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EDITIONS
Monday, 18 February, 2002, 16:54 GMT
President Olusegun Obasanjo: Talking Point Special
To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria was our guest in a special edition of Talking Point, the BBC's interactive phone-in programme.

President Obasanjo made history in 1979, when he became the first African military leader to hand over power to civilian rule.

In 1999, he returned to power as a civilian after spending three years in prison at the hand of military dictator, Sani Abacha.

He is a firm advocate of a strong, unified Nigeria, and has made some progress in battling corruption and drawing global attention to the need for Third World debt relief.

But Nigeria is still beset by war and poverty, despite burgeoning oil exports and healthy economic growth.

Islamic Sharia law is in force in twelve Nigerian states, and at least 10,000 people have died in communal or religious violence across the country over the last three years.

Robin Lustig put your questions to President Obasanjo for this special web, radio and television edition of Talking Point.


The topics discussed in this forum were:

  • Arms dump explosion
  • Corruption
  • Violence
  • Life in Nigeria
  • Sharia law
  • Elections
  • Zimbabwe
  • Nigerians living abroad
  • Personal


    Robin Lustig:

    My guest today is President Olusegun Obasanjo. He is one of the most powerful politicians in Africa. The man who leads the continent's most populous nation. He was elected three years ago after 15 years of military rule and he was himself in the late 1970s the unelected military ruler of Nigeria. It was then that he gained an international reputation as the first military leader in Africa to hand over power voluntarily to an elected civilian administration. So how does he feel now as a democratically elected politician? How does he answer his critics who say too little has changed in Nigeria since the return to democracy and what does he think the role of the military should be in a country that's still suffering from so much violence and corruption?

    We've had a huge number of e-mails and phone-calls from all over the world - in this programme President Obasanjo will be answering some of them?

    Mr President, thank you very much indeed for joining us on Talking Point. As I said, there are great many people who are hoping to have the chance to talk to you directly. Our first caller is Kolade Akinyele who is London. He wants to ask you about that terrible arms dump explosion in Lagos last month which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 people.

    Arms dump explosion


    Kolade Akinyele:

    Good afternoon, Mr President. Following the recent bomb blast in Lagos on 27th January, why has no one taken any political responsibility officially following the fact that over 1,000 people, mainly children, lost their lives at that incident and no one has taken any political responsibility for that event?


    President Obasanjo:

    Well, Kolade it depends on what you mean by political responsibility. When I am the political head and the chief executive of this country anything that happens, good or bad, I am in charge and if there is any responsibility to be taken, I don't shy away from taking the responsibility. But in this particular case, there was an explosion in an ammunition dump in a military containment and in that military containment where the explosion took place, so far I have not received a report of any lives being lost. About 5 or 6 kilometres away, out of panic, out of stampede, people were running for their lives because of the explosion, of course, they ran into the swamp and lost their lives.

    If there is any immediate responsibility to be taken that something has gone wrong, of course I will take it. But what of course also must be done in that situation is what really has gone wrong. My military experience and training has taught me that when anything like that happens we first of all investigate - the military will set up an inquiry and this has been done to find out what is the cause of that explosion?


    Robin Lustig:

    Can I just ask you Mr President, will the results of that inquiry be published? Will everybody be able to see what the conclusions are?


    President Obasanjo:

    The results of that inquiry will be made public.


    Robin Lustig:

    And if it concludes that somebody was at fault, that the condition in which those munitions were being kept were not adequate, that safety precautions were not adequate - can you give an undertaking that action will be taken against somebody?


    President Obasanjo:

    If somebody has to be punished - somebody will be punished. So Kolade, that is the way it goes.


    Kolade Akinyele:

    I believe in a democratic country and in a democratic process. The Minister in charge of the defence - which I think is the Defence Secretary in this case, which is, the retired General Danjuma - should have taken responsibility for the way in which the ammunition dump was not maintained for so many years. I believe although you have said there is an investigation taking place at the moment, that the way the ammunition dump has been left without any due maintenance and care has led to the explosion which took place and led to the death of over 1,000 people.


