Dateline: November 22, 2012
A sprawling view of Abeokuta lay prostrate from his hilltop mansion – a metaphor for the clout of its owner, a man whose sheer strength of character held an impossible Nigeria in the palm of his hand for eight long years.
It is not for nothing that he is called Baba, yet another aphorism for some sort of a hard-to-get-to-know paterfamilias whose offspring would usually approach with great trepidation, not knowing exactly what to expect.
Long after he had left office, as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, General Olusegun Obasanjo’s home is still like pilgrimage ground, with hordes of visitors, trooping in and out,to hold court for one reason, or the other – Baba’s opinion, influence and wise counsel, still count.
The man is indeed an enigma: playful, as a kitten, wise as an oracle; hard, as a tornado-nail, wily, as a fox. You have to watch your step with the general, every step of the way.
When the reporter stepped into his living-room to keep the interview appointment, his face was buried, deep in a game of ‘ayo’ he was busy enjoying with a friend – a local – surrounded by visitors and more visitors, some waiting in an ante-chamber.
Without raising his face from the game and waving his left arm, almost hostilely, his well-known gravel-voice, barked out, with all the force of a subaltern marshalling a phalanx of his men into action, as my camera crew and team, moved our gear into place: “Where d’you want to set up?”
Yet, the next moment as he broached questions, he stuck out his hand at some point, to “take five” with the reporter, when he seemed ‘into the session’. He had been asked about the future of the youth of this country, his pet subject. He had also been referred to the rumour from some quarters, that he is a hater of the Igbo.
Well, if indeed he hates the Igbo, how come his government appointed the most number of Igbo to so-called powerful positions, perhaps more than any other government, since independence? How come his chief-of-staff – a young man he has described as “my beloved son, in whom I’m well pleased” – was also, Igbo?
His face lit up, as he took those questions on the youth, particularly on his closest aide whilst in office, Andy Uba: “Andy was the first man that saw me in the morning, when I woke up and the last man that saw me at night, before I went to bed…”
Of course, intermittently, flashes of his legendary disdain for the press came forth through the phrase, “you [press] people”.
No matter. As he took his seat before the camera, on a sculpted perch before his beloved ‘ayo’ board, the reporter was as determined, as General Obasanjo remained his combative, old self.
Your Excellency, only very recently, you were quoted by the media to have warned the government against an imminent youth revolution. You were also quoted to have described some of those young people as “Area Boys, Yahoo-Yahoo Boys, Blackberry Boys”. How do you project the future of this country, vis-à-vis this teeming young population that you so describe?
Let me first of all put that statement in the context which I made it. I was in Senegal at the invitation of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) and the issue for discussion was Youth and Employment.
The Chief of Staff of the President of Senegal, who represented the president, gave stunning statistics. One of the statistics he gave was that 65 per cent of our populations in Africa, on the average, are under 25 years of age and well over 60 per cent of them that are old enough to have jobs, have no jobs. Now, my reaction to that is that we are all sitting on a keg of gunpowder.
If you are a young man, or young woman, between say, 18 to 30 years, you think that the entire world is in front of you, that you can achieve anything you want to achieve. And, what do you do? You struggle, you are young, your parents sent you to primary school, by the time you leave primary school and go to secondary school, you start having the feeling that things are looking bright.
Then, you go to university and you come out and you look and it becomes a vapour – that hope, that expectation, just flies away in front of you, no hope for a job. Then, of course, you become an educated, jobless person. I believe there is no greater frustration than that. And when that frustration turns to desperation, there is danger. So, that’s why I said we are all sitting on a keg of gunpowder.
It is not only in Nigeria, it is all Africa. You can even take it as a global thing because Spain has about 50 per cent [youth unemployment rate] and they’re a little bit better and as I said in that conference, I don’t know whether to say we’re in good company, or in bad company, if Spain is like that. But Spain is a different issue because it is a member of the European Union. Spain has an organisation that can write a cheque for her and bail her out and do things that would help her situation. We don’t have anybody that can write a cheque for us.
I then went on to say that if this is a global problem and we are the worst hit, our youth are the greatest victims, we must be seen to be doing something about it. And what should we do? I believe we must find a global solution. I prescribed that now that the international community, the UN, is working on a replacement for the MDG, the Millennium Development Goals – because the MDG would come to an end in 2015 and they’re now wondering what to replace it with – and I say, whatever it is they come up with that would replace the MDG, must come up with one important element of it as, youth employment. That must be the global approach.
