Obasanjo, Nigeria and the World
by John Iliffe
James Currey, 2011, 326 pp., $70 hardcover, ISBN 9781847010278
James Currey, 2011, 326 pp., $70 hardcover, ISBN 9781847010278
The famous fairy-tale of the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ is a testament to vanity and susceptibility to sycophancy. Some will recall that the story involves two unscrupulous weavers who convinced a gullible Emperor into believing he was wearing new clothes when in fact he was naked. Nigeria’s president, Olusegun Obasanjo (the country’s military leader between 1976 and 1979 and civilian ruler between 1999 and 2007), often bestrode the globe in beautifully embroidered agbada traditional flowing robes. But his ‘imperial rule’ and autocratic streak were often at odds with democratic principles, and metaphorically exposed the nudity of Nigeria’s emperor. Many of his 140 million subjects saw this nakedness. The only time I ever met Obasanjo was at a reception in New York after his release from Nigerian autocrat General Sani Abacha’s jail in 1998. After making some brief remarks, Obasanjo offered to go round the room and shake everyone’s hand. The impression that I came away with was of an arrogant man suffering from delusions of grandeur matched neither by intellect nor vision.
British academic John Iliffe has written a well-researched and sympathetic biography of Obasanjo, the country’s longest-ruling leader. Unlike many Western academics, Iliffe has meticulously consulted Nigerian sources and reflected their perspectives on one of the country’s most controversial leaders. He curiously never interviewed his subject, an act which may have made him more willing to give Obasanjo the benefit of the doubt and to treat him sometimes naively as a patriot selflessly serving his subjects. Yet, the patriotism of Nigeria’s political elite must be seen as a self-serving means of preserving the benefits they have accrued from power. Iliffe, however, is too experienced and solid a researcher to drift into hagiography, and has not shied away from exposing the many flaws in Obasanjo’s character and rule, though often justifying some of them in ways that are unconvincing to this reviewer. The book is the most comprehensive biography on Obasanjo, but devotes only three short chapters (out of twenty four) to what is likely to be the subject’s main presidential legacy: his foreign policy achievements.
Iliffe coherently traces Obasanjo’s early life – his army career, including his role in the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) between 1960-1961; his command during the Nigerian civil war of 1967-1970; his tenure as military ruler between 1976-1979; his return to a life of farming and role as a roving international statesman between 1979 and 1995; his imprisonment between 1995 and 1998; and his tenure as civilian president between 1999 and 2007. Obasanjo’s first wife published her memoirs in 2008, accusing him of neglect and physical abuse. He had taken a second wife, Stella Abebe, in 1975. Obasanjo reportedly has at least 24 children from about 12 women. His son also accused him during a divorce court-case of having committed adultery with the son’s wife (which Obasanjo denied).
Olusegun Obasanjo was born in 1937 in the south-western Yoruba farming village of Ibogun-Olaogun. He endured a life of poverty which was to leave a permanent scar. His father had abandoned his mother and nine children, forcing Obasanjo the child to work while studying. His limited education made him determined to succeed, but also resulted in an intellectual and class insecurity that remained evident throughout his long career. The dozen books Obasanjo has authored is a sign of a desire to be accepted as a serious thinker. In his 2006 memoirs, Nigeria’s Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, more accurately described the former Nigerian president thus: ‘Obasanjo is a man of restless energies. ... A bullish personality, calculating and devious, yet capable of a disarming spontaneity, affecting an exaggerated country yokel act to cover up the interior actuality of the same, occasionally self-deprecatory yet intolerant of criticism, this general remains a study in the outer limits of compulsive rivalry, even where the fields of competence or striving are miles apart’1.
