OBASANJO AT 83: A Leader and His Country

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OBJ and Moghalu

“I don’t want to be remembered. I am still here and have much to do.
As difficult as it might seem, I want every stage of my life to be more exciting than the last”. — Madeleine Albright 64th Secretary of State of the United States

I can think of no one to whom Madeleine Albright’s witticism on her own life applies as much as our very own Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, GCFR, former President of Nigeria and two-time head of state who led Nigeria from 1976 to 1979 as a military leader, and from 1999 to 2007 as a democratically elected president. Retired military general, farmer, politician, author, traditional title holder, and with an earned Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) obtained at 80, Obasanjo remains an enigma, a deep, restless and controversial leader whose footprints remain indelible in the sands of contemporary Nigerian history. On January 12, 1970, then Col. Obasanjo, Commander of the Nigerian Army’s Third Battalion, accepted the instrument of surrender from the Biafran military high command led by Phillip Effiong in Amichi, ending Nigeria’s three-year civil war. Since that day, Obasanjo has remained a permanent fixture in Nigerian national life, in and out of office.

Some are born great. Some achieve greatness. Others have greatness thrust upon them. The general perception of President Obasanjo, or “Baba OBJ” as he is fondly and colloquially referenced, is that greatness was thrust upon his shoulders. As he told me once in conversation, “I was neither the first nor the last in my class in my schooldays. I was somewhere in the middle”. It is not in doubt, however, that he rose to the occasion that fate and destiny prepared for him. “You have prepared a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over…” the Biblical psalmist wrote in Psalm 23. As he turns 83 on March 5, it is worth reflecting objectively on Obasanjo as a leader, his impact on our national past, our contemporary politics, and, possibly, on the future of Nigeria.

I begin with an uncontentious but nevertheless controversial proposition. Of all Nigeria’s presidents, certainly since our return to democracy in 1999, Obasanjo is, by a mile, the most competent and effective leader we have had. “Effective” is a word I have chosen deliberately. I could have said “popular” or “loved” but did not. That’s because effectiveness is the ultimate measure of governance, and therefore of a leader given an opportunity to govern. Leadership is not always a popularity contest, even if some of Nigeria’s political leaders, after having been “popularly” elected into office, spend their tenures seeking popularity while remaining spectacularly ineffective in governance.

President Obasanjo understood late American President Harry Truman’s famous saying that “the buck stops here”. He took and owned leadership responsibility, and gave no excuses. He sought out, respected and encouraged talent. He is confident enough to harness individuals who are intellectually and professionally grounded. OBJ was, unquestionably, the boss. It is no surprise, then, that his most important act in an otherwise relatively unremarkable first term in office as an elected president in 1999 was the compulsory retirement of all military officers who had previously held political appointments. This step, a correct and justified one, is believed to have been aimed at neutering a culture of military coups, subordinating the military to civilian control, and ensuring the stability of our nascent democracy.

President Obasanjo shone in his second term in office. He conceived and implemented numerous reforms and policy initiatives that built strong institutions – another requirement for good governance. The Obasanjo government got the Pension Reform Act passed, created the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), undertook the necessary but controversial consolidation of the Nigerian banking sector and strengthened the Central Bank of Nigeria institutionally with the passage of the CBN Act of 2007, and prioritized economic management with important fiscal reforms as well as achieving a spectacular cancellation of Nigeria’s foreign debt.

To achieve these milestones, Obasanjo combined both technocrats and politicians in his cabinet. He undoubtedly governed seriously through the former and played his politics through the latter. He assembled a strong team led by Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Minister of Finance, and included the likes of Prof. Chukwuma Soludo (CBN Governor), Nasir El-Rufai (Minister of the Federal Capital Territory) and Nuhu Ribadu (EFCC Chairman). He empowered and protected these technocrats from political interference, and by so doing won important policy victories that opened up the Nigerian economy. Hope was in the air, and thousands of Nigerians in diaspora returned home or planned to.

But Obasanjo also displayed tendencies that his critics saw as undermining the separation of powers and the rule of law. This was manifested in his running battles with the National Assembly and frequent orchestrated removals of Senate Presidents and the Speaker of the House of Representatives (although this could also be assessed in the context of several efforts to impeach President Obasanjo), as well as his ambivalence towards the victory of the Lagos State Government at the Supreme Court of Nigeria over the creation of local governments. We have today a decidedly worse situation under the “rule” of another former military head of state, in which every institution of state has been bent to the service of vested, parochial and anachronistic agendas. A tug of war between a full commitment to democratic values and the military instinct of command and control is a paradox of the participation of the ex-military class in our politics.

