The former Nigerian president talks about progress and problems in his country.
Olusegun Obasanjo, a former Nigerian army general and president of Nigeria, is one of Africa’s most experienced leaders. He was president of Nigeria twice, once as military ruler between 1976 and 1979, and again as elected president from 1999 to 2007. Now he is a UN special envoy to the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
He talks to al Jazeera’s Yvonne Ndege about problems and progress in his country.
Al Jazeera: What are your memories of independence day?
Obasanjo: I was a young military officer. There was a lot of expectation, hope, ideals for a young officer in the Nigerian army, where we were converting from being a colonial army to being an army of an independent nation.
We had had good training from the British and good exposure. We had a good preparation to be first class officers, and then you see these great hopes of the great nation. Our leaders have dreams in terms of wanting to lead the country on a new path, new dispensation, new arrangement, and everything was looking fine.
Some people say that life under colonial rule was actually better; they had water and electricity. Why have things gotten worse in some respects?
Well, the man who told you that, I don’t know what he was judging, and I will give you an example: This town is where I went to secondary school for six years. When I was going to school here, the population of this town, which is over half a million today, was not up to 100,000 so what do you have to give to the people? In 1976 when this town became a state capital, the power being generated to serve this town was three megawatts of electricity. In my farm today, we are consuming more than five megawatts of electricity.
What has happened is that our population has ballooned, and we have not moved the infrastructure and the social facilities have not moved at the pace that our population has increased. I will be the first to admit that. If you have five children to deal with, and everybody is eating four times a day, and then you have a 100 to deal with, but just managing to provide three meals a day, therefore your situation is worse. I wouldn’t put this way. I would say in totality our situation is better because our population has increased.
Take the situation in Joss, it’s a religious conflict, but it’s not a religious conflict. Our Christian leaders, our Muslim leaders all coming together, after examining the situation in Joss, they have said that the Joss situation is not a religious conflict, and I know Joss.
I believe that the Joss situation is [an] old, long standing ethnic rivalry, economic competition. You have the nomadic people taking their cattle, and there you have the arable farmers. Because the nomadic take their cattle, either in search of grass or in search of water, and any farm they go through, they devastate it. Now what the arable farmer will do is chase them, and kill them and club them, and the nomadic cattle dwellers will fight back.
Unfortunately the nomadic cattle farmers are mainly Muslims, while the normal arable farmers, who regard themselves as indigenous to the land are mainly Christians. So when that develops into an economic issue, competition, and even into violence, we take the easy way out, saying it is Muslim versus Christian, but is it really? The underlying factor is economic [and] social, not religious.
So you have highlighted population explosion and economic problems, but what about leadership? Because the population explosion cannot explain the disparity between the extremely rich and the poor in Nigeria.
I agree with that. The distribution of resources is part of the problem. I am not one of those who believe that you are poor because you are not in capacity. Some people believe that you are poor because God has destined you to be poor. I don’t believe that. I believe that there is an element of your own making, but there is a substantial element of poor distribution of resources and if you go into poor distribution of resources, then the issue of leadership will come in.
Many people keep saying the same thing: Nigeria’s problem is leadership, leadership, leadership.
I don’t agree with that, I believe that a part of Nigeria’s problem is leadership, but not all Nigerian problems can be blamed on the leadership.
Leadership matters but followers must have responsibility. Of course you must be ready to stand up for something, otherwise you will fall for anything, but if you are going to stand up for something, there is also a price to pay, a sacrifice to make, and followership must be ready to make the sacrifice to be able to get the right leadership, or to be able to get rid of the bad leadership.
Let’s talk about leadership in the content of Biafra. You were involved to some extent in keeping Nigeria one.
Those of us who fought the civil war, believe Nigeria is worth dying for in unity, better than living in division and destruction. So we fought for the unity of Nigeria.
How was the idea of one Nigeria fomented for people and what made up Nigerian identity? Because it is such a diverse country, do people relate to being Nigerian?
I see myself as a Nigerian, who happened to be born a Yoruba man. I could tell you that I was born a Yoruba man, or an Igbo man, and that is the difference between being Nigerian, and a committed tribalist. I’m proud of being a Yoruba man, but I’m very, very proud of being a Nigerian.
What makes up in the modern context, and in the historical context, Nigerian identity?
What makes up modern Nigeria identity is Nigeria. Nigerian spirit, Nigerian indomitable spirit. I’m not saying that we don’t have faults and things that we must correct, but when you compare the enterprise of Nigerians with their counterparts elsewhere in Africa, you see that there is something Nigerian in them.
In Nigeria, Nigerians are in charge – that is also part of Nigerian spirit. And we are very critical, which is also part of Nigerian spirit. We are very critical, we criticise ourselves. I don’t mind the criticism, I mind the condemnation. I don’t mind the criticism, because if you do self-criticism you want to improve. I don’t think we have to condemn ourselves, we have a lot to thank God for, and our founding fathers for.
The value of the generation that gave us independence, whatever may be their faults, they gave us independence. We are the second generation of leaders. First we fought for the unity of this country and we laid the foundation of democracy, you cannot deny that.
We still have a lot to do, we have a long way to go, but those three things you cannot deny, that the founding fathers, the generation before our own generation, gave us independence and our generation fought for the unity of the country and laid the foundation for democracy.
And do you feel that Nigeria is, or will ever become the superpower that it should be?
I don’t like that word: superpower. I believe Nigeria should be a relevant, a significant, original power in Africa, not a superpower. Because when you talk of a superpower, we must see ourselves as that we cannot make a mistake, and with 24 per cent of African people on Nigerian soil that imposes certain responsibility on us.
Not responsibility of just power for the sake of power, but power for the sake of caring and sharing, power for the sake of responsible leadership in Africa, power for the sake of earning the respect of Africans who see us, as really people who care about the totality of Africa, not just ourselves. I think that’s important.
Fifty years from now, what sort of Nigeria do you want to see and how is it going to get there? What key things do you think need to happen?
I think we are going to see, we are already on the way to getting there, 50 years from now I want to see a Nigeria that is politically united, economically vibrant, socially cohesive, and one of the leading economies of the world.
I think the political foundation has been built. We are today more politically united, even when I came back as an elected president in 1999.
We are already moving, and also we are getting new leaders, young new leaders, that are not invading the culture of their parents and grandparents, and that is very, very important for me. There are people now who see themselves first as Nigerians, and second as Yoruba, Igbo, or whatever and that is very good.
There are people who are living in the past, talking about things that have not worked in the past, and who are now trying to recreate the failure of the past. But there are more hands that are trying to build the success of today and the success of the future.
And that is where the future of Nigeria lies, those who will build on the strong and solid base of unity, of democracy, of economic management and economic development, of social cohesion and social order, of law and order, of fight against corruption, of making Nigeria a leading nation in Africa, and one of the leading nations of the world.