Let me start by appreciating each one of you for your presence today to join me in thanking God as I mark my 85th birthday and for making it a grand event.
I should name you all one, by one, but in view of the limited time that we have, I am sure you will give thumbs down to the idea.
In this case, please permit my special mention of some persons and groups.
I thank President Paul Kagame for his insightful keynote address. President Kagame planned to personally and physically deliver the address but for exigencies of office which inhibited his not being in Abeokuta today.
Immense appreciation to President Nicéphore Soglo for chairing the symposium. President Soglo arrived on Thursday and he plans to spend a few more days after the birthday celebrations to enjoy the Abeokuta environment with me. What a great brother he is!
Worth singling out for mention is Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. On receiving my invitation, Ngozi, as I fondly call her, struck out all entries in her crowded calendar as Director-General, World Trade Organisation (WTO) to ensure that she is with us today. The speech which she just delivered is one of the finest I have listened to in recent times. Thank you, Ngozi, for honouring me.
I cannot thank enough, all our presenters who gave their speeches in person and virtually. Professor Goski Alabi (Ghana); Ambassador Barry Desker (Singapore); Professor Juma Shabani (Burundi); Dr. Mary Khimulu (Kenya); Dr. Moussa Kondo (Mali); Professor Sarah Agbor (Cameroon); Professor Chukwuma Soludo (in-coming Governor of Anambra State, Nigeria; and Sanusi Lamido Sanusi (Muhammad Sanusi II, the 14th Emir of Kano and Khalifa of Tijjaniyya in Nigeria), you were unanimous in your message- it is about time the Africa narrative got louder, more resolute and globally respected and regarded.
My appreciation goes to Governor Dapo Abiodun of Ogun State for being part of the celebrations and for leading the football team of the Ogun State Government in a novelty football match yesterday, against the OOPL team, which I captained. I want to thank other Governors that are here. I thank the Co-Chairs and members of the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library Foundation especially Co-Chair Carl Masters who arrived from the US yesterday to be part of the celebrations and chair the reception which comes up immediately after this symposium. Let me also thank my past colleagues who had worked with me at different times. Some of them are here and without them I would not have achieved what we achieved together. They with the front soldiers implementing plans we drew up together.
Huge thanks to our Kabiyesis, religious and political leaders who are here with us today.
Excellencies, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, I believe you want to hear “my narrative” on the theme of this symposium. I take you back several months.
About the middle of last year while on mission in the north of Africa with some former African heads of state and government, I shared my thoughts which had lingered for decades on the matter of Africa narrative and proposed our setting up what I call Our Africa Narrative Club or society. The organ is yet to be formally established and this symposium provides a sounding board for the viability of the idea. Quite clearly, from what I have heard today, we all seem to be saying that it may be a good idea endorse the proposition.
My thoughts on the establishment of Our Africa Narrative Club or society aggregate around the following six assertions:
Truth must be known and propagated for the purpose of authentic history of the past, to prevent repeat of mistakes of the past, to ensure that as a people and a race, we make our own people appreciate the contribution to human civilisation and development and to be aware of inhumanity, indignity, cruelty and destruction that we have suffered and to learn the right lessons from local, national, regional, continental and global events that have impacted us.
We must stop to live by and on received ideas, ideologies, beliefs and standards foreign to our culture, cherished beliefs, our philosophy and our worldview and understanding.
We must understand the world we live in and which may not feel it owes us anything except what we can wrest from the abundance of God on earth for ourselves, essentially by ourselves to be preserved and used for and in the best interest of ourselves.
We must continually make ourselves essential contributors to the world civilisation, world ethos, world development and world preservation, sustenance and wholesome world recreation.
We must ensure governance and system of administration that makes use of all available human resources and talents inclusively for rapid development and transformation for the preservation of seeking, utilising, sustaining, preserving and keeping the best to continue to do the best, wholesomely and inclusively.
To appreciate, cherish and uphold our past and present in the way that will enhance our future and strengthen our participation in the global decision-making process and enhance our share of the world’s division of labour and resources.
Excellencies, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, within the Africa narrative framework, this symposium focuses on leadership. As previous speakers have highlighted, the narrative from the non-African lens is that leadership in Africa is jaundiced and hence cannot lead us far on the path of development and progress.