At nineteen, Obasanjo taught for a while in Ibadan and passed his university exams. But unable to afford the fees, he joined the Nigerian Army in 1958 at the age of twenty-one in order to receive training to become a civil engineer. The army became his family and he forged close relationships with Nigerians from other ethnic groups which instilled a strong sense of patriotism. The Nigerian Army at this time regarded itself as a national institution protecting the country from the excesses of corrupt and fractious politicians. The teetotal Obasanjo also received training in British military institutions. His service with the UN mission in the Congo in the 1960s instilled in him a pan-African spirit and distaste for neo-colonialism. By the eve of the Nigerian civil war, he had risen to Chief Army Engineer. A staunch disciplinarian, he subsequently took over command of one of the federal army’s main battalions. He played a courageous role in the civil war, captured in a self-glorifying 1980 book, My Command, which many fellow officers felt had grossly exaggerated his role in ending the war.
Throughout his military career, the industrious Obasanjo comes across as the cautious, fortunate beneficiary rather than the key player or instigator of coups that led to his promotion. He was willing to serve as the second-in command and Chief of Staff to the northern general, Murtala Mohammed, after the 1975 coup that brought Mohammed to power, even though Obasanjo was the more senior officer. Iliffe captures well Obasanjo’s deceptive cunning and masking of his political ambitions. After Mohammed’s assassination in 1976, he accepted, apparently reluctantly, to lead Nigeria but stayed close to powerful northern military officers and traditional leaders. Obasanjo grew only slowly into the role, at first cutting the figure of a fearful leader besieged in Lagos’ Dodan Barracks – the seat of power. The new leader, with a high sense of joie de vivre, had a pot belly hanging over his military belt, thus cutting the figure of a military Falstaff.
During the military administrations in which Obasanjo served in the 1970s, agricultural production fell, food imports rose, and the naira (Nigeria’s currency) grew stronger. His ‘Operation Feed the Nation’ was not a resounding success, as oil continued to dominate the economy. Efforts at developing heavy industry met with little success. The centralising tendencies of his military rule would carry over into his later civilian regime. A draconian 1976 decree banned most strikes and allowed the detention of union leaders. The commune of radical Afro-beat musician, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, was vindictively destroyed by Obasanjo’s soldiers in 1977, with reports of rape of women and the eventual death of the artist’s mother, who was thrown from a window by security forces. The military regime killed demonstrating university students in 1978, closed several universities, and proscribed the National Union of University Students. Armed robbers were publicly executed. Accusations of corruption plagued the regime.
More positively, Obasanjo continued the activist foreign policy of his predecessor, supporting liberation movements across Southern Africa. His indigenisation decree increased the number of Nigerians engaged in private businesses, while primary school and university enrollment doubled during his tenure. Obasanjo handed over power peacefully to the administration of the northern politician, Shehu Shagari, an act for which his fellow Yoruba never forgave him, particularly as he himself had voted for Shagari. Obasanjo, however, earned a glowing international reputation as only the third African leader to have voluntarily relinquished power at the time. Upon retirement in 1979, he established a large poultry farm in Ota where he conducted international seminars through his Africa Leadership Forum. Obasanjo demonstrated a penchant for picking up and discarding fashionable ideas; this would lead him to embrace the ‘Washington Consensus’ of privatization and free markets as civilian president. He also sought to be a back-seat driver to Shagari, describing his successor’s regime as ‘the worst’ in Nigeria’s history. Shagari resented this undignified carping by a predecessor with an oversize ego and an exaggerated perception of his own administration’s performance. He wryly noted that Obasanjo ‘had expected me to be constantly consulting him on all matters of government since he had an obsession of being a super-administrator, super diplomat and of course a military genius’.
Obasanjo was also a persistent critic of General Ibrahim Babangida’s (1985- 1993) structural adjustment economic policies and his efforts to manipulate the transition to civilian rule between 1989 and 1993 which culminated in a poll that was controversially annulled by the military. Obasanjo condemned Babangida’s ‘capacity for mischief, for evil’. Some of this criticism was courageous as Babangida really did present a genuine threat to the return of democratic rule to Nigeria. However, more self-serving was Obsanjo’s assertion in 1986 that ‘If I had remained in office, in 10 years, I would have made Nigeria a world power’. His eight years in power between 1999 and 2007 exposed this to be a hollow and empty boast.
