Chief Olusegun Matthew Okikiola Aremu Obasanjo, GCFR, Yoruba: Olúṣẹ́gun Ọbásanjọ́ [born 5 March 1937) is a Nigerian military and political leader who served as military head of state from 1976 to 1979 and later as President of Nigeria from 1999 to 2007. Ideologically a Nigerian nationalist, he was a member of the People’s Democratic Party.
Born in the village of Ibogun-Olaogun to a farming family of the Owu branch of the Yoruba, Obasanjo was educated largely in Abeokuta. Joining the Nigerian Army, where he specialised in engineering, he spent time assigned in the Congo, Britain, and India, rising to the rank of major. In the latter part of the 1960s, he played a major role in combating Biafran separatists during the Nigerian Civil War, accepting their surrender in 1970. In 1975, a military coup established a junta with Obasanjo as part of its ruling triumvirate. After the triumvirate’s leader, Murtala Mohammed, was assassinated the following year, the Supreme Military Council appointed Obasanjo as head of state. Continuing Murtala’s policies, Obasanjo oversaw budgetary cut-backs and an expansion in access to free school education. Increasingly aligning Nigeria with the United States, he emphasised support for groups opposing white minority rule in southern Africa. Committed to restoring democracy, Obasanjo oversaw the 1979 election, after which he handed over control of Nigeria to the newly elected civilian president, Shehu Shagari. He then retired to Ota, Ogun, where he established himself as a farmer and published a series of books.
In 1993, Sani Abacha seized power in a military coup. Obasanjo became an outspoken critic of the human rights abuses taking place under Abacha’s administration. In response, in 1995 Obasanjo was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured; while in prison he became a born again Christian. He was released following Abacha’s death in 1998. Entering electoral politics, Obasanjo became the People’s Democratic Party candidate for the 1999 presidential election, which he won comfortably. He was re-elected in the 2003 election. Influenced by Pan-Africanist ideas, he was a keen supporter of the formation of the African Union and served as its chair from 2004 to 2006. Obasanjo’s attempts to change the constitution to abolish presidential term limits were unsuccessful and brought criticism. In retirement, he earned a PhD in theology from the National Open University of Nigeria.
Obasanjo has been described as one of the great figures of the second generation of post-colonial African leaders. He received praise both for overseeing Nigeria’s transition to representative democracy in the 1970s and for his Pan-African efforts to encourage cooperation across the continent. Critics accused him of corruption and of overseeing human rights abuses, as well as focusing on his avoidance of constitutional norms and their perception that he became too interested in power during his presidency.
Childhood and education: 1937–1958
Matthew Olusegun Aremu Obasanjo was born in the village of Ibogun-Olaogun in southwest Nigeria. His later passport gave his date of birth as 5 March 1937, although this was an estimate, and there are no records of Obasanjo’s birthdate from the time itself. His father was Amos Adigun Obaluayesanjo “Obasanjo” Bankole and his mother was Bernice Ashabi Bankole. He was the first of nine children; only he and a sister (Adunni Oluwole Obasanjo) survived childhood. He was born to the Owu branch of the Yoruba people.The church in the village was part of a mission set up by the U.S. Southern Baptist Church and Obasanjo was raised Baptist. His village also contained Muslims and his sister would later convert to Islam on marrying a Muslim man.
Obasanjo’s father was a farmer and until he was eleven years old, the boy was involved in agricultural labour. Aged eleven, he then started an education at the local village primary school, something encouraged by his father.After three years, in 1951, he moved on to the Baptist Day School in the Owu quarter of Abeokuta. In 1952 he transferred to the Baptist Boys’ High School, also in the town. His school fees were partly financed by state grants.Obasanjo did well academically, and at school became a keen member of the local Boy Scouts. Although there is no evidence that he was involved in any political groups at the time, it was at secondary school that Obasanjo rejected his forename of “Matthew” as an act of anti-colonialism. Meanwhile, Obasanjo’s father had abandoned his wife and two children. Falling into poverty, Obasanjo’s mother had to operate in trading to survive. To pay his school fees, Obasanjo worked on cocoa and kola farms, fished, collected firewood, and sold sand to builders. During the school holidays he also worked at the school, cutting the grass and other manual jobs.
In 1956, Obasanjo took his secondary school exams, having borrowed money to pay for the entry fees. That same year, he began courting Oluremi Akinlawon, the Owu daughter of a station master. They were engaged to be married by 1958. Leaving school, he moved to Ibadan, where he took a teaching job. There, he sat the entrance exam for University College Ibadan, but although he passed it he cound that he could not afford the tuition fees. Obasanjo then decided to pursue a career as a civil engineer, and to access this profession, in 1958 answered an advert for officer cadet training in the Nigerian Army.
Early military career: 1958–1965
In March 1958, Obasanjo enlisted in the Nigerian Army. He saw it as an opportunity to continue his education while earning a salary; he did not immediately inform his family, fearing that his parents would object. It was at this time that the Nigerian Army was being transferred to the control of the Nigerian colonial government, in preparation for an anticipated full Nigerian independence, and there were attempts afoot to get more native Nigerians into the higher ranks of its military. He was then sent to a Regular Officers’ Training School at Teshie in Ghana. When stationed abroad, he sent letters and presents to his fiancé in Nigeria. In September 1958 he was selected for six months of additional training at Mons Officer Cadet School in Aldershot, southern England. Obasanjo disliked it there, believing that it was a classist and racist institution, and found it difficult adjusting to the colder, wetter English weather. It reinforced his negative opinions of the British Empire and its right to rule over its colonised subjects. At Mons, he received a commission and a certificate in engineering. While Obasanjo was in England, his mother died. His father then died a year later.
