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Olusegun Obasanjo Biography: Early life and education, military career, political career and facts

Chief Olusegun Obasanjo is a Nigerian politician who has served both as a military head of state and a civilian president in the past. This biography about the popular political leader, Obasanjo, will provide key facts and details about his public life.

There is rarely a discussion on the political history of Nigeria that does not require some mentions of the name of this icon,  who has been nicknamed ‘Baba Africa’. His exploits during his time as a soldier are also worth exploring. This biography about Obasanjo will definitely leave no stone unturned.

Also, you will see details about Obasanjo’s ideologies and political stances in this article. To make it a better reading experience, we have earmarked the vital points and summarised them into 10 quick facts, which you can read in the next section of this article.

10 important facts about Obasanjo

  1. Obasanjo was born as Matthew Olusegun Aremu Obasanjo on 5th March 1937. He is, therefore, 83 years old in 2020.
  2. He sponsored himself through secondary school by doing menial jobs like farming, firewood collection and fishing.
  3. Obasanjo joined the officer cadet army training in the Nigerian Army to pursue his dream of becoming a Civil Engineer because he could not afford the fees required to study at the University of Ibadan.
  4. When Yakubu Gowon chose Olusegun Obasanjo to replace Colonel Benjamin Adekunle in May 1969 during the Biafran war, he had no experience in combat.
  5. Obasanjo was instrumental in ending the Nigerian Civil War within nine months of taking over the command of the Nigerian Army.
  6. He took over as the military head of state from General Murtala Mohammed in 1976.
  7. Obasanjo notably established the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Land Use Decree, Education Act and so on during his time as a military head of state.
  8. He was critical of the government during Sani Abacha’s time and was jailed by the dictator from 1994 to 1998.
  9. Obasanjo was the subject of major criticism by popular Nigerian activist and musician, Fela Kuti.
  10. Olusegun Obasanjo was democratically elected as president of Nigeria in 1999 and 2003 under the umbrella of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

Also readAbba Kyari Biography: Early life, career, personal life, death & legacy

Olusegun Obasanjo Biography: Early life and education

Obasanjo’s given name at birth was Matthew Olusegun Aremu Obasanjo. He was born in the village of Ibogun-Olaogun in Abeokuta, Ogun State, southwest Nigeria. According to his passport, Obasanjo was born on 5th March 1937. This is a source of contention as many claim that his original date of birth is unknown and that the official date is an estimate.

Obasanjo’s father was Amos Adigun Obaluayesanjo ‘Obasanjo’ Bankole and his mother was Bernice Ashabi Bankole. They raised him as a Baptist Christian in the only church in their village set up by US missionaries of the Southern Baptist Church.

He was the first child of the family and his parents will go on to birth eight more children. Seven of them did not survive childhood and only Obasanjo and his sister saw adulthood. He began primary school at the age of 11 in his village and then moved on to Baptist Day School in Abeokuta in 1951. A year later, he joined Baptist Boys’ High School.

According to sources, during his secondary school days, Obasanjo rejected his Christian name “Matthew” as a sign of anti-colonialism. At the time, his father had left the family. Since his mother had to engage in trading to feed him and his sister, he started menial jobs like farming, firewood collection and fishing to pay his school fees.

When he wanted to take his secondary school exams in 1956, Obasanjo had to borrow funds. During this time, he was already dating his first wife, Oluremi Akinlawon. The couple got engaged to marry in 1958. That same year, he moved to Ibadan and got a teaching job. He then sat for the entrance examination at the University of Ibadan but after passing, he found that he could not afford the fees.

Thus, he decided to become a civil engineer and joined the officer cadet army training in the Nigerian Army. Several years later after his retirement, Obasanjo got a PhD in theology from the National Open University of Nigeria.

Olusegun Obasanjo Biography: Military career (1958 – 1966)

Obasanjo joined the Nigerian Army in 1958 without the knowledge of his family because he believed they would not have supported his decision. At the time he joined the army, the British were about to relinquish control to Nigerians in preparation for the country’s independence. The move required more locals to take higher positions and more responsibilities in the army.

Thus, Obasanjo and others were sent to a Regular Officers’ Training School at Teshie in Ghana. In September 1958, he was chosen to attend further training at Mons Officer Cadet School, a former military training ground in Aldershot, southern England. While he was abroad, he stayed in touch with Oluremi Akinlawon, his fiancé via letters and presents. His parents died within a year of each other during the duration of his foreign training.

Obasanjo biography
Obasanjo as a young military officer during training abroad.

