Chief Olusegun Matthew OkikiolaAremu Obasanjo, born 5 March 1937) is a Nigerian military and political leader who served as military head of state from 1976 to 1979 and later as President of Nigeria from 1999 to 2007. Ideologically a Nigerian nationalist, he was a member of the People’s Democratic Party.
Born in the village of Ibogun-Olaogun to a farming family of the Owu branch of the Yoruba, Obasanjo was educated largely in Abeokuta. Joining the Nigerian Army, where he specialised in engineering, he spent time assigned in the Congo, Britain, and India, rising to the rank of major. In the latter part of the 1960s, he played a major role in combating Biafran separatists during the Nigerian Civil War, accepting their surrender in 1970. In 1975, a military coup established a junta with Obasanjo as part of its ruling triumvirate. After the triumvirate’s leader, Murtala Mohammed, was assassinated the following year, the Supreme Military Council appointed Obasanjo as head of state. Continuing Murtala’s policies, Obasanjo oversaw budgetary cut-backs and an expansion in access to free school education. Increasingly aligning Nigeria with the United States, he emphasised support for groups opposing white minority rule in southern Africa. Committed to restoring democracy, Obasanjo oversaw the 1979 election, after which he handed over control of Nigeria to the newly elected civilian president, Shehu Shagari. He then retired to Ota, Ogun, where he became a farmer, published four books, and took part in international initiatives to end various African conflicts.
In 1993, Sani Abacha seized power in a military coup. Obasanjo was openly critical of Abacha’s administration. In response, in 1995 Obasanjo was arrested and convicted of being part of a planned coup, despite protesting his innocence. While imprisoned, he became a born again Christian. He was released following Abacha’s death in 1998. Entering electoral politics, Obasanjo became the People’s Democratic Party candidate for the 1999 presidential election, which he won comfortably. He was re-elected in the 2003 election. Influenced by Pan-Africanist ideas, he was a keen supporter of the formation of the African Union and served as its chair from 2004 to 2006. Obasanjo’s attempts to change the constitution to abolish presidential term limits were unsuccessful and brought criticism. In retirement, he earned a PhD in theology from the National Open University of Nigeria.
Obasanjo has been described as one of the great figures of the second generation of post-colonial African leaders. He received praise both for overseeing Nigeria’s transition to representative democracy in the 1970s and for his Pan-African efforts to encourage cooperation across the continent. Critics accused him of corruption and of overseeing human rights abuses, as well as focusing on his avoidance of constitutional norms and their perception that he became too interested in power during his presidency.
Early life: 1937–1958
Matthew Olusegun Aremu Obasanjo was born in the village of Ibogun-Olaogun in southwest Nigeria. His later passport gave his date of birth as 5 March 1937, although this was an estimate, and there are no records of Obasanjo’s birthdate from the time itself.His father was Amos Adigun Obaluayesanjo “Obasanjo” Bankole and his mother was Bernice AshabiBankole. He was the first of nine children; only he and a sister (AdunniOluwole Obasanjo) survived childhood. He was born to the Owu branch of the Yoruba people. The church in the village was part of a mission set up by the U.S. Southern Baptist Church and Obasanjo was raised Baptist. His village also contained Muslims and his sister would later convert to Islam on marrying a Muslim man.
Obasanjo’s father was a farmer and until he was eleven years old, the boy was involved in agricultural labour.Aged eleven, he then started an education at the local village primary school, something encouraged by his father. After three years, in 1951, he moved on to the Baptist Day School in the Owu quarter of Abeokuta. In 1952 he transferred to the Baptist Boys’ High School, also in the town. His school fees were partly financed by state grants. Obasanjo did well academically, and at school became a keen member of the local Boy Scouts. Although there is no evidence that he was involved in any political groups at the time, it was at secondary school that Obasanjo rejected his forename of “Matthew” as an act of anti-colonialism. Meanwhile, Obasanjo’s father had abandoned his wife and two children. Falling into poverty, Obasanjo’s mother had to operate in trading to survive. To pay his school fees, Obasanjo worked on cocoa and kola farms, fished, collected firewood, and sold sand to builders. During the school holidays he also worked at the school, cutting the grass and other manual jobs.
