Obasanjo on his legacy as Nigerian President

18 Feb 2020
Olusegun Obasanjo


I took Nigeria from the brink and I left it a solid, strong, united and economically prosperous country.

Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo

This interview of former President of Nigeria, His Excellency, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, was published in the September 2012 edition of Financial Nigeria magazine. The former President shared his thoughts on Pan Africa leadership issues with Martins Hile, Editor, Financial Nigeria magazine, in the company of other top journalists from Africa, at the 3rd Africa Governance, Leadership and Management Convention, held on 5-9 August, 2012 in Mombasa, Kenya.

Martins Hile (MH): You are very passionate about agriculture. You decried the current development whereby the youngest farmer in your village is 67 years old. How can agriculture be made more attractive to the younger generation of Africans who constitute more than two-third of the African population?

Chief Olusegun Obasanjo (COO): You need to ask: what do the young generation want? They want a bit of bright lights. They don't want coloured lights necessarily. You can give them coloured lights as well; but they want a bit of bright lights. So if you consign them into the darkness of poverty and darkness of farmland where there is nothing; no pipe-borne water system, no clean water, no power supply, then they will abandon that and look for something else.

First thing is that you have to make them genuinely interested. And they will be interested if you make them interested. I told the story of my son; the interesting thing is that he is still with me. One of the members of the high-table asked me: “When your son comes to Nigeria, do you find him on the farm?” I said, “Yes, you find him on the farm.”

What did it cost me? I realised that he doesn't necessarily want to move away from the farm if he gets the basics. And what are the basics? In spite of the erratic nature of electricity supply in Nigeria, he wanted the farm to have power 24-hours of the day; to have its own water system; to have good roads to the farm; to have a decent accommodation  not a luxurious accommodation but a decent accommodation. All these have been achieved. He has an office. When I was using that space as my office, I had no air-conditioner. When he came, he said, “Daddy, there must be air-conditioner there.” I said, “Just satisfy yourself.”

This has made him to become an agri-businessman – not just a farmer. When there is any planning to do about our expansion, about opening another farm whether in Nigeria or outside Nigeria, he goes into it. When there is inspection to be carried out, he goes ahead and does it. You have to create their interest. You have to give them the basic minimum for them to live a decent life whether as agri-businessmen or women.

MH: What would you describe as the highlights of your career as President with regard to leadership? And what are the moments that made you feel you have made a difference in your country?
COO: I have had streams of opportunities of holding various leadership responsibilities in my country.  

But let's talk about the democratic system. Since that is the one that seems appropriate to talk about. When I came out of prison, I was getting so many requests from people. But I kept on rejecting the idea of becoming Nigeria's President. When the requests became relentless, I gave in eventually.
But hear me out here; the reason for my initial reticence was because the situation then, as some people saw it, was that I would be the last President of Nigeria if I ever became Nigeria's President. Nigeria was moving precipitously over a cliff. Some people believed that there was no need for having Nigeria as a country.
In the Niger Delta region, you had what they called the Egbesu. In the North, you had the Arewa People's Congress. Then in the West, you had the Oodua People's Congress. All these were militant groups; boys and girls who felt that in Nigeria, there was no hope. But by the time I had spent 8 years, the Egbesu and Arewa became muted; the Oodua had, in fact, turned itself into something more amenable.
The thing that made me feel accomplished was that I took a country from the brink of a precipice and I left it a solid, strong, united and economically prosperous country. This was a country that was once said to be a pariah state, a country that nobody in the world wanted to be associated with. Before I left office, we held the All African Games; we held the Commonwealth Summit; we also held AU meetings – not once, not even twice.
I myself became Chairman of ECOWAS, Chairman of Commonwealth. I broke the record of becoming Chairman of AU twice. All these achievements were not because of my own efforts but the collective efforts of all Nigerians.    

MH: As president of Nigeria, you were also Nigeria's top diplomat. This was eloquently demonstrated when you became, twice, Chairman of the AU. You also facilitated the much-needed debt relief for the country. Five years after you left office, Nigeria's diplomatic influence, even on the African regional level, is seen to be diminishing as it was recently showcased in Nigeria's dismal performance at the election of the AUC Chairperson. How do you feel about this state of affairs?        

COO: One thing you must remember is that in the presidential system of government that we run, the president is the Chief Executive. That means all the ministries are under him; under his purview. Of course he delegates and appoints ministers. He puts them in charge of those ministries. He has the Minister of Agriculture who is in charge of the Ministry of Agriculture; but strictly speaking, the President is the Minister of Agriculture. Strictly speaking, the Minister of Agriculture is acting on his behalf.

When the President appoints a Minister of Foreign Affairs, he himself is also the Minster of Foreign Affairs. And as I always say, these ministers are interconnected because you cannot say the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has no implication for what happens at home and vise versa.

Secondly, I want to elucidate on what I said earlier, which is that all ministries, and all efforts of government hang together. While he cannot be expert on all of them, the only person who must manage the hanging together of all efforts of government is the Chief Executive, the President. And so of necessity, he must know what's happening in all the ministries. He must know what's going on in international trade, defence and security.

In the area of foreign affairs, there are Ambassadors. In addition to their reporting through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they can report to the President directly. In some key centres, like our Ambassadors in the UN and Washington; our High Commissioner in Britain; they must be able to call me at any time of day and night. Because what you should know and take action within an hour may now be too late if there is red tape.

By virtue of Nigeria's position, we have responsibility beyond our borders in West Africa and Africa. Nigeria must have responsibility in the rest of the world. If, in fact, we have the largest concentration of black people in the world, (and God does not make a mistake), then it means that God has given us additional responsibility beyond the responsibility for our own population.

We have more than 25% of the entire black race. So that is an additional responsibility. For that reason, for instance, when we did FESTAC in 1977, we had people coming from Australia and Argentina; people came in from all over the world.

It is understandable that as president of Nigeria, I have the mandate of the people of Nigeria. But there are many other people out there in the world who are looking up to Nigeria. I am the symbol or the face of Nigeria as her democratically elected President. And if they are looking up to Nigeria, I am the person they will look up to when they say they are looking up to this nation.

But let us move from the general to the specific. What I can say is that, it depends on what a particular leader wants to have at a particular time.

For me, I take seriously what happens to any group of people in the world because of the colour of their skin. That was why we took the stand we took on apartheid and on colonization in Africa. As long as any black man, or any man, because of the colour of his skin is being discriminated against; is seen as second-class citizen in the world, to that extent, I am diminished as a result of that characterization. I cannot accept that.

At the end of apartheid, Nigeria became a “frontline state,” even though, physically, geographically, we are not. But mentally, psychologically, attitudinally, we showed that we were with our brothers and sisters on the frontline of whatever challenges they faced.