Leadership for change in Africa – the art of self-transcendancy
Chief Olusegun Matthew Obasanjo, president of Nigeria from 1976-1979 and again from 1999-2007, spoke to over 200 postgraduates, mainly from Africa,at the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford last month on Leadership for the Transformation of African Societies.
He is a former chairman of the African Union and, with the Archbishop of Canterbury and 16 other world figures, is on the new Advisory Board on Mediation at the United Nations. He is also chair of the panel of advisers of the AfricaInitiative for Governance (www.aigafrica.com).
A Baptist Christian and a career soldier,he became the chief army engineer. His name means that God is victorious. He received the sword of surrender at Owerri to end the Biafran civil war in 1970. He was invited to become the military head of state in 1976.He was the first African leader voluntarily to handover power to a civilian government in 1979.
He attributes this partly to his British military training in which the military remain out of politics. He had planned such a hand over from the start and went back to his farm.
In December 2017 he earned a PhD from the Open University of Nigeria on Liberation Theology, investigating aspects of liberation in different religious and ethnic groups.
Imprisoned by President Abacha from 1995-1998 he won the presidential election in 1999. He noted that between 1999 and 2007 Nigeria changed from being one of the worst performing economies to one of the best, for example from having 400,000 phones to having 160 million phone lines. He also established an Anti-Corruption Commission.
In his Oxford lecture he described the task of any leader as to lead and influence others to do what they need to do willingly to achieve the common objective. No two leaders will act in the same way.
He noted that, historically, under pre-colonial African leadership people had intimate knowledge of their leaders and viewed them as God-sent. Their leadership was in tune with the spirit of their gods and ancestors. Colonial African leaders were at best at the periphery of power. Absolute power was vested in the colonial masters.
Fired by patriotism and the desire to remove people from shackles of colonialism, African leaders of that period sought for independence and got it by negotiation – some died in the process. He urged that they be celebrated for their doggedness in the fight for freedom.
The pillars of leadership
He described the pillars for leadership that brings change: reflection and engagement, proactivity, shrewdness, openness to work with others and a formidable level of honesty.
He specified a balance of reflection and proactive engagement. His military studies in the UK enabled him to deal with the remaining issues of decolonisation and removal of apartheid.
He spent three years, three months and three days in jail in meditative and reflective isolation reading, thinking, and praying as he reflected on God and humanity.
This put him in a good state of mind for being president. “Silence has its place for leadership preparation. My prison experience was sad but beneficial. Make the best use of a position you may not want.”
He added: “Leaders should also be proactive and not wait for disaster to strike before seeking solutions.”
Governance should be led by discerning and quick-thinking leadership. He put an end to coups in Nigeria by dismissing 93 officers who were too involved in politics and promoted as service chiefs those who had no previous political roles.Nigeria was initially not included in the campaign for debt relief as it was the sixth largest oil-producing country. He countered that its stage of development should qualify for debt relief.
Transformational leadership avoids complacency and is not a popularity contest. What has to be done must be done.
A leader wanting to bring change must be seen to be honest with others. When the international community knew Nigeria was serious about its response to debt relief, they became responsive and helpful. There is no substitute for dialogue and face-to-face discussions. All hands must be clean, efficient and on deck performing for one objective to make Africa the continent for the 21st century.
Africa does not need to be where it is if African leaders have chosen the right path. The key is leadership, the art of self-transcendancy, he said.
His goal remains to fire the imagination of young Africa leaders inspired by can-do spirit, enthusiasm, dynamism and ready-to-go attitude.
On choosing a successor he noted: “You can never know what someone will do until they are in a leadership position. Leadership and money should not be in the hands of one man. The beauty of democracy is that if they fail to perform well you can peacefully set them aside.”
He regards corruption as deeply rooted. “The amount of money that has come into politics is obscene,” he said. “Something has to be done about it.
“Those who are corrupt lie low till the regime that is fighting corruption goes and then they befriend the regime that is easy on it. Fighting corruption must be continual. All processes can be undermined.
“The man at the top must be ready to fight corruption. Like Caesar’s wife, he must be above suspicion. People around him must be as clean as he is, the police, customs, legislative assembly, and judiciary.”
He claimed that some of the measures of the African Union are working.“If you come into government unconstitutionally you will be kicked out of the African Union”. Such action was taken against Egypt and Cote D’Ivoire.
Zimbabwe did not want that. Late last year they removed the government through a coup. Then made sure that the successor was sworn in as successor. This was semi-legitimate. Having got him in,the head of armed forces was made his deputy.“It was a semi-coup”.
He gets asked in the USA about the influence of China in Nigeria: “How are your new colonial masters doing?”He asks in reply: “Why are they not the colonial masters of America since China holds the most US treasury bills? We cherish our friendship with the West, sharing language and law. My old friends should not worry about my new friend but rather strengthen friendship with their old friend so that friendship with China should not undermine my old friendship.”
Is God a Nigerian?
Given his name “God is victorious” and his references in his lecture to the will of God, how did he see God engaging in the affairs of Nigeria as President?
He responded: “In Kenya on TV I said ‘God is a Nigerian.’What we have gone through … and we are still a nation is unbelievable.
“Before independence in the 1950s our politicians were negotiating with the colonial power. It got to a stage that some of the delegates were walking out among themselves because of division within our three regions, the west, the east and the north.
“The east and the west wanted independence now. They wanted to walk out on the north. The east and the west got internal autonomy in 1957. The north got it in 1959, which delayed our independence till 1960. Then we had a census in 1963. The census was so controversial that it was not accepted.
“In 1964 we had elections that led to the burning of houses. In 1966 we had a one-sided coup and then a counter-coup, which led to the civil war. Many countries with civil war broke up. We did not break up. It was all the hands of God.
“When I became president in 1999, many people said I would be the last president of Nigeria. By the time I finished after two terms, Nigeria was buoyant, united and going strong.
“It was not done by any of us. It was the act of God. President Abacha, in the name of democratisation, set up five parties, who all nominated him. Then God took President Abacha and he died.With all that can you not see the hand of God?”