Friday, 03 March 2017 00:01

Tribute to Obasanjo at 80 - Afe Babalola

Nature and history have their peculiar ways of shaping the destiny of a man or a nation. For Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR), the courageous, fearless, highly cerebral elder statesman, who turns 80  on Sunday, the combination of nature and history has been generous and kind to him. Here is a lucky gentleman; a compatriot; a protagonist of hard work and decency; a man who could equally be controversial and often be misunderstood; who has had the rare opportunity of ruling the country twice; first as a Military Head of State between February 13, 1976 and October 1, 1979 and later as a democratically elected President from May 29, 1999 and May 29, 2007 – a privilege not granted many.

Writing about Obasanjo, a multi-talented and many-sided man, at 80, may not be exactly easy. But having known the celebrant closely for almost four decades now, I can say that what stands this leader of men and astute manager of resources out, is his patriotism, determination, selflessness and his strength of character to use his office and indeed, his all, for the achievement of the good of the majority. 

He is a dogged fighter who will stop at nothing to pursue any course he believes in. He is honest, diligent and forthright as well as always willing and available to help others grow and flourish.

I must confess that my interaction with the celebrant transcends mere lawyer-client relationship. In my estimation and assessment of this great African and citizen of the world of Nigerian extraction, I have been able to establish that he is unique in many ways. Apart from being a very intelligent person who is endowed with enormous skills and an uncommon knack for hard work, Obasanjo, although not a polymath; knows something about virtually everything under the heavens. Nothing takes him unawares as he has ready answers to nearly all questions anyone might pose.

It is a well-known fact that Obasanjo is intolerant of mediocre, loafers and the indolent as well as meddlers. He does not believe any work should be left for the next day and that accounts for why he works for an average of 22 hours a day, four hours above my own average of 18 hours per day. No wonder he said in his book entitled:  “Akanda Eda: The Story of Olusegun Obasanjo” that “if you have anything to do, do it (now because) procrastination and delay kill slowly, steadily (and) surely. Invariably, there is no better time than now. The opportune time you are waiting for will never come”. He sees no alternatives to hard work.

Every leader anywhere in the world has a record which contains the deeds and misdeeds of the leader in question. As for Obasanjo, his achievements may not be appreciated now, but the time will come in the nearest future when his numerous achievements when he was at the steering wheel of the affairs of the country will be appreciated and openly discussed.

Apart from being the first Nigerian ruler (military or civilian) to willingly relinquish power to a democratically elected civilian government in 1979, Obasanjo recorded another “first” in 2007, when he, again, handed over power to a civilian government elected by the Nigerian electorate vide successful general elections. His mid-wifing two successful transitions in 1979 and 2007 in a politically volatile country like Nigeria is a monumental achievement by any standard. 

What is more, the first hand-over was military to civilian while the second happened to be civilian to civilian, both of which had never happened in Nigeria prior to those periods. And that means yet another first for Obasanjo.

Viewed from whichever standpoint, the history of stability of Nigeria today would be incomplete without the major contributions of this man of unusual courage. It can therefore be safely said that Obasanjo remains the pivot upon which the political stability of Nigeria revolves.

At the dawn of democracy in 1999, I had the strong belief that Nigeria needed a courageous, bold, fearless and a quick-witted person like Obasanjo to lay a proper foundation for a lasting civilian government to prevent the military making another incursion into governance in Nigeria.

The record of Obasanjo’s legacy will certainly not be complete without touching certain sectors like Education reform, Telecommunication reform (the allocation of the first two GSM networks in which I was personally involved), external debt reduction, the Banking Industry, Foreign Reserve, Agriculture, Electricity and Transportation reform. Today, most Nigerians can communicate via cell phones. It was one of Obasanjo’s monumental achievements while in office.

In the realm of education, Obasanjo’s government left indelible marks on the sands of times by increasing the number of schools generally and allowing private universities to thrive for the first time and were able to compete fiercely with the established universities during his tenure. This allowed the several millions of students angling for admission into tertiary institutions to have alternative choices.

In 2003, university administrators in this country discovered that many of the students admitted into Nigerian universities through the Joint Admimission Matriculation Borad (JAMB) were not only academically deficient, they could not justify the high marks scored in JAMB examinations. Cases abound whereby JAMB examination papers were being openly compromised and sold to students at examination centres while some examination centres, mischievously dubbed “miracle centres”, were openly but unofficially designed to guarantee high marks for some candidates.

The most pathetic aspect of this duplicity is that it was later found out that most of these students with such high marks were unable to cope academically upon their being admitted to the universities.

It was at this point of this national embarrassment that the Committee of Pro Chancellors of Nigerian Universities under my chairmanship, met in Abuja, x-rayed the cankerworm and recommended to Obasanjo that JAMB should be scrapped because the integrity of its examinations had been called to question.

However, Obasanjo in his wisdom, decided to adopt a middle way approach to the matter by saying that JAMB should continue to be and conduct its business of qualifying examinations to tertiary institutions in Nigeria while Post UTME should be introduced. 