In 1959 Obasanjo returned to Nigeria. There, he was posted to Kaduna as an infantry subaltern with the Fifth Battalion. His time in Kaduna was the first time that Obasanjo lived in a Muslim-majority area. It was while he was there, in October 1960, that Nigeria became an independent country. Shortly after, the Fifth Battalion were sent to the Congo as part of a United Nations peacekeeping force. There, the battalion were stationed in Kivu Province, with their headquarters at Bukavu. In the Congo, Obasanjo and others were responsible for protecting civilians, including Belgian settlers, against soldiers who had mutinied against Patrice Lumumba’s government. In February 1961, Obasanjo was captured by the mutineers while he was evacuating Roman Catholic missionaries from a station near Bukavu. The mutineers considered executing him but were ordered to release him. In May 1961, the Fifth Battalion left the Congo and returned to Nigeria. During the conflict, he had been appointed a temporary captain.He later noted that the time spent in the Congo strengthened the “Pan-African fervour” of his battalion.
On his return, Obasanjo bought his first car, and was hospitalised for a time with a stomach ulcer. On his recovery, he was transferred to the Army Engineering Corps. In 1962 he was stationed at the Royal College of Military Engineering in England There, he excelled and was described as “the best Commonwealth student ever”. That year, he paid for Akinlawon to travel to London where she could join a training course. The couple married in June 1963 at the Camberwell Green Registry Office, only informing their families after the event.That year, Obasanjo was ordered back to Nigeria, although his wife remained in London for three more years to finish her course. Once in Nigeria, Obasanjo took command of the Field Engineering Squadron based at Kaduna. Within the military, Obasanjo steadily progressed through the ranks, becoming a major in 1965. He used his earning to purchase land, in the early 1960s obtaining property in Ibadan, Kaduna, and Lagos. In 1965, Obasanjo was sent to India. En route, he visited his wife in London. In India, he studied at the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington and then the School of Engineering in Poona.Obasanjo was appalled at the starvation that he witnessed in India although took an interest in the country’s culture, something that encouraged him to read books on comparative religion
Coups and the Civil War: 1966–1970
Obasanjo flew back to Nigeria in January 1966 to find the country in the midst of a military coup led by Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna Almost all of those involved in organising the coup were from the Igbo people of southern Nigeria. Obasanjo was among those warning that the situation could descend into civil war. He offered to serve as an intermediary between the coup plotters and the civilian government, which had transferred power to the military Commander-in-Chief Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi. As the coup failed, Olusegun met Ironsi in Lagos. Ironsi soon ended federalism in Nigeria through his unification decree in May 1966, something which inflamed ethnic tensions. In late July, a second coup took place. In Ibadan, troops of northern Nigerian origin rebelled and killed Ironsi, also massacring around two hundred Igbo soldiers. General Yakubu Gowon took power.
While this coup was taking place, Obasanjo was in Maiduguri. Hearing of it, he quickly returned to Kaduna. There, he found that northern troops from the Third Battalion were rounding up, torturing, and killing Igbo soldiers. The Governor of Northern Nigeria, Hassan Katsina, recognised that although Olusegun was not Igbo, as a southerner he was still in danger from the mutinous troops. To protect them, Katsina sent Olusegun and his wife back to Maiduguri for ten days, while the violence abated. After this, Obasanjo sent his wife to Lagos while returning to Kaduna himself, where he remained until January 1967. At this point he was the most senior Yoruba officer present in the north.
In January 1967, Obasanjo was posted to Lagos as the Chief Army Engineer.Tensions between the Igbo and northern ethnic groups continued to grow, and in May the Igbo military officer C. Odumegwu Ojukwu declared the independence of Igbo-majority areas in the southeast, forming the Republic of Biafra. On 3 July, Nigeria’s government posted Obasanjo to Ibadan to serve as commander of the Western State. The fighting between the Nigerian Army and the Biafran separatists broke out on 6 July.On 9 July, Ojukwu sent a column of Biafran troops over the Niger Bridge in an attempt to seize the Mid-West, a position from which it could attack Lagos. Obasanjo sought to block the roads leading to the city. The Yoruban commander Victor Banjo, who was leading the Biafran attack force, tried to convince Obasanjo to let them through, but he declined.
Obasanjo was then appointed the rear commander of Murtala Mohammed’s Second Division, which was operating in the Mid-West. Based at Ibadan, Obasanjo was responsible for ensuring that the Second Division was kept supplied. In the city, Obasanjo taught a course in military science at the University of Ibadan and built his contacts in the Yoruba elite. During the war, there was popular unrest in the Western State, and to avoid responsibility for these issues, Obasanjo resigned from the Western State Executive Council. While Obasanjo was away from Ibadan in November 1968, armed villagers mobilised by the farmers’ Agbekoya Association attacked the Ibadan City Hall. Troops retaliated, killing ten of the rioters. When Obasanjo returned he ordered a court of inquiry into the events.
Gowon decide to replace Colonel Benjamin Adekunle, who was leading the attack on Biafra, but needed another senior Yoruba. He chose Obasanjo, despite the latter’s lack of combat experience. Obasanjo arrived at Port Harcourt to take up the new position on 16 May 1969; he was now in charge of between 35,000 and 40,000 troops. He spent his first six weeks repelling a Biafran attack on Aba. He toured every part of the front, and was wounded while doing so. These actions earned him a reputation for courage among his men. In December, Obasanjo launched Operation Finishing Touch, ordering his troops to advance towards Umuahia, which they took on Christmas Day. This cut Biafra in half. On 7 January 1970 he then launched Operation Tail Wind, capturing the Uli airstrip on 12 January. At this, the Biafran leaders agreed to surrender.