On his return to Nigeria in 1959, Obasanjo was first posted to Kaduna and after Nigeria’s independence in 1960, he was part of the Fifth Battalion sent to the Congo as part of a UN peacekeeping mission. While he was protecting the lives of civilians, he was captured by Soldiers who had mutinied against Patrice Lumumba’s government. They had thoughts of executing him but had to release him due to orders.

Obasanjo returned with the men in 1961 and he acquired a car. He then joined the Army Engineering Corps on transfer and was stationed at the Royal College of Military Engineering in England. On graduation, he was described as the best Commonwealth student ever.

The Nigerian Army ordered him to return in 1963 and he took command of the Field Engineering Squadron based at Kaduna. Obasanjo became a major in 1965 after steadily rising through the ranks in the army. At the same time, he was making more and more money and was buying land and property in Ibadan, Kaduna, and Lagos.

In 1965, the authorities sent Obasanjo to India where he studied at the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington and then the School of Engineering in Poona.

Olusegun Obasanjo Biography: Military career (1966 – 1970)

On returning to Nigeria from India in January 1966, the first military coup led by Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna against the Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s administration was already underway. The coup was popularly called ‘an Igbo plot’, although conspirators included non-Igbos, some coup targets were Igbos, and General Ironsi, who prevented the coup was himself an Igbo.

Obasanjo was among those who warned that the country’s situation could degenerate into a civil war. Not long after, the second coup led by Yakubu Gowon took place. It involved the killing of about 200 Igbo soldiers. Olusegun Obasanjo was in Kaduna at the time and northern soldiers from the Third Battalion tortured and killed Igbo soldiers.

He fled to Maiduguri with his wife under the protection of Governor of Northern Nigeria, Hassan Katsina. After some time, he sent his wife to Lagos and returned to Kaduna until January 1967.  He had been the most senior Yoruba officer in the northern part of the country until he was posted to Lagos as the Chief Army Engineer.

In May 1967, Odumegwu Ojukwu declared the independence of the Igbo-majority areas in the southeast and named it the Republic of Biafra. In July of the same year, two months after the Biafran secession, Obasanjo was posted to Ibadan as commander of the Western State.

Obasanjo’s contributions to the Nigerian Civil War

On 6th July 1967, a civil war broke out between the Nigerian Army and the Biafran Army. One part of the Biafran Army tried to cross the Niger Bridge but Obasanjo had already blocked their progress. The column of the Biafran Army was led by Victor Banjo, a Yoruba military officer, but he could not persuade Obasanjo to let them cross.

He was then posted to serve as the rear commander of Murtala Mohammed’s Second Division that operated in the Midwest. Obasanjo was based in Ibadan at the time and he ensured supplies got to the Second Division while also teaching a course in military science at the University of Ibadan. He resigned from the Western State Executive Council due to unrest which later led to a riot that saw soldiers kill ten rioters. Obasanjo notably ordered a court inquiry into the killings.

Despite not having prior combat experience, Yakubu Gowon chose Olusegun Obasanjo to replace Colonel Benjamin Adekunle in May 1969, who had been leading the attack on Biafra up until then. Obasanjo took charge of the about 40,000 troops and began repelling the Biafran attack on Aba from his base in Port Harcourt.

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He gained the confidence of his men by regularly showing up at the front of the battle lines despite being injured at some point. He also carried out Operation Finishing Touch, which involved his men attacking Umuahia in December 1969. They took the city, one of the opposition’s strongholds on 25th December 1969.

With not much fight left, Obasanjo launched the Operation Tail Wind in January 1970 and captured the indigenous airstrip in Uli, Anambra State. This led to the Biafran leaders surrendering. He met with the Biafran military commander Philip Effiong the next day after the surrender and urged some leaders of the secessionist group to go to Lagos to surrender to Yakubu Gowon while asking the soldiers to drop their weapons.

Also, he ordered his men to remain in their barracks to prevent them from carrying out reprisal attacks on unarmed citizens. The Third Division of the Nigerian Army carried out some attacks and Obasanjo was tough on them. He allegedly ordered the soldiers who looted to be flogged while those who raped were shot.

He was in charge of bringing the secessionist States back into Nigeria. His first move was to restore water supply to all of them and by May 1970, all major towns were reconnected to water supply according to sources.

Olusegun Obasanjo Biography: Post-civil war

After the civil war, Obasanjo was posted to Lagos where he was on the board of the decommissioning committee that sought to reduce the troop numbers in the Nigerian Army. In January 1975, he was appointed as Commissioner for Works and Housing. Gowon had said he would hand power over to a civilian administration by 1976 but the ban on political parties saw that he did not make much progress on that front.

