Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Obasanjo, Nigeria and the World

Obasanjo, Nigeria and the World

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 344
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Obasanjo, Nigeria and the World
    Book Description:

    Olusegun Obasanjo was Nigeria's military head of state (1976-9) and President (1999-2007). His career is made the focus for a history of Nigeria's first fifty years of independence (1960-2010) and of African continental affairs during the same period (Obasanjo having been an active opponent of apartheid and an architect of the African Union). The most important African leader of his generation, Obasanjo has had an extraordinarily diverse career as soldier, politician, statesman, farmer, author, political prisoner, Baptist preacher, and family patriarch. As a soldier, he secured the victory in Nigeria's civil war. As military head of state, he returned the country to civilian rule. For the next 20 years he was ceaselessly active, before spending three years as a political prisoner. Released from prison, Obasanjo served Nigeria as elected President from 1999 to 2007, until his growing authoritarianism and his manipulation of his successor's election ruined his reputation among many Nigerians. This book argues that the controversial end to his presidency must be understood in the light of his earlier career. The author has used mainly published sources, especially Nigerian newspapers and political memoirs, as well as recently released FCO documents in Britain. John Iliffe is a Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge. He retired as Professor of African History at Cambridge in 2006 and has published widely on African history including: ‘A Modern History of Tanganyika’; ‘The Emergence of African Capitalism’; ‘The African Poor: A History’; ‘Africans: the History of a Continent’; ‘Honour in African History’ and ‘The African Aids Epidemic: A History’. Nigeria: HEBN [PB]

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-938-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-ix)
    John Iliffe
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. x-xi)
  5. Maps
    (pp. xii-xiv)
  6. 1 A Man of Controversy
    (pp. 1-4)

    When Olusegun Obasanjo left office as President of Nigeria in May 2007, at the age of seventy, he suffered a torrent of abuse. The country’s leading constitutional lawyer described the departing regime as ‘a bad dream, a nightmare for the Nigerian people and a disaster for the Rule of law, democracy and good governance’.¹ The playwright and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka dubbed the retiring president a Master of Hypocrisy.² A formerly close colleague called him ‘the most toxic leader that Nigeria has produced’.³ A political enemy recommended ‘that Obasanjo should go back to jail. I think he belongs there and...

  7. Part I Making a Career (1937–70)

    • 2 Yoruba Boy
      (pp. 7-11)

      Matthew Olusegun Aremu Obasanjo was born at Ibogun-Olaogun, a village in south-western Nigeria about half-way between lagos and Abeokuta. His passport later showed his date of birth as 5 March 1937, but there was no written record and the date was estimated from other family events. He was the first of his parents’ nine children and the only one to survive childhood except a younger sister.¹ There are several interpretations of the baby’s names, all suggesting his parents’ joy and hope. By one account, Olusegun meant ‘God conquers’, Aremu was a praise name with royal connotations, and Obasanjo – his father’s...

    • 3 Nigerian Soldier
      (pp. 12-19)

      Military service suited many aspects of Obasanjo’s personality: his sense of discipline and duty, his compulsive activism, his ambition, perhaps his need for a surrogate family and for a cause, which he was to find in the Nigerian nation. When he retired after twenty years’ service, he told his assembled colleagues that ‘for the total development of man within his environment physically and intellectually, there is no better ground than military training and full military career.’¹

      Not all of this can have been clear to him in March 1958 when he enlisted and was sent to the Regular Officers’ Training...

    • 4 Coups and Civil War
      (pp. 20-36)

      When Major Obasanjo landed at Kano airport on 13 January 1966, nobody met him. Surprised, he continued to the engineers’ base at Kaduna. Again nobody met him. He telephoned his closest friend, Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, who promptly arrived to take him home, then left for his office, explaining that they were conducting night training exercises: ‘Operation Leopard’. The acting commander of the engineers had left a note telling Obasanjo that he could not take over until 15 January. Obasanjo decided to catch up on his unit’s files. The night of 14–15 January was disturbed by explosions and gunfire, but...

