Guest Columnist: Agbai Eke Agbai
March 5, which is devoted to the birthday celebration of President Olusegun Obasanjo presents an ample opportunity for national reflection, not only because Nigeria is at a crossroad now and Baba (as he is reverently addressed by his younger admirers like me), is a living institution of the Nigeria nation and a granite figure in Africa for more than four decades, but because his incredible achievements confer on him the accolade of a quintessential leader and indeed an African legend.
In honouring him, we pay tribute to the greatest source of our national strength, which is this assemblage of distinguished faces of diversity from across the country into this ancient city of Abeokuta irrespective of our ideological, political or religious differences.
Born 76 years ago in the city of Abeokuta, Obasanjo was commissioned into the Nigerian Army (NA) in 1959 at a time the NA was nascent and in its embryonic formation. After Nigeria’s independence in 1960, Obasanjo was off to Congo on a United Nations’ peace keeping assignment, where as a young officer, it became clear from inception he was destined for services not only to Nigeria but African and indeed humanity.
In 1963, he served at the Area Command in Kaduna as the Chief of Army Engineer. And during the unfortunate Nigerian civil war of ‘no victor and no vanquish’, he commanded the Army’s Marine Commando Division, and had the huge task of receiving the instrument of surrender from his brothers on the other side of the war front.
On February 13, 1976, on the eve of his 40th birthday, he was targeted for assassination in the unfortunate Col. Dimka coup d’état. He escaped, but the man he held in high esteem, his commander-in-chief, Murtala Mohammed, was killed.
From 1976 to 1979, he was the Nigerian Head of State and Commander-in-Chief. As head of state, he immediately signalled his preparedness to return Nigeria to a democratic nation by adopting the second republic constitution and modelling it after the US constitution with provisions for president, Senate and House of Representatives. This act paved the way for a return to a democratically elected government and in 1979 he became the first military leader in Nigeria to voluntarily transfer power to a civilian government. This epochal event marked a watershed in the evolution of democratic governance in Nigeria, ushering in, though for a brief period, the second republic.
Before leaving office, he sought to get Nigeria into the industrialisation age through the establishment of Ajaokuta Steel Mill. Between 1977 and 1979, at the instance of his Nigerian Enterprises Promotion Decrees, there was a significant growth of indigenous middle class following the transfer of wealth by means of nationalisation and share ownership of hitherto predominantly foreign companies in various sectors of the economy. This point is important because he realised then that no nation could develop her economy without a robust middle class.
When we speak of agriculture today as the bedrock of any nation and as the new pivot where economic activity must revolve, this great Nigerian statesman saw it back then in 1978 with the introduction of the Green Revolution, a vintage programme which ignited several transformational projects in the agric sector.
In the area of education, Obasanjo’s vision was palpable. He saw at that time the advent of globalisation, a world that will become knowledge-based and therefore saw the necessity for a strategic investment in human capital development. Starting with childhood education, he introduced the Universal Primary Education (UPE) nationwide. Through a deliberate policy, he modernised and refocused secondary school curriculum to emphasise technical, vocational and skill acquisition. That was when Nigeria introduced technical secondary schools across the country. A practice that has since died in Nigeria. He increased the number of universities from just five to 13, which led to increase in undergraduate admissions.
Upon leaving office in 1979, Obasanjo became a full time farmer. From time to time, this farmer would take a break from tilling his land to criticise the huge human rights violations of the Abacha government. Abacha sensing the huge impact of his bold and honest criticism, hurriedly relocated Obasanjo from his Ota farm to a prison cell in Yola, Adamawa State, where ‘Baba’ renewed his born again Christian faith and became a follower of one preacher, Dr. Danny McCain.
Twenty years later, Nigerians democratically elected him president under the platform of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The fight against corruption was a major priority for the new president, leading to the establishment of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) and the strengthening of the Code of Conduct Bureau. These agencies saw to the prosecution, conviction and imprisonment of many corrupt high profile public servants and politicians.
Baba is allergic to mediocrity and sought out the best minds. He didn’t care if they were people from the same geo-political zone so long as they were the best. At one time, he had almost eight Nigerians from the same area (not Yoruba) to oversee major ministries, including the Ministries of Finance with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Transport Ojo Maduekwe, Aviation Kema Chikwe, Information Emeka Chikelu, Education Oby Ezekwesili, Central Bank Charles Soludo, Nigeria Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Arthur Mbanefo and his most trusted personal aide, Senator Andy Uba, a current serving senator of Nigeria.
When Baba left office in 2007, the economy had grown from 3% to 7% GDP. The Nigerian foreign reserve was only $2 billion when he came into office in 1999. By 2007, when he left office, the reserve had risen to a whopping $43 billion. Through fiscal discipline, debt management and sagacious diplomacy, he secured $18 billion debt pardons from the Paris and London clubs and paid off another $18 billion to get the nation free of debt.
