The Civil Soldier The Political Legacy of Olusegun Obasanjo

Obasanjo’s legacy as a civil soldier is difficult to summarize. Though he made several advances as Nigeria’s longest-serving civilian leader, he missed several opportunities to build institutions that would have helped entrench true civility and democracy within Nigeria.

Many will agree that no leader has been more influential to Nigeria’s socio-political trajectory than Olusegun Obasanjo. In 1979, he became the first African military head of state to hand power over to a democratically elected government, ushering in Nigeria’s second republic under President Shehu Shagari. Decades later, in 1999, with the country in political and economic turmoil following the sudden end of General Sani Abacha’s heavy-handed regime, Obasanjo became a civilian president. By the time he left office in 2007, Nigeria had been under Obasanjo’s leadership for more than one-quarter of its 47 years of independence.

Obasanjo is arguably the most prominent of Nigeria’s ‘civil soldiers’—ex-military men who, by virtue of the wealth, influence, and power they gained over decades of military rule, went on to occupy important political positions within democratic Nigeria. As Nigeria’s longest-serving leader, Obasanjo’s actions and policy decisions while in office had far-reaching consequences on Nigeria’s national psyche.


When Olusegun Okikiola Aremu Obasanjo enlisted in the Nigerian army in March 1958, he saw the army as an opportunity to obtain an education in civil engineering while earning a salary. He could not have imagined that less than ten years later, Nigeria would be at war with itself. In his book, My Command, Obasanjo details his exploits as General Officer Commanding of the Third Marine Commando Division, which played a crucial role in the eventual victory of the federal forces over secessionist Biafra. According to Obasanjo: ‘Within a space of six months, I turned a situation of low morale, desertion, and distrust within my division and within the Army, into one of high morale, confidence, co-operation for my division and for the Army.’

On 7 January 1970, the Third Marine Commando Division under Col. Obasanjo launched Operation Tailwind, which helped end the debilitating civil war. Within a few days, federal troops captured the provincial capital of Owerri, one of the last Biafran strongholds. The operation forced Biafran head of state, General Chukwuma Odumegwu Ojukwu, to flee to Côte d’Ivoire ‘in search of peace’ while his deputy, Major General Philip Effiong, along with other Biafran officers, officially declared their intention to surrender to Obasanjo’s troops and be reabsorbed into Nigeria. For the part he played in bringing the war to an end, Obasanjo was widely celebrated. His status as a war hero played a part in his appointment as chief of staff in 1975 within General Murtala Muhammed’s regime.

However, prominent personalities from Nigerian civil society have questioned the reliability of Obasanjo’s accounts of history. In his memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn, Wole Soyinka accuses Obasanjo of regaling his memoirs with ‘half-truths, outright lies and coy adumbrations’. Soyinka goes on to claim that it was Obasanjo’s misrepresentation of the facts and details of a clandestine meeting he and Obasanjo had during the civil war, that led to the former’s incarceration during the war for allegedly acting as a spy for Biafra. Obasanjo did this, Soyinka insists, ‘in order to ingratiate himself to his superiors in Lagos’.

Similarly, Rtd. Brigadier General Godwin Alabi Isama, former chief of staff at the 3rd Marine Commando, which Obasanjo led in the last months of the civil war, refutes many of the claims Obasanjo made in My Command. He described Obasanjo as ‘an incompetent commander… a wily and cunning fellow, and an incredible opportunist who reaped where he did not sow’. Alabi Isama also claims in his book, The Tragedy of Victory, that Obasanjo—despite taking credit for receiving formal surrender of the Biafran troops—had negligible participation in the planning, strategy and execution of the military manoeuvres that forced them to surrender.

In 1967, following General Murtala Muhammed’s assassination in a failed coup attempt, the Supreme Military Council invited Obasanjo to become head of state. He had narrowly escaped death when, in a case of mistaken identity, the coup plotters ambushed and shot at the wrong car.