On 13 January, Obasanjo met with Biafran military commander Philip Effiong. Obasanjo insisted that Biafran troops surrender their arms and that a selection of the breakaway state’s leaders go to Lagos and formally surrender to Gowon. The next day, Obasanjo spoke on regional radio, urging citizens to stay in their homes and guaranteeing their safety. Many Biafrans and foreign media sources feared that the Nigerian Army would commit widespread atrocities against the defeated population, although Obasanjo was keen to prevent this. He ordered his troops in the region to remain within their barracks, maintain that the local police should take responsibility for law and order. The Third Division, which was more isolated, did carry out reprisal attacks on the local population. Obasanjo was tough on the perpetrators, having those guilty of looting flogged and those guilty of rape shot. Gowon’s government made Obasanjo responsible for reintegrating Biafra into Nigeria, in which position he earned respect for emphasising magnanimity. As an engineer, he emphasised restoration of the water supply; by May 1970 all major towns in the region were reconnected to the water supply. Obasanjo’s role in ending the war made him a war hero and a nationally known figure in Nigeria.
Post war command: 1970–1975
In June 1970, Obasanjo returned to Abeokuta, where crowds welcomed him as a returning hero. He was then posted to Lagos as the Brigadier commanding the Corps of Engineers. In October, Gowon announced that the military government would transfer authority to a civilian administration in 1976. In the meantime, a ban on political parties remained in forces; Gowon made little progress towards establishing a civilian government. Under the military government, Obasanjo sat on the decommissioning committee which recommended dramatic reductions of troop numbers in the Nigerian Army over the course of the 1970s. In 1974 Obasanjo went to the UK for a course at the Royal College of Defence Studies. On returning, in January 1975 Gowon appointed him as the Commissioner for Works and Housing, a position he held for seven months, during which he was largely responsible for building military barracks.
In 1970, Obasanjo bought a former Lebanese company in Ibadan, employing an agent to manage it. In 1973 he registered a business, Temperance Enterprises Limited, through which he could embark on commercial ventures after retiring from the military. He also continued to invest in property; by 1974 he owned two houses in Lagos and one each in Ibadan and Abeokuta. Rumours arose that Obasanjo engaged in the corruption that was becoming increasingly widespread in Nigeria, although no hard evidence of this ever emerged. His marriage with Oluremi became strained as she opposed his relationships with other women. In the mid-1970s their marriage was dissolved. In 1976 he married Stella Abede in a traditional Yoruba ceremony.
In July 1975, a coup led by Shehu Musa Yar’Adua and Joseph Garba ousted Gowon, who fled to Britain. They had not informed Obasanjo of their plans as he was known to be critical of coups as an instrument of regime change. The coup plotters wanted to replace Gowon’s autocratic rule with a triumvirate of three brigadiers whose decisions could be vetoed by a Supreme Military Council. For this triumvirate, they convinced Murtala Mohammad to become head of state, with Obasanjo as his second-in-command, and Danjuma as the third. Life noted that of the triumvirate, Obasanjo was “the work-horse and the brains” and was the most eager for a return to civilian rule. Together, the triumvirate introduces austerity measures to stem inflation, established a Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, replaced all military governors with new officers who reported directly to Obasanjo as Chief of Staff, and launched “Operation Deadwood” through which they fired 11,000 officials from the civil service.
In October 1975 the government announced plans for an election which would result in civilian rule in October 1979. It also declared plans to create a committee to draft a new constitution, with Obasanjo largely responsible for selecting the 49 committee members. On the recommendation of the Irifeke Commission, the government also announced the creation of seven new states; at Obasanjo’s insistence, Abeokuta was to become the capital of one of these new states, Ogun. Also on the commission’s recommendation, it announced gradual plans to move the Nigerian capital from Lagos to the more central Abuja. In January 1976, both Obasanjo and Danjuma were promoted to the ranks of Lieutenant General.
Both Murtala and Obasanjo were committed to ending ongoing European colonialism and white minority rule in southern Africa, a cause reflected in their foreign policy choices. This cause increasingly became a preoccupation for Obasanjo. After Angola secured independence from Portugal, a civil war broke out in the country. Nigeria recognised the legitimacy of the government declared by the MPLA, a Marxist group backed by the Soviet Union, because the rival FNLA and UNITA were being assisted by the white minority government in South Africa. Nigeria began lobbying other African countries to also recognise the MPLA administration, and by early 1976 most states in the Organisation of African Unity had done so. In February 1976, Obasanjo led a Nigerian delegation to an MPLA anniversary celebration in Luanda, where he declared: “This is a symbolic date, marking the beginning of the final struggle against colonialism, imperialism and racism in Africa.”
Military Head of State: 1976–1979
In February 1976, Colonel Buka Suka Dimka launched a coup against Nigeria’s government, as part of which Murtala was assassinated. An attempt was also made on Obasanjo’s life, but killed the wrong individual. Dimka lacked widespread support among the military and his coup failed, forcing him to flee. Obasanjo did not attend Murtala’s funeral in Kano, but declared that the government would finance construction of a mosque on the burial site.