Obasanjo also kept himself in the limelight through the publication of his 1990 memoirs, Not My Will. His reputation as an ‘elder statesman’ was cemented when he became a member
of the Commonwealth Eminent Person’s Group that met an imprisoned Nelson Mandela and the apartheid regime in 1986 in a bid to secure majority rule in South Africa. He however damaged this reputation somewhat by unwisely running for the post of UN Secretary-General in 1991, when he lost to Egypt’s Boutros Boutros-Ghali. UN Security Council members made clear that they wanted a ‘secretary’ and not a ‘general’. Obasanjo was mercilessly lampooned by Nigeria’s lively cartoonists for taking private French lessons on his farm in preparation for this election.
Obasanjo was also a critic of the regime of the brutal General Sani Abacha (1993-1998), who lacked the finesse of Babangida. Abacha’s regime implicated Obasanjo in a ‘coup plot’ and arrested him in March 1995. He would remain incarcerated until Abacha’s own death in June 1998. Obasanjo used his imprisonment to fast, read the Bible, and pray.He came out of jail a ‘born-again Christian’, having lost much weight. He would soon regain the weight as well as his previous appetite for hedonistic earthly pursuits. Babangida went to Ota farm in June 1998 and reportedly encouraged Obasanjo to take the presidential nomination of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), of which he was a founding member and one of its largest funders. Obasanjo’s presidential campaign had thus needed the support of a man he had earlier described as ‘a great master of intrigue, mismanagement, deceit, settlement, cover-up and self-promotion’.
Obasanjo declared for the PDP in October 1998 and talked in frighteningly messianic terms: ‘I saw my survival and freedom as a message from God to do what needs to be done in Nigeria. I could not disregard the call of God to duty’. He won the presidential election against fellow Yoruba, Olu Falae, a technocrat against whom Obasanjo had refused to debate before the elections – another disturbing sign of his intellectual insecurity. Though the PDP won comfortable majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives, as well as twenty of the thirty-six state governorships, one of the most hurtful incidents during these polls was Obasanjo’s failure to win even his own local electoral ward. He was overwhelmingly rejected by his Yoruba people, having dismissed Mashood Abiola – his former class-mate and the presumed winner of the annulled 1993 poll – as not being the ‘messiah Nigeria is looking for’. Obasanjo won just 20 per cent of the votes in the six south-western states, as Yorubas continued to distrust him as a stooge of Northern interests.
In what he sought to depict almost as ‘the Second Coming’, the 62-year old Obasanjo became Nigeria’s president in May 1999. He had won 63 per cent of the votes in a flawed election that was, however, seen as having generally reflected the wishes of Nigerian voters. The new president arrogantly described his mandate as ‘a command from God Almighty that I should spare no effort in rebuilding this nation’. Having been invited to join the party at a late stage, Obasanjo relied heavily on strategists like his Vice-President, Atiku Abubakar, to deliver victory, as he did not have control of the PDP at this time. He formed an alliance with the twenty state governors to increase control over the party, and moved quickly to remove the politicized officers in the Nigerian army. He retired 200 of them and replaced the most senior with officers who had not previously held political positions. This was an action that only a former military general of Obasanjo’s stature could have pulled off. In a crude act, however, he required that all but three
of his cabinet ministers give him a signed but undated letter of resignation so as to keep them on a tight leash.
