By Tony Olutomiwa
Sitting down there at his Hilltop residence in Abeokuta watching him play his favourite ayo game, relishing in banters and wisecracks, the mind of the close observer was actually racing through his life’s trajectory to properly locate his place in history. Of course, the memory will keep coming back: the memory of an extraordinary life well spent to serve the nation and humanity at large. Yet, he does not seem to be tired – still very relevant in our national life: bracing the odds to add value in public discourses, policies and development matters even with strong commitment in aggregating collective efforts at maintaining peace through dialogue on conflict resolution both in the sub-region and the African continent.
The former president remains an enigma whose voice even in international affairs is still important and he continues to inspire. When he recently resigned as chairman of the his party’s BoT, so many political slants were ascribed to it but the reality, going by his calendar, is that he is actually well engaged, doing the rounds in global diplomacy, facilitating investment drive to Africa and mentoring towards attainment of global peace and social progress.
Critically situated, Obasanjo’s leadership qualities have made him a relevant statesman who is accorded respect and remarkable attention as a notable African figure who is conscious of his place in history and lending his robust influence in this regard to create such worthy solutions to myriad of human conditions and public policy issues particularly in making governance more meaningful to development around the world. Like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, Obasanjo has demonstrated that quitting the seat of power does not make a former leader a laidback but an opportunity to do more in enhancing humanity.
Thus his leadership, in an enlightened reckoning, deserves a second look, probably researching into it as it is done elsewhere, to properly dissect and document it for a better understanding and of course this could be useful in furthering the national conversation in various spheres of our life. Indeed, in so doing, posterity can better appreciate him and his leadership contributions beyond the presidential tag.
In analysing President Obasanjo’s leadership content, I think political historians would likely find his intellectual bent as a formidable tool which has been instrumental to his accomplishments. We follow him through his era both as a military leader and democratic president to see conscious and deliberate actions in instituting intellectualism in his leadership style and the results have been quite impressive. From African Leadership Forum to the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library, we can see genuine commitment to scholarship, leadership, cultural and human advancement.
However, a major aspect of this orientation which actually prompted this piece is Obasanjo’s literary contributions to national development and his current effort in authorising the conversion of his popular Radio Nigeria programme, The President Explains, into a book is vintage Obasanjo. Short of a full memoir (yes, he told my friend Sola Ojewusi, he is writing his memoir), the publication which chronicles his policies and programmes as president for eight years is thoughtful, effectively documenting his Aso Rock years for the benefit of history and a testimony to his convictions that those years were not without some substance in effective leadership and national regeneration. The 389-page book is divided into 15 chapters covering issues such as poverty alleviation, labour, productivity and work ethics, the anti-corruption crusade, re-inventing the nation: the Kuru Declaration, primary health care, reform, development and growth, NEPAD, democracy and democratic governance, agriculture and food security, among others. Readers will find the 20 pages of rare colour pictures of the former president at different levels of power and leadership at home and abroad interesting as we are also engaged by a penetrating insights provided by Prof. Akin Mabogunje in his forward to the book.
Indeed, The President Explains has done us the favour of having Obasanjo’s voice on his policies and programmes documented in words which can also help us to review his presidency to either condemn such policies and programmes or possibly mark them up as truly relevant then and even now as some have suggested. Now, it will be difficult for any future revisionist to distort his stewardship because he has been quite sensitive to the burden of history by giving a democratic account of his leadership in his own words, now in print and quite frankly The President Explains is a model for current and future leaders at such critical levels to emulate.
Looking back, Obasanjo’s sense of history and responsibility to the nation and the larger world would also find expression in so many literary works, 13 in all, which have also documented the various phases of his life and perspectives on leadership, governance and development issues. From My Command, an account of the civil war, Nzeogwu, an intimate portrait of a friend and mastermind of the regrettable first coup to Not My Will, a personal account of the military government of Nigeria, A New Dawn, a collection of speeches to The Animal Called Man, his prison notes, Africa through the Eyes of a Patriot, Challenges of Leadership in Africa to other such dense topics on war, conflict resolution and development issues etc, Obasanjo has been alert to the need to preserve his history, our history, which is a rarity among his contemporaries.
