On Saturday, March 5, 2022, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo would mark his official 85th birthday. Despite his age, Obasanjo is not about to slow down. Since he returned to public life after he joined politics in 1998, he has embraced life at a frenetic pace.
Indeed, after his birthday celebration on Saturday, he may already be billed to travel to several countries, troubleshooting, providing solutions to myriad problems, sharing his experience and insights with statesmen across the globe.
I don’t know whether there is another old man on the planet who is busier than Olusegun Obasanjo, Africa’s best-known elder-statesman, Nigeria’s longest ruler and Abeokuta’s most famous resident; author, farmer, soldier and letter writer.
Aare Afe Babalola, a tireless worker himself, confessed that he never thought anyone could work harder than himself until he met Obasanjo.
The first time I got a taste of Obasanjo as a taskmaster was in 1991. The African Leadership Forum, an organisation founded by Obasanjo, had invited me to a workshop on Democracy and Traditional Institutions. The workshop, which lasted for three days, was hosted at the Otta Farm House of the retired military Head of State. Professor Akin Mabogunje, the famous geographer and social scientist, was the chairman. I was the rapporteur. We did not retire to our rooms after dinner until close to 11:00 p.m. The following morning around 6:00 a.m, Obasanjo was at my door. “Dare, where is your report?”
Since then, I have learnt about his skill to get things done according to his own frenetic pace. He inflicts on himself, punishing schedules and struggles hard to accomplish them. Those who worked with him during his years in power testify that the President often worked round the clock. He can call any of his ministers in the middle of the night and still ask the truly rhetorical question, “are you sleeping?”
Sometime in 2005, Mrs. Remi Oyo, my senior at the Department of Mass Communication of the University of Lagos, got me an appointment to see the President discuss an urgent matter about Ekiti State. Oyo was then the presidential spokesperson. I was to see the President by 9:00 p.m. There were many people that night waiting to see him. After waiting for long and when it was midnight, I decided to leave, thinking that I would get another appointment. At about 2:00 a.m, Remi called me.
“Dare where are you?”
“I am on my bed!”
“Ah! The President wants to see you now!”
Since he left power in 2007, power has not left him. He still moves through its constellations, attracting issues and delegations that have to do with the affairs of the state. He has been involved in one way or the other in every presidential election and even some governorship elections since he left office. He has won some battles and lost some. He has taken good punches and given some knockout blows to some of his opponents. Despite his varied experience, he has remained steadfast in the arena, giving a good account of himself. He is the most relevant former ruler of Nigeria both on the national and the international stage.
In 2020, I had led a team of Gaskia magazine to interview the former President. Our appointment was for 11:00 a.m. On the morning of the interview, he had sent a message, indicating that he would be late for the appointment. He had a meeting in Victoria Island, Lagos, and it would be after that engagement that he would join us in Abeokuta. Therefore, early that morning by 5.30 a.m, Obasanjo was already on the road to keep his 8:00 a.m appointment. He returned from Lagos around 2:00 p.m and then took an excuse from our team that he would have to play squash first!
Obasanjo is reputed to be a wealthy man, but he does not live an ostentatious life. He was President for eight years and yet he does not have any private residence in Abuja. He prefers to stay in hotels anytime he is in town. He does not have a private residence in Lagos either. Yet he was our military ruler living in Doddan Barracks for almost four years as the Chief of State. His old Hilltop mansion in Abeokuta is an elaborate lair, but the furnishing was standard and not luxurious. His present abode at the Pent House of the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library is indeed like living the high life, but not beyond the taste of your average millionaire.
Obasanjo represents the old generation of Nigerians who value to rigour of self-discipline. I suspect that is what keeps him going even as he advances in years. Therefore, in the areas where he may have failed, it may not be because of lack of self-exertion, it may be despite his self-exertion. He is one person who prefers to battle his way to success.
It is a moot point that despite his assertions, Obasanjo was unable to accomplish certain tasks during his years in power. Two are obvious. One was the failure of his regime to find the killers of Chief Bola Ige, his friend of many decades, who was assassinated in 2001 while serving as Attorney-General and Minister of Justice in his government. The second was that despite his eight years in power, he could not rebuild the Lagos-Ibadan Express road or the Lagos-Abeokuta Express road. This remains inexplicable till today. Now another regime has built with borrowed money a modern railway line into the desert and heaven has not fallen.
One issue that has occupied Obasanjo’s public pronouncements in recent years has been the call for restructuring of the Federation and devolution of power to the federating units. Yet, Obasanjo was Number Two in the government of General Murtala Muhammed that obviously started the process of transforming the Federal Government into a Leviathan. This was done with the active connivance and encouragement of the political elites. It was Muhammed who dismantled the 12-states federal structure of General Yakubu Gowon and replaced it with a 19-state structure that disrupted the balance between the North and the South. Now we have 36 states, thanks to the ‘’misguided’’ efforts of two of Obasanjo’s military successors; Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha.
Despite his errors, Nigerians still remember Obasanjo’s years of power with nostalgia. He was an effective and firm ruler. He was his own cabal, fearing no one and showing that in his able hands reside the powers of Africa’s greatest country. In 1999, the Northern leadership, led by Chief Solomon Lar, presented him with two names to pick as Vice-President: Alhaji Abubakar Rimi and Professor Jubril Aminu. He rejected the list and went ahead to pick Atiku Abubakar, the then Governor-elect of Adamawa State.
In the closing months of the regime of General Abdusalami Abubakar, the military regime had presented the President-elect their own demand that they wanted the service chiefs to continue in office in order to “stabilise the system.” Immediately after he was sworn in on May 29, 1999, as President, Obasanjo fired the four service chiefs and the Inspector-General of Police. He went ahead to retire more than 100 military officers who have held political offices in the past.
Such decisiveness and capacity were the stuff of Obasanjo’s Presidency both on the national and international stage. Other African leaders attracted to his magnetic personality and aura of power, accepted his leadership. It is such a reputation that continues to make Obasanjo an enduring and fascinating living legend 15 years after he climbed down from the saddle. Congratulations Baba! We wish you more years of service to humanity.
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