By Reuben Abati
Perhaps in the long run, the most remarkable legacy of the Nigerian leader known as Olusegun Obasanjo would be his personal example, in terms of the manner in which he continues to creatively reinvent himself and the Renaissance quality and force of his achievements. In addition to all that we already know about him, Obasanjo last week bagged a Ph.D degree in Christian Theology from the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN). I am impressed. It is therefore with great admiration that I welcome Dr. Olusegun Aremu Obasanjo to the distinguished class of Nigeria’s Ph.D elite.
As his senior colleague in this class, I have an idea of the amount of effort and determination that must have gone into the study, research and writing that produced the Ph.D. Anyone who has ever attempted a research-based course of study would readily attest that a Ph.D is a rigorous test of patience and endurance. The Professors who supervise doctorate theses do not give them out as chieftaincy titles. They make you work for it. Dr. Obasanjo is one of the oldest Nigerians to date to bag a Ph.D degree, and probably the first to do so as an octogenarian, but it is not just his age that is noteworthy, but how his achievement is a significant advertisement for the value of knowledge and education, and how it makes him an even more interesting case study for the profiling of leadership and the theory of personality.
The great man theory of history often tends to focus on the political and the cultural as enabling contexts, but the finest blend of all of that is to be traced to the individual – what manner of man? What makes the man? As for Obasanjo, he is already widely known and remembered for his role in Nigerian history, but with him, we encounter something else: an extra, somewhat mysterious, if not inexplicable force which propels him to seek new frontiers, new conquests, labels, a questing, restless, bullish, insatiable spirit, to prove a point, or perhaps to test his own humanity. What is known is the important life that he has lived: Obasanjo, the soldier, Obasanjo, the farmer, Obasanjo, the leader, Obasanjo, the statesman, Obasanjo, the politician, Obasanjo, the author, Obasanjo, the entrepreneur. He probably does not need a Ph.D to validate or prove himself further, but here he is: Obasanjo the scholar. Everything Obasanjo touches, he wants to get to the root and height of it. He projects a competitive spirit that is complex and near-mystical. His refusal to slow down as an octogenarian contains significant lessons for the younger generation.
Many young men and women today are unwilling to go the extra mile, or think out of the box. They are happy to be “slay queens and boys” and hunters of entitlements, in this case, unmerited entitlements and instant gratification. In a society where knowledge is derided and scholarship is under-appreciated, the new role models are not knowledge-seekers, but cross-dressers, naira plunkers and persons of indeterminate means. We have become a country of short cuts, where value is subjected to partisan considerations.
I am shocked at how so different the younger generation is from my own generation, and how so much different from our own fathers’ generation. Obasanjo belongs to a different generation that produced, made and unmade Nigeria: there were sluggards in that generation too just as there were challenged privilege-seekers, but it was a different kind of generation, once described by Wole Soyinka as a wasted generation but now in retrospect, not a wasted generation at all, because it managed to produce values, now lost, now devalued sadly, but with memories of a country that could have been. The individuals in that generation many have given us a broken country, but there are many of them whose stories of individual accomplishments and discipline continue to hold out a fig of hope and inspiration.
Take Obasanjo whose PhD I am celebrating and whose portrait I am trying to paint. When he left office the first time in 1979 as Nigeria’s Head of state, he had devoted the following years of his life to self-improvement. Soldiering has always been a noble profession, and in that line, Obasanjo had distinguished himself in training in various parts of the world (India and Aldershot, Chatham, England), and on the battlefield in then Congo and the Nigerian civil war. He famously and fortuitously received the instrument of Biafran surrender in 1970, and served in the post-civil war Yakubu Gowon government before history and fortune propelled him to the highest office in the land in 1976. His boss, Murtala Muhammed was killed in a military coup d’etat, and he became against his will, Nigeria’s Head of State and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. When he later ensured the return to civilian rule in 1979, the civilized world praised him to high heavens. The military handing over power was an unusual thing at the time. It was the age of Idi Amin and the culture of sit-tightism in African politics.
But rather than wallow in the adulation that came, Obasanjo embarked on a mission of self-reinvention. He became a farmer, the famous Uncle Sege with the luxuriant moustache, a signature pot-belly which scores of women found irresistible, and the hoe on his shoulder. But he did something else: he established the Africa Leadership Forum (ALF) and what he called the Farm House Dialogues. Through these platforms, Obasanjo turned his Ota Farm into a rendezvous for intellectuals and policymakers, who visited regularly to discuss matters of national, regional and global interest in a sober, calming village environment. In-between feeding his chickens and monitoring the pens in his farm, Obasanjo encouraged learning and knowledge. He became the host and the friend and mentor of the best and the brightest on the continent of Africa. Presidents visited him. Everyone courted him as the Africa Leadership Forum grew into a leading think-tank.
In my early years, I was privileged to be one of the resource persons for the Forum. I wrote and edited reports and travelled with the ALF team. I did my first public review of a book through the Forum and never looked back. I co-wrote my first two books at Obasanjo’s instance, and I travelled round the world and Africa with ALF and through Obasanjo. But I was not alone. The ALF actively sought out young, smart Nigerians and other Africans, and tried to build a community of ideas across sectors. But the greatest beneficiary was Obasanjo: he re-educated and re-invented himself.
