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A Conversation With President Olusegun Obasanjo, Part 3 Of 3 – Re-Arming Leadership And Reinventing Democracy In Africa

(This is a report on the interview conducted with President Obasanjo on Jan. 31st, 2021) For its entire recording, see https://youtu.be/8_ue5Hvi1vY)

Photo: President Obasanjo’s statue in Owerri Tourist Centre, Imo State, Nigeria

In the pre-interview article I wrote about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, I promised to get our distinguished former President, His Excellency Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, on the Toyin Falola Interviews where, as someone who had been at the frontline tackling this post-colonial contraption, his thoughts on managing these horsemen could be heard. Well, I did. And as expected, the meeting, held on Zoom and broadcast live on YouTube, was fantastic. The insights covering the two hours and thirty-minutes meeting reflect critically on the African predicaments in the 21st century and how to move out of the quagmire. The elderly statesman responded to questions ranging from the post-colonial formation and implications of African borders, democracy, Chinese presence in Africa, corruption and leadership, youth engagement in governance, the restructuring debate in Nigeria, insecurity, elections, and lots more. If that terrific marauder in the name of COVID-19 had restricted our social activities in the realm of physical contact, the ingenious of Eric Yuan, Steve Chen, Mark Zuckerberg, and others brought us even closer. Eminent persons in the academics, media, public service, public space, as well as students and youth from Europe, America, and Africa, were thrown into the loop of the meeting and posed their questions to Chief Obasanjo.

Photo: African Union Building, Addis-Ababa

It is even more interesting in that those from the intellectual community, like Richard Joseph, who have critically written about Obasanjo’s administration and involvement in the Nigerian story, were present to further get a hold of the wisdom from the proverbial horse’s mouth. But like the scribe summing his teaching to his students, the Ebora of Owu would tell all to remain calm and not be given to despondency, as the key to breaking the niche of the four horsemen remains with the people. From the precarious abyss-looking Nigerian condition to which the likes of the brilliant former Deputy Governor of the Central of Bank of Nigeria, Dr. Mailafia Obadiah, were worriedly concerned to the systemic and increasing Chinese presence in Africa which bothered the Dean of the Veronica Adeleke School of Social Sciences at Babcock University, Professor Olajumoke Yacob-Haliso, and the significance of youth involvement in the democratization of Africa which falls in the constituency of youth curiosity given the cliché about the leaders of tomorrow, the above sums up Baba’s admonition and response to questions raised at the meeting. Liberalism and liberal democracy, he argued, are built on contesting interests that must be taken into consideration by the state. Therefore, in the case of Chinese activities, Africa cannot reasonably develop a phobia for colonization now, having been birthed from the process. But instead, these states can build solid structures and systems that protect the interests of their people in their bilateral and unilateral deals with Beijing.

Photo: Nelson Mandela

From the realist perspective, the school of thought in which Obasanjo addressed the issues of the time, Beijing will not close a deal with Africa or any African state with the paramount aim of changing the poverty dynamics in the region but in China. All developed countries stepped on the path of development when the states began to realize the potential of their population in engineering this process and initiated networks and systems that could help annex these potential entities. Tellingly, a different story cannot follow in Africa as development is essentially people-oriented. What a Chinese is worth abroad, like the American, is a plus or minus on the image of the Chinese government. China will protect this, even in the face of dire consequences for any of its partners, be it in India, the Philippines, Samoa, Taiwan, or any part of Africa. The simple and fundamental principle of state relations is that, as Obasanjo himself has long opined in one of his past writings, there is no permanent friend or enemy, but only permanent interests. Obasanjo posits that until this becomes the morning rhyme of those at the helm of state affairs in Africa before launching out to sign papers in which details are, at best, ambiguous, and at worse, “classified,” China will keep seizing ports, state media houses, and other notable infrastructures in Africa as part of the preparation and for the potential realization of a second colonization to “teach us a lesson.”

