle, aka the Black Scorpion of the Third Marine Commando during the civil war, had the distinction of breaking the ranks of the Biafran military command to bring an end to the 33-month civil war.  He brought the Biafran officers, led by Colonel Effiong, to formally pledge loyalty to the Federal Government in January 1970.

His romance with fate continued. When General Yakubu Gowon’s military regime seemed to have come to the end of its wits and was replaced in a palace coup of July 1975, Brigadier Obasanjo became the second in command in the Murtala Muhammad military government. Yakubu Danjuma, also a brigadier, took charge of the Army as chief of staff. Then on the black Friday, February 13, 1976, Colonel Suka Dimka’s attempted coup took the life of the head of state.


An obviously devastated Obasanjo, a faithful deputy and hardworking ally of the late Murtala Muhammad, said he was through with service and called on General Danjuma to step into Murtala’s shoes. His confidence in the army, he said, had been thoroughly shaken and in any case, having worked closely with General Muhammad I do not see myself sitting on that exalted seat. Danjuma declined. He insisted that Obasanjo, as the number two in the troika, had no choice but to take over.

As proof that these military dictators were sensitive to the feelings of the public, General Danjuma had cited the incident in Kaduna the night of the coup to buttress his stand that only Obasanjo, as deputy to Murtala, was fated to take over. In an interview with Newswatch editors in November 1992, he recalled that Sheik Abubakar Gumi, a fiery Islamic scholar, had told his followers  that the Dimka coup attempt was a Christian coup, saying to them that Dimka’s opening words in  his coup broadcast that Friday morning were “ I bring you good tidings” words, he claimed, came  straight from the Bible.   

It was therefore an unwilling Obasanjo who was coerced the day after, in fact dragged – apparently screaming and kicking – into the office of the Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces to take charge to prevent the country from drifting. The government under General Obasanjo kept faith with the dead. Obasanjo and other members of the Armed Forces Ruling Council were faithful to their promise to disengage from government in October 1979. After the series of election that ushered in the Second Republic, Shehu Shagari was sworn in as a democratically elected president on October 1, 1979.

In a blaze of national and international approval and accolade, Obasanjo retired to his farm to pursue his pet project, tending to his chickens. As earnest of his commitment, he became, to all intents and purposes, a farmer with all the grit and dirt associated with farming.
But he also made foray into a productive intellectual endeavour, not only for self-development but as a means of generating ideas for policy makers and policy implementers in the public and private sectors. For this purpose, he set up Africa Leadership Forum which organised national and international seminars and workshops. The Forum routinely churned out policy papers and reports, promoting scholarship and expanding the frontiers of intellectualism.

When the military removed the Shehu Shagari regime in 1983, Obasanjo became the self-anointed conscience of the people. He made patriotic statements that helped to check the excesses of the military regime of General Muhammadu Buhari and later that of General Ibarahim Babangida and its structural adjustment programme, SAP. Obasanjo was on a high moral ground from which he occasionally pronounced guilty sentences on errant government officials.

For the retired general, there was never a dull moment. He was not enamoured of the press and he had no apology for it. But when he put the notice board on the gate of his farm at Ota to warn that dogs and journalists were not allowed in, he meant it as a joke. He still allowed in some exceptions.

When he was not presiding over the African Leadership Forum or attending to his chickens, the general took time off to publish books – controversial books. And he took acute interest in the controversies. At Newswatch, we did some cover stories on the books including Nzeogwu the biography of his friend, Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, one of the five majors that staged the 1966 coup. Ray Ekpu interviewed him on the farm. The general demonstrated his humility that night by sharing his bed with Ray because all the rooms were taken by visitors.

In another book, Constitution for Integration and National Development, he took liberty with his intellectual excursion to advocate a one party state for African countries at a time when multi-party system had gained traction and one party-system had lost currency. Dan Agbese, Ray and I spent a night on the farm to interview him. Instead of the interview, what we had was a shouting match. Thrice he packed his papers and left in a huff and thrice we pleaded with him to allow us to resume.  After a very good breakfast with him the following morning, we had the interview.

We were, however, not so lucky on other days – we had five clashes with him when we interviewed him on Not My Will, his Dodan Barrack years.  He turned the table on us on another occasion when Ray and I went to spend the night to interview him on some burning national issues, Babangida regime, SAP and its pains. The general became the interviewer and when we didn’t answer his questions, he cancelled the exercise and sent us out of the farm at midnight.
General Obasanjo later fell victim of General Sani Abacha’s phantom coup. He spent time in prison where he wrote another book, This Animal Called Man to while away the time and to retain his sanity and stabilise his senses. Fate, merciful fate, however, took him out of prison and installed him in the Villa in 1999 as the second democratically elected president.

And all this has happened by the grace of God as he himself testified in his memoire, My Watch: “My personal belief is that the hand of God has always been upon me since my conception in my mother’s womb until this day and it will remain so until I die.”Any wonder then why Dr. Olusegun Obasanjo, former president, statesman and this intellectual giant’s doctorate degree is on Christian Theology?

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Olusegun Obasanjo
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