Olusegun Obasanjo became president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 1999, following the demise of the military dictatorship. He quickly emerged as the front-runner to lead the country’s transition back to democracy – his elected term in office was characterized by a commitment to the rule of law, economic and political reform. He is a role model for the youth of Africa and has established the African Leadership Forum and The Presidential Library complex. He served as president of Nigeria from May 1999 to 2007.
When he took office again in 1999, the world price of oil – on which the state typically depends for more than 90 per cent of export earnings – was at record lows. The coffers had been stripped by the outgoing military regime and the industry was under siege by militants in the oil-producing Niger delta demanding a greater share of the revenues. At the time, Nigerians questioned whether enough resources were available to hold the nation together. Some of Obasanjo’s friends told him he was mad to take the job. “You will be the last president of Nigeria, they said. It will fall apart. But we managed to hold things together,” he says.
He attributes the violence of the early years of this century, in which more than 10,000 Nigerians died in ethnic and religious clashes, to the political change that was under way. “Under the military a lot had been bottled up. When suddenly you remove the lid …people test how far they can go.”
Nigeria is doing much better now, he insists. Politicians are becoming more able, he believes, although on what evidence it is not clear. Coups, and there have been six since 1960, are a thing of the past, he ventures, thanks to his own efforts at professionalising the army. And, amid burgeoning global demand for the commodities Africa has in abundance, energy-rich Nigeria has an opportunity to prosper on a more equal footing. “There is still a role for our traditional friends to play. We should not ignore them and they should not take us for granted,” he says, adding that the west should not be unduly worried by any loss of influence as a result of China, India and other emerging power engagement with the continent. “Africa needs as many friends as possible. And if anything there should be co-operation from east and west, to pull Africa up.”
After serving his country for eight years and restoring the community, President Obasanjo stepped down in 2007. His role as Africa’s ambassador-at-large continued, when he was appointed by the UN as a special envoy for Africa in 2008. Outside the political arena, President Obasanjo has been a catalyst in driving Africa’s economic transformation. Using his experience as a successful farmer and businessman in Nigeria, he is actively engaging this community to facilitate more investment into the continent. He will achieve this vision through the Africa Investment Council (AIC) and is presently an advisor to New World Capital.
Olusegun Obasanjo Biography
Olusegun Obasanjo was born 5 March 1937. Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo swept to power in 1999, promising far-reaching democratic reforms in a country devastated by decades of military rule. Olusegun Obasanjo, worked his way up through the ranks of the army. As a former military ruler himself in the late 1970s, he had already handed power back to an elected civilian government, a rare move in Nigerian politics. Critical of subsequent military regimes, he was also imprisoned for three years in the mid-1990s and was eventually persuaded to run as a civilian presidential candidate. His People’s Democratic Party created a successful coalition of interests, taking office amid widespread optimism that a new era had dawned in Nigeria.
He studied in a Baptist school. Unable to remain in college for financial reasons, he enlisted in the British colonial army in 1958. He received officer training in the UK. He rose quickly through the army ranks of his country. During the Biafra conflict, he was appointed to head a commando division at the Biafran front. He received the surrender of the Biafran secessionist forces in 1970.
In 1995 he was jailed by the late General Sani Abacha on charges of plotting a coup along with 43 other soldiers and civilians. When General Abdulsalami Abubakar took over as head of state following the unexpected death of Abacha, he released nine key political prisoners, including Mr Obasanjo in June 1998. Despite his earlier protestations that he would not run for the presidency, Mr Obasanjo changed his mind, saying that he had been persuaded by his friends and supporters. At the time, many considered him to be an ideal choice to hold this complex nation together, particularly given his close relationship and understanding of the military.
In the intervening years, Obasanjo had established himself as a credible global voice: member of the Global Eminent Persons Group and a voice of reason in Africa. He had moved from being merely a retired soldier who did well to an acclaimed man of integrity and knowledge. His search for and cultivation of knowledge after his retirement as a soldier stood him in extremely good stead. It was the fashion in his neck of Nigerian woods to look down on soldiers. Soldiering was seen in the Western region of his time as a profession for those who had more brawn than brain and had chosen the rough path.
The Death of General Murtala Mohammed (1976) projected General Obasanjo, his right hand man and Chief of Staff, to the head of the country’s government. He endowed the country with a federal Constitution based on a presidential system of government. In July-August 1979, President Olusegun Obasanjo organised a presidential election in which he decided not to run.
In subsequent years, Obasanjo held various positions in the United Nations and other international organisations. His party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won the state and federal elections in 1998. Obasanjo served as civilian president of Nigeria, from May 1999 to May 2007. During these mandates, he undertook policies aimed at reducing poverty, corruption in government and establishing a democratic system.