During Obasanjo’s first term in office, from 1999 to 2003, a dozen states in Northern Nigeria declared the constitutionally questionable application of sharia criminal law. Obasanjo had been urged by both houses of the National Assembly to seek a Supreme Court judgment on the issue, but he complacently and erroneously argued that it would ‘fizzle out’. In a situation repeated sporadically between 1999 and 2007, communal riots in 2000 between Muslims and Christians in Kaduna led to hundreds of fatalities. Plateau State also experienced similar clashes in 2004. An attack by a radical Muslim sect, Boko Haram, led to hundreds of deaths in Bauchi State in July 2009, in violence that also spread to Borno and Yobe States. Three years later, Boko Haram was killing scores of Nigerians in increasingly sophisticated attacks, including a suicide attack on the UN’s headquarters in Abuja in August 2011.
Obasanjo’s regime drifted uneasily between anarchy and tyranny. It used either too little or too much force to manage religious, resource, and ethnic conflicts. In Kaduna and Aba, Obasanjo was slow to control rampaging mobs. In Odi and Gbeji, in 2000 and 2001 respectively, his soldiers employed disproportionate force to ‘pacify’ the area in military campaigns of awesome destructiveness totally unworthy of a democratic government. On visiting Odi in March 2001, Obasanjo noted that ‘only a sadist’ could have ordered that sort of destruction and that his soldiers had overstepped their mandate. He, however, refused to pay compensation to rebuild the town or to condemn the soldiers. After the killing of nineteen government soldiers by militia in Zaki-Biam in October 2001, an estimated 250-300 men were massacred in six surrounding villages. Obasanjo visited the area a whole year later, this time apologising for his soldiers’s ‘excessive use of force’. But the lack of proper accountability and continuing impunity involved in these incidents were profoundly disturbing for a government pledged to protect its citizens.
Obasanjo’s first term saw a major effort to ensure regular supply of electricity, the doubling of the health budget, and a national poverty eradication programme seeking to promote youth employment and rural infrastructure. However, industry stagnated and foreign investment remained concentrated in the oil and gas sectors. Obasanjo sought to halve poverty and achieve 6-10 per cent growth. But even a sympathetic Iliffe described his tackling of the economy in this first term as ‘a failure’. Obasanjo’s military instincts led to actions such as increasing petrol prices without prior consultation. He intervened in a gubernatorial contest in Anambra State to exclude a candidate he did not like. In seeking re-election for his party in 2003, his Vice-President, Abubakar Atiku, reportedly described Obasanjo as ‘dictatorial, vindictive, and unforgiving’. The president won reelection, thanks to Atiku’s control over the party machinery and state governors. Obasanjo had, however, been forced to show rare humility to win the party over, and confirmed Atiku’s description of him through his determination to punish his deputy for what he regarded as disloyalty and humiliating treatment.
Obasanjo’s relations with his legislature were often fractious. He referred condescendingly to legislators in the House of Representatives as ‘boys’ who had ‘power without knowledge or experience’. The legislators – many of whom were themselves hardly figures of great moral rectitude – returned the favour by depicting the president as a military dictator. Obasanjo’s interference to influence the election of the Senate president was a blatant breach of the Constitution’s provision for the separation of powers. On convening a meeting of both houses, he inappropriately sought to chair the meeting, before ordering Senators out of the room so that he could talk to House members alone. The volatile Obasanjo eventually lost his temper and stormed out of the meeting. He then went about purging the most senior members of the ruling PDP and replacing them with his own appointees in a 1999 party election of dubious credibility. Two years later, the party chair was replaced not in an election but by an Obasanjo-led clique, with the president creating for himself the position of party leader. The House of Representatives asked Obasanjo to resign in August 2002 or face impeachment due to a failure to implement budgets, maintaining illegal accounts (the Excess Crude Account), disrespect for the rule of law, corruption in the presidency, and other ‘monumental inadequacies’. As Ghali Umar Na’Abba, the Speaker of the House noted to Obasanjo: ‘You claim to be a messiah and you have become arrogant…’. Having survived this impeachment bid, a vindictive Obasanjo had Na’Abba suspended from the party and denied support for re-election.
