Onukaba Adinoyi Ojo
My companion was one of the old generation of reporters at the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos, and his approach to news gathering and the amount of risk that should be invested in it, had been shaped and fixed by years of routine, unimaginative practice. We had gone to the international terminal to assist a departing relation through the notoriously “firm” barriers erected by security wolves. A man in an overflowing agbada ambled through the normally thick night crowd in the departure hall. Heads turned and eyes widened in recognition. We stood on our toes, craning our necks to see who it was.
The hall clock nearest to us had died at 5.50pm, three hours and ten minutes ago. On March 20, 1984.
“Ah, it’s General Olusegun Obasanjo,” my friend said. And hissed. The former Head of State was returning from Frankfurt, in the then West Germany, in one of his fairly regular diplomatic shuttles around the globe since voluntarily relinquishing power to an elected civilian administration in October 1979. “Let us go and chat him up,” I managed to say with naive excitement. My friend promptly rebuked me for harbouring such dangerous thoughts. “Don’t you dare. That man hates journalists. He will embarrass you today.”
My enthusiasm was dampened. And I watched helplessly as the General walked past us. Then, something in me said I should defy my friend’s warning, and dare the consequences. “Wo (look), don’t waste your time. Don’t play with that man. Just let him go with his wahala (trouble)”, my friend said in a tone deep with cynicism and loathing. “I shall try.” I did not wait again for his response. I dashed after the subject. Barely one year old in journalism, I moved with supreme confidence, youthful exuberance, and the aggressiveness of my generation of journalists. In The Guardian tradition, it’ ll still be news even if the former Head of State rebuffed my interview attempt. It was my first physical encounter with him and I wanted it on record that I once pestered him.
I introduced myself and my newspaper. He sized me up, then smiled and drew me closer to him, one arm stretched across my shoulders, almost cuddling me like his child. With my leather shoes, reasonably well-embroidered guinea brocade dashiki and sokoto, and a shiny black briefcase, I looked more like a young businessman than a typical Nigerian reporter. As I later found out, this seemingly dapper appearance contributed to the unusual cordiality of our encounter. For between the soldier and Nigerian journalists, there is no love lost.
“Yes, what can I do for you?”
“Let’s chat on some national issues,” I began, what I now recognise was not a particularly brilliant conversation. He gave me a velvet punch.
“That should tell you that I don’t talk to the press.”
His arm, hard and heavy, was still spread out on my shoulders. His eyes, tiny and twinkling, absorbed everything on our route. His face, dark and coarse, managed a smile.
“Perhaps I could get an appointment to come to the farm for a chat.”
“No, I don’t chat. Have you ever seen a farmer chatting?”
“Yes, sometimes to diffuse tension.”
“What tension? That must be a very lazy farmer.”
“No sir. It is a necessary interlude to the boring monotony of work.”
By now, we were outside the departure hall, approaching his car and aides frenetically getting things ready for the 20-minute journey to Ota. He removed his arm from my shoulders, dismissed me, and turned to his aides. As soon as he left at 9.15 EM.., I sat down and recreated our encounter. It was published under the headline “Obasanjo Parries Interview Attempt” in The Guardian of 23 March 1984.
Dele Giwa, who had earlier on similarly pestered the General for an interview, got it, and became one of his close friends, met me in The Guardian newsroom one day ‘and said something about the General being impressed with both my appearance during that chance “encounter and the entertaining story that came out of it. Giwa then advised me to keep in touch with the Ota-based chicken farmer “for he seems to like you very much”.
I did not keep in touch until July 1984 when Nigeria found herself in a serious diplomatic row with Britain over the botched kidnap attempt in London of the former Minister of Transport, Umaru Dikko, who had been accused at home of corruptly enriching himself as a minister in the civilian regime of Shehu Shagari. A Nigeria Airways plane had been indicted in the highly embarrassing episode and seized at Stanstead Airport by the British authorities. Nigeria had responded by detaining a British Caledonian Airways plane on a regular London-bound flight from Lagos. The diplomatic face-off between Lagos and London was the hottest story at the time and reporters virtually camped at the airport to witness the behind-the-scene diplomatic contacts and deals that came after the public outbursts and denunciation.
The then External Affairs Minister, Ibrahim Gambari, flew in with General
Obasanjo, apparently arriving from separate engagements abroad. Gambari pleaded
for time to consult with his boss, the then Head of State, Major-General Muhammadu
Buhari, before speaking to the press. We then turned to General Obasanjo who,
predictably, had no comments. With two veritable news sources dry, colleagues froze in frustration. I ran after the former Head of State and introduced my self.
“Ah, are you? How are you?”
