“Obasanjo at 80: I am a village boy who did some things by accident” is the caption The Guardian gave to the interview it had with ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo, who celebrated his 80th anniversary on Saturday.
Your Excellency, you are 80 years in numbers, but you don’t look it. What is the secret of your strength and stamina?
Grace of God! I told an interviewer from the BBC, when he asked me what I have discovered about myself, that one of the things I discovered about myself is my stamina to go on. I said, ‘look, I never knew I could start work at 8 o’clock, sit down until five, come home and play squash and go on till 2 am, and then try to sleep; wake up at five am, go and play squash again, go for devotion and be at work at 8 o’clock in the morning. Or phone a minister at 1a.m and say, Mr. Minister, what have you done about A B C D?’ I said in that job, I discovered that, and it has become a part of my way of life.
After leaving office, your routine seems not to have changed. How does it feel being out of office?
I am what I am— a stupid village boy, born in the village, raised in the village, grew up in the village and did a number of things by accident. I went to school by accident, joined the army by accident, rose up in the army by accident, went to Congo, came back, and did what is right or what is wrong there. Then, I continued to rise in the army.
What do you mean when you said by accident?
Because some people would say, ‘yes, I came from a military family.’ But I didn’t come from a military family. Some people would say, ‘yes, I planned it and it took me two years to do so, but I didn’t plan it. I didn’t plan going to school. I was going with my father to the farm and one day, as we were returning from the farm, he just said, ‘look young man, is it this farming thing I am doing that you will continue to do for the rest of your life?’ And I replied, ‘yes, baba.’ Then, I had a cousin, who had left the village and went to Abeokuta to become a motor mechanic. So, he asked, ‘you don’t have an alternative?’ I said I had an alternative; that I wanted to be a mechanic. Then he said, ‘you don’t want to go to school?’ School had not crossed my mind, and I said, ‘baba, if you send me to school I will go.’ So, that was an accident. And he brought me to Abeokuta from the village.
I went to five different schools, because we came late, and I was not admitted. So, I stayed with my uncle in-law, my aunt’s husband. After three months my father came and said, ‘Sobo, don’t turn my son into a lazy man like you.’ He said this because I was going with the man to the river to catch fish every night. But my father came and took me with him. That was an accident. At that time, around the end of the year, people in the villages would go round for harvest. When they got to my village, the headmaster of the nearby village school came and after entertaining them, my father said, ‘can you give my son admission in your school?’ The headmaster said, ‘oh yes.’ That was the end of year, so I went. When I got there, the teacher registering new students asked, ‘what is your name?’ I replied that I am Olusegun. He said, ‘Olusegun, what?’ I said I am Olusegun Matthew.’ ‘Matthew Olusegun, what is your father’s name?’ I said, ‘my father’s name? That’s an insult!’
That would have been my first and last day in school, but for the understanding of the head teacher, because I attempted to slap the teacher. How could you insult my father by calling his name? But when I was called, the head teacher said I should lie flat on my stomach, while the teacher should give me three strokes of the cane. I might not have continued; I might have ended my school on that first day. So, when I talk of accidents, these are things you don’t and cannot say I planned.
I didn’t even plan going to war by virtue of the fact that I belonged to the Engineering Corp in the army. I was in Ibadan, when I was called. One Justice Akin, whose house was not far from mine, said after my name was announced, ‘if he is an army engineer, how could he be called to go to the war front?’ But then, at a certain stage in your military career, they did what was called staff and command training, which means it didn’t matter your area of specialisation, as you could go into normal military runs. So, you could be an engineer and command a brigade; you could be an armoured corps and command a brigade or you could be an artillery and command brigade, and so on. I said, ‘well, you (Justin Akin) haven’t offended me, you only expressed yourself because of the limit of your knowledge.’
If you were to recommend a particular lifestyle for today’s young people, what specifically would that be?
A late friend of mine that I used to marvel about his intellect and ability, including longevity, was Helmut Schmidt, the former German chancellor. He died at the age of 96. Helmut was physically and mentally strong and robust, but he did everything you may not want to do. He smoked, used snuffs. He also drank and if a good looking woman went by, my friend would probably say hi to her. When he turned 90, I went to celebrate his birthday with him. And I said, ‘Helmut, well, we thank God for your life.’ He said, ‘this thing they call old age is a bad thing.’ But how can it be a bad thing? We all want to be old. He said, ‘no, it is a bad thing. When you are old, you can’t hear without hearing aid, you saw me put on my hearing aid; you can’t see without wearing glasses, you can’t walk without stick, you can’t eat without dentures,’ but I don’t have dentures yet. He continued, ‘you can’t make love without assistance,’ but I don’t know what he meant by that. So, I think it is the grace of God.
On the 5th of this month, when I will officially celebrate my day, I will play squash. They are doing the squash court and they will have a tournament, which they will cut that morning. And on that morning, between 7 and 9 o’clock, I will be there to play with veterans for 15 minutes. I want to play with the Bellboy for 15 minutes and with the Bell girl for 15 minutes. That is a total of 45 minutes.
Looking back, how did you feel the first time you saw a strand of grey hair on your head?
It didn’t worry me. Why should grey hair bother me? It is part of the ageing process. And except you are a fool, you should know you have to age. So, what you should be praying and working for is to age gracefully and responsibly. Ageing is a process you cannot do anything about. But since I completely shave my hair, I don’t know whether it is grey or white. So, you have grey hair and it is bothering you? You better stop worrying.
At 80, what regrets do you have?
