by Adebola Williams
Who said former Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo has mellowed down? As usual, he doesn’t mince his words in this conversation at his Otta Farms residence with ADEBOLA WILLIAMS
Pullquote: By now, Na’aba or whatever you call that character who took a lorry to Abuja from Kano, became Speaker and was riding in strings of cars would have been know for impeaching me after many threats. And I said, if this impeachment will come let it come and I will go back to my farm but what I will not accept, I will not accept.
Sir, Let’s start with a deliberately general question – what are your thoughts on the state of Nigeria as we speak?
We are in a situation in this country now, or if you like, in a state of insecurity. It’s a toxic situation. It does not matter how much blame on the leadership is unfair or unwarranted, the public won’t support the leader. It’s like when a country is at war. Everything in the country must be dear to us in the war. After you have done the war, you can now start apportioning blame because there are many things going wrong in our country. There will be something wrong with our country or any country at any point. The question is how serious and what we are doing about it – and in this case it is serious.
You speak of leadership – casting our minds back to your tenure in office, what are those elements of your leadership you would say you’re most proud of?
One, that I protected Nigeria from breaking up. When I became elected president, many Nigerians did not think that Nigeria would survive – something many people seem to have forgotten now. For instance, there was still grief and a feeling of alienation by the Igbos although the war had long ended; they had not felt that they had fully reaped the benefits of the end of the war. Two, the Yorubas generally were feeling bad about the situation of Abiola and the June 12 election. Three, the Niger Delta essentially were feeling bad about being rich and yet remaining very poor. Four, the North were being accused of monopolising power and each of these group were looking at themselves and thinking, if the worst comes to the worst, they would go it alone. Each of them was getting its own militants in one form or the other; the OPC (O’odua People’s Congress) in the West, Egbesu in the Niger Delta, and the Arewa People’s Congress (in the North). That was the situation and that’s what made people to believe that after me, as president, there would be no other president again; that Nigeria will disintegrate on my head. But that wasn’t the case, and you cannot quantify what a huge achievement that was. The second thing is democracy itself. People believed that Nigeria is incapable of really establishing and sustaining democracy beyond one’s time in government. Until my time, we had never had democracy where there is a regime change. Now we have established democracy, not one regime change but two or three regime changes successfully. Even beyond that, some people believed that only majority tribes would ever rule Nigeria. Democratically, (the) Hausa/Fulani then at best, maybe Igbos and Yorubas. Now we have a minority as president. So to me by this we have not only laid the foundation of democracy, we have started the process of strengthening the pace and putting the edifice of democracy up.
Thirdly, Nigeria was a pariah nation; a country that no one wanted to touch. I made Nigeria a country that everybody wanted to do business with. Now, these are things you cannot even quantify but they are the things that make a difference in Nigeria for generations to come.
If I may also add the fourth, I believe I took action that may have put coups out permanently by asking those 93 officers who had held political offices as a result of previous coups to step down. They now know that if you have taken part in a coup, no matter how long ago it was, you can still be visited. Your sins either of carrying out coup or being a beneficiary from it while still in service can still be visited on you.
So, years after leaving office, do you still think the way Nigeria is presently structured is the best?
It’s not structure. It doesn’t matter what the structure is; it’s the people operating the structure. Take the federal (government) for instance; we are running in this federal system, facilities and paraphernalia for four heads of state: the facilities of the president is one, the facilities and paraphernalia of the vice president is like that of the president, the facilities and paraphernalia of the senate president is more than that of a president in some other country. The facilities and paraphernalia of the speaker is more than that. It isn’t meant to be like that. So now because we have made it that way, then you don’t complain. It’s the people that operate it. Somebody was telling me you go to the other states and it is more or less repeated. It doesn’t have to be that way. I don’t know, when we started, the ministers had cars; their escort cars and their own cars. I don’t know how many they have now. You find out from other countries and ask what do they do? How do they do it? Ours is just abnormal; so if you have parliament, you will have a prime minister, deputy prime minister, you will have a speaker, a deputy speaker and if you still go the same way, it will be equally bad. I do know that some circumstances have changed.
When I was military head of state, the number of cars that were maintained for me, you can count on your fingertips and when I was military head of state, we did not have treated cars until after the death of Muritala (Mohammed). In fact, laughing now I remember that at that time, on the list of people to be assassinated, number one was Muritala (Mohammed), number two was Yakubu Danjuma, and I was number three and jokingly after we had dealt with the issue of the coup I said, “Look, I take strong objection to this list. Why should I be number 2 in government and be number three on the list of the people to be assassinated?” I had been relegated. I should have been number two! (Laughter) It was after that that the idea of treated cars ever came to Nigeria and even when we had it, it was not for everyday use. We had three that time for when the need arose and if we had a visiting head of state that we were hosting. Now today, this country is flooded with treated cars. That is also part of what has changed; the security.
The security situation has drastically changed from what it was in the 70s when I was the head of state; and you can blame it on whatever you want to blame it on. The people talk and say it is the parliamentary system. No, it is the people who operate the system. It doesn’t matter what the system is. It is the parliamentary system that made the national assembly so opaque in what they pay themselves. Why can’t their budget be debated and seen like everybody else? If you are going to be a watchdog, you must also start with yourself. When I said, for most of them, they are stinkingly corrupt, they went up in arms. There are four ways they are corrupt: one is the one you’ve seen recently. The other one is the way they even carry out the budgeting. The other one is what they call the oversight responsibilities. The other one is the way they even carry out their own activities, budget their own things and what they give themselves. So, maybe in future we would get to the stage of looking closely at how the National Assembly operates.
But, sir, you had the opportunity to curtail this…
You can see, if you want to look at it, go and see what the budget of the NASS in 2000 was and what is now. Their total budget and 10 years later is much bigger that the budget of NASS in 2011. You will see the difference and their number has not changed. And the NASS is not an executive arm of government. They have no right to be awarding contracts and doing supplies. No, that is the responsibility of the executive. Even buying things for them is the responsibility of the executive.
So how do you feel about all of this?
I feel – I dey laugh o.
But you owe it to our generation not to laugh.
That is why your own generation should know these things. And then your generation should be determined to change it. You should change it. You should not be chorusing those things some people are chorusing. There’s nothing wrong in the structure; that’s chorusing what people who either deliberately diverting attention say. What is wrong is the people, and the leadership.
Will that explain why the people who were the stars of your tenure these days are there but things have changed drastically?
There are certain things those out of my administration would not have said. There are also people who served under my administration who have compromised themselves. And some who will shout something and do something else. There are certain things you cannot, you must not accept. Let them remove you but you are doing what is right for the country. And I made it clear. How many times did they threaten to impeach me? By now, Na’aba or whatever you call that character who took a lorry to Abuja from Kano, became Speaker and was riding in strings of cars would have been know for impeaching me after many threats. And I said, if this impeachment will come let it come and I will go back to my farm but what I will not accept, I will not accept.
We barely hear government officials show such defiance, some have said it’s because they have no livelihoods outside of government?
I think that. You know I always say that anybody who wants to do politics cleanly and successfully in Nigeria must have what I can call second address and the second address is where you can go to. Most of what is happening to Nigerian politics is that politics has become a profession that you don’t have to be trained for. Then you go there and people come to me to say, “I have no job, can you get me into a board?” So, being on a board is now a job? Being on a board is not a full time job. Maybe you meet at best once a month, maybe once a quarter, but because they are jobless, when they go to these board (meetings), they cause the CEO to what he should not do. Y!