He held my hand and led me into the cozy presidential lounge and granted me an exclusive interview on the Dikko affair. At yet another chance meeting at the airport two days to Nigeria’s 24th independence anniversary celebration, I got a food-for-thought from the General for a nation counting 24 years of freedom from British colonialism. Less than a month later, we met again and talked. In no time, he became familiar with my name and face. Because I was often around when he was going out or coming in, he began to credit me with an omnipresence and efficiency that I owed solely to chance. He thought I was such a damn good reporter that I had all his travel schedules in my head.
To my colleagues, I had naturally become “Obasanjo’s boy”. Even if tinged with certain amount of sarcasm and envy, the nickname had some truth. Familiarity imposes some measure of responsibility. For example, I wrote only on those things he cleared for publication. Whenever he said “and this not for your paper”, I kept faithfully to the agreed boundaries, most of the time. Gradually, I began to gain his confidence. Then, something happened on 13 October 1984, which I thought had ruined our budding relationship.
In Yakoyo, near Ile-Ife, I was covering a thanksgiving service and reception for the former Chief of Defence Staff, Lt. General Alani Akinrinade, who had just returned from a medical treatment in West Germany after a near-tragic encounter with armed bandits in January. Mrs. Stella Obasanjo stood in for her husband at the occasion and I succeeded in persuading her to grant me an interview for The Guardian of 17 October 1984. Certain aspects of the interview obviously did not go down well with the General’s estranged first wife, Oluremi. She protested publicly and the lid blew off a sour affair, spilling into the streets. Scandal-loving news media picked up the story, trying to undo one another for the sleaziest coverage possible. It was only the threat of legal action from the General that would in the end force a section of the Nigerian media to exercise some restraint in its handling of the General’s troubled private life.
I held myself responsible for everything and avoided him as much as I could. My editor, Lade Bonuola, and his deputy, Femi Kusa, counselled me constantly on the need to continue to have the General as a powerful source, they said his friendship was good for the paper and for my career as a reporter, that he was somebody I would find useful in future, and that I should save the friendship by writing him a letter explaining my role in what came to be known in the media as “The General’s Wives Palaver.” None of these persuaded me to venture near the man for a very long time. I finally summoned up courage early in 1986—more than a year after the rumpus— and went to his farm in Ota. He was incredibly warm. I met him discussing with former Ogun State Deputy Governor Sesan Soluade.
He promptly introduced me, adding, humorously, that I was “the young man who will not leave my wives alone”. When we were alone, I wanted to explain what happened but he cut in, saying I should forget it for I was only doing my job. It was simply incredible. Relieved of the guilt I thought was mine, I reminded him over lunch of his promise to take me along to one of the world forums in which he had become very active since retiring in 1979. He reeled out a long list of them, before deciding that the fourth session of the Inter Action Council of former Heads of States and Government in Hakone and Tokyo, Japan, in April 1986, would be the best for me to cover.
We left Lagos on 5 April 1986 for Brussels, Belgium, where he was billed to chair a working session at a leadership conference organised by the Washington-based Center for International and Strategic Studies. Here and in Japan I was to see his increasing relevance in world affairs, and meet his colleagues in the global efforts to save the world from environmental pollution and destruction, hunger and starvation, the debt squeeze, human rights violations, the threat to democratic values worldwide, East-West tensions, and a host of other problems. He introduced me to his colleagues, talked them into giving me interviews, and even suggested issues I could raise with them.
In Brussels, Tokyo and, two years later, in Moscow, I met the real man. Mentally alert (the letters he wrote in my presence and the contributions he made to debates at the conferences were so surprisingly deep and illuminating), earthy and humorous (he advised me to remember to readjust my taste to the harsh realities of a journalist’s life in Nigeria when he saw me ensconced in chauffeured limousines and sampling choice cuisines and wines), and pathologically stingy (he woke me up at 1a.m. in a five-star Tokyo hotel presidential suite to collect the coins left from an errand I had done for him; and he bugged me almost to the point of irritation not to forget to tell my newspaper to refund the over N 3,000 he spent on my ticket).
Well, it’s been some 10 years since that initial encounter. I have gone from being a reporter-friend to an adopted son, a confidant, and a trusted adviser. Personally, it’s been a privilege knowing him. I have learnt a lot from him. Through him, I have heard rare access to eminent people and interesting places in different parts of the world. He has shielded me from the full wrath of oversensitive Nigerian security agents over stories I wrote that they had found very offensive. He arranged an institutional support for me to obtain a masters degree in Journalism and a doctorate in Performance Studies at New York University.