President Obasanjo is committed to Nigeria’s unity and therefore to the effective management of our diversity. This sets him apart from many of his political contemporaries. Of all Nigerian presidents since 1999, he ran the most ethnically diverse presidency and government. OBJ sees far beyond tribe and creed, focusing more on the substance and content of individuals. He is not an ethnic politician, but is no less Yoruba than any son or daughter of Oduduwa simply because he considers the length and breadth of Nigeria as his remit. In a fractured country that is yet to become a nation with any unity of purpose, in which many leaders have been reduced to the role of ethnic chauvinists by the injustice, hegemonic mindset, and winner-take-all nature of our politics, this trait goes to the core of OBJ’s relevance and influence even out of office. He is seen as a godfather of Nigerian politics precisely because of his indisputably – and unapologetic — pan-Nigerian disposition.

The “Nigerian-unity-at-all cost” worldview, which Obasanjo shares with other ex-military leaders of his generation must, however, be interrogated in the light of existing tensions in the country. What does “One Nigeria” mean, especially in the context of equity and justice to its component peoples? Nation-building is an exercise of will, not just happenstance. I suspect that OBJ’s perspective on this sensitive issue has evolved over time.

While he remains committed to Nigeria remaining one country, he appears to have developed a more nuanced appreciation of the Nigerian Project. Where once Nigeria in his vision must remain one entity, with no questions asked, he appears to have become more sensitive to questions of political equity, hegemonic domination, and justice for Nigeria’s component nationalities. It may be that this is a practical adjustment necessary, in his view, to ensure the survival of his beloved country.

In a country whose politics has remained largely geopolitical, the question of the rotation of the presidency to the South in 2023, and specifically to the Igbo of Southeastern Nigeria, is a looming test of this proposition. The Southeast, one leg of the Nigerian ethnic-majority tripod, has never produced a democratically elected Nigerian leader. Are they shut out of the opportunity to produce a Nigerian president perhaps because of their attempt at secession from the Nigerian state 53 years ago, “no victor, no vanquished” notwithstanding? Time – and OBJ himself – will reveal where he stands on this fundamental aspect of national reconciliation and nation-building.

Obasanjo is a man of ideas. Unlike many Nigerian and African leaders, he is obsessed at both conceptual and practical levels with the challenge of development and democracy that African countries face. His chairmanship of the board of trustees of the Brenthurst Foundation, a Johannesburg-based think tank funded by the South African billionaire Jonathan Oppenheimer, has provided an effective platform for his intellectual leadership on the subject. He has co-authored books such as “Making Africa Work” and “Democracy Works” with Brenthurst Foundation executive director Greg Mills and others. Another work, “The Asian Aspiration”, which examines the lessons of the East Asian development “miracle” for Africa, is due for publication this year.

Highly respected as a world leader, Nigeria in world affairs was at the table, not on the menu under Obasanjo’s leadership. He championed the New Partnership on African Development (NEPAD) with then South African President Thabo Mbeki, and, together with former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, played a decisive leadership role in Africa’s response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic and the establishment of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria in 2002. Since leaving office twice, he has been a leading member of several prestigious and influence organizations of world leaders such as the Club of Madrid and others. He has mediated several international conflicts, including serving as the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and is a mentor to several political leaders around the world.

Proudly African and yet cosmopolitan, OBJ is almost always clad in his native Yoruba attire. Nigerians were surprised and amused when a photograph of him in a natty western suit somewhere in Vietnam appeared on social media. The same reaction rippled nationwide when a video of him and his wife Bola doing a classical western dance style at a party to celebrate his Ph.D. went viral. We should not be surprised. Baba is a man of many parts. He has even mimicked the famous South Korean musician PSY’s “Gangnam style” dance!

Obasanjo is a colossus, an institution. But, for all his achievements and impact, he is human. He is fallible. He acknowledges that leaders make mistakes and should learn from them. One lesson he might consider is that, while he relied mainly on technocrats in his time in office, he defaulted to career politicians when it came to leadership succession. The results have been controversial. Not every subsequent president has proven to have his capacity for digging intellectually into public policy options, and backing technocrats to develop and execute them. The ultimate leader’s capacity matters. No nation can make progress beyond the capacity, or the lack thereof, of its head of government.

Winston Churchill once famously quipped: “History will be kind to me, because I intend to write it”. OBJ may still be too busy, with a frenetic schedule of global travel and activity, to be thinking of being remembered. But he will inevitably be recalled in history. I think that history will be kind to Olusegun Obasanjo.

Prof. Moghalu, a presidential candidate in Nigeria’s 2019 elections, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University’s Council on Emerging Market Enterprises, the CEO of Sogato Strategies LLC, a global strategy advisory firm, and President of the Institute for Governance and Economic Transformation.