A Great Old Man of Africa

Olusegun Obasanjo

Imagine you have led a country for years as a soldier and then also as a politician and reached the age of 80 this year. How would you spend your days? All of the above is true for Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, who did not opt for relaxation in his retirement. On the contrary.

“He is not just an African icon, but a global public good who never says no to a challenge”, said former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan of Obasanjo in relation to his 80th birthday this March. A Western diplomat said of the Nigerian politician that he intends to sit in the passenger seat giving advice and ready to grab the wheel if Nigeria goes off course. Obasanjo was replaced as Head of State in 2007 after eight years, but the above two statements have remained true for him ever since. It is true that there is a lot to do in his home country of Nigeria, as well as in the whole Africa.

He met Boko Haram

When we hear about the terrible acts of Boko Haram, an extremist Islamic terrorist organisation, it is difficult to imagine discussing problems at the table and trying to find a solution. Obasanjo did just that, and not only once. When, in August 2011 Boko Haram carried out an attack in Nigeria that claimed more than twenty lives, Obasanjo sat down to meet the representatives of the organisation in Maiduguri in September. He also did the same in spring, 2014, following the kidnapping of 223 schoolgirls by the terrorists in the northern part of the country with a threat to sell them as slaves. It is also true that the outcomes of the negotiations unclear. For example, the meeting in 2011 ended in bloodshed. The representative of the organisation, Babakura Fugu, was killed after he had received the former President and tried to build a relationship between him and Boko Haram.

Obasanjo does not wish to play the role of a wise old man, resolving everything. In relation to the terrorist organisation, for example, he stressed the following in an interview in 2015: “You do not have to tell us that this is a problem, the problem of inequality and exclusion. It is a problem because education is a fundamental requirement of employment and living conditions. If you are uneducated, you have a disadvantage.” He believes that, when the extremists are willing to talk, you must meet them, regardless of the awful acts they are committing.

He carries the fate of Africa in his heart

It is a fact that, by now, certain territories in Nigeria have been recaptured from Boko Haram. Last year, Obasanjo was both hopeful and prudent when asked to describe developments, saying that, although the fact that the organisation had been pushed back was clearly positive, they still had a lot to do before peace and stability could be restored. He thought that a great deal of attention had to be devoted, especially, to the most vulnerable people in those most frequently disrupted areas, i.e., women and children.

According to UN surveys, due to the terror imposed by the extremists, at the moment, more than one million people are starving and 500,000 children are seriously undernourished in Nigeria. In December, UNICEF estimated that 80,000 Nigerian children would die of starvation. The economic difficulties and the deeply-rooted corruption only make the situation worse.

Obasanjo stands up not only for Nigeria, but also for the matters of his greater home, the African continent. He holds important roles in a number of organisations. Together with more than one hundred Presidents and Prime Ministers of the independent, non-profit Club de Madrid, elected earlier democratically, he also works intensively for democracy and positive changes in the international community.

The peace intermediary

As the head of the observation mission of the African Union, the regional organisation of the continent, he has monitored presidential elections in a number of African states over the past few years, including Ghana, in 2012, and Zimbabwe, in 2013. When demonstrations were organised before the Senegalese Presidential elections in 2012, he also offered his help as intermediary to the political parties in order to ensure a free and fair election.

Former UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, sought Obasanjo’s assistance in relation to the Democratic Republic of Congo, which had been ravaged by war since 1998. As the great old man of Africa and the UN Special Envoy, he chaired a number of meetings between President Joseph Kabila and guerrilla leader, Laurent Nkunda. Obasanjo is also included among the ten indispensably important members of the African Development Panel, led by Kofi Annan. Like others, the former president of Nigeria also has effective contacts in the major political, economic and cultural groupings around the world. The Development Panel publishes an African Development Report every year, in which the most urgent issues of the continent are discussed and proposals put forward for their resolution.

Politics instead of car repair

Olusegun Obasanjo, or the great old man of Africa, was born in Abeokuta, western Nigeria, eighty years ago. As a young boy, he idolised his father’s car mechanic relative and wished to become one too. However, on the way home from the fields one day, his father told him that he needed education.

He joined the Nigerian Army at the age of 21 and was gradually promoted up the ranks while serving in India, during the Congo crisis and the civil war in his own country. In February 1976, he was put in charge of the country as Commander-in-Chief of the Army. That lasted until October 1979, when the democratically elected Shehu Shagari became Head of State.

In the 1990s, his regular outspoken criticism of the dictatorship of Sani Abacha many times in the 1990s saw him serve time in prison. After his release in 1998, he continued his work in politics and was democratically elected Head of State the following year. During the two terms of his Presidency, he managed to improve the Nigerian economy somewhat and he has continued working for his country and for Africa, ever since his retirement in 2007.

Obasanjo has been married four times and has 19 biological children and 1 adopted child, some of whom have had considerable careers in Nigeria, in the United States and in Great Britain.

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