One on One with H.E. Obasanjo

By: Editor In Chief
Tue 17 March,2015

Former President of Nigeria H.E. Oluṣẹgun Mathew Okikiọla Arẹmu Ọbasanjọ

Filed Under: International Diplomacy

Oluṣẹgun Mathew Okikiọla Arẹmu Ọbasanjọ, born on the 5th March 1938, is a former Nigerian Army general who was President of Nigeria from 1999 to 2007. A Nigerian of Yoruba descent, Obasanjo was a career soldier before serving twice as his nation's head of state, as a military ruler from 13 February 1976 to 1 October 1979 and as a democratically elected president from 29 May 1999 to 29 May 2007.

As a young man of 21, he enlisted in the Nigerian Army in 1958. He trained at Aldershot, and was commissioned as an officer in the Nigerian Army. He was also trained in India at the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington and at the Indian Army School of Engineering. He served at 1 Area Command in Kaduna. Promoted to Chief Army Engineer, he was made commander of 2 Area Command from July 1967, which was redesignated 2 Division Rear, and then the Ibadan Garrison Organization. He was also trained in DSSC, Wellington.


In the 1999 elections, the first in sixteen years, Obasanjo decided to run for the presidency as the candidate of the People's Democratic Party (PDP). Obasanjo won with 62.6% of the vote, sweeping the strongly Christian Southeast and the predominantly Muslim north, but decisively lost his home region, the Southwest, to his fellow-Yoruba and Christian, Olu Falae, the only other candidate. 29 May 1999, the day Obasanjo took office as the first elected and civilian head of state in Nigeria after 16 years of military rule, is now commemorated as Democracy Day, a public holiday in Nigeria.

Obasanjo spent most of his first term travelling abroad. He succeeded in winning at least some Western support for strengthening Nigeria's nascent democracy. Britain and the United States, in particular, were glad to have an African ally.


Before Obasanjo's administration Nigeria's GDP growth had been painfully slow since 1987, and only managed 3 per cent between 1999/2000. However, under Obasanjo the growth rate doubled to 6 per cent until he left office, helped in part by higher oil prices. Nigeria's foreign reserves rose from $2 billion in 1999 to $43 billion on leaving office in 2007. He was able to secure debt pardons from the Paris and London club amounting to some $18 billion and paid another $18 Billion to be debt free. Most of these loans were accumulated from short term trade arrears during the exchange control period. (Point of correction). Most of these loans were accumulated not out of corruption but during a period 1982-1985 when Nigeria operated exchange control regime that vested all foreign exchange transactions on the central bank of Nigeria. The naira exchange rate to the US dollar and other major currencies during this period was highly regulated and artificially high. Nigerian importers paid local currency equivalent to the central bank through their local commercial banks but during the oil glut period of 1982-86 when foreign exchange was scarce the central bank did not have enough foreign exchange to pay for current imports. This resulted in short term foreign trade payment arrears. Short term trade arrears averaged about US$3.0 billion each year between 1983 and 1986 when the new military government of General Babangida floated the naira and imports were thereafter paid for on a current basis. Nigeria stopped accumulating short term foreign trade payment arrears beginning from 1986. Before then yearly accumulation of around US$3.0 billion created the foreign debt for Nigeria.


LEADERS Middle East caught up with President Obasanjo, during his visit to the UAE for the Knowledge and Skill Forum, held in Dubai on the 15th-16th of March 2015.


What is the current political situation in terms of leadership in West Africa?

Leadership matters as well as institutions and organizations, so when you ask whether any large city or any human community particularly in our countries if leadership is a problem I would say to a large extend that it is a leadership problem.


There has always been some people that are fundamentalists and we have them in all religions and they are not limited to a particular religion, I don’t think that by itself is a problem but its what they do either because of real grievance or injustice and that is a issue of leadership and government. 


Given that Nigeria is heading towards elections what do you have to say on the current position of your country?


The good thing about democracy that we are trying to practice in our country is that the people have a choice to bring about change, a change of policy, a change of direction or an alternative where the people bring about a change of regime or personality and I believe that when the election comes in less than two weeks from now it will bring a change, either a change of policy, change of direction, regime or personality.


You have mentioned in your speech the long-term routes of terrorism and the things like policy and literacy and long-term solutions will also be improved in education and jobs. In the short-term, what do you think the response should be?


In the short term I think we have to apply two things, we have to apply the stick and we have to offer the carrot. The stick would be the military and the carrot would be where we have failed in the area of development particular in education and employment. We need to keep focus on the further development of education and an increase of employment within the country as well as maintain a strong military force.


You talk about the issue of leadership what can African leadership lend to this crisis given that this problem has been going on for a long time, why are not other former heads of state or other influential people lending their support to resolve the problem?


I have always maintained that the political leader must first of all give good governance in all ramification and that is very important in order to have the people believe in your honesty and trust. You can’t not have corruption and expect people to feel happy.  You have to be honest to the people and tell them the truth.


How are world leaders thinking in the direction of countering fundamentalism effective solutions to countering radicalism?


There is nothing that you can do to change the mind of a fundamentalist regardless of their educational background. The story of religion has nothing to do with your beliefs



Can you tell us how you can make sure that students in school are no longer a target for terror?


This new phenomenon of attacks on schools is a new development of people that have felt deceived or real injustice within the community that they are in or within a larger nation and then they decide to protest violently against the rest of the community and not just against those that are responsible.

National leaders, international leaders, international communities have to attend to those who perceive grievances and in justices.



Are you saying that through education that policy makers have to counter terrorism and if so what is the right educational approaches that we can use.


I am one of those who believe there must be the right religious and moral training in schools because there is no religion that teaches you to go and kill your fellow human beings. There must be religious training, moral education, civic responsibility, teaching tolerance, teaching diversity, as this is part of what God has created. We must have learnt and accept that we all are different and have different views and opinions on a variety of topics but the fact that we do not have the same views on different topics should not make us enemies. These are some of the things that we should be teaching in schools.



How differently would you want the government to react to the abduction of the school girls?

What is important is for us to prevent the recurrence of the situation.  I feel if the government had reacted immediately perhaps we would have been able to rescue a lot more girls than those that were able to escape. This is the lesson that needs to be learnt here… immediate action needs to take place to rectify a wrong thing that has happened.