Last Thursday, March 5, Olusegun Obasanjo, a former president of Nigeria, clocked 83 years. He was born on March 5, 1937, in Abeokuta in the village of Ibogun-Olaogun to a farming family in Owu, Ogun State.
Obasanjo attended Baptist Boys’ High School in Abeokuta, and later worked as a teacher.
Unable to afford college, he joined the Nigerian Army in 1958 and received officer training in England.
Regarded as a nationalist, statesman and diplomat, he served as Nigeria’s military ruler from 1976-79 and as a civilian president from 1999–2007.
It is worthy to note that he was the first military ruler in Africa to hand over power to a civilian government in 1979.
A hero of the Nigerian civil war, Obasanjo was the leader of Nigerian Army’s Third Battalion and accepted the instrument of surrender from the Biafran military high command led by Phillip Effiong in Amichi, ending Nigeria’s three-year civil war.
In the last few decades, Obasanjo has remained an enigma, a force to reckon with, while to some people, he is also seen as a controversial leader.
When he clocked 82 last year, Ayodele Kusamotu, a barrister, chairman and principal counsel at Kusamotu & Kusamotu Law firm (The Greenfish Chambers), in an interview with BDSUNDAY described the former president as an enigma.
“In all honesty, General Obasanjo is an enigma of sorts. A military head of state and two-term civilian president, he is renowned around the world. The international community usually seeks his opinion,” Kusamotu said.
Upon assuming office in 1999, he used his vast political acumen to reposition the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and help extend the party’s political dominance to the Southwest region.
Obasanjo’s influence and grip on political affairs is worth mentioning, even after leaving office in 2007, he has continued to play an influential role in determining who emerges as the party’s candidates for key positions.
On several occasions, his Abeokuta home became a ‘mecca’ of sort for politicians across the country who rush to seek his ‘blessing’ and support towards their electoral success and in their political sojourn.
In fact, it was presumed at a point that it was impossible for a president to emerge in Nigeria without the support of Obasanjo.
Ironically, he later fell out with Goodluck Jonathan, a president from South-South, who he favoured to succeed the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. His face off with Jonathan culminated in his decision to unceremoniously dump the PDP after publicly shredding his membership card.
In 2015, he joined leaders of the then newly formed and now ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) to support incumbent Muhammadu Buhari’s presidential ambition; a decision he had severally publicly regretted.
Buhari and his party, APC, eventually dislodged Jonathan and the PDP from power.
Obasanjo over the last few years has fought many battles. One of his worst times was when he was framed up in a phantom coup plot against the late military dictator, Sani Abacha. He was not only arrested, but sentenced alongside several notable civilian and military leaders.
Obasanjo eventually spent three years in prison before his release in 1998, following the sudden death of Abacha.
He was initially sentenced to death before another military panel set up by Abacha reduced the sentence to 30 years and again to 15 years.
He was released alongside others by the military regime led by Abdulsalami Abubakar and was subsequently chosen as the PDP presidential candidate in 1999.
Some of his open letters to President Muhammadu Buhari on the state of the nation and his take on the administration have brought him in confrontation with Aso Rock.
In the first term of the Buhari administration, Obasanjo was always screaming at what he believed was clear manifestation of failure of governance.
He has severally condemned the high level of insecurity in the land; government’s apparent lack of clues on how to rein in the Boko Haran insurgency; the constant deadly strikes by the Fulani herdsmen in Benue and other states with high level casualties and government’s refusal to bring perpetrators to book, and the menace of bandits and kidnappers across the country. For his constant complaints on the unfortunate state of affairs, he was seen as an enemy of government.
However, pundits speak in tandem that though Obasanjo’s political influence may have waned considerably in recent years, he, however, remains an influential figure in the nation’s polity that cannot be ignored by any aspiring or incumbent president.
As he marks 83, in the last few days, encomiums have been pouring in from all quarters, both home and abroad for the octogenarian.
In a birthday message to him, President Muhammadu Buhari congratulating him for a life of courage, dedication and service to Nigeria, Africa, and humanity in general.
In a statement congratulating Obasanjo, signed by Femi Adesina, Buhari’s senior media aide, the President said he joined family members, friends and associates of the former president in celebrating the milestone.
According to him, Obasanjo’s commitment to Nigerian nationhood remains outstanding and commendable, while also underscoring his sacrifices for the continent, including standing up for democracy in many countries.
Also in a birthday message, the Northern Governors Forum led by Simon Lalong, who is the chairman and governor of Plateau State, praised Obasanjo for his visionary and patriotic service to Nigeria, the African continent and the world.
Lalong described Obasanjo as a leader who had given his best to the nation and humanity in the various positions and responsibilities he held over the years.
Similarly, former vice-president and the presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in the 2019 general election, Atiku Abubakar, said no individual living or dead had bestrode the Nigerian political space as positively and purposefully like him.
According to him, “As you turn 83 today, my family and I felicitate with you and thank God for your life. No individual living or dead, has bestrode the Nigerian political space as positively and purposefully, as you have done, for good and better, in peace time and war, in times of austerity, and times of prosperity”.
Atiku further said that from Congo, to South Africa, to Angola, to Liberia and São Tomé and Príncipe, Obasanjo’s democratic fingerprints on the African continent were indelible. He pointed out that the former president has served and still serves as a beacon of democracy and a guardian of constitutionality.
“Nigeria owes you a debt that we cannot pay; because you led us to pay the foreign debts that we could not imagine paying. By that singular action, you planted trees for generations yet unborn.”
Unlike last year when he used the opportunity of his 82nd birthday anniversary celebration in Abeokuta to announce that he would continue to criticise President Buhari until he (the president) improves his style of governance, this time around, he used the occasion to advise political leaders of Nigeria, nay, Africa, not to look for the salvation of their countries from the developed world. He pointedly told them that their salvation is in their own hands.
“Now, whether we should redefine our democracy or not, I don’t know. But can we have a democracy that satisfies our needs? I think that is the point. It can be defined in our own way to satisfy ourselves and we must be careful when we are doing that. Whatever we define for ourselves, when we are doing that, there will be hues and cries. They will call us names. They will do all sorts of things.
“Lee Kuan Yew, founding Prime Minister of Singapore was a good friend of mine. When Lee Kuan Yew was moving in the Mid – 1970s, I was in Singapore in 1974. There was no name they didn’t call him and he worried. When Singapore now moved from third World to the first World, Lee Kuan Yew wrote a book titled – From Third World to First World – they all shared and basked in the success of Singapore,” he said.
“Now, if we do something not too far away but radical enough to meet our needs and we succeed, they will grudgingly accept us. But if we do and fail, we will be on our own.
“What we must realise is that the world will not wait for us. They will not want us to succeed because if we succeed, then we have taken something away,” he emphasised.