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Obasanjo, The Enigma, @ 80

By Godknows Igali

Hurray! At last our oga, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, who even the aged prefer to call baba – an African sobriquet for a father, an oldman or a sage – is 80!

In celebration, activities to mark the occasion climaxed on Saturday, March 5th and Sunday 6th, 2017 as  world leaders joined Nigeria’s Acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, in Abeokuta, to open the Obasanjo Presidential Library.

The Obasanjo Presidential Library is in a class of its own. Apart from the ultramodern facilities for research and intellectual discourse on national, regional and global issues, the library has the most picturesque of setting. Indeed, the Presidential Library is the cynosure of what Africans can do given will and determination.

As is said in Spanish “por fin”, we now know that 80 years ago, on a market day, likely on March 5, 1937, a male child was born to a peasant farmer in Ibogun area of Abeokuta. In a rather prophetic and futuristic prediction, his parents named him Olusegun which means “God is ever victorious”.

Olusegun Obasanjo

This obviously was with a hope that the plan of God will express itself supremely in the life of the child and that emboldened them to place on him the typical tribal marks of his Owu lineage; a trademark which he carries for the rest of his life.

The journey towards upward progression for Obasanjo interspersed with many other great men and women who equally were born in  Abeokuta, about the same time as him. These include Fela Anikulapo Kuti (1938), Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka (1934), former Interim President  Ernest Shonekan (1936), former Presidential candidate and business mogul – Moshood Abiola (1937), international jurist and diplomat,. Prince Bola Ajibola (1934),  finiancial and development expert, Dr. Onaolapo Soleye (1935) and Dr. Bola Kuforiji Olubi (1936),

The young Olusegun excelled particularly in the sciences and mathematics and all stages of his study especially at Baptist Boys’ High School. It was therefore not surprising that he proceeded to Yaba College, the only tertiary institution at the time besides University College, Ibadan, to study and graduated as a civil engineer.

But rather than focus on constructing roads and bridges in the then Public Works Department (PWD), he joined the Nigerian Army in 1958 as a member of the First Regular Course. He received training in some of the elitist military institutions around the world including the Royal School of Military Survey, the Royal School of Military Engineering and British Royal Engineers Young Officers School all in the United Kingdom and also the Indian School of Engineering.

From 1959, after the completion of his military training and commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, he entered into active service attached to British battalions in England and Germany and soon found himself in 1961 serving the world as United Nations Peace Keeper in Congo (now Zaire Republic). Although his academic training was in the Sciences, his entry into the army brought him under infantry where he remained until he was promoted to Captain in 1963 and moved to head the Engineering Corps as Commander.

Obasanjo’s exploits during the civil war including his take over of the infamous Third Marine Commando from “the Black Scorpion”, Col. Benjamin Adekunle, was a crowning crest in his military service. While in Port Harcourt, he led federal troops to bring about the final defeat of rebel forces which led to eventual surrender and the hand over of the instruments of armistice to him by Gen. Philip Effiong, the then Chief of Staff of the Biafran Army in January 1970.

He later held various command positions in the Nigerian Army finally serving as Commissioner of Works. Following the overthrow of Gen. Yakubu Gowon as Head of State in 1975, he became Chief of Staff and Second in Command to Gen Murtala Muhammed, the new Head of State. On the latter’s assassination in 1976, Obasanjo was elected by his peers in the Supreme Military Council to assume the mantle of leadership as Head of State.

The pinnacle of his career as a military-politician was the fact that he superintended the free and democratic elections and ensured the handover of power to Alhaji Shehu Shagari in 1978. This was first of its kind in the days of military hold unto power in Africa. His pellucid reflections on his military career and taste of power are in his voluminous but controversial book “My Command” (2006).

Obasanjo’s retirement period was spent not in his home town of Abeokuta, but in the nearby farming community of Otta where he established the farm estate and African Leadership Forum. This was a high profile academic outfit which dealt with critical issues of research on policy and strategy on governance and economic development.

He also tried unsuccessfully to become the Secretary General of the United Nations; but, like the sully role of the proverbial termite, his efforts were thwarted by forces within his home front. It was during this period (1996) that he was accused of working against the interest of the government of the day and was sentenced to death serving good time in prison.

In 1998, power brokers of the day decided that he should be the presidential candidate of a new party  called Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). He came out of prison and, after electoral victory, moved into Presidential Villa.

The chronicle of the achievements of Obasanjo during his eight years in power would itself be the subject of a total anthology of its own. It suffices to mention that far reaching economic and social reforms in almost all sectors of national economy were undertaken.

These include initiative on agriculture which are still being followed today such as programs on local rice production, on cassava and other stable crops, the industrial master plan of the country and massive reforms in the power sector including the commencement of the 10 Nigeria Integrated Power Projects (NIPP) and the unbundling of the infamous NEPA.

It was to his great credit that he worked assiduoudly towards Nigeria’s historic debt relief of $18million from the Paris Club in June, 2015. Another great achievement was in telecommunication where he introduced the GSM and thereby increased Nigeria’s tele-density from 2million to the present 100million connectivity.

It was also Obasanjo who established all the existing anti-corruption agencies including Code of Conduct Bureau and its Tribunal, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC).

Also, he recognised the lingering problem of the Niger Delta and re-enacted the spirit of the 1958 Willinks Commission by establishing the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) in 2005 as a special development agency. He therefore pushed to ensure that one from the troubled region, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, became Vice President and subsequently, President.

From what we all saw at Abeokuta, this bubbling old man will obviously go on still for many years to come and perhaps at 80 should be given more work to do.

*Igali, a Ph.D. is an administrator, award-winning author and diplomat.



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