    President Obasanjo:

    That may also not be not be absolutely correct. Now at this point we are not saying everything because an inquiry is at present going on. The army chief of staff told me that when he took up his new job as army chief of staff, not long ago, the first station he visited was Lagos and one of the places he visited was this ammunition depot and he saw the condition and he asked the divisional commander in charge of that containment and asked what can we do. The divisional commander said - we need three and a half million naira to put things right. The army chief of staff gave that three and a half million naira and that is not more than six months ago. So you cannot talk of absolute neglect. But this is not the time to say all that. Let us have an inquiry. Let all the facts be made available to the panel of inquiry and let the absolute position of things be known.


    Robin Lustig:

    There must be many other munitions dumps around Nigeria, Mr President. Have you given orders that the condition those dumps are being held in must be urgently reviewed and any action taken if required?


    President Obasanjo:

    Not only have I given that instruction to the military and to the Ministry of Defence, I have even asked the governors in whose jurisdiction those ammunition depots may be, that they should also be part of it.

    Return to the top of the page


    Corruption


    Robin Lustig:

    Philip Mogbock, Houston, USA: Mr President, my question is about elections in 2003. With the level of security that Nigerians are experiencing now. How are we guaranteed that the 2003 elections will be conducted fairly and freely?


    President Obasanjo:

    That is not an unreasonable question. Some people in Nigeria are also asking that question and I am aware of that concern and that's what's led me to call for a retreat which ended only last Sunday. We called all stakeholders - elected men and women at the national level, at the street level, at local government level - party officials and party activists. We got together and we looked at what were the causes what we can do and what must we do. It was a very exciting and interesting four days when people came up and spoke their minds and a number of things came out of it.

    Everybody at that meeting took a pledge, the pledge that they will ensure that as far as they are concerned, not only will they not participate in violence - they will fight against violence in politics. A decision was taken that the independent electoral commission and the registered political parties should work out a code of conduct for all politicians and that they have accepted and they are working on it. Thirdly, that the three registered parties should meet - and I think they are meeting on next week Tuesday - to work out how they will decide against violence in the electoral process. And the first thing they want to do is to come out with a resolution of their own and they say that anybody who is known to engage violence in the electoral process will be banned from contesting in an election. If he is banned from one party, he will not be allowed to join another party. We are also thinking of taking a deal with the National Assembly that will be take care of whatever they are putting across. So Philip your concern is also the concern of many of us. But I am very hopeful that we will have a fair, free and non-violent election.


    Robin Lustig:

    Mark Dixon, UK: Obviously your Excellency has made inroads in to the battle against corruption but how many generations does it really take before such an entrenched cultural system is changed?


    President Obasanjo:

    It's not a question of generations - it's a question of critical mass of people. Now are we getting a critical mass of people who are changing - whose attitude and orientation is changing - that's what really matters. I won't talk in terms of generations, I will talk in terms of critical mass. Don't forget what we are trying to do - some people say, how many people have you jailed. The answer is not how many people have been jailed or have been sent to jail but how many minds have we changed.


    Robin Lustig:

    But sending people to jail surely is the best way to send a message that corruption is not acceptable - convicting people who have committed criminal acts.


    President Obasanjo:

    Right now we have a judge of a high court who is standing trial for three charges. Now that is a high court judge - if that can happen to a high court judge then you know that it can happen to anybody.


    Robin Lustig:

    You set up a human rights violations commission when you became President. You testified for the commission yourself - as it happens on September 11th when other important events also happened. But three former military rulers of this country, General Babangida, General Buhari and General Abubakar, all refused to testify. What does that tell the people of Nigeria about attitudes towards these kinds of questions?


    President Obasanjo:

    For me and as you rightly said, I went before the Oputa Panel and testified. We have been clear what has been lingering on, I used the opportunity to lay it dead. Now if I was one of those leaders, I would have used the opportunity which the Oputa Panel afforded them.


    Robin Lustig:

    You think they should have testified? But do you know what people are saying - they are saying that what it shows is that the army is above the law.


    President Obasanjo:

    No they are not army.


    Robin Lustig:

    The military.


