By ABBA MAHMOOD —
This Monday, October 1, 2018, Nigeria celebrated her 58th independence anniversary with some fanfare. This was the first time in eight years since this celebration was done openly. In these 58 years, one recurring decimal whose history has been inextricably intertwined with Nigeria’s history has been President Olusegun Obasanjo. No single individual has had so much impact on the nation’s history and has been associated with virtually every milestone, be it domestic or international as far as Nigeria is concerned, like Obasanjo. It is time to start telling the younger generation so that they know the authentic history of national icons. And the Hausa say if one remembers yesterday’s soup there is no doubt that today’s soup is not good.
After his early education, destiny propelled Obasanjo to join the most national of the country’s institutions – the Army, which was just then being Nigerianised with approaching independence. Less than six years after independence the military struck, overthrowing the civilian government of Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa on January 15, 1966. Six months later, there was a countercoup and subsequently a 30-month civil war was fought from 1967–70. It was Obasanjo as commander, 3rd Marine Commando, who received the instruments of surrender from the Biafran combatants, marking the end of the civil war.
After the civil war, Obasanjo served in the Gowon administration as federal commissioner (minister) of works up to 1975; on July 29, after a bloodless coup, General Murtala Muhammed emerged head of state with General Obasanjo as his No. 2 — the chief of staff, supreme headquarters. With the assassination of General Murtala on February 13, 1976, General Obasanjo assumed the mantle of leadership of Nigeria becoming the fifth head of state. He came with requisite experience as, professionally, he was not only a war veteran but a general and, politically, he had served at the highest level of at least two governments before heading one.
As military head of state, General Obasanjo launched the “Operation Feed the Nation” programme and opened river basin development authorities all over the country to boost agriculture; initiated the local government reforms to make it an effective third tier of government; launched the Universal Primary Education (UPE) programme; established motor assembly plants all over the country; laid the foundation for Nigeria’s industrialization in the National Development Plan; gave Nigeria its current national anthem which did away with colonial relics; accelerated the return of the military to the barracks by implementing faithfully the transition to civil rule programme earlier promised by General Murtala which culminated in the inauguration of President Shehu Shagari as the first elected executive president of Nigeria on October 1, 1979, making Obasanjo the first Nigerian and second African head of state to voluntarily hand over power.
The Murtala/Obasanjo regime also marked the golden era of Nigeria’s foreign policy. That administration gave recognition to Augustinho Neto’s MPLA as the effective representative of the Angolan people and liberation struggle. General Obasanjo nationalized the British Petroleum which became African Petroleum and also nationalized British Barclays Bank and Standard Bank which became Union Bank and First Bank in order to force the British to initiate negotiations with the African liberation movements for majority rule in southern Africa, particularly Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa.
When Obasanjo handed over to the civilians and retired from the military, he did not go to his village to rest but set up a think-tank, the African Leadership Forum, where topical issues of national, continental and global importance were discussed and analyzed with workable recommendations given to the relevant institutions. He was not only a farmer in retirement but also a statesman of international standing, variously serving on the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group to bring peaceful change in South Africa and other fora relevant to Africa and the developing world.
General Obasanjo tasted the other side of life. He was arrested and imprisoned by the military regime of General Abacha in 1995. By 1998 when Abacha died in office, Nigeria was on the verge of collapse. Various centripetal forces were at play to dismember the country. Internally the various fault lines were trying to break up with national figures like Sultan Dasuki, General Yar’Adua and Chief Abiola all in detention. Internationally, Nigeria had become a pariah nation. This was the situation when General Abdulsalami Abubakar suddenly found himself saddled with the responsibility of head of state, commander in chief of the armed forces with the death of Abacha. General Abubakar quickly hit the ground running by organizing the shortest transition to civil rule programme.
Who else could have been brought to help heal wounds and bring respectability to Nigeria across the globe at that critical time but Obasanjo? He was promptly released and literally forced by the entire nation to take over the mantle of leadership once again. Obasanjo was elected and sworn in as the second executive president of Nigeria on May 29, 1999. Nigerians, in electing him, tried to pass a not-guilty judgement on him, and they also saw in him an experienced international statesman and a national icon capable of bringing Nigeria back from the brink.
President Obasanjo did not disappoint Nigerians who reposed their confidence in him and prayed for his success. From 1999–2007, he assembled a national team that helped to bring Nigeria to the path of admirable stability and considerable prosperity. The Obasanjo administration was able to pay back virtually all the external debts accumulated by successive governments over the years. It was like Nigeria’s second independence from external control. He set up ICPC and EFCC to fight corruption. He mentored a young generation of technocrats like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Charles Soludo, Nasir el-Rufai, and Nuhu Ribadu, gave them positions of responsibility in his government, and gave them free hand and sufficient support to perform exceptionally.
At the international level, President Obasanjo was one of the prime motivators for the setting up of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD). He was at the forefront in the transformation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) to the African Union (AU) because, as he rightly saw it, with the achievement of continental political freedom Africans should focus on economic freedom struggle. He helped to set up the Gulf of Guinea Commission so that Africans can have a platform to speak with one voice in the strategic Gulf of Guinea where all the major global powers have a stake. He helped to set up the Nigeria-Sao Tome JDZ so that both countries can benefit from the hydrocarbon resources in their overlapping maritime boundary equitably. Nigeria was once more respected and consulted on all contemporary global issues, thanks to the leadership of President Obasanjo.
Under President Obasanjo, there was no cabal and nothing like a cabal. He was in full charge and in full control of his government and very scientific in his decision-making process. He commanded the respect of all and promptly punished any wrongdoing. No one was above the law as he even arrested his cousin, Mr Makanjuola, when he was found wanting. If any governor failed in his primary responsibility of protecting life and property, he declared a state of emergency in that state and brought a neutral administrator to bring back law and order. Obasanjo kept himself abreast of all developments across Nigeria and around the world. He is still a workaholic and avid reader of reports, journals and books. He wrote several books himself. Obasanjo sees himself first as an African, then a Nigerian but is never concerned about primordial sentiments.
History will judge him correctly and it is always on the side of the oppressed.