Chief Olusegun Obasanjo needs no introductions, if you happen not to know of him then it’s likely you’re not Nigerian or even African for that matter. Over the past few decades, the man who rose from obscurity has been a staple of the Nigerian political scene and holds an ominous record of having a 100% success record when endorsing presidential aspirants. Whether through the military or democracy, Obasanjo has played the great game and played it well. It was important then to me to get a better understanding of the man and in line with his recent series of books I began this interview with questions about his early life and time in the Military.
Obasanjo has never forgotten where he hails from, he lives there, has invested heavily there in both the people and the land and I think it no accident that Abeokuta was made capital of the newly formed Ogun State while he was Military ruler. A true son of the soil, he spoke fondly about memories of his humble beginnings, going to themarket, fetching water and playing with children of different tribes and religions. He called himself ‘Atapata Dide’1, and it’s hard to argue with that when he speaks of a childhood so different from what many of you, reading this on a smartphone or laptop experienced. However, it is the experiences of life that shape us and I believe it is the resilience he gained from these stages of his life that prepared him for so much going forward. This I gleaned from many of his answers and it is evident that this is a source of pride for him as that culture, he took with him and carried far and wide at the peak of his powers.
In a country where success is usually a birthright or a byproduct of nepotism it would come as a surprise to many that Obasanjo’s rise, having been orphaned at a very young age, is linked to neither of those things but by a mixture of luck, timing and sheer will to succeed. Of course there were more opportunities for a willing young man back then, as he openly admitted saying “Things were better back in those days than right now”. Timing is as critical a component as any for success2, indeed it can be argued that the road to the top was much easier back then, however it must be noted that many men were born then but there’s only one OBJ. In my opinion, his thirst for knowledge was what stood him out, and still sets him apart from his peers to this day.
“Umm.. in those days when I joined the army in the mid 1950’s, the Military was not a popular choice for young people, we wanted to go abroad and become an engineer, a lawyer or a doctor, those are the three that urr.. we say oh! my son has gone abroad”
Not much has changed since then! For Nigerian parents drawing up the blueprints of their children’s lives, those are still the ideal professions. The military is not an appealing choice, especially considering recent insurgency in the country.However, it was interesting to note that a man who went that way and found great success himself would not prod anyone down that road. Instead he encourages everyone to do what they want to do and do it well. Going so far as to say “any profession is an option that anybody may consider, you can rise to the top of your profession, when I joined the military, I didn’t even know what ranks were there in the Military, let alone know what ranks I will rise to”
Usually successful people have some advice or set of rules that having been successful for them, they try to impose on others as the one true road to success. “… probably you will say I became an officer in the Military by accident rather than by design” It was refreshing to hear from Baba himself that joining the military, the beginning of his journey to the very top of Nigeria was a mistake. For me at least, it was refreshing knowing that I may just be one accident away from my destiny.
We spoke about a few other things concerning his early life and time in the military, one particular highlight for me were his thoughts on how he thinks Boko Haram should have been handled (stick and carrot). As we sat down and discussed his life, I thought to myself how interesting it was that the boy who was born in Abeokuta (Under the rock), grew up on the rock, and ascended to the very top of his field had come full circle to see out his watch on the rock. We cannot separate who we are from where we’re from and perhaps in the pursuit of who we wishto be, reminding yourself of where you’re from and holding that close is the first step. For it is that sense of identity and self that will take you furthest from home.
- A Yoruba term that loosely translates to being born without a silver spoon
- For more on the relationship between timing and success read Malcolm Gladwell’s outliers. A great book on success and the factors that contribute to it.