Obasanjo Speak His Mind on President Buhari, his new book 'Making Africa Work', Youth Agitation and Atiku

By James Wan
Olusegun Obasanjo
As the lift in his luxury London hotel rushes upwards to the 11th floor, Olusegun Obasanjo squeezes my arm warmly as he recounts his busy schedule of late. His aide and two PR people nod approvingly as he talks of his jet-setting across Africa, his upcoming appointment with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and his trip to New York straight after.

With a new book to promote, the former Nigerian president from 1999 to 2007 has been busy. So too has the PR firm behind the book, offering him up for interviews far and wide.

Obasanjo can certainly handle it. Aged 80, he may look like a cuddly grandfather. But he still has plenty of fuel in his tank and fire in his belly, as I am to find out later this morning.

As we enter his hotel suite, an American news channel is blaring on the television. He instructs his aide to turn it down but not off. “I won’t know how to turn it on”, he says. His assistant shows him the big red button on the remote before pressing it. The screen goes black. “Now how will I turn it back on?” the former president asks, a touch irritated. The aide quietly reassures him that he’ll personally see to it as soon as the interview is over.

Obasanjo’s new book, Making Africa Work, describes itself as “a guide to improving Africa’s capacity for economic growth and job creation”. Co-written with Greg Mills, Jeffrey Herbst and Dickie Davis, it provides a detailed overview of various political and economic challenges facing the continent. It warns of a growing youth bulge, and provides dozens of recommendations on how to encourage the private sector, diversify the economy and deliver forward-thinking leadership.

As we sit down across the small table in his plush hotel room, I start by asking Obasanjo how well his own president, Muhummadu Buhari, has been faring on these fronts since coming to office in 2015. One thing the two men have in common is the extent to which they polarise opinion, though Obasanjo here is unrelentingly equivocal.

“Buhari has made some announcements. He has tried to keep on going in the area of agribusiness, but not enough,” he says, slowly and cautiously. “It is not yet enough to prepare the ground for uninhibited growth of the economy, which we need”.

“Not enough” seems a sparse and generous reading of an administration that has presided over Nigeria’s first recession in 25 years, rising youth unemployment, and endless policy deadlocks. But even when pushed on specifics, Obasanjo picks his words carefully as he repeats familiar combinations of faint praise and sympathetic criticism of the man he backed for office.

“Is Buhari doing enough about it?” he asks at one point of youth unemployment. “I don’t believe he is. Can he do enough about it? Of course he can.”

Obasanjo’s vague and uncommitted answers contrast with the book he just co-wrote, which packs a handful of statistics into virtually every paragraph and offers dozens of recommendations. But the former president does eventually hone in on one specific: Nigeria’s frustrated young people.

The median age of Nigeria’s population is under 18, and the youth demographic continues to swell. There aren’t enough jobs for them, and if Obasanjo were back in office, his priority would be education. “Youth empowerment, skill acquisition and youth employment – education must be able to do that,” he insists. “If you do that, the ticking bomb of possible youth explosion out of restiveness and anger will subside.”

Obasanjo attributes young people’s frustrations to many of Nigeria’s problems today, including the ongoing agitation in the south-east. Over the past couple years, the region has witnessed widespread protests, violence and military intervention as calls for some states to secede as the independent nation of Biafra have grown in volume.

The former president maintains that secession is not the solution, and says that the government’s military interventions – through which hundreds have reportedly been killed – have “made things worse”. But he accepts that young activists have real grievances.

“All youth in Nigeria have legitimate reasons to feel frustrated and angry,” he offers. “The protesters don’t even know what the struggle is all about, but if it gives them false hope, why not hang onto it?”

What would be his solution to the escalating crisis over calls for secession?

“Let the elders handle it or ignore it until it loses momentum,” he counsels. “There are elders in any community who are still respected…After all, they’re their fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, and can still be used effectively.”