After the coup attempt, Obasanjo attended a meeting of the Supreme Military Council. He expressed his desire to resign from government, but the Council successfully urged him to replace Murtala as head of state. He therefore became the Council’s chair. Concerned about further attempts on his life, Obasanjo moved into the Dodan Barracks, while 39 people accused of being part of Dimka’s coup were executed, generating in accusations that Obasanjo’s response was excessive. As head of state, Obasanjo vowed to continue Murtala’s policies. He encouraged debate and consensus among the Supreme Military Council, and, aware of the importance of not alienating northern Nigerians, relied heavily on his chief of staff, Yar’Adua, who was from the northern aristocracy. Many expected that as a Yoruba and a Christian, he would favour the interests of these groups, however Obasanjo emphasised national concerns over those of the regions. Interested in getting a broader range of perspectives, each Saturday he held an informal seminar on a topical issue to which people other than politicians and civil servants were invited.
By the mid-1970s, Nigeria had an overheated economy with a 34% inflation rate and declining agricultural production. To deal with this, in his 1976 budget, Obasanjo proposed to reduce government expenditure by a sixth, curtailing prestige projects while spending more on education, health, housing, and agriculture. Obasanjo was generally adverse to borrowing money, but with the support of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund Nigeria took out a $1 billion loan from a syndicate of banks. Leftist critics argued that doing so left the country subservient to Western capitalism. In the subsequent two years of Obasanjo’s government, Nigeria borrowed a further $4,983 million.
Nigeria was undergoing nearly 3% annual population growth during the 1970s, something which would double the country’s population in just over 25 years. Obasanjo later noted that he was unaware of this at the time, with his government having no policy on population control. Nigeria’s population growth contributed to rapid urbanisation and an urban housing shortage. To deal with this, Obasanjo’s 1976 budget outlined plans for the construction of 200,000 new housing units by 1980, although ultimately only 28,500 were built.
Obasanjo continued with three major irrigation schemes in northern Nigeria that were first announced under Murtala: the Kano River Project, the Bakalori Scheme, and the South Chad Irrigation Project. His government also continued the Agricultural Development Projects launched in Funtua, Gusau, and Gombe. To meet the country’s growing demand for electricity, Obasanjo oversaw the launch of two new hydroelectric projects and a thermal plant. The oil industry remained an important part of Nigeria’s economy and under Obasanjo the Ministry of Petroleum Resources was merged with the Nigerian National Oil Corporation to form the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).Obasanjo also supported the creation of a liquefaction plant at Bonny, which was 62% financed by the NNPC; the project was abandoned by his successor amid spiralling cost increases.Obasanjo also continued the planning of the Ajaokuta integrated steel mill, an inherited project that many critics in the civil service argued was unviable.
In May 1976, Obasanjo launched Operation Feed the Nation, a project to revitalise small-scale farming and which involved students being paid to farm during the holidays. To counteract the disruption of labour strikes, in 1976 Obasanjo’s government introduced legislation that defined most major industries as essential services, banned strikes within them, and authorised the detention for disruptive union leaders.In 1978 it then merged 42 unions into the single Nigerian Labour Congress. In March 1978 he issued the Land Use Decree which gave the state propriety rights over all land. This was designed to stop land hoarding and land speculation, and brought praise from the Nigerian left although was disliked by many land-owning families. Obasanjo saw it as one of his government’s main achievements. In 1976 Obasanjo’s government also announced rent and price controls.
Obasanjo continued the push for universal primary education in Nigeria, a policy inherited from Gowon. Between 1975-76 and 1979-80, enrolment in free but voluntary primary schooling grew from 6 million to 12.5 million, although there was a shortage of teachers and materials to cope with the demand. In the 1977-78 school year, Obasanjo introduced free secondary educational in technical subjects, something extended to all secondary schooling in 1979-80.
Concomitantly, Nigeria cut back on university funding; in 1978 it ceased issuing student loans and trebled university food and accommodation charges. Student protests erupted in several cities, resulting in fatal shootings in Lagos and Zaria. In response to the unrest, Obasanjo closed several universities, banned political activity on campus, and proscribed the National Union of Nigerian Students. The severity of these measures was perhaps due to suspicions that the student unrest was linked to a planned military coup that was uncovered in February 1978. Obasanjo was frustrated at the protesting student’s behaviour, arguing that it reflected a turn away from traditional values such as respect for elders.
As a consequence of Nigeria’s state-directed development, the country saw a rapid growth in the public sector. Evidence emerged of extensive corruption in the country’s government, and while accusations were often made against Obasanjo himself, no hard evidence was produced.
Obasanjo was also accused of being responsible for political repression. In one famous instance, the compound of the Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Kuti, Kalakuta Republic, was raided and burned to the ground after a member of his entourage was involved in an altercation with military personnel. Fela and his family were beaten and raped and his aged mother, the political activist and founding mother Chief Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, was thrown from a window. This resulted in serious injuries, and eventually led to her death. Fela subsequently carried a coffin to the then presidential residence at Dodan barracks in Lagos as a protest against the government’s political repression.
Obasanjo was eager to establish Nigeria as a prominent leader in Africa and under his tenure its influence in the continent increased. He revived Gowon’s plan to hold the second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in Nigeria; it took place in Lagos in February 1977, although domestic critics argued that it proved too expensive. Obasanjo gave low priority to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and angered many Francophone members after insisting that, as the largest financial contributor to the organization, it should host the organizations headquarters in Lagos. Relations with nearby Ghana also declined; in 1979, Nigeria cut off oil supplies to the country to protest the execution of political opponents by Jerry Rawlings’ new military junta.
