Despite the heavy toll that COVID-19 is taking on communities and families, Professor Toyin Falola has turned the challenge into an opportunity to present socially distanced interviews with eminent personalities. On January 31, he presented a live interview via Zoom with former Nigerian President, H.E. Olusegun Obasanjo. 1,312 signed in to listen to the interview and to ask questions —over 200 by zoom, and the rest by Facebook and YouTube. The scene was set with Ghanaian Highlife music, probably Obasanjo’s favorite, and with the Neo Afrobeat that Falola loves.
The increasingly youthful Obasanjo joked that Falola is greying and should start dyeing his hair but careful observers would notice that Obasanjo drank lots of water during the interview to reveal the secret of his youthful appearance.
In answer to the very first question from Mr. Dare Babarinsa, one of the founders of Tell Magazine, Chief Obasanjo delved into his memory of growing up and why he chose to join the military. He revealed that the military was not a popular career choice because, at that time, it was believed that only those who did not do well joined the military. Today, the military officers are highly educated at home and abroad and some families now have a military tradition for some children to follow.
The military turned out to be an adventure for Obasanjo because the British colonizers posted him to the border with Cameroon to guard against suspected ‘terrorists’ – an apparent reference to the Bamileke warriors who were fighting for independence from France in the 1950s. Obasanjo did not say if he felt like a traitor when he was deployed against fellow Africans who were fighting for independence from colonialism. Obasanjo also shared his observation as part of the UN Peacekeeping force that was in place when Patrice Lumumba was overthrown kidnapped and assassinated in the Congo under his watch.
He said that he quickly found out as a soldier that the colonial boundaries were artificial because he saw a group of young men trying to cross the border and he stopped them. They told him that there was no border there because people on both sides were the same culture and that they were only going to get married in the next village. Obasanjo should have known that but his missionary school tried to exclude politics from the curriculum. There was a Nigerian political party that was also fighting for Independence on both sides – National Council for Nigeria and Cameroun, NCNC. If he believed that the colonial boundaries are artificial, that must have been why he commendably resolved the Bakassi Peninsula conflict legally with Cameroun without going to war.
Obasanjo said that he used his discretion to let the young men cross the artificial boundary. On their way back with their brides, they brought him presents of kola nut and other things. Makes one wonder if that was the origin of the demand for kola at checkpoints by security agents or why Fela Kuti went on to name Obasanjo among the International Tief Tief decades later.
Professor Falola asked him why he chose individuals that were perceived to be weak to succeed him, perhaps to carve a power niche for himself even after leaving office. He denied the charge and pointed out that the health certificate of President Umaru Yara’dua was vetted by top doctors whop pronounced him fit to lead with a successful kidney transplant. He also admitted that Peter Odili would have made a stronger Vice President and eventual President than President Goodluck Jonathan but that Odili had issues with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, making him to nominate Jonathan.
Professor Olajumoke Yacob-Haliso, Dean of Faculty of Social Science at Babcock University, followed up with questions about the prospects for, and challenges to, liberal democracy in Nigeria, Africa and the rest of the world. Obasanjo replied that Democracy is the best system of government even though no system of government is perfect. He indicated that what we have is representative democracy and not the type of direct democracy found in ancient Greek city states because the populations of modern states are too large for everyone to gather in the village square to debate and vote. He could have added that the Igbo still approximate direct democracy despite Obasanjo’s attempt to truncate it by imposing traditional rulers on the radically republican Igbo in 1976 when he was a military dictator.
Obasanjo said that he supported the presence of China in Africa but hopes that the Chinese would train Africans to work with them even if they bring some of their own workers from China for language and communication reasons. He rejected the suggestion that China is our new colonial master and opined that we should seek to increase direct foreign investments from any source without waiting for others to dictate who should be our friends or enemies. He should have taken this a step further and called for Chinese immigrants to be given a path to citizenship in a united and more powerful Peoples Republic of Africa.
Professor Nimi Wariboko of Boston University asked him the significance of his dissertation at the Open University on theological philosophy of leadership. He answered that he saw Jesus Christ as his model of the servant leader. Was Jesus really a servant leader or the Master, the Good Shepherd, the Savior, according to his followers? It takes a dictator like Obasanjo to see even Jesus as his servant in his doctoral dissertation and still pass the defense rather than flunk.
Two young Nigerians students, one in London and another in Abuja, took turns to ask him what Falola predicted would be tough questions. They asked him about fairness and justice and what could be done to improve conditions of people in Nigeria. Perhaps, his answers were not satisfactory because the same question was raised again at the end by Chido Onumah, author of We Are All Biafrans Now, with reference to the Nigeria Biafra war and what could be done to finally go beyond No Victor No Vanquished and bring the hostilities to a final end.
Obasanjo answered that fairness demands that even when people do not vote for you, democracy demands that you will be the president of all Nigerians. Instead of saying that you will give more to those who voted more for you as President Buhari publicly promised, he said that the Yoruba, his own people, did not vote for him in 1999 but that he did not discriminate against them in public appointments. He only head-hunted capable people like Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to help lobby and negotiate for Nigeria’s foreign debts to be bought back.
He joked that someone recently asserted that he is not a Yoruba man and suggested that he is an Igbo man but he does not know what part of his name sounds like an Igbo name. Unknown to him, his surname is pronounced Obusonjo by some in Igbo, meaning is it only evil?
Obasanjo wrongly asserted that only the Igbo who were born after the Biafra war were the ones who seem bitter about the condition of Nigeria. As he rightly knows, it is not the Igbo youth who are waging terrorist attacks against Nigeria in the North East. Nor are they the ones armed in the Niger Delta to demand resource control, nor are they among those in the Middle Belt, Southern Kaduna, and Western Nigeria waging battles of survival against onslaughts by armed Fulani cattle herders.
Obasanjo should have used the opportunity of the interview to apologize to the Igbo for the genocide against them carried out by officers like Obasanjo himself in alliance with the British government and the Soviet Union that facilitated it with the supply of arms and through the use of ‘starvation as a legitimate weapon of wear’. Obasanjo should support the call for Igbo reparations and also support the call for a national referendum on the future of Nigeria, the same way that Scotland has been conducting such a referendum without anyone being shot dead.