On Saturday, April 20, an exhausted Olusegun Obasanjo sat down with Musikilu Mojeed and Oladeinde Olawoyin at his Ibogun Olaogun ancestral home to reflect on Nigeria’s democracy journey.
The former president had scheduled the interview for his Abeokuta home. But when the reporters arrived the Ogun State capital early that Saturday, they were told Mr Obasanjo was away in Ibogun Olaogun for the second coronation anniversary of the community king.
Pronto, they tracked the ex-President down to Ibogun. However, sitting in the sun for hours, making speeches and dancing to tunes from itinerant local drummers had left Mr Obasanjo exhausted. He told the reporters he would only be able to sit with them for 15 minutes. When the interaction was dragging beyond the duration he offered, the ex-President sprang to his feet, dashed into a waiting car and headed towards Abeokuta. The reporters travelled in the opposite direction – to Lagos.
Below is a transcript of the interview:
PREMIUM TIMES: On May 29, it will be exactly 20 years since the return of democracy to Nigeria, which is the longest stretch of democratic governance since independence in 1960. What’s your impression about how far we have travelled?
OBASANJO: Well, if you take democracy as a journey rather than a destination, we are firmly on the democracy journey. And then, of course, there are certain essential factors in that journey that you must signpost to see how you are making progress or not making progress. One, you have a constitution; a democratic constitution that is respected and that takes into account your special situation, your composition, your constituents, your history, and maybe your culture. Again there is no constitution that can be regarded as perfect. Some people have taken issues with our present constitution that, where it says, “We the people”, that that was not appropriate. But we have managed to use it for 20 years. It has been amended in parts. There may be other key areas that require amendment. And I believe as time goes on, we may get into those amendments.
Again what have we had of this journey? We have had a regime replacing the same regime; the transition from one regime to the same regime. We have had a transition from one regime to another regime from within the same party. We have had a transition from one regime to another regime from another party. We have had an incumbent defeated and transition from opposition to government. I think, again, these are aspects of the progress of our democracy journey that must not be lost as we look at things.
Again, there are problems, or if you like, challenges. There have been challenges of the integrity of elections. I think since 1999, people have felt aggrieved at the local government level, at the state level, at the national level. They have taken recourse to whatever is available in our constitution for them to get redress and it has served us reasonably well. There are also areas things have alarmed some of us. There is the issue of security. There is the issue of corruption. There is the issue of massive rigging (of election), which rightly somebody said is corruption worse than bribery or stealing money from government coffers. Provided these are seen and we are able to manage them as passing phases, I will say we are well on our journey.
PREMIUM TIMES: We read your 1999 inaugural speech. There were certain areas you highlighted as challenges facing the country at that time. The country was a pariah in the international community, and you said you were going to do something to make the country acceptable globally. You talked about tackling corruption. You talked about fixing the economy and perhaps freeing us from the monumental debt in which we were trapped at the time. Now looking back, will you say that the targets that you set for Nigeria have been achieved?
OBASANJO: Of course! As you rightly said, Nigeria was a pariah state. Within the first four years… we actually hosted the commonwealth. And Nigeria which was kicked out of the Commonwealth became the host of a Commonwealth Head of Governments Meeting (CHOGOM). We became the darling of almost all nations. The economy started doing well. I remember on one occasion one day or one week, Chukwuma Soludo (then governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria) phoned me and said: “Sir, in one day, we had an inflow of $80 million”. From foreign direct flow; not money from our oil export or cocoa export. Just direct! And he (Soludo) said to me: “Sir, this is almost unbelievable.” I said we were not where I want us to be yet. I want us to be $100 million per day. That means in five working days, that will be half a billion dollars. If we are making half a billion dollars a week of five working days; in 52 weeks, it will be $26 billion. It is possible. I got debt relief.
PREMIUM TIMES: But we are back in huge debt…
OBASANJO: That’s a different issue. You are asking me what I promised I would do; did I do them? Of course! Now, you would not say that Carter Bridge (in Lagos), which was made of steel, was not there when Governor Carter was governor of Nigeria. He built the bridge. We removed that bridge and built a concrete bridge because it was easier to manage and maintain a concrete bridge than a steel bridge. But if you now say, well, when Carter as governor decided he wanted to connect Lagos Island with Lagos Mainland and built a bridge, did he achieve it? Of course, he achieved it. The bridge he used, where is it now? Well, that bridge is out of date, and we have put a concrete bridge. So you won’t blame Carter; you may blame those of us who have now removed the old Carter Bridge if we are to blame anyone.
So, what you are saying is you read my inaugural speech. Are there things that I stated would be achieved in my inaugural speech that was not achieved? No. All the things that I said would be achieved were reasonably achieved, including fighting corruption. I set up two (anti-corruption) institutions. I came with two laws that were not there before, to fight corruption. And those who claim they are fighting corruption today have not brought in anything different. If anything, they have corrupted those two institutions. And the institutions were open and independent. I never, never, as president had to say to either the head of ICPC or EFCC: ‘Oh, chase this person’.
PREMIUM TIMES: You just came back from Rwanda, where you joined them to reflect on the unfortunate genocide in that country. Now, compare the gains that Rwanda has made since that unfortunate incident and the gains that we have made since 1999, would you say that we are on the path of sustainable development?