Under Obasanjo, Nigeria loosened its longstanding ties with the United Kingdom and aligned more closely with the United States. Obasanjo was favourable to the U.S. government of Jimmy Carter, who was elected in 1976, because of Carter’s commitment to ensuring majority rule across southern Africa. Carter’s ambassador to Nigeria, Andrew Young, formed a close personal friendship with Obasanjo. However, the decision to shift allegiances was made for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons; the discovery of oil in the North Sea meant that the UK had become a competitor rather than a customer of Nigerian oil. Obasanjo’s government was also angry that the UK refused to extradite Gowon and suspected that the British government might have been involved in the coup against Murtala. For these reasons, in 1976 it considered suspending diplomatic relations with the UK, but ultimately did not. Obasanjo nevertheless refused to visit the UK and discouraged his officials from doing so. Relations were further damaged when Margaret Thatcher became British Prime Minister in 1979, initiating a warmer British approach to the white minority administrations of Rhodesia and South Africa. In response, Nigeria seized a British tanker that was believed to be transporting Nigerian oil to South Africa, banned British firms from competing for Nigerian contracts, and nationalised British Petroleum’s Nigerian operations
Obasanjo was also eager to hasten the end of white minority rule in southern Africa; according to Iliffe, this became “the centrepiece of his foreign policy”.Nigeria gave grants to those fighting white minority rule in the region, allowed these groups to open offices in Lagos, and offered sanctuary to various refugees fleeing the governments of southern Africa, Taking a hard line against the apartheid regime in South Africa, Obasanjo announced that Nigeria would not take part in the 1976 Summer Olympics because New Zealand, which was competing, had sporting ties with South Africa, a country that was banned from competing due to apartheid. In 1977, Obasanjo barred any contractors with South African links from operating in Nigeria; the main companies that were hit were British Petroleum and Barclays Bank (Nigeria). That same year, Nigeria hosted the United Nations Conference for Action Against Apartheid in Lagos, while Obasanjo visited the U.S. in October where he urged the country to stop selling arms to South Africa. While in the country he addressed the United Nations General Assembly and two weeks later Nigeria received a seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Opposition to white minority rule in Rhodesia had sparked the Rhodesian Bush War and Obasanjo’s government maintained that armed struggle was the only option for overthrowing Rhodesia’s government. He encouraged unity among the various anti-government factions there, urging Robert Mugabe, the head of ZANU, to accept the leadership of his rival, Joshua Nkomo of ZAPU. In 1977, the UK and US drew up proposals for a transition to majority rule in Rhodesia, amid a period in which the country would be under the management of United Nations forces. Obasanjo backed the plan, and visited Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to urge their governments to do the same. However, after Thatcher became UK Prime Minister Nigeria distanced itself from British efforts to end the Rhodesian Bush War and was excluded from any significant role in the UK-brokered process that led to multi-racial democratic elections in Rhodesia.
As head of state, Obasanjo attended OAU summits. At that held in July 1977, he proposed the formation of a standing committee to mediate disputes between OAU member states. At the 1978 conference, he warned of interference from both sides in the Cold War. At the next conference, he urged the formation of a Pan-African military which could engage in peace-keeping efforts on the continent. To promote Nigeria’s role internationally, Obasanjo involved himself in various mediation efforts across Africa. In 1977 he persuaded Benin and Togo to end their border dispute and reopen their frontier. He also attempted to mediate a quarrel among several East African states and thus prevent the collapse of the East African Community, but failed in this attempt. As the chair of the OAU mediation committee, he tried to mediate the Ogaden dispute between Ethiopia and Somalia but was again unsuccessful. He also failed to mend the breach that had emerged between Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
On behalf of the OAU, Obasanjo held a conference at Kano to mediate the Chadian Civil War. Several factions agreed to a ceasefire, to form a government of national unity, and to allow Nigerian troops to act as peacekeepers. The war nevertheless continued and Nigeria responded by cutting off its oil supply to Chad. A second conference on the conflict took place in Lagos in August 1979, resulting in the formation of another short-lived transitional government. In the final year of his military government, he headed an OAU mission to resolve the conflict in Western Sahara.
Transition to Civilian Rule
The military government has assembled a constituent drafting committee to devise a new constitution which could be used amid a transfer to civilian rule. The committee argued that Nigeria should change its governance system, which was based on the British parliamentary system, to one based on the U.S. presidential system whereby a single elected president would be both head of state and head of government. To avoid this president becoming a dictator, as had happened elsewhere in Africa, it argued for various checks on their power, including a federal structure whereby independent elected institutions would exist at the federal, state, and local level. The draft constitution was published in October 1977 and debated in public for the following year. A constituent assembly met to discuss the draft in October 1977. The assembly deadlocked over what role to give sharia law in the constitution. Obasanjo called the assembly together and warned them of the social impact of their decision, urging them to take a more conciliatory attitude. In September 1978, the Supreme Military Council announced the new constitution; it had made several amendments to the version put forward by the constituent assembly.
Along with the new constitution, Obasanjo lifted the ban on political parties. A variety of groups then formed to compete in the ensuing election, most notably the Unity Party of Yoruba, the Nigerian People’s Party, and the National Party of Nigeria. Obasanjo was angered that many of the politicians were making promises that they could not keep. The elections took place over the course of July and August 1979. Turnout was low, at between 30 and 40 percent of legally registered voters, and there was rigging on various sides, although it was peaceful. There was debate as to who won the presidential vote, and Obasanjo refused to adjudicate, insisting that the Electoral Commission take on that role. They declared that Shehu Shagari was the winner, something that the runner up, Obafemi Awolowo, unsuccessfully challenged at the Supreme Court. Shagari took office in October 1979; at his inauguration ceremony, Obasanjo presented Shagari with a copy of the new constitution.
Obasanjo’s role in returning Nigeria to civilian rule would form the basis of the good reputation he retained for the next two decades. However, various domestic and foreign individuals, including the Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda and Togo President Gnassingbé Eyadéma, urged him to remain in power. His refusal to back Awolowo, a fellow Yoruba, earned him the enmity of much of the Yoruba elite. Awolowo accused Obasanjo of orchestrating Shagari’s victory, something Obasanjo strenuously denied.
