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Opinion: Olusegun Obasanjo Ph.D By Reuben Abati

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Olusegun Obasanjo
Perhaps in the long run, the most remarkable legacy of the Nigerian
leader known as Olusegun Obasanjo would be his personal example, in
terms of the manner in which he continues to creatively reinvent himself
and the Renaissance quality and force of his achievements. In addition
to all that we already know about him, Obasanjo last week bagged a Ph.D
degree in Christian Theology from the National Open University of
Nigeria (NOUN). I am impressed. It is therefore with great admiration
that I welcome Dr. Olusegun Aremu Obasanjo to the distinguished class of
Nigeria’s Ph.D elite.

As his senior colleague in this class, I have an idea of the amount
of effort and determination that must have gone into the study, research
and writing that produced the Ph.D. Anyone who has ever attempted a
research-based course of study would readily attest that a Ph.D is a
rigorous test of patience and endurance. The Professors who supervise
doctorate theses do not give them out as chieftaincy titles. They make
you work for it. Dr. Obasanjo is one of the oldest Nigerians to date to
bag a Ph.D degree, and probably the first to do so as an octogenarian,
but it is not just his age that is noteworthy, but how his achievement
is a significant advertisement for the value of knowledge and education,
and how it makes him an even more interesting case study for the
profiling of leadership and the theory of personality.
The great man theory of history often tends to focus on the political
and the cultural as enabling contexts, but the finest blend of all of
that is to be traced to the individual – what manner of man? What makes
the man? As for Obasanjo, he is already widely known and remembered for
his role in Nigerian history, but with him, we encounter something else:
an extra, somewhat mysterious, if not inexplicable force which propels
him to seek new frontiers, new conquests, labels, a questing, restless,
bullish, insatiable spirit, to prove a point, or perhaps to test his own
humanity. What is known is the important life that he has lived:
Obasanjo, the soldier, Obasanjo, the farmer, Obasanjo, the leader,
Obasanjo, the statesman, Obasanjo, the politician, Obasanjo, the author,
Obasanjo, the entrepreneur. He probably does not need a Ph.D to
validate or prove himself further, but here he is: Obasanjo the scholar.
Everything Obasanjo touches, he wants to get to the root and height of
it. He projects a competitive spirit that is complex and near-mystical.
His refusal to slow down as an octogenarian contains significant lessons
for the younger generation.
Many young men and women today are unwilling to go the extra mile, or
think out of the box. They are happy to be “slay queens and boys” and
hunters of entitlements, in this case, unmerited entitlements and
instant gratification. In a society where knowledge is derided and
scholarship is under-appreciated, the new role models are not
knowledge-seekers, but cross-dressers, naira plunkers and persons of
indeterminate means. We have become a country of short cuts, where value
is subjected to partisan considerations.
I am shocked at how so different the younger generation is from my
own generation, and how so much different from our own fathers’
generation. Obasanjo belongs to a different generation that produced,
made and unmade Nigeria: there were sluggards in that generation too
just as there were challenged privilege-seekers, but it was a different
kind of generation, once described by Wole Soyinka as a wasted
generation but now in retrospect, not a wasted generation at all,
because it managed to produce values, now lost, now devalued sadly, but
with memories of a country that could have been. The individuals in that
generation many have given us a broken country, but there are many of
them whose stories of individual accomplishments and discipline continue
to hold out a fig of hope and inspiration. 
Take Obasanjo whose Ph.D I am celebrating and whose portrait I am
trying to paint. When he left office the first time in 1979 as Nigeria’s
Head of state, he had devoted the following years of his life to
self-improvement. Soldiering has always been a noble profession, and in
that line, Obasanjo had distinguished himself in training in various
parts of the world (India and Aldershot, Chatham, England), and on the
battlefield in then Congo and the Nigerian civil war. He famously and
fortuitously received the instrument of Biafran surrender in 1970, and
served in the post-civil war Yakubu Gowon government before history and
fortune propelled him to the highest office in the land in 1976. His
boss, Murtala Muhammed was killed in a military coup d’etat, and he
became against his will, Nigeria’s Head of State and Commander in Chief
of the Armed Forces. When he later ensured the return to civilian rule
in 1979, the civilized world praised him to high heavens. The military
handing over power was an unusual thing at the time. It was the age of
Idi Amin and the culture of sit-tightism in African politics. 
But rather than wallow in the adulation that came, Obasanjo embarked
on a mission of self-reinvention. He became a farmer, the famous Uncle
Sege with the luxuriant moustache, a signature pot-belly which scores of
women found irresistible, and the hoe on his shoulder. But he did
something else: he established the Africa Leadership Forum (ALF) and
what he called the Farm House Dialogues. Through these platforms,
Obasanjo turned his Ota Farm into a rendezvous for intellectuals and
policy makers, who visited regularly to discuss matters of national,
regional and global interest in a sober, calming village environment.
In-between feeding his chickens and monitoring the pens in his farm,
Obasanjo encouraged learning and knowledge. He became the host and the
friend and mentor of the best and the brightest on the continent of
Africa. Presidents visited him. Everyone courted him as the Africa
Leadership Forum grew into a leading think-thank.
In my early years, I was privileged to be one of the resource persons
for the Forum. I wrote and edited reports and travelled with the ALF
team. I did my first public review of a book through the Forum and never
looked back. I co-wrote my first two books at Obasanjo’s instance, and I
travelled round the world and Africa with ALF and through Obasanjo. But
I was not alone. The ALF actively sought out young, smart Nigerians and
other Africans, and tried to build a community of ideas across sectors.
But the greatest beneficiary was Obasanjo: he re-educated and
re-invented himself. 