    President Obasanjo:

    They are not military because they are retired. If I am not above the law, nobody in this country can then claim to be above the law. So I think we must get it right. If you are talking of them as military - they could not be more military than I am. Now if you are talking of them as former heads of state - they could not be more former head of state than I am. If you are talking of them as incumbent - there is nobody who is more incumbent than I am. It is in their own best interests to have gone before the Oputa Panel to lay to rest some of the accusations. Some of them, from what I know, are unfounded. Like the one that has been laid on my own administration when I was the military head of state.

    Return to the top of the page


    Violence


    Robin Lustig:

    AdeSina Somoye, Lagos, Niger: Mr President, I must congratulate you for all the efforts you are making since your inception as the President of Nigeria since 1999 to make Nigeria a better place. But I believe you are leaving some areas untouched and this seems to be having a negative effect on your administration.


    President Obasanjo:

    I am ready to learn from you Ade.


    AdeSina Somoye:

    For example the security in the Nigerian community


    Robin Lustig:

    AdeSina, let me stop you for one second because you are raising a lot of different issues there. Let's just deal with the first one you raised which was security.


    President Obasanjo:

    On the issue of security - to say that we are not doing anything about security is not correct. When we came in, I appreciated that one of the things that we have to do a lot about is security. But I also appreciate that as much as possible is only when it in very exceptional circumstances that I would want to put military men to do what policemen should do. So I believe that policemen should do the routine security work but we were grossly under-policed. We took over about 120,000 policemen to police a population of 120 million at least. You can see it's one policeman to 1 million. Now we were grossly, grossly under-policed. Not only were we grossly under-policed, those policemen had very low morale, their welfare was very, very inadequately taken care of. They were very poorly equipped, they were outmatched, outgunned by the armed robbers and all these things we have to attend to. The first thing we did was to say we are going to double the number of police from 120,000 to 240,000 - 250,000 in the space of three to four years.


    Robin Lustig:

    But forgive me, Mr President, it goes beyond the number of police officers.


    President Obasanjo:

    The number is also important. Then we said we are going to increase the salary of the police - we increased the salary.


    Robin Lustig:

    You have quoted, just the other day, saying Nigeria is steadily losing ground to the suffocating influences of violence and lawlessness. Whose fault is that?


    President Obasanjo:

    I don't know where you get that quotation from?


    Robin Lustig:

    The New York Times.


    President Obasanjo:

    The New York Times manufactured that -that could not be my words.


    Robin Lustig:

    Ten thousand people have died in the three years since your election.


    President Obasanjo:

    I wonder how many people have died in the totality of the USA in the three years.


    Robin Lustig:

    Violent deaths.


    President Obasanjo:

    You can find out how many - even in New York - that's not the issue. The issue is what we are doing - are we making progress? I am satisfied that we are making progress - not enough. You said the number is not the answer - I believe it is one of the answers. Increase in salary is not the answer - I believe it is one of the answers. Providing accommodation for the police is not the answer - it is one of the answers. Improving the communication and mobility for the police is not the answer - definitely one of the answers. Improving the weapons for the police is not the answer - it is one of the answers. These are things we have been doing - retraining and changing the orientation of the police is not the answer - it is one of the answers. All these things we are doing. Like you asked the question not long ago - how many generations do you need. Now how many generations do we need to change the orientation of the police? I believe that what we have done in the last three years, if we continue to build on it, three years from now it will be a much, much better situation than it is today.


    Robin Lustig:

    But of course the violence in Nigeria goes beyond common criminality doesn't it? There is a an ethnic and a religious dimension to it as well.

    We have an e-mail from Ekwueme Ezeako, Cologne, Germany: What is your government doing to stop the ethnic killings that are taking place in some parts of the country?


    President Obasanjo:

    What he calls ethnic killing and we call religious - not all of it is ethnic, not all of it is religious. In a situation of unemployment - and this happens almost everywhere in the world - it happens in your own country. When there is no depression, nice and friendly as people in your country can be to visitors - they become nasty because they think that they are taking their jobs, they think they are taking what rightly belongs to them. We have suffered for about 15 years of military rule in this country. What we had is under investment, unemployment - no investment coming in. So any little thing, they think someone is taking something away from them and rather than tolerate this they become impatient. It's part of the decay - the morale of the previous regime that we have to deal with. When we came in we appreciated this - that we had to create a conducive environment for investment because it is only private investment that can really create employment.


    Robin Lustig:

    Did you get that investment?


    President Obasanjo:

    It is a vicious circle - you cannot get investment while there is violence and killing and disturbance and then if you don't get investment which creates employment then the killing, the violence will go on. So it is a very, very bad vicious circle.


    Robin Lustig:

    What do you say to the Governor of Lagos state who said the other day that many of the recent troubles in Nigeria - the violence in Lagos, the police strike - he included the arms dump explosion - that they're all part of a plot by retired generals to destabilise democracy in Nigeria? He says we know from intelligence reports what is happening.


    President Obasanjo:

    He hasn't given me the reports.


    Robin Lustig:

    You've not seen them.


    President Obasanjo:

    No.

    Return to the top of the page


    Life in Nigeria


    Robin Lustig:

    A call now from Oscar Teddy, Vienna, Austria: Good afternoon Mr President. Is it true as reported on the news last year that there was a power failure when your plane was about to land at an airport in Nigeria - either Lagos or Abuja? Is it true yes or no?


    President Obasanjo:

    It is not as simple as that. It is not quite as true as it was reported. So I won't say it is true and I will not say that it's not true because what really happened was this. Whenever I am landing or taking off they should normally switch on to generators just to make doubly sure and they were in the process of doing that. So it was a flicker when they were switching over to the generator which is a standing instruction.


    Robin Lustig:

    But Oscar, you have a concern about electricity supplies in general don't you?


    President Obasanjo:

    Did you get my explanation?


    Oscar Teddy:

    I understand your explanation but you still fail to convince them. But that was a power failure when Nigeria was holding the Junior World Cup. I was watching here in Vienna in Austria. There was a power failure at the national stadium in Lagos - meaning there was power failure.

    Another question Sir. I came to Nigeria on holiday during the December and New Year period. I came back on the 31st January this year. We never had 10 hours regular power supply during my 6 week stay in Nigeria. So my question is Sir - you've been around the world - you've been to developed and non-developed countries. Could you please give me one or two countries that you've been to that are as rich as Nigeria in terms of mineral resources that doesn't have a regular power supply as Nigeria?


    President Obasanjo:

    It is not a question of comparisons. It is a question of how bad your country has been run down by the previous administration. If what I did when I was last in government - if we could build on it, then it will have been a different story. What happened was that for almost 20 years there was no additions to what I did - if anything it was run down. So when I came in we were only able to generate 1,400 megawatts of electricity - that is not even enough for a city.


    Robin Lustig:

    You gave a pledge, Mr President, that by the end of last year, there would be no more electricity cuts.


    President Obasanjo:

    So when I came in, I realised that I thought it was the fault of the men. Then I looked closely and realised it is not the fault of the men but it is also the cumulative fault of the previous administration. So I decided that one of the first things we have to pay attention to is energy. We want to generate enough and be able to transmit what we generate and distribute what we transmit. These are the three essential aspects. We have been able to generate 4,000 megawatts which is more than the highest demand on record that we have in Nigeria. But we are still have problems in transmission and in distribution. We have about 4,000 transformers which are now coming in to help in the area of distribution. What I would say I would say is that we have the targets as far as generation is concerned and we are gradually meeting the targets for transmission and distribution.

    Return to the top of the page


    Sharia law


    Robin Lustig:

    A call from Celestine Inwuka, Santiago, Chile: Why do you let Sharia law exist in a secular state?


    President Obasanjo:

    We are not a secular state - we are a multi-religious state. That is what we call ourselves in our constitution.


    Robin Lustig:

    An e-mail now from Francis Gwandi, Yaounde, Cameroon: What is your own stance on Sharia law and does your administration recognise it?


    President Obasanjo:

    Of course. It is in of the constitution of Nigeria. Sharia law is part of life and so are the Muslims.


