In Defence of Obasanjo


Nigerians are harsh judges and critics.  With some justification they reserve their harshest criticism for their governments and public leaders.  Thanks to decades of misrule and corrupt incompetence, the stock and respect for public officials has fallen to rock bottom.   Nigerians may have become so accustomed to bad governance that they have blinded themselves to the positives of the last government.  In their reflective lacerating criticism the government of the immediate past President Olusegun Obasanjo has taken a battering in public opinion and has been compared to the worst regimes in Nigeria's history.  The test of a government's achievements (or lack thereof) should be whether it left the country in a better position than that in which it found it.  The answer to this question in the case of the Obasanjo government is "yes".  This article seeks to show that the achievements of the Obasanjo government in some key areas have been ignored. 

International standing 

After years of brutal and repressive military dictatorship under General Sani Abacha, Nigeria's name was mud in international circles.  Nigeria had been suspended from the Commonwealth and had a visa embargo placed on members of its government.  The U.S., U.N., Britain and Amnesty International all frequently issued damning condemnations of the misrule and corruption in Nigeria, its gross human rights abuses and the engagement of many of its citizens in international drug trafficking.  When Nigeria's last military ruler General Abdulsalam Abubakar announced plans to return the country to civilian democratic rule in 1998, another former military ruler (General Ibrahim Babangida) stated that the new ruler had to be someone who has "an excellent understanding of our political history……he would have to have an understanding of the military – so we could do business with him".  Obasanjo certainly fit the bill.  Obasanjo's major rival as Presidential candidate of the PDP was the erudite Alex Ekwueme.  One commentator metaphorically referred to the contrasting background and temperament of the two men by describing Ekwueme as a chauffeur driver and Obasanjo as a truck driver.  He concluded by stating that Nigeria needs a truck driver to steer it.   

When the "truck driver" Obasanjo came to power some western diplomats privately conceded that he was the best they could hope for in the circumstances. Like Britain's former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Obasanjo was a Head of State more popular and respected abroad than in his own country.  He had cultivated an image as an international statesman with the pivotal mediating role he played as one of the Commonwealth's "Eminent Persons" group who negotiated the release of Nelson Mandela.  He was the first (and at that time only) Nigerian leader to have voluntarily relinquished power and handed it over to an elected leader.  He had also at one point also been a leading candidate to become UN Secretary-General.  These feats were not lost on the international community.  His personal standing with world leaders and the prestige of his economic team helped Nigeria to reschedule and repay its Paris club debt, and in the process Nigeria became the first African country to repay its Paris club debt. Between 1979 and 1999 Nigeria had accumulated external debts of over $30 billion.  That $30 billion debt which took two decades to accumulate has been reduced to under $5 billion in the space of eight years under Obasanjo. 

The Army 

Decades of military coups and misrule ensured that Obasanjo inherited the most thoroughly politicized army in the world. Some elements of the army were viewed as little more than armed political parties that could threaten the existence of any civilian government.  Thus when in 1999, Obasanjo became Nigeria's first democratic President for 15 years, the fear was that it would only be a matter of time before the army found an excuse to abandon the barracks for another government rescue operation.  In his outgoing speech in 1993, the then Chief of Army Staff Lt-General Salihu Ibrahim revealed how deep the rot was.  Describing the Nigerian army as "an army of anything goes", Ibrahim added: 

"I hold the strong view that any military organization that intends to remain professional and relevant to its calling ,has no business meddling in the political affairs of the country…It is an open secret that some officers openly preferred political appointments to regimental appointments, no matter the relevance of such appointments to their careers…we became an army where subordinate officers would not only be contemptuous of their superiors ,but would exhibit total disregard to legitimate instructions by such superiors…We created such a situation whereby we were operating mini-armies within the larger Nigerian army." 

The fear and threat of a military coup was very real, as since 1966, the military had tolerated civilian rule for only 4 years, and busied themselves with Machiavellian coups and counter-coups.  These coups have almost always been carried out by the same group of soldiers. The young NCOs and Lieutenants that blasted Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi from power in 1966 became Colonels that overthrew his successor General Gowon in 1975, and they became the Brigadiers and Major-Generals that overthrew President Shagari on the last day of 1983. One of the aides of Obasanjo's predecessor as Head of State General Abdulsalam Abubakar was quoted by the Guardian of London in 1998 as follows: 

"Cadet officers now talk openly not of having the ambition to become a battalion commander but of what they would like to do when they become governors of a state.  The politicization of the military has gone too far." 

