By Ambassador Godknows Igali
A seeming contrivance of ignorance or deliberate instinct for non-historical discourse often drives a good number of Nigerian commentators to repeatedly deprecate our great gift of countless men and women of valour, honour and dedicated public service. Gullible like the Roman mob, the attitude of such fellow citizens leaves none in their trail of devalorization, even in the face of glaring acts of national heroism. So we often read or hear the cacophony of depreciative opinions even about such colossal personalities as Nigeria’s former Head of State Chief Olusegun Obasanjo.
But then, as Chief Olusegun records another personal milestone as he turned 82 years of age on March 5, 2019, global watchers have fresh opportunity to x-ray aspects of his life walk. Indeed on this occasion, came the superlative scoresheet of Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, about OBJ as he is popularly called in Nigeria. The incumbent Nigeria President despite the love-hate relationship which they both share referred to the global statesman, OBJ as “patriot who deserves accolades for his immeasurable contributions to our democracy and national unity”.
THE FOUR SCORE AND TWO BIRTHDAY PARTY
On the heels of this Presidential affirmation, the world gathered at the Marquee of the Obasanjo Presidential Library which has become the address in the ancient city of Abeokuta to celebrate this personality called Mathew Okikiola Aremu Olusegun Obasanjo on this 82nd birthday. As expected, guest after guest took the podium to eulogize the lifelong service to nation and humanity by this one time Nigerian military hero. They severally, poured out encomiums to this statesman, politician and diarchist (one who practices civil and democracy in governance). Baba, who is also a Community Leader, Bible scholar and Teacher, an accomplished Academic and one of the most published statesmen in the world, attracted more encomiums and accolades in an unusually effusive manner.
Interesting enough, a lone rebuttal came from his kinsman and confidant. It was His Royal Majesty Oba (King) Adetotun Aremu Gbadebo 111, the tenth Paramount Ruler of the ancient city of Abeokuta and custodian of the traditions of the Egba people that called the seemingly restless OBJ to order. According to the revered monarch, his fellow Abeokuta citizen, OBJ, though very towering, had to learn at this great age to refrain from further attacks on President Buhari over his governance record in Nigeria. It is recalled that the celebrant had volleyed a crescendo of critical opinions on the Buhari administration in the months preceding Nigeria’s 2019 Presidential Elections. OBJ had actually, publicly, endorsed the latter’s opponent at the elections.
Oba Gbadebo 111 who shares the same military antecedents with both Obasanjo and Buhari was, at a time, Principal Staff Officer to General Tunde Idiagbon who was Gen Buhari’s deputy Head of Government during his days as military ruler in 1983-1985. As a matter of fact, Oba Gbadebo, whose official title is Alake of Egbaland bemoaned his discomfort over the fact that President Buhari was his boss and therefore deserved to be spared from Baba’s political tirades.
A non-quitter from controversies and accustomed to swimming in troubled waters, OBJ retorted back at his King on this Buhari palaver. Been a Yoruba chief (Balogun or Traditional Prime Minister) of the Owu sub-ethnic group, who are also domiciled in Abeokuta like the Egbas, OBJ dutifully paid his traditional obeisance to the monarch with the Yoruba salutation of “kabiyesi” meaning “the unquestionable one”. But steadily went down memory lane to remind his audience, that while Buhari is the monarch’s boss, he stands on superior grounds vis-à-vis both of them to expound his views on issues. First is the fact that he is by far senior to Buhari in the shared military career of the trio; he having joined the Nigerian Army in 1958 while Buhari followed suite in 1962. Furthermore, OBJ reminded the monarch of the known fact that President Buhari had indirectly worked under him when he was Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters in 1975, and later on in 1976 when he became Head of State and Commander-in-Chief.
Further flaunting his credentials, Baba spiced up his intervention stating that he was best qualified to counsel and where necessary caution or reprimand President Buhari, as he is the only Nigerian with a record of three years of service as a Military Head of State and eight years as a democratically elected President. Unarguably, his position is therefore, a Boss of Bosses or as the French would prefer a kind of “Le Grande Patron”.
SO WHO IS THIS MAN, OBJ?
The real question is who is OBJ, and what is the big deal about him?
While not being OBJ’s biographer or his spokesperson, I have spent time to study this man from many prisms and written a few pieces on him. Simply, I concluded, on his 80th Birthday two years ago, that he is an ‘Enigma’. On the occasion of his 81st birthday, last year, I summarized his life story as a “Cusp of Providence and Historical Realism”.