Yet, from generation to generation, it is the responsibility of leaders who were privileged to be in position of authority either in government or business to document their stewardship and indeed their broad views on various subjects as a reminder of what they stood for both in private and public lives. This is why, memoir, especially in contemporary times, has become such important engagement by leaders who really worth their salt and as we can see from the western world, leaders find it necessary to write their account in office and telling us about their lives in greater detail and we can better recognise their worth or otherwise by individual judgements, in spite of the reasoning by critics that such publications tend to emphasise personal achievements. Yet, the important thing is that history is richer for it.
Using the Obasanjo ideal as an example, therefore, we need to ask our leaders both in government and business: where are the memoirs? Towards the 70th birthday of former military president, General Ibrahim Babangida, I had cause to call his spokesman, Mr. Kassim Afegbua, to find out if there would be a book, obviously IBB’s memoir, to commemorate the day and he answered that there was “something like that.” My interest was actually personal out of sheer interest in the amiable general and the fact that he has so much to say because of his peculiar position in our national history, but alas the birthday came without any book presentation.
Again, I called Kassim but this time he had a pleasant answer to the effect that the book I wanted to see would be out soon and actually being written by two big names in Nigerian journalism (mentioned the names) and this was also confirmed by IBB in his interview with THISDAY’s Jaiyeola Andrews, promising to even write more. Insh’ Allah. This is cheering and we are waiting with the high expectation that such publications would be frank and deep as IBB’s recent interviews have signposted.
But as we hope to read IBB, we can never have the account of the civil war as would have been rendered by the late Biafran leader, Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu. Years before he died, journalists were wont to pester him on “the book”, his civil war memoir, but would always promise to write it, yet he never did.
Now an important part of our history has been lost forever! The issues are well known but his specific penetration and candid takes on the inherent issues as they relate to the nation’s political and economic configuration ( the political economy -- who gets what, how and when) and such allied topics as power structure, sharing or rotation and leadership recruitment then and now will make a difference. Are the circumstances surrounding the civil war still prevalent today or not? Why has the presidency eluded the Igbo for so long in spite of their remarkable contributions to national development? Should we still continue with the presidential system or return to regionalism as being currently canvassed by eminent voices? Was Governor Raji Fashola right or wrong on his development narrative at last December presentation at the Island Club? Is the problem with leadership or followership or both? Is the bureaucracy structure in Ghana and Dubai same as we have it in Nigeria and what implication for government efficiency? And the 1999 Constitution: is it really a liability or otherwise in proper governance? These are issues we might have gotten answers to in such oracular book the late Ikemba could have written because they constitute associated points of divergence as we headed to the civil war.
This point also bears relevance to my friend, Yusuph Olaniyonu’s postulation that the Saraki’s family should as a necessity engage someone to do the autobiography of the late former Senate Leader, Dr. Olusola Saraki. In his intimate tribute, while extolling the great attributes of the politician, he lamented his futile efforts at writing Oloye’s biography. Then death struck and we also lost so much to the man generally acclaimed to be a friend of the poor. Now how do we get to know his deep philosophy, values and candid opinion on such issues that influenced such dispositions to life? No expert can do proper justice to that except Dr. Olusola Saraki himself but that will never be!
So, where are the memoirs? Where was Chief Ernest Degunle Sonekan when Abacha struck? What was he doing at that particular moment? As the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, why didn’t he stop the coup? Indeed, what are his recollections in office and perspectives on an Interim Government, particularly the one he headed? These are salient topics Nigerians would like to read from him in a memoir he should write for posterity and advancement of our nation. Other leaders like Alhaji Shehu Shagari, Generals Yakubu Gowon, Muhammadu Buhari and Abdusalami Abubakar will also be fulfilling their leadership to the nation by writing without inhibition, all towards creating a new clime of serious engagement in nation-building.
These were thoughts for reflection as my friend Sola Ojewusi and I bade Baba Obasanjo bye at Abeokuta. Still we made efforts to see the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library, a monument, now in proper shape, and where The President Explains would be presented to the public on January 22, and we were not oblivious to the good work of the man whose intellectual thinking compares to a modern president in enterprise and leadership. Our leaders at every level of government and business must begin to write from this day. This is the lesson in Obasanjo’s leadership from the perspective of his literary contribution and preservation of our national history.
• Olutomiwa is the National Co-ordinator, Action for Democracy and Development.