The name Olusegun Obasanjo is one that the average Nigerian associates with national leadership twice — one, as a military Head of State, and two, as a democratic civilian president. This article discusses the personal, military, and political life of this man.
Early Life, Childhood, and Education of Olusegun Obasanjo
Olusegun Obasanjo was born in Ibogun-Olaogun, in the southwest of, Nigeria to Amos Adigun Obaluayesanjo “Obasanjo” Bankole and Bernice Ashabi Bankole. No one knows the actual birth date of Obasanjo, but on his passport is written March 5, 1937.
The senior Obasanjo was a farmer, and his son joined him in farm work until he turned eleven, old enough to go to school. He attended the local primary school in his village in 1948, and in 1951, he proceeded to the Baptist Day School in Owu, Abeokuta. In 1952, he attended Baptist Boys’ High School in Abeokuta.
Following an abandonment by his father, Obasanjo’s mother struggled to take care of him and his sister. Obasanjo excelled academically, and so part of his fees was paid by state grants.
In 1956, he took his secondary school exams, and by 1958, he took the entrance exams for the University College Ibadan. Although he passed, he could not afford to pay the school fees, so he could not attend the school. Instead, he took up a career as a civil engineer and joined the Nigerian Army in the same year.
Early Career: Military Career of Olusegun Obasanjo
Even though Obasanjo had joined the Nigerian Army, he still wanted to continue his education by paying for it with his salary. During this period, Nigeria was preparing to become a fully independent state. Thus, the need arose for more Nigerians to occupy higher ranks in the military. Obasanjo was one of those who merited this.
The military sent him to a training school in Teshie, Ghana. In 1958, he attended another six months of training at the Mons Officer Cadet School in England, where he received a certificate in engineering. Obasanjo did not enjoy his time in Mons, and he would later state that he faced racial discrimination.
Obasanjo returned to Nigeria in 1959 and was posted to serve in Kaduna. While he was in Kaduna, Nigeria gained her independence on October 1, 1960.
Obasanjo was part of the Fifth Battalion sent by the United Nations Peacekeeping Force to the Congo. Their duty was to protect civilians from the mutineers who were on a killing spree.
However, in February 1961, an ambush led to the capture of Obasanjo. But then the mutineers decided to free him instead. In May 1961, the Fifth Battalion said goodbye to the Congo and returned home to Nigeria.
Almost immediately after his return, Obasanjo acquired his first car. However, that joy was short-lived as he was hospitalized for a stomach ulcer. Upon his recovery, he got transferred to the Army Engineering Corps.
In 1962, he attended the Royal College of Military Engineering in England. He performed excellently and was described as “the best Commonwealth student ever.” Obasanjo continued to excel and rise in the military ranks.
In 1965, he rose to the rank of major. Also, in that year, he was sent to India to study at the School of Engineering in Poona and the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington.
In January 1966, he returned to Nigeria, which was already boiling from the heat of its first military coup. Under the new government of Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, Obasanjo offered to serve as a mediator between the civilian government and those who plotted the coup.
In July 1966, the revenge coup that aimed to kill the Igbo people took place. Obasanjo and his wife, Oluremi, were in Maiduguri at the time. Even though they were non-Igbo, as southerners, their lives were still in danger. The Governor of Northern Nigeria, Hassan Katsina, then hid them for ten days. After that, Obasanjo went back to Kaduna while he sent his wife to Lagos.
Obasanjo was instrumental in the Nigerian-Biafran War of 1967 – 1970. Even though he lacked experience in combat, he courageously led a troop of over 40 thousand soldiers to dispel the Biafran attacks. Due to the launch of his Operation Tail Wind, the Biafran leaders agreed to a ceasefire and total surrender.
After the war in 1970, Obasanjo was a national hero.
Olusegun Obasanjo: Murtala Mohammed’s Government and Head of State (1975 – 1979)
In 1975, the Army removed Yakubu Gowon from the head of state and put General Murtala Mohammed in his place. Although Obasanjo had no hand in the removal, he was appointed as Mohammed’s second-in-command. Reports have it that Obasanjo was “the brains and work-horse,” and he pushed hard for a civilian rule.
In 1976, Colonel Buka Suka Dimka carried a coup against the Nigerian government in which General Murtala Mohammed was killed. Obasanjo was on the hit list, but a case of mistaken identity got the wrong person killed.
Obasanjo got the coup plotters executed according to military law and then assumed the position of Head of State.
As Head of State, he combated Nigeria’s inflation problems by reducing government expenditure. He also introduced legislation that termed most major industries as essential services, banned labor strikes, and decreed those who carried our strikes be arrested.
