•At interactive session with young pupils in Bayelsa, ex-President speaks on vision, leadership, says, ‘I washed plates to see myself through high school’
For the scores of young pupils seated inside the expansive auditorium, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The forum was one stimulating experience that would dwell for long in their adolescent minds.
Indeed, a group of teenage students engaging and interrogating a former President of the world’s largest black nation on assorted national and personal issues isn’t an everyday spectacle. But that was the situation on Friday, February 16, 2018, in Kaiama, Bayelsa State.
The hall was filled to capacity. Scores of students, resplendent in their uniforms, parents, government officials, journalists, security personnel and members of the public sat inside the expansive auditorium. On an elevated platform facing the audience was a group of five or six male and female students. And seated quietly in their midst, attired in a multicoloured robe and black hat, was Nigeria’s former President, Olusegun Obasanjo. Beside him sat his host and the Bayelsa State governor, Seriake Henry Dickson.
The event, “A day with Olusegun Obasanjo,” was an interactive session with students drawn from the state government’s model scholarship schools. Held at the Ijaw National Academy in Kaiama, the forum was part of the activities marking the sixth anniversary of Dickson’s administration in the state.
Perewari Victor Pere, a beneficiary of the state scholarship scheme, moderated the session. Pere had just returned from Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, United States, where he emerged the 2017 Best Graduating Student.
After brief remarks by the Commissioner for Education, Jonathan Obuebite, principal of the Ijaw National Academy, Mr. Charles Johnson, and Governor Dickson, the event commenced in earnest.
The first question was fired by the moderator, Mr. Pere. “How important is vision to a leader?” he inquired. In his response, Obasanjo defined vision as “seeing beyond your nose.”
He continued: “A vision is something that drives a leader to achieve his objectives. A vision means that I have something that I want to see through, next year, next month, two years from now, whatever it is. If you have no vision, you are not a leader worth being followed.”
He applauded Governor Dickson for having a great vision for Bayelsa.
“The governor realised that education is important. If your people are not educated, they don’t have knowledge. The Bible says ‘my people perish for lack of knowledge.’ A leader who does not give his people knowledge, his people will not only perish, the leader will also perish with them,” he said.
In his response, Governor Dickson asserted that his government had made building of schools and the development of education a conscious priority.
“Like the former president said, a leader who does not give his people knowledge, which is education, will perish with the people. So, from the beginning, our vision was very clear. We believe that all the instability, insecurity, militancy, criminality, all that had gone wrong in our state and in our region, the root cause is insufficient investment in education. And that is why for us, the options are very clear. It’s either you build prisons or you build schools. If a people are not educated, there would be a hike in the level of criminality and instability and social decadence. So if you don’t build schools, be ready to build cemeteries, because more people will get killed. Be ready to build prisons, because more people will have to be jailed. Be ready to build remand homes, because more of our youths will end up in rehab homes. And be prepared to have a generally unstable society. And that is why we feel in this state that all developments must be rooted in stability and education. So, for us, it’s education first, education second, education third. At the end of the day, all the roads and bridges that we are building are merely brick and mortar. The only investment that lasts, that has a capacity to endure and replenish itself a thousand folds down the line, that is investment in the human mind. And that is the way forward for our state.”
Matthew, one of the students, got the former President doing a flashback to his own days as a secondary school student with the question: “What lessons can we draw from your childhood experiences?”
“The lesson you can draw from my childhood experiences is poverty matters,” Obasanjo declared, as the audience burst into prolonged laughter.
“Some people are born with silver spoon in their mouths,” he continued. “In Yoruba, some poor folks are called Atapatadide – that is those who grew up riding on a rocky beginning. My own experience is that I did not have even a rocky beginning to ride on, because if you have a rocky beginning, that is firm. I had a potopoto (marshy) beginning. That means that, in a marshy area when you are trying to get out, you are sinking in more into the mud. That was my beginning. But then, it stood me in good stead.
“I had to partly work to educate myself in school. I went to a mission secondary school, but the school normally didn’t give scholarship. So my school made me to wash plates, and then I got part of my school fees by washing plates after everybody had had their midday meal. That is why I said that the lesson that could be drawn from my own childhood is poverty matters.
“So you should understand that the opportunity that you have, others don’t have it; so you must take advantage of it, because if you do not take advantage of that opportunity, it may never come again.”
He encouraged the students to focus on their studies, informing them that questions would be asked of their performance at the Ijaw National Academy in future. He urged them to emulate Pere, a fellow Bayelsan who led his class at Lincoln University.
“So, what I want to emphasize here is that any opportunity you have in your childhood and as you grow up, make the most of it, because tomorrow it may serve you well. And if you don’t, tomorrow, it may also count against you,” he counselled.
In response to another question on good leadership and followership by Aby, a female student, the former President noted that God had given everybody a certain amount of innate abilities, noting that everyone must then develop their own ability.
