By Matthew Hassan Kukah
Opening this book, you will notice a fallacy in the first line of the Preface. In it, the author states, “The idea of this book came to me by accident.” After reading the book, I am of the view that it is nothing short of an inspiration. Of course, the author is not alone in this frame of mind. When we humans do not want to credit God, we say that a particular thing is an accident, chance, happenstance, luck, providence, serendipity, coincidence, fortune, or fate. The author, therefore, did not find himself in Abeokuta on 15 January, 2014 by accident. The book is a masterful piece of ingenuity, which has opened up a completely different dimension in the onion-like life and history of one of the most controversial, provocative, argumentative, insightful, inscrutable, enigmatic, byzantine and inspiring individuals beyond the shores of Nigeria and Africa.
Often, some individuals turn certain time tested truths on their heads. For example, the subject of this book proves that you can actually eat your cake and have it. General, President, Chief, Aremu Okikiola Matthew Olusegun Obasanjo’s mind is a very complex web. A General of the Nigerian Army. An officer and gentleman (debatable), rising from the foot of the hill to the peak of his very illustrious career with a record and without a visible blemish, or at least so we believe. He went from being a military Head of State to a two-term elected President being cashiered from the military. Being cashiered from the military meant that his military records were obliterated and that his slate of military life was wiped clean, to become a tabula rasa upon which nothing was written. Then, he resurfaced from prison. His records attained a resurrection and he ascended to the highest point of power. Not only were his records restored, he ascended to the throne of the presidency, governing for two successive terms.
It is rather curious that no one has written a biography of General Obasanjo. The man has made such a project redundant because, not trusting anyone to tell his story, he developed almost an obsession with getting his words out on his own terms. His state of mental discipline and alertness is incredible and almost impossible to decipher. His mind is incisive, distrusting, suspecting, sharp and rapier, as he writes and ensures that he is the main deal in his own scripted drama. The Gospels according to Matthew, with an A for Aremu, have covered all aspects of his childhood and adult life. He has covered almost everything that he has been involved in – military career, the civil war, prison life, presidencies, and literally every and anything that has come under his watch.
In trying to review this enigma, where, when and how does one start? Is it his life as a soldier, a farmer, a former military head of state and then a president, an international, much sought-after negotiator, a squash player of repute, or where does one really start? Perhaps, I will have to fall back on his late wife, Stella’s response to a journalist who asked her to assess her husband. Obviously, she knew what the journalist was asking but rather than a straight answer, she said: How do you want me to assess my husband? The journalist indulged her and she said something to this effect: If you want me to assess my husband as the president of Nigeria, I will score him between 80% and 90%. You may not agree with me but I live with him and I see how hard he is working for this country. As a father, I think I will score him 50% to 60%. As a husband, I think between 30% and 40%.
In the same way, reviewing this book is a complex assignment. It may not be a book about the life and times of the General, but there is a sense in which in all respects, this collection of letters opens a window into the complex web that is the mind and life of Olusegun Matthew Aremu Obasanjo.
The book, The Letterman: Inside the ‘Secret’ Letters of former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, provides a rare insight into an aspect of General Obasanjo’s life that is largely unseen and unknown. So, this book opens up a rare but exciting vista in the life of its subject. The Letterman speaks to the idea of a man who elevated letter writing to an art in the school of governance. The author reminds us that he saw letters written by General Obasanjo to his mother and father on the 2nd and 16th of February 1952, as well as nine other letters to his siblings. Correspondences from his children started with the eldest child, Iyabo, by her letter of 28 January, 1977. Since Iyabo was 10 years old then, it is likely that she was asking for some little money.
The book is made up of 25 chapters covering a range of subjects. All the letters speak to very important times and life-defining moments and events. For the average reader, starting with my humble self, a mention of Obasanjo’s letters would naturally have taken us to the times of Presidents Yar’Adua, Jonathan and Buhari. Those of us with a little bit of memory may go back to the days of General Babangida. I was shocked to read that this business of letter writing has been in the DNA of our subject right from the days of old.
Chief Emeka Anyaoku, former secretary general of the Commonwealth, in his Foreword, gives us an insight into the world of letter writing and how much it has always been embedded in the social fabric of life from the times of Cicero to St. Paul. However, General Obasanjo’s letters, at least in this volume, do not possess an exhortatory tonality. There is no letter that encourages and seeks to make peace with an errant son, none seeks to either plead forgiveness nor is there any that asks for forgiveness. Rather, in almost all of the letters, we see Obasanjo at his bare fanged and bare knuckled best. These letters are from General Obasanjo’s head, not his heart, and he does not suffer any fool gladly. There are no grey areas, no ambiguity, no nuance. The forthrightness in these letters demonstrates a man of very strong, passionate convictions; one who pursues his convictions with the tenacity of a hungry crocodile. Three key themes come to mind immediately from reading the letters.
First is President Obasanjo’s abiding passion and patriotic commitment to the principles and professionalism of the military. This is marked by a rare show of courage, as we see in the rather strong-headed, stubborn but candid confrontations with his superiors. Nowhere is General Obasanjo’s almost suicidal courage displayed as in his times as the Commander of the famous 3rd Marine Commando. It is difficult to fathom where and how Colonel Obasanjo, as he then was, would have summoned the courage to write to his superiors, beginning with the Head of State and Commander-in-Chief, General Yakubu Gowon, the Chief of Army Staff then, Hassan Usman Katsina, other senior officers to him, such as a Brigadier Eyo Okon Ekpo, whom he criticised for enrolling to read Law, part-time, while the war was on!
In his letter (23 June, 1969) to Brigadier Ekpo, Colonel Obasanjo stated that by reading Law, part-time, the impression this gave to many officers was that as a senior military officer, Ekpo had a carefree attitude to the war. Obasanjo felt that this would have not mattered in a time of peace, but at that particular point in time, it was considered as affecting the image of the Army as a serious institution. However, as a mark of the gentleman that Brigadier General Ekpo was, his response to Obasanjo was calm. He wrote as if answering a query from a senior officer because, among other things, he said: “Believe me when I say I am not at all offended by the views expressed. I accept them and I hope my explanation will satisfy you and other officers who apparently must have expressed their concerns to you. For those of us in the rear, as you are probably aware, there are few hours of the day absolutely at our disposal…so long as I am in Lagos, I will and I command fairly good health, I will continue with my reading, and any officer or individual who does not like like it may please himself.”
There is evidence from the letters that Colonel Obasanjo was clear in his mind about what he needed to do to end the war. It is evident that he had total control and knowledge of his men and the resources available to him. He had then proceeded to transfer some officers, in an act that was obviously within his powers. The news got to Brigadier Hassan Usman Katsina, the Chief of Army Staff. It was also within Katsina’s powers to remove Obasanjo or cancel the transfers. It was not unlikely that some of the officers with close connections with the Chief of Staff decided to read some ethnic colouration to the action.
In response to the rumours that reached him through Lt. Col. James Oluleye, who was General Staff Officer 1 (GSO1) at Army Headquarters, Colonel Obasanjo fired a letter to his Chief of Staff dated 17th July, 1969. In it, he said, among other things, in a rather brutal display of bravado and near insolence: “If I carry out a re-organisation within the Division and in the best interest of the Division and the Army, and the re-organisation cannot be supported by you because of the interest of one officer out of six who are affected, then the future of the Army and the nation is gloomy.”
It is clear from the letters that Colonel Obasanjo’s abiding patriotism was deep and that, for him, nothing should be allowed to distract from the urgency of ending the war. The author reminds us that from his first encounter with officers and men at the battlefront, Obasanjo got the impression that the troops were tired, unmotivated and poorly equipped. Some soldiers had even taken to self-mutilation so that they could be evacuated from the warfront or for treatment at least. The seeming lack of deference of Obasanjo’s letters to his superiors grew out of his strong conviction that the war could be won within a limited period of time.
Barely three weeks after he took over as Commander of the 3rd Marine Commando (3MCDO) and having travelled and taken an assessment of operational resources, he fired a six-page letter to the Commander-in-Chief, General Yakubu Gowon. He believed that a severe shortage of men and resources was harming the war effort and demoralising the forces under his command. If anything showed Colonel Obasanjo’s courage, which bordered on the suicidal, it was in his daring letter to the Commander-in-Chief in a tone that suggested he knew his onions, perhaps even more than those in the Headquarters. In a letter dated 17 July, 1969, Obasanjo laid out what he thought needed to be done to get the war over and done with. He wrote: “As for weapons and ammunition, let us get them wherever we can, provided it will not cost us our sovereignty. Three months from the time a decision is taken along this line, there is no reason why half of the men required should not have been trained and fully equipped… I will make bold to predict the end of the war three months after.”
His request seemed not to have received the necessary reaction. Rather, he was summoned to Lagos. It would seem that he was given a talking down, or something did not go well. He thereafter gauged the mood of the Commander-in-Chief and his people in Lagos, and decided to fire another letter whose tone was, again, quite suicidal, as he was not only challenging authority but implying that even the competence of the Commander-in-Chief was under question!
He was concerned about the claim that there was no money to prosecute the war and he said this in his letter shortly after he was summoned to Lagos. In the letter dated 28th July, 1969, he angrily wrote to the Commander-in-Chief saying: “It is rather disheartening that all of us in uniform seem not to be able to understand the implications and ramifications of the present civil war. I wrote to you in all seriousness and conscious of my duties and loyalty to you and to the country. I was stunned at the apparent lack of understanding and the general lack of seriousness in our approach to our problems….All the talk that we have not borrowed money yet to finance the war will not impress anybody if we fail to achieve our objective. It will be disastrous to save the economy and lose the war…We seemed to be confused in our mission and our aim. We give the impression of groping in the dark and wandering about aimlessly and purposelessly. I am sure we can do it with a sense of mission and a sense of direction. The country needs to be woken up from her slumber and apparent complacency.”
I do not know what Obasanjo put in General Gowon’s tea. For, how could an ordinary Colonel seize the job of the Commander-in-Chief, the Chief of Army Staff and the Quartermaster General in one fell swoop and get away with it? How did Colonel Obasanjo get away with his raw bravado and defiance to military authority? Strange as it may sound, he presented a war plan that his superiors did not seem to approve of and they still neither withdrew nor sanctioned him. Strange as it may sound, he got away with it and then, almost to the date of his letter promising to end the war in three months, the war actually ended on his own terms, some six months later. If Colonel Obasanjo achieved this feat with his own war plan, seemingly against the run of play, one wonders what things would have been like if he had been granted what he needed when he needed it.
In the course of the war, Colonel Obasanjo seemed to believe in his own plans for the war. He was determined to mark and defend his territory. His altercations with the then 24 year-old governor of Rivers State, Lt. Commander Alfred Diete-Spiff spread from protocol to seniority. In all his letters to the governor, he simply addressed him as, Dear Alfred. It will be too much for us to go over some of Colonel Obasanjo’s beef with other military officers. The funniest correspondence was that between Colonel Obasanjo and Lt. Colonel Abisoye over the printing of a calendar, which the soldiers regarded as a public relations stunt. Abisoye was not happy with the idea and sought clarification from Obasanjo on the issue. In his response, Obasanjo condemned the idea of the calendar, saying: “I am not cut out for cheap popularity, or face-showing. My face is ugly anyway, and nobody will like to see it, even if I am willing to show it.” There are other letters that depict a series of rather frosty communication between him and other senior military officers, such as General Adeyinka Adebayo, General Bisalla, George Agbazo Innih.
In the second instance, strange as it may sound, not many people give Obasanjo credit for his deep belief in God and the perfection of His will. Prison shaped Obasanjo and brought out the depth of his faith. Out of prison, he published two good books. One was, This Animal Called Man and the other was, Stories of Outstanding Women in the Bible. I had the honour of reviewing This Animal Called Man when it was launched and I was quite taken back by its depth of meaning. While This Animal Called Man focuses on lessons about life, trust and betrayal, Stories of Outstanding Women demonstrates that Obasanjo is no stranger to the Bible.
There are many letters that show Obasanjo’s abiding faith and nowhere is this better expressed than in his letters from prison. However, when it comes to the roles and place of religion and politics in society, General Obasanjo wants to have his way. Let me illustrate this point. After his swearing-in on 29th May, 1999, a thanksgiving service was organised for him at the Ecumenical Centre, Abuja. I accompanied the Apostolic Nuncio to the event, which happened against the backdrop of one pastor’s controversial but false prophecies. He had said that Obasanjo would die before his swearing-in ceremony. The new president was miffed and in his remarks at the end of the ceremony, he asked religious leaders to rein in their followers and that he would be ready to raise his own prophets if religious leaders were allowed to speak carelessly. Of course, Obasanjo carried through with this, because when his Chaplain, Professor Obaje fell out of favour, he was fired apparently for declaring that he wanted to be the governor of Kogi State!
In terms of the lines of authority, General Obasanjo seemed unwilling to accept the boundaries of the sacred and the secular. There was a reported encounter with the then Chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Plateau State, in which the President was alleged to have flared up, in a burst of anger at a question he was asked over how he had addressed the issues of the killings of Christians and Muslims in the state. He reacted in anger that was typical of Obasanjo, but which was not presidential, and he blurted out the infamous statement: “CAN my foot!” The controversy raged, but we cannot use it to measure his love for the body of Christ. After all, over twenty years later, it took his courage to execute the construction of the Ecumenical Centre. And, as everyone who knows him will concede, he is a man who acts on his own terms.
One of the most outstanding and impactful letters in the book detail General Obasanjo’s engagement of the apartheid regime in South Africa, in the course of his work with the Eminent Persons Group (EPG), a seven-person body that was set up to explore, through mediation, the best way to ending apartheid.
Although General Obasanjo served with Malcolm Frazer as a Co-Chairman of the group, the letters suggest that he did most of the heavy lifting from their tone. The two most difficult persons in that effort were P. W Botha and his establishment, alongside their natural ally, Prime Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom. In his letters during that period, General Obasanjo combined a fearless passion for Africa and Africans, with the the urgency of the situation, in addition to the urgency of impressing the need upon the white folks to get off the back of Africa and create the space for the emergence of a democratic South Africa. President Botha, the crocodile, and his straw woman, Margaret Thatcher, dug their heels deeper deploying subterfuge, intrigues and duplicity and seemed bent on using the EPG as a decoy to merely buy time. General Obasanjo saw through the thin veneer of outright lies and half-truths. The letters suggest that General Obasanjo was clear that change in South Africa had to happen but with two irreducible minimums: the freeing of Mandela and the creation of conditions of human dignity for Africans. His credentials as a pan-Africanist shone through the tough language in these letters.
Nowhere is this better expressed than in Chapter 23, which the author aptly titles “Apartheid Crossfires.” Here, General Obasanjo is at his best. Since Margaret Thatcher had entered the ring, he was prepared for a bare-knuckle fight, despite considerations of her gender or place. As with his taking on his seniors, General Obasanjo started out on a cautious note. We have only his letters to go by and we do not know at what point he parted ways with Prime Minister Frazer and other colleagues. The first letters illustrate some form of collegiality because we find him signing them together with Prime Minister Frazer. We do not know at what point he broke off, but clearly in typical Obasanjo speak, this must have been the point at which he wrote: “Please, Prime Minister Frazer and other Members, I respect you, but for now, just leave me to face these two dragons, President Botha and his woman Friday, Mrs Thatcher.”
In the earlier letters jointly signed with other members of the EPG, we note a level of diplomacy and courtesy, but once he broke loose, all was fair in love, as in war, with these two dragons. Both Botha and Thatcher were playing high stake games and General Obasanjo was quick to spot this. His undiluted commitment to pan-Africanism shone through and for him, there could be no substitution for the restoration of human dignity to the people of South Africa. These apostles of apartheid hung their dirty linen across two opposite poles: First, they argued that they were victims of black violence and so this violence had to end before negotiations could commence. Second, they hinged their attitude on the false belief that some changes were being made and more would be made only if black people appreciated this. There was also evidence that the South African government persisted in its belief that General Obasanjo had no moral justification for condemning apartheid, given that he had come to power through a military coup. The then Foreign Minister, Mr Botha had often lampooned African leaders and insisted that, compared to other parts of Africa, South Africans were better off than their cousins elsewhere. In a letter dated 11th June, 1986, Mr J. C Heunis said as much to General Obasanjo, that: “…you yourself were the leader of Nigeria (which position you did not hold by virtue of elections) in violent and turbulent times, I would have thought that you would be more careful in handling issues of morality and democracy.”
General Obasanjo saw through the hypocrisy and with frustration rearing up, he bared his fangs and squared up to the British Prime Minister. Mrs Thatcher had anchored her argument against the imposition of sanctions on the South African government on the grounds that sanctions would not work and, as capitalists would say, they would hurt the poor instead. In her letter of 8 July, 1986, obviously familiar with what the South African government was saying, she argued that there was no need to drive President Botha into a Laager. General Obasanjo saw through her shenanigans and where Mrs Thatcher had hung her anti-sanctions handbag when she forced sanctions on Argentina, Afghanistan and Poland. In his reply dated 16 July, 1986, General Obasanjo sprung up, firing on all cylinders. In his letter, he accused Mrs Thatcher of…. “delaying tactics and unyielding support for the South African government and its apartheid policy.” Obasanjo argued that like Mrs Thatcher, he too was no stranger to the inner recesses of the mind of the Afrikaner. “My own understanding of the Afrikaner both from history and from recent current events”, he said, “is that he is tough, tribalistic, stubborn, ruthless, oppressive and seemingly inflexible but he has never committed suicide. He has only changed under pressure and the more the pressure, the greater the change.”