By July 1972, Shehu Musa Yar’Adua and Joseph Garba carried out a coup that removed Gowon from power. According to reports, the plotters had not informed Obasanjo about this because he was popular for not supporting coups. However, they recognised his ability and potential. Thus, the 1975 Nigerian coup plotters chose him to be the second in command to General Murtala Muhammed, who will serve as head of state. While Danjuma would be the third.

This new government was to have its decisions vetoed by a Supreme Military Council. The government introduced strategies that curbed inflation, formed an investigation bureau for corruption, replaced military governors with new officers that reported to them, and fired 11,000 officials from the civil service.

In October 1975, the government announced that there would be an election in 1979 and that a civilian government would take over. Obasanjo was responsible for selecting the 49 committee members to draft a new constitution. This is popularly called the Irikefe Commission and it led to the formation of new states, one of which was Ogun State with Abeokuta as its capital. Obasanjo and Danjuma were promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-General.

Obasanjo was popular for his Pan-African views. He had supported the MPLA government of Angola because its rivals, FNLA and UNITA, were backed by the white majority government in South Africa. He even led the Nigerian delegation that attended an MPLA anniversary in Luanda in February 1976.

In February 1976, Colonel Buka Suka Dimka launched a coup and assassinated General Murtala Mohammed. According to reports, an attempt was made on Obasanjo’s life but he survived. Dimka’s coup eventually failed as he was not popular among other military officers and he eventually fled from the country.

Olusegun Obasanjo Biography: Military head of state (1976 – 1979)

The Supreme Military Council urged Obasanjo to replace Murtala as the head of state while he expressed his desire to resign from the government. He eventually conceded and as the military head of state, 39 people who were accused to have taken part in Dimka’s coup were executed.

To garner support from the North, Obasanjo made General Shehu Yar’Adua second-in-command and Chief of Staff while General Theophilus Danjuma was his third-in-command and Chief of Army Staff. Despite running a military government, he encouraged debate and consensus among the Supreme Military Council.

In his 1976 budget, Obasanjo tried once again to stem inflation. He cut government spending on expensive projects and instead spent more on education, health, housing and agriculture. However, he engineered the borrowing of about $5.9 billion from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Also, his government had no population control policy and the country’s population continued to grow exponentially.

Notably, the Obasanjo regime defined most major industries as essential services and he banned strikes within them by authorising the arrest of erring leaders. Additionally, in 1978, he formed the Nigerian Labour Congress by merging all 42 unions in the country.

Also, during his time as military head of state, Olusegun Obasanjo carried out major irrigation schemes in northern Nigeria. He launched two new hydroelectric projects and a thermal plant to meet electricity challenges. He merged the Ministry of Petroleum Resources with the Nigerian National Oil Corporation to form the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).

He popularised food importation instead of growing them locally, a practice that would pose problems for the country later in the future. But, popularly, Obasanjo will be remembered for issuing the 1978 Land Use Decree that gave the state property rights over all land. The decree stopped land hoarding but hurt the feelings of land-owners.

During his time as a military head of state, Obasanjo introduced a free but voluntary Primary Education Act and free secondary education in technical subjects. His decision to stop issuing loans to university students caused protests across the country. It led to fatal shootings in Lagos and Zaira and Obasanjo had to close down many universities while banning student political activities and associations like the National Union of Nigerian Students.

It was also under his regime that the house of Nigerian legendary musician and political activist Fela Kuti was raided. His family members were beaten, raped and his aged mother, Chief Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, was thrown from a window. She suffered injuries and died. The incident led to Fela famously carrying her coffin to Obasanjo’s residence at Dodan barracks, Lagos State.

See also: Femi Kuti, son of Afrobeat legend, Fela Kuti says Obasanjo’s letter should be torn

On the Foreign scene, Obasanjo’s Nigeria had problems with Ghana due to Jerry Rawlings’ military junta and its execution of political opponents. Also, the country’s Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Francophone neighbours were unhappy that Obasanjo insisted on making Lagos the organisation’s headquarters.

Obasanjo and the United States’ Jimmy Carter administration had a cordial relationship because the latter supported majority rule in South Africa. However, he did not favour the UK’s position of supporting minority white rule in the country. Also, the UK’s refusal to extradite Gowon was another thing that annoyed Obasanjo.

Obasanjo biography
Obasanjo and Jimmy Carter.

He was also influential in mediating conflicts across all of Africa such as the Rhodesian Bush War, the Ogedian dispute between Ethiopia and Somalia, the Chadian Civil War, and so on.

