By Godknows Boladei Igali, Ph.D,
On March 5th, 2020, most of the normal crowd around Nigeria’s Former President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, like a pilgrimage, gathered at the picturesque Obasanjo Presidential Library (OPL), Abeokuta, to celebrate the global citizen as he turned 83.
Like most other years, the audience though tempered by Corona virus scare was diverse; Pan-Nigerian, international, inter-racial, interfaith, royalty, nobility, gentry and many others, often labelled, somewhat pejoratively, in sociological circles as of lower order or the masses.
As it is with many of the guests at these annual celebrations, each opportunity opens up new discoveries and perspectives about the life of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, who like many other Africans, also has other additional names, including: Matthew, Aremu, Okikeola, and such other humorous sobriquets as Baba, Uncle Sege, OBJ. Similarly, he is also known by so many other epithets as: Former Military Head of State, First Democratically elected President of Nigeria under the Third Republic, Doctor of Philosophy holder, Scholar and multi-talented Author of over 20 books, a Soldier and decorated Military General, Peace maker and the recipient of the Instruments of Surrender at end of the Nigerian Civil war, Man of God (Teacher of the Bible), Balogun of Owu, Father of modern African statesmanship, a global Leader and World citizen, etc.
Chief Obasanjo’s life therefore is like the story of the Elephant, which in many cultural settings is deified and associated with a lot of mysteries and mythologies. Apart from its physical prowess, which is unsurpassed by any other animal species on land, the Elephant in many cultures, is also associated with many special attributes. The story goes that a group of villagers once came across an Elephant and later had great dispute amongst themselves as to fully describe its peculiar attributes and composture. Arguably, each of those who returned home had a different story to tell. From its mammoth size to the impressionate tusks, long nose or trunk, to its unique floppy ears and contrasting minuscule tail. Its feet are heavy, like the stem of a Baobab tree while its skin is thick and tough, maybe only surpassed by the that of the Rhino. Wherever the Elephant appears, it dominates and becomes the centre of attraction, veneration and awe. For the villagers, there was a different story to tell by each and this seems very much to panoply with OBJ’s life.
Inwardly, the Elephant is also fearless and combines two extremities of emotions. They easily express joy and excitement but could also anger and grief, with very complex thought and feelings. They also have unique bond with each other and with human beings despite their fierce mien. In terms of mental acumen, scientists have come to deduce that the level of intelligence quotient of the elephant in the animal world is almost next to Dolphins and close to even humans. They are very sharp-thinkers and very accurate in their decisiveness. As a matter of fact, like most domestic pets such as dogs, elephants are quick to remember individuals among a motley crowd and easily react to kindness or aggression.
More than any other Nigerian, Chief Obasanjo at his age, is perhaps most active living human being on the African continent. In any given week, he travels from his base in Abeokuta to at least two other cities in Nigeria and two other places outside the country. In this strength and untiring vitality for sustained physical activity even surpasses the elephant.
Let us rewind to his days between 1999 and 2007 as a President. He formed the terrible habit of taking off from Nigeria to attend meetings abroad, especially within the African continent, in the morning with the use of the Presidential Jet (codenamed BBJ at the time), then returns in the evening, midnight or early morning to rest for a few hours. He then wakes up in the morning before every other person to preside over morning devotion at 6:30am. Thereafter he rushes off to play squash for about 30minutes, refreshes, nibbles through a lean breakfast and proceeds to carry out few office chores at about 8:30am. Thereafter, Baba relocates to the Exco Chamber or moves to the Banquet Hall to preside over various meetings.
Yes, there were all manner of initiatives on Agricultural products such as rice, cotton, cassava, cotton, oil palm and food products, all of which he personally anchored. Other initiatives were on such issues as; power, export promotion, automotive industries, solid minerals, railways, aviation, educational sector, health, repair of teaching hospitals, etc. In all these meetings, President Obasanjo, who personally chaired them and would stand for about five hours as stakeholders made contributions. Often by close of day, the Chief of Protocol (Amb. Wole Coker, later Amb. Oseni), away from his schedule announces again: “Baba will be travelling to Addis Ababa or Abidjan or Pretoria the following morning at 6am”, where he would chair various meetings and network on matters pertaining to peace, security and economic development in Africa. Rather than pass the night in these places like some other Presidents, (and for presidential aides to enjoy a bit of the beautiful life in places like Addis and collect some estacode), No! good old Baba would jump into the plane and head back to Nigeria to preside over some PDP caucus meetings going on at late night till about 3am.
Next, Baba is off on Official Visit to one of the 36 States, and covered each of them at least twice! And the routine continues the next day, most times with Baba arriving habitually quite early at the venue of the meetings. It continued like this for much of his eight-year tenure.
