Former President Olusegun Obasanjo will be 80 on March 5. That is his official age as the former Nigerian leader recently admitted that he was not really sure about when he was born.
Ahead of the celebrations, Mr. Obasanjo recently sat down with a group of journalists in his Abeokuta home to talk about his life and times, and his hope for the future. PREMIUM TIMES Editor-in-Chief, Musikilu Mojeed, was there.
You are now 80. What did you discover about yourself as president?
One of the things I discovered about myself is my stamina to go on. I never knew I could start work, sit down at 8:00 a.m. At 5:00 p.m., come home and play squash. Then go until 2. am. Then try and sleep, wake around 5 a.m. to play squash again. Attend morning devotion and be at work at 8:00 a.m. in the morning.
Or phone a minister at 1:00 a.m. and say ‘Hey! Minister, what have you done about A, B, C, D?’
With that job, I discovered that part of me and it has become my way of life.
But things don’t seem to have changed in terms of your everyday life. Since you got out of office, your schedule is still tight.
I remain what I am: a stupid village boy. Born in the village. Raised in the village. Grew up in the village. Doing a number of things by accident. Went to school by accident. Joined the Army by accident. Rose through the ranks by accident. Though I went to the Congo, not by accident. I went there and came back after I did what is right and what is wrong there. Then came back and continued to rise in the Army.
What do you mean when you say ‘by accident’?
You see, some people will say: ‘Yes, my family. I came from a military family.’ I didn’t come from a military family. Some people will say: ‘Yes, I was planning it. It took me two years to plan.’ I didn’t plan it.
I was going to my family one day and he asked if it is farming I will continue to do for the rest of my life and I said yes. I had a cousin who had left the village and went to Abeokuta to become a vehicle mechanic.
My father asked if I had alternative and I said if I had an alternative it would be mechanic. School didn’t cross my mind then.
So I told him if he would send me to school, I will go. So that was an accident.
He brought me to Abeokuta from the village. I went to five different schools. Because we came late, I was not admitted. So I stayed with my uncle-in-law — that’s the husband of my aunt.
After three months, my father came and asked him not to turn me to a lazy man. Because I was going with him to Ogun River to catch fish. So my father took me back to the village. That was an accident.
My village, about the end of the year, people go about the villages for harvest. Some people came to our village, including the headmaster of the school in the nearby village. My father entertained them. Afterwards, he asked the headmaster if he had admission for me and he said yes.
The headmaster said I should come at the end of the month, it was in September, to register.
So when I got to the school, a teacher in charge of registration asked what my name is. I told him I am Olusegun. He asked Olusegun…what? I told him Olusegun, Matthew Olusegun.
He then said he was asking about my last name, my father’s name. Then I told him, asking for my father’s name was an insult. I have never mentioned my father’s name before.
That would have been my first and last name in school but for the understanding of the headmaster. Because I attempted to slap the teacher for daring to ask my father’s name.
So the headmaster said they should lie me flat. He said they should give me three strokes of the cane. I might not have gone to school. I might have ended my school on the first day.
So, when I talk of these accidents. They’re things that you don’t say you planned before.
I didn’t even plan to go to war. By virtue of the corps I belonged to in the Army, the engineering corps, I shouldn’t have been to war.
I was in Ibadan when I was announced. One Justice Akinkugbe, his house was not far from my depot. He questioned why it would be an engineer that they would call to go to war. He said there was no future for the country.
But when I returned from the war, he called me and apologised and said he had the wrong opinion of me before. I didn’t even know that he said those things about me before I went to war.
Then I explained to him that before I went into the Army Corps of Engineers, I had basic, normal military training for infantry or whatever. When you get to a stage in your military career, then you will do staff and command training. Which means that, it doesn’t matter your specialisation, you now go into the normal run. So you could be an engineer and command a brigade. You could be an armour corps and command a brigade. You could be an artillery and command a brigade. You could be a signal and command a brigade.