The president enjoyed more success in foreign policy. Forging an alliance with South African president Thabo Mbeki, both men pushed the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1999 to ostracise regimes that engaged in unconstitutional changes of government. The two leaders also insisted that the OAU recognise the right of African states to intervene in the internal affairs of their members in egregious cases of gross human rights abuses and to stem regional instability. Obasanjo led peacemaking efforts in Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Great Lakes region. He also pushed the UN to take over Nigeria-led peacekeeping missions in Sierra Leone and Liberia between 2000 and 2003, in order to share the burden. Both Obasanjo and Mbeki championed the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) to gain increased Western aid in exchange for improved African political and economic governance. They lobbied the rich world on behalf of the continent at annual G8 summits, though the results were often disappointing.
Obasanjo was re-elected as president in 2003 with 61.9 per cent of the vote in deeply flawed polls in which he won an implausible 99.92 per cent of the vote in his home state of Ogun, and captured five of the six southwestern states, except Lagos. There had been violence and reports of widespread rigging, especially in the country’s South-South region. Obasanjo’s failure to ensure a clean electoral process during two elections as president must count as one of the worst blemishes on his administration. Iliffe described him as having grown increasingly ‘authoritarian, imperious, and unscrupulous’ in his second term, going on to term Obasanjo ‘a man of military instincts and volcanic temper’. The president expressed self-righteousness about having been the only Nigerian leader whose finances had been investigated and cleared, but many remained unconvinced. Reports of the bribing of legislators by presidential aides, and kickbacks being paid to the PDP, continued to swirl. Allegations of favouritism in the award of oil contracts persisted. Controversially, Obasanjo launched the Transnational Corporation (Transcorp) in 2005 with a group of favoured businessmen like Aliko Dangote who had funded his presidential campaigns. Transcorp was allocated oil blocks and licenses for new enterprises. In a clear conflict of interest, Obasanjo Holdings bought 200 million shares in the corporation at below market prices through bank loans. Transcorps’s purchase of Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL) was subsequently annulled by the successor administration of Umaru Yar’Adua. The company never declared any dividends during Obasanjo’s rule. In another incident in May 2005, $46 million was controversially pledged by influential individuals (including state governors) towards Obasanjo’s presidential library.
During his second presidential term between 2003 and 2007, Obasanjo continued to intervene in the election of legislators. The problems of the Niger Delta took up much of his time, reducing a third of Nigeria’s oil production, as militant groups stepped up attacks in the area. Obasanjo’s failure to observe the rule of law was evident in 2004 when he defied a Supreme Court order to release funding to the Lagos state government’s newly created local councils. Only part of the funding was disbursed, resulting in the Chief Justice condemning the president’s ‘clear contempt of the Supreme Court’. Obasanjo’s authoritarian streak was again evident when he suspended the governor of Plateau State in 2004 and declared six months of constitutionally questionable military rule. Two years later, he pressured the state assembly in Ekiti to impeach the governor, Ayo Fayose, through illegal means, before again declaring six months of military rule.
Obasanjo’s National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS) sought to encourage private enterprise through privatization and liberalisation, reduce poverty, create seven million jobs, and increase spending on social services. Foreign reserves increased from $7.5 billion in November 2003 to $45 billion in October 2006, based on high oil earnings, but the president still illegally maintained an Excess Crude Account which he used for power stations and other projects. However, industry continued to stagnate, and despite large outlays on electricity (estimated at $3 billion) and railways, neither produced significant results. Unemployment remained at 20 per cent in 2008 (60 % for youths), and the government did not even come close to meeting its own target of seven million jobs. By the end of Obasanjo’s rule, 92 per cent of Nigerians still lived on less than $2 a day.
In the area of foreign policy, Obasanjo continued his activism, serving as AU chair in 2004/2005 and deploying Nigerian peacekeepers to Sudan’s volatile Darfur region in 2004. Closer to home, he contributed to peacemaking efforts in Togo and Guinea-Bissau. He hosted a successful Commonwealth Summit in 2003 and visited China four times between 2001 and 2006. However, the results of efforts to attract Asian investors such as China, South Korea, India and Taiwan into the Nigerian oil sector, in exchange for investment in infrastructure, were disappointing.
