Lunch with the FT

December 10, 2010 6:23 pm

Dinner with the FT: Olusegun Obasanjo

The former Nigerian president – who is regarded by his countrymen as either saint or sinner – talks about darkness and light
Olusegun Obasanjo

On a good day it takes less than two hours to drive from Lagos to Abeokuta, a scruffy provincial backwater in the south-west of Nigeria. But on this day the omens are not good: leaden clouds hang low as I set off through grinding traffic towards the Ibadan expressway – in a closely fought competition, perhaps Africa’s most anarchic highway.

I am on my way to meet Olusegun Obasanjo, twice Nigeria’s head of state. The former general and president now lives in a newly built villa overlooking the town of his birth, but both his globetrotting and his position as a political godfather ahead of an election year make him a busy man to pin down. He has, his nephew informs me, a one-day window between trips to New York and Kuala Lumpur when we might meet.

Love him or loathe him – and on this Nigerians are deeply divided – Obasanjo has played a central role in his country’s history in the half century since it gained independence from Britain. “If, as [the writer and academic] Chinua Achebe said, Nigeria’s problem is that of leadership, then Obasanjo, having ruled for nearly 12 of Nigeria’s 50 years of independence, is a quarter of our problems,” one Nigerian columnist wrote last month after the country’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

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Lunch with the FT

The journey to Abeokuta provides a cross-section of the poverty, aspiration and burgeoning consumerism that is Nigeria today. When the traffic slows – which it does, frequently – beggars and hawkers shimmy between expensive cars in search of benefactors. As we pick up speed in the Lagos outskirts Pentecostal churches in vast corrugated iron warehouses jostle similar looking factories, both manufacturing hope of salvation. Forced off the expressway by a 20-mile tailback in the wake of an upturned oil tanker, we make our way back country, past rickety shops with names such as “Too much investments ltd? Store your treasures in heaven” and “Appointed time with God barbing salon.”

By the time I reach Obasanjo’s villa, short on food but long on spiritual inspiration, the heavens have unleashed a downpour and it is way past lunchtime. Obasanjo, I am told as I am ushered into a waiting room full of provincial wheeler-dealers, politicians and road-weary dignitaries from Lagos, has gone out. I have all but despaired of meeting with the former president when I receive a phone call inviting me to join him, a short drive away, at the US-style presidential library he is erecting as a monument to his years in office.

In a temporary building crowded with pictures of the big man’s life, about 20 people sit round a table. For an hour the arcane finances of the library project are discussed – a mix of bank credit and donations in money and kind – and there is debate about the ethics of using tithes from an adjoining chapel to finance the library.

“As a military man, I don’t want complicated accounting,” Obasanjo, now an oak-like 73, chides his audience. “The accounting I did in the army they called ‘income and expenditure’. If expenditure is more than income, you know, you are in debt,” he says, to chuckles all round.

Baba, as he is referred to affectionately, seems on form. By nature a tough paternalist known for his homespun philosophy, he mediates between squabbling foremen, jokes and jostles, providing instant decisions on everything from paint supplies to toilets for the disabled; only occasional flashes of anger silence the room. By now it is late afternoon and Obasanjo suggests dinner in lieu of lunch. So we climb into an armoured Range Rover and make our way back up the hill to his villa – a functional rather than ostentatious building big enough to lodge an army of hangers-on.

The table in the dining room is laid for 18. On a flatscreen television at one end of the room Chelsea is beating Marseilles; a radio in another corner competes with bursts of Christian song. Stragglers from the household are invited in for supper, their attention divided between our discussion at one end of the table and football at the other.

I had been looking forward to some Yoruba cooking: bush meat in a groundnut sauce, perhaps, or giant peppery snails like slabs of cow’s liver. But when a servant hurries in, he is carrying a plate of plain rice accompanied by pawpaws and grapes. He rests it between piles of papers in front of the master of the house. Obasanjo, who has recently married again, explains: his wife, Pauline, has combined forces with physicians to impose – for health reasons – a strict regimen of starch, fruit and fibres.

I try to tease something more substantial out of the kitchen. In the 1980s, when the former general had retired from his frontline role, he became Nigeria’s most prodigious chicken farmer. He now produces snails, cane rat and pigs as well, he tells me.

