An interview with Olusegun Obasanjo: Up close and a little too personal
Nigeria’s former president on Buhari, Biafra and bloody idiots.
As the lift in his luxury London hotel rushes upwards to the 11th floor, Olusegun Obasanjo squeezes my arm warmly as he recounts his busy schedule of late. His aide and two PR people nod approvingly as he talks of his jet-setting across Africa, his upcoming appointment with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and his trip to New York straight after.
With a new book to promote, the former Nigerian president from 1999 to 2007 has been busy. So too has the PR firm behind the book, offering him up for interviews far and wide.
Obasanjo can certainly handle it. Aged 80, he may look like a cuddly grandfather. But he still has plenty of fuel in his tank and fire in his belly, as I am to find out later this morning.
As we enter his hotel suite, an American news channel is blaring on the television. He instructs his aide to turn it down but not off. “I won’t know how to turn it on”, he says. His assistant shows him the big red button on the remote before pressing it. The screen goes black. “Now how will I turn it back on?” the former president asks, a touch irritated. The aide quietly reassures him that he’ll personally see to it as soon as the interview is over.
Obasanjo’s new book, Making Africa Work, describes itself as “a guide to improving Africa’s capacity for economic growth and job creation”. Co-written with Greg Mills, Jeffrey Herbst and Dickie Davis, it provides a detailed overview of various political and economic challenges facing the continent. It warns of a growing youth bulge, and provides dozens of recommendations on how to encourage the private sector, diversify the economy and deliver forward-thinking leadership.
As we sit down across the small table in his plush hotel room, I start by asking Obasanjo how well his own president, Muhummadu Buhari, has been faring on these fronts since coming to office in 2015. One thing the two men have in common is the extent to which they polarise opinion, though Obasanjo here is unrelentingly equivocal.
“Buhari has made some announcements. He has tried to keep on going in the area of agribusiness, but not enough,” he says, slowly and cautiously. “It is not yet enough to prepare the ground for uninhibited growth of the economy, which we need”.
“Not enough” seems a sparse and generous reading of an administration that has presided over Nigeria’s first recession in 25 years, rising youth unemployment, and endless policy deadlocks. But even when pushed on specifics, Obasanjo picks his words carefully as he repeats familiar combinations of faint praise and sympathetic criticism of the man he backed for office.
“Is Buhari doing enough about it?” he asks at one point of youth unemployment. “I don’t believe he is. Can he do enough about it? Of course he can.”
Obasanjo’s vague and uncommitted answers contrast with the book he just co-wrote, which packs a handful of statistics into virtually every paragraph and offers dozens of recommendations. But the former president does eventually hone in on one specific: Nigeria’s frustrated young people.
The median age of Nigeria’s population is under 18, and the youth demographic continues to swell. There aren’t enough jobs for them, and if Obasanjo were back in office, his priority would be education. “Youth empowerment, skill acquisition and youth employment – education must be able to do that,” he insists. “If you do that, the ticking bomb of possible youth explosion out of restiveness and anger will subside.”
Obasanjo attributes young people’s frustrations to many of Nigeria’s problems today, including the ongoing agitation in the south-east. Over the past couple years, the region has witnessed widespread protests, violence and military intervention as calls for some states to secede as the independent nation of Biafra have grown in volume.
The former president maintains that secession is not the solution, and says that the government’s military interventions – through which hundreds have reportedly been killed – have “made things worse”. But he accepts that young activists have real grievances.
“All youth in Nigeria have legitimate reasons to feel frustrated and angry,” he offers. “The protesters don’t even know what the struggle is all about, but if it gives them false hope, why not hang onto it?”
What would be his solution to the escalating crisis over calls for secession?
“Let the elders handle it or ignore it until it loses momentum,” he counsels. “There are elders in any community who are still respected…After all, they’re their fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, and can still be used effectively.”
Empowering old people may seem a counterintuitive approach to resolving a problem he ascribes to young people’s sense of disempowerment, but it is perhaps fitting advice from a man trying to carve out his own role as an elder statesman.
I ask Obasanjo whether devolution of powers could also help assuage the regional disillusionment. The idea of “true federalism” and “restructuring” has recently escalated into one of Nigeria’s main hot button political issues, with politicians, commentators and the media all debating the topic at length.
But at this, the former president sits up and fixes me with a stare from across the table.
“I don’t believe in true federalism. What is true federalism?”, he asks. The man whose tendency in office was always to centralise rather than decentralise power is suddenly bristling. He interrupts with more questions as I respond.
“Why are they not accountable? What powers do they not have?”, he interjects. “They have power,” he insists, poking his finger, claiming that in all but a few sectors, states can do whatever they want.
“In fact, state governors are more powerful than the president. That’s the truth,” he says. “If anybody tells you they want devolution or true federalism, he doesn’t know what he is talking about.” With an audible huff, he leans back.
A broad range of current and former lawmakers, civil society groups, and millions of Nigerians would beg to differ. So too would the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), which Obasanjo backed in 2015, at least in its manifesto, which pledged to “amend our constitution with a view to devolving powers”.
