For about one hour and forty minutes, the former President entertained questions that he never knew were coming to him and which he dissected with the scapular of a profound-minded man. His answers were sharp and accurate, a manifestation of his depth and we didn’t have to wonder longer where those books on his tables, shelf and virtually everywhere, were deployed.
Did I promise President Olusegun Obasanjo that there would be a ‘rematch’? I cannot remember precisely. But here we were, about 20 years after; he having left the office of the President of Nigeria, with his home at the Presidential Villa, Abuja and I, having left the Tribune newspaper, whose platform had brought me to interview him. We had met in 2001 or so at the Villa for the monthly programme of the office of the President called the Presidential Media Chat, beamed live by the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA). Mr. John Momoh of Channels Television anchored the interview. Aside from me, other colleagues – Nkechi Nwankwo of the Champion newspaper and one other journalist from the New Nigerian – completed the interview ensemble. Obasanjo had been in office for barely a year or so and like the biblical Israelites who grumbled about their existential privations in the wilderness and salivated for their Egyptian past, Nigerians had begun to complain about his administration. Then, seated before the No. 1 citizen of Nigeria, with the panoply of power and the majesty of office that he hung around his neck like a talismanic necklace, watched by millions of Nigerians, I felt it would be irresponsible of me not to let Obasanjo know about the dissenting murmurs of Nigerians on the streets, warts and all.
“Mr. President, perhaps because of my closeness to that specie of Nigerians called the common man…which affords me the opportunity of being close to him, perhaps more than you, I hear his complaints every time. The common man is saying that the life he lived under the military was better than the life he lives now under your administration and in a democracy. Are you bothered, Mr. President?”, I asked Obasanjo when it was my turn to fire a salvo of questions at him.
Before us, away from the camera of the NTA, was a coterie of aides who, from their remarks after the interview, didn’t take kindly to my seeming acidic jab at the President. I still remember Onyema Ugochukwu and the late Mr. Tunji Oseni, his Chief Press Secretary among that crew. Mr. Oseni particularly believed that I must have been sent on an evil assignment to embarrass the President by his political traducers. Obasanjo himself found the question diffident and confrontational. His eyes dilated as he responded. In answering, the President began a catalogue of all his achievements since inauguration in 1999 and ended with a riposte that still rings in my mind till this day, “don’t let us put words that he did not say in the mouth of the common man.”
On Friday, April 16, 2021, an opportunity presented itself again to interview Obasanjo, now a former President, and this time in his house on the Presidential Boulevard, Abeokuta, Ogun State, on behalf of an international institute. The crew and I had arrived the house at about 9am. Arresting, imposing but not vulgar, Obasanjo’s house will surely make you ponder on its aesthetics. The ambience of the Boulevard is mesmerising and presidential. You would think you are in a mini-presidential villa. The environment was very serene as we drove into the boulevard, with rocks in about two spots in the surrounding as if they are artistic impressions. So also is a small stream on the way to the particular home where the former president lives. On our way, we drove past the Presidential Library and some other sections of the Boulevard. The home is indeed a city of its own. Soon, we were in the front of a three-storey building where the former president has made his home. Promptly, we were taken upstairs in an elevator.
The house where the twice Head of State of Nigeria lives, as said earlier, is humongous but doesn’t reek of vulgar opulence. Like a scientist observing a queer object just fallen from Mars, I scanned Obasanjo’s living room with scientific scrutiny when we were eventually ushered in there. The walls are a screed with majesty that you could almost see yourself inside the mirror that it looks like. The floor, done in shining marble of black and grey, complements the beauty. Nothing proclaims the majesty of the house. Neat and orderly with an obsessive dosage of artistic carvings, you would wonder if you were in a traditional shrine. When you remember that it was during his time that Nigeria celebrated FESTAC ’77, you would then realise that Obasanjo is a great lover of art and in love with African ornaments.
