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Olusegun Obasanjo (Biograhy)

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Born Olusegun Obasanjo, on May 5, 1937, in Abeokuta, Nigeria; married Oluremi Akinbwon; two sons, four daughters.
Education: Abeokuta Baptist High School; Mons Officers' Cadet School, Aldershot, England; Royal College of Military Engineering, Chatham, England; School of Survey, Newbury, England; British Royal Engineers' Young Officers School, Shrivenham, England; Indian Defence Staff College; Indian Army School of Engineering; Royal College of Defence Studies, London.


/Obasanjo and Jimmy Carter inlagos.


Enlisted in the Nigerian Army, 1958; served in 5th Battalion, Kaduna and the Cameroons, 1958-59; second lieutenant, 1959; lieutenant, 1960; captain and commander of Nigerian Army's Engineering Unit, 1963; major and commander of Field Engineering Unit, 1965; lieutenant-colonel, 1967; commander of Ibadan Garrison, 1967-69; colonel, 1969; commander of 3rd Marine Commando Division, 1969-70; accepted Biafran surrender ending Nigerian Civil War, 1970; federal commissioner for Works and Housing, 1975; led coup to overthrow head of state Yakubu Gowon, 1975; head of state and commander in chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, 1976-79; founder, Obasanjo Farms Nigeria Ltd. in Otta, Ogun State, 1979-; elected president of Nigeria, 1999. Author, A March of Progress: Collected Speeches (1979), My Command: An Account of the Nigerian Civil War, (1980), Africa in Perspective: Myths and Realities (1987), Africa Embattled (1988), Constitution for National Integration and Development (1989), Not My Will (1990); many articles for periodicals, including Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, Review of International Affairs, and New Perspectives Quarterly.

Life's Work

Nigeria, located on the west coast of Africa, is the continent's most populous nation, and potentially its richest. Since it gained independence from Britain in 1960, however, it has been plagued by political instability and economic problems. Olusegun Obasanjo, a Nigerian military officer, first came to international prominence in 1975, when he co-engineered the bloodless coup of General Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria's head of state. The following year, Obasanjo took over as the country's leader. In 1979, after implementing a wide range of governmental reforms, Obasanjo stepped down from office and restored civilian rule. In doing so, he became the only Nigerian military leader to voluntarily hand power to a democratically-elected government. Following two decades of corrupt political leadership, Obasanjo presented himself as a candidate for president, and was elected in March of 1999.

As president, Obasanjo faces some daunting problems. In the 20 years since he was last in office, the country's annual per capita income has dropped from $788 to $679. Its currency, the naira, was worth almost $2 then; today it trades for just over a cent. The economy, already damaged by high-level corruption, is dependent on oil for 98.9 percent of its export earnings--and the price of oil has continued to drop.

"Top of his agenda should be three issues," the Economist advised, "corruption, weaning the economy off its dependency on oil, and finding a more democratic federal system that spreads power and money more evenly through the country." Whether Obasanjo can undo the damage of years of mismanagement remains to be seen.

Rose Through Ranks of Nigerian Military

Olusegun Obasanjo was born on May 5, 1937, in Abeokuta, Ogun State, in southwest Nigeria. He was educated at Abeokuta Baptist High School and Mons Officers Cadet School in Aldershot, England. In 1958, Obasanjo enlisted in the Nigerian army. He was commissioned in 1959, and served in the Congo (now Zaire) the following year.

During his military career, Obasanjo frequently studied in Britain, receiving training at the Royal College of Military Engineering in Chatham and at the School of Survey in Newbury. At the British Royal Engineers' Young Officers School in Shrivenham, he won first prize and a citation as "the best Commonwealth student ever." In the mid-1960s, Obasanjo studied at the Indian Defence Staff College and the Indian Army School of Engineering.

In his two decades in the military, Obasanjo advanced steadily through the ranks. From 1958 to 1959, he served in the 5th Battalion in Kaduna and the Cameroons. In 1959, he was commissioned second lieutenant. The following year, he was promoted to lieutenant, and served in the Nigerian contingent of the UN Force in the Congo. In 1963, he became commander of the only engineering unit of the Nigerian Army; the same year, he was promoted to captain. He became a major in 1965, lieutenant-colonel in 1967, and colonel in 1969.

Meanwhile, in 1960, Nigeria gained its independence from Britain, and a period of intense political instability followed. In 1966, the military seized power. In 1969, Biafra--the country's eastern, predominantly-Christian region--seceded from Nigeria, and civil war broke out. During the civil war, Obasanjo served as commander of the 3rd marine commando division. Under his leadership, federal troops split the Biafran Army into two enclaves, and forced a surrender less than a month later.

In his autobiographical work, My Command: An Account of the Nigerian Civil War, Obasanjo described this tumultuous period in Nigerian history: "Within a space of six months I turned a situation of low morale, desertion, and distrust within my division and within the Army into one of high morale, confidence, co-operation, and success for my division and for the Army....A nation almost torn asunder and on the brink of total disintegration was reunited and the wound healed."

Following the war, Obasanjo returned to his former position as chief of army engineers. After he was promoted to brigadier-general in 1972, he enrolled in an advanced training course at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London. Two years later, he returned to Nigeria, and was appointed federal commissioner for works and housing.

Took Over as Head of State

The political situation in Nigeria, then under military rule, continued to be unstable. In 1974, the Nigerian head of state, General Yakubu Gowon, declared that a return to civilian rule would be postponed indefinitely. Opposition to Gowon's rule grew, and in 1975 Obasanjo, along with Murtala Muhammed, led a bloodless coup that overthrew him.

The following year, Muhammed was assassinated, and Obasanjo was appointed head of state and commander-in-chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces. He assured Nigerians that he would follow a strict program to return Nigeria to civilian rule.

Obasanjo and Jimmy Carter
oyakhilome &obasanjo Olusẹgun Obasanjo with Donald Rumsfeld at The Pentago.

During his time in office, Obasanjo proved himself to be a tough leader, unafraid to stand up to colonial powers. At one point, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused to restore British authority in Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe) after the country's white population usurped power. In response, Obasanjo nationalized British Petroleum's interests in Nigeria, and threatened to boycott British imports. Thatcher eventually relented, and began the process that led to free elections and majority rule in Zimbabwe.

In 1979, after three years as Nigeria's leader, Obasanjo handed power to elected president Shehu Shagari. In doing so, he became the only military ruler in Nigeria's history to voluntarily step down in favor of a democratically-elected government. While Obasanjo was widely praised for adhering to his promise, many Nigerians were glad to see him go. "Students and journalists remember his years in office as a time of repression and lack of tolerance," Barnaby Phillips wrote in the Daily Telegraph.

While in office, Obasanjo oversaw the creation of a new constitution for Nigeria, and implemented a wide range of governmental reforms. However, the newly-elected civilian government suffered from corruption, and collapsed in just five years, when the military once again seized power. According to the Economist, "the army, once seen as the only institution capable of running the country, turned instead to looting, and destroyed it. Nigeria's descent into chaos accelerated."

Dedicated Himself to Farming, Writing

Having retired from the armed forces as a general in 1979, Obasanjo started a company called Obasanjo Farms Nigeria Ltd. in Otta, Ogun State. According to Jonathan Power, writing in the Los Angeles Times, "Obasanjo was so obsessed by his countrymen's refusal to come to terms with economic chaos, not least the running down of the country's precious agricultural base, that he decided to show what could be done with the land." He supervised the construction of the farm closely, often choosing to spend the night in the half-built structures. "I call myself a chicken farmer," he told Rushworth M. Kidder of the Christian Science Monitor. "Some of my friends don't like that, but some do!"

Obasanjo also became a fellow at the University of Ibadan's Institute of African Studies. During the 1980s and 1990s, he wrote prolifically, publishing My Command and numerous books and articles on African development. He served on a variety of policy research and advisory committees concerned with the future of African countries. "Democracy, farming, and disarmament are Obasanjo's passions," Jonathan Power wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "and he has relentlessly promulgated them."

"The improvement of living standards and the wealth of nations are more of a journey and less of a destination," Obasanjo was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times. In his view, it would take three or four generations for Africa to transform its centuries-old culture to fit with the demands of the global marketplace; but at the same time, African culture should not be devalued. "What, for example, is wrong with our traditional society, which respects age, experience, and authority?" he was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times. "Or the norm that everybody is his brother's keeper? Or the practice of stigmatizing and ostracizing evil-doers and the indolent?"

In 1993, a civil election was held in Nigeria, but the country's military ruler, General Ibrahim Babangida, refused to hand over power to the winner. "We demand that the Babangida administration be terminated forthwith," Obasanjo was quoted as saying in the Boston Globe. In protest, the European Community suspended aid to Nigeria, but the military government held on.

By 1995, leadership had passed to General Sani Abacha, who jailed Obasanjo and other military officers on charges of plotting a coup. Obasanjo strongly denied the charges, and--after international pressure was applied--he was soon released from prison, although he was restricted to his hometown indefinitely.

In the summer of 1998, Abacha, whom the Economist once called "the worst ruler Nigeria has ever had," died suddenly--whether from natural or unnatural causes is still uncertain. In his place came General Abdulsalam Abubakar, who quickly announced his intention to restore Nigeria to civilian rule after 15 years of army dictatorship. He set out a timetable for the formation of political parties and for democratic elections, and released a number of political prisoners, including Obasanjo. Almost immediately, rumors began circulating that he would run for office. In November of 1998, Obasanjo confirmed the rumors, arousing both interest and controversy.

"More than issues, however, the election is about the complex balancing of hundreds of ethnic interests," Anton La Guardia wrote in the Daily Telegraph. Although Obasanjo is from southwestern Nigeria, critics claimed that he was a pawn of the northern-dominated military establishment, which bankrolled his campaign. "He is not a true democrat, and having a former soldier in power does not provide the clean break with the past that Nigeria needs," one prominent politician was quoted as saying in the Daily Telegraph. However, his years spent in house arrest were a definite asset for his campaign: "Mr. Obasanjo's aura as a political martyr is expected to help him to overcome the handicap of his uniform," La Guardia observed.

Elected President of Nigeria

During the ill-fated 1993 election, Obasanjo criticized General Yakubu Gowon--whom he had earlier ejected from office--for seeking the presidential nomination. "What did you forget to take from the State House that you have to go back?" the Daily Telegraph quoted him as saying. Five years later, Obasanjo denied that he was vulnerable to the same criticism, telling the Daily Telegraph, "I have not forgotten anything. I do not regret leaving power. What I left behind and should have been taken care of has all been destroyed."

Obasanjo also rejected accusations that he would perpetuate decades of military rule in the guise of a civilian government. He told the Daily Telegraph that he had to return to power to "bring Nigeria out of the mess it has been put into" by a succession of corrupt army dictators. "I believe I have something to offer. If someone has something to offer, he should say so and let the electorate decide," he was quoted as saying.

On March 1, 1999, Obasanjo was formally proclaimed Nigeria's new civilian president. According to the final tally, Obasanjo, heading the People's Democratic Party, won by 63 percent of the vote, while Chief Olu Falae, head of a coalition of the Alliance for Democracy and the All People's Party, captured 37 percent.

However, Obasanjo's opponents, as well as international observers, questioned the result, alleging that there had been widespread election fraud. Jimmy Carter, the former U.S. president and head of one of several foreign monitoring groups, was quoted as stating in the Daily Telegraph, "There was a wide disparity between the number of voters observed at the polling stations and the final results that have been reported from several is not possible for us to make an accurate judgement about the outcome of the presidential elections." In setting up the timetable for the elections, current ruler Abubakar had allowed for such a possibility; he planned to remain in power until at least May of 1999, in part to give time for any legal challenges.

Obasanjo admitted that irregularities had occurred, but blamed "ignorant" people, rather than planned election fraud. "I don't believe there is anywhere in the world where elections are conducted by human beings that are perfect," he was quoted as saying in the Daily Telegraph. "Democracy, under my leadership, will continue."


Selected Awards: Grand Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1980; Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger, 1990; several honorary degrees.


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