The narrative which I assert is that every village, town, nation or region has its socio-cultural peculiarities that are best suited for the emergence of its leader and the colour of its governance. Therefore, it is erroneous to put all communities on the planet into a basket, judge and narrate their leadership, governance and development, strictly from the point of view of people from a particular section of the world. If we dig down to the taproot of the recent turmoil and political and developmental upheavals in the world today, we will find that this skewed narrative is one of its major causes.
Do not get me wrong. Regardless of the angle of the narrative whether from Africa or outside of it, there are some irreducible minima on leadership. These include people-centredness, inclusiveness, ability to manage diversity, abhorrence of corruption and ethnic jingoism. Our Africa narrative must assume that these irreducible minima are in place after which we can now confidently tell the world, our story of how we in Africa, are contextualising leadership to foster development and progress. This now takes me to the important matter of leadership and nation building. In the course of this “narrative”, I will provide glimpses from Nigeria.
My past, present and future positions on Nigeria are governed by several publicly available parameters. First is the role providence conferred on me in bringing the tragedy of the civil war to an end. It ended on the noble and brotherhood evocative note of “no victor no vanquished.” If it pleases God to enable me to play an important role in this defining chapter in the history of Nigeria, the least I can do in reciprocation is to keep vigil over the peace and stability of this nation in whatever position of leadership I find myself.
As I remarked at the recent occasion of the visit of the leadership of Peoples Democratic Party to me, I have been, for quite a while now and for the rest of my life, my response to the solicitations of the delegation in this respect.
But if I retired from partisan politics, if politics is the welfare of the people, I must not retire from the welfare and well-being of people whether in my own community, in my own state, in my own country, anywhere in Africa or indeed anywhere in the world and that is why I have the type of responsibility that I have now.
As the quadrennial madness builds a head of steam and the runners and riders crisscross the nation in the quest for nomination as the party flag bearer to the highest office in the land, I read and hear about endorsement and statements in support of candidates that I frankly have not made and forming next political parties that I can never get involved in. I was told that social media credited to me names of three people from the south that I am sponsoring for Presidency in 2023.
My friend, Professor Ango Abdullah, who brought this to my knowledge, remarked that he did not believe that I made such a statement because it was out of my character. I have neither named names nor stated my position. In situation like the one we are in, I will not rush into naming names without necessary consultations and well-defined principles and criteria. We need to be clear about what Nigeria needs today and why Nigeria needs it. Only then can we answer the question of how that will inform us of the criteria and characteristics for determining who.
I believe in principles before personalities and taking personalities before principles is putting the cart before the horse. And for me, the major issue is how to progress Nigeria from a country to a nation. If in 2015 Nigeria was seventy-five per cent a country and fifty per cent a nation, today, Nigeria will not be more than fifty per cent a country and twenty-five per cent a nation. The task of reversing the trend is beyond one personality, one political party or all political parties; it is beyond professional and commercial politicians alone. It demands and requires all hands on deck. I mean Nigerians in all walks of life – politicians, community leaders, traditional leaders, religious leaders, diplomatic leaders, leaders in the academia, leaders in all aspects of government life, and leaders in other aspects of the civil society.
Nigeria is tottering and for as long as we continue to put the cart before the horse, it cannot be well. Or put another way, for as long as we continue to do the same thing over and over again, the result will not be different. If the drift is not halted, the remaining twenty-five per cent of Nigerian nation will be dissipated in no time and Nigeria will not be a country but countries and will never be possible to be a nation again. That will be a monumental tragedy for Nigeria, Africa, the black race and humanity.
Since 1999, we have changed from one political party or another we have manoeuvred and manipulated to the point that election results are no longer reflections of the will of the people and we seemed to be progressively going back rather than going forward politically, economically and socially. We have activities without requite actions and personnel to move us forward. If we continue in the same pattern of recycling, sweet-word campaigning, manoeuvring without substance of integrity, honesty, patriotism, commitment, outreach, courage, understanding of what make a nation and what make for development, we will soon have to say goodbye to Nigeria as a nation.
I cast a cursory look at some of the people running around and those for whom people are running around. If EFCC (Economic and Financial Crimes Commission) and ICPC (Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission) will have done their jobs properly and supported adequately by the judiciary, most of them would be in jail. Any person who has no integrity in small things cannot have integrity in big things. Fixing Nigeria must begin on the principles of nation building, not necessarily on emotion, sentiments, euphoria, ignorance, incompetence, ethnicity, nepotism, bigotry, sectionalism, regionalism, religion or class. The issues of security, stability, development, economy and our relationship within Africa and with the rest of the world can only be taken care of if we get the issue of the nation building right.