A sturdy beef stew with rice is brought. Water is dispensed all round and I ask Obasanjo whether the ban he imposed on imported chickens when he was president had helped his business to grow.

“Chicken is one thing that any idiot can produce. Now, if you want me to open the Nigerian market so chicken can be dumped from Brazil or somewhere? No,” he responds with mild irritation and a diatribe on European double standards. Like many African peers who cut their teeth as leaders in the 1970s, when import substitution was fashionable, Obasanjo has swallowed the new orthodoxy of freer trade with about as much conviction as he has his new diet.

We in the west subsidise our cattle to the tune of $2 a day, he says, picking at the pawpaws, but we get all agitated when the developing world dares, in whatever diluted form, to follow suit. Yet Europeans wring their hands over the fate of people earning less than they pay to support their cows. “If protecting industry and jobs for Nigeria is fiddling with tariffs, I learnt it from Britain,” he says.

His farms are prospering, he goes on. He runs them a little like his library project: “I co-ordinate. I give direction where it is necessary.” I recollect seeing Obasanjo in Abuja when he was running the country, his desk piled high with papers awaiting his signature. Everything was delegated – upwards where, with occasional imperiousness that sat uneasily with the new civilian dispensation, Obasanjo called the shots.

Nigeria, and indeed many African nations undergoing the transition from authoritarian rule, is torn by the need for strong, decisive leadership and a desire for political choice and devolution. Obasanjo’s instincts, honed in the army, are towards the former, one explanation for the impassioned opposition he inspires.

When he took office again in 1999, the world price of oil – on which the state typically depends for more than 90 per cent of export earnings – was at record lows. The coffers had been stripped by the outgoing military regime and the industry was under siege by militants in the oil-producing Niger delta demanding a greater share of the revenues. At the time, Nigerians questioned whether enough resources were available to hold the nation together. Some of Obasanjo’s friends told him he was mad to take the job. “You will be the last president of Nigeria, they said. It will fall apart. But we managed to hold things together,” he says.

He attributes the violence of the early years of this century, in which more than 10,000 Nigerians died in ethnic and religious clashes, to the political change that was under way. “Under the military a lot had been bottled up. When suddenly you remove the lid ... people test how far they can go.”

Nigeria is doing much better now, he insists. Politicians are becoming more able, he believes, although on what evidence it is not clear. Coups, and there have been six since 1960, are a thing of the past, he ventures, thanks to his own efforts at professionalising the army. And, amid burgeoning global demand for the commodities Africa has in abundance, energy-rich Nigeria has an opportunity to prosper on a more equal footing. “There is still a role for our traditional friends to play. We should not ignore them and they should not take us for granted,” he says, adding that the west should not be unduly worried by any loss of influence as a result of China, India and other emerging power engagement with the continent. “Africa needs as many friends as possible. And if anything there should be co-operation from east and west, to pull Africa up.”

He is careful not to knock his successors – whom he handpicked and saw through chaotic elections marred by fraud. But there is one thing agitating him about their management of the oil boom. He left office with Nigeria’s once crippling foreign liabilities cleared – thanks, he says, partly to the backing he won from Tony Blair in his bid to win debt relief. He says the treasury had amassed $40bn in foreign reserves and an extra $20bn in earnings above the budgeted oil price were stored up in a savings account to protect the country from price swings but his successors have blown $37bn of these savings in just over three years and have little to show for it.

“The way Nigeria has managed its oil is awful. It drew everybody away from other businesses so they saw only oil – upstream, downstream, whatever stream,” he says.

By now we have both devoured our supper and he offers me some wine. A bottle of bordeaux is duly brought. I pour myself a glass before moving on to the scourge of Nigeria: corruption.

Obasanjo’s record on this is ambiguous. On the one hand he was a founding member of Transparency International and in office passed strong anti-corruption laws and empowered a special unit to track down offenders. On the other he stands accused of using this unit for political ends, going after rivals and adversaries, while seemingly allowing some allies to flourish on ill-gotten gains. Was it necessary to accommodate a certain amount of graft to get things done? I wonder aloud. Had he too found it necessary to dabble in the dark arts?

