Understanding Former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s Active Life @ 84

By Dr Godknows Igali

It has become a yearly sacramental that during this season, friends and associates of Nigeria’s former President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo converge in the hilly town of Abeokuta, Ogun State, to mark his birthday. On this occasion, Friday, 5th March 2021, the gathering celebrates this most outstanding African and global citizen as he is supposed to turn 84 years, or admittedly, something slightly higher.

Beyond mere fete and jollity, these yearly gatherings have become a festering ground for cross fertilization of ideas among some of the world’s best minds on no few contemporary problematics. This year’s assemblage, I including virtually will focus on “Governmental Models in a Post COVID-19, Africa” However, there will likely be a turning of minds inwards to focus on the man whose other names are Matthew, Aremu, Okikiola. More than the past, guests both from in-country and out, will again ask from where comes the rather restless and ebullient deportment of this statesman whose life remains an open book of great achievements and no few raised eye brows.

It has been the tradition in most countries that political leaders such as former presidents, who would have completed their statutory limit in office, seldom continue to maintain an activist lifestyle of involvement in national politics. At best, they preoccupy themselves with some charitable causes and remain on them. Even in some rare cases as in the United States where the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama had to depart from what has come to appear as a normal of silence, the interventions were relatively measured and brief.

This is a far departure from the mien of few former presidents, including the birthday celebrant at Abeokuta whose visibility in national discourse, in social relations and even on the global scene remain unquenched but, rather, continuously re-energized. Chief Obasanjo’s active life is legion and cross cutting. He is no longer a known member of any political party in Nigeria, but his voice is active on most national political issues and he is a back channel brickman on national dialogue, consensus building and state building. At other times, he adopted the rather unorthodox channel of publicly circulated letters in order to be heard more audibly; a style which some disagree agonizingly.

Relatedly, his schedule has not been less inundated with participation in the perennial stream of discussions by all and sundry on themes pertaining to the Nigerian economy and social development. At the personal level is his endless shuttles across the country on account of his stuffed calendar of social engagements, explainable from over 60 years in level public service. No less, his global schedule appears an extension of his crowded domestic activism. He maintains a record of being counted as one of the most sought after and travelling former national leaders and is also quite vocal on the Global Agenda.
Undoubtely, there is no other former Head of State of any country known to belong to the number of common concerts of the world’s most venerated seniors.

The question therefore is why has it been impossible to fetter Chief Obasanjo down including muting his thoughts especially at national level. Added to this is the curiosity as to what efforts both private individuals and institutions have deployed to keep him, as it were, politically sedated and less mobile. Not so! All manner of measures, ie, fraternal, persuasive and otherwise have been resorted to. But OBJ has had an unusual capacity to wriggle out from the fetters of restrains whether by family, friends and by others who are at times less fraternal.

The best explanation for this old man’s agitated mental and physical disposition would have best been left to psychoanalysts, the religious and close family to make scientific, spiritual and emotional explanations. But since his life has been in the public domain, it could be possible to hazard a guess on some pertinent aspects, which are in no way exhaustive. This is especially for some of us who had the good fortune of working closely with him for years.

In this delicate excursion, it would appear fitting to place the primary driving force at Chief Obasanjo’s very nature as a person. Those who have known him from the earliest days (the number is fast thinning out) adduce that he is simply being himself. He is believed to have been twitchy and always lively from cradle, lending credence to the debated cliché that “you can’t change human nature”. Although medical and psychological studies suggest that individual nature may change with proper guidance, but early in life only. OBJ’s case is one of those that is already late as such conscious reformatting did not seem to have happened timely.

Another very pertinent aspect of the ‘Baba’ Obasanjo’s story is his rigorous lifestyle from infancy. He is stated to have started life in the village of Ibogun-Olaogu in a modest family of peasant farmers. So his life began under very strict, Spartan and austere circumstances in the family’s smallholdings of cocoa and kolanut farms. This made him extremely serious minded and focused on making a difference. Even more than that, his Owu sub-group of the Yoruba nationality are known as ancient warriors. Indeed his own direct forebears were known as fearless fighters and played gallant roles especially during the days of the so-called “Yoruba Wars” (1789-1880). So, someplace in his genomics, is a truculent spirit especially against what seems normatively wrong.

An added answer to Obasanjo’s avid politicking is his dual-headed upbringing; both into an atmosphere of Yoruba activist predilection and western religious orthodoxy. On one side is his deep Yoruba root, which saw him rise in his folkloric and cultural valorisation. As a Yoruba patriot where the ethos of character and self-assurance are engrained, he just grew through life with many other fearless and radical people around. It will be safe to hazard a guess, that if not for his early military service and all total public life, he would have been like one of many line-up of activists, especially from the Abeokuta axis. A simply flagging of such would include pioneer nationalist, Oba Samuel Akinsanya, Madam Fumilayo Ransom-Kuti and her sons, (Dr Beko Ransom-Kuti and Fela Anikulapo), as well as Tai Solarin, Prof Ayodele Awojobi, Chief Gani Fawehimi, and of course Prof Wole Soyinka, who is still much around. It is not that other parts of Nigeria did not produce public campaigners, however, Obasanjo’s cultural environment of the southwest had its fair share, and he is, unacceptinly one.