With no progress in sight, General Obasanjo could no longer hide his anger. He went for broke. In his letter of 8 August, 1986, he departed from his official protocol. His letters had always been to “The Right Honourable Margaret Thatcher, The Prime Minister.” In this letter, General Obasanjo literally set fire to the broken bridge of dialogue. He simply addressed her as, “Dear Margaret!” He concluded the acerbic letter with the words: “I must tell you that many people around the world view your continued opposition to sanctions as founded on instinct, not logic and as displaying a misguided tribal loyalty and myopic political vision…Those who seek to minimize sanctions and their effect will have blood of thousands if not millions of innocents on their hands and on their consciences. My heart will be heavy but my hands will be clean. Will yours?”
However, on 13th July, 1988, General Obasanjo sent a letter to Mrs Thatcher, and this time he addressed her as “Hon. Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister.” He wrote: “Today, I have sent a personal appeal to President P. W. Botha for the release of Nelson Mandela on his 70th Birthday.” Obasanjo appeared to have calmed down, apparently realising that he still needed Mrs Thatcher, if progress with the release of Mandela would be achieved. Like a man who had threatened to divorce his wife but then came to the awareness that he still needed her, General Obasanjo decided to eat the humble pie. He went on a charm offensive, suddenly becoming more conciliator and courteous. He stated in his letter: “I had the privilege of interacting with you; although we cannot be said to share in totality a commonality of views and solutions to the problems of South Africa, yet one cannot but respect apparent sincerity and forthrightness. I hope you will bring these qualities of yours to bear on the issue of Mandela’s release as I know you have done on other occasions and use the immense influence at your disposal as a respected leader of one of the great nations of the FREE world to influence Mr P. W Botha.”
It is important to note that here, General Obasanjo displayed the most strategic and calculative instincts of a good negotiator, knowing which card to play and when. He must have sensed through his other outlets that something was going to happen, and that humility was a better virtue to exhibit at that point than strength. Staying by the door then was more important than knocking or pushing it. Mrs Thatcher must have smiled while reading his letter knowing that she was still on the front seat.
The relationship between President Jimmy Carter and Obasanjo illustrates how things can change when friendships develop among men or women of influence who decide to seize the moment. They both achieved a lot together, but Obasanjo still demonstrated that when it came to defending Africa, he took no prisoners. They had a good working relationship but when President Carter tried to overreach himself on the issue of Angola, Obasanjo told him when to get off, accusing him of being overbearing, patronising, and arm-twisting African leaders.
In all, this book is like no other. Mojeed secured entry into the intricate garden that is the sophisticated, intricate, Daedalean mind of General Obasanjo. In doing so, he managed to ‘steal’ enough so quickly from the garden to offer us a rich, delicate, delicious salad of anecdotes, military history, diplomacy, friendship, and leadership.
In his masterpiece, War and Peace, widely considered the greatest novel ever written, Tolstoy advanced the view that historians err in presuming that history is shaped by the plans and ideas of great men — whether generals or political leaders or intellectuals like themselves and that its direction is determined at dramatic moments, leading to major decisions. Instead, he says, history is made by the sum total of an infinite number of small decisions taken by ordinary people, whose actions are too unremarkable to be documented.
It is not a stretch to say that General Obasanjo is a great man; even his many detractors will agree to this. And the story of his life would seem to belie Tolstoy’s views. Until you realise that General Obasanjo is a walking contradiction — the most ordinary and extraordinary of men. As William Shakespeare famously said, “Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” President, Chief, Aremu Okikiola Matthew Olusegun alone encompasses all three — he was born with great talents and abilities, has leveraged these to achieve great things and greatness, and has also had greatness thrust upon him. He does nothing by halves.
Musikilu Mojeed’s book chronicles letters to the most senior officers who served in his time. Obasanjo wrote to almost all the senior officers from the South-West over one thing or the other in the course of their careers, while quarreling or setting the records straight.
President Obasanjo is assured of a very special place in history. He may have a controversial record here at home, but even at that they don’t make them like him anymore. I think God made him in a special mould and he has also cooperated with the grace of God. But, in many more years, it will be hard to get any man in Nigeria to wear the size of his shoes, to have and command such an overarching presence. His record-keeping will make the CIA, FBI, MOSSAD, MI5 or KGB green with envy. I doubt that anyone in living memory has ever had this sense of record-keeping.
*Matthew Hassan Kukah is Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto and founder of the Kukah Centre, Abuja, Nigeria.