Quick upstairs brutally frank, crude and practical, Obasanjo is a study in ambivalence and ambiguity. He has run his life on certain definite principles: diligence, temperance, fairness, justice, and parsimony. He is at times thoughtful and methodical, and at times, stubbornly unconcerned with the finer points of legality and propriety of behaviour, a man who sometimes raised expediency to a virtue. He is earthy and humble, but acutely sensitive about slights. He worked very hard for everything that has come his way. But it is also true that he owes a lot to providence, though he likes to: de-emphasise it.
When he assumed power on 14 February 1976, he was still relatively unknown to the millions of Nigerians whose collective destiny he had been entrusted with- His leadership of the Third Marine Commando during the civil war, his command of the Army Engineering Corps, and the few months he had spent as Minister of Works and Housing had been exemplary. But most Nigerians were not so sure of his ability to lead the nation out of what was largely a self-inflicted social and economic malaise. The situation, for Obasanjo, was further compounded by an uncomely presence that many people often mistake for dullness and boorishness.
Some distrusted him outright. But his friends and colleagues within his immediate constituency—the Nigerian Army—knew that his gracelessness was deceptive; they knew that he was the “ideas man” behind the tough-talking, fire-spitting General Murtala Muhammed. Though lacking the fiery temperament of his predecessor, his competence was never in doubt among these people. He also suffered greatly at the hands of public expectation. Because he was taking over from an immensely popular leader who had also been canonised by death, Obasanjo’s actions, style and even his gait would frequently be compared to those of his predecessor by a populace that would refuse to see them as two different personalities.
Disciplined by a childhood of deprivation, he would bring into governance a responsible financial management and a frugality that his colleagues considered crippling. In a nation where public service is synonymous with greed, theft and corruption, his ethical crusade and his call for moderation in every aspect of our national life would be mocked by a cynical populace.
Obasanjo is a cautious reformer. The brutal termination of his predecessor’s aggressive strides seemed to have imbued in Obasanjo a crippling sense of moderation and caution. He is a man who believes in the system, and leadership to him means tinkering with the existing structures to evolve a more dynamic one in which hard work is encouraged and rewarded, and indolence, waste, and indiscipline are discouraged with enforceable sanctions.
He believes that it is the responsibility of the government, any government, to use the collective resources of the state to the benefit of every citizen; to help the disadvantaged to their feet; and to create an atmosphere in which each person could find fulfillments in life. His era, according to one political scientist, would be essentially a monitoring exercise for the fundamental policies had been initiated in the six action-packed months he shared with Muhammed. “… Highly talented, shy, fearless, swift in action and deep,” was how Obafemi Awolowo, western Nigeria’s apotheosised leader, described the new man.
Because of the way things have turned out for him, he is often too quick to recommend his life to others while overlooking the unfair advantage that the military gave to people like him. He says he is intolerant of “thoughtlessness and uninformed criticisms,” but in general, Obasanjo has often responded aggressively to attacks on his actions. Asked several times if with the benefit of hindsight he would have acted differently on some of the issues and policies taken by his administration between 1976 and 1979, Obasanjo said confidently that he had no regrets. But this feeling of infallibility, this belief that I-can-do-no-wrong is a major character defect in Obasanjo. Surely, time—the acid test of all policies and actions—has shown that some of the policy decisions of the Obasanjo administration could have been better thought out. For example, the first World Bank loan was unnecessary. With that loan, an access to easy funds was suddenly thrown open to be abused and perverted by the succeeding administration. Today, Nigeria is suffocating under the crushing weight of a foreign debt estimated at U.S. $35 billion.
Obasanjo has a sound memory—for good or for bad—and he can be mean and ruthless when he thinks he is being taken for a fool. No matter how hard he tries to tout the altruistic motives in his actions, Obasanjo still leaves the impression that he is a man struggling seriously to be ennobled by history and to be appreciated and complimented by his fellow men. Some of those who have lived and worked with him have accused him of using and dumping them when they were no longer vital to his overall scheme. While this is not entirely untrue, it does not diminish at all the towering figure the General represents and his historical accomplishments. His 60th birthday is an occasion for me to renew the feelings of my respect and gratitude. I have recently completed a biography of General Obasanjo, entitled In the Eyes of Time, which I hope will soon be published and which will shed more light on his multifaceted personality than was possible in this short contribution.
*Dr. Ojo, who died on Sunday in tragic circumstances, contributed this essay to a book of tributes to General Olusegun Obasanjo in 1995 under the title of ‘The Cautious Reformer’. The book itself entitled ‘Leadership in Africa’ was edited byHans’s d’Orville. It is being reproduced here for the journalistic lessons embodied in the essay and a tribute to Dr. Onukaba Adinoyi Ojo as one of the best and brightest of Nigerian journalism