In April 2007, Nigeria staged what was widely believed to be the most flawed and fraudulent elections in its 47-year history. Ballot boxes were stuffed and stolen, voters were intimidated, and results appeared out of thin air in areas where voting had clearly not taken place, particularly in the Niger Delta. Obasanjo handed over a poisoned presidential chalice to his hand-picked successor, Umaru Yar’Adua – the governor of the northern Katsina State and the first university graduate to rule the country – after an overwhelming 70 per cent victory (and the award to the PDP of twenty-eight out of thirty-six state governorships). Election tribunals later overturned the results of six governors and more than a dozen senators by January 2008. Obasanjo left office under a torrent of abuse, with even his long-time friend and former defence minister, Theophilus Danjuma, describing him as ‘the most toxic leader that Nigeria has produced’.
Despite his flawed fin de régime, Obasanjo’s tenure was not without some achievements. He travelled tirelessly to Western capitals in pursuit of the annulment of the country’s $30 billion external debt, and along with his able and forceful finance minister between 2003 and 2006, Ngozi Okonjo- Iweala, was able to negotiate a deal that effectively wiped out Nigeria’s entire external debt. Obasanjo’s regime achieved 5-6 per cent growth rates, stabilised the naira, and introduced competitive tendering in procurement that saved the country a reported $750 million by 2008. In the field of telecommunications, 59 million active cell phone lines were established. Obasanjo’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) was initiated in March 2003 and, led by the fearless Nuhu Ribadu, it recovered $5 billion in stolen assets and prosecuted eighty-two corrupt businessmen and policemen.
But the EFCC was justifiably accused of manipulation by Obasanjo to target his political opponents selectively. Obasanjo’s unsuccessful and undignified attempt to change the Nigerian Constitution in April 2006, to allow him to run for a third presidential term, badly damaged his democratic credentials and will remain the worst blemish on his record. His aides reportedly offered bribes of $400,000 to legislators; armed police broke up a meeting in Abuja of law-makers and governors opposed to the third-term; and state governors who failed to support the bid were threatened with impeachment. Despite Obasanjo’s denial of personal involvement in this sordid effort to subvert constitutional rule, US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s 2011 memoirs confirmed that Obasanjo unsuccessfully sought president George W. Bush’s support for
a third presidential term during a visit to Washington D.C. in 20062. This incident not only demeaned Obasanjo but also exposed the hypocrisy of his earlier vociferous criticisms of his military successors’ excesses.
In a disturbing development in September 2006, the PDP’s National Executive Committee declared Obasanjo ‘life leader of the party, father of the nation, and founder of modern Nigeria’ – descriptions more common to dictators like Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko or Liberia’s Samuel Doe. Obasanjo’s legacy was also tarnished by an ugly spat with his Vice-President, Atiku Abubakar, which saw both men accusing each other of corruption relating to the government’s Petroleum Technology Trust. Obasanjo’s crude attempts to exclude Atiku from contesting presidential elections in 2007 (even declaring two days of public holidays to delay the seating of the Supreme Court) were undignified and unworthy of his position.
Obasanjo’s legacy must, however, be assessed against the background of the serious socio-economic difficulties inherited from four years of Nigeria’s profligate Second Republic (1979-1983), followed by fifteen years of military misrule under Generals Buhari, Babangida and Abacha, between 1983 and 1998. Obasanjo had seemingly emerged from jail as a deus ex machina. He was to be a bridge between the military and civilians, between the North and the South, a new broom to sweep out the corruption and abuses of military brass hats who had lost any sense of purpose beyond plundering the national treasury and pummelling innocent citizens into brutal submission. At the beginning of his presidential term in 1999, Obasanjo inherited a plethora of conflicts. Some of these conflicts continued under his rule, leading to an estimated 12,000 deaths from violence related to religious and ethnic feuds. Nigeria’s ‘imagined communities’ developed their own differing interpretations of the same history and proceeded to defend these on the basis of birthright and blood. Though these conflicts over land, religion, resources and chieftaincy titles mostly had local roots, opportunistic political leaders exploited them for their own parochial ends, realising how easy it was to light a fuse under simmering local brushfires.
