THE PLACE OF FATE AND FAITH AS OBASANJO TURNS 85 YEARS
By Godknows Igali
On Saturday, 5th March 2022, many friends and family, and 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 Reconstruction”. 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.
His mere support role behind Murtala, though dignified, was however short-lived, as the latter was assassinated in a very bloody attempt at takeover of power on 13th February, 1976. Totally unrehearsed, though latent with potentials, Obasanjo found himself at the pinnacle of national power as Head of State. His three years reign as Commander in Chief (1976 – 1979), was therefore premised on the continuation of what he started with his erstwhile boss. He therefore saw to the conclusion of the power transfer agenda on 1st of October 1979, an outstanding step which was an enabler for democratic rule for other African countries.
POST JACK-BOOT ACTIVISM
The return to civilian rule in 1979 naturally marked OBJ’s exit from military service at just 42 years of age. He garnered much experience during his brief period as Head of State and also went through a profound transformation. From being a national leader, he began assuming a broader toga.
At a time when Africa was still in search of continental leadership, especially as the likes of Kofi Annan (1938 – 2018) who in 1997 became the Secretary-General of the United Nations and former South African President, Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013) were not yet on the scene, OBJ filled a natural vacuum. He became the voice of nascent African democratic ideal. He also created an intellectual framework around himself by setting up the African Leadership Center at his farm house in Ota, Ogun State. This was the first of its kind, with American type setup of post Presidential office platforms for high level intellectual rigor. It actually ended up becoming a miniature Camp David and the ALC provided an atmosphere for exchanges on matters pertaining to Africa’s social and economic development.
Nationally, he also emerged a vocal voice for return of the military back to the barracks as they never allowed his democratic emplacement barely breathing space to fluster.
COME BACK TO POWER
In the ensuing political “galabagalaba” as the Ijaws will say it, Obasanjo’s fellow town man, Chief MKO Abiola who won Presidential elections on 12th June, 1993 was not only denied his mandate, but incarcerated unjustifiably.
To worsen the injustice, Chief Ernest Shonekan (1936 – 2022), ace businessman, who was handpicked by same military junta of the day led General Ibrahim Babangida to form an Interim National Government (ING), got summarily shoved aside. This was just after six months in office. The climax of spiral national discontent, especially in the aggrieved South-West was the death of Abiola under circumstances that are still concealed in grey clouds, now twenty four years after. Expectedly, national reconciliation, and group appeasement of Obasanjo’s Yoruba ethnic nationality, which is Nigeria’s third-largest group, became compelling.
The question, similar to what the prophet Isaiah asked was “whom shall we send and will go for us”? The answer was not farfetched: Obasanjo, who was still shackled in maximum security prison! He was nervously released from prison in 1998 by, new military strongman, General Abdulsalami Abubakar and co-opted to enter the Presidential race in Nigeria under the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) formed in that year. Expectedly, he easily won the election in 1999 and after ruling for four years, got re-elected in 2003 till 2007.
PERFORMANCE AND REFORMS IN “AGBADA”
Baba’s return to political power was replete with remarkable accomplishments.
In snapshots, Nigeria’s relief from external debt by the Paris Club to a value of about $18 billion was particularly greeted around the world. By 21st April, 2006 a total relief of $30 billion from all sources had been achieved. It was a far departure from tokenism under the Heavily Indebted Countries (HIDC) initiative, which the World Bank introduced in 1996.
Restless and unremitting, wholesome projects, programmes and activities touching all aspects of national life has left indelible impact. In an extremely profound manner, he placed the accent of government policy on good governance and transparency as well building institutions, all critical nuggets of modern democratic practice that still appeared alien at the time in many African countries.
For all these, he instituted the institutional framework such as Bureau for Public Service Reform (BPSR), Public Service Training Institute, Bureau for Public Procurement Act, Electric Power Reform Act (EPSRA), Budget Office of the Federation, Debt Management Office (DMO), Independent Corrupt Practices and Related Offences Commission (ICPC), Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), and the Bureau for Public Procurement (BPP). Others are Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE), Nigeria Investment Promotion Commission (NIPC), Pension Commission (PENCOM), Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), National Communication Commission (reestablished), Nigerian Technology Incubation and Development Agency (NITCDA), Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Cabotage Act, Infrastructure Regulation and Concession Commission (ICRC) Act, Niger Delta Power Holding Company (NDPHC), Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON), etc.
His government came up with multiplicity of initiatives and innovations in all aspects of the economy.
Furthermore, he pushed hitherto budding Nigerian businesses to the pinnacle of the world marketplace and global competitiveness. Not only one, but over a dozen Nigerian entrepreneurs and their business houses soon made it into Forbes ranking lists as continental big sharks that ride the roughest weather even in foreign waters.