A stern-faced security operative, most likely an official of the Department for State Services (DSS), stood observing every movement round the living room. His scant staff of about four also moved round to perform their morning chores, while courteous without being intrusive. Perhaps to underscore his famed love of the traditional game of ayo olopon, the former President has about three of them in his living room, uniquely done upon wood carvings. A particular one, which he seems to use frequently, has his brown chair beside it and a similar brown seat for his player opponent. Standing and seemingly ministering to the players is another black wood carving of a woman with pointed breasts, a wrapper strapped round her waist. She carries an offering basket of libations, if you like. Wherever you go in the house, there are hand sanitisers. Indeed, on the table beside Obasanjo’s frequently used ayo olopon are three sanitiser jars, a pack of serviette paper and a daily prayer book. Pictures of him, that of his wife, Bola, and late wife, Stella, compete with the carvings, all of which are placed on the floor. A particular carving of all the three major Nigerian nationalities competes with others. On it is an Igbo blowing a flute, a Yoruba beating the bata drum and an Hausa blowing his horn. If time permits, I muttered to myself, I would ask Obasanjo if he still believes in that nationalism of his of yore, judging by how the Nigerian presidency has descended into the sewers of ethnicity and religion today.
We then moved into Obasanjo’s office for the interview. This is also a not-too-big space but it is beautiful. The former president seems to be in love with the brown colour. Dominated by the colour brown, the office walls are also a screed of orange and light orange colours, with brown floor tiles as well. In the office are three different writing tables and chairs, as well as a conference table with yellow coloured chairs and a couch. On the conference table are books and papers. An imposing marble table stands jauntily in the office. My sparse French didn’t allow me take in what is written on it, which begins with, Cadeau Offert A Son Excellence. I, however, was able to decode that the marble table was apparently given to Obasanjo by then Togolese President, Gnasingbe Eyadema, on September 8, 1978, during his official visit to Togo. In French it is written that it was presented to “Lt General Obasanjo.”
As if the litter of books was not enough, the office has a black book shelf, with neatly arranged books hidden inside its bosom. Books of different kinds like one entitled, The Awo I knew, Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Wizard of the Crow, biographies of Lamidi Adedibu and Tony Blair, a book written on the stormy petrel of Ibadan politics, Adegoke Adelabu, TD Jakes’ books, one entitled Life Overflowing and Segun Adeniyi’s book, Power, Politics and Death, all lay inside the shelf. One thing of uniqueness is that there is quite a dosage of religious books therein as well, one of which is a Daily Guide. Jutting out from the orifice of the shelf was a small inscription with a biblical quotation from John 14: 1 and the word, Believe.
Questions then began to roll, the first being on Africa’s agricultural challenge, at a time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Obasanjo mesmerised everybody with his profound reply to the question. Though the pandemic had caught Africa unawares but the fact remains that, since food is essential to us on the continent, Africa must double its efforts to swim ashore.
At about 9.50 am, the former president entered the venue of the interview. He has aged a lot since I last met him about 20 years ago. Did I notice that he has shrunk too? His tribal marks also seem to have disappeared. His gait is still soldierly. He wore a blue shirt and trousers, with the shirt having a red underground lining and a brown pair of sandals, complemented by a blue Yoruba cap. He wore a white nose mask, apparently locally sown. A black pen jutted out of his chest pocket and a silver wristwatch dangled on his wrist. I did a mental calculation. Everything on the man nicknamed OBJ couldn’t be up to N15,000. His slippers were locally made and when he sat to begin the interview and his trousers edged up, I scanned his legs, decorated with healed wounds on the tip of the trousers.
Knuckle greetings exchanged between the ex-President and the crew, and he sat down to the interview. Obasanjo displayed a very sharp brain, as usual, sauced with dosages of wit and a profound mastery of issues. His memory was wonderful, like an elephant’s. At some point, he used his right fingers to remove the nail on the left finger.