The other aspect of Baba’s social upbringing is his strict Christian faith. His father, Amos Bankole and his mother Bernice Bankole were among the first set of Christian adherents raised by the American Southern Baptist Church. As he grew up in life, the need to continuously tow the path of truth and the propagation of the injuction “thou shall know the truth and the truth will set you free” defined his inward drive. Despite his public life, OBJ still teaches the Scriptures every Sunday and lately obtained a PhD in Christian Theology at the National Open University of Nigeria.

Last and perhaps most important is Chief Obasanjo’s deep understanding of a never-ending patriotic call to duty. That is to keep doing what he has been doing throughout his adult life. His lifecycle, unlike most other Nigerians, has been in the burning furnace. From when he joined the army as a young cadet in 1958, there has been no breathing space for him. After his initial military training at the Regular Officers Training School, Teshie, Ghana, with no holiday in-between, he proceeded to Mons Officers Cadet School in Aldershot, England. Returning to Nigeria in 1959, few months later, he found himself posted to the warfront in Congo on United Nations Peace Keeping duties in 1961. From available accounts, in Congo, he had a close shave with death as he was, at a time, captured by mutineering soldiers against the government of then President Patrice Lumumba.

Although he stole time while in further military training in the United Kingdom to get married in June 1963, he was interruptedly returned back to Nigeria, sent back to Kaduna to be in charge of Field Engineering and shortly afterwards moved to India for “Staff Course”. Many believe that his Congo experience and coming face to face with extreme poverty and hunger in India while added to his global outlook which became useful assets later in life.

Few days after returning from India in January 1966, Obasanjo was confronted with the 15th January 1966 military coup in which his bosom friend – Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu – was one of the Chief protagonist. In between the first coup, the second military coup and the outbreak of civil war in May/July 1967, he found himself in the middle of many tough situations. The rest of it was his unparalleled service as the Rare Commander of Second Division of the Nigerian Army and later, a Commander of the “Third Marine Commando” during the Nigerian Civil War.

Apart from his chivalry during the 30-month conflict in the Niger Delta – a major theatre of war due to the oil and gas installations. OBJ is reputed as having received the instruments of surrender, bringing the sad interneciene conflict to an end in January 1970.

By 1975, OBJ found himself at the centre of leadership following his appointment as Nigeria’s third Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters (the cocooned seat of power of its earlier military juntas). He held that position until 13th February, 1976 when his principal, General Murtala Muhammad was assassinated and he became Head of State. It is from this position that OBJ ruled Nigeria for 4 years before peacefully handing over power to a democratically elected government in 1979 and went into private life. Twenty years later (1999), he became, himself, elected as President under a democratic setting, a position which he held till 2007.

The annals of his very eventful tenure as President continue to be recounted nationally and around the world. These experiences made him profoundly knowledgeable about Nigeria, more than most citizens.

His entry into the army in 1958 and the 21 years of active service straightened him in the journey of typical military discipline and character moulding. For him and several good military officers, both old and young, such virtues as integrity, patriotism and selflessness were uncompromisable. Let us know, haven survived like a cat with nine lives, the intrigues, duplicity and scheming which existed in the days of coups and counter coups, his inner will became toughened, and he, more daring.

In conclusion, American Civil Rights activist, Dr Martin Luther King, Jnr once said that, “human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable”. Progress is only achieved by the continuous activity in various segments of endeavour by persons who find themselves at the stage of leadership and are ready to keep the flame burning.

Invariably, it is tireless leaders like Dr King that helped to foster change, progress and human well-being. Quite often, such tireless leaders appear to be unyielding and dogged in the pursuit of what they consider altruistic. In the face of their own human imperfections, quite often, such leaders get zealous and at certain times like tireless war horses never give up on their ideals even when the battle appears defeaning. Some consider this a flaw that brings such men and women face to face with trouble, as has been the case with Baba Obasanjo.

The other weakness of such leaders, because of their unstinting drive is the fact that they seldom appreciate some of the limitations which others may have nor the real perculiarities which they maybe grappling with.

But head or tail, his type gets a place on the more sunny side of history as they end up being counted as patriots without borders and greatest of men.

So at about 84 years, none may need bother to slow-down OBJ, but just wish him more fabulous years on-the-go!!!

Igali, a Career Diplomat and retired Federal Permanent Secretary, served OBJ in various capacities during his tenure as President

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