Obasanjo lifted the ban on political parties in 1978 along with a new constitution for Nigeria. The next year, in 1979, elections took place in Nigeria for the first time in many years. He refused to decide who was the winner after debates emerged and instead, directed the Electoral Commission to decide. Shehu Shagari emerged the winner, beating Obafemi Awolowo.

Obasanjo handed over to Shehu Shagari in October 1979, marking a return to civilian rule and Nigeria’s Second Republic. However, before he left office, Obasanjo promoted himself to the rank of general and put himself in position to continue receiving a salary from the state.

Obasanjo after his military career 

Obasanjo was very critical of Shehu Shagari’s government and he was not alone. By 1983, the military overthrew the government of Shehu Shagari. They invited Obasanjo to return to power but he declined.

Muhammadu Buhari took over and received praise from Obasanjo for some of his policies like the War Against Indiscipline and halving Nigerian imports.

In August 1985, Ibrahim Babangida overthrew Buhari to become the next military head of state. Obasanjo was very critical of Babangida”s government.

He also voiced concerns over the growing population of the country as well. Additionally, he published four books during the first 11 years that he was out of office.

He remained active in international politics, launched the Africa Leadership Forum, sat on the Palme Commission – a group chaired by the former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. He was also on United Nations panels such as the World Health Organization, and the Inter-Action Council of Former Heads of Government.

When Nelson Mandela was freed from prison, his first stop was in Nigeria, where he visited Obasanjo at his home.

Obasanjo was one of the open critics of Sani Abacha, who took over from Ernest Shonekan, as a military head of state in 1993. He warned that another civil war could erupt following Abacha and Abiola’s feud. Yet, he didn’t support Abiola but he allegedly also told Abacha not to arrest him.

In 1994, he and Yar’Adua had formed the National Unity Promoters, a group that worked to prevent a second civil war. In 1995, Obasanjo was in Denmark when he heard that Yar’Adua had been arrested. On his return, he too was arrested and detained on claims that he was part of a coup plan to oust Abacha.

He was sentenced to 25 years after he was allegedly found guilty by a military court while Yar’Adua and 14 others were sentenced to death. Obasanjo was released from prison in June 1998 after Sani Abacha died on 8th June 1998, he had become a born-again Christian while in prison.

Olusegun Obasanjo Biography: Democratic rule (1999 – 2007)

In the 1999 Nigerian presidential election, Obasanjo ran as the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and won defeating Chief Olu Falae, the joint candidate of the All People’s Party, and the Alliance for Democracy. He took office on 29th May 1999, a day that was celebrated as Democracy Day, a public holiday in Nigeria. It was changed to June 12, in 2018 to honour the late Chief M.K.O Abiola who was denied the presidency after apparently winning the 1993 presidential election held on June 12 of that year.

Obasanjo also won a second term in 2003 defeating former military ruler General Muhammadu Buhari. He spent most of the first tenure travelling abroad and winning allies for Nigeria. He managed to improve foreign reserves from $2 billion in 1999 to about $43 billion in 2007. Also, he got debt pardons from London and Paris clubs.

He improved oil revenue as well. On June 12, 2006, he signed the Greentree Agreement with Cameroonian President Paul Biya, which formally put an end to the Bakassi peninsula border dispute. He is criticised for many things.

On 29 May 2007, Obasanjo handed over the reins of government to Umaru Musa Yar’Adua also of the PDP, marking the first successful transition of power from a civilian administration to another civilian administration in Nigeria.

Obasanjo controversies

Public officials like the Speaker of the House of Representatives and President of the Senate were involved in conflicts with Obasanjo when he was a civilian President. He even survived many impeachment attempts.

When he granted asylum to the deposed Liberian president, Charles Taylor, in November 2003, he was heavily criticised. In August 2005, Orji Uzor Kalu, who was governor of Abia State at the time submitted a petition to the EFCC against Obasanjo, accusing him of corruption.

Also, during the time he left office as a military head of state, he acquired 230 hectares of land in Ota, Ogun State to establish his farm. This led to criticism from many people over how he obtained the land with his power as a military ruler.

In 2008, he was allegedly indicted by a Nigerian parliament committee of awarding energy contracts of about $2.2 billion without due process. He was, however, not prosecuted.

Obasanjo’s third term bid controversy

One of the most notable controversies about Obasanjo was his reported agenda to run for President for the third time, which met with serious opposition. However, he later denied trying to run for the third term.

Meanwhile, Senator Ken Nnamani, former President of the Nigerian Senate and Femi Gbajabiamila a speaker of Nigeria’s 9th House of Representatives said that Obasanjo had truly tried to carry on ruling for a third term. He was accused of bribing legislators to support his agenda of running for a third term.

