Wednesday, March 22, 2017

40 Years of Obasanjo
By Gambo Dori
Nigeria Daily Trust
Mar 21 2017 2:00AM

We all know now that Nigeria’s former President Olusegun Obasanjo celebrated the anniversary of his 80th year of his birth this month of March. As for me, it was 40 years ago Olusegun Obasanjo was forced upon my consciousness that evening of 14th February 1976 when he was named Nigeria’s Head of State as a replacement for General Murtala Mohammed who was brutally murdered by rampaging, mutinous soldiers, a day earlier.

I was in my final year in Kongo campus of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and I recall watching on television in the students’ common room, with a deep frown of disapproval on my face, General Olusegun Obasanjo taking the oath of office. He was dour-looking and the speech he made immediately after he was sworn in was uninspiring. It didn’t help matters when in that inaugural speech he admitted that, ‘I have been called upon, against my personal wish and desire, to serve as the new Head of State’. I felt he was a poor substitute for a person like Murtala whom we all genuinely admired as a dashing, fiery speaking leader who was patently nationalistic.

It was the mid-1970s when the anti-colonialism and anti-apartheid rhetoric was at its peak and we as university students used to side with any national leader, be it Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania or Fidel Castro of Cuba, who railed against those we considered imperialist countries particularly the United States of America and Great Britain and their kith and kin in Apartheid South Africa. Rhetoric-wise, Murtala was in the category of Gaddafi, Nyerere and Castro, and we used to hail him whenever and wherever he gave those ‘give them hell’ speeches.

Fortunately for Nigeria’s fate and to the astonishment of many of us who were cynical ab initio, General Obasanjo settled into power like duck to water, his feet filling up the shoes of his predecessor with relative ease. He faithfully kept to the programme they set out to implement, step by step, fulfilling virtually all of them, and finished up a hero by leading his team to hand over to a civilian administration in October 1979. Within that period I also had finished my studies in Zaria, undergone the compulsory national service in Lagos, and headed home to Maiduguri to take up employment in Chad Basin Development Authority. It was there I was destined to see the General in person for the first time, when he came all the way to New Marte, a village situated at the northernmost part of Borno State, to launch the South Chad Irrigation Project in July 1979. I was Secretary of the launching committee and can recall the General coming to the project site with his host, the Borno State Military Administrator, Col Tunde Idiagbon. They were received by a bevy of Borno dignitaries led by the former Governor of the Northern Region, Sir Kashim Ibrahim, Mutawalli Kachalla Barko, Mustafa Umara, Dr Mohamet Lawan, Musa Daggash, Maina Waziri, Abba Habib, AJKG Imam, Dr Musa Goni and many others. Even then one could observe the future politician unravelling in the soldier statesman as he was at ease in the environment, confidently chatting excitedly with many of the dignitaries.

I missed the handing over ceremony to civilian administration led by President Shehu Shagari in October because I had already flown out of the country earlier in September to start a postgraduate programme in Swansea University. The General, after handing over, retired to his farm in Otta, Abeokuta to figure out a life after office. In time he settled into farming and writing. He followed in the footsteps of many world statesmen by penning his   memoirs. He had a rich and colourful past to draw from; his war experience fought at the front brought out ‘My Command’ published in 1980, and his experience in Government as Minister, as Chief of General Staff and as Head of State came out in a book, ‘Not My Will’ published in 1986.

 It was from these books he had written himself and others written on him, particularly the excellent biography, ‘Olusegun Obasanjo in the Eyes of Time’ written by our colleague in the State House, late Adinoyi Ojo Onukaba, that one learnt more about Obasanjo, particularly his first 40 years. In fact it is these that books laid out the essential Obasanjo, the grinding poverty of his youths, his personal struggle to educate himself and how he ended up in the Army. Also many of us who had access to these books learnt more about that period of military rule and the civil war than we learnt anywhere else.

Early life for Obasanjo was destined to be tough for a child born in Ibogun which was just a rural settlement in Abeokuta Province. Though the family later moved to Owu Quarters in Abeokuta, life continued to be hard for young Obasanjo. He was a brilliant student who even got into the Baptist Boys High School, a very prestigious secondary school at the time, but he had to struggle to earn money to get through the school. He is reported to have fetched and sold firewood to food vendors, dug and sold sand to building contractors and worked in the cocoa and Kolanut farms to earn money to pay his fees. Incidentally his classmate Moshood Abiola in the same high school faced similar dire circumstances and undertook the same measures to ameliorate the situation.

After leaving the high school with excellent results, young Obasanjo found it ironically difficult to further his education due lack of funds. He even sat for the entrance examination to the University of Ibadan and passed. When he could not afford the fees he had to forgo his ambition to acquire university education. It was under these circumstances that he was constrained to join the army because as he reasoned, the military was one place where money did not matter. He was going to be trained free, fed free and clothed free. Above all, he would be remunerated. In the army too, he saw the prospects of continuing his education. He took the cadetship examination and passed. The rest, of course, is now history.

When he successfully vacated Dodan Barracks (as the seat of power was then called), Obasanjo became an instant statesman, very much sought after to serve one role or the other in the national, regional, continental and even the world arena. There was even an attempt to make him Secretary General of the United Nations. He sustained this stature until when he had a brush with the regime of General Sani Abacha, who jailed him along with Shehu Musa Yar’Adua his deputy when he was Head of State, for an alleged involvement in a coup attempt. Perhaps that was the lowest moment experienced by Olusegun Obasanjo, but he came out stronger eventually when he was released by Abacha’s successor General Abdulsalam.

His release coincided with another return to a civilian administration. Probably due his pedigree as a former Head of State with a good track record and the sympathy he garnered for his imprisonment which was widely regarded as unjust, Olusegun Obasanjo was thrust into the centre stage of the political drama in 1999 and won election to become the President of the country. About the same time I had also come into the Federal Civil Service and was posted to the State House. I would therefore become an unwitting observer of Obasanjo for the whole of his eight years in Presidential Villa.

Expectations were very high but Obasanjo had a good idea of what to do and he came with the team to do it. They virtually hit the grounds running and the achievements were phenomenal, though there were hiccups towards the end the two terms. Why have we not been able to build on these achievements thereafter? Are there lessons to learn from the hiccups, for governments today and the future? Keep a date with me for answers next week.


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