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Saturday, 16 February, 2002, 18:49 GMT
Obasanjo 'gives as good as he gets'
Presenter Robin Lustig during the interview with President Obasanjo
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By the BBC's Robin Lustig in Abuja

The first thing you see as you approach the presidential villa in Abuja are hundreds of bats, circling high in the sky above the trees just outside the presidential compound.

Their screeching is in sharp contrast to the respectful silence which pervades the opulent meeting room in which we have arranged to meet His Excellency, President Olusegun Obasanjo.

Having negotiated three separate security checks, and having walked along endless corridors lined with apparently empty offices - this was after all a Saturday - we find ourselves in a vast, wood-panelled room, furnished with huge black leather sofas, positioned around low, glass-topped tables.

This was cutting-edge, multi-media, interactive broadcasting, and President Obasanjo seemed to love every minute of it

At one end of the room, there is a slightly raised plinth with two chairs on it. Behind one of them are two giant flags, of Nigeria and the armed forces.

That is the president's chair. The other one, evidently, is mine. If there are any windows, we do not see them. The walls are draped top to bottom with dark curtains; there is no way of telling whether outside it is night or day.

This is where our programme will be recorded.

The technical arrangements are made, the lines to London are checked and re-checked - and exactly at the appointed time, the President appears.

'Mind-set of a general'

He is resplendent in flowing ivory robes and head-dress - business-like, yet friendly. He has just walked out of a meeting of the regional West African cooperation organisation Ecowas, he tells me, and as soon as we are finished, he will be going back in.

In other words, let's get on with it.

President Obasanjo is a fascinating man. A former general, he was Nigeria's unelected military ruler for three years in the late 1970s, having taken over when the previous military dictator was assassinated in an unsuccessful coup attempt.

He was by no means the worst of Nigeria's many military dictators, and in 1979, he arranged a peaceful transition to an elected civilian government.

Then, three years ago, after another 15 years of military rule, he became president again - this time a democratically-elected, civilian head of state, accountable to the people and answerable to parliament.

Amputee after Sharia punishment
The introduction of Sharia law has caused widespread unease
And with little more than a year to go till the next elections, more and more people are asking: just what has President Obasanjo achieved?

So here he was, submitting himself to an hour of questioning from BBC listeners around the world. His answers would be transmitted live on the internet, in audio and video on BBC News Online, and recorded for later transmission on BBC World Service radio and BBC World television.

This was cutting-edge, multi-media, interactive broadcasting, and President Obasanjo seemed to love every minute of it.

I had been warned that he has the mind-set of a general - I took that to mean that he likes giving orders - and that he sometimes has a frighteningly short temper.

Given that he had no idea what sort of questions he would be asked - although after the many recent horror stories to come out of Nigeria, he didn't have to do too much guessing - there would be plenty of opportunities for fireworks.

Tough questioning

In the event, he kept his cool and was perfectly friendly as our callers threw their questions at him.

Why has no one taken responsibility for the disastrous arms dump explosion in Lagos last month, which led to the deaths of 1,000 people as they stampeded in terror into a canal?

He may once have been a general; but now, he's a politician, through and through

How many generations will we have to wait until corruption has been rooted out? Why have you not been able to do anything about the violence which has killed 10,000 people since you were elected? Why should anyone vote for you again?

Sometimes his answers were slow, tortuous and mind-bogglingly detailed. Others were short, pithy and very much to the point.

Why do you tolerate Islamic Sharia law in the Muslim states of the North? Because under the constitution, Nigeria is a multi-religious nation in which states can draw up their own legal code.

Do you, as a Christian, approve of punishments such as amputation for theft or stoning to death for adultery? Personally, for reasons of humanity, I don't, but in a democracy, my personal opinion counts for no more than anyone else's.

Coup rumours

And what about all the rumours - Nigerians love rumours - about how the military are plotting another coup? The governor of Lagos state says all Nigeria's recent troubles are due to retired generals plotting to destabilise the country so that people will start demanding the return of military rule.

Show me the evidence, snaps ex-General Obasanjo. I quote an interview in which the governor says he has seen intelligence reports.

So show me the reports, he replies.

He is asked about the terrifying levels of violence, and his reply is all about recruiting more police and increasing their pay. Might the extension of Sharia law in the north of the country have contributed to an increase in communal tensions? Maybe, maybe not, he says, show me the evidence that it has.

And so we go on, for the full 60 minutes. He gives as good as he gets, and if he does not want to give a straight answer, he doesn't.

He may once have been a general; but now, he's a politician, through and through.

And he is still not ready to say if he'll be a candidate in next year's elections.

See also:

04 Jan 02 | Africa
Nigeria's first Sharia execution
07 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Nigeria
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