There was a genuine need to restructure and de-politicize the army and the international diplomats at one stage mooted a radical an ambitious plan to retire all officers above the rank of Major using a one billion pound retirement fund to finance early retirement packages for middle and senior officers.    However no one was prepared to undertake a dangerous operation like a mass demobilization in the army which was regarded as untouchable.  General Murtala Muhammed had after all been assassinated by officers opposed to his demobilization plans.  The military was so politically powerful at 1999 that the incumbent service chiefs of the army, navy and air force (Lt-General Ishaya Bamaiyi, Vice-Admiral Jubril Ayinla and Air Marshal Nsikak Eduok respectively) initially refused to retire when the army handed over to a democratic government in May 1999.  Only after weeks of national debate were they persuaded to stand down. 

Within Obasanjo's first month in power in 1999, the government drew up a list of all armed forces officers that had served in military governments for 6 months or more.  All such officers (numbering over 100) were compulsorily retired.  The retirements swept out a number of immensely powerful and wealthy officers who could have been sources of future political discontent and coup plots.  The retired political officers included Major-General Patrick Aziza (who chaired the ‘coup' tribunal that convicted Obasanjo and Shehu Musa Yar'Adua in 1995), Air Vice Marshal Idi Musa (accused of framing up Diya and co during the 1999 coup plot), former Abacha regime members Major-Generals Bashir Magashi, Abdullahi Mukhtar and Chris Garuba (former Commandant of the National War College), the former commander of the Brigade of Guards Brigadier Yakubu Muazu, the former Military Governor of Rivers State Colonel Dauda Musa Komo (who was instrumental in events leading up to the arrest and detention of Ken Saro-Wiwa), Major General John Mark Inienger (former ECOMOG commander), Air Vice Marshal Idi Musa (former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency who was accused by some of being one of those that framed Diya, Adisa and Olanrewaju in the 1997 coup plot against Abacha) and the popular and powerful former Military Governor of Lagos Brigadier Mohammed Marwa.  The 8 year period that Obasanjo governed in (1999-2007) is the longest period of time in Nigeria's history without a military coup.  It is no coincidence that a coup failed to occur in the absence of the retired political officers.  Under Obasanjo the army was commanded by apolitical professional officers such as General Martin Luther Agwai, who was recently moved to command the UN force in Darfur. 

Obasanjo also broke the northern stranglehold on leadership of the army.  Since the overthrow of General Gowon in 1975, there have been 16 Chiefs of Army Staff.  All but 3 of these 16 have been northerners.  The three southerners to hold the post (Lt-General Alani Akinrinade, Generals Alexander Ogomudia and Andrew Owoye Azazi) were all appointed by Obasanjo. 


A frequently made and unjustified accusation made against Obasanjo is that he is "anti-Igbo".  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Quite frankly, Igbos have never had it as good as they have under Obasanjo.  Obasanjo's cabinet included among its senior ministers Mrs Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Finance Minister) and Tom Aguiyi-Ironsi (Defense Secretary) the son of Nigeria's first military Head of State Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi.  With Professor Charles Soludo in charge of the CBN and Okonjo-Iweala in charge of the finance ministry, Obasanjo had literally given Igbos control of the economy and financial sector.  In the military sphere Obasanjo has also rehabilitated Igbos into leadership positions.  The current Chief of Air Staff Air Marshal Paul Dike is the first Igbo in the 93 year history of Nigeria to ever head the air force. He was appointed by….Obasanjo.  Dike is now also the highest ranking Igbo officer in the history of the Nigerian armed forces.  His rank is equivalent to that of a Lt-General in the army.  A decade ago appointing Igbos to head sensitive security positions such as the Defense Ministry and the air force would have been taboo. 


