Posted by News Express | 23 March 2020 | 1,707 times
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo is a man who speaks from his heart. Controversial to some, honest to others, Obasanjo does not pull punches when prodded on national issues. GEOFFREY EKENNA met him at his Abeokuta residence recently, where Nigeria’s longest serving leader spoke on some issues affecting him and the nation. He spoke as a background to a book on him written by one of his former aides, Otunba Femmy Carenna. Excerpts:
You are the longest-serving president and Head of State in Nigeria. How does this make you feel as the father of modern Nigeria?
If you think so, I could with great modesty say God has used me to be part of many things, one of which was the civil war. If the civil war has not ended the way it ended, we would not be talking about Nigeria today. But like I always say, God has a purpose and He uses an instrument to achieve His purpose. I believe the purpose of God was to keep Nigeria as a unit and as an entity; that is one. Second, I strongly believe that the military, and I can claim again with great modesty that I am a product, in fact, some of our colleagues will say we are colonial because I joined the British Army, which is West African Regiment of the British Army and when I got my commission in 1959, it was the Queen who signed my parchment. What we called Commission Certificate of Nigeria World Steward in colonial country.
So, I believe that the military by their training and oath are meant to defend the integrity of their country and I also believe that if for whatever reason the military find themselves in power, they should do the utmost and get things right as best as they can and move out. So, that was what made me in 1979 to say this was not for the military and that was short-lived. But then, I never kept my mouth shut on the basis of principles and what I believed in and that landed me in jail during the Sani Abacha regime and it nearly took my life.
Another thing I believe is that wherever you find yourself, try and learn lessons. If you find yourself in the midst of an ocean, what lesson can you learn? I remember when I was at Eaton Centre in Ikoyi, just looking at the wall of the centre, there was a family of lizards; father, mother and two young lizards, and they became my focus. I learnt a lot from them being in prison. I thank God that the prison was not the end of my life. I thank those Nigerians and my international friends who stood by me and I came out.
During this period that you were locked up by Abacha, your good friend, General Shehu Yar’Adua, died. What was going through your mind; did you ever think you were going to come out?
I wasn’t in doubt that I would come out. What I didn’t know was how and when. When Shehu died, I didn’t have an idea of how and why he died because we were together in the hospital in Kirikiri, and then we were separated. I went to Jos, he went to Port Harcourt and I think we were able to communicate at least, once. When he died, my international friends got wind of how he died, that he was poisoned. So, they made a plan, first, asking my wife to take my blood so they could test it to know if I have been poisoned.
Then I realised the effort they made to poison me didn’t succeed because when they were taking me out of Jos to Yola, a man came and said they were taking my blood because I have colostrum problem but I told them I don’t have colostrum problem even though I had been diabetic at that time and I checked my blood sugar almost on daily basis and I was watching my food, doing my exercise while I was in prison. I told them I didn’t have any colostrum problem and he was taken aback. When God is going to do His thing, He leaves nothing to chance; the man could have struggled. Of course, he didn’t.
I was firm and adamant but it was true that I was checking my blood sugar. When I got to Yola, the man who was looking after me brought a doctor; I told my story to the superintendent of the prison. He brought a doctor who was a general practitioner. He said they have a specialist and he sent a specialist who happened to be a Yoruba man, a Baptist and he knows me, Dr. Ajuwon. I told him my story. He said if they come again ‘just insist your doctor must come’ and they came again and I told them to call my doctor and he came, brought his own syringe and gave them my blood sample. We asked them when we would have the result. They said as soon as they get to Abuja. The result hasn’t come out till today.
In essence, what you are saying is by that divine intervention that you refused, that is why you are still here now?
I believe they did the same to Shehu. Then, my international friends wanted to get me out. My wife and I thought it wasn’t necessary since nothing has happened. Then, they tried another thing. They wanted a commando raid on Yola Prison. They had planned it; they got a helicopter to take me from the prison to Cameroon but I refused.
That’s from your international friends?
