Those who call him Ebora know him too well. It was right from the time he was introduced that it became clear that he would not be moderated.
He took the microphone which the organisers, who obviously did not know his penchant for such interruptions, had caused to be laid on the high table after the speech of the Vice Chancellor, University of Ibadan, Professor Isaac Adewole.
(Professor Ali Mazrui from Kenya had similarly had to caution him when he kept interrupting discussions during a session at the African Leadership Forum in his Obasanjo Farms, Sango Otta, Ogun State, in 1990.) He informed the Director of CESDEV, Professor Labode Popoola, who was reading his citation that it was actually the mischievous journalists who reintroduced Mathew to his list of names, having dropped it as soon as it was pronounced after his baptism.
“But are you Olusegun?” “Yes.” “Are you Okikiola?” “Yes, that one has meaning.” “Are you Aremu?” “Yes, that also has meaning in Yoruba.”
He, however, had no word for the adamant professor who again presented to the audience, “Chief Mathew Olusegun, Aremu, Okikiola Obasanjo, former President, Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
The veteran of several battles on all sorts of turf stood upright and ambled his way down the high table, standing behind the podium, he stood upright for the next one hour delivering a scintillating message: Leadership in Africa’s Quest for Sustainable Development.
He told of the many hurdles he needed to cross to be personally present at the summit: “Yesterday, at about 7:00 p.m., I was with the president in Abuja and I told him, ‘Mr President Sir, I have a problem’. He said, ‘Sir, what will that be?’ I told him I had to be in Ibadan tomorrow. He asked me what time and I told him it had to be between 8:00 and 8.30 a.m. He said, ‘that will be no problem, an aircraft will be waiting to take you’. “If I had known, I would have taken advantage of the local option which I am sure Kabiesi here would have readily given me instead of bothering the president. I would have used egbe.” He then had a meeting with PDP governors from 8.00 p.m. till 2.00 a.m. only to wake up and travel down to Ibadan and would be returning to Abuja to conclude the mitigation of the crisis threatening the existence of his party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
The lecture was at a point interrupted as the microphone, ignorant of the status of its user, jumped off its handle. Security operatives and university protocol officers who rushed forward to help ‘the old man’ soon found that there was no use for their assistance: “Don’t worry…, Don’ t worry, it’s the work of the enemies,” while fixing back the stubborn microphone.
After his delivery, the audience rose in a standing ovation, but those used to the manners of the General knew that was just a preamble. The real lecture will be given extempore.
We waited with bated breath.
The vice chancellor called on the two discussants listed to make their remarks in 10 minutes each instead of the 30 minutes initially allocated. The former president was on a fence-mending mission, from where he interrupted to answer this very crucial call. He was to return to Abuja as soon as possible.
Professor Mojeed Alabi, former Speaker, Osun State House of Assembly, set the ball rolling. After some niceties such as: “If it were not for the inversion of the popular Yoruba saying: Erin kii fon, K’iru e fon, after the lecture, I should not have had to say a word. He then academically pieced through Chief Obasanjo’s lecture, making salient points. While he commended Chief Obasanjo’s knoelwdge of the topic, he expressed his disappointment that he did not fully analyse the sources of the present leadership crisis bedeviling Africa but rather struck it on the surface. He then berated a situation where most people in leadership positions in Nigeria were very old people. He cited the example of the PDP Chairman and that of “my party, the ACN. Even my leader, Tinubu, is over 60.” He then went on to throw a challenge that “if indeed we are talking about a sustainable development which is futuristic, the youth who own that future ought to be involved in making decisions that will so affect their lives.” He sat down to a loud ovation.
There were movements on the high table and it was obvious that the Owu general had made a request from his host, Professor Adewole. Prof. Adewole then announced that the next speaker should avoid personalities while making the point and three questions will be taken from the audience which the former president will take during his right of reply.
The second discussant, Dr Obijiofor Aginam from the Institute for Sustainability and Peace, United Nations University Headquarters, Tokyo, Japan, praised the capacity of the septuagenarian keynote speaker to cope with his “crazy” kind of itinerary. He then went through the piece, ending up by also making a case for more involvement of youths in the decision making positions on the continent and continuity in government policies. He said while Chief Obasanjo was in government, his economic team was a pride to all Nigerians with all the economic achievements. “Whenever we attend international conferences, we got commendations for that effort from our foreign colleagues,” he said. The three questions from the members of the audience - one woman and two men - were then asked.
One question was on the discontinuity in government actions and policies, citing the case of Virgin Nigeria, the contract with Bi-Courtney and such like policies, saying, “we don’t know how many more will be so reversed.”
As soon as the last speaker was done, Chief Obasanjo bounced down the high table, he was obviously rearing to go and no one was surprised he started from the youth challenge which had been consistent. He reached for the microphone, removed it from the stand, walked away from the podium and stood very close to the audience, walking to and fro as he spoke.
His take-off point was to deflate the argument that only gerontocrats had been ruling the country. He told of 40-year-olds who were governors under his first tenure as president. He also told of the young Speaker of the House of Representatives, Salisu Buhari, who had to be impeached because of certificate forgery. “You say Tinubu is your leader?” He looked at Prof. Alabi who had so claimed and looked away. “What he (Tinubu) did was exactly what Salisu Buhari did, but while we at the federal level got Buhari impeached, some people on this side of the country covered him (Tinubu) up.”
Chief Obasanjo then went on to explain some of the efforts he had made as president both during his first and second coming as president: “If in 54 years, you are saying that Nigeria has not been able to produce just one leader, then, we should all go to hell.”
Noting some of his contributions as a leader, he said when he was in office in 1979, Nigeria paid for 20 new ships to be built. “Some of those ships were delivered as late as 1980 but when I came into office in 1999, the NNSL had liquidated,” he added.
He added that one of the ships had been sold to a marine school at Oron to train students. On the first trip of the ship outside Nigeria after the school had repaired it, it was arrested and when the story of its sale and repair was told to Chief Obasanjo, he refused to pay the $1 million that was being demanded as fine on the ship. “I told them they could have it,” he said.
“You talk about human rights, yes, I also believe in human rights but what about human duties and obligations.” He challenged the African tendency to blame leaders for all societal problems, citing the frustrations of Tanzanian President, Julius Nyerere, with his own people.
The keynote speaker made his point to a thunderous applause, but the question that still hung in the air long after he had left was: since buck passing will not do it, how do we ensure sustainable development?