To succeed in his bid, Obasanjo had allegedly also tried to amend the Nigerian constitution but he failed in this regard as well. Even President George W. Bush had warned him not to tamper with the constitution when Obasanjo revealed his plan to him.

Atiku Abubakar, who served as his Vice President, had also accused him of trampling over the wishes of ordinary Nigerians according to an INDEPENDENT article.

Post-presidency

After he left office, Obasanjo was appointed as the chairman of the PDP Board of Trustees, overseeing nomination, policies and strategy. He eventually voluntarily resigned as chairman of this board in 2012. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed him as Special Envoy to the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo. He met separately with DRC President Joseph Kabila and rebel leader Laurent Nkunda.

Despite quitting the PDP in 2015, he has remained an active commentator on Nigerian politics. He is famous for writing public letters to leaders, for example, he wrote such pieces to President Goodluck Jonathan in 2014 over the missing Chibok girls. He also wrote to President Muhammadu Buhari in 2018, advising him not to run again in 2019.

For further reading, see: Seun Kuti lament: Obasanjo should be in prison, not qualified to speak for Nigerians

He formed Coalition for Nigeria Movement (CNM) in January 2018, the movement adopted a political party, African Democratic Congress (ADC) to create a new Nigeria. Eventually, he returned to the PDP in November 2018.

Olusegun Obasanjo: Personal life

In 1962, Obasanjo brought Oluremi Akinlawon, his then-fiancé to England for a training course and they got married in June 1963 at the Camberwell Green Registry Office, South London. His marriage with Oluremi started experiencing problems because of his polygamous lifestyle. In the mid-1970s their marriage came to an end.

In 1976 he married his second wife, Stella Abede in a traditional Yoruba ceremony. He allegedly had two children with a reporter named, Gold Orun, who he later married. He also married Lynda Soares, but she was killed by car thieves in 1986.

Obasanjo biography
Obasanjo and First Lady of Nigeria, Stella Obasanjo.

Stella Obasanjo, the First Lady of Nigeria died following surgery in Spain. After her death, the Spanish doctor in charge of the surgery was arrested and ordered to pay $176,000 to Stella’s son.

Obasanjo holds the title of Olori Omo Ilu of Ibogun-Olaogun among many other chieftaincy titles. He has so many children that there is no official number for them. According to sources, some of his children have grudges against him for his lack of presence and the way he treated their mothers.

His first daughter is Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello and his other children include Olubunmi, Damilola, Adeboye, Dare, Gbenga Obasanjo and many more. An article on Legit claims that the former president has 20 children while Encomium claims that the count is closer to 21.

Obasanjo legacy and books

Many critics have praised Obasanjo’s involvement in politics and he has many international friends, which was revealed in interventions from the US during his problems with Sani Abacha. However, it is not just all praises when it comes to Obasanjo. He is criticised for trying to hold on to power for as long as possible, which was apparent in his desire for a third term and his other meddling in affairs of the country.

He has written several books such as:

  1. My Watch Volume 1: Early Life and Military
  2. My Watch Volume 2: Political and Public Affairs
  3. My Watch Volume 3: Now and Then
  4. My Command
  5. Nzeogwu
  6. The Animal Called Man
  7. A New Dawn
  8. The Thabo Mbeki I know
  9. Africa Through the Eyes of A Patriot
  10. Making Africa Work: A handbook
  11. Forging a Compact in U.S. African Relations: The Fifth David M. Abshire Endowed Lecture, December 15, 1987.
  12. Africa in Perspective
  13. Letters to Change the World: From Pankhurst to Orwell.
  14. Not my Will
  15. Democracy Works: Re-Wiring Politics to Africa’s Advantage
  16. My Watch
  17. Challenges of Leadership in Africa
  18. War Wounds: Development Costs of Conflict in Southern Sudan
  19. Guides to Effective Prayer
  20. The Challenges of Agricultural Production and Food Security in Africa
  21. Addressing Africa’s Youth Employment and food security Crisis: The Role of African Agriculture in Job Creation.
  22. Dust Suspended: A memoir of Colonial, Overseas and Diplomatic Service Life 1953 to 1986
  23. L’Afrique en Marche: un manuel pour la réussite économique
  24. Africa’s Critical Choices: A Call for a Pan-African Roadmap

Conclusion

This biography about Olusegun Obasanjo has revealed that he was instrumental in many of the governance of Nigeria following the civil war, also known as the Biafran War. Also, it showed how the village boy rose to become one of the most noteworthy Nigerian leaders and African politicians that ever lived.

Obasanjo is a legend and the many international recognition he has received testifies to this fact. He is not free from controversies and this biography about him is proof.

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