  8. Part II Military Rule (1970–9)

    • 5 Chance and Power
      (pp. 39-55)

      In 1970 Obasanjo returned to peacetime soldiering as Brigadier commanding the Corps of Engineers in Lagos. Professionally, the next five years were perhaps the quietest of his life. Privately, they were a time of turmoil. And in 1975 everything would change.

      He was becoming a property-owner and a businessman In the early 1960s he had invested ‘Dag’s Dash’ in parcels of land at Ibadan, Kaduna, and Lagos. In 1970 he bought a former Lebanese company in Ibadan and secured an agent to run it. By 1974, with a salary approaching $15,000 a year, he had two houses in Lagos, one...

    • 6 State-directed Development
      (pp. 56-72)

      Once Obasanjo was installed as military head of state during the first months of 1976, three issues dominated his attention until he transferred power to a civilian successor in October 1979: economic and social development, foreign affairs, and the creation of democratic institutions. Murtala’s regime had laid down the main lines of policy in several fields. These Obasanjo followed ‘religiously’, as his chief official adviser remembered.¹ Yet it would be wrong to think that Obasanjo’s regime ‘was like a tired anchor leg of a relay race’.² In Nigerian circumstances, implementing policies was more difficult than formulating them.

      In carrying out...

    • 7 African Liberation
      (pp. 73-87)

      The seven months of Murtala Muhammed’s leadership had set clearer lines of foreign policy than economic strategy. Nigeria’s security was little threatened by its weak neighbours, among whom it sought to assert a leadership consequent on its size and oil wealth. The main external challenges came from two other directions. One was the revival of the Cold War between the two superpowers during the mid 1970s, now fought less in europe or South-east Asia than in Afghanistan and tropical Africa. Between 1970–3 and 1977–8, the average annual value of arms imported into sub-Saharan Africa, at constant prices, rose...

    • 8 Return to Civilian Rule
      (pp. 88-96)

      Nigerians remembered Obasanjo’s tenure as military head of state chiefly for the fidelity with which his regime restored power to a civilian government on 1 October 1979. It was the basis for the high reputation that he bore for the next twenty years. In managing this transition, Obasanjo followed closely the political programme that Murtala had announced in October 1975,¹ but he did not merely execute decisions already taken. The creation of new political institutions – the most novel that any West African state devised² – raised major questions of principle and judgment, especially the question that was to trouble Obasanjo throughout...

  9. Part III Private Citizen (1979–99)

    • 9 The Farmer
      (pp. 99-107)

      On 8 October 1979, a week after leaving military office at the age of 42, Obasanjo began a new career as a farmer by visiting his land and arranging for it to be cleared for cultivation.¹ ‘It was the job for which I was born’, he said. He considered farming a fitting occupation for a senior officer, as it had been for a Yoruba military chief.² Moreover, he wanted to set an example:

      Our commitment to an agricultural and food production enterprise stems from our belief that Nigeria must be self-reliant in agriculture and food production as a nation…. Our...

    • 10 The Author
      (pp. 108-119)

      During his first eleven years after leaving office, Obasanjo published four books covering his military career and looking forward to Nigeria’s future. They were his most important publications. All were valuable contributions to the history of the period, but they were also controversial works related to contemporary politics.

      Obasanjo’s account of the civil war, My Command, was written in 1980 when he was a Distinguished Fellow at the University of Ibadan, perhaps a convenient base while preliminary work took place at Ota. After recounting the war’s origins and his role during its first two years, the book dealt chiefly with...

    • 11 The Statesman
      (pp. 120-135)

      ‘I do not believe that one must occupy the government house to make useful contributions to one’s society’, Obasanjo wrote in 1990. ‘And out of public office, one becomes unconstrained in creating a larger constituency for oneself, even a constituency as large as the world itself.’¹ This he had indeed achieved during the previous decade. He had become a world statesman, called upon to mediate in international disputes and advise on global problems, considered for the most demanding of international posts. This in turn had compelled a deeper involvement in Nigerian public life. ‘How else can I be credible in...

