Our choice of Obasanjo was a difficult one, but we were compelled by the need to focus on the message rather than the messenger.
We are not unmindful of the fact that his choice would come to many of our readers as a surprise, if not disappointment. Yet it is precisely because we have held his feet to the fire whenever we deemed it necessary that we have the courage to acknowledge his message.
We know that the former president was the architect of a number of the current problems facing the country; yet his persistence in speaking up when other statesmen preferred to play the ostrich by burying their heads in the sand make it difficult to ignore him.
From his famous exchange of letters to his direct challenge on President Goodluck Jonathan’s government to curb corruption and save the country from insecurity, Obasanjo spoke up for millions of Nigerians who may not like him but who cannot deny that he said what needed to be said and has stayed on the message.
If he had been silent like the rest who want to be esteemed publicly but prefer to claim privileged access to the powers that be when their voices should have been heard, it is almost certain that things might have been worse than they are today.
In his two decades in the military, Obasanjo advanced steadily through the ranks. From 1958 to 1959, he served in the 5th Battalion in Kaduna and the Cameroons. In 1959, he was commissioned a second lieutenant. The following year, he was promoted to lieutenant and served in the Nigerian contingent of the UN Force in the Congo. In 1963, he became commander of the only engineering unit of the Nigerian Army. The same year, he was promoted to captain. He became a major in 1965, lieutenant-colonel in 1967, and colonel in 1969.
In his autobiographical work, My Command: An Account of the Nigerian Civil War, Obasanjo wrote this of that tumultuous period in Nigeria’s history: “Within a space of six months, I turned a situation of low morale, desertion and distrust within my division and within the Army into one of high morale, confidence, cooperation and success for my division and for the Army….A nation almost torn asunder and on the brink of total disintegration was reunited and the wound healed.”
Life after the war
Following the war, Obasanjo returned to his former position as chief of army engineers. After he was promoted to brigadier-general in 1972, he enrolled in an advanced training course at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London. Two years later, he returned to Nigeria and was appointed federal commissioner for works and housing.
Military head of state
During his time in office, Obasanjo proved himself to be a tough leader, unafraid to stand up to colonial powers. At one point, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused to restore British authority in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) after the country’s white population usurped power. In response, Obasanjo nationalised British Petroleum’s interests in Nigeria, those of Barclays Bank and threatened to boycott British imports. Thatcher eventually relented, and began the process that led to free elections and majority rule in Zimbabwe.
Hand over to civilians
In 1979, after three years as Nigeria’s leader, Obasanjo handed power to elected president Shehu Shagari. In doing so, he became the only military ruler in Nigeria’s history, albeit, in Africa, to voluntarily step down in favour of a democratically-elected government.
While in office, Obasanjo oversaw the creation of a new constitution for Nigeria, and implemented a wide range of governmental reforms.
Obasanjo the farmer
Having retired from the armed forces as a general in 1979, Obasanjo started a company called Obasanjo Farms Nigeria Ltd., in Otta, Ogun State. According to Jonathan Power, writing in the Los Angeles Times, “Obasanjo was so obsessed by his countrymen’s refusal to come to terms with economic chaos, not least the running down of the country’s precious agricultural base, that he decided to show what could be done with the land.” He supervised the construction of the farm closely, often choosing to spend the night in the half-built structures. “I call myself a chicken farmer,” he told Rushworth M. Kidder of the Christian Science Monitor. “Some of my friends don’t like that, but some do!”
Life as a writer
Obasanjo also became a fellow at the University of Ibadan’s Institute of African Studies. During the 1980s and 1990s, he wrote prolifically, publishing My Command and numerous books and articles on Africa’s development. He served on a variety of policy research and advisory committees concerned with the future of African countries. “Democracy, farming, and disarmament are Obasanjo’s passions,” Jonathan Power wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “and he has relentlessly promulgated them.”
Obasanjo was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times: “The improvement of living standards and the wealth of nations are more of a journey and less of a destination.”
In his view, it would take three or four generations for Africa to transform its centuries-old culture to fit with the demands of the global marketplace, but at the same time African culture should not be devalued.
“What, for example, is wrong with our traditional society, which respects age, experience, and authority?” he was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times. “Or the norm that everybody is his brother’s keeper? Or the practice of stigmatising and ostracising evil doers and the indolent?”
In 1993, a civil election was held in Nigeria, but the country’s military ruler, General Ibrahim Babangida, refused to hand over power to the winner.
“We demand that the Babangida administration be terminated forthwith,” Obasanjo was quoted as saying in the Boston Globe.
In protest, the European Community suspended aid to Nigeria, but the military government held on.
By 1995, leadership had passed to General Sani Abacha, who jailed Obasanjo and other military officers on charges of plotting a coup. Obasanjo strongly denied the charges, and after international pressure was applied, he was soon released from prison, although he was restricted to his hometown indefinitely.
Abacha and Abdulsalami
In the summer of 1998, Abacha, whom the Economist once called “the worst ruler Nigeria has ever” had died suddenly – whether from natural or unnatural causes is still uncertain. In his place came General Abdulsalami Abubakar, who quickly announced his intention to restore Nigeria to civilian rule after 15 years of army dictatorship. He released a number of political prisoners, including Obasanjo. Almost immediately, rumours began circulating that he would run for office. In November of 1998, Obasanjo confirmed the rumours, arousing both interest and controversy.
“More than issues, however, the election is about the complex balancing of hundreds of ethnic interests. However, his years spent in house arrest were a definite asset for his campaign: Mr Obasanjo’s aura as a political martyr is expected to help him to overcome the handicap of his uniform,” La Guardia observed.
Why I came back
He told the Daily Telegraph that he had to return to power to “bring Nigeria out of the mess it has been put into by a succession of corrupt army dictators. I believe I have something to offer. If someone has something to offer, he should say so and let the electorate decide.”
Selected Awards: Grand Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1980; Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger, 1990; several honorary degrees.