At the marquee (event centre) of the Obasanjo Presidential Library, Abeokuta, the high and low of society from the four corners of the world gathered on Monday, 5th March, 2018. Why? To honour, one whom eve the aged and most venerated of men prefer to ascribe the revered appellation – Baba – normally reserved for few in most traditional cultures. As they so gathered, the husky but defiant voice of a town crier, with peculiar Owu ‘tribal’ facial marks, spared no breath throughout the occasion to remind his audience of the orike (ancient Yoruba folkloric praise singing genre of the pedigree) of the celebrant. Who he asked rhetorically? As if talking to a gathering of strangers, he answered: about one, named Olusegun Aremu Okikiola born to the Obasanjo family of Owu sub-group of Abeokuta town, eighty-one (81) years ago.
The town crier reminded intermittently, that gathered were Royalties, Nobles and political helmsman. Along with Diplomatic coterie and religious prelates. They were joined by other notable persons many of whom had becomed bald and greyed from much learning and scholarship. Not less gathered were countless men and women, of little airs but in their own rights of distinction, goodwill and good conscience. All to celebrate a most outstanding statesman. So all listened with rapt attention as speakers, one after the other recounted the worth of the person whom Chairman of the Occasion, and one time Nigerian Chief Diplomat to the Court of St James in London and by dint of being older simply called ‘birthday boy’.
GOOD OLD ABEAKUTA FOLKS
Interestingly, perhaps more than any African city, none has produced the calibre of persons of historical acclaim as Abeokuta. Think of just other great global citizens born in the ancient town about same time as Baba. These including former Nigerian Head of State, Chief Ernest Shonekan, Ace Politician and Philantrophist, MKO Abiola, Jurist and Legal icon, Justice Bola Ajibola, Nobel laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka, pioneer African female Chartered Accountant, Bola Kuforiji-Olubi. Not to forget musical maestro, Fela Anikolapo and his elder medical doctor brothers Prof Olukoye and Beko of the Ransome-Kuti dynasty.
Yet to none other, in life or death do such galaxy of humankind gather, so often and on that day to appreciate God’s gift of life and benevolence.
ABOUT THE AGE 81
Some are wont to query, why the exceptional re-indulgences of this son of a mere cocoa farmer at 81 years of age ?
Well, numerical reasoning as a field preoccupies itself with the process of understanding the deeper meaning of numbers. While this derives its foundation from the panoply between such disciplines as mathematics, astronomy and philosophy, it nonetheless has more profound relevance to the esoterics and metaphysics.
Being no numerologist, it is needless to hazard any detailed discussion on the valorative significance of 81. It will suffice, to mention the common thought, that the number 81 is a definitive crossing line into the sagely realm – old man/woman. Indeed, after attainment of the ripe age of four-score (80 years); as was adumbrated by Chairman of occasion Amb. Kolade, 81years is also a time for deeper reflection, introspection about the journey of life. It is a time to take stock, painstakingly and meticulously of the major milestones. It is also a time to rejig, re-energise and re-strategize for the last lap of the journey of mortal earth. When he turned 80, I chronicled Obasanjo as an ‘Enigma’. But more than that is the fact that his phenomenal life was full of many coincidences, clearly plotted by the finger of the Creator Himself. So Baba Obasanjo, also commonly known as OBJ was a pioneer of many sorts.
Without going too deep into the incipient days, it remains as an open testimonial that by dint of academic brilliance, he was able to cut out a niche for himself and catapult to higher education graduating as an Engineer.
AN ENGINEER-SOLDIERSoon after, he found himself as among pioneer engineers in the Nigerian Army in 1959 following his commission as a Second Lieutenant. As a Captain, he was the first Nigerian to command the Engineering Corp in 1963.His role in the Congo, as one of the first set of United Nations Peace keepers is a timeless reminder of the worth of this yielded life.
WAR HEROISM AND ARMISTICE
Meanwhile in his own country, Nigeria found itself engulfed in patricidal and sacrilegious bloodletting in two military coups in 1966 and a civil war, 1967 to 1970.
At the height of the war, Obasanjo became deeply involved in the trenches. Ultimately, he was commandeered to take charge of the most critical frontier – The Third Marine Commando. The story is told that having taken over the Second Div from then Col Murtala Muhammed, Col TY Danjuma went through Idah to Agenebode to access Iboland and took over the all important commercial metropolis of Onitsha.
However, the most critical backbone of ‘Ibo country’, the Owerri, Aba and Umuahia (OAU axis) needed to end the war remained unyielding. It was at this point that the nearly mythical ‘Black Scorpion’ – Col Benjamin Adekunle was directed to handover the Third Marine Commando to then Col Obasanjo in September 1969. In the shortest of time the hitherto impregnable OAU axis capitulated. This thrusted the death knell on the prosecution of the war by the Biafran side. Shortly afterwards, the Biafran Chief of Staff, Gen Philip Effiong left War Leader Odimegwu Ojukwu’s stronghold in far away Nnewi, which was closer to Second Division where Col Danjuma was operating to Port-Harcourt to surrender to Obasanjo on 13th January, 1970. It was thereafter that they proceeded to meet then Head of State, Gen Yakubu Gowon for other formalities of instruments of armistice and official announcement of end of war on 15th January.
