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President Olusegun Obasanjo, who twice led Nigeria — first as military head of state (1976-1979) and later as an elected civilian president (1999-2007) — can claim to have seen it all. Born on March 5, 1937, the 86-year-old retired general has been a constant in Nigeria’s history in and out of office, offering comments — even if controversially — on political and economic issues. In this interview with TheCable, he gives his opinions on a wide range of issues.
TheCable: Increasingly, we are witnessing an era of military coups in Africa again. What do you think is going on?
Obasanjo: In 2021, when Col Mamady Doumbouya overthrew President Alpha Condé of Guinea, I recall that I travelled to Conakry. I spent two nights there. The coup leader didn’t want to meet with me because he didn’t know what I would say. They said he was out of town, which was not true. But I met every other important government official. I met his No 2 and his speaker. I listened to them and concluded that we had a new phenomenon on our hands. I realised that they had the support of the youths and were not thinking of staying in power for four, five years years. They are in for a generation.
When I noticed this, I went to Addis Ababa to meet the chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat. I told him that maybe he had not seen what I was seeing. That I saw this in Guinea Conakry. He said I was talking about Guinea Conakry, what about his own country, Chad? He said Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea Conakry, and Chad were thinking the same way and they were connected. I said that was a new phenomenon in Africa. I said I was the one who in 1999 advocated that if you are not a government backed by the constitution, you should be suspended from the African Union, and these chaps don’t even mind any suspension. I told him that all the instruments we had used in the past would not work and asked what he would do about it. He told me about his challenges, especially with his country. So we have a situation where we have a continent where we have to rethink democracy. The liberal democracy we are copying from settled societies in the West won’t work for us.
TheCable: What type of democracy would work for us?
Obasanjo: I don’t know. But we have seen that the liberal type of democracy as practised in the West will not work for us. We have to put our heads together.
TheCable: Some would say it is working in Nigeria, that it has survived 24 years…
Obasanjo: I won’t answer you (laughs).
TheCable: But what can work?
Obasanjo: You have to put your heads together to fashion it out. You can give it any name. But we have seen that this is not working. Out of the six countries that have experienced coups, three of them are directly from elections. Burkina Faso, Guinea Conakry, and Gabon that we have just had are directly from elections. The other three are indirect, if you like.
TheCable: Would you say ECOWAS could have handled the Niger coup differently?
Obasanjo: What I said about the Niger is now what we did with Gabon, not a threat of force. Tinubu said “we are watching”. In Niger, ECOWAS has beaten the drum, and they have seen that it didn’t work. The point is this: where in Africa have the people benefited from the dividends of democracy? Tell me.
TheCable: Maybe Botswana…
Obasanjo: You don’t know the inside of Botswana. Ian Khama, the former president, cannot go to Botswana today. His father was the first president. I worked with him. As they were settling down, I thought they were making progress because the president after his father was the one who became minister of finance. When I was military head of state, he used to come and visit us, and we would render assistance to them, and he later became vice president and president. The next one was the same way. Ian Khama, who became the head of the army, moved the same way. The one that succeeded him now is chasing him from pillar to post. That is not liberal democracy.
TheCable: What of Ghana?
TheCable: Even if not in terms of dividends of democracy but liberal democracy…
Obasanjo: Maybe Namibia is the closest to it.
TheCable: Coming back home now. There is a raging issue regarding Mambilla hydropower over the award of a $6 billion contract to Sunrise Power by your government in 2003. It is now a subject of arbitration. Sunrise is asking for $2.3 billion in compensation, alleging breach of contract. But the federal government is arguing that the contract was invalid…
Obasanjo: Did you say my government awarded the contract to Sunrise?
TheCable: Olu Agunloye, your minister of power in 2003, wrote to Sunrise announcing the award of the contract…
Obasanjo: Who gave him the authorisation? When I was president, no minister had the power to approve more than N25 million without express presidential consent. It was impossible for Agunloye to commit my government to a $6 billion project without my permission and I did not give him any permission. If a commission of inquiry is set up today to investigate the matter, I am ready to testify. I do not even need to testify because all the records are there. I never approved it. When he presented his memo to the federal executive council (on May 21, 2003), I was surprised because he had previously discussed it with me and I had told him to jettison the idea, that I had other ideas on how the power sector would be restructured and funded. I told him as much at the council meeting and directed him to step down the memo.
I find it surprising that Agunloye is now claiming he acted on behalf of Nigeria. If I knew he issued such a letter to Sunrise, I would have sacked him as minister during my second term. He would not have spent a day longer in office. When I was in office, Leno Adesanya, the promoter of Sunrise Power, ran away from Nigeria. I would have jailed him if he was in the country because of the things I knew about him. After I left office, he returned and I saw him. I told him that he was lucky I was no longer president. Otherwise, I would have jailed him.
TheCable: You took a different route over the power sector, coming up with the power sector reform and building power plants such as Geregu, Papalanto, and Omotosho. But the problems of the power sector remain. What else can we do?
Obasanjo: You can only get the power sector right when you get all the fundamentals in the power sector right. In 2006, we ordered 42 turbines that should have been completed if not by 2007 then in 2008. My target was 10,000 megawatts of power by 2007. Up till today, I understand that five of the turbines have yet to be installed. I have been out of the office for 16 years. If after 18 years when those turbines had been ordered, five have still not been installed, what are you talking about?
