“Considering that he himself has confessed in the past that he doesn’t know his actual date of birth, I am aware of people out there who would swear that Obasanjo is closer to 150 than 80.”
Despite our own personal failings and inadequacies, we expect our leaders to do everything right—from finding solutions to complex problems affecting our lives to having the charisma and prescience to rally millions of people around a perfect vision to saying the right things at the right time.
When they fall short, as even the best of them occasionally do, journalists, whose duty it is to hold people in public office to account, do not always show mercy.
That perhaps explains why, for eight years, between 1999 and 2007, I was an ardent critic of President Olusegun Obasanjo. But it was not personal.
Since no one leader can be all things to all people, there are also times when we must reflect on the totality of their stewardship to make a more nuanced judgment call.
It is in this context that I dedicate my column today to Obasanjo who will be 80 on Sunday.
Considering that he himself has confessed in the past that he doesn’t know his actual date of birth, I am aware of people out there who would swear that Obasanjo is closer to 150 than 80.
Yet, nature is so kind to Obasanjo that he actually has the physical agility and the presence of mind of a 60-year old man.
So, he can adopt any age he likes and we will not begrudge him his good fortune.
Meanwhile, when he was in power as President, I had the privilege of several interactions with Obasanjo either alone or as a group and my take is that most of his problems in office were more the result of style than substance.
I believe he could have done some things better by persuading Nigerians to embrace his vision rather than his approach of trying to bully everybody.
Yet, for all his imperfections as a mortal (like the rest of us), you need only to travel outside Nigeria to appreciate Obasanjo.
That probably accounted for the rather patronizing letter the then South African President, Mr. Thabo Mbeki, wrote him after the collapse of the Third Term misadventure in 2006.
It was the speech Obasanjo made on 18th May 2006 at an emergency meeting of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Abuja where he blamed everybody but himself for the Third Term fiasco that inspired Mbeki’s letter which spoke to the respect African leaders have for Obasanjo.
“I am truly inspired that you, a tried and tested leader of the peoples of Nigeria and Africa, spoke to all of us in unequivocal terms to reaffirm our sacred task to entrench democracy throughout our continent.
“The comments communicate an outstanding act of statesmanship that I am convinced must and will inspire all Nigerians, our own people, and our brothers and sisters in the rest of our continent, as we all strive to empower the masses of our peoples democratically to participate in their own systems of governance,” Mbeki wrote.
In the letter he admitted that Obasanjo’s speech was for the PDP yet concluded that the message was for all Africans.
That Obasanjo is one of the greatest African leaders of his generation is not in doubt and his place in the history of our country is already assured.
By dint of hard work, sharp intellect, luck and an uncommon capacity for long memory (sometimes deployed for mischief), Obasanjo has become in Nigeria almost like the old sorcerer in Paul Dukas’1897 symphonic poem, L’apprenti sorcier, (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) which ends with the timeless invocation that powerful spirits should only be called by the master himself.
At different (and critical) epochs in the history of Nigeria, Obasanjo’s interventions have proved to be very pivotal.
However, in interrogating his stewardship as a civilian president, Obasanjo’s basic transformative power on the economy has not been fully appreciated.
He unleashed some policies that empowered millions of Nigerians. This he did through two broad sectors, namely telecommunications and banking.
Of course I have heard some people dismiss the telecoms sector reforms as no achievement because government made money from it but that precisely is the point.
Obasanjo could have handed the GSM licences free of charge to cronies as the late General Sani Abacha did without any result.
With the policy, a sense of inclusion was created by the Obasanjo administration which expanded the national conversation to accommodate the hitherto neglected rural and urban poor.
More importantly, it created an army of economic operators as vendors and providers of all cadres of services.
Large and small retailers in phone handsets, accessories, recharge vouchers and other cell phone related services became a significant feature of the economy.
In the process, millions of Nigerians were migrated from abject poverty.