Widely regarded as Nigeria’s most accomplished statesman, Olusegun Obasanjo, at 79, is a towering giant in the courtyard of African history, writes Solomon Elusoji
They call him ‘Baba’, because he is father. Love or hate him, Olusegun Obasanjo is one of Africa’s most notable leaders in the past 100 years. From his exploits in the military to becoming the first democratic president of Nigeria’s fourth republic, before becoming an African global ambassador, he has seen it all.
Born around March 5, 1937, at the age of 21, in 1958, Obasanjo enlisted in the Nigerian Army. He attended the six month Short Service Commission training at Mons Officer Cadet School in Aldershot, England and was thereafter commissioned as an officer in the Nigerian Army. He was also trained in India at the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington, and at the Indian Army School of Engineering. During the Nigerian Civil War, he commanded the Army’s 3 Marine Commando Division that took Owerri, and which effectively brought an end to the bitter war.
Although Obasanjo did not participate in the military coup of July 29, 1975, led by Murtala Mohammed, he supported it and was named Murtala’s deputy in the new government. On February 13, 1976, when Murtala was assassinated in a deadly coup, death missed Obasanjo by a whisker, foiling the coup in the process. So, Obasanjo became the next military Head of State.
But, unlike some of his predecessors and later military successors, Obasanjo did not believe that the military had an important role to play in politics. So, on October 1, 1979, he handed power to Shehu Shagari, who was a democratically elected civilian president. That act made him the first military Head of State to transfer power peacefully to a civilian regime in Nigeria. It was a move that would pay off in later life.
During the regime of Gen. Sani Abacha, which ran from 1993 to 1998, Obasanjo regularly spoke out against the human rights abuses perpetrated by the government. He was soon imprisoned for alleged participation in an aborted coup, only to be released after Abacha’s mysterious death on June 8, 1998.
In 1999, when it was time for the fourth republic to emerge, Obasanjo decided to run for the presidency, under the umbrella of the People Democratic Party (PDP). He would win the elections with 62.6 per cent of the vote, beating his fellow south-westerner, Olu Falae.
He ruled Nigeria democratically for eight years, and many have said that his biggest achievement was the liberalisation of the telecommunications sector, which has allowed Nigeria to become Africa’s largest and fastest growing telecommunications market.
He also created the country’s first Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, which secured a number of convictions, including high profile members of Nigeria’s elite, recovering billions of dollars in assets.
Additionally, with high oil prices, Obasanjo’s government oversaw a doubling of Nigeria’s average economic growth rate to six per cent. Foreign reserves rose from $3.7 billion in 1999 to $45 billion in 2007.
Of course, he has had his ridiculous moments, among which was the Third Term agenda, but he was able to successfully guide Nigeria through eight years of democracy, despite the country’s long romance with guns and decrees.
After stepping down as president in 2007, Obasanjo became an African diplomatic ambassador, travelling round the world, delivering speeches, and encouraging peace and unity as key prerequisites for progress and development on the African continent. In 2008, he was appointed Special Envoy on the Great Lakes region by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and continues to be an integral actor in mediation efforts in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Obasanjo also served as the African Union’s Special Envoy for Togo’s 2010 presidential elections, as well as South Africa’s presidential polls in 2009.
As the Special Envoy for ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), his role in diffusing the crisis that threatened civil war in Cote D’Ivoire in 2011 was vital. When democracy was once again threatened in Senegal during controversial presidential polls in March 2012, he promptly led the joint African Union and ECOWAS mission to resolve the standoff, paving the way for a smooth transition and pulling one of Africa’s oldest democracies back from the brink.
Earlier this March, Obasanjo celebrated his 79th birthday and, as usual, the celebration was attended by top dignitaries, including serving ministers, friends, and family members. The Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, the Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, and the Executive Governor of Ogun State, Ibikunle Amosun, were just some of the names present at the birthday event, which took place at the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library in Abeokuta.
Amosun described Obasanjo as a nationalist who puts “Nigeria first in everything he does, while Onu said Obasanjo is a “special gift to the country, because every time the country faces any challenge God uses him to solve that challenge”. Amaechi, on his part, submitted that “most Nigerians believe that you love Nigeria and at all times, you want to save her”, and the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, noted that despite being 79 years, Obasanjo’s “strength and wisdom have not waned.”
Meanwhile, President Muhammadu Buhari also sent congratulations, via a statement released by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina. “President Buhari believes that Chief Obasanjo’s place in global history is assured for successfully handing over power to a civilian government in 1979 after serving as a military Head of State, and returning to power in 1999 through elections to stabilise the polity, during which he most remarkably negotiated a debt relief for Nigeria,” the statement read in part.
That Obasanjo’s name is assured in history is a foregone conclusion; he has paid his dues. His recorded efforts for democracy, since his days in the military, are phenomenal, and he continues to be a torch-bearer for peaceful causes. In February 2015, he announced his retirement from partisan politics, when he tore his PDP membership card in public. But, while Obasanjo’s politics would be missed for its brashness and controversy, his most important legacy is the democratic messages he delivered, not from the pulpit, but through his deeds.