The “Godfather of Modern Nigeria”? Financial Times profiles Olusegun Obasanjo

by Lekan Olanrewaju

Photo Credit: Financial Times

The Financial Times recently launched a series titled 12 days in West Africa, which will detail reports of the editors travels through the region,through Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone, from the oil-contaminated Niger delta to teeming Lagos and a new rice farm project on Ghana’s Volta river“.

The first installment in the series provides details of former president Olusegun Obasanjo, who they described as the “godfather of modern Nigeria”.

He spoke on his military training and his journey into government saying: “I had my training as an army officer. I participated in war, I had a period managing the affairs of the country, then I had 20 years networking with international figures like Jim Callaghan and Helmut Schmidt, and I concentrated on farming and being close to nature.”
He also spoke on the security situation in the country saying: “It is not enough to talk about leadership. When you have no latrine, you go into the bush and do it. But don’t stay long over your faeces or else the flies will come.”

See excerpts from the Financial Times below

The godfather of modern Nigeria sweeps in on time for our appointment at the Hilton Hotel at 7.30am. He is wearing traditional Yoruba attire: tilted red gobi cotton cap; burgundy buba shirt with pyjama-style trousers; and blue crocodile shoes. Olusegun Obasanjo, 75, former president and army chief, embodies the African Big Man.
Obasanjo, known as OBJ, is sometimes described by Nigerians as “the Mandela we never had”. He fought on the winning side in the Biafran civil war, served as military ruler between 1976 and 1979, spent three years in jail as a political prisoner in the 1990s, and won two successive elections, both marred by fraud. Today he is experiencing a renaissance. His drive and decisiveness compare favourably with his underpowered successor but one, Goodluck Jonathan, a Chauncey Gardiner figure with no obvious vision for his presidency beyond holding office.

Obasanjo offers token support for Goodluck, whom he plucked out of Niger delta politics. When OBJ ran for president in 1999, the first elections after the end of military rule, he had a lifetime’s preparation. “I had my training as an army officer. I participated in war, I had a period managing the affairs of the country, then I had 20 years networking with international figures like Jim Callaghan and Helmut Schmidt, and I concentrated on farming and being close to nature.” Still the largest chicken farmer in the country, OBJ recounts Nelson Mandela’s endorsement on his ascent to the presidency. “To solve problems you need age and prison experience. You have them both.”

The man known as “Baba” (father) checks a fat wristwatch and signals time is running short. He arrived late last night from Senegal; there’s a party convention to manage here at the Hilton, whose top floor usually contains the highest density of tycoons and power brokers in Africa; and later today he’s off to Dakar again to pressure the octogenarian leader Abdoulaye Wade to respect free and fair elections. “I’ll deal with him tomorrow morning.” (Sure enough, he did. Wade stood down within minutes of the general’s démarche.)

There’s something inspiring about OBJ and his “Nigeria First” slogan. The same goes for the young technocratic agriculture minister, Akinkunmi Adesina, who preaches reform from a ramshackle ministry that is part building site. His analysis of what is needed to revive Nigeria’s chronically underperforming food sector is Harvard textbook stuff: fix infrastructure, cut state subsidies and unleash the private sector. Over dinner, a guest offers a more sobering observation. Of course the state stifles private enterprise, but the state will never get out of the way: “In Nigeria, business is the business of the state.

The editor also met up with the Sultan of Sokoto.

Photo Credit: Financial Times

He spoke about the Boko Haram sect, advocating a peaceful resolution, saying: “there is nothing that cannot be achieved with dialogue”.

Next morning we catch up with the Sultan, magnificently attired in white turban and flowing robes. He rises reluctantly from his throne to greet us. A cardinal from the Vatican booked an appointment with His Eminence six weeks ago; we called up three days ago. Minor FT grovelling follows. The Sultan talks about his role as moral and spiritual leader. Then he turns serious, as if to recognise the mortal threat that the insurgency poses to the northern ruling class. Boko Haram must be “nipped in the bud”. Of course there must be a political settlement. He cites the British and the IRA, the Spanish and Eta, and the Americans with the Taliban. The Sultan offers himself as an interlocutor between the federal government and the rebels: “There is nothing that cannot be achieved with dialogue.”
As wizened Muslim elders look on cross-legged on the floor, the Sultan signs a copy of Principles on Leadership, written by the founding fathers of the Sokoto Caliphate. You might find it useful in London, he says, with half a smile.

Financial Times

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One comment

  1. The traditional institutions themselves need to be overthrown for Nigeria to move forward. You think I'm a radical or crazy? The extent to which you think so is the extent to which you're far from being in a modern, progressive country in the 21st century


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