This man, whom even those who are older than him in the entire African continent refer to as Baba, is a timeless and historical personality of superlatives. An avant-gardist and torch-bearer in many areas, a typical philosopher-king as prescribed by Socrates, a self-made intellectual and scholar, who is daily reading and writing, a man of ideas, ancient wisdom and knowledge. Baba is a mystic, a seer, a clairvoyant in the order of the sons of Issachar. He belongs to the class of men, who see the clouds and interpret their direction. But more, like the prophets of old, he is courageous, fearless and undaunting in speaking out. None can gag him, even at the peril to his life.
A MILITARY HERO PER EXCELLENCÉ
Orphaned at the age of 22 years in 1959, a year after he signed up to join the army, he worked extra hard to rise to the very pinnacle of his career, with no known “godfather” to lift his hand. Yet at the most critical times in Nigeria’s history, and that of the country’s military, he had always been thrown into the scene.
From the incipient days, he got commandeered in 1960 into United Nations service in the Congo to head some of the most important flanks. Ten years later, that is on January 1, 1970, it was him that ‘technically speaking’ ended the shameful and sad Nigerian Civil War, which wasted two million lives by receiving the instrument of surrender and armistice from the hands of Gen. Philip Effiong, Chief of Staff of the erstwhile Biafran Army.
Though OBJ was at no time Chief of Army Staff, his role in moulding the Nigerian Army into what it is today is monumental. For example, from when he enrolled into the army, he was one of the pioneer commanders of the Nigerian Army Engineering Corps. In other respects, an independent source chronicled him thus “the influence of individual personalities is generally greater in the armies of developing states, as they tend to have weaker institutional frameworks. Key personalities involved in Nigeria included then-Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo. Obasanjo is particularly important due to his efforts to reorganize his command, 3 Division, during the civil war to improve its logistics and administration. The reorganization he instituted made the Division capable of carrying out the offensive that ended the civil war”.
A VOICE FOR DEMOCRATIC CHANGE
The twist of destiny acted itself out as this one time military dictator, like Saul of Tarsus transfigured to become the chief advocate for consolidation of democracy in Nigeria and the rest of Africa. This started when OBJ who had the task of cobbling national reconciliation and harmony, after the February 1976 abortive military coup which resulted in the shocking murder of a populist Head of State, General Murtala Muhammed. He had to stave off backlashes and any revengeful outcomes, especially from Northern Nigeria, where the latter hailed from. It was he who would hold the country together and peacefully handover power from military to civilian on October 1, 1979.
In so doing, OBJ became one of the first in all of Africa to unilaterally hand over power through democratic processes, after a bloody decade. A decade in which Gamel Nasser of Egypt, Patrick Lumumba of Congo, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Sylvanus Olympio of Togo, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Marcia Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, our own Sir Ahmadu Bello and Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa, and many others paid with their blood or were abruptly sacked.
Twenty-eight years from when he voluntarily stepped down from power on October 1, 1979, it was again, OBJ who broke the jinx of Nigeria’s hitherto woe of inability to experience civilian handover, from one elected administration to another. On May 29, 2007, he handed over peacefully to a democratically elected President Umar Musa Yar’Adua. Still on his democratic footprint, OBJ led other former military leaders such as Gen Ibrahim Babangida, Gen Abubakar Abdulsalami, Gen. Theophillus Danjuma and their prodigy, Senate President, David Mark to insist on peaceful change in government, when the saintly Umar Ya’ardua died in office on May 5, 2010, without a precedence on transmittal of power under such delicate circumstance, even though the Nigerian constitution was clear. In retrospect, OBJ had earlier, single handedly, tried to correct the relative political exclusion of the Ijaws of the Niger Delta, fourth largest ethnic group in Nigeria, which is also home to over half of the country’s oil wealth by the nomination of Goodluck Jonathan as Vice President to Ya’ardua during the Presidential elections in 2007.
A CRUSADER OF TRUTH
After abdicating power willingly in 1979, Baba became a crusader against military rule and whatever he thought was bad governance in Africa. Back home, he spoke at different times against the overthrow of the President Shehu Shagari government in January 1983. He was almost a lone voice against President Ibrahim Babangida and his policies, when he ruled Nigeria from 1985 to 1993. Similarly, OBJ waged campaigns against Head of State, General Sani Abacha, a move which landed him, colloquially speaking, in soup. Much later and still fresh in our memories, OBJ partnered with President Buhari and all available to wage a political onslaught against President Jonathan. He insisted that President Jonathan who was his political protégé and even taken to his native Owu to be conferred a coveted traditional title “Obateru- the Kings alter who – had derailed on some issues. Of greatest concern to him was the fight against terror.
Interestingly, and till late, OBJ has issues with President Buhari, his erstwhile partner-in-gloves against GEJ. His concern against Buhari touched virtually everything.
Clearly, OBJ has never discriminated whom he takes on. Often, he has done so standing alone, until he’s grudgingly joined by others. He does not count the personal risks, including the sponsored attacks on his person, family, and legacy.
