Nature and history have their peculiar ways of shaping the destiny of a man or a nation. For Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, GCFR, the courageous, fearless, highly cerebral elder statesman who turns 80 next Sunday, the combination of nature and history has been generous and kind to him.
Here is a lucky gentleman, a compatriot, a protagonist of hard work and decency, a man who could equally be controversial and often be misunderstood, who has had the rare opportunity of ruling the country twice, first as a military Head of State between February 13, 1976 and October 1, 1979 and later as a democratically elected President from May 29, 1999 and May 29, 2007, a privilege not granted many.
Writing about Obasanjo, a multi-talented and many-sided man, at 80, may not be exactly easy. But having known the celebrator closely for almost four decades now, I can say that what stands this leader of men and astute manager of resources out is his patriotism, determination, selflessness and his strength of character to use his office and indeed, his all, for the achievement of the good of the majority. He is a dogged fighter who will stop at nothing to pursue any cause he believes in. He is honest, diligent and forthright as well as always willing and available to help others grow and flourish.
I must confess that my interaction with the celebrator transcends mere lawyer-client relationship. In my estimation and assessment of this great African and citizen of the world of Nigerian extraction, I have been able to establish that he is unique in many ways. Apart from being a very intelligent person who is endowed with enormous skills and an uncommon knack for hard work, Obasanjo, even though not a polymath; knows something about virtually everything under the heavens. Nothing takes him unawares as he has ready answers to nearly all questions anyone might pose.
It is a well-known fact that Obasanjo is intolerant of mediocrities, loafers and the indolent as well as meddlers. He does not believe any work should be left for the next day and that accounts for why he works for an average of 22 hours a day, four hours above my own average of 18 hours per day. No wonder he said in his book, “Akanda Eda: The Story of Olusegun Obasanjo”, that “if you have anything to do, do it (now because) procrastination and delay kill slowly, steadily (and) surely. Invariably, there is no better time than now. The opportune time you are waiting for will never come.” He sees no alternatives to hard work.
Every leader anywhere in the world has a record which contains the deeds and misdeeds of the leader in question. As for Obasanjo, his achievements may not be appreciated now, but the time will come in the nearest future when his numerous achievements when he was at the steering wheel of the affairs of the country will be appreciated and openly discussed.
Apart from being the first Nigerian ruler (military or civilian) to willingly relinquish power to a democratically elected civilian government in 1979, Obasanjo recorded another “first” in 2007, when he, again, handed over power to a civilian government elected by the Nigerian electorate vide a successful general election. His supervising two successful transitions in 1979 and 2007 in a politically volatile country like Nigeria is a monumental achievement by any standard. What is more, the first handover was military to civilian while the second happened to be civilian to civilian, both of which had never happened in Nigeria prior to those periods. And that means yet another first for Obasanjo.
Viewed from whichever standpoint, the history of stability of Nigeria today would be incomplete without the major contributions of this man of unusual courage. It can therefore be safely said that Obasanjo remains the pivot upon which the political stability of Nigeria revolves.
At the dawn of democracy in 1999, I had the strong belief that Nigeria needed a courageous, bold, fearless and a quick-witted person like Obasanjo to lay a proper foundation for a lasting civilian government to prevent the military from making another incursion into governance in Nigeria.
The record of Obasanjo’s legacy will certainly not be complete without touching certain sectors like education reform, telecommunication reform (the allocation of the first two GSM networks in which I was personally involved), external debt reduction, the banking industry, foreign reserves, agriculture, electricity and transport reform. Today, most Nigerians can communicate via cell phones. It was one of Obasanjo’s monumental achievements while in office.
In the realm of education, Obasanjo’s government left indelible marks on the sands of times by increasing the number of schools generally and allowing private universities to thrive for the first time and were able to compete fiercely with the established universities during his tenure. This allowed the several millions of candidates angling for admission into tertiary institutions to have alternative choices.
In 2003, university administrators in this country discovered that many of the candidates admitted into Nigerian universities through JAMB-organised Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination were not only academically deficient, they could not justify the high marks scored in the UTME. Cases abound whereby the UTME papers were being openly compromised and sold to students at examination centres while some centres, mischievously dubbed “miracle centres,” were openly but unofficially designed to guarantee high marks for some candidates.
The most pathetic aspect of this duplicity is that it was later found out that most of these candidates with such high marks were unable to cope academically upon their being admitted to the universities.
It was at this point of this national embarrassment that the Committee of Pro Chancellors of Nigerian Universities under my chairmanship, met in Abuja, X-rayed the cankerworm and recommended to Obasanjo that JAMB should be scrapped because the integrity of its examinations had been called to question.
However, Obasanjo in his wisdom, decided to adopt a middle way approach to the matter by saying that JAMB should continue to be and conduct its business of qualifying examinations to tertiary institutions in Nigeria while Post-UTME test should be introduced. This translates to the fact that the UTME will be used as the basis for admission into Nigerian universities, but the universities are free to conduct screening exercises, which include administering questions in relevant courses, for their would-be students.
I must say here that it takes only a very courageous personality like Obasanjo to take the type of bold decisions he took against the backdrop of the avalanche of pressure, intimidation and threats from various powerful quarters in the country then. I salute his courage because today, we have a better story to tell. Some modicum of sanity has since returned to our universities.
Perhaps, no other area recorded astounding leaps like the economy under his leadership. What he did was to lay a solid foundation for future economic development and stability of the country. Subsectors like oil and gas, banking, customs (to mention just a few) recorded quantum leaps and total overhaul. Never in the history of Nigeria has the banking industry witnessed such a total transfiguration in terms of capitalisation and mergers for effective and customer-friendly operation.
Just like he did during his first coming as a military Head of State, Obasanjo built a strong foreign reserve for the country so much so that as of the time he handed over in 2007, Nigeria’s foreign reserves stood at over US$40bn, the first time Nigeria would record such a feat! Closely related to this is Obasanjo’s realisation of the futility of building a strong economy, providing infrastructural facilities and a robust foreign reserve without addressing the behemoth called external debt. In his well-known persona, he took up the gauntlet to address the issue without minding whose ox was gored. He took the so-called creditors one after the other.
First, he pleaded for debt forgiveness. When this did not work, he opted for debt reduction.
After a series of negotiations laden with robust diplomatic acumen, Obasanjo succeeded in striking a fair deal for the country. The payment of Nigeria’s debt to the London and Paris Clubs brought succour to the populace. This is understandable bearing in mind the colossal amount Nigeria was spending annually in the name of debt-servicing and yet the so-called debt kept on soaring by geometric progression while the nation’s economy grew by arithmetic progression.
While congratulating him most heartily on this momentous occasion, I wish him good health and peace of heart as well as divine wisdom to continue the good works and to continually be relevant in the scheme of things in Nigeria, and beyond.
Aare Babalola, OFR, CON, SAN is Founder, Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti