We must not make democracy a liability
He is the walking contradiction to the aphorism that there are no second acts in politics. A spritely 80 years old, Nigeria’s former president Olusegun Obasanjo has had second, third, fourth and fifth acts. Some say he has started an entirely new play. His current role – gentleman farmer and elder statesman – seems to suit him best of all.
Diplomacy and tact were never priorities for the squash-playing former general. When Obasanjo speaks his mind, he makes waves – even 10 years after he walked out of the presidential villa in Abuja at the end of his second elected term in 2007.
That is because, more than any man alive, Obasanjo represents the continuum, its peaks and troughs, of post-independence Nigeria. Generals dominated a succession of military regimes, then some went into business. Others went into electoral politics. Obasanjo went into both.
He fought in the civil war, then emerged as military leader in 1977 after his friend Murtala Mohammed was assassinated. After a tumultuous interregnum of failed civilian governments and coup d’états, the newly established People’s Democratic Party (PDP) put Obasanjo on its presidential ticket in 1999. He won hands down.
It took Muhammadu Buhari – another former military leader and also an officer in the civil war – three attempts before he won the presidential election in 2015. Will Buhari be the last general to make that transition to civilian politics? “Oh, he’s the last of the Mohicans!” laughs Obasanjo. “Even if there will be another military leader, it will not be one of those who participated in the civil war.”
Coursing around Africa, promoting a new book called Making Africa Work with his fellow authors Greg Mills and Jeffrey Herbst, Obasanjo makes much of most politicians’ failure to understand economics. The writers point to the need for governments to tackle the challenges of demographic growth, unemployment, urbanisation, the infrastructure deficit and technological change.
And what about President Buhari’s government in Nigeria? Did Obasanjo have any sympathy for those businesspeople who complain the government is not listening to them? “Unfortunately, I think they are right,” he fires back with a slightly pained expression. “You have to have the awareness that business is the instrument of development, job creation, wealth generation – and the public sector has to provide the conducive environment.”
Although President Buhari’s close aides deny they are anti-business, they argue that they have inherited a toxic and highly corrupt relationship between government and business. Obasanjo accepts that millions voted for Buhari because of his anti-corruption credentials: “We must make democracy an asset not a liability.”
But he adds that anti-graft policies should not block cooperation between government and business: “If you don’t get that, particularly at the highest level of government, then you’re not getting anywhere.”
A few countries are getting the government-business relationship right, according to Obasanjo: “We now have a paradigm shift in the understanding of our leaders. I know [Côte d’Ivoire’s President Alassane] Ouattara gets it. [Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam] Desalegn and [Rwanda’s President Paul] Kagame understand it. I know that Nana Akufo-Addo in Ghana is doing it, as [Senegal’s Macky] Sall is getting it.”
Obasanjo the critic
With a scintilla of self-deprecation, Obasanjo speaks optimistically about the forward strides by several governments in Africa. “I would say the African leaders of the first quarter of the 21st century are slightly more aware, more knowledgeable, and they have a little bit better understanding than the leaders of the last quarter of the 20th century.”
However attuned he remains to Nigeria’s febrile politics, Obasanjo does not want to dwell on how much his own country’s leaders conform to his upbeat view of Africa’s paradigm shift. Past utterances from Obasanjo on Nigerian leaders have sunk a few a careers.
His open letter in 2014 to President Goodluck Jonathan about corruption was a broadside against that government. At the time, Obasanjo was still chairman of the board of trustees of the PDP, on whose ticket Jonathan had run. It also greatly helped Jonathan’s opponent: Buhari won the presidency the following year on the All Progressives Congress ticket.
Obasanjo does not restrict himself to lambasting civilians. He was a stern critic of military regimes led by Generals Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida and the late Sani Abacha. Only Abacha was paranoid enough to arrest and jail Obasanjo on trumped-up coup-plotting charges.
Obasanjo still enjoys ruffling the feathers of a wide variety of birds. On a recent trip to South Africa, he was asked whether United States President Donald Trump’s patent lack of interest in Africa would help the continent. It was a signal, he said.
Advice from dangote
“The fact that America can produce a Trump in this day and age, it means that Americans are as human as we are,” said Obasanjo. “Trump has come so that America can be humbled, and we can also learn that lesson.” But the bigger consequence of declining Western interest, he added, was that Africa must take the initiative and be the “agent of its own future”.
Obasanjo sees one of his friends, billionaire Aliko Dangote, as a great exemplar of this. “Aliko now is investing $2bn in agriculture […]. He said if he had known as much as he knows now about agriculture, he would have gone into agriculture before going into cement.”
On reflection, Obasanjo says that Dangote has been able to transform agriculture – he’s due to open a fertiliser plant and oil refinery in 2019 – because he raised the capital from his cement business.
That point elicits another anecdote from Obasanjo about how he called Dangote to an early-morning meeting after having sleepless nights about Nigeria’s cement imports. When he asked Dangote how he could persuade him to produce, rather than import, cement, the Kano trader’s response was direct: “Make it more profitable than importing cement.”
With a combination of import bans and tax write-offs, that is exactly what Obasanjo did. And by 2010, Dangote was the largest cement producer in Africa and his company had a net worth of $25bn. That, insists Obasanjo, is the way government should work with business.
This article first appeared in the October 2017 print edition of The Africa Report magazine