Nigeria has had several powerful Communications Ministers such as Joseph Tarka and Brigadiers Murtala Muhammed and David Mark.  The latter once infamously declared that telephones were not meant to be utilized by poor people. Several attempts to bring mass communication to Nigeria between independence in 1960 and 1999 had brought no tangible benefits.  Businessmen frequently traveled for miles and hours to attend meetings that could be resolved with a brief telephone conversation.  The state owned telecommunications company Nitel was known only for poor service and faulty phones which would never connect calls, and telephone lines that would result in crossed lines or connections to the wrong line on the rare occasions that calls were put through.  All that changed with the liberalization and privatization of the telecoms sector which made mobile telephones easily affordable and obtainable by the rich and common alike.  Nigeria is the fastest growing mobile telephony market in the world.  The rapid spread of mobile telephones has also made business easier for the micro-entrepreneur who is now able to submit orders by telephone rather than by making long and hazardous road journeys for face to face meetings.  It has also allowed Nigerians in the Diaspora to easily maintain contact with relatives and loved ones back in Nigeria, whereas only a few years ago Nigerians overseas would often go for years without speaking to their families in Nigeria due to the unreliability of local telephones.  The social and economic benefits brought by the spread of mobile phones in Nigeria has been greatly understated and Obasanjo's government has not been given sufficient credit for those benefits.  


I do not make a dramatic statement by stating that corruption in private and government spheres has been a massive obstacle to Nigeria's development.  One need only consider the scandal of the missing Gulf War oil windfall, and the houses full of government cash kept by former government figures such as former National Security Adviser Ismaila Gwarzo, and the former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory Lt-General Jerry Useni. On his release from prison in 1998, Obasanjo declared that "Our moral standards have really, really gone down.  Nigeria needs a moral and spiritual regeneration."  On becoming President he declared that fighting corruption would be one of his primary aims. He created the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission – the first body in Nigerian history totally dedicated to combating corruption.  To head this body, Obasanjo appointed the tenacious police officer Nuhu Ribadu who was so aggressively dedicated to his task that he did not hesitate to expose corruption in his own organization (the police force).  He even indicted his own boss (the former Inspector-General of police Tafa Balogun), leading to his boss' dismissal, arrest and imprisonment.  For the first time in Nigerian history, government ministers have been convicted of corruption and imprisoned under a civilian regime.  The list of those indicted include the former Governor of Plateau State Joshua Dariye and the former Governor of Bayelsa State Diepreye Alamieyeseigha.  The corruption in Nigeria is too deeply rooted to be removed by a short term campaign. Only a prolonged decades long continuous assault on corruption and re-orientation of values will bring corruption down to manageable levels.  Nonetheless the EFCC has at least created public consciousness of the anti-corruption campaign and made it a talking point.  This is reflected in the saying on Nigerian streets that "the fear of EFCC is the beginning of wisdom". 

The OBJ Kitchen Cabinet 

Rather than appoint cronies and his kinsmen to key government positions, Obasanjo assembled an impressive team of capable reformers such as the internationally acclaimed former Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (a former World Bank officer), the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria Professor Charles Soludo, the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory Nasir El-Rufai, the EFCC Chairman Nuhu Ribadu, and the NAFDAC Director-General Professor Dora Akunliyi.  Each of the foregoing has distinguished themselves and performed admirably in their portfolio.  Professor Soludo has totally revamped Nigeria's banking sector and Mrs Okonjo-Iweala was the architect of Nigeria's debt rescheduling and repayment plan which led to the repayment of its debt to the Paris Club.  In 2006 Soludo won two awards by being named the most outstanding central bank governor in the world, and in Africa. 

The author is no Obasanjo acolyte or apologist and concedes that is flawed.  The only objective barometer by which Obasanjo can be assessed is by comparing him to his predecessors.  On that front he cannot be accused of not having love for Nigeria in his heart, and he has managed to positively impact the lives of Nigeria's citizens more than his predecessors Abacha and Babangida.  The comparisons of him to Abacha are laughable.  Abacha had no reform programme or political plan other than his bid to transform himself from a military to civilian dictator.  There are several spheres in which Obasanjo could have performed better, but in criticizing his governance, the critics should also show objectivity by highlighting his achievements.