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Interrogating secrets that keep Obasanjo as socio-political enigma

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Last Monday, the book, Olusegun Obasanjo: The Man, The General, The President written by Otunba Femmy Carrena was publicly unveiled to a select associates and strategic ‘partners’ of the former president. Around to spice the occasion was Emeritus Professor Michael Abiola Omolewa with his inspiring and stimulating presentation on why Obasanjo remains relevant on the country’s socio-political turf despite the perceived failings when he held fort as president from 1999-2007.

We should ask ourselves if Chief Obasanjo was a leader. Did he have followers? It seems obvious that a General would have developed a followership in the army. As a politician, Chief Obasanjo led his political party, the People’s Democratic Party as the Presidential candidate, then President, Chairman of the Board of Trustees and spokesperson before his membership card was torn, perhaps with his endorsement. It has been argued that Chief Obasanjo was more of a military leader than a political leader. He was always larger than a group. Chief Obasanjo does not seem to mind whether anyone listens or not, he seems satisfied with getting his messages across even to people who are deaf and not prepared to listen. He writes letters in case his audience are unable and /or unwilling to listen or are deaf; and he shouts in case people have hearing deficiency or do not hear enough. He always has an independent mind, and he abhors any attempt to exploit ethnic belonging or religious affiliation to any advantage. He has an incurable passion for getting the job done well and thoroughly.

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That he was a successful leader is never in question. The evidence is there for all to see. The book, Obasanjo and the World, by John Lliffe, has succinctly summarised the major achievements of Chief Obasanjo: his handing over of power to a civilian government in 1979; his vocal opposition to the regimes of Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha, which earned him a spell in prison; his work against the apartheid regime in South Africa; his nationalistic rather than sectarian view, even at the expense of the Yoruba support; his keeping the country together during the turmoil that followed the return to democracy, the liquidation of Nigeria’s debt and the space given to his reform during the first two years of his second term….decisive role as an international conciliator and mediator in national and international conflicts”. Lliffe adds that, “depoliticising the army was probably his greatest achievement which led to the containment of violent conflicts that marked the recent history of Nigeria, a nation riddled by ethnic, religious, regional cleavages”.

To these, we should add his important role in the resolution of the Darfur crisis in Sudan, and the crises in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Cote d’Ivoire, among other parts of Africa. At home, he was a monumental success; abroad, he was a stupendous success, redeeming the image of the pariah state of Nigeria at his assumption of duty as the President and leaving with not just a restored Nigeria but also Africa, which he led as President of the African Union. Obasanjo has provided leadership at every sector. For example, in education, he launched the Universal Primary Education (UPE) programme in 1976 when he was Military Head of State. On his return to the seat of power in 1999 as civilian President he launched the Universal Basic Education (UBE) programme trying to offer access to education for the generality of Nigerian children and the younger adult population. He was selected as keynote speaker at the launch of the Education For All (EFA) programme in Dakar, Senegal in February 2000 where he declared that the most important weapons for development are Education, Education and Education. Two years after his Dakar outing, he was special guest at the General Conference of UNESCO where he addressed the 31st General Conference of the United Nations specialised agency for education, science, and culture, one of the rare occasions when leadership of an African leader was globally acknowledged. The contribution to other fields such as Agriculture, business development, even the aerospace, security and transportation have been documented by academics and writers all over the world.

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As Nicholas Norbrook, in his book review of John Lliffe, posted on the Africa Report in May 2011, has declared: “Love him or loathe him, Olusegun Obasanjo has been deeply involved in half a century of Nigerian public life.

How was it possible for Chief Olusegun Obasanjo to achieve so much as a leader? How the soldier, civilian, Head of State and President of Nigeria, found the time for effective and efficient leadership is perhaps beyond the comprehension of man.

As we seek to explore the secret of the man, soldier, and president, we need to appreciate the first secret : the sound preparation which he received at home. We have always been told of the influence of the mother on the upbringing of the child. Indeed, the role of women in the development of the child is so globally recognised that the world speaks of the Mother Tongue and never of a father tongue.

Obasanjo has frequently appreciated the role of the mother. He has been prophetically been named Olusegun, the victory that is Divinely inspired and given, Okikiola, a celebrity; and Christened Mathew, in recognition of the important role of one of the authors of the Gospel Books.

The second secret that has made the leadership of Obasanjo sustainable is that the man has wisely taken advantage of the non-formal learning offered by the indigenous education system. Obasanjo is lucky to have been well brought up with the deep knowledge of indigenous education. Basically, the aim of indigenous education from which Olusegun Obasanjo benefitted has always been geared ultimately to produce an omoluwabi, an embodiment of values, the person of integrity, a perfect gentleman, well bred, courteous, disciplined, and endowed with competence, compassion, and character—the 3Cs.