    Robin Lustig:

    On the question of Sharia law, do you see any connection between the extension and the application of Sharia law which has now occurred in many northern states in Nigeria and the increase in violence between Christian and Muslim communities in parts of the country?


    President Obasanjo:

    I would not say no to that. But I will not say yes because I would want to see improvement of statistics.


    Robin Lustig:

    There is a coincidence of timing.


    President Obasanjo:

    There is a coincidence of timing. But if you take a place Kaduna for instance. Kaduna had always been for two or three reasons - one of them religious obviously - has always been a hotbed.


    Robin Lustig:

    500 killed in just September alone.


    President Obasanjo:

    When you say Sharia is responsible for an increase in violence - maybe, maybe not. But I will want experts to look at what is happening and be able to say that with statistics. Having said that, the issue of Sharia is that for a Muslim the Sharia is for the Muslims as the Ten Commandments is for a Christian.


    Robin Lustig:

    And you as a Christian do not see a problem with a system of law which specifies the amputation of a hand for theft, the stoning to death of a women for adultery?


    President Obasanjo:

    Not because I am a Christian but out of own humanness and humanity, I will not want to see a man or woman stoned to death. If a women will be killed for this offence or a man killed for his offence, I would want a less painful death than being stoned to death. But that is my choice.


    Robin Lustig:

    Do you as head of state, reserve the right to ensure that your choice is observed.


    President Obasanjo:

    My choice in a democracy is only my choice. If I am a dictator, of course my choice must be carried. But in a democracy if my choice is not carried then it is not carried.

    Return to the top of the page


    Elections


    Robin Lustig:

    Call from Oyere Onuma, Cambridge, Mass, USA: About three years ago I had the privilege of listening to you speak at the Kennedy School of Government here at Harvard. As a young Nigerian who is committed and invested in the future of our country. If you do decide to stand for re-elections in 2003. Why should I vote for you? What do you have to offer beyond what we have seen or not seen in the past couple of years?


    President Obasanjo:

    When I put my case for re-election - I will convince you. Wait until that time.


    Robin Lustig:

    What do you say to people who ask what have you achieved in Nigeria over the nearly three years that you have been president?


    President Obasanjo:

    I would say a lot - I've given a lot to Nigeria. This is a country that three years ago, was almost breaking up. Today no serious minded Nigerian is talking of breaking Nigeria up. Nigerians today have hope and where you have hope you have a lot. Nigerians today feel that they can get justice. Nigerians today feel that people cannot do things and get away with it with impunity. The fact that we had something like Oputa Panel - many people didn't think that that was possible. You have mentioned that three former heads of state did not come to clear themselves in court, as it were. But that does not obviate the fact that this was a significant thing in Nigeria. Today an average Nigerian worker takes home a living wage. Three years ago, an average Nigerian worker did not take home a living wage.


    Robin Lustig:

    But I have seen figures from the World Bank which show that two-thirds of Nigerians - 66% live below the poverty line. That compares to 43%, 15 years ago. People seem to be getting poorer in Nigeria.


    President Obasanjo:

    But if I hadn't come in that figure would probably have been three-quarters.


    Robin Lustig:

    Akim, Virginia, USA: Would it not be more respectable for you to serve just one term like Nelson Mandela did in South Africa? That way you would set an example for future presidents of Nigeria that the presidency is not for life?


    President Obasanjo:

    I am not looking for a presidency for life. People who quote Nelson Mandela in South Africa must also look at the different situation - the Nigerian situation and South African situation are different.

    Return to the top of the page


    Zimbabwe


    Robin Lustig:

    Call from John Barbour, UK: How can you and other African leaders tolerate what is happening in Zimbabwe?


    President Obasanjo:

    Well it depends on what you regard as what is happening in Zimbabwe.


    Robin Lustig:

    High levels of political violence.


    President Obasanjo:

    I went to Zimbabwe but before that one must get the things right because the order must be right. For me and even for the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers who met here in Abuja who agreed that the Zimbabwean struggle will not be completed until the land issue is resolved and any right thinking man will accept that - the question is how. And I ask Mr Mugabe - why do you wait for so long - in effect for 20 years. The constitution was given by the British does not allow him to move - maybe that is true. Now if the constitution does not allow him to move because the constitution was cast in concrete then it can only move when the constitution was removed from the concrete cast.