Despite being the regime’s second in command, Obasanjo’s appointment as head of state was not a foregone conclusion. There were many in the military who felt that General Theophilus Danjuma, who was a northerner like the deceased General Muhammed and played an integral part in quelling the coup, should be head of state. Obasanjo, they felt, was fortunate to be alive at all, let alone lead Nigeria.

However, as Nigeria’s military leader, Obasanjo continued the ‘reformist’ policies of his predecessor, which included attempts to ensure food security, combat corruption in the civil service, push for universal primary education and bring governance closer to the people. He showed commitment to the promotion of intra-African solidarity, notably hosting 16,000 participants, representing 56 African nations and countries of the African Diaspora during the Festival of Arts and Culture of 1977 (FESTAC ’77).

Obasanjo’s major foreign policy achievement was perhaps the role his regime played in galvanizing local and international support for the struggle to end white minority rule in South Africa. Under his rule, Nigeria lobbied for the creation of the United Nation’s Special Committee against apartheid, made financial contributions to political liberation movements and even offered sanctuary to activists fleeing an oppressive South African government. Many of those activists—like President Thabo Mbeki—became prominent political leaders in South Africa after the end of apartheid. In the eyes of the international community and fellow African nations, Nigeria—under Obasanjo’s leadership—was finally living up to its status as the ‘giant of Africa’.

Despite his foreign policy achievements, Obasanjo’s most significant accomplishment as head of state was that he complied with General Muhammed’s timetable for a return to democratic rule, at a time when many other African military rulers were reluctant to relinquish power to elected governments. It showed a commitment to democracy that was uncharacteristic of military heads of state both before and after Obasanjo. In 1979, after conducting Nigeria’s first elections since 1966, Obasanjo handed over power to the newly elected president, Alhaji Shehu Shagari and retired from the army.

Obasanjo’s fortunate ascent to leadership notwithstanding, he displayed a desire towards national progress and a knack for astute statecraft that starkly contrasts his military predecessors and successors who many times allowed personal ambition, petty acrimony and ethnocentric chauvinism dictate national policy. Many of his military colleagues seized power with the promise of rejuvenating Nigeria but left the nation even more ethnically divided and impoverished than they met it. Obasanjo on the other hand did not seize power for himself, but when it fell to him, used it conscientiously to ensure that by the time he handed over, the nation was in better health than he found it.


Obasanjo’s tenure as military head of state was not without incident. During his regime, for instance, over 1,000 soldiers attacked the home of Afrobeat musician and political activist, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. During the attack, renowned human rights activist and Fela’s mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was thrown from the second floor of the building and died a year later from her injuries. Despite public calls for justice and the panel Obasanjo hurriedly assembled to investigate the incident, no soldier was tried or court-martialled; neither did Fela receive compensation. This display of impunity by Obasanjo’s regime, arguably, set the tone for successive military governments.

And yet, by virtue of his historic handover to civilian government in 1979, Obasanjo’s international reputation grew tremendously. Having played important roles in many landmark periods in Nigeria’s history, Obasanjo’s opinions as a socio-political commentator were highly valued. His public criticism of his successors was considered an accurate barometer on each government’s approval ratings.

Abacha, a successor and despot, charged Obasanjo with treason. Initially facing life imprisonment, the intervention of the international community within which Obasanjo had powerful contacts (like former US President Jimmy Carter) saw his sentence reduced to 15 years. Obasanjo was serving his sentence when Abacha suddenly died in June 1998. After Abacha’s death, Obasanjo was released from detention. He entered electoral politics for the first time and became the People’s Democratic Party’s candidate for the 1999 presidential election.


To understand exactly how Obasanjo went from being a political prisoner to civilian president in under one year, it is important to examine the general mood and psyche of Nigeria in the years preceding the 1999 general elections. Abacha seized power in 1993 after ousting Chief Ernest Shonekan’s ‘caretaker’ interim national government, which was controversially installed following the annulled June 12 1993 presidential elections. The 1993 elections—widely regarded as the freest and fairest in Nigeria’s history—were reportedly won by businessman and philanthropist, Chief Moshood Kasimawo Abiola.