It is important to mention that in matters pertaining to peace and economic development of Africa, Chief Obasanjo was always the master of the art of negotiation, tact, and very sharp with wit. Perhaps because of his varied experiences as a military leader who had personally tasted battle, and then a democratically-elected president, a high traditional titled person with ancient African prescience, a Bible Teacher, who could easily tap into the “Wisdom of Solomon", the experience which he brought to bear was unassailable. None could easily fault him and his points of view on issues were often canonical. It was always a thing of great pride and awe to watch a Nigerian Head of State receive such respect and deference from his peers, other African leaders. It was just not because of Nigeria’s size but due to the towering stature of Chief Obasanjo himself. And even the leaders who were older than him easily called him “Baba” which in almost every African tongue translates as; “father”, “the wise one”, “the teacher”, “the leader”, etc.
Catching up with Baba since his post Presidency many around him have advocated that for the sake of age and health, he should travel less, rest and sleep a little bit more and even talk less. But that has been like the proverbial trying to pass a camel through the eye of a needle. Rather, his schedule has increased. Why? Because Baba belongs to almost all existing concerts of former Heads of States and Governments around the world. These include the Inter-action Council, The Club of Madrid, The Oslo Forum, The Club of Rome, etc. In addition to these, is the fact that Baba is retained as a permanent Advisor by several International Organizations and Multi-lateral bodies such as; Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), African Union, Commonwealth of Nations, the United Nations itself, and its various agencies. He therefore carries out so many adhoc assignments on behalf of these bodies and every year, attends all their high-level meetings.
Even then, rather than go to sit down like an old man which he is at these meetings, most times, Baba Obasanjo dominates discussions as Nigerian diplomats who are posted to these Organizations will easily adduce with. On a personal experience, while serving as Nigerian Ambassador to the Scandinavia and by that, a delegate at the Oslo Forum in Norway in 2008, the ebullient Baba arrived a day late when a draft communiqué on resolutions taken had been prepared, awaiting the Closing Plenary. On his arrival, the meeting reconvened and through his interventions, the draft communiqué which was earlier read to the other Heads of States, was set aside and a new one prepared to reflect his rich thoughts and points of view on various international subject matters. His presence often overwhelms, quite unintendedly, any environment.
If the Elephant is known for one thing, it is its courageous outlook to life. While all other animals cringe or run from say, the Lion which easily goes with the title the “King of the Jungle”, the Elephant harbours no fear of any object that is on the earth. It takes on every challenge with courage and never retreats. Chief Obasanjo’s life has not always been a bed of roses. On the contrary, he has had low moments including; a frontline engagement in the Nigerian Civil War, surviving undue accusations and sentenced to death, going through imprisonment, and experiencing a lot of personal challenges which includes the death of his beloved wife, Stella. Even more than that are the daily vilifications, misrepresentations, threats to his person, etc. Despite all these, Obasanjo has never been known to crouch down in fear or show fright of any human being.
Although he is easily disposed to observing his Yoruba culture of respect, when necessary, he is always able to say the truth at any time. Either by active behind-the-scene engagement or through open tough speeches or by his displays of his famous gift of writing letters. The fact that Obasanjo supported a leader today, does not mean that that person is exonerated or permanently immune from his sharp censure against what he thinks are the low points of governance at various levels in Nigeria or around the world. He has helped almost every Nigerian leader after him to get to office but he has not spared any of them in speaking out against their policies where he sees the need to do so. This has been a major point of public variance between himself and the Alake of Egbaland, Oba Gbadebo. During OBJ's birthday lecture in 2019, the “Kabiyesi” – King, enjoined him to refrain from criticisms of some of the policies of the current Nigerian Government, of President Muhammadu Buhari. He may not have always been right, but unlike many others who grumble at the back, Dr. Obasanjo has always spoken out and was quick to remind his revered monarch that he had no plans to go on mute mode.
Like the Elephant, Baba may appear fierce and a bit hard in his public interventions but he is also the softest of men; a man of great passion and emotions. He keeps in touch with all those whose lives have come his way, either in the course of military service, political service or social interactions. Beyond that, he has visited most people he knows in Nigeria in their personal domains. During the Christmas season of 2019 he spent 10 days in the South East going from village to village, visiting friends. Plus, at his age, he still loves the fair things of life and has a good eye for beauty and elegance.
Today, Nigeria again celebrates the Father of our modern Nation. A man that contributed greatly to bringing Nigeria to where it is. Ended the Civil War, first leader to handover power voluntarily to a democratically elected government in 1979, took Nigeria out of international indebtedness in 2005, a man who consolidated democracy and presided over civilian-to-civilian handover in 2007, etc, etc. Agreed, his third-term bid failed, but he laid the foundation for a greater Nigeria.
Alas, all attempts to make him slow down have failed. So we can only wish him the best and we say more strength, even more than the elephant, as he clocks 83 or something above it.
Dr. Igali, an award-winning Author and Career Diplomat, was at several times; Special Assistant (Special Duties) and Special Adviser and Peace Envoy on Niger Delta to Chief Obasanjo.