Yes, but I refused. I will be eternally grateful to them; they hired commandos, raised $1 million but I said no. I told one of my friends to give me the letter I wrote when I was in prison, but he wouldn’t give me. I said I was certain I would come out, what I didn’t know was how and when. But I knew one thing that it wouldn’t be the man that put me in prison that would set me free. When I came out, that my friend, now late, said they had told you, you would be coming out.
When I came out, I didn’t think of going into government again because when I was in prison, my farm ran down. Even my NGO, African Leadership Forum, was chased out of Nigeria. They had moved to Ghana. My children were out of school; they couldn’t pay their school fees. So, my first concentration was how do I put my family and business back to shape?
I went to Ghana and thanked Jerry Rawlings for accommodating my NGO. Then, I brought it back. I went around the world thanking my international friends, people like Jimmy Carter, Ted Turner, the people in Ford Foundation, where I used to be a board member and so many others. It was in the process that people started mounting pressure on me.
At what point did the presidency issue creep back in?
When I came out, I said, look, the one I did before what did I get from it? I got into prison. So, the first thing was family. But when the pressure kept mounting, I thought I needed advice. I met a few friends internally, and I went to South Africa to meet Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. I have tremendous regard for both of them and they had for me. I went to Nelson. Madiba said Olu, as I was fondly called by him, that whatever your instinct tells you to do. And I went to Desmond Tutu. After I have told him my story, he said: ‘My brother, what you are saying was that your country wanted you to serve them and God, and you are now saying you are too tired.’
I responded that that was not the case that he didn’t hear me well and narrated my story to him again and he concluded: ‘If your country wanted you to serve them, then go and serve.’ I came back. One day, I just took my Bible and just opened to the book of Esther, read about the story of Mordecai that maybe because of this that is why you came to the palace… Arisekola (Alao) told me on several occasions that Abacha had told him that the three of us would not come out of prison or detention alive.
Who are those three?
Shehu Yar’Adua, MKO and myself.
Was Arisekola sure of that?
Abacha told Arisekola. Then, I said if I had come out, then God has a purpose for me because I am not better or more clever or pious than those who didn’t come out. If that is the case, then so be it. And I asked myself what I had to offer; only my service, only my leadership and all God has given me. I will throw myself into it.
What of the influence of the people around because for some of us outside…
First of all my children; my first daughter, Iyabo, was adamant because she saw a bit of what I went through and she said ‘Daddy, I know you would go into it but when you die, I will not weep for you.’ I told her that Iyabo, ‘if I die and you are weeping, you are not weeping for me because I am dead….’ My first son, Segun, said ‘you have always taught us about service to humanity and God, if this is the way you want to render your service to humanity and God, so be it. I can only pray for you.’
Was there any resistance from any angle?
The only resistance I had was from Iyabo being the first and till tomorrow she would always say she suffered. The rest of the children obliged and I can’t remember now if there was any. I consulted friends. Ibrahim Babangida came to see me and hinted something when I saw him off to his car. He said ‘your being alive might be the saviour for Nigeria’ and I thanked him but it didn’t register with me. By and large, most of my colleagues in the military supported me because they know the kind of person I am.
In fact, Theophilus Danjuma raised the funds for my first election. I went to him about 5a.m. in his house in Victoria Island. When I narrated my story, he said: ‘You are courageous, I cherish my freedom, I won’t go into that.’ And I said: ‘Yakubu, you don’t appreciate freedom because you have never lost it, I appreciate freedom more than you but if I have to choose between my freedom and Nigeria, I will choose Nigeria.’ Then I told him: ‘I wanted you to help raise the funds’ and he did it. Then, I also asked him to join me.
I was opportune to be with the then Ambassador of United States to Nigeria, Walter Carrington, and he said that before the phantom coup, he had an opportunity to talk to you outside Nigeria that you shouldn’t return to Nigeria but you didn’t listen and he was shocked that what kind of a man is this…
Not only did he say I shouldn’t come, he even said his country is ready to grant me asylum.
But you came…
I came because I have done nothing wrong. Why should I be running away?
Is that the military in you?
I don’t know…
There is this feeling outside that President Obasanjo is a supremely confident man. Even as Nigeria is today, that if there is somebody who can look at the president and tell him, my friend you are wrong, it is you. I cannot recall of any president you haven’t confronted or taken on….