Still, in 1976, due to declining agricultural production, Obasanjo introduced “Operation Feed the Nation,” which aimed to increase agricultural productivity, subsidize fertilizer use, and introduce students to farming.
The demand for civilian rule increased. This was so that Nigeria would not be under dictatorial leadership as many African countries already were.
In October 1976, a constitution that introduced a federal structure of government was published. The new constitution saw the re-emergence of political parties, and thus, an election was held to choose a new civilian president in 1979.
Shehu Shagari won the election and this became the beginning of Nigeria’s Second Republic. Olusegun Obasanjo then stepped down for Shagari to take over.
Olusegun Obasanjo: Nigeria’s President (1999 – 2007)
On October 28, 1998, Obasanjo joined the People’s Democratic Party and stepped up as a presidential candidate. In 1999, he won the election and then moved to the Aso Rock presidential villa. In the first few months of his tenure, he retired close to two hundred military officers thus rendering any future coup futile.
Obasanjo served as Nigeria’s President for two terms marked by ethnic and religious violence between the Muslims and the Christians. Obasanjo wanted to go for a third four-year term as Nigeria’s President but was dissuaded by prominent people like America’s president George Bush. On May 29, 2007, he left the presidency.
Olusegun Obasanjo’s Personal Life
Olusegun Obasanjo had many wives. His first wife, Oluremi Akinlawon, had a daughter for him, Iyabo Obasanjo. Amidst allegations of infidelity and domestic violence by Oluremi, the couple divorced in the 1970s.
Obasanjo then married Stella Abebe, and together they had three children. Stella died in 2005 due to a failed abdominoplasty in Spain.
He also developed a love affair with a reporter, Gold Oruh, and they had two children. Another of his mistresses was Lynda Soares, who car snatchers killed.
Books by Olusegun Obasanjo
- Africa’s Critical Choices: A Call for a Pan-African Roadmap
- A New Dawn
- Africa Through the Eyes of A Patriot
- Africa in Perspective
- Addressing Africa’s Youth Employment and food security Crisis: The Role of African Agriculture in Job Creation.
- Challenges of Leadership in Africa
- Democracy Works: Re-Wiring Politics to Africa’s Advantage
- Dust Suspended: A memoir of Colonial, Overseas and Diplomatic Service Life 1953 to 1986
- Forging a Compact in U.S. African Relations: The Fifth David M. Abshire Endowed Lecture, December 15, 1987.
- Guides to Effective Prayer
- Letters to Change the World: From Pankhurst to Orwell
- Making Africa Work: A handbook
- My Command
- My Watch
- My Watch Volume 1: Early Life and Military
- My Watch Volume 2: Political and Public Affairs
- My Watch Volume 3: Now and Then
- Not my Will
- The Animal Called Man
- The Thabo Mbeki I know
- The Challenges of Agricultural Production and Food Security in Africa
- War Wounds: Development Costs of Conflict in Southern Sudan
Olusegun Obasanjo Honours, Awards, and Recognition
● Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) – 1979
● Honorary Doctorate Degree (Howard University, Washington DC USA)
● Honorary Doctorate Degree (University of Maiduguri, Nigeria)
● Honorary Doctorate Degree (University of Ibadan, Nigeria)
● Honorary Doctorate Degree (University of Maiduguri)
● Doctor of Law (Honoris Causa), University of Namibia
● Doctorate Degree in Public Administration (Honoris Causa), Olabisi Onabanjo University, Nigeria
● Honorary Doctorate Degree of Science, Bowen University, Iwo
● Human Rights Price by Friedrich – Ebert Foundation, Bonn, Germany — 1996
● Received the Indira Gandhi Peace Prize, New Delhi, India
● Global Leadership Award — United Nations, 2012
Quotes by Olusegun Obasanjo
“Corruption is the greatest single bane of our society today.”
“For Africa to move forward, Nigeria must be one of the anchor countries, if not the leading anchor country. It means that Nigeria must be good at home to be good outside. No doubt, our situation in the last decade or so had shown that we are not good enough at home; hence we are invariably absent at the table that we should be abroad.”
“Let me make a solemn pledge before all of you, before the whole world, and before God, that I will devote all my energy and all I possess in my power to serve the people of Nigeria and humanity.”
“We regard America and Europe as old friends. We keep old friends, but we make new friends in Japan, India, and China.”
“My gut feelings and my faith tell me that until God shuts a door, no human can shut it.”
“I am a black man inside and outside and you are white men on the outside, but inside, you are Africans like me.”
Britannica (2021) https://www.britannica.com/biography/Olusegun-Obasanjo
Interaction Council (2021) https://www.interactioncouncil.org/about-us/members/members/olusegun-obasanjo