Over the years, threats both veiled and real, denials of opportunities for those who bear his name and insults, even from the tiniest of fishes. Yet he realizes that “he who keeps silent in the face of evil has more guilt on his neck.”
GLOBAL AMBASSADOR OF ALL GOOD CAUSES
After voluntarily leaving power in 1979, even before the creation of the much talked about Obasanjo Presidential Library (OPL) in Abeokuta, he established his Otta Farm and the African Leadership Centre (ALC) in 1991, which were for the nesting of ideas and strategies on Africanism and the continent’s future. From Otta Farm and ALC, he reached out to the world. He became member of almost every elite concert of former national leaders. There were few examples for him to learn from as an African. But be became a ranking member of such groups as North-South Commission, United Nations Eminent Persons Group, the Club of Madrid, the Oslo Forum and even Board Chairmanship of Transparency International.
OBJ’s role in the group known as Inter-Action Council was particularly outstanding. This group was formed in 1983 by one of Japan’s most valued former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda in 1983, just like OBJ who was a founding member, this body brings together the most celebrated former Presidents, and Heads of States of the world “to mobilize their Energy, experience and international contacts” to better the world. In June 2015, at its Bi-Annual plenary in British coastal city of New Port, OBJ became selected as its Co-Chairman and Leader. He therefore is the President of all the world’s former Presidents!
In 1992, Peruvian Diplomat, Dr Javier Peres De Cuellar, completed his eight tenure as Secretary General of the United Nations. Following strong demarche from the African group over the years, the world’s no one Civil Servant position was earmarked for an African. Eventually, Egyptian Foreign Minister, Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali finally clinched the position. However, it entered world historical records that OBJ was one of the other five personalities who were shortlisted initially by the Organization for African Unity, for the job and came out on tops.
Later in life, he got appointed as Representative of United Nations Secretary Generals in so many conflict management scenarios around the world. In September 2017, current Secretary of the UN, Dr. Antonio Gutierrez appointed him into the 18 members UN Permanent Mediation Advisory Board as part of his “surge in diplomacy for peace”
A CONTINENTAL ANCHORMAN
It is also on record that this same Obasanjo, along with Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal matched words with action when they pioneered the setting up of such a great continental body – the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), and its Peer Review Mechanism for the sustenance of good governance on the continent. Although later African leaders have not been able to sustain the initial euphoric vive and zest, NEPAD’s flagship programme Peer Review Mechanism created a continental platform for mutual self assessment, amongst other structures.
In a simultaneous flow, along with President Abdulazeez Abdufleka of Tunisia and Muammar Gaddafi, Baba championed the transmutation of the Organization for African Unity (OAU) to a more apt African Union (AU) which is in place at present. One of the principal differences between the OAU and its successor, the AU being the fact that the Charter of the latter has clear provisions for consolidation of democracy. Additionally, unlike the OAU which was founded in 1963, the AU Charter, has similar provisions as Chapter 7 of United Nations Charter in providing for “Enforcement Measures” where necessary. Coming out of almost three decades of military rule, the AU Charter clearly sanctions and recriminates non democratic change of government and provides for collective actions. Since then, successes have been achieved in such places as Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Equatorial Guinea-Conakry, Guinea-Bissau, etc.
In and out of power, he has also become the face of conflict management on the African continent, with very effective outcomes in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zambia, etc.
On account of such robust engagements, it is common knowledge that Obasanjo is, perhaps, the most itinerant Elder statesman in the world. He scarcely stays in any city, including his beloved Abeokuta for more than three nights at time. Like a rolling stone, OBJ is permanently on the move with no dull moments, both in activities and his witty outbursts.
THE BUILDER OF MODERN NIGERIA
Back home in Nigeria, OBJ worked more than most other Nigerian leaders before and after him to put in place the instruments for good governance and economic development in the country. Policy makers, senior civil servants of the day, media practitioners will allude to the fact that the Obasanjo villa years was the most busy time ever in Nigeria’s seat of power. Restless, ebullient and effusive, OBJ presided over long hours of all manners of meetings, covering all sectors of national life.
Under the watchful supervisory trio of Chief of Staff, General Abdullahi Mohammed, Secretary to Government, Chief Ufot Ekaette and National Security Adviser, General Mohammed Gusau, the villa was stately but a beehive of activities. In retrospect, the mental and rigor for villa staffers in coping with Baba’s schedule and mental rampage, is better left to conjecture.
Now over twelve years after Baba completed his two tenures as civilian leader and left the Aso Villa Presidential Palace, all subsequent administrations in Nigeria, one way or the other, are still working with the templates put in place by him. In every aspect of the country’s national life, he commenced policy frameworks and directions which are available compasses for successors.