What sort of lifestyle would you recommend for the younger generation of Nigerians?
One of my friends that I used to marvel about his intellect, ability and longevity was Helmut Schmidt, a former Chancellor of Germany who died two years ago at the age of 96.
Helmut was strong. Physically strong and robust mentally. And he did everything that you may not ask people to do. He was a smoker. He was a drinker. He snuffed. And if a good woman goes by, my friend would probably say ‘Hi’ to her.
But he lived till the age of 96. When he was 90 I went to celebrate his birthday with him. I said to him then that we thanked God for his life. He said to me that old age is a bad thing. When you’re old you can’t hear anything without a hearing device, but I don’t have a hearing device. When you’re old you can’t see properly without glasses, but I don’t wear glasses. You can’t walk without a walking stick, but I don’t use a stick. You can’t eat without denture, but I don’t have denture yet. You can’t make love without having assistance.
That was at the age of 90. I think it was the grace of God.
On March 5 when I will be officially celebrating my 80th birthday, I will play squash. There’s a squash court within this place. We will have a tournament and will compete on that morning between 7 and 9. I want to play with veterans for 15 minutes. I want to play with the best boy in Ogun State for 15 minutes. And the best girl in Ogun State for 15 minutes. I will play for 45 minutes.
When you saw the first strand of grey hair on your head, how did you feel?
It doesn’t worry me. Why should grey hair worry me? It’s part of the process of ageing. Unless you’re a fool you’ll know that you have to age. What you should be praying for and working for is that you age gracefully, responsively and being relevant. Ageing is a process that you cannot do anything about.
Since I cut my hair completely, I don’t know wether you saw grey hair or white.
At 80, what regrets do you have about your life?
I used to have a doctor in the U.K., Howard. When he turned 65, I was in the U.K. and I asked him to go with me to a dinner. He agreed.
He said I should pick him at his clinic. So I picked him up. Then at the front of the restaurant, I asked him if he had any regrets at 65. He paused for almost 30 seconds. Then he said he had never thought of it until I asked the questions.
He said he had no regrets because God had blessed him abundantly. He said he graduated from Oxford and became a doctor at the age of 22.
But he told me that the only regret he had was that his son did not become a doctor as he wished. But that was not of his own making, it was the making of the son.
So for me, is there anything I wanted to do that I did not do? No. Is there anything I should have done that I would wish I hadn’t done with the benefit of hindsight? No. There’s nothing I have done that I can not own up to.
I can own up to God, my maker. So I had no regrets.
When I had the opportunity, I did my best. We may say my best was not good enough. But have I done my best? I did my best. I satisfied my conscience.
How do you appeal to the increasingly wary masses to be patient with the current administration?
The basic problem is leadership. Look, in 1998. People came to me and said I will be the last president of Nigeria. Why? Because they believed that by the time I finished being president of Nigeria, there would be no Nigeria left. Because we had General Sani Abacha.
What would you say is the legacy of Abacha?
I told them I will lead Nigeria because I believe in Nigeria. And I have nothing to offer than leadership. I will offer leadership. I told them if I failed, I will return to my farm.
But they turned out to be wrong. I was right. Because after me, we have had Umar Yar’Adua. We have had Goodluck Jonathan. We have had Muhammadu Buhari. So we have had how many years of unbroken democracy? This is the first time we’ll have this stretch. This is the first time in the history of Nigeria as an independent country that we will have peaceful handover from one personality to another in 2007. In the same party. In 2015, from one personality in another. From ruling party to opposition. These are not just easy occurrences.
I believe we have hope. Yes, we could have achieved much more than we achieved. But we should also know that we could have been worse much more than we are.
The generation that gave us independence. We may say whatever we like about them. But they gave us independence. My own generation is the generation that followed. You may say what you like about our generation, but we fought for the unity of Nigeria. But that should not be taken for granted. How many countries that went through civil war have broken up?
So you may say what you like, but we now have a democratic dispensation that has lasted for almost 18 years.