Out of office
Before he left office, in April 1979, Obasanjo promoted himself to the role of general; as a four-star general he continued to receive a salary from the state. Having left office in October, he returned to Abeokuta. Following a six-week course at an agricultural training college, Obasanjo then set himself up as a farmer, hoping to set an example in encouraging agricultural self-reliance. He obtained at least 230 hectares of land in Ota on which to establish his farm, there moving in to a brick farmhouse. There was local hostility to his obtaining so much land, and much litigation was brought against him because of it. His agricultural activities were organised through his Temperance Enterprises Limited, later renamed Obasanjo’s Farms Limited. He devoted particular attention to poultry farming; by the mid-1980s, his farm was hatching 140,000 chicks a week. He developed farms elsewhere in Yorubaland, and by 1987 he employed over 400 workers at eight locations. As did other senior Yoruba figures, Obasanjo sponsored poor students who attended his former school in Abeokuta. He left his home on several visits; in 1986 he visited Japan, and in 1987 the U.S.
Obasanjo grew critical of Shagari’s civilian government, deeming the president weak and ill-prepared. Nigeria entered economic recession due to fluctuations in global oil prices. In May 1983, senior military figures asked Obasanjo to take over control in the country again, but he declines. In December, they overthrew Shagari without Obasanjo’s involvement, in a coup that saw little violence. Muhammadu Buhari became the new military head of state. Obasanjo was initially supportive of Buhari’s government, stating that representative democracy had failed in Nigeria. He praised Buhari’s War Against Indiscipline, his halving of imports, and his restoration of a balanced budget. In August 1985, Buhari was also overthrown, with the Army Chief of Staff Ibrahim Babangida taking power. Obasanjo was critical of some of the economic reforms that Babangida introduced, including he devaluation of the naira.
During the eleven years after Obasanjo left office, he published four books. In 1980, Obasanjo was a Distinguished Fellow at the University of Ibadan, where he wrote My Command, an account of his experiences during the civil war; it was published in November that year. Some readers criticised what they saw as Obasanjo’s disloyalty to Murtala Mohammad, while Robert Adeyinka Adebayo, a senior Yoruba political figure, urged for the book to be withdrawn to prevent it sowing division. A more positive assessment was made by his friend, Ken Saro-Wiwa, who called it masterly but believed that it had involved much editorial assistance. In 1987 he published Nzeogwu, a memoir of his friend Chukwuma Nzeogwu, with whom he had served in the Congo. 1989 saw the publication of Obasanjo’s next book, Constitution for National Integration and Development, in which he warned against Babangida’s argument for instituting a two-party system in Nigeria. In 1990 his third book, Not My Will, was published. It provided an account of his time governing the country.
During the administration of Sani Abacha (1993–1998), Obasanjo spoke out against the human rights abuses of the regime, and was imprisoned in June 1995 for alleged participation in an aborted coup based on testimony obtained via torture. He was released only after Abacha’s sudden death on 8 June 1998. While in prison, Obasanjo became a born-again Christian.
Recollecting his experience during the trial of the coup, Obasanjo says “My saddest day was when I sat in front of a military panel set up by late former Head of State, Sani Abacha to try me over a phantom coup, and sentenced to death and later commuted to 30 years imprisonment.”
Presidential campaigns and elections
1999 presidential elections
Obasanjo won the 1999 Nigerian presidential election, he ran as a candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, and won with help from military generals Ibrahim Babangida and Aliyu Mohammed Gusau who delivered the Northern establishment for him, and defeated Chief Olu Falae, the joint candidate of the All Peoples Party, and the Alliance for Democracy.
2003 presidential elections
Obasanjo was re-elected In the 2003 Nigerian presidential election, and won by a margin of more than 11 million votes.
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. This was later changed to June 12 in honour of Chief M.K.O Abiola by the Muhammadu Buhari Administration in 2018. During Democracy Day, Nigerians host celebratory dinners and festivals around the country, having fun with family, friends and plenty of food.
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 who was openly critical of the abuses committed in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe at a time when many other African nations (including South Africa) were taking a softer stance. Obasanjo also won international praise for Nigeria’s role in crucial regional peacekeeping missions in Sierra Leone and Liberia. The international community was guided in its approach to Obasanjo in part by Nigeria’s status as one of the world’s 10 biggest oil exporters as well as by fears that, as the continent’s most populous nation, Nigerian internal divisions risked negatively affecting the entire continent.
Some public officials like the Speaker of the House of Representatives and President of the Senate were involved in conflicts with the President, who battled many impeachment attempts from both houses. Obasanjo managed to survive impeachment and was renominated.
Obasanjo was re-elected in a tumultuous 2003 election that had violent ethnic and religious overtones. His main opponent, fellow former military ruler General Muhammadu Buhari, was Muslim and drew his support mainly from the north. Capturing 61.8% of the vote, Obasanjo defeated Buhari by more than 11 million votes.
In November 2003, Obasanjo was criticized for his decision to grant asylum to the deposed Liberian president, Charles Taylor. On June 12, 2006, he signed the Greentree Agreement with Cameroonian President Paul Biya which formally put an end to the Bakassi peninsula border dispute. Even though the Nigerian Senate passed a resolution declaring that the withdrawal of Nigerian troops from the Bakassi Peninsula was illegal, Obasanjo gave the order for it to continue as planned.