During his years of civilian Presidency, OBJ was able to combine his over-stretched schedule at home with an itinerant activist diplomatic shuttling. Permanently, his Presidential jet, NAF 001, also nicknamed “BBJ” was in the air either visiting one of the 36 states of Nigeria or landing in various national capitals for meetings.
EVOLUTION INTO GLOBAL ELDERSHIP
On 29th May, 2007, Obasanjo completed his two constitutional tenures and left office. Exiting from a high political office as President of Africa’s largest democracy and perhaps one of the most heterogeneous nations in the world, it would have been expected that he will decelerate the pedal and take some deserved rest. No way! At age 70 when he left office, he rather became more brazenly active and restless.
With some of the most intricate network of contacts around the world, he orbited himself into the global scene anew, becoming part of the multiple fora of world leaders, especially former Heads of States cutting across all continents and geo-strategic groups of the world. He easily attracted to himself a place as one of the foremen of the closely knitted but powerful international clubs of world leaders. These saw OBJ ascend from Baba of Nigeria, to Baba of Africa and now Baba of the world, as that became his more renowned name.
He was also appointed, serially, as representative of United Nations Secretary General, and that of the African Union and global multilateral economic community such as World Bank, World Economic Forum, United Nations agencies, Afrexim Bank, Africa Development Bank and so on. OBJ equally became, at various times, in charge of peace in the Great Lakes, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Liberia and Sierra Leone etc.
Till today, he occupies the vintage and unchallenged position of a senior global citizen playing various roles and has been undeterred by the continued surge of age and time.
Cameroonian folk wisdom has it, that when a monkey climbs very high on a tree, it becomes possible to see its negative sides. Despite these very positive values and endearing legacies, OBJ’s life has, not the least, seen its fair share of black spots. In particular, his obstinacy and self-assertive attitude when not in support of particular view points have often attracted to him serious criticisms and censure.
A good case in point is his recent altercation with Nigerian elder statesman, Edwin Clark over the views he expressed, startlingly, regarding who owns the Crude Oil in the Niger Delta. For a point that is so delicate which the people of that beleaguered area feel much pained about in a country where they continue to get the rough end of the stick, his initial outburst was totally off the mark. But then, he has expressed regret over his outburst.
In his moments out of office, he has also maintained a posture as one of the most active spokesmen against the ills of society. So, he tended to become ace critic of his successors in office, presumably after behind-the-scene engagements with them. Therefore, his open altercations with former Heads of State, Sani Abacha, Umar Musa Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan resulted in open exchanges including his famous letters. These, he has also done repeatedly with incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari.
This mode of engagement, however, appears to be at variance with what we hear is an unwritten code which former leaders of countries have with their successors. That Is “I will never criticize you in public”. Maybe Baba needs to read American investigative journalist, Michael Duffy award winning book, ‘The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity”.
Another coma. The so-called lack of accountability for billions of dollars expended under him for providing electricity to the country remains insufficiently explained. What has appeared not well explained however, is the fact that the 10 NIPP power plants he started, most now completed, today account for 4,700 megawatts of total electricity generation in Nigeria. His silence on this matter and refusal to take on the unnecessary long-winded narrative on the matter remains intriguing when that singular effort is now keeping the country dimly lit.
Another palaver that he still needs to explain further is the whole hullabaloo about his ill-famed “Third-Term” Agenda. What was really on his mind and what did he do? Perhaps he has to open the lid a bit wider on this, than the contents in his book ‘My Watch’.
QUO VADIS BABA?
The life of OBJ even as he turns 85 has been almost synonymous with telling the Nigerian story. At every stage, from his adolescent years, the hand of fate and his deep Baptist faith have projected him to the nerve centre of where things happen. Just like the Phoenix, which in Greek mythology occurs as near immortal bird that revives itself into newness and relevance, OBJ has continued to straddle Nigerian and world history, despite his fallibities. What is so spectacular about him is the fact that time and age had been unable to temper his cyclically regenerative endowment.
At his 85th thanksgiving, world leaders and national political bigwigs, especially those with top political ambitions, dragged for optical spaces. We won’t be able to hazard a guess whether OBJ can now be tamed into the ethereal quietude of a retired old man. Not likely. Fortunately for him, a good part of his early life was spent in the rigours of the farm, while his adult life was in the furnace of soldierly drills. These seem to continue to explain his energetic and athletic vigour and he would likely outlive his time.
We wish you more hard work, Baba.
Igali is a Retired Ambassador