I used to have a friend, Howard, in the UK. He is dead now. When he turned 65, I was in the UK. I said, ‘Howard, I want you to go with me to dinner tonight to mark your birthday.’ And he said ‘ok, you come and pick me at my clinic on Harley Street. I will leave my car for my wife and daughter, because they won’t be joining us.’ So, I went to pick him and we were waiting in front of the restaurant, and I asked this particular question you just asked. I said, ‘Howard, do you have any regrets at 65? He hesitated for almost 30 seconds and then replied, ‘you know I have never thought of it, until you asked this question. But now that you have asked, do I really have any regret;? No, because God has blessed me abundantly. I went to one of the best universities in the world, I went to Oxford.’ At the age of 22, he qualified as a medical doctor.
This was during the Second World War. He joined the army and rose to the rank of a colonel. Before he was 30, he was riding a Rolls Royce. He made money in stock exchange, where he bought shares and stocks. As a doctor, he was fairly successful, and he had three children. He counted and he said, come to think of it, you regret what you should have done, which you did not do and which you can no longer do, either because for whatever circumstances. Then, he started recounting what he had done, and he said to me, ‘the only regret I have is that I had wanted my son to be a medical doctor like me, but he turned out to be a hippie, something like an area boy.’ But that was not of his making, but that of his son.
So, do I really have any regrets? Is there anything that I should have done that I didn’t do, when I had the opportunity to do it? No. Is there anything I would have wanted to do that I did not do? No. Is there anything I have done, which with the benefit of hindsight I wish I hadn’t? No. I always say to my children, ‘my prayer is that I may never do anything that I cannot own up to you.’ And if I can own up to my children anything I have done, I can own up to anyone and even God. When I had the opportunity, I did my best, though you may say my best is not good enough, but that is entirely up to you. Have I done my best? Yes, I have done my best, and have satisfied my conscience and my God.
How you’ve kept such documents as your primary school and entrance results gives the impression of one who is good at record keeping. Right from day one, you knew where you were going. That could not have been by accident…
I didn’t know what I would be in life. Like I said, I went to school by accident, but if you ask, I said here is my card. My interviewer from BBC said he could not even remember where his secondary school card is, not to talk of primary school. It is part of the things one began to do… normally I am very careful, I believe in taking care of small things. My belief is that if you take care of small things, big things will not elude you. That is number one. Number two; I believe that history is very, very important. And what we have done there, which is also our slogan or our mission is: Preserve the past, capture the present and design the future and of course, maintain our culture.
As you can see, all these are aspects and the whole content. If you do not know history or you are careless about history, remember that history is your memory. And you don’t want to lose your memory, because if you do, what you ate yesterday, you won’t know. I think it would be tragic not to remember what you ate yesterday. And one of the things we don’t normally take care of, which we take for granted and we are careless about, is what I call institutional memory. We don’t have it; we don’t keep it, as a country. Most of our institutions, like the so-called National Museum, do you see the state they are? So, you see why we have done what we did here, it is not only me. Anybody can build anything and we are never short of buildings or the idea of building, but they are not maintained. So, how do we obtain history? How do we have access to information? How do we retrieve and we treat them as important?
When I became the head of state, I went to Britain and said, ‘look, get me a bureau of statistics, whereby I can press a button and I know how much or how many barrels of oil we have produced in Nigeria since 1965. There is nowhere you can do that in Nigeria today, but if you go to London you will get it. This is leadership. Nigeria sold many barrels of oil in 1970. So, you need information, you need the records, you need the history. In America, they have NARA, which is a government organisation, which once a president builds his presidential library, NARA takes it up to oversee, operate and maintain. Only yesterday, Obama took the decision on the same consultant, RRA and associates that consulted for us. They now consult for Obama in his Presidential Library. Only yesterday they phoned me and said one of the things they presented in their bid is what they have done in our own presidential library. And I said, ‘well you are in good company.’
Looking at the present dispensation, what do you think is currently lacking?
The entire problem is leadership problem. We are just dancing around. In 1998, people came to me, saying you are trying to be President of Nigeria, you may be the last President of Nigeria. Why? They believed by the time I stepped out of office as president of Nigeria, there would be no Nigeria any more. Why, because we had Abacha. And I said, ‘well, I will be president, because, I believe in Nigeria and I have nothing to offer Nigeria other than leadership, which I have offered. They believe if at the end of the day I failed, I would return to my farm. But they were wrong, and I was right, because after me, we have had Yar’ Adua, Jonathan and we now have Buhari. So now, we have had how many years of unbroken democracy? This is the first time we are going to have such a thing. The first time in the history of Nigeria as an independent country, that we would have a peaceful handover from one personality to another was in 2007, in the same party; in 2015 from one personality to another, from one party to another, from ruling party to opposition party, such history is not easy to come by. We should rejoice at that.
When people say, ‘oh they have problems there. Yes, we should have achieved a lot more than we have, but we should also know it could have been worse. I said to my interviewer that people should stop saying Nigeria has not done anything since independence as a country. The generation that gave us independence, you may say whatever you like about them, I may even join you in saying whatever you have to say about them. But they gave us independence; they did that. My own generation, which is the generation that followed, you may say what you like about it, but we fought for the unity of Nigeria. And that should not be taken for granted. How many countries have gone through civil war? So, say what you like. Now we have a democratic dispensation for almost 18 years. We should celebrate that.
How do you feel, when you hear such things as, the last 16 years were a waste and all that?
I just believe it is the height of ignorance and un-appreciation of what God has done for this country. Yes, as I said, I would be the first to admit that we haven’t been where we should have been. But we have also been far from where we could have been.