From the discussion, since most of what make up the norms of social relations, engagements and expectations in many African states, especially in the south of the Sahara, are pragmatized by people who have not seen their state constitution before, let alone read and digest the frames for their conduct or territorial integrity, the artificiality of African boundaries, though it might not be the best thing to happen to Africa, cannot and should not ordinarily have been the bane of post-colonial African predicaments. The problem of this, which in the case of Nigeria, was finalized by the 1914 restructuring of the British colony, lies heavily on the manipulation of these boundaries for political gains.

The former President recalled his experience in the southern part of Cameroon during his early days in the military, following a mission designated to his platoon, the 5th Battalion, to root out terrorists’ hideouts in the area and capture the leader. A family tried to cross what the state regarded as the border, but which the people regarded as the next village. This is indeed the story of many, like the people of Ketu in the present-day Republic of Benin, who were forced to live on a new identity by colonial machinations but still maintained their pre-colonial relations with their relatives and neighbors in present-day Nigeria. In the long-expression, virtually all the cultural groups that made up each “artificial” state in Africa have had varying levels of relations in the past and fought together for independence. Yet, ethnicity pitched towards religious differences choke the post-colonial system.

Photo: Kwame Nkrumah

According to Obasanjo, rethinking the political leadership in Africa thus requires all hands- on-deck for a debate on how to shift this space to illuminate good tidings for the population of Africa. From his own experience, he suggests that a firm root in economic matters and how the global system works should be made imperative for the recalibration of leadership and selection of people’s representatives in African states. This is more so considering that, like the rest of the world, Africa has grown past the age where direct democracy could be practiced at the village square, and the representative democracy practiced can only serve well if the few elected or appointed to lead the people are fully equipped with the ability to pursue their responsibilities which, due to the de-territorialization of states and peoples in the recent times, will inevitably be molded and remolded by global realities. It is imperative to add to that losing touch with these two important factors—economics and world politics—cost Africa its independence. Until their lands were forcibly taken from them and their titles, prestige, and livelihood threatened by European aggressive encroachment, post-1500 leaders in Africa were hardly aware of what was coming for them.

The 19th century unveiled the masquerade, and the rest is added to an already horrendously marginalized history of the people. Even though Africa has been badly treated in modern history and has contributed immensely to the advancement of cultures and civilizations around the world, Baba concludes that “the world owes us nothing,” but we owe ourselves a lot. Leadership in Africa needs the thorough attention of the people, the youth especially. In this case, the youth cannot complain of unemployment, the porous educational system, and neglect by the state when they are the ones who spearhead the manipulation of elections or refuse to take an active part in governance. On a general scale, the people of the state, through their unions and associations, cannot continue to demand their share of the national cake when the rots that obfuscate the adequate flow of this cake across the table persists because of their actions and inactions. To the political elites, keeping these rots have become the only thing of importance to protect as they serve their purpose of keeping many in poverty and distracted from issues affecting them so as to recycle themselves through the sheer ignorance that oozes from this system. Like many have said, President Obasanjo reiterates that nobody will hand over change to the people; they have to take it.

In as much as the problem with Africa goes beyond leadership but transcends to followership—the people, among whom leadership is taken—it will be insanity driven by macabre intent to lay the leading role in the reinvention of a society in the hands of the masses. The masses, as we know, share a mob orientation which deprives them of the ability to process information or ideas rationally and independently. And it was in the realization of this that the state emerged and the idea was sustained. Since the whole population cannot make collective decisions but chaos without a guiding authority, it behooves the peoples’ representatives to flock this population along the path of a social form and consciousness that fit into the well-conceived national interest/plan of the state. No doubt the people have a role to play, and that is to ensure that the right people are given positions of power. As the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, noted in 2018, the world is suffering from “trust deficit disorder.” This is even worse in Africa and other third world countries. Bridging the huge deficit of trust between African leaders and their subjects will require developing a national strategy or a grand norm to which all is committed.