Sensitive about his legacy, Obasanjo finds the question exasperating. You know this when he addresses you as “my dear”. “Please, my dear,” he answers, “There is no dark side I believed should be taken on that I did not take on.” This brings him back to western double standards. We in the west harp on about corruption but barely scrutinise our own role in it. We expect impossibly high standards of African elections and then chose which governments to hector on the subject according to our interests.

It is hard to argue with that. His countrymen, though, are far crueller in their assessment of his record on both matters. For some he is the best president the country has had. A more vocal camp sees him as an architect of Nigeria’s failures.

“Without Churchill, Britain would have been submerged by the Nazis. You didn’t even wait till the second world war was over before getting him out. But he was luckier than most other leaders because within a few years he was re-elected and declared the man of the century. Many leaders aren’t that lucky.”

By now we have been talking for more than an hour and a swarm of new guests is gathering round the table, including some American aviation consultants bearing gifts. It is too late to get back to Lagos, so I am guided to what feels like a hotel room several floors down on the side of the hill. Just after dawn there is an intimate service, involving singing, clapping and an invigorating sermon that speaks of the prophet Jeremiah’s travails in prison. During the three years he spent behind bars as a political prisoner of Sani Abacha, the penultimate and most brutal of Nigeria’s military dictators, Obasanjo became a born-again Christian. The experience, he says, taught him “patience ... In prison you are not hurrying anywhere.”

At close quarters it is hard not to warm to the man. He has a winning sense of humour and unshakeable belief in self as well as country: “I love Nigeria,” he says over breakfast. “Some people see that as a weakness.” There is also a streak of ruthlessness and a Machiavellian ability to steer a political course between dark and light. It is a mix well-suited to the complex task of governing Africa’s most populous nation but perhaps less so to the role of former statesman. He is no saint, as his first wife makes plain in a searing account of their marriage published recently in Nigeria, but is he the scheming, vindictive and ultimately corrupting influence he is portrayed as now in much of the Nigerian press? Certainly, he will never admit as much. “Human beings are what they are: ungrateful souls,” he says of all the sniping. “That is why I am very happy with my animals and birds I rear on the farm,” he says, showing a hint of disingenuity and no sign of withdrawing from the fray.

William Wallis is the FT’s Africa editor

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Olusegun Obasanjo’s villa

Abeokuta, Ogun

Rice

Pawpaws

Grapes

Beef stew

Water

Bottle bordeaux

Total No charge

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From battlefield to ballot box

Olusegun Obasanjo was born to humble farming stock outside Abeokuta in the ethnic Yoruba heartland. The town and its environs have spawned a number of illustrious sons, among them the late Fela Kuti of Afrobeat legend, Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate, and with almost 12 years at the summit, Nigeria’s longest serving head of state.

A product of turbulent history, Obasanjo rose to prominence through army ranks after being trained at Aldershot in the UK. He served in the United Nations’ first ever peacekeeping force, during the Congo crisis in 1960, and after returning to Nigeria led federal troops in the battle that ended the Biafran civil war. He became head of state in 1976 after Murtala Muhammed, to whom he was deputy, was killed in a botched coup.

One of only a handful of African military rulers to relinquish power after overseeing elections, Obasanjo started farming in 1979, helped found corruption watchdog Transparency International and, as a member of the Commonwealth’s eminent person’s group, lobbied for the end of apartheid in South Africa.

In 1999, following years of coups, counter-coups and military misrule, he was encouraged to stand for election and was propelled back to the presidency. At the time, Nigeria was threatening to break apart again. There was less optimism about Africa’s future then and trepidation as much as hope about Nigeria’s role in it.

Obasanjo, however, was considered a safe pair of hands with the international standing necessary to rehabilitate Nigeria’s reputation. His credentials had been burnished during three years as a political prisoner of Sani Abacha, the penultimate and most brutal of the country’s military dictators.

He steered Nigeria through precarious times, wiping out its once crippling external debt, unleashing some of its business potential and restoring its influence, as Africa’s most populous nation, on the continent and in the world.

His achievements have, however, been eclipsed in the eyes of some of his countrymen, hoping for faster transformation of the way things are run. After eight years back at the top he left office in 2007 vilified among many fellow Nigerians for having failed to root out the venal political culture he had previously campaigned against. He was also blamed for depriving the country of a smooth democratic evolution, after handing over in chaotic elections to a hand-picked successor, the chronically ill Umaru Yar’Adua, who died in office earlier this year.

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