In a press conference in 1994, Abiola declared himself president and called for the formation of a parallel government. Consequently, Abacha had him arrested and imprisoned. Abacha’s regime was characterized by fear and terror as he detained or killed everyone who stood in the way of his complete political domination. Abacha was on his way to transitioning himself from a military leader to a civilian president when he died mysteriously on 8 June 1998. Mysteriously, Abiola also died, barely one month later and on the eve of his release from detention.

Abacha’s successor, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, restated the government’s commitment to returning Nigeria to civilian rule. However, it was an unspoken truth between Nigeria’s power brokers that the military, as the umpires of the handover, would not willingly relinquish power to anyone who might prosecute them for the vast corruption and human rights violations Abacha’s and previous regimes had overseen. As such, the next civilian president would need to be sympathetic towards the military and have a good appreciation of the political history of Nigeria to keep the country ‘united’ during this important, transitional phase. Obasanjo fit the bill perfectly. He was considered the best chance at rehabilitating Nigeria’s fractured internal politics and damaged international reputation without posing a threat to the military.
Against this complex political backdrop, Obasanjo contested for president in, arguably, Nigeria’s most important election ever. In February 1999, less than one year after he was released from prison, Obasanjo was declared winner and president-elect of Nigeria—more as a result of his pragmatic political engineering of Nigeria’s elite, than the overwhelming will of the masses.

The 1999 elections were fraught with massive electoral malfeasances. Relief that the government conducted and endorsed the election (for the first time since 1983), brushed aside concerns about the legitimacy of the results.


As at Obasanjo’s swearing-in, Nigeria’s political atmosphere was the tensest it had been since the Nigerian civil war. Ethno-regional and religious resentment from the civil war had been exacerbated by decades of oppressive military rule and Nigeria’s economy was reeling from years of gross mismanagement. In the 20 years between when Obasanjo first ran the government and his election as president, Nigeria’s GDP per capita dropped from $800 to $300 while national debt more than tripled from $9 billion to $34 billion. The naira, which exchanged at a rate of N1 to $2 in 1979 when Obasanjo left office, exchanged at $1 to N100 on the black market by 1999. In addition, Nigeria’s international reputation and soft power had plummeted following a series of diplomatic sanctions by the international community in response to gross abuses of human rights by the Sani Abacha regime. Nigeria was in dire straits.

Obasanjo’s first move in office was the retirement of all military service chiefs and other officers who had held political appointments in the preceding military regime. This was a laudable attempt to depoliticize the military and sent a clear message that the armed forces must subject themselves to control by the civilian government.

Subsequently, Obasanjo announced the appointment of an eight-member Human Rights Violation Investigation Commission chaired by a retired Supreme Court judge, Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, to investigate mysterious deaths and assassinations and other human rights abuses under past military governments since 1966. It was a welcome development in Nigeria, where public acknowledgment and redress for years of oppressive military rule was virtually non-existent. The panel demonstrated, at the very least, that Nigeria was owning up to decades of unresolved internal strife and attempting to address it.

However, because the full legal jurisdiction of the commission was never conclusively defined, certain personalities—notably General Ibrahim Babangida, General Muhammadu Buhari (the current president), and General Abdulsalami Abubakar—against whom petitions were filed, simply refused to show up. The final recommendations of the report, submitted to the presidency in 2002, were never acted on or even publicly acknowledged by Obasanjo. It was also not until 2005 that the commission’s final report was made public—and only after two NGOs, the Nigerian Democratic Movement and the Civil Society Forum, took the initiative to unofficially publish it. Many of those the panel found to have committed gross violations of human rights continue not only to walk free, but to also hold important positions in government today.

Nigeria’s economy improved under President Obasanjo. He proved again that he understood the role of international politics in improving local affairs. His administration’s economic reform team, led by minister of finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, helped secure the cancellation of $18 billion of Nigeria’s foreign debt. This debt relief together with improved macroeconomic policies was directly responsible for a reduction in inflation rate (from 17.9 per cent in 2005 to 5.4 per cent 2007). The stabilization of the Nigerian economy attracted greater diversity in foreign direct investment, which was previously concentrated almost entirely in the oil sector.

