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Olusegu Obasanjo
General Olusegun Obasanjo


President Olusegun Obasanjo

General Olusegun Obasanjo was born in Ogun State, in March 1937. Trained in Nigeria, India, Britain and the United States

Obasanjo again received the mandate to lead Nigeria out of military dictatorship with a majority of more than seven million votes over his opponent Chief Olu Falae in the February 27 election. He polled nearly 63 per cent of the votes according to the final figures.

From the time he declared his intention to contest the election in November last year, no one in Nigeria seriously doubted that Obasanjo would win. For sure many people queried the rationale of the military regime being succeeded by a civilian government led by a former military ruler. And many referred darkly to the fact that that he was the candidate favoured (and backed to the tune of millions of naira) by a coterie of rich and influential military men.

However, the competence Obasanjo demonstrated when he was military Head of State between 1976 and 1979, and the fact that it was he who, in 1979, organised elections and handed over power to civilian president Alhaji Shehu Shegari, were factors which many Nigerians regarded as crucial. Indeed the slogan of his successful campaign was: "He will do it again", the inference being that at the end of his presidency he will hand power to another elected government and not be overthrown by a military coup.

If the election results are to be believed, Nigerians agreed with the People's Democratic Party (PDP) campaign managers that Obasanjo is the leader most likely to rescue their nation from economic decay, ethnic political distrust and international opprobrium and lead it back to the glorious days when Nigeria was seen as an African giant: wealthy, influential, confident and riding high. But the question remains: can he really do it? It is a question many Nigerians are asking. Their future depends on it.

So Nigerians have been closely analysing Obasanjo's record to see what clues his career and his public statements might reveal about his potential.

Obasanjo is from a humble background. He comes from Abeokuta in Ogun State, about 100km from Lagos in the south-west of Nigeria. Born in 1937 into a Baptist family, he sought a career in the military because his parents could not afford to send him for higher education. He enlisted in the Nigerian Army in 1958 and was trained at the Mons Officer Cadet School, Aldershot, England. On his return to Nigeria he specialised in military engineering and his army career progressed steadily (see panel).

Obasanjo's first political appointment was as federal commissioner for Works and Housing in January 1975. He held that office for seven months before the government was toppled in a palace coup. He then became the number two man under the new Head of State, General Murtala Muhammed, who initiated a programme for a return to democracy. Six months later General Muhammed was assassinated in another coup attempt. When the dust settled, Obasanjo was elevated to the top job.

During his three years as Head of State, Obasanjo worked hard and apparently sincerely to create a Nigeria of proud and industrious people. He committed Nigeria fully to the anti-apartheid crusade, giving diplomatic, political and military support to the freedom movements in southern Africa. He involved university academics in the formulation and execution of foreign policy.

At home Obasanjo introduced a series of economic austerity measures, at the same time giving priority to education and health. He discouraged the culture of ethnic favouritism and promoted high work ethics. It was Obasanjo, too, who pushed for the transfer of the nation's capital from the congested city of Lagos to Abuja, and got most of the planning work completed before he left office. Many Nigerians still regard his brief interregnum as a period of exemplary good governance.

Certainly Obasanjo crowned his achievements in office with a single-minded pursuit of the transition back to civilian government. This transition was a difficult and challenging process. Many Nigerians thought that the death of General Muhammed would require a postponement of the handover date. To everyone's amazement and delight, Obasanjo stuck to the original programme, handing over to an elected government on schedule on October 1, 1979. He then retired from the army, saying he would never seek public office again.

After his retirement, Obasanjo set up business as a commercial farmer with the same energy and single-mindedness he had displayed in office. His Obasanjo Farms project was one of the biggest and most diversified in Nigeria. Side by side with his farming business, he took an active interest in international affairs. He established the African Leadership Forum - through which he organised international workshops on African problems. He was a member of several international, UN, Commonwealth and other agencies. He contested, unsuccessfully, for election as secretary-general of the UN.

During this time Nigeria's decline was as precipitous as it was total. A succession of military regimes stripped Nigeria of its wealth, influence and confidence. The worst came under Sani Abacha whose unprincipled behaviour was an eye-opener to even the most cynical of Nigerians. Social services and the economy, already in a state of epilepsy, were finally knocked into the deepest of comas. The regime became ever more inventive in finding ways of silencing its opponents through imprisonment, blackmail, intimidation and even murder.

Obasanjo himself was one of the most prominent victims of the Abacha regime. Only last June he was languishing in prison, having been convicted of being privy to a coup plot allegedly masterminded by a group of military officers. Obasanjo was condemned to death by a military tribunal. The international outcry against the trial persuaded Abacha to commute the sentence to 15 years' imprisonment. Obasanjo had served three years of the sentence when Abacha died suddenly and mysteriously on June 8 last year. Abacha's successor and the godfather of Nigeria's latest stab at transition to civilian rule, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, promptly released Obasanjo and granted him a state pardon. The stage was thus set for his re-entry into politics.

Obasanjo, who is now 61 years old, certainly has his work cut out. At his post-election press conference, he outlined the huge task ahead of him and the expectations of the Nigerian people: to restore the nation's dignity, to revitalise the political institutions, to reinvigorate the economy, to combat a growing crime wave, to stamp out corruption, and ensure justice and equity for all.

One pressing decision will be what to do about the disastrous regional legacy of military rule. Nigerian soldiers are today dying in a brutal war in Sierra Leone where the rationale for Nigeria's expensive military intervention is by no means clear cut. Obasanjo has indicated that he wants to see Nigerian troops out of the war-torn West African country as soon as possible, but he has stopped short of issuing a deadline. In the medium term he is likely to try to get more involved in diplomatic efforts to promote Nigeria's interests in the wider African context and beyond. The president-elect's personal relationship with several African leaders, especially in southern Africa, may bring a new partnership between Nigeria and the leading African nations. The aim of such a partnership would be to promote issues affecting the continent in international fora.

At home Obasanjo, who is a strong advocate and (in his business days) a practitioner of private enterprise, has declared that will seek to curb official corruption drastically and breathe new life to the crumbled economy. That in itself is a tall order at a time when Nigeria lies paralysed by the vice-like grip of corruption and when the slump in oil prices heralds a deepening recession and balance-of-payments crisis.

Every sector of society has its own expectations. Village farmers hope that he can restore a measure of sanity to the agricultural sector. They want a steady supply of pesticides and other agricultural inputs at competitive prices. Parents want the new leadership to tackle the acute problems of the education sector head on and quickly. Schools lack infrastructure.

Teachers are poorly paid and unmotivated. The people of the Niger Delta areas want the new leader to resolve the problems of environmental degradation and pollution and to compensate them adequately for the oil exploitation in their areas. All Nigerians want drastic improvements in social services, they want the economy to improve, they want industry to get back on its feet, they want to see job creation, they want justice and fairness. People want a lot. And if Obasanjo turns out not to be able to provide what they want, they also want a chance to get him out at the next election and let someone else have a go.

So perhaps Obasanjo's most difficult job will be to keep the military at arm's length for long enough for civilian rule and democratic institutions to put down firm roots. Some see Obasanjo's own military connections as an advantage here. According to this theory, his is a sort of a transitional mandate. He combines a proven commitment to democracy and principled governance with a shrewd understanding of the internal workings of the military power structures which have dominated Nigeria for so long. But it will be a delicate balancing act: all those generals and retired generals did not bankroll his election campaign just out of love of democracy. They are likely to want something in return.

There is a proverb which goes: "he who sups with the devil should use a long spoon". Nigeria has yet to exorcise the devils from its body politic. So Nigerians should hope that Obasanjo has some long spoons up his sleeve.

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