    • 12 The Politician
      (pp. 136-151)

      By 1992, Obasanjo’s hostility to Babangida’s political deviousness and structural reform programme had become a determination to oblige the president and the military as a whole to withdraw from power with as much dignity as could be preserved, so that Nigeria could share in the democratisation taking place throughout the continent.¹ In this, Obasanjo failed, a failure that brought shame to the army, misery to Nigerians, and imprisonment to himself.

      The charming, clever, and enigmatic Babangida fascinated Nigerians. Nearly twenty years after leaving office he had still not explained the manner of his departure. Many believed that he had clung...

    • 13 The Prisoner
      (pp. 152-163)

      Abacha’s headquarters at Aso Rock in the new capital at Abuja seethed with intrigue, suspicion, and rumour. The head of state himself was rarely seen, seldom attended meetings, frequently neglected official business, and did not attempt to tour the country. A man of few words and no intellectual pretensions, he hated reading but was a good listener, an astute schemer, and a ruthless executor, greedy for wealth, obsessed by security, and uninhibited in resort to violence. His sinister Chief Security Officer, Major Hamza al-Mustapha, controlled an Israeli-and Korean-trained Strike Force with its own detention camps, interrogation centres, and assassination unit.¹...

    • 14 The Candidate
      (pp. 164-180)

      Leaders in Abeokuta were right to think that the great problem in June 1998 was the future of Abiola. He had been in prison since 1994, with deteriorating health, refusing to gain release by renouncing his claim to be the elected president. His supporters in NADECO and the south-west insisted that he must head any civilian government, although that remained anathema to many in the army and the North.

      General Abdulsalami sought help from Africa’s two leading diplomats, Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Emeka Anyaoku, Secretary-General of the Commonwealth. They visited Abiola in detention early in July....

  10. Part IV The First Presidential Term (1999–2003)

    • 15 Containing conflict
      (pp. 183-199)

      On 29 May 1999 – Democracy Day, as he later named it – Obasanjo took the presidential oath in Eagle Square, Abuja, in the presence of Nelson Mandela, heads of state and dignitaries, and the Nigerian public. In his inaugural address, he described himself as ‘a man who has walked through the valley of the shadow of death’. His task, he said, was to restore the morale, the state, and the economy ravaged by fifteen years of military rule:

      I am not a miracle worker. It will be foolish to underrate the task ahead. Alone, I can do little. You have been...

    • 16 Salvaging the Economy
      (pp. 200-216)

      During the twenty years since Obasanjo had left power in 1979, some 75 million Nigerians had been born and 25 million had died.¹ Total population numbers were contentious but may have increased between 1979 and 1999 from about 70 million to 120 million.² A continuing high birthrate more than compensated for child mortality 60% higher than the average in low-income countries.³ When Obasanjo took office in 1999, half of all Nigerians were no more than seventeen years old.⁴ The problems facing the regime can be understood only against this demographic background.

      A major reason for high mortality was deplorable public...

    • 17 Restoring International Relationships
      (pp. 217-224)

      One major task – and one major success – of Obasanjo’s first presidential term was to restore Nigeria’s international reputation, damaged by Abacha’s years of repression and isolation, and to regain the prominent role in continental affairs that the country had played when Obasanjo had been its military leader. He realised that his personal experience as a victim of repression was an asset to be exploited. ‘This is a country that has been isolated, this is a country that needs to come into the mainstream of the international community,’ he explained, ‘and … you don’t sit at home to do that, you...