I won’t call it confrontation; I won’t call it taking on. Again, I will thank God for the perspective He has given me and as I have said to you now. Again, without been immodest, there is nobody who have had the kind of outreach I have had and the type of experience that I have had. Like I have told you, I learn in every situation. Even in prison, I called the 419 boys to come and teach me their tactics, just to learn. I think I love Nigeria and humanity and my experience has shown me what is possible.
Okay, what you called confrontation; let’s take somebody like former President Goodluck Jonathan. He came and I even threw every caution over board because after I nominated him to Umar Yar’Adua and he accepted and when he (Yar’Adua) died, I thought this was an opportunity for the minority. Of course, you all know that there was that feeling in the North that our man has not completed his term. He won that election and suddenly he started something that was outrageous to me. He started speaking and calling Ijaw nation. I had to go to him and ask: ‘What is this Ijaw nation nonsense?’
I said if you take the Hausa/Fulani as one unit, they may be larger than Yoruba, but if you separate Hausa/Fulani, the Yoruba will be the largest tribe in Nigeria.
I asked him if he ever heard me talk of the Yoruba nation. What he did was nonsense.
Now, if I go to him to say that; is that confrontation? I said to him: ‘What is the population of the Ijaw?
It was not only the Ijaw that voted you into power; it is the whole Nigeria. It’s Nigeria nation and not Ijaw nation,’ but he didn’t listen. But if you call that confrontation, it is up to you.
But for me, it is not.
I mean in a society where there is a culture of silence, as we are presently.
We know so many things are not right but those who are supposed to say things are going wrong are either benefitting from government or they are in their homes watching…
What will be my benefit from government for me to see something that is wrong and not be able to say this is wrong? For me, it is a sin punishable by God. And if I come to tell you this is not right and you give explanation towards that, I might understand. For what reason should President Buhari try to monopolize the security within a particular group and then he captured the judiciary and legislature, the electoral commission captured and the impunity and incompetence, taking security not too seriously and you are expecting me to keep quiet? You gave him a tacit support in his first term; one would have thought you wouldn’t say anything or might have even decided to keep quiet just like some other retired Generals… That is entirely up to them (Generals). I am not a General to keep quiet. I am a General for what I believe is the best for Nigeria, humanity and what I believe God would want us to do.
Why should I sing praises of anybody?
People would always ask me who my hero is: I would tell them Jesus Christ. The truth is this: There is no human being that is perfect. When you look at the entirety of any human being, you will see imperfections.
So, why should I take him as a hero where there are lots of imperfections in him? There might be attributes that I admire. Like Mandela, for somebody to be in prison for 27 years and came out to say that those who put him in jail, he had forgiven them. That was a great attribute. I would say I respect Mandela for that. Julius Nyerere decided that he would do everything to bring the island and mainland together and he did. That is a great attribute but there are aspects of his life that if you look, you may not like it and you will find that. I look for what is good in a man. People would say to me, your friend, Tony Blair, supported George Bush to destroy Iraq. I would tell them maybe, that is the imperfect aspect of him but if he had not supported me, I wouldn’t have got debt relief. So, I respect him for that.
The way he interacted and reacted to those of us from Africa, who were close to him was good. But there will be aspect of him that others will point out and say they don’t like. Moving Nigeria forward, how did you see the last general election?
When you talk about the last election; the last election is gone. It wasn’t an election but a declaration.
You don’t believe there was election in 2019?
There was an election but the result was not the true result as far as I am concerned.
Since 2007 when you left office, there has been this notion for those of us outside that every president must have your blessing to emerge. 2019 was the only time you took another turn and the result came out differently…
Not the result, the declaration.
You possibly believe if there was a result not a declaration, we wouldn’t have been here?
I strongly believe that. In other words, Atiku defeated President Buhari? That’s was not what they declared but I believe that was what happened. This is not the first time we would have that. We had it in the case of MKO Abiola too. How do you see Lamido Sanusi’s dethronement? Like the letter I sent out to the media; that is the way I saw it, and this point, I won’t say more than that. You handed over a vibrant economy in 1979. When you came back in 1999, everything was almost gone. From 1999 to 2007, you laid foundations, built institutions.