OBASANJO: I think we have no choice but to be on the path for sustainable development. The progress we are making may be questionable—-Is it fast enough? Is it steady enough? Is it stable enough? Are we taking two steps forward and one step back or one step side-way? You can question that, but we have no choice but to be on (the) path for sustainable development. Any other thing will be a disaster. In fact, the pace at which we are going now is tending more and more toward disaster and instability and unsustainability.
PREMIUM TIMES: Would you want to be a bit specific? What is it that should be done? What is it that should be re-directed in the way we are going now?
OBASANJO: In the economy?
PREMIUM TIMES: Yes.
Obasanjo: There is no confidence in our economy. And look, I just told you that there was a time when (we had) 80 million dollars in one day, an inflow of Direct Foreign Investment. Now, if you get a total of one billion into our foreign exchange reserves in three months, we will be dancing. That is all our revenue from oil, from whatever, from export and whatever direct (foreign investment). I just told you that if we had gone at that rate, in one month, we would have been making half a billion dollar, just from Foreign Direct Investment.
PREMIUM TIMES: So we went that high, what went wrong? What is the problem?
OBASANJO: The problem is that we are just not doing what we should be doing. Nobody has that confidence, and we cannot develop Nigeria without that confidence in our economy. Both for domestic investors and foreign investors.
PREMIUM TIMES: You just spoke about the economy, but people say our elections are also getting worse. Our infrastructure is decaying. We just travelled this Lagos-Ota-Abeokuta road to his village (Ibogun Olaogun). There is virtually no road worth that name. What is wrong with us? Is it a problem of transition—–that when one government transits to another, things just have to break down?
OBASANJO: No. No. Don’t look for an excuse where there is none. No. You must understand where you are going and get a roadmap, and you would get there. Where does this government want to take us? You talked about the election. Where does this government want to take us in election? I don’t want to comment on election yet because, as I said, it is still subjudice. But let us see where we go. Where? Where are we going? The economy is in shambles. Security? I read the statement when I was away in the last two weeks by the Northern Elders Forum on security. Now, when you have the challenge of security as we have it, you cannot talk of economic development the way it should be. Some of the people who should be on their farms this rainy season would not be there. Either they will be in IDP camps or hiding somewhere else because they are running away from bandits or Boko Haram or kidnapping.
PREMIUM TIMES: You were in charge for eight years out of these 20 years. Most of the gains of that period seem to have even evaporated. Is it that you did not hand over properly or you did not put structures in place to retain these gains?
OBASANJO: (Laughs) How do you hand over properly? I handed over to the people you people elected. I would not have handed over properly if I refused to hand over but as long as you elected people and handing over was to those people elected by you, then what do you mean by handing over properly? And I have always said, democracy by election does not necessarily provide a competent man to run affairs. It provides the elected man to run affairs. And your elected man may not – we have seen that now – may not be the competent people to run the affairs. Leaders don’t flock. So if you get a leader in a generation, make the best use of him.
PREMIUM TIMES: Now, it will be 20 years on May 29. There are a lot of people who believe there is nothing to celebrate.
Obasanjo: Well, that’s up to them.
PREMIUM TIMES: What’s your view about that?
Obasanjo: My view is that Nigeria is still intact. When I came in in 1999, many people said I would be the last president of Nigeria because after me there would be no Nigeria. There was OPC, there was Egbesu, there were militants and people came to me. But the fact that we are still one united country is something worth celebrating. We are not where we should be, economically, socially, politically, security-wise; we are not. But if we get the right people in charge, in another 20 years, we will forget that we were where we are now.
PREMIUM TIMES: How do we get the right people?
OBASANJO: By you and people like you joining hands to look for the right people. And encourage them and put them by the ballot.
PREMIUM TIMES: Maybe you have to lead us to find the right people…
OBASANJO: You can never be sure. Even your own children, you never know what they will do when they have power. You have to get them there. And the good thing about democracy, apart from massive rigging of election, is that if you get the man there and he does not perform, you get him out cleanly, democratically and freely. That is one great beauty of democracy, but when you start corrupting that (elections) and making that beauty ugly, then we are in danger.
PREMIUM TIMES: What’s the way forward for Nigeria?
OBASANJO: The way forward is (getting) the right people at the right places at the right time. I think there is a presumption in our constitution that our system will bring out competent leaders devoid of extremism, religious or tribal bigotry. Leaders who understand what it takes to hold the country together and put it in high gear for development, unity and an inclusive and shared society.
These are assumptions. And if these assumptions come true, what is meant to be achieved in our country will be achieved. But the kind of situation you have now cannot allow those assumptions to become reality. Now you have a situation where three top officials of government will be from only two northern zones. Ahmed Lawan (who has been pencilled down as Senate President) is from the North-East, the acting chief justice of Nigeria is from the north-east, The President of the country is from the north-west. They are all from what we call the core north. How can you have that kind of arrangement and then be absolutely insensitive to it (lack of geographical diversity)?
So the prescription that our constitution makes of the kind of leadership that should emerge, we have failed to achieve that with the present leadership we have in place. The Constitution expects the executive to care for the welfare and security of every Nigerian. But in the present situation, they don’t seem to care.
PREMIUM TIMES: Thank you.
OBASANJO: Thank you too.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was originally published in Premium Times special print publication to mark Nigeria’s 20 years of unbroken democracy.