How do you feel when people say the last 16 years was a disaster?
I believe it was the height of ignorance. The height of unappreciation of what God has done for this country. Although I will be amongst the first to agree that we haven’t been where we should have been, but we have also been far from where we could have been.
Do you believe that the unity of Nigeria is non-negotiable?
I don’t like that word. You picked a word that I don’t like. Anybody that wants to negotiate, let him go and negotiate. But I believe that we need ourselves. But if anybody thinks that he doesn’t need the other, then I say good luck to him. I believe we need ourselves.
What are we negotiating? Will the Yoruba say they don’t need the rest of Nigeria? I don’t believe they will. What I see is that people want to have more of the national cake. Which is a good thing in itself. If you don’t like the cake you won’t want to ask for me. It’s because you like the cake, that’s why you’re asking for more.
I do sympathise with the youth. When I left secondary school, I got jobs in five places. I got in UAC. I got in government printer. I got in medical store. I got in the school of agriculture. And a bit later I got a teaching job.
Today, if you leave the university, what are the chances that you will get jobs in two places?
Today, the youth have more facility than I had in my time, but less opportunities. In my time, there was only one university in Nigeria. Today, there are 150 universities. More facilities, but less opportunities. So we need to create more opportunities. But not condemning everything.
The generation before us fought for the independence. Our generation fought for the unity of Nigeria and laid the foundation for the current democracy. What would the present generation do?
That’s the way to think.
Look, in the countries where things work today, some people sacrificed for things to work. They did. Whatever you may see as bad in your own society, some other societies have gone through the same.
Somebody said to me that some time ago in America, a judge would go to deliver judgment with two judgements in his pocket. And both judgments are equally sound. So depending on the highest bidder. He knows that the complainant is on the left pocket and the defendant is on the right. So that he won’t make a mistake.
Now they have gone through that and put it behind them as a country.
Whatever you may say about Donald Trump, his emergence is an indication that democracy is not perfect. It does not give you best man for the job. It gives the chosen man for the job.
What you now have to know is how to make use of what you have.
I was one of the first to congratulate Trump because that is what his country has chosen. So in the next four years, we have no choice than to work with him unless he’s impeached.
So it’s not for me or you to complain. It’s for me and you to think of how we can get the best of what Americans have given the world.
What do you make of recycling of leaders in Nigeria?
The ones that you haven’t recycled, what have they done?
We’re saying that old politicians like you should give opportunities to others
What are you talking about? James Ibori was not given opportunity? Diepriye Alamieyeseigha was not given opportunity? Ayo Fayose was not given opportunity? Come on…
That’s absolutely unacceptable. What more opportunity do you want? In my own cabinet, I had four men that were at the age of 30. Fortunately they performed well, but what do you mean by they were not given opportunity?
If that’s your way of thinking, then you’re wrong. Leadership is not a matter of age. It’s a matter of the quality of the individual.
You once said Nigerians don’t have the capacity to select their leaders…
I did not say that.
You said you want Igbo president in 2019?
Again, I did not say that. You people say whatever you want to say. Look, Christian Association of Nigeria, Ogun State chapter, came to see me here. They asked me to brief them on the situation in Southern Kaduna. I have been briefed by Bishop Matthew Kukah who comes from that area. I have been briefed by General Martin-Luther Agwai who comes from that area. I gave them my own understanding of that issue.
I told them the Southern Kaduna issue is both historical, cultural. religious and political. So if you now want to resolve the issue, you have to take all these issues together. And I said the problem is when we fail to attend to something the time we’re supposed to attend to it and then it boomerangs on our face, then we don’t have anybody to blame.
I said, here in Ogun State, we have a bit of Southern Kaduna problem. I said since Ogun State had was created, we have had four elected governors. We have three senatorial districts —east, central and west. It has rotated between east and central. And I said west has not had a governor.