We have a lot to learn from the events of the last almost twenty-four years and God is not to blame if we fail. It would appear that we are not getting our priorities right and that can spell doom on our country if we fail to do what we should do for nation-building in terms of fundamentals of equity, justice, common ideals, popular education, shared values, mutual respect and equality of opportunity anchored and propelled by leaders across the board that are persons of integrity, honour, morality, competence, great virtue, courage to do what is right, humility and ability to put a team together and work with them in selfless devotion and service with the fear of God. Federal character, rotation and such other measures are meant to help our nation-building process and more sure-footedly, move Nigeria forward, but riding over these measures rudely, shoddily and roughly cannot augur well for our nation-building process and progress. From personal experience and clinical observation, there is no substitute for steady and uncompromised process of nation-building as we have had in some notable examples in the past that have stood us in good stead.
Voting Shehu Shagari into power in 1979 with Alex Ekwueme from “Biafra” as No. 2 in 1979 less than ten years after attempted cessation by ‘Biafra” was in the process of nation-building. It took the United States of America and other countries that had gone through such wars decades before they could achieve that feat after their civil wars. Sustaining the declaration of the victory of Shagari by the National Electoral Commission when Shagari had majority of votes and clear one-third of votes cast in twelve States as against six States by Obafemi Awolowo which was also sustained and certified by the court and endorsed foe implementation by our military administration was also part of the process of our nation- building.
Voting for me by other Nigerians in 1999, when Afenifere and the Yorubas substantially voted against me strengthened our nation-building process. As continuation of that process, PDP adopted rotation and sharing formula for six key party political offices and government offices among the six geopolitical zones which stood the country and the party in good stead. It was the PDP policy that made it inadvisable to have candidate from the South to succeed me after my eight years in office as President.
I was succeeded by Umaru Yar’Adua from the North. When Yar’Adua died in office, the nation-building process made us to follow the Constitution and for Jonathan to step in contrary to the desire of some people from the North who agitated otherwise.
I have been at the giving end and at the receiving end of contribution to the nation-building process and I know that if we derail from nation-building process with solid principles, Nigeria will be shipwrecked. I will, at this juncture, leave it to fair-minded Nigerians, who believe in the continuation of the process of nation-building, to decide which way Nigeria should go.
I have always maintained that if we look hard widely and fairly and we bring objectivity, national interest and patriotism to bear and which must be spiced with equity, integrity, performance, then no region or zone should claim to have monopoly of Nigerians that can lead us along the path of nation-building on the basis of justice, fast economic development, inclusive growth, shared value and our rightful place in the global division of labour and decision making process. If we are going fault finding, zonally or regionally, no region or zone can claim absolute innocence. And federal character is a very important and perfect instrument of nation-building in our Constitution. When we have adequately taken care of nation-building measures especially management of our unity and taken care of every anomalous situation and performance or lack of it, that have put us in political, security, economic and solid quagmire situations that we find ourselves, then we must zero on personalities. Each contender must be properly x-rayed and profiled from birth and Nigerians must be educated to be able to make a choice that will be in the national interest and propel Nigeria forward.
Such a person will have to lead what remains of the nation to courageously continue on the path of nation-building as a national team leader, no matter on what platform he or she assumes leadership. No one can do it alone. We must, however, stop sacrificing character, track records and performance on the altar of ethnic, regional or religious jingoism. As the watchman counts on daybreak, so too do I count on Nigerians and Nigeria to bring forth that person.
I do not, cannot and will not at this point suggest the how and to what, I can only count on the patriotic commitment and desires of well- meaning Nigerians to start the process of forging a path out of darkness into the light of salvation and a new glorious dawn.
It is time to reach into the ability of Nigeria to always snatch victory from the jaws of defeat as we start this collective search on how we can climb out of this hole in which we find our country, Nigeria.
God bless Nigeria and make it into a nation.
May God bless Africa too and make it a great continent as we continue to stoke the embers of the Africa narrative.
Thank you for your attention and for honouring me.
▪︎ Former President Olusegun Obasanjo delivered this speech at an international symposium to mark his 85th birthday, with the theme: “Africa Narrative with Nigeria Situation,” on March 5, 2022.