With the oil revenue, Obasanjo created the Niger Delta Development Commission and implemented the Universal Basic Education Program to enhance the literacy level of Nigerians. He constituted both the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. Resuscitated the National Fertilizer Company in Kaduna and (Onne) Port Harcourt. Obasanjo increased the share of oil royalties and rents to the state of origin from 3 to 13 percent.
Economic growth and debt payment
Before Obasanjo’s administration, Nigeria’s GDP growth had been painfully slow since 1987, and only managed 3 percent between 1999/2000. However, under Obasanjo, the growth rate doubled to 6 percent 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.
Third term agenda
Obasanjo was embroiled in controversy regarding his “Third Term Agenda,” a plan to modify the constitution so he could serve a third, four-year term as President. This led to a political media uproar in Nigeria and the bill was not ratified by the National Assembly. Consequently, Obasanjo stepped down after the April 2007 general election. In an exclusive interview granted to Channels Television, Obasanjo denied involvement in what has been defined as “Third Term Agenda”. He said that it was the National Assembly (Nigeria) that included tenure elongation amongst the other clauses of the Constitution of Nigeria that were to be amended. “I never toyed with the idea of a third term,” Obasanjo said.
Obasanjo was condemned by major political players during the Third Term Agenda saga. Senator Ken Nnamani, former President of the Nigerian Senate claimed Obasanjo informed him about the agenda shortly after he became President of the Nigerian Senate. “Immediately, I became Senate President, he told me of his intentions and told me how he wanted to achieve it. I initially did not take him seriously until the events began to unfold.” He also insinuated that Eight Billion Naira was spent to corrupt legislators to support the agenda. “How can someone talk like this that he didn’t know about it, yet money, both in local and foreign currencies, exchanged hands,” he asked. Femi Gbajabiamila corroborated Nnamani’s account but put the figure differently, “The money totaled over N10 billion. How could N10bn be taken out of the national treasury for a project when you were the sitting President, yet that project was not your idea? Where did the money come from?” In the following quotes, Nnamani said President George W. Bush warned Obasanjo to desist from his plan to contest presidential election for the third term: “If you want to be convinced that the man is only telling a lie, pick up a copy of the book written by Condoleza Rice, the former Secretary to the Government of the United States of America. It is actually an autobiography by Rice. On page 628 or page 638, she discussed Obasanjo’s meeting with Bush, how he told the former American President that he wanted to see how he could amend the Constitution so that he could go for a third term. To his surprise, Bush told him not to try it. Bush told him to be patriotic and leave by May 29, 2007.”
On August 22, 2005, the then governor of Abia State, Orji Uzor Kalu, submitted a petition alleging corrupt practices against Obasanjo to the EFCC.
He became chairman of the PDP Board of Trustees, with control over nominations for governmental positions and even policy and strategy. As one Western diplomat said, “He intends to sit in the passenger seat giving advice and ready to grab the wheel if Nigeria goes off course. He voluntarily resigned as the chairman board of trustees of the PDP in April, 2012. Afterwards, he withdrew from political activities with PDP.
In March 2008, Obasanjo was “supposedly” indicted by a committee of the Nigerian parliament for awarding $2.2bn-worth of energy contracts during his eight-year rule, without due process. The report of this probe was never accepted by the whole Nigerian parliament due to manipulation of the entire process by the leadership of the power probe committee. It is not on any official record that Chief Obasanjo was indicted.
Obasanjo was appointed Special Envoy by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo. He held separate meetings with DRC President Joseph Kabila and rebel leader Laurent Nkunda.
During the Zimbabwean election of July 2013, Obasanjo headed a delegation of African Union election observers.
On May 2014, Obasanjo wrote to President Goodluck Jonathan requesting that he should mediate on behalf of the Nigerian government for the release of the Chibok girls held by the Boko Haram militants.
On 16 February 2015, he quit the ruling party and directed a PDP ward leader to tear his membership card during a press conference.vHe was later to be known as the navigator of the newly formed opposition party, the APC.
On 24 January 2018, he wrote serving President Muhammadu Buhari highlighting his areas of weakness and advising him not to run for office in 2019. To date all his letters to incumbent presidents have preceded their downfall.
On 31 January 2018, his political movement called “Coalition for Nigeria Movement” (CNM) was launched in Abuja. On 10 May 2018, the movement adopts a political party, African Democratic Congress (ADC), to realise its dream of a new Nigeria.
On 20 November 2018, he officially announced his return to the main opposition party, Peoples Democratic Party, PDP during a book launch “My Transition Hours,” written by former President Goodluck Jonathan.
In December 2017, Obasanjo defended his Ph.D thesis at the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN). He now holds a Ph.D in Theology. That was about two years after he completed his master’s degree in the same course.
Ideologically, Obasanjo was a Nigerian nationalist. He was committed to a form of Nigerian patriotism and the belief that Nigeria should be retained as a single nation-state, rather than being broken up along ethnic lines. In 2001, he stated that his long term goal was “the nullification of all forms of identification except Nigerian citizenship”. He argued that dismantling Nigeria along ethnic lines would result in the ethnic cleansing and violence that had been seen during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Ilife argued that Obasanjo’s Nigerian nationalism was impacted both by his detachment from the Yoruba elite and by his time in the army, where he worked alongside soldiers from a broad range of ethnic backgrounds.