The omoluwabi is, furthermore, groomed to possess an independent spirit, defiance of inequity and social injustice, the demonstration of aptitude in craftsmanship, integrity, valour, honour, knowledge of traditional history, traditional medicine, norms and practices, and investment of the talent, as well as skill for the advancement of the individual and the wider community. The omoluwabi was predictably known for tolerance and sensitivity to differences. Character remains the key virtue of the omoluwabi. For as the Yoruba put it, “if there is no character, beauty becomes ugliness”, and “It is your character and character alone, that will make your life happy or unhappy”. Thus, “If you have a good head but lack character, the head will soon lose its goodness”.

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Another significant core value of the omoluwabi is compassion. Compassion is a deeply ingrained value in the African worldview, practiced in every social, economic, political, and religious structure of a community. Compassion gives the community its identity.

Other particular elements of the training of the omoluwabi include the acquisition of humility, wisdom, and the respect for constituted authority. These elements would, most probably, explain why Obasanjo was never involved with coup planning or illegal regime change.

We would recall that Obasanjo voluntarily handed over power to the civilians in 1979 and has worked hard to sustain peaceful transfer of power. We must note that without being engaged in plotting, luck constantly smiled on him as he found himself profiting from disasters and failures of others. Or how else could one explain how he ended up taking the surrender of the leadership of Biafra at the tail end of the Nigerian Civil War of 1967 to 1970; or how he succeeded his boss, Murtala Mohammed as the Military Head of State in February 1976 and got elevated from prison to palace, becoming elected as the civilian President in May 1999? Bravery was part of the components of his home education and it is not a surprise that, as an Owu descendant, he was armed with courage to speak out anytime without fear or favour and to anyone who crosses his path. Long before he was given the nickname of ebora owu, he was already omo owu.

The third secret is that Chief Obasanjo also took advantage of the formal education system introduced by the European and European missionaries from the 19th century. He had his primary education. For his secondary education, he missed the Abeokuta Grammar School, but he got admission into the Baptist High School, where the best of the students of his days were gathered, including the late Chief S.M. Afolabi and M.K.O. Abiola. Obasanjo has never stopped learning.

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In addition to his local Yoruba language with the Egba accent, he ensured the mastery of the English language, which he required for advancement in the education system supervised by the English-speaking colonial officials and the British examining boards of the Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate and the groomed West African Examinations Council. As a soldier with postings to the Northern Nigeria and the command of troops, most of whom were Hausa speaking, he learnt to communicate in Hausa. When he applied for the position of Secretary-General of the United Nations and was told that he would require a working knowledge of an additional foreign language, he quickly added the learning of French. He once commented that he was glad that he was not required to learn other languages such as Chinese before his application was no longer processed and the position given to an Arab Egyptian who took the Africa slot for the position.

The fourth secret is that Chief Olusegun Obasanjo has never stopped learning. He reads widely. His appetite for learning is insatiable. As the President of Nigeria, he enrolled as a student of the revitalised National Open University of Nigeria, NOUN, on which he lifted the earlier suspension, for a Diploma programme in Theology. He proceeded with his studies after his departure from office and finally, obtained the doctoral degree of the University. Many have suggested that Chief Obasanjo deliberately embarked on this programme to assist in the promotion of the unusual distance learning-mode University that had just got its suspension lifted. It is perhaps more plausible to conclude that Chief Obasanjo believes in continuing and lifelong learning. This is because the indigenous education system encouraged learning throughout life. Indeed, the indigenous education enjoined the dead not to eat worms or millipedes on arrival at the destination, in heaven, but to learn to do whatever those on site do, as crafted in the Yoruba words: ma j’okun, ma j’ekolo, ohunti won ban je niki o ma a je.

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He proceeded with his Military training where he distinguished himself. The further exposure to military training further strengthened much of the values taught by the indigenous education system, especially bravery, courage, resolute determination, and alertness. He was quick to appreciate the value of the acquisition of language skills.