In 1956, Obasanjo took his secondary school exams, having borrowed money to pay for the entry fees. That same year, he began courting OluremiAkinlawon, the Owu daughter of a station master. They were engaged to be married by 1958. Leaving school, he moved to Ibadan, where he took a teaching job. There, he sat the entrance exam for University College Ibadan, but although he passed it he cound that he could not afford the tuition fees. Obasanjo then decided to pursue a career as a civil engineer, and to access this profession, in 1958 answered an advert for officer cadet training in the Nigerian Army.
Military career: 1958–1966
In March 1958, Obasanjo enlisted in the Nigerian Army. He saw it as an opportunity to continue his education while earning a salary;he did not immediately inform his family, fearing that his parents would object. It was at this time that the Nigerian Army was being transferred to the control of the Nigerian colonial government, in preparation for an anticipated full Nigerian independence, and there were attempts afoot to get more native Nigerians into the higher ranks of its military. He was then sent to a Regular Officers’ Training School at Teshie in Ghana. When stationed abroad, he sent letters and presents to his fiancé in Nigeria. In September 1958 he was selected for six months of additional training at Mons Officer Cadet School in Aldershot, southern England. Obasanjo disliked it there, believing that it was a classist and racist institution, and found it difficult adjusting to the colder, wetter English weather. It reinforced his negative opinions of the British Empire and its right to rule over its colonised subjects. At Mons, he received a commission and a certificate in engineering. While Obasanjo was in England, his mother died. His father then died a year later.
In 1959 Obasanjo returned to Nigeria. There, he was posted to Kaduna as an infantry subaltern with the Fifth Battalion. His time in Kaduna was the first time that Obasanjo lived in a Muslim-majority area. It was while he was there, in October 1960, that Nigeria became an independent country. Shortly after, the Fifth Battalion were sent to the Congo as part of a United Nations peacekeeping force. There, the battalion were stationed in Kivu Province, with their headquarters at Bukavu. In the Congo, Obasanjo and others were responsible for protecting civilians, including Belgian settlers, against soldiers who had mutinied against Patrice Lumumba‘s government.] In February 1961, Obasanjo was captured by the mutineers while he was evacuating Roman Catholic missionaries from a station near Bukavu. The mutineers considered executing him but were ordered to release him. In May 1961, the Fifth Battalion left the Congo and returned to Nigeria. During the conflict, he had been appointed a temporary captain. He later noted that the time spent in the Congo strengthened the “Pan-African fervour” of his battalion.
On his return, Obasanjo bought his first car, and was hospitalised for a time with a stomach ulcer On his recovery, he was transferred to the Army Engineering Corps. In 1962 he was stationed at the Royal College of Military Engineering in England. There, he excelled and was described as “the best Commonwealth student ever”. That year, he paid for Akinlawon to travel to London where she could join a training course. The couple married in June 1963 at the Camberwell Green Registry Office, only informing their families after the event. That year, Obasanjo was ordered back to Nigeria, although his wife remained in London for three more years to finish her course. Once in Nigeria, Obasanjo took command of the Field Engineering Squadron based at Kaduna. Within the military, Obasanjo steadily progressed through the ranks, becoming a major in 1965.He used his earning to purchase land, in the early 1960s obtaining property in Ibadan, Kaduna, and Lagos. In 1965, Obasanjo was sent to India. En route, he visited his wife in London. In India, he studied at the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington and then the School of Engineering in Poona. Obasanjo was appalled at the starvation that he witnessed in India although took an interest in the country’s culture, something that encouraged him to read books on comparative religion.
Pre-Civil War career: 1966–1967
Obasanjo flew back to Nigeria in January 1966 to find the country in the midst of a military coup led by Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna. Almost all of those involved in organising the coup were from the Igbo people of southern Nigeria.Obasanjo was among those warning that the situation could descend into civil war. He offered to serve as an intermediary between the coup plotters and the civilian government, which had transferred power to the military Commander-in-Chief Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi.As the coup failed, Olusegun met Ironsi in Lagos.Ironsi soon ended federalism in Nigeria through his unification decree in May 1966, something which inflamed ethnic tensions. In late July, a second coup took place. In Ibadan, troops of northern Nigerian origin rebelled and killed Ironsi, also massacring around two hundred Igbo soldiers. General Yakubu Gowon took power.
While this coup was taking place, Obasanjo was in Maiduguri. Hearing of it, he quickly returned to Kaduna. There, he found that northern troops from the Third Battalion were rounding up, torturing, and killing Igbo soldiers. The Governor of Northern Nigeria, Hassan Katsina, recognised that although Olusegun was not Igbo, as a southerner he was still in danger from the mutinous troops. To protect them, Katsina sent Olusegun and his wife back to Maiduguri for ten days, while the violence abated. After this, Obasanjo sent his wife to Lagos while returning to Kaduna himself, where he remained until January 1967. At this point he was the most senior Yoruba officer present in the north.