Frustrated with what he regarded as the failures of representative democratic rule during the early 1980s, Obasanjo began expressing support for a one-party state in Nigeria. He nevertheless insisted that this one-party state must facilitate general public participation in governance, respect human rights, and protect freedom of expression. He had grown critical of what he described as the “institutionalised opposition” facilitated by multi-party systems, believing that it was “profoundly incongruent with most African political culture and practice.” Instead of constantly opposing the government, he believed that opposition parties should instead offer constructive criticism. Later in the 1980s he warned against the proposed two-party state which Babangida was putting forward, believing that while Babangida envisioned a centre-left and centre-right party competing against each other, it would inevitably develop into one party representing the Christian south and the other representing the Muslim north.He instead argued that there should be no limit on the number of political parties that could be formed, although suggested that if this could not occur then Nigeria should become a one-party state.
Iliffe noted that an emphasis on consensus politics was “a guiding principle” throughout Obasanjo’s career, and that as a politician he displayed an “open-minded pragmatism”. A tactic employed by Obasanjo at various points was to deliberately polarise an issue so as to rally support for his perspective. Iliffe thought that although Obasanjo had been too young to play a major role in the anti-colonialist struggle for Nigerian independence from British rule, he was “marked for ever” by the “optimism and dedication” of the independence movement.
In office, Obasanjo’s task was to ensure that Nigeria functioned both politically and economically. Over the course of his political career, Obasanjo moved from the belief in the advantages of state involvement in heavy industry, which was common in the 1970s, to a commitment to market liberalism that had become dominant in the 1990s.Obasanjo was contemptuous of ideological arguments about capitalism and socialism. The decisions he took were usually based on political considerations rather than on legal or constitutional principles, something which was a source of concern for some of his critics. Erfler thought that during his first term in office, Obasanjo was a “cautious reformer”.
Obasanjo lived a polygamous lifestyle. Obasanjo married his first wife, Oluremi Akinlawon, in London in 1963; she gave birth to his first child, Iyabo, in 1967. Iyabo had a close relationship with her father. Oluremi was unhappy that Obasanjo maintained relationships with other women and alleged that he beat her. They divorced in the mid 1970s. That decade, he also had a relationship with the reporter Gold Orun, who bore him two children. He married his second wife, Stella Abede, in 1976, having met her on a visit to London. He married Stella in 1976, and she bore him three children. Obasanjo’s other wives have included the television producer Gold Orun and the businesswoman Lynda Soares. She was murdered by car thieves in 1986. On 23 October 2005, the President lost his wife, Stella Obasanjo, First Lady of Nigeria the day after she had an abdominoplasty in Spain. In 2009, the doctor, known only as ‘AM’, was sentenced to one year in jail for negligence in Spain and ordered to pay restitution to her son of about $176,000. He was largely private about his relationships with these women. Some of his children were resentful that he gave them no special privileges and treated their mothers poorly.
Ethnically, Obasanjo is Yoruba, a cultural identification he reflected in his speech and choice of clothing. However, he always foregrounded his Nigerian identity above his Yoruba one, repeatedly stating that “I am a Nigerian who happens to be a Yoruba man. I am not a Yoruba man who happens to be a Nigerian. Throughout his life he expressed a preference for rural over urban life. He has been a lifelong teetotaler. He has been characterised as having a sense of discipline and duty, and emphasised what he saw as the importance of leadership. He was meticulous at planning, and Iliffe called him an “instinctively cautious man” Obasanjo always emphasised the importance of deferring to seniority, a value he had learned in childhood.Iliffe described Obasanjo as a man with “great physical and intellectual energy” who “exercised power with skill and ruthlessness, sometimes unscrupulously but seldom cruelly” Erfler similarly stated that, although Obasanjo could appear “boorish and dull”, he had a “sharply perceptive mind” and the capacity to be “tough and ruthless”. He had, according to Iliffe, a “remarkable capacity for work”.He was cautious with money, living modestly and seeking financial security by investing in property.He was softly-spoken.
Obasanjo suffered from diabetes and high blood-pressure. He enjoyed playing squash. In addition to a variety of other chieftaincy titles, Chief Obasanjo is the holder of the title of the Olori Omo Ilu of Ibogun-Olaogun. A number of other members of his family hold or have held chieftaincies as well. The elder statesman is also active on social media platforms especially Twitter, in 2020 he recommended people to follow (“@KizzmaiTTo)
Reception and legacy
Ilife described Obasanjo as “the outstanding member of the second generation of independent African leaders who dedicated themselves to the consolidation of their postcolonial states”.
Obasanjo’s critics believed that he had been corrupted by power and that, particularly during his second term in office, he became driven by the idea of indefinitely retaining power for himself. During his first term as head of state he earned some enmity from fellow Yoruba who believed that he should have done more to advance the interests of his own ethnic group in government.
Books by Olusegun Obasanjo
- My Watch Volume 1: Early Life and Military
- My Watch Volume 2: Political and Public Affairs
- My Watch Volume 3: Now and Then
- My Command
- The Animal Called Man
- A New Dawn
- The Thabo Mbeki I know
- Africa Through the Eyes of A Patriot
- Making Africa Work: A handbook
- Forging a Compact in U.S. African Relations: The Fifth David M. Abshire Endowed Lecture, December 15, 1987.
- Africa in Perspective
- Letters to Change the World: From Pankhurst to Orwell.
- Not my Will
- Democracy Works: Re-Wiring Politics to Africa’s Advantage
- My Watch
- Challenges of Leadership in Africa
- War Wounds: Development Costs of Conflict in Southern Sudan
- Guides to Effective Prayer
- The Challenges of Agricultural Production and Food Security in Africa
- Addressing Africa’s Youth Employment and food security Crisis: The Role of African Agriculture in Job Creation.
- Dust Suspended: A memoir of Colonial, Overseas and Diplomatic Service Life 1953 to 1986
- L’Afrique en Marche: un manuel pour la reussite économique
- Africa’s Critical Choices: A Call for a Pan-African Roadmap