Obasanjo’s rule proved to be a bundle of contradictions. Considered an indispensable force for stability, he instead oversaw one of Nigeria’s worst periods of instability. Considered a force for unity, he presided uneasily over a country that perhaps became more divided than at any time in its history since the 1967-70 civil war. Considered a force for national salvation, he instead watched helplessly as the country was nearly torn apart by sectarian violence. One must concede that much of this rot had set in under successive inept administrations since 1979, but the divisions were exacerbated under Obasanjo’s rule.
Suffering from what many critics have described as a ‘messiah complex’, Obasanjo seemed to suffer from delusions of grandeur in which he viewed himself in the same light as Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s saintly post-apartheid leader and Nobel peace laureate. But it was clear that Obasanjo lacked the stature of Mandela, one of the greatest moral figures of the twentieth century. The South African leader’s graceful exit from power in 1999 after a single presidential term was in stark contrast to Obasanjo’s tawdry efforts to seek an unconstitutional third presidential term in 2006.
Obasanjo, who acted as his own petroleum minister throughout the eight years of his rule, further tarnished his historical legacy through an arrogant penchant for omniscient and omnipotent behaviour. In a survey by Afrobarometre, his approval rating had plummeted from 84 per cent in 2000 to 32 per cent by 2005, as Nigerians became increasingly disenchanted with his autocratic leadership style. He was often accused of using his position for personal enrichment: Obasanjo Holdings, claiming to be Nigeria’s leading agricultural company, also had wide-ranging interests in banking, as well as food and packaging; the former president reportedly gained stakes in oil and gas company Sahara Energy and in Dangote Holdings (companies that he had supported during his presidency); and he was alleged to have substantial property in Abuja and Lagos.
Seemingly claiming a divine mandate, during the debates on a third presidential term in April 2006, Obasanjo made the following notorious comment to the Washington Post : ‘I believe that God is not a God of abandoned projects. If God has a project he will not abandon it’. Thankfully, Nigeria’s legislators and civil society actors did not agree that the Almighty had a role to play in changing the country’s Constitution to give Obasanjo a third presidential term. President Umaru Yar’Adua’s death in May 2010 led to further criticisms of Obasanjo for imposing an already sick man on the country in the hope – critics said – of continuing to wield influence within the ruling party. Goodluck Jonathan took over from Yar’Adua and won the 2011 presidential elections, but reports continue of Obasanjo’s continuing influence over Jonathan’s administration.
We conclude with a tale from the ‘Afro-Arab’ spring of 2011. On seeing former Egyptian autocrat, Hosni Mubarak (a former military officer who had ruled the country for thirty years) being tried in a caged jail in a Cairo court-room in 2011, Obasanjo was reported to have expressed grave concern at the treatment of the former Egyptian ruler. He must have wondered whether this could be his own fate if a future Nigerian ‘revolutionary’ government decided to probe his administration. On the basis of the human rights abuses in Odi, Gbeji, and Zaki-Biam alone, Obasanjo may well have grounds to be worried.
1 Wole Soyinka, You Must Set Forth at Dawn: Memoirs, Ibadan: Bookcraft, 2006, p. 219.
2 Condoleeza Rice, No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington, New York, Crown Publishers, 2011.
2 Condoleeza Rice, No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington, New York, Crown Publishers, 2011.
Africa Review of Books / Revue Africaine des Livres
Volume 09 N° 01, Mars 2013