Another major achievement was the telecommunications deregulation and liberalisation policy, which ushered in an era of unprecedented mobile phone communications, easy ICT access, creating associated investment and business activities with huge employment opportunities in the telecommunications sector.
On Africa, from 1976-1979, Obasanjo continued the 1960 Nigeria independence foreign policy, which was anchored on Africanisation and non-alignment. He exercised hegemonic influence by promoting African unity and getting other African nations secure independence. In carrying out this policy, Obasanjo saw to Nigeria’s full participation in the then Organisation of African Unity (now African Union), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Non-Aligned movement, the Commonwealth and the UN.
He supported Angola’s independence struggle from Portugal in 1976 by mobilising diplomatic support for Popular Movement for Liberation of Angola – MPLA and was instrumental to OAU recognition of MPLA.
In Namibia, Sam Nujoma’s SWAPO struggle against apartheid South African regime for independence could not have been realised if not for the huge support from Obasanjo. When it was unthinkable and unfashionable to do so, the liberation movement in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was supported with a huge sum of $20 million, paving the way for her independence in 1980.
In Mozambique, he sent military assistance to help the new independent nation suppress the South African backed RENAMO guerrillas that constituted a significant threat to the peace and survival of the country. He mobilised and coordinated huge African pressure against South African apartheid government and clandestinely supported African National Congress (ANC).
Beyond Africa, Obasanjo’s administration opened up China’s new trade and investment frontier for Nigeria. China was one of the first countries he visited upon assuming office in 1999. In 2002, he paid yet another visit to further strengthen the bilateral economic relations between the two countries.
Earlier in 1978, he was the first Nigerian head of state to meet with Vice-Premier Geng Biao. He met with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, President Hu Jin Tao in 2004 and 2006 respectively.
He was the first president to seize on the imperativeness of trade and investment promotion as an instrumentality through which the 21st century Nigerian foreign policy must be reshaped, redefined and refocused as a paradigm shift, wherefore in August 2001, his government signed a bilateral agreement on investment promotion and protection. He signed another agreement to develop cooperation in communication in space programme. This led to China’s assistance for Nigeria to launch her satellite internet to expand the cellular network.
Obasanjo’s leadership style is characterised by what US Treasury Secretary (during Clinton era) Robert Rubin will describe as a probabilistic decision making process. Here, a leader weighs his options against two contending forces and settling for the one with the least adverse consequences by identifying all relevant variables and attaching probabilities to each of them.
We saw Obasanjo use this approach during the volatile days of Liberia when he had to weigh the two options of either agreeing to give Charles Taylor asylum against leaving him to stay back in Liberia. His love for peace and security of African neighbouring countries compelled him to grant the warlord asylum against the tide of prevailing popular opinion in Nigeria, giving Taylor’s barbaric human rights record of killings, abuse, torture, child soldier and violence.
We saw him exhibit same approach in Sierra-Leone, Senegal and Ghana elections, where he headed the African election monitoring team. During the 2012 Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York, of which Baba was in attendance, Clinton remarked that Obasanjo is a man of honour, who says what he means and means what he says. That America government values the integrity in him. Clinton reminded the Nigerian delegation during a private audience, that in 1978, Obasanjo told President Jimmy Carter when he visited Nigeria that he would hand over power to a democratically elected civilian government. And he did. That Obasanjo holds the distinct honour of being the only Nigerian head of state to host while in office, three American presidents, including President Bush and himself.
Obasanjo is passionate about Nigeria, especially her unity, security and togetherness. You can’t doubt his capacity to lead, his vision, tenacity, firmness and total control. As the first African president to have the vision of a Presidential Library, fashioned after American presidents, Obasanjo has come to realise that lack of groomed leadership in Nigeria is one major problem confronting us as a nation.
The presidential library and his recently launched Obasanjo Foundation will focus to a large extent on leadership recruitment and training, child, especially girl education, health and African security and peace promotion. During the launching in London of Obasanjo Foundation last month, he had this to say: “I look forward to a great future for Africa, a future in which African continent will match its military strength with moral restraint, its self-reliant on economic wealth with true independence, its power with purpose. An Africa which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, protect the beauty of our environment, preserve old African houses like those unfortunately destroyed in Northern Mali of Timbuktu; finally, an Africa which will be safe for democracy and diversity.”
While perfection is beyond human attainment, it will be inaccurate of me therefore, to suggest that Obasanjo is without human error. To those who are quick to point out his misdemeanour, permit me to remind us all of what US Secretary of State (under Bush administration), Condoleezza Rice, said most eloquently in her memoir- No Higher Honor: “Today’s headlines and history’s judgment are rarely the same. If you are too attentive to the former, you will most certainly not do the hard work of securing the latter.”
May the almighty God grant Obasanjo many more additional 365 days advancement in the chronological measurement of time we call age. Happy birthday ‘Mr President’
* Agbai, PhD, is the Executive Vice-President, Centre for Policy & Foreign Engagement, USA.