“In a school like this, the opportunity that you have are tremendous – the opportunity to interact, to meet those who have tremendous innate ability and the ability to excel. One thing I count as very important is the fear of God, which is very important as a factor of leadership. If you are a leader that fears God, the chances are that you will succeed,” he said.
He explained that, to succeed, a good leader must be knowledgeable, be a team worker, have faith in God and fear God.
The former President was also asked about things he would have loved to do but couldn’t achieve in office. He told the students that, with the resources available to him as President, he did everything he could have possibly done. He noted, however, that he could have done more if the resources were available.
Said the former President: “I did all that I believe was humanly possible for me to do when I wanted,” he replied. “Mind you, I did not say I was perfect. I will never say that because only God is perfect. And you should also bear in mind that the people you are working with are also not perfect. Some of them will deliberately make sure that you don’t see all things, and if that happens, whom do you blame? Whatever it is, what is important is that you must not have regrets. I did not have regrets when I was in government or in any leadership position that I have held. No regrets.”
Another student itemised some of the major challenges confronting the country, including recession, cultism, herdsmen killings, tribalism and others. He then pointedly asked Obasanjo: “Does Nigeria today have any hope for the future generation?”
The former President insisted that there was hope for the country, and the young students were part of the hope. In his words, if Nigeria had slipped into a hopeless state, he would probably be thinking of committing suicide.
“There are many things that we should have done that we have not done as we should have done them, but that does not mean that Nigeria has no hope. Hope is what drives any human being. If you are a person without hope, you are a person without life. How can I therefore say that Nigeria has no hope?”
He said each generation had done its bit for the country, insisting that no generation should be tagged ‘wasted’. “The generation before me gave us independence. My generation fought for the unity of this country and laid the foundation for democracy. Then people of Governor Dickson’s generation should be able to say that they are building on the foundation that Obasanjo built. Anybody coming after him will not start to build Ijaw National Academy from the scratch.
“Never lose hope. If you lose hope, you lose everything. Nigeria has great hope. I will not keep my mouth shut when I see anything wrong with Nigeria. Nigeria has hope and the hope for a great Nigeria will materialise in our lifetime.”
But the one that got the former President reminiscing on his time as military head of state and, later, civilian President, was a question by one of the students who sought to know the challenges faced by the former President in those different periods between 1976 and 1979, and between 1999 and 2007.
Said the Obasanjo: “I think the first challenge that I had and which I had to overcome was the coup that hit us and led to the assassination of my immediate predecessor. You see, we were all young people. I was still under 40. Murtala himself was under 40. We believed we were doing the right thing for Nigeria. We saw a great Nigeria ahead of us and we were able to say to the British, Africa was the centrepiece of our foreign policy and we would fight to liberate all the remaining vestiges of colonialism. We would fight to eliminate apartheid. We wanted to make Nigeria great. That was our vision and belief. And then, suddenly, a coup came, eliminated Murtala, who was my immediate boss. I was shocked to the marrow. I was so shocked that I said, look, I don’t want to have anything to do with government again. My colleagues persuaded me and I continued.
“So, that was a challenge – a challenge of an unexpected coup, how it hit us and how we had to deal with it. Another thing was that all those who were responsible for Murtala’s death were mainly Christians. Murtala was a Muslim, and so it was very easy to interpret it as a Christian/Muslim affair. But we were able to ride over that.
“As military Head of State, maybe that was one of the greatest challenges that I had to face. Then we transitioned to a democratically-elected situation. Now, as elected President, my greatest challenge was dealing with democracy. That is far different from dealing with the military form of government. I had to understand that, and I had to manage it. As military leader, I didn’t have a party to contend with. I didn’t have a National Assembly to contend with, I didn’t have the opposition to contend with. Once you took a matter to the Supreme Military Council – we had another one that included the governors. Once I dealt with them, the job was done.
“But then, in a democratic system, I had to contend with the opposition. I had to contend with the National Assembly. I had to contend with members of my party who I must try and satisfy. I had to contend with outsiders, the labour unions, and all that. So, the challenge is different between managing a democratic system and a military form of government.”
In his final words, Obasanjo lauded Governor Dickson for his accomplishments in the state and urged the governor not to be averse to criticism. He said Dickson’s efforts in the area of health were commendable and charged the governor to do more publicity so that more people would be aware of his achievements.
He told the pupils: “You children, remember that there are many out there who do not have the opportunity that you have. This opportunity that you have, use it to your advantage so that in your future you would say yes, when we were at the Ijaw National Academy, one man called Obasanjo came and he said we can attain everything that we want to attain in life, but only if we have the right attitude and the right values. The sky is the limit. With the right attitude, you will arrive there.”
The former President had earlier inaugurated a number of projects in the state, including the Bayelsa Specialist Hospital, the Drugs Mart, Diagnostic Centre and a number of new roads.