So I said I don’t know when you will get there, but if don’t get there when you should get there and the west decides to go into agitation then you have yourself to blame. I said the same with Nigeria, at independence we had a country of tripod. The north, the east and the west. The north, majority tribe is Hausa-Fulani. The east, majority tribe is Igbo. The west, majority tribe is Yoruba.
Hause-Fulani in the north cannot complain. Yoruba, they cannot complain. Even those who didn’t vote for Obasanjo the first time, they had to accept later. I said the Igbo haven’t had that chance. Now, we must be mindful, that we do not ignore that. That must be taken care of.
So, if you want to interpret it whichever way you like it, that’s fine. But if you don’t take care of it, well.
What is your assessment of the Buhari administration? Is it on the right direction?
I don’t know about your wrong direction or right direction. But what I know is this: President Buhari has not disappointed me. From what I know about him and what he has done, he has not disappointed me.
In my book, I said he’s not strong on the economy. And he’s not. In fact, I said he’s not strong on foreign affairs. He’s improved somewhat on foreign affairs. But in the areas we know him, he has done his best. He has done his best in fighting insurgency. He has done his best in trying to fight corruption.
When you aspired to be United Nations Secretary General, Wole Soyinka kicked against it. But you don’t seem to have forgiven him?
You’re absolutely wrong. I don’t hold a grudge. Wole Soyinka is not God. And I don’t believe there’s any human being that is absolutely right. Wole Soyinka has what I believe he has. He’s a gifted person in his own way. But Wole Soyinka is not an oracle. I will not accept Wole Soyinka making cathedral statement on everything. I don’t believe that anybody could do that. So it’s not a question of forgiveness. When Wole Soyinka does what I believe is right, I will commend him. When he says what I believe is not right…Wole Soyinka is a populist and I don’t believe in populism.
So you got that wrong, and you should get it right.
What happened to Oputa Panel? Why didn’t its report see the light of the day?
The report did what it was meant to do. Oputa Panel was not meant to start writing and changing. What it was meant to do was to look at where we have offended ourselves.
I went before Oputa Panel twice as president. Some people said as president I shouldn’t go. But I went because I set it up and believed in it. My point on issues that have ever since been buried. I was asked about Kalakuta Republic. I went there and I explained.
Two, Elizabeth Pam was a member of that panel. James Pam, her husband who was my own boss in the Army, was killed. Mrs. Pam asked why the suspect killed her husband. The suspect said her husband was one of those that were corrupt. That a politician gave him money to build a house. And Mrs. Pam said it wasn’t true. That her husband borrowed money from the bank. And they brought documents to show. She said it was seven or eight years after her husband died that they finished paying for that house.
Then the suspect said he was sorry after the explanation. And Mrs. Pam said she was happy that the air is clear. What more do you want? That was part of what the panel achieved.
The report said I should apologise generally to everybody and I did. So what do you want?
The relationship between you and your former Vice President?
That’s not an issue, I am not saying anything. It’s not an issue.
The National Conference of the Jonathan era, what do you think about it?
I didn’t read it. So, how can I say anything about what I didn’t read? Becuase I don’t believe it was necessary.
If you start going into our situation. From the constituent assembly of 1977. The one that Ibrahim Babangida did. The one that Abacha wrote. I didn’t read it. I believe it was a distraction.
At 80, what do you wish for Nigeria?
The best. I wish Nigeria the best.
The present is a passing phase. I am looking forward to the future. My wish is that I have hope that Nigeria will be better.
Why did you return to school to learn theology after completing your tenure as president?
Because there’s no age limit to learning. I said I wanted to learn more things about my God so that I can worship him better.
Your recent video with the Vice President and other leaders in which you were doing thanksgiving, how did you do it?
The credit should not go to me. The credit should go to the Vice President. He was the one who called me and said there was a thanksgiving and if I am not there it would not be complete. Then I went. So we went to the church. After the church, we went to his house and he gave us breakfast. After the meal, he took us to the church where we had to sing. And I think it was a good thing.