Nigeria’s former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, took some time off his busy schedule to speak to a Premium Times team at his Abeokuta home about some of the issues he wrote about in his book, “My Watch”.
The retired army general – in between joking with his interviewers, and threatening to walk out of the room – spoke at length about the reasons behind some of the key decisions he took while in office, his relationship with some key political figures, and the Halliburton bribery scandal.
Below is excerpt of the first part of the interview.
PT: Thank you sir for granting us this opportunity to talk about your book. Some people say it is selling like hot cake, I don’t know if it is true but that’s what people say. How has it been? What has been the financial reward from there?
Obasanjo: The book was not written for financial reward. If it was written for financial reward, now that…what do you call him… Kashamu had done the stupid things he did, I would have sued him for damages and I would have got damages. But that’s not what the book was written for. The book was written for my experience, my understanding, my knowledge, and what you may call wisdom as a result of all these, to put it for others to be able to learn or acquire knowledge. That’s one. Two, it was also written to set the record right. One of the things that people don’t know, people that I call arm chair presidents is that they don’t know what goes in before decisions are made or what the man making decisions, what leads him to making decisions.
Take for instance the decision on privatising all refineries. I explained that what I met were refineries that were not working, refineries that were given to an amateur for repairs, for maintenance, what they call turn around maintenance to the company of Emeka Offor – Chrome Group. Where has Emeka Offor maintained refineries before? Where has he? That’s what we met. So the refineries were not working. I called Shell. I said ‘come and help us, just run the refinery.’ Shell was frank with me.
It said that ‘we make our money from upstream, downstream is more of a service. Two, your refineries are small. Port Harcourt is 60,000 barrels a day. Refineries now go 300,000 barrels a day. Three, your refineries have not been maintained well. Four, we don’t want to go into the corruption that is entailed in all these’. I said ‘ok, come and help me run it’. They refused. Now when I then saw people who agreed to take 51 percent equity in two of the refineries; they did not promise to pay, they paid 750 million, I was dancing and I said ‘look, this is God sent.’ My successor came (and) they cancelled it and paid them the money back. Those refineries today – you won’t get them because they’ve become scrap.
PT: They recently said that they are working again…
Obasanjo: Who made them work? (laughs)
PT: You mentioned Emeka Offor. There were lots of stories about the refineries you met, how you handled it. But you never recovered anything from Emeka Offor.
Obasanjo: What can you recover? A man who was paid upfront. He had people. He got some police…people were there. And like they have said to you now, look, if it works for a week, that’s all you get. And Emeka Offor, after I left he became friends with every government that has come. Now he’s not only into refinery and oil and all that, he’s now also in energy.
PT: Something came out of your book. You said that before you were elected, that the feeling and perception was that only a northerner could be elected in Nigeria. How did you feel breaking that myth, because you called it a myth in your book?
Obasanjo: It’s a myth. It’s a myth that….well, before my election we have had, since independence, three or four elections. We had election in 1959 that was conducted by the British, NPC won. We were still in the days of parliamentary. We had election in 1964 that was conducted by ourselves. It was a coalition of NPC and NCNC but the head of the government was Tafawa Balewa. We had election again in 1979, Shagari won. We had again in 1983, again Shagari won. And then we had the June 12…
PT: (Cuts in) I was thinking that (1993) was when the myth was broken.
Obasanjo: Election which result has not been declared, you cannot talk of… It doesn’t matter what you may see but until the election result is formally declared, it could be anything.
PT: So you think that period was a very momentous period in Nigeria’s history?
Obasanjo: I think it was good for Nigeria. It was one of the great strides that Nigeria made. Just as I believe that Jonathan winning election in 2011 was also a great stride for us or 2015, now that the incumbent was defeated by the opposition. These are landmarks, or if you like, reference points in our advancement in democracy.
PT: In the Volume 2 of your book, you wrote extensively about the role God used you to play in enthroning Yar’Adua and Jonathan. You also admitted later – extensive analysis – how both leaders performed poorly. There are those who believe that you owe Nigerians an apology for leading them to enthrone non-performing leaders.
Obasanjo: (Cuts in) You are absolutely wrong Now you voted for them. I didn’t just take them and put them there. And they went through a process. Don’t you know that? Do you know or don’t you know that they went through a process? Do you know or don’t you know? Answer (slaps interviewer’s thigh vigorously).
PT: I know.
Obasanjo: Okay. They went through a process. And that is the process that the constitution and the electoral system allow.
PT: In other words, are you saying that all of us are guilty?
Obasanjo: Of course. If you want to put that, everybody who voted for them is guilty.
PT: But you know people believed you. People believed you. When you speak….
Obasanjo: (Cuts in) When I speak, I am not an oracle. And I’m not infallible. But on this particular one I have said to all of you, you can get a job for a man you cannot do it for him. Even your own son if you put him in a job…. There is a good saying that if you want to know how anybody will perform, put him in position of power or put money into his hand.
PT: So maybe the thing to say is that you didn’t do enough due diligence…
Obasanjo: (Cuts in) No. You are wrong. There’s no due diligence that you can do to allow a man…. You cannot know the quality of a gift from the wrapping. You don’t know that, you will never go anywhere (slaps interviewer’s thigh). That is absolute wrong.
PT: That point has to be made…
Obasanjo: (Cuts in) But I’ve always made it. I keep on making it. In my book, I said look, Gowon sent me to the war front and because of my performance there, my popularity started to rise…
PT: (Cuts in) Because he knew you had the capacity, he checked you very well…
Obasanjo: (Cuts in) No no no. Adekunle was there before me. So he didn’t know Adekunle had the capacity? Answer me. In that same Division, Adekunle was there. And if Adekunle had remained there, there’s the possibility that Nigeria could have lost the war. So will you blame him for that?
PT: We won’t. But you know a lot of people believe that between 1999 and 2007 when you left was a time that a lot changed in Nigeria for the better. And people just keep saying that you destroyed everything that you put in place with the successors you enthroned.
Obasanjo: But take Ngozi (Okonjo-Iweala), who worked for me. And who worked competently for me. Because I know Ngozi’s weaknesses, but I know her strong points. Her strong point is technical competence. But Ngozi needs to be led and to be supervised. Now will you comment on Ngozi who worked for me as the same Ngozi who worked for Jonathan? Will you? But it’s the same person.
PT: At what point do you think she derailed if I may use that word?
PT: Is it at the point that you changed her – because you removed her as finance minister. Was it at that point that she began to derail?
Obasanjo: She derailed because….when Jonathan even said he wanted her, I said ‘I hope you can manage her.’ And Ngozi herself sent me a text (and) I told her times have changed.
PT: But why did you change her? She was managing the economy very well for you. Why did you now remove her suddenly?
Obasanjo: I wrote it in that my book.
PT: It didn’t come out clearly enough?