In January 1967, Obasanjo was posted to Lagos as the Chief Army Engineer.Tensions between the Igbo and northern ethnic groups continued to grow, and in May the Igbo military officer C. OdumegwuOjukwu declared the independence of Igbo-majority areas in the southeast, forming the Republic of Biafra. On 3 July, Nigeria’s government posted Obasanjo to Ibadan to serve as commander of the Western State. The fighting between the Nigerian Army and the Biafran separatists broke out on 6 July. On 9 July, Ojukwu sent a column of Biafran troops over the Niger Bridge in an attempt to seize the Mid-West, a position from which it could attack Lagos. Obasanjo sought to block the roads leading to the city. The Yoruba commander Victor Banjo, who was leading the Biafran attack force, tried to convince Obasanjo to let them through, but he declined
Civil War command: 1967–1970
Obasanjo was then appointed the rear commander of Murtala Mohammed‘s Second Division, which was operating in the Mid-West. Based at Ibadan, Obasanjo was responsible for ensuring that the Second Division was kept supplied. In the city, Obasanjo taught a course in military science at the University of Ibadan and built his contacts in the Yoruba elite. During the war, there was popular unrest in the Western State, and to avoid responsibility for these issues, Obasanjo resigned from the Western State Executive Council. While Obasanjo was away from Ibadan in November 1968, armed villagers mobilised by the farmers’ Agbekoya Association attacked the Ibadan City Hall. Troops retaliated, killing ten of the rioters. When Obasanjo returned he ordered a court of inquiry into the events.
Gowon decide to replace Colonel Benjamin Adekunle, who was leading the attack on Biafra, but needed another senior Yoruba. He chose Obasanjo, despite the latter’s lack of combat experience. Obasanjo arrived at Port Harcourt to take up the new position on 16 May 1969; he was now in charge of between 35,000 and 40,000 troops. He spent his first six weeks repelling a Biafran attack on Aba. He toured every part of the front, and was wounded while doing so. These actions earned him a reputation for courage among his men. In December, Obasanjo launched Operation Finishing Touch, ordering his troops to advance towards Umuahia, which they took on Christmas Day. This cut Biafra in half. On 7 January 1970 he then launched Operation Tail Wind, capturing the Uli airstrip on 12 January. At this, the Biafran leaders agreed to surrender.
On 13 January, Obasanjo met with Biafran military commander Philip Effiong. Obasanjo insisted that Biafran troops surrender their arms and that a selection of the breakaway state’s leaders go to Lagos and formally surrender to Gowon. The next day, Obasanjo spoke on regional radio, urging citizens to stay in their homes and guaranteeing their safety. Many Biafrans and foreign media sources feared that the Nigerian Army would commit widespread atrocities against the defeated population, although Obasanjo was keen to prevent this. He ordered his troops in the region to remain within their barracks, maintain that the local police should take responsibility for law and order. The Third Division, which was more isolated, did carry out reprisal attacks on the local population. Obasanjo was tough on the perpetrators, having those guilty of looting flogged and those guilty of rape shot. Gowon’s government made Obasanjo responsible for reintegrating Biafra into Nigeria, in which position he earned respect for emphasising magnanimity. As an engineer, he emphasised restoration of the water supply; by May 1970 all major towns in the region were reconnected to the water supply. Obasanjo’s role in ending the war made him a war hero and a nationally known figure in Nigeria.
Post-Civil War command: 1970–1975
In June 1970, Obasanjo returned to Abeokuta, where crowds welcomed him as a returning hero. He was then posted to Lagos as the Brigadier commanding the Corps of Engineers. In October, Gowon announced that the military government would transfer authority to a civilian administration in 1976. In the meantime, a ban on political parties remained in forces; Gowon made little progress towards establishing a civilian government. Under the military government, Obasanjo sat on the decommissioning committee which recommended dramatic reductions of troop numbers in the Nigerian Army over the course of the 1970s. In 1974 Obasanjo went to the UK for a course at the Royal College of Defence Studies. On returning, in January 1975 Gowon appointed him as the Commissioner for Works and Housing, a position he held for seven months, during which he was largely responsible for building military barracks.