The interview then began properly. Unfortunately, the institute I represented made it known to me, ab initio, that the session was to be strictly scientific and not political nor even social. With this, I was constrained in asking the man nicknamed OBJ the questions that bothered me. We were three on the interview; I, a Kenyan colleague simply named Charity, and another young lady called Dolapo. Charity was to conduct her session of the interview virtually. When Obasanjo was told about the arrangement, he reminded the crew that he is an old man whose auditory appreciation is not as perfect as those of the younger ones. He then continued: “A friend of mine once said that old age is a disease. So I have got disease of old age. Although I am old, I am not ready for departure. They have bought me my ticket but I haven’t taken my boarding pass yet.” We were almost rolling on the ground with laughter. Charity didn’t get what Obasanjo meant and asked, “Are you planning to travel shortly, Your Excellency?” To this, Obasanjo replied: “Yes, I will travel to my Maker someday… I will not take the boarding pass yet. And you know that when they buy the ticket, I will collect the boarding pass… this will take some time. Then I get to the departure lounge and all that!
Obasanjo asked Charity how Kenya was doing but before she answered, he replied, “My two friends – Uhuru and Rahila are working together, which is very good.”
Questions then began to roll, the first being on Africa’s agricultural challenge, at a time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Obasanjo mesmerised everybody with his profound reply to the question. Though the pandemic had caught Africa unawares but the fact remains that, since food is essential to us on the continent, Africa must double its efforts to swim ashore. He was again asked what linkage democracy and good governance have with agriculture. One would think Obasanjo was a professor in his delivery as he answered the question so eloquently: “There can be no substitute for good governance. If you look after the wellbeing of the people, you get the best out of them.”
What looked like a social question was that posed to the former president when asked to assess what has become of Nigeria since all the lofty policies he put in place in his eight years of governance. As usual, he cleared his throat before answering: “What you are asking me to do is to write a confidential report on my successors in government. That is not what I normally would have wanted to do but since you have asked me, I will try to do it in a way.” He spoke about how, when he came into government, Nigeria was in a very bad shape, economically and socially. He said many people came to him and told him matter-of-factly that the Nigerian situation was so bad that he would be the last president of Nigeria, as after him there would be no more Nigeria. He then promised them all that he would give leadership and give himself in totality to the task at hand.
The first thing he said he realised what that Nigeria needed a lot of reforms, as no one can remain stagnant and make progress. He said he found out that Nigeria was heavily indebted and was spending about $3.5 billion to service her debt per annum and yet the quantum of debt was not going down. He then went on a debt relief evangelism all over the world; to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and others. Eventually, said Obasanjo, Nigeria got debt relief, with almost $20 billion written off by its creditors. Nigeria then paid off about $12 billion, with her quantum of debt remaining only $3.6 billion, from about $36 billion.
“I remember my friend, the President of Algeria, came to me then and asked, how did you do it? I am also in debt. I told him to try his luck. He went round and didn’t get even a dime as debt relief. If that was done about 15 years ago and then today, we are in debt, more than when I was in government, I leave that judgment to anybody to say whether those who came into government after me did what is right or followed the example that I laid or not.”
…why is Nigeria so blest, apologies to Ayi Kwei Armah, with a regression in the quality of leadership, since 1999? The most gratifying thing would have been for Nigeria to be able to boast of a leader after Obasanjo who was far deeper, far more cerebral and far more committed to the Nigerian nationhood template. In this regression, Obasanjo himself is culpable…
Obasanjo also gave the instance of cocoa production, which he said, when he took over, was 150,000 metric tones. There were nine states in Nigeria that were cocoa-producing states. He said he got them together to pay attention to the crop and with about $15 million from Cocoa Alliance when it was disbanded. That money, he said, was being deployed into frolicking all over the world by officials. He said he stopped the jamboree and deployed the money into the revitalisation of cocoa production. Thus, from 2003 to 2007, he said his government increased cocoa production from 150,000 metric tones to 400,000 metric tons. Though he confessed that he couldn’t meet his projection of 1 million metric tones, yet he wondered what sad state cocoa production is in today. He said President John Kufour once jokingly told him to leave cocoa production for his country and concentrate on other areas and he also jokingly but blatantly refused this suggestion.