But a frustrated Obasanjo doubles down. “The fact anybody talks about it doesn’t mean it’s right.”
In Nigeria, Obasanjo’s eight years in office remain highly controversial.
On the one hand, those who see him as a saviour can certainly point to some impressive successes. Coming to power in 1999, he inherited a country that was fragile, coup-prone, indebted and corrupt.
In response, he defanged and professionalised the army. His government tamed rampant inflation, earned debt relief, and built up considerable foreign exchange reserves. And he established the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), a body that went on to prosecute various high-profile figures – something many Nigerians never thought could happen – and recover billions of dollars in the process.
Obasanjo’s supporters argue that, unlike his predecessors, he left the country in better shape than he found it. That’s no mean feat.
But on the other hand, Obasanjo’s critics have no shortage of ammunition either.
They point out that his macroeconomic successes depended on high oil prices and did little to improve the lives of the vast majority of Nigerians. They complain that Obasanjo imposed a handpicked successor – the relatively inexperienced Umaru Musa Yar’Adua who died three years into his first term – on the country in chaotic elections in order to maintain his influence.
Obasanjo’s critics also say that the EFCC ended up being a politically-wielded weapon and that, if anything, systems of corruption ossified under his watch. The House of Representatives recently labelled Obasanjo the “grandfather of corruption”, while the EFCC’s former chair is reported to have said corruption under Obasanjo was worse than under his notoriously self-enriching military predecessor.
Ten years after he stepped down, Obasanjo still divides opinion. Many Nigerians – both those who love and hate him – wish he would retire gracefully on his farm. But that doesn’t seem to be on the cards in the foreseeable future. The 80-year-old continues to pull strings and enjoys significant influence within Nigeria’s complex political web.
As Nigeria approaches the 2019 elections, for example, the question of who Obasanjo will back has been subject to much speculation. Buhari has been ill for much of his time in office and wannabe successors, of which there is no shortage, have been positioning themselves carefully.
Obasanjo is tight-lipped on this front. “I don’t cross a bridge until I get to it,” he states.
One thing that seems clear, however, is that he won’t be supporting his former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar. The two fell out in dramatic fashion in 2007. This month, there have been growing suggestions that Abubakar is lining up to run in 2019. Two days before I spoke to Obasanjo, the former VP had issued a challenge, calling on anyone with evidence of his corruption to come forwards now.
When I ask whether he will respond to this challenge, Obasanjo is unmoved. “Read my book”, he says, blinking at me. Is Abubakar corrupt? Is he fit for presidential office? Would you support him?
“Read my book”, he repeats in answer to each follow-up, unafraid to let his silence fill the room.
By his “book”, Obasanjo is not referring to the carefully-researched and co-written Making Africa Work, but his autobiography My Watch. Published in 2015, it comes in three volumes, extends to 1,578 pages full of copy-and-pasted speeches and reports, and is the size of a small watermelon. I have not read it.
Obasanjo refuses to speak further about Abubakar as we sit in his hotel room, but the former president is not usually known for holding his tongue. He is certainly not afraid to pick fights and condemn his opponents in public. However, the reverse is also true: many Nigerians continue to demand that he be held accountable for his time in office too.
As one might expect of a man who has published 2.2kg worth of autobiography – not including previous memoirs My Command and Not My Will – Obasanjo is highly sensitive when questions over his legacy are raised.
“Come off it. I had the largest poultry farm before I became president, the largest in Africa. The fact I have N20,000 in my account does not mean I’m not wealthy,” he snaps, referring to questions over how he came to be a multi-millionaire despite having just a few dollars when he entered office. “Do you understand that?”
When talking about abstract policy, Obasanjo tried to stay in ponderous elder statesman mode, but the moment his own reputation is under scrutiny, he switches to street-fighter mode. He turns to attack and starts pre-emptively answering questions I haven’t even asked.
What’s your response to people who say that while you were in off-. “My response is that while I was in office, all sorts of accusations were made!”
When your successor came into office, he-. “My successor was ignorant! Totally ignorant.”
I raise the ongoing problem of electricity supply in Nigeria, and lessons learnt from his efforts in office, but he interrupts before I can finish again. “That is absolute nonsense. There was a report from the House of Representatives that proved that wrong… So what the hell are you talking about?”
I’m no longer sure. But what he is now talking about are ongoing allegations that much of the $16 billion spent on electricity under his watch was lost through corruption. Incidentally, contrary to his claim, the report he says “totally absolved” him in fact recommended he be investigated and be “called to account for the recklessness in the power sector during his time”.
It’s around this time that the PR person, who has been sitting dutifully in the corner, proposes that now might be an apposite time to wrap up. The former president and I agree, but he is not quite done.
As I try to explain that many Nigerians still want to know about his time in office, he accuses of me having been sent to interview him by Abubakar and of being a “bloody idiot”. I feel like I’m getting a taste of why the octogenarian is still feared in Nigeria today.
I collect my things and thank the ex-president for his time. My notes remind me to ask for a photo, but as he scowls at the floor, I think better of it. An uninformed and “disrespectful” youth, I have already displeased the elder. Now is the time for me know my place, bow out and be quiet.