EMERGENT MILITARY DEMOCRATIC
Thereafter, Obasanjo remained part of military strongmen who ruled Nigeria and indeed many other Africa during the decades 1970s and 1980s. When the much-loved and reformist minded, Military Leader, Gen Murtala Muhammed, was assassinated in 1976, the Nigerian nation came close to the brink. Again, Baba was prevailed upon to take over the reigns of power and restore hope and direction to the country. Having tasted political power, the military helmsmen across Africa, almost in an isochronic conspiracy refused to retreat to the barracks, country after country. Many expected Obasanjo to act no differently. But no as it was again Obasanjo who overturned the jinx by voluntarily and unilaterally stepping down the saddle of governance and handed over to a democratically elected democratic government in 1979. This, unarguably, was the first of its kind in Africa.
Departure from Dodan Barrack, Lagos (the name for Nigeria’s seat of government during the military years), opened new vista of engagements for Obasanjo. Beyond going back to the farm ‘from whence he was hewned’, he opened the Africa Leadership Centre. He retreated to the hitherto sleepy town of Otta in the outskirts of Nigeria’s former capital city, Lagos. As an intellectual activist, he soon became the face and voice of a new Africa searching for democracy and economic development around the continent. He sat on virtually every international and multilateral concert, group or gathering on behalf of Africa. As a matter of fact, before Egptian born, Boutrous Ghali or even our own Ghanian neighbour Kofi Anan, many canvassed Baba as the first Black/African Sectetary General of the United Nations. But God had other plans. So he blazoned the trail for other Ex African statesmen on post office life.
Obasanjo soon found himself in trouble with then Nigerian military strongman, Gen Sani Abacha over his vociferous and plain-spokenness. These ended him with charges of treasonable conduct in 1995. Unlike playwright and rights activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, in those ‘days of anomie’ he escaped the hangman’s gallows and was clamped into the dungeon of life-in-jail.
A SECOND BIRTH DEMOCRAT
But acting his pioneering destiny, OBJ soon found himself in the seat of governance which he gave up twenty years before then. Previously uncommon in Africa, he became the first former military dictator to be so democratically elected as President. He again recorded several milestones, almost impossible to surpass by other successors in Nigeria or elsewhere on the continent. Just to mention. It was with this new prestige and international respect that he successfully negotiated Nigerian relief from the yoke of external indebtedness in 2005.
At the continental, working with South Africa President and Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) was birthedAnother point comes to mind. Like Wole Soyinka’s depiction of ‘abiku’ phenomenon in Yoruba mythology, Nigerian democracy had been dogged by the malediction of inability to peacefully handover from one civilian administration to another. Alas in 2007, Baba was again able to overturn the seeming evil spell as he successfully completed his eight year double tenures. He quietly handed over to the amiable, President Umar Musa Ya’ardua, whom he preferred calling ‘Umoru’ with an obvious Yoruboid accent. Today, that tradition has become part of our democratic heritage.
OP THE NIGER DELTA
For students of history from the Niger Delta, a region whose neglect, deprivation and environmental despoliation remain a global discomfiture, the role of OBJ in the emergence of President Goodluck Jonathan in 2007 as Nigerian Vice President and four years later as Head of State, will remain indelibly resonated. It was also OBJ that established the Niger Delta Development Commission in 2000. He also created, for the first time, Office of Special Adviser on Niger Delta in 2005 with a former Security Chief, Chief AK Horsfall, briefly as pioneer and thereafter, yours truly, succeeding him. Sadly, his role in the Odi invasion seems to oblique these facts.
UNENDING SEARCH FOR KNOWLEDGE Even before anyone could say ‘Jack Robin’, please excuse the postcolonial hangover, OBJ had registered for a degree and afterwards a PhD in Christian Theology. Although, former Nigerian military ruler, Gen Yakubu Gowon had taken a similar path after his overthrow in 1975, his case was different in many ways. Understandably at the time, Gen Gowon went quietly to Warwick University, United Kingdom founded in 1965 with its scenic and establishmentarian ambience to study. Per contra, OBJ slogged it out locally and through the Open University of Nigeria; which he established as President, few years back. By this, has again demystified the arcane suspicions and prejudices against Distance Learning still looming sway in some quarters in Nigeria and around Africa. A prolific and consummate writer, including letters ! He is one of the world’s most published statesmen.
SO WHAT NEXT?
In 2008, some younger Nigerian persons who had been privileged to work closely with Baba, piqued by the inclement political attacks, especially by the then unending probes by the National Assembly on him, gossiped on how to talk Baba out of the national arena. They plotted and reechoed: let him focus on the ever welcoming and very appreciative global scene. From the cold of Swedish late winter cold, your truly conveyed our thoughts to him on his birthday. In his reply he stated tersely: “….l will continue to work more both here in Nigeria and for Africa”. True, since then Baba has continued to remain a bulwark of sorts; unassailing, irrepressible, effervescent and at times oracular and prognostic. Even more are his sunny sides full of euphoric and cheery-hearted predilections; including his typical rhythmical sways and whirls.
From the twilight days of Nigeria’s nationhood, Baba has been amongst the most important and impactful actors in state building and Pan Africanism. Obviously, the historic merit and esteem of Baba is just about to see a new chapter of resplendence open itself, as the script of his life of transcendental favour is far from been fully acted out. Thank God, his health and mental faculties are clearly upbeat. That is what faith, fate and fortune seems to hold for him. We wish him no less!
By Godknows Igali, a Diplomat, Administrator and award winning Author, also served President Obasanjo in various capacities