TheCable: One major issue was that the turbines could not be transported to location because of issues with bridge and water depth in some places. The feeling was that you did not do a proper assessment before ordering the turbines.
Obasanjo: We did what we should do before I left office. I targeted 10,000 megawatts but today, we are still struggling with 4,000. Then you had President Goodluck Jonathan doing privatisation. If that privatisation was done the way we did privatisation, it would have been okay for the country. When you see these things and still ask me the questions you ask, I feel like punching you (laughs).
TheCable: Let’s discuss the refineries. They are still not working…
Obasanjo: They will not work as long as the government is keeping hold of them. When I was president, I invited Shell to a meeting. I told them I wanted to hand over the refineries for them to help us run. They bluntly told me they would not. I was shocked. I repeated the request and they stood their ground. When the meeting was over, I asked their big man (MD) to wait behind for a little chat. Then I asked him why they were so hesitant on not taking over the refineries. He said did I want to hear the truth? I said yes. He listed four reasons. One, he said Shell makes its money from upstream and that is where its interest lies. Two, he said they only do downstream or retail as a matter of service. Three, he said our refineries would be bad business for them, that globally, companies are going for bigger refineries because of the economics of refineries. Four, he said there is too much corruption in refineries.
I thanked him for his honesty. I knew we had a big problem in our hands. I had virtually given up hope on the refineries when God did a miracle. Alike Dangote and Femi Otedola approached me and said they would be interested in buying two of the four refineries. They said they would buy 51 percent stake in Port Harcourt and Kaduna. I was over the moon. I said, finally, this burden would be taken off the neck of the government. They offered $761 million and paid in two instalments. Unfortunately, Umaru (President Yar’Adua) cancelled the sale and returned the refineries to NNPC. Today, we are still where we were. Someone told me Tinubu said refineries would work by December. I told the person the refineries would not work. This is based on the information I received from Shell when I was president.
TheCable: When you were military head of state, you believed in state ownership. You were a changed man when you returned as president in 1999. What happened?
When I was military head of state, we ordered 19 new ships to be built for the Nigerian National Shipping Line (NNSL), which was owned by the federal government. We had about five at the time, and with 19, we were to have 24 ships. We took delivery of some before we left office. President Shehu Shagari took delivery of the remaining balance. When I returned after 20 years, the shipping line had been liquidated. Not one ship left. Let me tell you the story of one of the ships. They sold it for half a million dollars. Then, they started the Oron merchant navy school and needed a ship for training. They bought the ship they had sold for half a million dollars for $2 million and spent another $1.5 million to refit it so it could be seaworthy.
The ship went on the first voyage a week after I became president in 1999. One of the first things they brought to me was that the ship had been arrested for not being seaworthy and that I should bring $1 million to pay as fine for the ship that had been detained. I requested that they allow me time to look at the issues, and when I studied the issues, I told them to inform those who arrested the ship that I had gifted them the ship. The following day, the ship was released without Nigeria paying a dime. You can guess what happened there.
We left 32 aircraft for Nigerian Airways in 1979, but we had only one serviceable aircraft 20 years after I left office. When you look at that and what happened to Nigerian Airways, some directors formed an offshore company, and it was the company that they gave the maintenance and repairs to. The same company would then engage the people that would actually carry out the maintenance and repairs. The payment would be to the offshore company who, in turn, did not pay the contractors. When I returned in 1999, I took a stance that I didn’t owe Nigerians an airline. What I owed Nigerians was secure and safe traveling. So, when they talked about this Nigeria Air project, you would know it is nonsense. When I say certain things, people say Obasanjo has started again. It is because I know what I am talking about.
TheCable: Our economy is currently in a bad shape with a heavy debt burden. With your experience, how do you think we can come out of this?
Obasanjo: Tinubu said the other day that it was unacceptable that he would spend 90% of his revenue to service debts. I wasn’t spending 90% when I went worldwide to get debt relief. Do you think that anybody would give you debt relief today? Buhari was spending money recklessly. I know Buhari didn’t understand economics. I put that in my book. But that he could also be so reckless, I didn’t know. Who would you go to today and ask for a favor? Tinubu says he has trimmed the number of people attending the United Nations General Assembly. Is that news? He will meet with Justin Trudeau, and he will meet with Emmanuel Macron. That will not solve any problem.
TheCable: You’ve pointed to a number of your policies reversed or abandoned by President Yar’Adua. Since he was never an insider in your government, why did you support him to be your successor?
Obasanjo: See, I set up a committee headed by Olusegun Agagu, of blessed memory, to search for a successor. They considered many names and did an extensive assessment of all them. They made their recommendation. Umaru was top on the list. Their biggest argument in his favour was that he had integrity and would not steal. The issues concerning his health were raised and I gave his medical reports to an expert for an opinion. Umaru’s name was redacted so that the expert would not know who it was and why I was seeking his opinion. After assessing the reports, he said the patient appeared to have done a kidney transplant and if that was the case, there was nothing to worry about and he would be as healthy as any other person. That was it. All insinuations that I knew he was going to die and that was why I supported him to be president were false. This is the true story I have told you.