Due to the enormity of work done, just a few highlights will suffice. For example in the Agricultural Sector, there were such policy thrusts as the Initiatives on Staple and Cash Crops (per state), the Initiatives on Cassava and Rice production. With regards to educational development, it was during his tenure, that the Nigerian government created the Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF), the Universal Basic Education Programme/Commission (UBEC), Normadic Education Programme and the National School Feeding Programme were all commenced by him. However, Obasanjo’s greatest legacy in the educational front would however, appear to be the introduction of Open University, as a global long distance learning brand. Today, this affords millions of Nigerians, the opportunity to work and learn on lifelong basis. OBJ himself showed a good example by proceeding to undertake postgraduate and doctoral studies at the Open University, graduating with a PhD in 2018 and securing a place as a Visiting Scholar.
In terms of infrastructure, the achievements were no less sparse. For example, the actual reactivation of the nation’s railway system as well as massive reforms in telecommunications came on stream under him. Today over 102 million Nigerians have access to GSM and telephony. In Nigeria’s oil rich Niger Delta region, resource-based agitations had left a spectra of violence and instability, till his assumption in office as democratically elected leader in 1999. He quickly established the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) as an intervention agency to accelerate impact of the oil revenue in the local areas. Whether this original purpose has been achieved, however remains to be seen.
Baba took the gauntlet in unbundling the notorious National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) and removing the hitherto entrenched government monopoly in the power industry and the enactment of the Electric Power Sector Reform Act (EPSR of 2005). Besides creating the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) which succeeded NEPA, prelude to privatization, he also established the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC), Rural Electrification Agency (REA), Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN), Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trading (NBET). These institutions and others formed at the time were indispensable building blocks on the way to creating a market-based power market. To jack up power production, he established the National Integrated Power Project (NIPP) with funds from excess crude accounts, which commenced. Now most of these huge power plants have been completed and have helped jack-up installed electricity capacity by additional 4700 Megawatts. So the huge amounts of money which often get mentioned in political circles, do appear to have ended in OBJ’S pocket as the ten huge plants were not Christmas presents by the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) but were paid for, shipped down and subsequently installed. Unknown to many, it was also to credit that the famous Mambilla Dam Project came on stream; and including the award of contract.
In the financial sector, according to the Washington based Centre for Global Development (CDG) “In October 2005, Nigeria and the Paris Club announced a final agreement for debt relief worth $18 billion and an overall reduction of Nigeria’s debt stock by $30 billion. The deal was completed on April 21, 2006, when Nigeria made its final payment and its books were cleared of any Paris Club debt”. This was one of the greatest achievements ever by OBJ and team. It became a template as well as precedent for dealings between African countries and their multilateral creditors.
He also embarked on banking sector reform and consolidation of the financial industry.
As tools for good governance, he established the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), and the Bureau for Public Procurement (BPP). More, all these were intended to combat the monster called corruption and ensure transparency and accountability. Even the much acclaimed Treasury Single Account (TSA), the Integrated Personnel Payroll System (IPPS) and the Monetization Policy were actually initiated by this same man, Obasanjo, and continued by the succeeding administrations of Yar’adua, Jonathan, and now Buhari.
A WORD TO NIGERIANS ABOUT HEROISM
Great nationalistic men don’t always come our ways. Similarly, despotic, reprobate and cruel men are not in far search. Besides Nelson Mandela, there existed and exists no African who is a global Ambassador, Brand and Icon as Obasanjo. Interestingly, his physical strength is like that of Hur, recorded in scripture and literature to have told Prophet Moses thus: “I am 85 years today, but my strength is same as 40 years ago.” His relevance therefore appears just about to begin.
The global debate as to why some come great and others bad will not–and cannot—be settled by one generation of thinkers, sociologists, neuroscientists, or by a combination of other experts. But when the good and stately come our way, as did OBJ, let us appreciate, extol and salute their great imprints. Of course, like all men, they will have areas of fault and indiscretion. In the case of OBJ, the nearly unpardonable Odi massacre perpetrated by then Chief of Army Staff, General Victor Malu and his men remains an easily mentioned blight. But we have to simply acknowledge and overlook their human frailties and remember them for the sake of their overwhelming works for humanity.
Nigerians must learn to appreciate the impact of our legendary leaders, many of who have gone, but others are still around us. In other climes such men and women would nearly be deified, as the best of nation builders and peacemakers.
So like such iconic figures as William Wilberforce, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela, Mahathir bin Mohammed, Lee Kuan Yew, our own Olusegun Obasanjo has a secured place on Mount Olympus of the greatest men in historical annals and in that should lie true national pride and sense of shared hope of greatness for our progeny.
Dr. Igali, a Diplomat and Administrator had served Obasanjo in various capacities.