He is actually shorter than I thought,” South African writer, Zukiswa Wanner exclaimed as ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo sauntered into the hall.
Spotting a blue ‘agbada’ with his right hand on his chest under the fabric, the retired Army General acknowledged greetings from the audience as he strode to the front.
The author of books including ‘My Command’, ‘Not My Will’, ‘Women of Virtue’, ‘This Animal Called Man’, ‘Hope for Africa’, ‘Nzeogwu’ and a soon-to-be released memoir, Obasanjo had just arrived for a chat with Patrick Okigbo themed ‘Defining a legacy’ at the Ake Arts and Book Festival in Abeokuta, Ogun State.
However, the conversation, which didn’t centre on any particular Obasanjo book, but encompassed other issues, was one of the highpoints of the festival where culture, art and politics met.
A question on his childhood and key influences that contributed to his success in life was what Okigbo began with. Given the open ended nature of the question, the former president justifiably took more than 20 minutes to narrate the story of his parents, birth (and the fact that he does not actually know his date of birth), the drama surrounding his primary and secondary education and joining the military.
Hero or villain
Obasanjo was non-committal when asked if Nigerians should view the late Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, leader of the 1966 coup and who he wrote about in 1987 as a hero or a villain. He said, “In the book, my aim was to say what I knew about the young man. There is nobody who knew Chukwuma Nzeogwu who will not say he was a patriot, a nationalist. He was my best friend in the Army and in that book, I said that yes, Chukwuma was a patriot, a nationalist and a committed Nigerian but he was naïve. What you want to take from that is left to you; whether he was a hero or a villain.
“He was a good friend of mine. I came back a day before the coup and he never told me that he was planning a coup. After the coup, he told me that whether to tell me or not was one of the hardest decisions of his life because if he told me and I said no he shouldn’t, it was too late for him not to. If he told me and I said oh, good idea, it was too late to find a role for me. So, he said he wasn’t sure whether to see himself as being disloyal to a friend doing what he did. And I wrote [the book] to say what I knew about Nzeogwu; I wasn’t judgmental.”
Beyond the civil war
Like he did with the Nzeogwu question, Obasanjo threw the ball back into Okigbo’s court when he asked him why the Federal Government has refused to apologize to Igbos for the pogrom that eventually led to the civil war. Okigbo had reasoned that the apology would have healed a lot of emotional scar and hurt still being felt by some Igbos.
“Let’s go back to the beginning. Then you will tell me where the apology should start and where it will end,” the former President began and proceeded to recall the January 1966 coup, how the major plotters were Igbo, principal causalities northerners and westerners and the late General Aguyi Ironsi’s mistake of turning Nigeria into a unitary government. “If you are talking about apology, where does it start and where does it end?” Obasanjo said, adding that he believes Nigeria has moved beyond the civil war.
He noted that, “All the things that needed to be done have been done. One of the last things for me was I had an Igbo Minister of Finance and Igbo Governor of Central Bank. With this, some even thought having an Igbo as Minister of Finance and Governor of the Central Bank; all Nigerian money will go to Igboland. Then one thing came up: somebody said to me, ‘for us in Igboland, the war is not over.’ I said what happened? He said ‘since the end of the civil war, there has been no Igbo Minister of Defence.’ I said we have had Igbo service chiefs but he said ‘if we have Igbo Minister of Defence, we will know the war is truly over.’ I said Minister of Defence is purely administrative, those who command the forces are the service chiefs but he said ‘let an Igbo man be Minister of Defence.’ So I looked for somebody around and got Aguiyi Ironsi’s son. I said, Tom, come and be Minister of Defence; maybe then the war will truly be over.”
On the state of the nation and the greatest danger we face today, Obasanjo promptly identified security as the main priority. He recalled his efforts to broker peace between Boko Haram insurgents and government some four years ago before the insurgency snowballed and why he feels the Federal Government does not truly understand the militants.
Asked to assess the performance of the President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration vis a vis the reforms and structures his own administration put in place between 1999 and 2007, Obasanjo’s answer was a terse “below average.”
Would you accept any responsibility for this below average performance given that you were the architect of this current dispensation? Okigbo posed to him
“I will not; I will tell you why I will not. There is nobody who gets to a position without being helped. If Gowon had not appointed me as Field Commander of the Third Marine Commando and I did what I was able to do, nobody will hear about me. Before I came into government, if you put 10 Nigerians together and ask what are the chances of a southerner becoming an elected president of Nigeria? Five or six of them will say not in your lifetime. Some people made the move, pushed me to become the president; people have forgotten that when they started I said how many presidents do you want to make out of me? I think you will hear more about this when I am able to get my memoirs out.
“After I became president, if you again take 10 Nigerians and ask what are the chances of a man from a minority tribe becoming president in Nigeria? Again five or six of them will say, not in your lifetime. When that opportunity came, I thought it will be satisfying one important aspect of our political life. It will not be an issue of the majority tribes sharing it [power] among themselves. If Obasanjo could be there, then any southerner can be there. If Goodluck Jonathan can be there, any person from a minority tribe can be there. So rather than blame me, I should take credit.
“Nobody knew that anything would happen to Umoru (Umaru) Yar’Adua. Again, I was blamed for that; that I knew he would die. But Umoru Yar’Adua gave me concrete evidence that he was well. I read the medical report and I even consulted with experts.”
Perverting God’s work
Reacting to a question from a lady in the audience on the recently passed anti-gay law, Obasanjo promptly declared: “I’m conservative and I have no apologies for that. Number two, I’m a Christian, you may think I’m not a practicing one but I am. Number three, I believe that the community, the nation starts from the family –man and woman. If God the creator wanted that kind of relationship, he would not have created male and female to multiply; to replenish the earth. I believe God doesn’t make a mistake and we should not pervert the work of God.
“Some people said it’s discriminatory but for me there is no unlimited freedom. All freedoms are limited. I can’t say I have freedom and start walking about the street naked. I have the freedom to do it but society will frown on it. If other people want to do it [gay] in their own society why must they force us to do it? Why must they say they won’t give us aid for not going into perversion like them? We don’t ask them to marry four wives and say if you don’t marry four wives, we don’t regard you as human being. They do serial polygamy; we do it nicely and properly. Let’s be sophisticated, civilized but there are certain cultures we must not imbibe.”
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