Empowering old people may seem a counterintuitive approach to resolving a problem he ascribes to young people’s sense of disempowerment, but it is perhaps fitting advice from a man trying to carve out his own role as an elder statesman.

I ask Obasanjo whether devolution of powers could also help assuage the regional disillusionment. The idea of “true federalism” and “restructuring” has recently escalated into one of Nigeria’s main hot button political issues, with politicians, commentators and the media all debating the topic at length.

But at this, the former president sits up and fixes me with a stare from across the table.

“I don’t believe in true federalism. What is true federalism?”, he asks. The man whose tendency in office was always to centralise rather than decentralise power is suddenly bristling. He interrupts with more questions as I respond.

“Why are they not accountable? What powers do they not have?”, he interjects. “They have power,” he insists, poking his finger, claiming that in all but a few sectors, states can do whatever they want.

“In fact, state governors are more powerful than the president. That’s the truth,” he says. “If anybody tells you they want devolution or true federalism, he doesn’t know what he is talking about.” With an audible huff, he leans back.

A broad range of current and former lawmakers, civil society groups, and millions of Nigerians would beg to differ. So too would the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), which Obasanjo backed in 2015, at least in its manifesto, which pledged to “amend our constitution with a view to devolving powers”.

But a frustrated Obasanjo doubles down. “The fact anybody talks about it doesn’t mean it’s right.”

In Nigeria, Obasanjo’s eight years in office remain highly controversial.

On the one hand, those who see him as a saviour can certainly point to some impressive successes. Coming to power in 1999, he inherited a country that was fragile, coup-prone, indebted and corrupt.

In response, he defanged and professionalised the army. His government tamed rampant inflation, earned debt relief, and built up considerable foreign exchange reserves. And he established the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), a body that went on to prosecute various high-profile figures – something many Nigerians never thought could happen – and recover billions of dollars in the process.

Obasanjo’s supporters argue that, unlike his predecessors, he left the country in better shape than he found it. That’s no mean feat.

But on the other hand, Obasanjo’s critics have no shortage of ammunition either.

They point out that his macroeconomic successes depended on high oil prices and did little to improve the lives of the vast majority of Nigerians. They complain that Obasanjo imposed a handpicked successor – the relatively inexperienced Umaru Musa Yar’Adua who died three years into his first term – on the country in chaotic elections in order to maintain his influence.

Obasanjo’s critics also say that the EFCC ended up being a politically-wielded weapon and that, if anything, systems of corruption ossified under his watch. The House of Representatives recently labelled Obasanjo the “grandfather of corruption”, while the EFCC’s former chair is reported to have said corruption under Obasanjo was worse than under his notoriously self-enriching military predecessor.

Ten years after he stepped down, Obasanjo still divides opinion. Many Nigerians – both those who love and hate him – wish he would retire gracefully on his farm. But that doesn’t seem to be on the cards in the foreseeable future. The 80-year-old continues to pull strings and enjoys significant influence within Nigeria’s complex political web.

As Nigeria approaches the 2019 elections, for example, the question of who Obasanjo will back has been subject to much speculation. Buhari has been ill for much of his time in office and wannabe successors, of which there is no shortage, have been positioning themselves carefully.

Obasanjo is tight-lipped on his front. “I don’t cross a bridge until I get to it,” he states.

One thing that seems clear, however, is that he won’t be supporting his former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar. The two fell out in dramatic fashion in 2007. This month, there have been growing suggestions that Abubakar is lining up to run in 2019. Two days before I spoke to Obasanjo, the former VP had issued a challenge, calling on anyone with evidence of his corruption to come forwards now.

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Obasanjo Speak His Mind on President Buhari, his new book 'Making Africa Work', Youth Agitation and Atiku Obasanjo Speak His Mind on President Buhari, his new book 'Making Africa Work', Youth Agitation and Atiku Reviewed by E.A Olatoye on September 28, 2017 Rating: 5

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