From 2007 till date, just about 12 years, it looks as if all the pillars you put for the growth of Nigeria are no longer there. How do you feel about that? I feel bad but I never lose hope and I am very optimistic.
My experience has shown when I came on board in 1999, people said you would be the last president. After you, there will be no Nigeria again and the economic issues. We were owing $36 billion; I reduced our debts to $3.6 billion. We paid, we got debt relief. I met $3.7 billion reserve; I left with over $45 billion reserve. In addition, I left about over $23 billion in Excess Crude Account, which is different from reserve. We moved cocoa production from 150,000 metric tonnes to 400,000 metric tonnes; cassava from 30 million metric tonnes to 50 million metric tonnes.
Nigeria was kicked out of Commonwealth but came back to host the conference. Everything was going fine. If we are able to get one continuum generation of Nigeria, the generation is about 25 to 35 years, then we will be there.
What has been happening is that we go up, we are pulled down. We go up again, we are pulled down again. I am an incurable optimist about Nigeria. I was talking about cocoa. When we got to about 400,000 metric tonnes, John Kufour in Ghana, who was then on 600,000 metric tonnes came to me and he said: ‘You are an oil-producing country, leave cocoa for us.’
My target was one million metric tonnes. We could have reached it. For cassava, I wanted to get to 100 million metric tonnes. We could have reached that too. The ability to get there is not what mattered to me. We have got people who can do it. There was not a billionaire in Nigeria before 1999.
What did we do? I didn’t give any of them a dime but through policy and conducive environment and they took advantage of the opportunity. Look at the nonsense we have made out of Africa Continental Free Trade Zone. They tell me whenever I travel that Nigeria is not at the table.
A leader in West Africa called me and said: ‘If you cannot solve your own security problem, how can we call or rely on you.’ The Civil War lasted 30 months, we put it behind us. Book Haram has lasted more than 12 years and today, we are told it is no longer there. Initially, they were saying they are not Nigerians; they were those who were released from Libya. Now, they are bandits.
Given your experience as a general, why is it difficult for us to deal with Boko Haram?
Because we are not dealing with it the right way! I have always said there are two aspects of Boko Harm. Boko Haram did not start overnight. Boko Haram is the product of lack of development; opportunities in that area for those people.
When you have 14 million children in Nigeria that are out of school, those are the Boko Haram of tomorrow that we are producing ourselves. We don’t need to go too far. Boko Haram has to be dealt with stick and carrot.
Mohammed Yusuf, who started Boko Haram asked some people that had education and certificate but had been out for close to five years, what they were doing and they responded, nothing. He then concluded: ‘Of what use is your socalled western education?’
That is where Boko Haram ideology came from. He was right in a way. He did not mean it to be violent from inception. I understand that some great learned clerics used to send him on errands. We had that with the Niger Delta militants. I asked about 40 of them to come to my council chamber and I asked why they were involved in militancy? One of them got up and said: ‘I would not have gone to school but when you came as a military head of state and started UBE, that was how I was able to go to school.
Because I did well in primary school, I went to secondary. When I finished in secondary school, I went to the university to study Chemical Engineering because I come from an oil-producing area.
I graduated four years ago and had no job.’ I said to myself, I understand and then you would say why should he become a militant.
It appears the leaders we have now are only concerned with what they can get for themselves…
Then, the country will be going down and it won’t be your own job, with all due respect.
You don’t get a country on the basis of cash-and-carry. You don’t get the country of how much you would cash and how much you will carry. This is Lenten period, probably if I had wanted to eat this morning, what could I have eaten? I won’t be able to eat more than what my stomach will take. So, why are we doing cash-andcarry?
At the end of the day, where does it lead to?
In summary, why are you not happy with this government?
Are you happy?
Why are you not happy?
For me, the economy to the security issue…
From the little you know, with all due respect and with the much I know because I know much more than you, if you are not happy, then if I say I am happy, you must be thinking this man’s head needs to be examined. (New Telegraph)
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