Obasanjo also spoke of how driven he was for service delivery in government immediately he got into office. According to him, he put a call through to Prime Minister Blair and asked for assistance. He, in turn, sent a lady in charge of the programme in his UK cabinet, who set it up for Nigeria. “I don’t hear of anyone talking about service delivery any longer in Nigeria today. In fact, all that we set up has disappeared. So you asked, am I satisfied? No. How can I be satisfied when the bridge I constructed has either been removed or destroyed in most cases? In every human activities, leadership matters. I see this even in my own little agric-business.” Explaining, he said that when he was put in jail, when he was in government, which he called “the golden cage” and all the time he didn’t pay enough attention to it, his agric-business suffered.
Obasanjo also dovetailed into why he chose farming after leaving the Olympian height of a two-term presidency of Nigeria. “I was born in a village,” he began. “My parents never went to school. I was going to farm with my father and never went to school until I was nine years of age. Even with my joining the army and becoming the Head of State, the village didn’t go out of me. Though I was out of the village, I was at heart a rural and village boy, in spite of opportunities I have had to live in cities. Also, I left my career too early; I left the army at the age of 42, too young, too early and I left at the height of my military career. I couldn’t be going with brief cases to government offices asking what to supply. What was left to me was agriculture.” He said he took an agric-guaranteed loan of $1 vmillion by the Central Bank, which was almost equivalent to N2bmillion at that time and went for three months training at the Moore Plantation – developed by the colonial lords in the South for research and training in agriculture, after leaving Dodan Barracks. He also said that he wrote the proposal for his loan in the school.
Obasanjo confessed however that by writing ‘Farming’ as his profession on his international passport, he nearly once got into problem in Canada when, at the Immigration, upon seeing his passport, they asked him to step aside for further interrogation. His friend who he had gone to see, who came in later, was to explain to him that farming was seen as a bottom of the ladder profession. For a farmer to radiate the luxury of travelling down to Canada to see his friend was queer to the Canadian immigration.
The interview went on and on, with Obasanjo demonstrating a quantum of mental energy that was baffling. I eavesdropped on one of his staff saying that he had gone to play squash early in the morning and had also joined our Islamic brothers in this period of fasting. For about one hour and forty minutes, the former President entertained questions that he never knew were coming to him and which he dissected with the scapular of a profound-minded man. His answers were sharp and accurate, a manifestation of his depth and we didn’t have to wonder longer where those books on his tables, shelf and virtually everywhere, were deployed.
As he spoke, I placed him side-by-side all the presidents after him, in terms of depth and commitment to the Nigerian nationhood and I shook my head. To place him side-by-side President Muhammadu Buhari, for instance, would be a criminal comparison. Whoever attempted it should be tied to the stakes and shot. But why is Nigeria so blest, apologies to Ayi Kwei Armah, with a regression in the quality of leadership, since 1999? The most gratifying thing would have been for Nigeria to be able to boast of a leader after Obasanjo who was far deeper, far more cerebral and far more committed to the Nigerian nationhood template. In this regression, Obasanjo himself is culpable as he was instrumental to getting Nigeria the Buharis who have become gross afflictions on the Nigerian state.
To demonstrate his energy, after the interview and Obasanjo was about to leave, he jumped up three times like a toddler and before we could recite Twinkle Twinkle Litter Stars, the man they nicknamed Ebora Owu had disappeared from view.
Peculiar Patterns of Patami’s Boko Haram Trajectory
…Pantami should not be blamed. The blame should fall squarely at the feet of President Muhammadu Buhari, his appointor, and the Nigerian state whose feeble binoculars could not pinpoint and pin those damaging and dangerous views ascribed to the Minister. Why I do not blame Buhari himself but the Nigerian electors who voted him into office as president, is that…
Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, has been in the eye of the storm in the last few days. The major allegation against him is that in the recent past, he canvassed seismic views in support of his Islamic sect, said to be an extremist Salafist group, and shared opinions on pulpits which suggested that he had affinity with insurgency, which is said to be running in his blood. These, the allegation further claims, are manifest in the extremist views Pantami has held and the blatant hatred he is said to have for people of other religions.