And I said, there must also be the regional solution. The AU, African Union, has something that we – myself, President Thabo Mbeki and President Bouteflika, when we were in government – initiated and worked on, which is called, NEPAD, New Partnership for Economic Development. I said the time has come when NEPAD must be reviewed,with the issue of youth employment, made a major focus of the organisation. I also said that even ECOWAS, (Economic Community of West African States) a sub-regional organisation, should do the same thing. And at the national level, all our nations should have, in their economic development, this aspect of youth development, so that when you make your budget, whether it is medium term budget, or annual budget, the content of your budget should be, when you spend this money, you earmark so much, either for agriculture, or for road, or for whatever, the question must be, what is its employment – particularly youth employment – content. You would build a road, yes, but what is its employment content? I also went ahead to suggest that our states should do the same thing, the local governments, should do the same thing. Even communities should be able to ask: what are we doing, to ensure that our youth are gainfully employed?
The private sector, too, must be challenged. They should not just come up and say, yeah, we’re doing well. And this so-called growth – oh, we grow by seven per cent GDP. We have growth, yet we have more poor people, more jobless people. How can you talk of growth without job for people, with people getting poorer and poorer? Then, there must be something wrong with that type of indicator for measuring our economic development.
Let us look at the National Youth Service Corps as a means of engaging our youth, presently. Today, it would appear that the purpose for which it was set up has been completely defeated and it turns out that young people, after graduating from higher institutions, simply drift around for one precious and critical year of their lives, out of school. Do you think the NYSC scheme should remain, or be scrapped, as many have voiced out?
The NYSC was not designed as a youth employment project. It was designed as a means of inculcating nationalism and patriotism into our youth, to render one year of service and thereby get to know their country. That was what the NYSC was designed for.
If you remember, when it was started, people objected to it and went on strike because at that point in time, things were still reasonably alright, from the youth employment point of view. In 1973, people went on strike and they didn’t like it. But today, some people go into NYSC even two or three times. There is nothing else they can do, even though they don’t get full salaries, they just get a token, but it is still better for them than just sitting down and doing nothing.
Yes, it was meant to give them that sense of being Nigerian. That was the idea. Initially, that objective was achieved. I remember, for instance, one of our traditional rulers whose daughter was getting married. He invited me and I sat with him and he complained: “you see, this NYSC thing that you people have created, my daughter is getting married to somebody across the Niger, what if there’s an emergency, how do I run across the Niger?”I said, don’t worry, you don’t have to run across the Niger. Nowadays, you don’t have to run at all. There is telephone, there is Internet, thereis email and so on.
To the extent that it was meant to bring about youth understanding of their country, youth love of their country, youth service for their country; nationalism, patriotism, I believe, at least initially, it achieved that. It also brought about this unity, people knowing themselves, inter-marriage and things like that.
Now, a number of things have crept in. They do community service, but that community service has not been organised the way it used to be and the way it was meant to be organised. In the last election, for instance, 13 Youth Corp members were killed. That doesn’t help the Youth Service scheme. We must all decry that, we must all condemn it. Now, those who killed them, what happened? What have we heard about them? If I have a child that I have seen through school and into Youth Service and I say, Youth Corps is meant for you to serve and he or she agrees with me and the next thing you know, my child’s body is brought home to me in a bag, how am I supposed to feel about the Service as a means of ministering to the youth and to my children?
So, what is your position, sir, do you think it should be scrapped?
I don’t think it should be scrapped, I think it should be reviewed. Where there are lapses, such shortcomings should be corrected. We should revisit the initial aims and objectives. Are those aims and objectives still relevant today? If they’re relevant, what has gone wrong in the operationalisation and what should we be doing? It is something that is good for the country. I believe it is good for the country.
Looking at the situation on ground, today, it would seem that your generation accomplished quite a lot. But as the days went by, the situation kept getting worse and the scale of generational achievement appears to be diminishing by the day. What do you think spurred your generation to its comparatively greater successes, as it were?
Now that you bring it to generation, I will speak generally about generation, but I do not believe that there is any generation that does not have heroic qualities in them. There is no generation that you would just write off. Of course, the situation in every generation varies. For instance, I have said that whatever we may say about the generation before our own generation, it is the generation that gave us independence. Whatever you may say about them, they gave us independence and that, you cannot deny. Well, they did not fight for it, it was given to them on a platter of gold, whatever you may say, they gave us independence.
(Cuts in)… Just like we cannot deny that General Obasanjo dismantled the power cartel that hitherto controlled Nigerian politics so viciously?
(Smiles, ignores the interjection and continues)…You also cannot deny – and I have said this – that my own generation fought for the unity of this country. Obasanjo just happened to be one of the feasible instruments, but my generation must claim credit for that. My generation can also be credited with laying the foundation of today’s democratic dispensation in Nigeria.
Now, about the opportunities the generation before us and our own generation have had, members of the present-day generation have asked me and I have said to them that they equally have the opportunity to build on the foundation that my own generation and the others, have laid – how do you enhance democracy, how do you strengthen and deepen democracy? That is the responsibility of the present generation and they can do it, and they must do it.How do they really make us have an economy? How do they make Nigeria, how do they make Nigeria one of the largest economies by the year, 2020? Now, that is their challenge and they must do it.