Basically, it is agreed that leadership must do more with the leader’s mind rather than what he or she does or does not do. It also has little to do with the age as many of the leaders have been young men and women. One, Yakubu Gowon, a bachelor, indeed got married three years after he was already installed as the Head of the State of Nigeria. Many of those who made lasting impression on governance in the country were young minds. It is imperative that the leader must have adequate and appropriate knowledge. The point then is that to be successful as a leader, it is imperative that the leader must be an informed, knowledgeable person. This is because of the axiom that, “You cannot give what you don’t have”. Oswald Chambers, the author of My Utmost for His highest, observed in the Devotional of 15th December, that, “If you cannot express yourself on any subject, struggle until you can. If you do not, someone will be the poorer all the days of his life. Struggle to re-express some truth of God to yourself, and God will use that expression to someone else”.

Obasanjo obviously found a fulfilment in his acquisition of knowledge. He has no room for mediocrity. He is ever confident about himself. There have been cases in which he has successfully engaged professionals in arguments and debates and trounced them. Books published on Obasanjo, including the most recent provided by Otunba Carrena, have information on the several circumstances in which he has displayed bravery, industry, courage, dedication, determination and, of course, wisdom. Wisdom made him know, as the civilian President, when to stop the demonstration of courage. Perhaps, this is why he carefully avoided the sensitive, controversial, and possibly divisive issues such as State creation and the population census.

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It is important to note that Obasanjo followed the principles of adequate and effective preparation for leadership by making sure that he constantly pursued the acquisition of knowledge. It is interesting to note that leaders who led the struggle for the liberation of Africa from colonial rule and served as leaders of the region spent the early years of their lives to receive quality education. For example, Kwame Nkrumah, the pioneering President of Ghana, and Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Nigerian nationalist were in the United States for their education. Chief Obafemi Awolowo pursued the acquisition of knowledge with all his energy. After a stint at Wesley College, he decided to use correspondence education for the acquisition of his first degree in Commerce before he travelled to the UK for the course in Law, and where he published in 1947 the book, Path to Nigerian Freedom. He had continued with his self-education, reading widely, surrounding himself with the cream of intellectuals, and engaging in meditation, constant reflection, and writing, sharing ideas. His Minister of Education, Chief S.O. Awokoya was the first University of London graduate in Chemistry in Nigeria who ended as the first African Director of Science programmes for UNESCO. Outside Nigeria, the example of Kwame Nkrumah is illustrative: United States educated African, like the Nigerian Nnamdi Azikiwe who had his education in the United States where he served as a University teaching assistant. Among the modern leaders is the former Governor of Anambra State who, after his graduation in Philosophy at the University of Nigeria in 1984, immersed himself in the study of Economics, Management and Business in the Lagos Business School, Harvard Business School, the London School of Economics, and the Columbia Business School in New York, as well as the Institute for Management Development in Switzerland. Peter Obi became “a captain of industry, with investments in businesses across sectors”.

There are many other examples in the country but I chose Peter Obi because he has always explained that he was not after public acceptability and that leadership is not a beauty contest but a serious business that has to deliver dividends to those who elected him Governor of the State. Outside politics, we have the likes of Aare Afe Babalola who was self-educated and who invested all his energy to obtain external degrees in Economics and Law from the University of London, and who rose to become a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, and proprietor of educational institutions including the Afe Babalola University in Ado-Ekiti.

We do not know how and when Obasanjo learnt the principle of providing leadership through an efficient preparation for the role.

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Certainly, he did not seem to have bothered about whether he was in the military uniform or the civilian costume, whether he was the Head of State or when he was out of office. It appeared that what mattered to him has always been the objective of delivering the goods, serving humanity, making sure that failure was beyond his scope. In commenting on his several bold initiatives as the military Head of State and civilian President of Nigeria, Adebayo Adeolu, in his work published by the Safari Books in 2017, has kept away from the use of the word, leadership as he titled his work, Nigeria’s Most Successful Ruler. At the same time, Steve Itugbu, in his work on Foreign Policy and Leadership in Nigeria: Obasanjo and the Challenge of African Diplomacy, published in London and New York in 2017, has used the word leadership in his study of Obasanjo as the military Head of State, who confronted the Western countries with his resolute determination to liberate the Southern parts of country from the apartheid and continued domination by European powers. To that end, Obasanjo had defied the Western powers and sent troops to join the Cuban soldiers who arrived in Africa to assist in the freedom struggles in Mozambique and Angola. He had also made his government support the struggle against the minority rule and the notorious apartheid system of South Africa. For Itugbu and many other scholars, Obasanjo was not just a mere ruler but a leader. Thus, Itugbu spotted Obasanjo as one of the, ”strong men leaders who personalized the conduct of foreign policy” in Africa, and reviewed Obasanjo’s “personality and leadership style and the substantial influence he wielded over the conduct of Nigeria’s external relations”. The work by Hassan A. Saliu and his colleagues in 2018, again, isolated Obasanjo for special mention in the study of Nigeria in African Affairs: Hegemonic and Altruisitic Considerations.