When he went to prison, implicated in a phantom coup by the military
junta led by General Sani Abacha, the ALF survived and even grew bigger.
In the intervening years, Obasanjo had established himself as a
credible global voice: member of the Global Eminent Persons Group and a
voice of reason in Africa. He had moved from being merely a retired
soldier who did well to an acclaimed man of integrity and knowledge. His
search for and cultivation of knowledge after his retirement as a
soldier stood him in extreme good stead. It was the fashion in his neck
of Nigerian woods to look down on soldiers. Soldiering was seen in the
Western region of his time as a profession for those who had more brawn
than brain and had chosen the rough path.
Obasanjo’s place of birth, Abeokuta in particular, boasted of
generations of educated people and families. A soldier may have been
prominent, but he was certainly not in a position to intimidate anyone
in a town with so many distinguished and accomplished persons. Being
rich also meant nothing to the people, but education and knowledge
attracted respect. Obasanjo’s biographers have told us how he gained
admission to the University of Ibadan to study agriculture, but he had
to turn down the offer because he could not afford the school fees, and
so opted for a career in the Military which offered free feeding,
boarding and a tidy monthly allowance. A psychoanalytic reading of
Obasanjo’s persona may in fact reveal a compensatory self-assertion in
this direction, but he has continuously remained relevant and important
because of his capacity for self-growth and re-alignment.
When he returned to power in 1999, as Nigeria’s President and Head of
State, he was absolutely well prepared. Nobody had any reason to
question his credentials. In a country where political office seekers
often present affidavits, NEPA bills and trashy excuses in place of
secondary school certificates, or claim not to remember the exact name
of the universities that they attended, Obasanjo had no such problem,
for indeed, his life has remained an open book. Years of preparation and
exposure made him an impactful President. Within 24 hours after
assuming office in 1999, Obasanjo hit the ground running and announced
key policy decisions. He also did not have to wait for six months or
fish around the forest to compose a team, and there was no way he could
ever have made the mistake of referring to the Chancellor of Germany as
the President of West Germany.
In Nigeria’s history since independence, Yakubu Gowon, Olusegun
Obasanjo, Ibrahim Babangida and Goodluck Jonathan have recruited the
brightest minds into government. Both Obasanjo and Babangida openly
craved the company of intellectuals. Some of Obasanjo’s close friends to
date are among the brightest minds in their respective fields and this
ranges from Emeritus Professors to Christian priests or local farmers
and hunters. Before now, perhaps because of this polyvalent association
and his robust efforts as a writer, Olusegun Obasanjo has always tried
to assert himself as an intellectual, to which the likes of his kinsman,
Wole Soyinka have always responded with friendly snobbery, but now, I
assume that in their next brotherly spat, the farmer of Ota is likely to
engage the Nobel Laureate far more confidently. Kongi should note:
Olusegun Obasanjo, now Dr. Obasanjo, has become a licensed intellectual.
With a Ph.D, no one again can accuse Obasanjo of lacking in theoretical
thinking. He now combines the learning of theoretical thinking with his
talents as a man of quick wit, action and native wisdom. 
I don’t want to start a family squabble much as I do not deliberately
seek to run into foul weather with this commentary by taking the risk
of discussing Obasanjo’s politics, which in my informed assessment is a
landmine of contradictions. So let me move on to more urgent matters and
state that what further makes Obasanjo important is the creative manner
in which he planned an exit strategy for himself after the expiration
of his tenure as Nigeria’s President in 2007. No other Nigerian
President alive or dead has been better prepared. From being a soldier,
farmer, global statesman and a two-time President, Obasanjo is the only
former Nigerian/African President alive with a living, robust legacy in
spatial and ideational terms. 
The other man is Nelson Mandela, who is now a legend and an ancestor.
After leaving office in 2007, Obasanjo has managed to set up in his
home-town of Abeokuta, a sprawling, intimidating Presidential Library,
appropriately named Legacy Resort, which is fast growing into a cultural
melting point for the historic town with Obasanjo’s image and brand at
the centre. Since 2007, Obasanjo has also always managed to make himself
an issue in Nigerian politics. His Hilltop home in Abeokuta is a
target of pilgrimage for politicians and seekers of support. Not every
former African President manages to speak, have a voice or remain
relevant after office.
Obasanjo’s voice continues to be heard in part because he continues
to strive to develop himself. For a man who is in the departure lounge,
it is amazing how he continues to live as if life is immortal. He
represents a study in leadership for all men and women who seek only the
shortcut and have sworn an oath to a life of indolence. His life
reminds us of how we live in a knowledge age and how knowledge and
education are the only redemptive forces at whatever stage in life.
Education, indeed continuous education can improve the individual, but
it can also save communities and societies. Indolent, self-indulgent
Nigerians and other political leaders can learn a lot from the Obasanjo
School of Leadership. For all his accomplishments however, Obasanjo does
not necessarily speak for the stifled masses of Nigeria, but he is
committed to the idea of Nigeria and has spent his life and career
defending that idea and the unity and progress of his homeland. 
I congratulate him on his fulfillment of requirements and completion
of the course of study for the award of a Ph.D in Christian Theology.
This is probably for him, another beginning. With a Ph.D in Theology,
Obasanjo now better understands the subjects of forgiveness and love.
Nobody should be surprised if Baba, as we call him, launches a
Pentecostal Christian Ministry tomorrow, and declares himself a General
Overseer in the Lord’s Vineyard. Should he venture in that direction,
however, I may be tempted to join his ministry, and if I so decide, he
would have to reciprocate by putting me in charge of the collection of
tithes and offerings… Well, yeah…Dr. Olusegun Obasanjo, congratulations.

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