13 October 2017
By Mich Nnanna
Quite easily, almost everyone knows that Olusegun Mathew Okikiola Aremu Obasanjo (OBJ) was Nigeria’s military head of state from 1976 to 1979, and then civilian president from 1999 to 2007. He also allegedly tried a third term, but failed. However, apart from some other things widely known about this man of thorough-bred khaki, the picture that emerges after bringing together some of the defining events of his military and civilian careers show that OBJ was the first Goodluck in the annals of the presidency in Nigeria.
As a soldier, he should not be alien to conflict and war. But, perhaps, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo is one of the few soldiers whose success in both military and civilian arenas were defined more by turbulent things that would easily kill many. Orphaned at just 22, OBJ was undaunted. His life has been shaped by his military training, Nigeria’s Biafra civil war, fatal destines of two heads of state, and outcomes of coups in which he did not take part, but was part of their deadly targets.
His time as military and civilian president was flanked by two Abubakars. One, a predecessor, Abdusalami, imbued him with power, the other Atiku, turned to attack and take power from him. His time as military and civilian politician was also flanked by two Yar’Aduas. The first Yar’Adua succeeded him as chief of staff, supreme headquarters in 1976, and the second succeeded him as president in 2007.
Four wives, none living with him. Three diseased wives, and one ex-wife. For this, OBJ is the proud father of 20 children, one of them a Principal Program Manager for tech giant, Microsoft. Apart from a single pre-service training in India, OBJ almost exclusively received his military training in England mainly as a military engineer. He served Nigeria a lot in this capacity shortly before and shortly after the civil war. This brought him close to the corridors of power until he took centre-stage in 1979.
Some of the best displays of military prowess and gallantry was done in India, where he put his engineering training to practice after serving a while in Nigeria in 1965. His most promotions and postings came during the civil war where he fought relentlessly, and indeed was to be the one who accepted Biafra’s surrender on January 12, 1970.
Twice his ascendancy to the presidency had something to do with the death of a serving president, both of them military. Military coups were also part of the process that threw him up as president. He participated in none, but became the biggest beneficiary of all. During both times, he had been marked for death, one as a serving federal minister following a coup in 1976, and the second as a political critic implicated in a phantom coup, imprisoned and marked for death in 1997-98.
He has been the lone public officer to serve through the longest period of the oil boom, first as a federal minister of works and housing (74-75) appointed by Murtala Mohammed to steer Nigeria’s oil wealth to upgrade housing and infrastructure in Nigeria, and second as a head of state from 1976 to 1979 when Nigeria swum in oil money, and literary did not know what to do with money. Third as a civilian president for eight years, 1999-2007.
Obasanjo presided over Nigeria when the choice of Abuja was made to be Nigeria’s capital in favour of Lagos. Apart from the need to decongest Lagos, Abuja’s choice was also based on the fact that the city was not linked to any ethnic group, a reason no meaningful militancy or insurgent group has been traceable to the city ever.
OBJ’s agricultural programmes in the late 70s promoted food crops, and began a decline for export agricultural products like cotton, cocoa and palm. This unfortunately culminated in the loss of interest in agricultural exports, already overshadowed by oil.
Obasanjo’s governments have witnessed some of the most brazen repressions of communities for dissent, vide Odi and the throwing down of Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, Fela Kuti’s mother from a window.
Nigeria’s present restructuring agitations have one of its roots in the 1979 constitution superintended by Obasanjo, which turned Nigeria from the British style to the American style of presidential system.
Obasanjo has been twice the first president to be involved in inverse forms of power transfer to civilians, first he transferred to a civilian president as a military head of state in 1979. Second he received power 20 years after in 1999 from a military head of state. That made him the first to witness and execute a civilian-to-civilian hand over.
Obasanjo’s time before military presidency was marked by professional military involvements in engineering postings before the civil war. His post-Nigeria military experience was more with war. His time as military president was in oil delight, and his time as civilian president saw him become Nigeria’s second political maradona of sorts, after IBB. He survived several impeachment attempts, did a second term, became the longest serving president (11 years in all), and attempted a third term he later denied amidst plenty of evidence to the contrary.
In his post-presidency, OBJ has tried to be a grandfather of Nigerian politics, but being frustrated again and again. He became one of few public officers to be indicted in a contract fraud of up to 2.2 billion dollars by the national assembly in 2008. The report of the probe ended up under the carpet. OBJ spends his contemporary life grandstanding intermittently when a government is involved in a seeming political imbroglio or gaffing. His most explosive being letters he exchanged with Goodluck Jonathan in 2015, for which the media said he bombed Jonathan.
Afterwards, OBJ tore his PDP membership card openly, and demonstrated what many later interpreted as a metaphor for the death of the PDP, and an indication that OBJ still had the political energy to sway Nigeria’s power at the centre. As it is, he still blows the hot air of importance in Nigeria, and with bathed breath, Nigerians seem to be waiting for his latest outing following a number of political permutations, namely, Buhari’s performance/second term, latest military dance steps, Nigeria’s agitations, 2019 and the zooming formula. He has been speaking, but it is believed that he will soon summarise his take on all these put together. Who knows whether it will be another: OBJ at it again, lampoons Buhari, APC.