The fifth secret for the attainment of sustainable leadership, that has not been explored but which is perhaps the dominant factor in the success of former President Obasanjo as a leader, is his awareness of the touch of God in his life. It is likely that as he grew up he learnt about the Bible stories of David and Goliath, the supernatural healing of the General Namaan through the intervention of the young Hebrew maid and his subsequent contact with Prophet Elisha, as recorded in 2 Kings chapter 5, and of the messages of hope and assurance of supernatural protection brought by Jesus to the world during His three years Ministry on earth. This would be the most plausible explanation for the supernatural protection of the general in the Congo, in the clutches of Abacha and other known and unknown traps set for him in life. It is the only reason why a seating President would spend quality time at the Holy Ghost services and Congress of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, his being the only survivor of the three people that general Abacha wanted dead, and serving as a Sunday School Bible teacher, also starting each day committing himself and family in the hands of his God.

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Obasanjo as a leader was thus fully prepared for the leadership role that was thrust on him by circumstances and certainly, miraculously from Above. In response he has done all that is humanly possible to keep himself healthy by disciplined physical exercises, controlled nutrition, and regular medical check-up. He has also always kept himself busy as a multitasking person, soldier, politician, farmer, evangelist, peacekeeper, counsellor, father, husband, statesman and global icon.

As we conclude the presentation, we may make the following observations. First, that Chief Obasanjo would have earned for himself the position of a Professor had he extended his interest to that sector: he has the PhD and ample quality publications of articles in high impact journals and books that have stood the test of time in quality, relevance, and topicality. For example, his works, My Command, 1980; Nzeogwu, 1987; were innovative and scholarly, while his equally controversial books such as Not My Will, 1990, This Animal Called Man, 1998; My Watch, in three volumes, 2014-2015; would have been favourably assessed and commended by independent reviewers appointed by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the accreditation. Obasanjo is a master of the art of writing.

He writes with authority and is never given to frivolous and unsubstantiated speculations. His prose is beautiful and refreshing to read. You will always wonder what time Obasanjo learnt his art. And you will be led inevitably to conclude that it is the grace of God, the gift from Above that has always helped this man who grew from obscurity, abandoned the path of the formal education to go into the military when being in the armed forces did not command the respect that it began to have following the first military coup and the ensuing Nigeria Civil War of 1967 to 1970 and the subsequent retention of political and economic power in the country and subsequent attraction of all and sundry to the military profession and the juicy positions that this brought. There has been no limit to how Obasanjo would go to seek knowledge: he reads and shares ideas; he brings in experts and specialists; he is multi-disciplinary.

That is perhaps the reason why he established the Africa Leadership Forum where he brought together African leaders. He is personally informed about almost all the subjects on earth: politics, security, international diplomacy, education, agriculture. He practices what he learns and puts into practical all the theories that he has acquired: He established his Ota farms, working with the IITA, his Presidential Library and the archives on birth, education, and growth, and an institution of higher learning.

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Obasanjo has left a legacy for firmness, swift action, boldness, industry, unusual courage, discipline and godliness. Many people, many of whom may not share his views, agree that he has this uniqueness. He hates sycophancy, nepotism, ethnic chauvinism and religious bigotry, and believes that only incompetence and indolence benefit from these acts and further breed incompetence. Many associate him with this freedom to make a choice and the encouragement of healthy competition. Therefore, I would agree with the view that the goal of a leader is “to destroy the dependency of the people around you”. He just does his own, right or wrong, and moves on.

Again, a leadership specialist once states that, “the ultimate goal of true leadership is not to maintain followers but to produce leaders”. His secret is that he does not take things for granted or by chance, he plans and works assiduously for it; even when chance and luck deposit the unexpected to him, he takes the bull by the horn and works hard to take ownership and control. In the process, he works hard, studies hard, invites advice, takes counsel from far and near and makes a difference.

Obasanjo is multitasking, he is good on the battlefield as he is at the negotiation table; in the military, as well as in the civilian field, he has been both a military dictator as well as an elected civilian president, he is a farmer and a politician. As a civilian president, he is accused of foisting Yar’adua, Jonathan and Buhari on the people, for them all to turn against him. A critic aptly puts it that: “As Obasanjo was picking the eggs and packing the chickens, he was also mindful of political interests and intrigues. And he has succeeded in all the roles, remaining a trailblazer in both.”

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