This translates to the fact that JAMB will be used as the basis for admission into Nigerian universities, but the universities are free to conduct screening exercises, which include administering questions in relevant courses, for their would-be students.

I must say here that it takes only a very courageous personality like Obasanjo to take the type of bold decisions he took against the backdrop of the avalanche of pressure, intimidation and threats from various powerful quarters in the country then. 

I salute his courage because today, we have a better story to tell. Some modicum of sanity has since returned to our universities.

Perhaps no other area recorded astounding leaps like the economy under his leadership. What he did was to lay a solid foundation for future economic development and stability of the country. Subsectors like oil & gas, banking and customs (to mention just a few), recorded quantum leaps and total overhaul. Never in the history of Nigeria has the banking industry witnessed such a total transfiguration in terms of capitalisation and mergers for effective and customer-friendly operation.

Just like he did during his first coming as a military Head of State, Obasanjo built a strong foreign reserve for the country, so much so that as at the time he handed over in 2007, Nigeria’s foreign reserve stood at over $40 billion, the first time Nigeria would record such a feat! Closely related to this is Obasanjo’s realisation of the futility of building a strong economy, providing infrastructural facilities and a robust foreign reserve without addressing the behemoth called external debt. 

In his well-known persona, he took up the gauntlet to address the issue without minding whose ox was gored. He took the so-called creditors one after the other. First he pleaded for debt forgiveness. When this did not work, he opted for debt reduction.

After a series of negotiations laden with robust diplomatic acumen, Obasanjo succeeded in striking a fair deal for the country. The payment of Nigeria’s debt to the London and Paris Clubs brought succour to the populace. 

This is understandable bearing in mind the colossal amount Nigeria was spending annually in the name of debt-servicing. And yet, the so-called debt kept on soaring by geometric progression while the nation’s economy grew by arithmetic progression.

At the international scene, because of his administration’s deliberate policy to make Africa the centre-piece of its foreign policy during his first coming as Nigerian leader (1976-1979), he gained international repute through his efforts to end white minority rule in South Africa and Zimbabwe and by supporting neighbouring states such as Angola and Mozambique.

Since leaving office, Obasanjo has used his Otta-based African Leadership Forum to dissect and synthetize sensitive international and diplomatic issues to engender peace and good governance in the world. In appreciation of his global appeal and commitment to peace, Obasanjo, the international trouble-shooter, was at some point appointed Special Envoy by former United Nations (UN) Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, to the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo where he held separate meetings with DRC’s President Joseph Kabila and Rebel Leader, Laurent Nkunda.

The above notwithstanding, we have our areas of differences particularly as they affect the structure of the country and how it should be run. Whereas Obasanjo believes in the present structure with so much concentration of power at the centre, I hold a different view as I am an unrepentant believer in a loose federation. There is therefore the need for a total restructuring of the country’s constitution as it stands today.

I was not surprised when I read in the media earlier this week that Obasanjo is still maintaining his position of not believing in the convocation of a Sovereign National Conference (SNC). He even went a step further by saying that he did not bother to read the report of the last one organised by President Goodluck Jonathan.

His belief and position notwithstanding, the present state of affairs in the country make it imperative for him to change his mind in favour of the convocation of a SNC, particularly as the issue is more compelling now than ever before having regard to the failure of the presidential system of government and its attendant concentration of too much power at the centre. One does not need a soothsayer to know that all is not well with our country today, the reason being that the centre is too powerful, leaving the component states rather weak as a result of which they can hardly contribute to the economy of the country.

Most regretfully, he did not read the report of the last Conference. If he had, he would have found out most of the ills he had always wanted addressed in that report.

It is important to stress here that Nigerians need a people’s constitution to be ratified by the people themselves through a referendum and not by the National Assembly that will not allow any radical change in the pseudo-unitary constitution bequeathed on us by the military because the National Assembly members are the beneficiaries.

In view of the myriads of problems now steering the country in the face which have confirmed my position, I call on my beloved Brother Obasanjo, now that he is 80, to use his position and clout to ensure that the country convenes a SNC for the purpose of redefining the terms of our union, the outcome of which should be subjected to the Referendum of the people and not to the National Assembly which will not be able to do justice to it.

Nigeria is a huge country with multitude of tribes and scores of ethnic groupings, speaking over 250 languages and dialects. 

There is a multiplicity of religious beliefs, varied cultural backgrounds, social exposures, and political antecedents among others. The essence of the SNC is to afford these people the opportunity to frankly marshal their differences, fears and commonalities.

It is my humble submission that no election should take place in this country until the convocation of the SNC which will create an opportunity for the country to discuss the various ills afflicting the country after the military set aside the constitution governing the country when they took over power in 1966.

Having said all these, as the world unite in joy and élan to celebrate Obasanjo at 80, he should see and acknowledge the attainment of the matured age of 80 as a special grace from the Almighty God and a veritable opportunity for him to do more in his service to a nation which he loves so much and indeed to humanity, the fulcrum of his dream.

While congratulating him most heartily on this momentous occasion, I wish him good health and peace of heart as well as divine wisdom to continue the good works and to continually be relevant in the scheme of things in Nigeria, and beyond.

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