    Three years ago - December 1999 - I was in Cairo - Robin Cook and President Mugabe met and I brokered a meeting and from then I continued and what I see is that the more we try to get President Mugabe to move along the line of peace, the more we will get something from Britain including your own organisation that rubs him on the wrong side. The last time when I went to him, I took the issue of elections - there must be observers - he agreed. There must be something to do on how you reduce violence and he agreed.


    Robin Lustig:

    Do you see those agreements being translated into action?


    President Obasanjo:

    Of course. He has started translated them into action - in his own way. For instance observers he said he would not allow Britain.


    Robin Lustig:

    or other European Union states.


    President Obasanjo:

    Most other European Union states - some yes, some no.


    Robin Lustig:

    Do you think that's acceptable?


    President Obasanjo:

    For me I wouldn't probably do it that way. But then he can do it the way he feels. We will allow the foreign press not the BBC. But if I had to handle it - maybe I'd have handled it that way or maybe in another way. But the point is this, that we must also see his own point of view. I don't say he is absolutely right. But he also has something that must be listened to.


    Robin Lustig:

    You talk about your role in bringing together the former British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook and President Mugabe in Cairo. Just the other day here in Abuja, you greeted the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Are you still acting as an honest broker between Britain and Zimbabwe?


    President Obasanjo:

    If they make such conditions possible - yes.

    Return to the top of the page


    Nigerians living abroad


    Robin Lustig:

    Call from Abioye Adeolu, Chiba, Japan: My question is about Nigerian professionals living abroad. What is the government doing to help these people in case they want to come back to Nigeria to do something in order to help the situation?


    President Obasanjo:

    You ask a very, very good question. About two years ago, I went to America and to Britain and I established what we call NIDO - Nigerians in Diaspora organisation. Nigerians in Diaspora in America and in Europe and they registered. It is an independent, autonomous organisation that was given assistance by the Nigerian High Commission in London and then Nigerian embassies all over Europe - the Nigerian Ambassador in Washington and Nigerian ambassadors elsewhere in the Americas. They are already becoming a formidable force. We haven't established NIDO Asia yet. Maybe we should be thinking of establishing NIDO Asia. Now that you have raised the point about NIDO in Asia, we will see what we can do.


    Robin Lustig:

    What would you regard as most helpful? Any assistance that perhaps you are thinking of being able to provide for Nigerians living abroad who are thinking about coming back but would like some help of some kind?


    President Obasanjo:

    What we are planning is to get you together as a body and then rather than deal you professionals individually deal with you as a body because that organisation is also doing a lot for itself. It can act as a body of consultants for whom state government, local government, federal governments etc. they can put themselves together to see what they can do here too. A lot is being done. But rather than for all to start dealing with each of you one by one, it would be difficult. Through an organisation you can help yourself - self-help and any help that government wants to render would also be easier.

    Return to the top of the page


    Personal


    Robin Lustig:

    Call from Michael Ikhariale, Cambridge, USA: How would you compare your previous achievements as a military head of state with your present achievements this time as a democratically elected head of state? How do they compare?


    President Obasanjo:

    The two are not the same, of course. One as a military head of state, I am both the executive and legislature and I don't have to deal any legislative body - I make law. There is a world of difference. So achievement is quicker and easier and it can be established and it can be seen. As a result of that difference, now I consult, and now we have people who do not belong to my party in my government. I have members of my government in other societies. The one good thing about democratic system is that it gives everybody a feeling of participating - at least you can be heard. You can make yourself relevant - not necessarily in terms of being in government but in terms of contributing to government.


    Robin Lustig:

    Do you sometimes find yourself thinking to yourself Mr President, it would be a lot easier to get this done if I was a military ruler?


    President Obasanjo:

    No, no. Even as a military ruler, I've been brought up in my life to be democratic in my way of life. In my family, we sit down and democratically discuss and take decisions. No, I don't think so. I would defend the democratic process and this constitution any day.

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