Pantami has, however, been struggling to disclaim the allegations. To buttress his declamation of the allegations, the Minister has been fighting frenetically to defend himself. For instance, though he admits to have started as an Islamic preacher at the age of 13, he claims that in the last two decades, he has been invited to and travelled to places like Niger Republic, Katsina, Borno, and Gombe, among other northern states and his preachings have been a denunciation of the Boko Haram ideology and Islamic fundamentalism. Unfortunately, however, video evidence against him, especially as made available on YouTube and by the People’s Gazette newspaper, suggests the contrary. Pantami, in the videos being shared, was seen fraternising with the destructive views of Bin Laden and he justified the killing of kafirs.
Those who have attempted to exculpate the minister from the charge of sharing indecipherable opinions and an ideology with insurgents, as well as those who claim that Pantami has since distanced himself from those views since he became minister, are spewing bunkum. First, what forensic sieve did they use to determine that he has been purged of such views? What assurance is there that someone who canvassed such demonic views isn’t a mole in government for the insurgents and is not funding these terrorist cells? While anyone can share or hold any seismic view that they subscribe to, whether religious or political and whether now or previously, so far as such view is not at variance with the laws of the land, they are in the clear. The state must, however, ensure that holders of such divisive views, which contravene the secularity of the state, must be held far off from the levers of power. That is the crime of the Nigerian state; allowing Pantami to rise to the level he has risen in the affairs of the Nigerian state.
The truth is that many Northern elders unfortunately share huge slices of opinion that are similar to Pantami and Buhari’s. It is why insurgency is festering in the land like ferns in a plantation. In a saner clime, Pantami would have resigned if he still retains any modicum of honour left in him.
To be sure, Pantami’s religious views are not different from those of Sheikh Gumi, the man who has turned himself into the religious avatar whose chosen path is that of going inside the forest to mediate and negotiate between bandits and the Nigerian state. Gumi too has sought to canonise bandits and even insurgents by saying that Nigeria misunderstands them. He is free to trade such irresponsible views too. The problem will arise the day Gumi seeks to handle one of the instruments of administration of a secular Nigerian state.
That is why Pantami should not be blamed. The blame should fall squarely at the feet of President Muhammadu Buhari, his appointor, and the Nigerian state whose feeble binoculars could not pinpoint and pin those damaging and dangerous views ascribed to the Minister. Why I do not blame Buhari himself but the Nigerian electors who voted him into office as president, is that, there seems not to be too much difference between the views held by Pantami and even Buhari himself before the latter became president. We were not too young to read and watch on television Buhari fuming and saying that if he was rigged out of the presidential election, the dogs and the baboons would be soaked in blood. That is an insurgent’s philosophy. This same man upbraided the Goodluck Jonathan government for attacking Boko Haram insurgents and said that every shelling of the insurgents was an attack against the North.
The truth is that many Northern elders unfortunately share huge slices of opinion that are similar to Pantami and Buhari’s. It is why insurgency is festering in the land like ferns in a plantation. In a saner clime, Pantami would have resigned if he still retains any modicum of honour left in him. But, this is Nigeria; he won’t resign. Has President Buhari himself resigned?
Support PREMIUM TIMES' journalism of integrity and credibility
Good journalism costs a lot of money. Yet only good journalism can ensure the possibility of a good society, an accountable democracy, and a transparent government.
For continued free access to the best investigative journalism in the country we ask you to consider making a modest support to this noble endeavour.
By contributing to PREMIUM TIMES, you are helping to sustain a journalism of relevance and ensuring it remains free and available to all.
TEXT AD: To advertise here . Call Willie +2347088095401...