Photo: Julius Nyerere

In the modern world, nothing retrogresses a nation more than policy inconsistency. There are two ways to this in Africa, as in elsewhere. One is the failure of the political leaders to follow through on their campaign promises and demands of a policy—if it were to be a viable one, anyway. The other is the lack of continuity in government. Whereas both scenarios are deeply at play in the Nigerian case, some African states like Cameroon and Uganda still suffer the consequences of the former. It was to the latter that Obasanjo concentrated as he responded to the question about the stunted growth of the Nigerian project and why his administration failed to lift Nigeria out of the Third World narrative. He cited the example of how his successors left equipment worth millions of dollars, meant for the generation of increased electricity supply in the country, to damage at the port where they had arrived from the United States. More unfortunate is that to get these expensive gadgets working again, they have to be taken back to the States for servicing at another huge cost to the country. Yet, the country wallows in darkness, limiting the choices of investors, and ensuring a weakling local industrial drive.

Another case in point is the relegation of cocoa production which had increased from about 150,000 metric tons per year to about 400,000 during his eight-years rule as a civilian president. Only about half of this is left in the yearly production of the country. Subsequent leaders have seemingly acceded to the plea of President Kufuor of Ghana to Obasanjo during his tenure, to leave cocoa production for Ghana since Nigeria is blessed with oil. He cited these and many more as examples to drive home his point about the tedious task of leadership, which he described as an obligation to serve God. As he noted, “You cannot serve God without serving humanity.” Of course, the call to lead is the call to serve through the three tenets he gave as justice, fairness, and equality. To achieve this in the face of a blinking democratic future in Africa is, as he said, to inject new tonic into the democratization process of states in the region. This tonic, we have highlighted above in the reinvention of state-societal relations. We are reminded that though democracy might not be a perfect model of governance, and the applicability of this form of government in Africa over the years is only a matter of metrics or magnitude that only vary from one place to the other in their deficient forms, it is still the only system that could generate a sense of belonging among the people.

As development and democracy are deprived of a destination but is an endless road of consistent actions and consequences through which the state is adjudged, Obasanjo admonished all to keep pressing for a viable democratic space in Africa. “Leadership re-arming,” as he puts it, will ensure that Nigeria remains the bastion of hope for Africa and the entire black race. The country is not only blessed with a population that makes it the largest concentration of Black people in the world but also of natural endowments and towering, stellar figures. Many have identified the restructuring of the governance morphology in Nigeria as the way forward from its peculiar mess. While Obasanjo agreed with this, he emphasized the ambiguity of the restructuring movement to articulate his stand on the issue. “What you call restructuring, I call devolution of power, resources, and responsibilities.” This came up when he was reminded that he had the opportunity to effect this change, to which he responded by reminding all that never at any time had the country had it this bad economically, socially, and politically, breathing life to the restructuring debate. More so, restructuring had been consistently taken by the state from the colonial times, one of the earliest forms of which was mentioned earlier in the 1914 amalgamation of the northern and the southern protectorates.

Photo: Professor Akinwumi Adesina and President Olusegun Obasanjo at the World Food Prize

Obasanjo’s government adjusted the allocation formula for states but failed to encourage a structure that could make these states self-sufficient and contributing entities to the federal government coffers. Therefore, as he admitted in the meeting, the restructuring needed now would mean that federating units are viable enough on their own to take more responsibilities from the concurrent list. With the pace of insecurity and the rise of local militias and the reign of vigilante groups in various parts of Nigeria, he described state policing as an overdue part of the imminent restructuring of Nigeria but disregarded the need for a National Guard on the ground that creating more security units will not resolve the insecurity in the nation. This is given precedent in the making of the various units of the Nigerian police and their effectiveness in the face of the outcry by the people to scrap some of these units like the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) which had turned into Special Robbery Squad.

Bringing together people from different walks of life in a meeting like this with President Olusegun Obasanjo can only attune to the depth of discussions and analysis, some of which have been adumbrated here. Our next guest on the Toyin Falola Interviews is Dr. Awolowo Dosumu to examine the legacy of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, to be followed by Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah. Both will offer resourceful engagement with the African condition in the world and the way forward from another front-runner in the African project.

We thank President Olusegun Obasanjo and the distinguished members of the audience for the time joyously spent with us on the interview. We look forward to more insightful interactions like this soon.

Photo: My Watch, a book written by Olusegun Obasanjo
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