In 1970, Obasanjo bought a former Lebanese company in Ibadan, employing an agent to manage it. In 1973 he registered a business, Temperance Enterprises Limited, through which he could embark on commercial ventures after retiring from the military. He also continued to invest in property; by 1974 he owned two houses in Lagos and one each in Ibadan and Abeokuta. Rumours arose that Obasanjo engaged in the corruption that was becoming increasingly widespread in Nigeria, although no hard evidence of this ever emerged. His marriage with Oluremi became strained as she opposed his relationships with other women. In the mid-1970s their marriage was dissolved. In 1976 he married Stella Abede in a traditional Yoruba ceremony.
In July 1975, a coup led by Shehu Musa Yar’Adua and Joseph Garba ousted Gowon, who fled to Britain. They had not informed Obasanjo of their plans as he was known to be critical of coups as an instrument of regime change. The coup plotters wanted to replace Gowon’s autocratic rule with a triumvirate of three brigadiers whose decisions could be vetoed by a Supreme Military Council. For this triumvirate, they convinced General Murtala Mohammad to become head of state, with Obasanjo as his second-in-command, and Danjuma as the third. Iliffe noted that of the triumvirate, Obasanjo was “the work-horse and the brains” and was the most eager for a return to civilian rule.Together, the triumvirate introduces austerity measures to stem inflation, established a Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, replaced all military governors with new officers who reported directly to Obasanjo as Chief of Staff, and launched “Operation Deadwood” through which they fired 11,000 officials from the civil service.
Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters
In October 1975, the government announced plans for an election which would result in civilian rule in October 1979. It also declared plans to create a committee to draft a new constitution, with Obasanjo largely responsible for selecting the 49 committee members.On the recommendation of the Irifeke Commission, the government also announced the creation of seven new states; at Obasanjo’s insistence, Abeokuta was to become the capital of one of these new states, Ogun.Also on the commission’s recommendation, it announced gradual plans to move the Nigerian capital from Lagos to the more central Abuja. In January 1976, both Obasanjo and Danjuma were promoted to the ranks of Lieutenant General.
Both Murtala and Obasanjo were committed to ending ongoing European colonialism and white minority rule in southern Africa, a cause reflected in their foreign policy choices. This cause increasingly became a preoccupation for Obasanjo. After Angola secured independence from Portugal, a civil war broke out in the country. Nigeria recognised the legitimacy of the government declared by the MPLA, a Marxist group backed by the Soviet Union, because the rival FNLA and UNITA were being assisted by the white minority government in South Africa. Nigeria began lobbying other African countries to also recognise the MPLA administration, and by early 1976 most states in the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) had done so. In February 1976, Obasanjo led a Nigerian delegation to an MPLA anniversary celebration in Luanda, where he declared: “This is a symbolic date, marking the beginning of the final struggle against colonialism, imperialism and racism in Africa.
1976 military coup d’état attempt
In February 1976, Colonel BukaSukaDimka launched a coup against Nigeria’s government, during which General Murtala Mohammed was assassinated. An attempt was also made on Obasanjo’s life, but the wrong individual was killed. Dimka lacked widespread support among the military and his coup failed, forcing him to flee. Obasanjo did not attend Murtala’s funeral in Kano, but declared that the government would finance construction of a mosque on the burial site.
Military Head of State: 1976–1979
After the coup attempt, Obasanjo attended a meeting of the Supreme Military Council. He expressed his desire to resign from government, but the Council successfully urged him to replace Murtala as head of state. He therefore became the Council’s chair.Concerned about further attempts on his life, Obasanjo moved into the Dodan Barracks, while 39 people accused of being part of Dimka’s coup were executed, generating in accusations that Obasanjo’s response was excessive. As head of state, Obasanjo vowed to continue Murtala’s policies.
Aware of the danger of alienating northern Nigerians, Obasanjo brought General ShehuYar’Adua as his replacement and second-in-command as Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters completing the military triumvirate, with Obasanjo as head of state and General TheophilusDanjuma as Chief of Army Staff, the three went on to re-establish control over the military regime. Obasanjo encouraged debate and consensus among the Supreme Military Council. Many wondered why Obasanjo — as a Yoruba and a Christian — had appointed Yar’Adua, a member of the northern aristocracy, as his second-in-command, rather than a fellow Yoruba Christian. However, Obasanjo emphasised national concerns over those of the regions. Interested in getting a broader range of perspectives, each Saturday he held an informal seminar on a topical issue to which people other