    • 18 President and Politicians
      (pp. 225-237)

      Although sectional conflict and economic recovery were Nigeria’s chief domestic problems during Obasanjo’s first presidential term, the foreground of public life was occupied by a struggle between executive and legislature. The division of power between them, with the restraint and compromise it was designed to foster, was the core of the constitution whose drafting Obasanjo had overseen in 1976–9. Nigerians familiar with the parent American system assured their compatriots that conflict between the two branches of government was healthy and predictable.¹ In Nigerian circumstances, however, it was particularly abrasive. This was partly due to what Obasanjo once called Nigerians’...

    • 19 Re-election
      (pp. 238-250)

      The constitution limited presidents and state governors to two four-year terms of office. There was no limitation for legislators. Nigerian politicians began to prepare for the next election on the day after the last one. By September 1999, less than six months after Obasanjo’s initial victory, a shadowy group called forum 37 was in being to ensure his re-election in 2003, with Vice-President Atiku as grand patron. The organisers, it was said, were ‘cashing in on the high performance rating of the administration and the mass support being enjoyed by it from most Nigerians’.¹

      Obasanjo was initially very popular. The...

  11. Part V The Second Presidential Term (2003–7)

    • 20 The Imperious Presidency
      (pp. 253-267)

      When Obasanjo renewed his presidential oath on 29 May 2003, he was at the peak of his power. Whereas his initial election in 1999 had largely been arranged for him by political sponsors, his victory in 2003 was essentially his own, especially his triumph among his Yoruba people. He now dominated the party and the country. Less preoccupied by separatism and violence in all corners of the land, he could hope in his second term to move from seamanship to navigation, from merely keeping Nigeria afloat to giving a lasting trajectory to the country and the continent.

      He had no...

    • 21 Economic Reform
      (pp. 268-280)

      Four issues dominated Obasanjo’s second presidential term: economic reform leading on to debt relief, a new attempt to use oil resources to modernise national infrastructure, implementing the principles of the new African Union, and controlling the outcome of the 2007 election. Economic policy was certainly more successful than during his first term. The core of his reform programme was a National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS),¹ which itself grew out of a National Economic Agenda (2003–2007)² prepared towards the end of his first term as the draft of the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper that the IMF required from...

    • 22 Africa’s Elder Statesman
      (pp. 281-286)

      During his second presidential term, Obasanjo’s priority in international affairs was no longer to restore Nigeria’s reputation or create new continental institutions, but rather to strengthen those institutions, to use them and his own international standing to resolve conflict and foster democracy and development, and to free Nigeria from its burden of foreign debt. At the peak of his influence in 2005, he was chairman of the African Union (from July 2004 to January 2006), the NEPAD Heads of State and Government Committee, the Group of 25, and the Commonwealth – an array of posts that irritated other African leaders.¹ His...

    • 23 Managing the Succession
      (pp. 287-303)

      For many Nigerians, whatever services Obasanjo had previously rendered their country were negated by his political behaviour during his second presidential term. They believed that, being a natural autocrat further corrupted by power, he had attempted to defy the constitution by seeking a third term of office or perhaps even attempting to make himself president for life.¹ To achieve this, he had been willing to bribe and coerce legislators and to abuse his power by illegally excluding Vice-President Atiku from seeking election as president. When Obasanjo’s bid for a third term failed, so it was said, he had tried with...

    • 24 Retirement
      (pp. 304-307)

      In the Reverend Samuel Johnson’s great History of the Yorubas, the most dramatic incident concerned the Basorun Gaha, the senior chief of the Oyo kingdom in the mid eighteenth century, who ‘was noted for having raised five Kings to the throne, of whom he murdered four, and was himself murdered by the fifth.’ ‘He was credited’, Johnson wrote, ‘with the power of being able to convert himself into a leopard or an elephant, and on this account was much feared. He lived to a good old age, and wielded his power mercilessly.’ At the last, however, the King of Oyo...

  12. Appendix: exchange rates
    (pp. 308-310)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 311-320)
  14. Index
    (pp. 321-326)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 327-327)