When he went to prison, implicated in a phantom coup by the military junta led by General Sani Abacha, the ALF survived and even grew bigger. In the intervening years, Obasanjo had established himself as a credible global voice: member of the Global Eminent Persons Group and a voice of reason in Africa. He had moved from being merely a retired soldier who did well to an acclaimed man of integrity and knowledge. His search for and cultivation of knowledge after his retirement as a soldier stood him in extremely good stead. It was the fashion in his neck of Nigerian woods to look down on soldiers. Soldiering was seen in the Western region of his time as a profession for those who had more brawn than brain and had chosen the rough path.
Obasanjo’s place of birth, Abeokuta in particular, boasted of generations of educated people and families. A soldier may have been prominent, but he was certainly not in a position to intimidate anyone in a town with so many distinguished and accomplished persons. Being rich also meant nothing to the people, but education and knowledge attracted respect. Obasanjo’s biographers have told us how he gained admission to the University of Ibadan to study agriculture, but he had to turn down the offer because he could not afford the school fees, and so opted for a career in the Military which offered free feeding, boarding and a tidy monthly allowance. A psychoanalytic reading of Obasanjo’s persona may, in fact, reveal a compensatory self-assertion in this direction, but he has continuously remained relevant and important because of his capacity for self-growth and re-alignment.
When he returned to power in 1999, as Nigeria’s President and Head of State, he was absolutely well prepared. Nobody had any reason to question his credentials. In a country where political office seekers often present affidavits, NEPA bills and trashy excuses in place of secondary school certificates, or claim not to remember the exact name of the universities that they attended, Obasanjo had no such problem, for indeed, his life has remained an open book. Years of preparation and exposure made him an impactful President. Within 24 hours after assuming office in 1999, Obasanjo hit the ground running and announced key policy decisions. He also did not have to wait for six months or fish around the forest to compose a team, and there was no way he could ever have made the mistake of referring to the Chancellor of Germany as the President of West Germany
In Nigeria’s history since independence, Yakubu Gowon, Olusegun Obasanjo, Ibrahim Babangida and Goodluck Jonathan have recruited the brightest minds into government. Both Obasanjo and Babangida openly craved the company of intellectuals. Some of Obasanjo’s close friends to date are among the brightest minds in their respective fields and this ranges from Emeritus Professors to Christian priests or local farmers and hunters. Before now, perhaps because of this polyvalent association and his robust efforts as a writer, Olusegun Obasanjo has always tried to assert himself as an intellectual, to which the likes of his kinsman, Wole Soyinka have always responded with friendly snobbery, but now, I assume that in their next brotherly spat, the farmer of Ota is likely to engage the Nobel Laureate far more confidently. Kongi should note: Olusegun Obasanjo, now Dr. Obasanjo, has become a licensed intellectual. With a Ph.D, no one again can accuse Obasanjo of lacking in theoretical thinking. He now combines the learning of theoretical thinking with his talents as a man of quick wit, action and native wisdom.
I don’t want to start a family squabble much as I do not deliberately seek to run into foul weather with this commentary by taking the risk of discussing Obasanjo’s politics, which in my informed assessment is a landmine of contradictions. So let me move on to more urgent matters and state that what further makes Obasanjo important is the creative manner in which he planned an exit strategy for himself after the expiration of his tenure as Nigeria’s President in 2007. No other Nigerian President alive or dead has been better prepared. From being a soldier, farmer, global statesman and a two-time President, Obasanjo is the only former Nigerian/African President alive with a living, robust legacy in spatial and ideational terms.
The other man is Nelson Mandela, who is now a legend and an ancestor. After leaving office in 2007, Obasanjo has managed to set up in his home-town of Abeokuta, a sprawling, intimidating Presidential Library, appropriately named Legacy Resort, which is fast growing into a cultural melting point for the historic town with Obasanjo’s image and brand at the centre. Since 2007, Obasanjo has also always managed to make himself an issue in Nigerian politics. His Hilltop home in Abeokuta is a target of pilgrimage for politicians and seekers of support. Not every former African President manages to speak, have a voice or remain relevant after office.
Obasanjo’s voice continues to be heard in part because he continues to strive to develop himself. For a man who is in the departure lounge, it is amazing how he continues to live as if life is immortal. He represents a study in leadership for all men and women who seek only the shortcut and have sworn an oath to a life of indolence. His life reminds us of how we live in a knowledge age and how knowledge and education are the only redemptive forces at whatever stage in life. Education, indeed continuous education can improve the individual, but it can also save communities and societies. Indolent, self-indulgent Nigerians and other political leaders can learn a lot from the Obasanjo School of Leadership. For all his accomplishments, however, Obasanjo does not necessarily speak for the stifled masses of Nigeria, but he is committed to the idea of Nigeria and has spent his life and career defending that idea and the unity and progress of his homeland.
I congratulate him on his fulfilment of requirements and completion of the course of study for the award of a Ph.D in Christian Theology. This is probably for him, another beginning. With a Ph.D in Theology, Obasanjo now better understands the subjects of forgiveness and love. Nobody should be surprised if Baba, as we call him, launches a Pentecostal Christian Ministry tomorrow, and declares himself a General Overseer in the Lord’s Vineyard. Should he venture in that direction, however, I may be tempted to join his ministry, and if I so decide, he would have to reciprocate by putting me in charge of the collection of tithes and offerings… Well, yeah…Dr. Olusegun Obasanjo, congratulations.