“When I was a boy,” says Olusegun Obasanjo in answer to my
question as to how he ended up in the military, “my father said
to me upon returning from the fields one day, ‘You need to get
an education’. I wanted to become a motor mechanic, like a
relative of my father’s, which was seen as a skilled
profession. But, instead, I went to school, and the rest,” he
grins, “is history.”
Some history. And it’s still being made.
The short version is that Obasanjo served twice as Nigeria’s
head of state: First, as a military ruler from 1976, assuming
power after Murtala Mohammed’s assassination: second, as a
democratically elected president from 1999 to 2007.
The longer version concerns his role in democratising the
country, handing over power to a civilian government in 1979
after three years in charge. He also spent three years in
prison for his criticism of Sani Abacha’s junta, being released
only after general’s death in 1998. Then there are the variety
of other accomplishments: as a military peacekeeper in the
Congo as a young man, and his prowess as a soldier during the
Nigerian civil war when the division under his command took
Owerri, effectively ending the war. There are, too, his
subsequent roles during, before and again after his
presidencies, from being chair of the African Union between
2004 and 2008, a member of the African Progress Panel, leader
of many election-monitoring missions, noted author, and active
participant in conferences and general good causes.
This past weekend the good and the great of Africa, including
some 20 serving and former heads of African governments and
international organisations, turned out to celebrate his career
(Disclosure: Part of that career has involved being
Chairman of the Brenthurst Foundation Advisory
Board) at the opening of the presidential library
bearing his name in Abeokuta in his home state of Ogun.
The complex, which houses a US-style museum, archive and
library alongside a hotel and conference venue, is an African
As the Governor of Ogun put it, the library is designed to
become a centrepiece of research and enquiry, “a rallying point
for progressive scholars” seeking to understand an increasingly
The principal address was given by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf,
speaking not only as president of Liberia but as chair of
Ecowas, the regional body.
Observing the “auspicious occasion”, she recalled the
motivation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in creating the first
American presidential library in 1941. To do so, she said,
would enable a nation not only to record the past, but to
possess the confidence to believe in their capacity to learn
from it, thus ensuring a better future.
In a quirk of history, Roosevelt’s great-granddaughter was part
of the American firm which designed the Olusegun Obasanjo
Presidential Library. More than 4,000 artefacts and 15-million
papers are preserved in the facility, the public display
notable for the series of cones, or “sound curtains”, that
narrate a son et lumiere experience of periods of the
president’s life to the visitor. It is a place where, as
Johnson-Sirleaf observed, “history and technology meet, and
where history comes alive in a dynamic reality”.
The facility has taken 12 years to plan and build. As the
consultant noted on his first meeting with the president eight
years ago, the site was “filled with lots of small buildings
and big dreams”.
It establishes a new tradition in public record-keeping in
Nigeria and the rest of Africa, in the process strengthening
the keeping of facts over the retention of mythology, in so
doing countering threats of political opportunism. While it is
the first such library, it would, he said, be a failure if it
was the last.
The event provided an opportunity for his peers to reflect,
publically, on “Baba’s” career and personal characteristics.
The facility does not filter difficult issues, including the
controversy around Obasanjo standing for a possible third term
in 2007. His “incredible capacity for courage and hard work”
was acknowledged by many, as was his sometimes “rough and ready
style of telling the truth”. Although at least one said they
“winced” at this at times, many also wished they had the
courage “to do the same”.
The Acting President of Nigeria Professor Yemi Osinbajo spoke
eloquently of Obasanjo as a “rare human being” whose “enduring
legacy was for a strong, detribalised Nigeria”. He noted, in
this regard, that the “more selfless the giving, the more
historic the contribution”.
The importance of leadership and selflessness was echoed by
Chief Emeka Anyaoku, who served as Secretary General of the
Commonwealth, who saw first-hand Obasanjo’s contribution to the
ending of apartheid, “not just through materiel support, but
also when it came to making peace”.
Obasanjo co-chaired the Commonwealth’s Eminent Persons’ Group
(EPG) that had, in 1986, sought to find a negotiated solution
to South Africa’s escalating violence.
His impact, says Anyaoku, was “immense” on “two grounds: First
because of his strong democratic credentials in handing over
power as a military ruler, and second, because of his status as
Anyaoku remembered an incident during the EPG mission. “I
remember well landing in Port Elizabeth to see the UDF. When we
got there they [the UDF] were nowhere to be found. We were told
we would not see them because of the presence of white security
officers in our delegation. I reported this to Obasanjo. He
immediately asked to see the leader of the security team, a
colonel, and ordered him, in no uncertain terms, to disband the
team. We then proceeded on our mission.”
Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan hailed Obasanjo as “not
just an African icon, but a global public good”, always ready
to help out, whether it be on peace-building, elections,
security, drug trafficking and much else. “I have never met
such an energetic and youthful 80-year-old,” he added, “one who
never says no to a challenge”.
Perhaps this explains why, laughed Sierra Leone’s President
Ernest Bai Koroma against himself, “It’s a mark of the man that
he could raise the funds, a long time after being president,
for such a library. I am not sure that, nearing the end of my
second term [elections are in 2018], that I could even do so
Photo: Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Ellen
Johnson-Sirleaf with Dr Greg Mills.
In an era when issues are complex and yet public trust in
politicians is shaky, it was left to Raila Odinga, the former
Kenyan prime minister, to sum up the feelings of those present
at the celebration when he said, quite simply, that Obasanjo
“was my hero”.
He spoke for me too. DM
Dr Mills heads the Brenthurst Foundation and, together with
President Obasanjo, Jeffrey Herbst and Dickie Davis, has just
published Making Africa Work: A Handbook for Economic
Success, the Nigerian edition of which was launched in
Abeokuta at the same time as the opening of the Presidential
Main photo: Former President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo,
speaks at the 52nd Security in Munich, Germany, 13 February
2016. The 52nd Security Conference, where foreign policy and
defence experts are meeting to discuss global crises continues
until 14 February 2016. EPA/SVEN HOPPE