Obasanjo’s deregulation of the telecommunications sector revitalized an industry that had been stagnant for 40 years after independence. Following the privatization policy and the accreditation of private telephone operators in Nigeria, the telecommunications industry became among the most vibrant in Nigeria rising from 450,000 telephone lines in 1999 to 38 million when Obasanjo left office in 2007.

And yet, Obasanjo could not replicate this success in building strong, independent institutions. As president, Obasanjo was criticized for using the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Nigeria’s economic and financial watchdog, to harass, intimidate and discredit his political rivals. Notably, an EFCC investigation into Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, Obasanjo’s vice president (with whom he fell out in 2006), destroyed Abubakar’s chances of succeeding him as president in the 2007 presidential elections. Therefore, instead of establishing a truly independent institution that could have helped rid Nigeria of its culturally ingrained kleptomania, Obasanjo set the precedent of the ruling party using the EFCC to witch hunt political rivals even as blatant corruption among party members went unchecked.


Undoubtedly, the most controversial part of Obasanjo’s democratic rule was his attempt to alter the constitution to allow himself to seek a third term in office. In 2005, he convened the National Political Reform Conference (NPRC) to discuss ‘pressing national issues.’ Under the guise of this constitutional review conference, Obasanjo sponsored a push for a constitutional amendment that would have legitimized an elongation of his tenure. In Too Good to Die: Third Term and the Myth of the Indispensable Man in Africa, Chidi Odinkalu and Ayisha Osori argue that this failed third term bid cost Nigeria around $500 million, much of which was sourced illicitly from the Excess Crude Account, a sovereign account created to save ‘surplus monies’ generated from Nigeria’s oil trade.

It remains curious how, across Africa, former freedom fighters, human rights activists and respected elder statesmen—some of whom resisted authoritarianism—cling jealously and shamelessly to power themselves, having had a taste of it. Perhaps the failure of Obasanjo’s third-term agenda is what prevented his legacy from being altogether destroyed. However, the fact that he pursued it at all belied selfish ambition.


Obasanjo’s legacy as a civil soldier is difficult to summarize. Though he made several advances as Nigeria’s longest-serving civilian leader, he missed several opportunities to build institutions that would have helped entrench true civility and democracy within Nigeria. Under Obasanjo, Nigeria failed to shed the vestiges of military dictatorship and operated under what can, instead, be classified as a militarized democracy. Additionally, by using incendiary language during elections and encouraging godfatherism, Obasanjo worsened an already toxic political culture in Nigeria, declaring that political victory was a ‘do-or-die’ affair.

Few people encapsulate the unpredictable vagaries of political life in Nigeria like Obasanjo. At both instances of his ascent to national leadership, he profiteered from the demise of his predecessor in government. According to researcher Dr. Azumi Kofarmata, Obasanjo, so far, has been the luckiest Nigerian [president], living or dead. While there might be some truth to the claim that, at certain critical points in his career, Obasanjo simply enjoyed the good fortune of being at the right place at the right time, it would be inaccurate and unfair to ascribe all his achievements to blind luck.

In 1976, after the political tension that naturally followed the assassination of the sitting head of state, Obasanjo helped stabilize Nigeria and established the country as sub–Saharan Africa’s most influential political and economic entity. Again, in 1999, Obasanjo inherited a country that was demoralized, politically fragile, coup-prone and mired in debt, but left behind a sanitized military and the foundations for a politically, socially and economically prosperous nation. In both his tenures as leader of Nigeria, his shrewd diplomacy helped grow Nigeria’s international stock and soft power tremendously. Few can negate that—unlike his predecessors—on both occasions of his leadership, Obasanjo left Nigeria in much better shape than he found it. By being an integral part of two peaceful military-civilian transitions, he burnished his legacy as one of Africa’s foremost democrats

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