Power of incumbency
Mr Obasanjo stood for re-election under the banner of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). In party primaries at the beginning of January, Mr Obasanjo won more than 70% of the vote, easily beating his nearest challenger Alex Ekwueme. This is a dramatic turnaround for a man who, only a few months ago, was so unpopular within his own party, that it looked unlikely that he would receive the PDP presidential nomination.
That he not only won his party’s support, but won it handsomely, is a testament to Mr Obasanjo’s tenacious political skills. Mr Obasanjo is a Christian from the Yoruba-speaking south-west of the country. But in 1999, his electoral success was largely due not to southern support, but to the backing of northern Muslim interests.
In particular, it was the influence of one of the country’s key power brokers, another former military head of state, Ibrahim Babangida, that brought the north behind Mr Obasanjo. This time around, the equation was very different. Mr Obasanjo now has the support of the south-west, but his position in the north had weakened. This is because his main rival for the presidency was another former military head, Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim and a northerner.
The north was a key battleground for the election, and focused on issues such as the controversial introduction of Islamic or Sharia law into the criminal code of the northern states. Mr Obasanjo, a devout Christian, has voiced his concern over the strict Muslim punishments contained in the laws, such as the stoning of adulterers. Mr Buhari, a devout Muslim, is seen as a champion of Sharia and the interests of the Islamic north. But his popularity failed to extend beyond the north.
When he returned to power in 1999, as Nigeria’s President and Head of State, he was absolutely well prepared. Nobody had any reason to question his credentials. In a country where political office seekers often present affidavits, NEPA bills and trashy excuses in place of secondary school certificates, or claim not to remember the exact name of the universities that they attended, Obasanjo had no such problem, for indeed, his life has remained an open book. Years of preparation and exposure made him an impactful President. Within 24 hours after assuming office in 1999, Obasanjo hit the ground running and announced key policy decisions. He also did not have to wait for six months or fish around the forest to compose a team, and there was no way he could ever have made the mistake of referring to the Chancellor of Germany as the President of West Germany.
In Nigeria’s history since independence, Yakubu Gowon, Olusegun Obasanjo, Ibrahim Babangida and Goodluck Jonathan have recruited the brightest minds into government. Both Obasanjo and Babangida openly craved the company of intellectuals. Some of Obasanjo’s close friends to date are among the brightest minds in their respective fields and this ranges from Emeritus Professors to Christian priests or local farmers and hunters.
Before now, perhaps because of this polyvalent association and his robust efforts as a writer, Olusegun Obasanjo has always tried to assert himself as an intellectual, to which the likes of his kinsman, Wole Soyinka have always responded with friendly snobbery, but now, I assume that in their next brotherly spat, the farmer of Ota is likely to engage the Nobel Laureate far more confidently. Kongi should note: Olusegun Obasanjo, now Dr. Obasanjo, has become a licensed intellectual. With a Ph.D, no one again can accuse Obasanjo of lacking in theoretical thinking. He now combines the learning of theoretical thinking with his talents as a man of quick wit, action and native wisdom.
Obasanjo’s voice continues to be heard in part because he continues to strive to develop himself. For a man who is in the departure lounge, it is amazing how he continues to live as if life is immortal. He represents a study in leadership for all men and women who seek only the shortcut and have sworn an oath to a life of indolence. His life reminds us of how we live in a knowledge age and how knowledge and education are the only redemptive forces at whatever stage in life.
Education, indeed continuous education can improve the individual, but it can also save communities and societies. Indolent, self-indulgent Nigerians and other political leaders can learn a lot from the Obasanjo School of Leadership. For all his accomplishments, however, Obasanjo does not necessarily speak for the stifled masses of Nigeria, but he is committed to the idea of Nigeria and has spent his life and career defending that idea and the unity and progress of his homeland.
With a Ph.D in Theology, Obasanjo now better understands the subjects of forgiveness and love. Nobody should be surprised if Baba, as we call him, launches a Pentecostal Christian Ministry tomorrow, and declares himself a General Overseer in the Lord’s Vineyard. Should he venture in that direction, however, I may be tempted to join his ministry, and if I so decide, he would have to reciprocate by putting me in charge of the collection of tithes and offerings… Well, yeah…Dr. Olusegun Obasanjo, congratulations.
Olusegun Obasanjo Foundation
President Obasanjo is also Founder of the Olusegun Obasanjo Foundation, a UK based charity that has a mission of advancing Human Security for All.
Olusegun Obasanjo has a winning sense of humour and unshakeable belief in self as well as country: “I love Nigeria. Some people see that as a weakness.”