Then, you ask what the ingredients are, that make for greater success in one generation? Well, not every member of a particular generation would be outstanding. You have some that would be drivers, while others would be passengers. You may even have some that constitute a setback. But they are all members of the same generation. Having said that, there are certain qualities in individuals that, if developed and if the environment and the community help, that individual would become a very important contributor in that generation.
What am I saying? First of all, there must be education. For instance, you are talking to me now and we are communicating in the same language because you have education. If we were to go back to our respective mother-tongues, I won’t be able to understand what you’re saying. All I understand in Igbo is, “ogom”. And this is because when we were in Kaduna, whenever I went to my friend, Chukwuma Nzeogwu’s house, Mama (his mother) who never spoke a word of English would hug me and say, “ogom”. I wouldn’t know what to answer and Chukwuma would just laugh at us and say, “Look at these two people”. (I also understand, “dianyi” and I also understand, “ka chi fonu”).
Now seriously speaking, education is foremost. Then, there are those other qualities such as integrity, honesty, courage, truthfulness, so that when you say something, people can rely on it. If it however turns out that the information you had when you said a particular thing wasn’t adequate,you go back and correct it and say, look, in the light of new information I have, let me correct what I said earlier.These qualities must be developed – values. But what values do we stand for now?
When I was growing up, when you saw a man in a new car, you prayed for him because the belief was that he had worked hard, he had earned the car that he had acquired. You prayed for him and wished you would become like him some day. But, when I was in the Yola prison, each time we heard a siren blow past from behind our walls, all the prisoners would start cursing the man in the car, with the siren. So, one day I called them and said, look, what is all this? They replied and said all those people were thieves. So how did we degenerate to the point where we now believe that every car owner is a thief?
So, I told them that I bought my first car, brand-new, in 1961. I wasn’t a thief. I bought it with my own money. In 1960, I went to the Congo [war, with the UN contingent] and I was getting UN allowance, Nigerian allowance and my salary was kept, intact. And I came back and bought a car. Was I a thief? They said, oh no, no, no, your time was different. I think we should backtrack and find out what we have done wrong. How did we lose those values that we cherished so much, those values of integrity and hard work? Now, when you continue to extol a thief in your community, what do you expect?
Whilst I was growing up, the children of those who were known to be of bad character in the village were ostracised, not just the man but the entire family. But now, a thief, because he has money, would be the first you would want to give your daughter to. What sort of thing is that?
Let me ask you, Baba, you are a very strong personality and you simply held Nigeria in the palm of your hand…
(Cuts in, smiling)… I don’t know about that…
… How did you do it?
(Still smiling and general laughter)… I didn’t hold…you see, that again…that’s not correct…I didn’t hold Nigeria in the palm of my hand…
(Cuts in)… No leader has ever held Nigeria like that…a civilian government…what’s the secret?
(Continues)… Look, let me tell you, whatever you’re going to do, you must know it, you must understand it. I think without being immodest, I know Nigeria a little bit and that is very important. This country is a complex one and you must know that.
I was in Warri the other day and I was saying to them that when I was going to contest election in 1999, people, including a Bishop of the Anglican Church, were saying to me and, listen to this: that a Yoruba man had never held the Ministry of Internal Affairs at the Centre – and these were well-meaning people. Now, I know that there is nothing in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, except the Prisons and Immigration. That is reality and the reality, for me, is that there is really nothing important in that ministry. But the perception is different and I must cater to that perception.
So, when we won the election, I said well, if there were some people who felt that there was a particular ministry that the Yoruba were excluded from, then let a Yoruba man go there. I decided that Chief S. M. Afolabi should go there (May his soul rest in Peace). Of course, I knew S. M. Afolabi, he was my senior in secondary school. So I said, now you have a Yoruba man in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and they said: yes, yes, yes! But what does it really come to?
In the same vein, we had an Igbo lady as Minister of Finance. We had an Igbo man (nice man) as Governor of Central Bank. Yet, some people said the Igbos were still not pleased. Why? They said, since the end of the civil war, an Igbo man had never been Minister of Defence. I then explained that the Minister of Defence is only an administrative head of the ministry. Those people that really matter are the service chiefs, who command their services. They said nooo. So I said, alright, don’t worry. If that is the perception, we can deal with it. So, I brought Tom Ironsi, the son of my own oga – I went to the Congo in 1960, under the command of General Ironsi. I satisfied the reality, I also satisfied the perception.
It may not mean anything to other people, but you must know how you carry out the checks and balances. Then also, if things happen, who are the people you can reach? Who are the people you can call? Who are the people that can advice you, genuinely? You must have all of that. For a country like this, you must have that. It is this feeling of knowing what rope, what chain, to pull, that makes a difference.