A discussion with former President Olusegun Obasanjo

This discussion between former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo and Angela Reitmaier, an affiliate of WFDD, took place in Berlin on February 12, 2012, when the former president gave an introductory keynote on “Africa and Good Governance” at the Humboldt-Viadrina School of Governance. Former president Obasanjo reflects on ways to fight corruption, including for faith-based organizations, and to end the conflict with Boko Haram. He describes his relationship to God and speaks about the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and the African Peer Review Mechanism at their 10th anniversary.

You are here in Berlin to give a presentation on Africa and good governance. You have devoted much effort to fighting corruption. Where do you think Nigeria stands? How does the crisis surrounding Boko Haram affect the national will to overcome Nigeria’s governance challenges?

Let me deal with corruption first. When I came into government, Nigeria was number two from the bottom of the Corruption Perception Index (CPI), devised by Transparency International (TI). So Nigeria was at that time considered the second most corrupt nation in the world. Whatever you may say about the methodology of that index, it is a measurement, and rather than complaining about it, you should do something and improve the perception that people have about Nigeria. We did that in three ways: (1) by legislation, (2) by sanctions and punishment, and (3) by example at the highest level.

It took some time for the perception of Nigeria in terms of corruption to start changing, and that is understandable. Once you are at the bottom, it takes a lot of doing to go up. But if you do not relent, you keep going up. So we started going up, and we got to a position in the 30s, counted from the bottom. We did not achieve this by complaining, but by doing the hard things. People at a high level of government, ministers, including the head of police, legislators, including the senate president, companies, and company directors, both Nigerians and non-Nigerians, were tried and removed for corruption, so this proves that something can be done about corruption.

But it is also important to know that fighting corruption is not a one-shot affair. You have to be consistent and continue to work. When you relent, the entrenched interests start looking for opportunities. I believe that there is currently an element of relenting in the Nigerian effort to fight corruption, which has meant that we have started going down on the perception index scale. This is still much better than where we started from, but if we do not reverse the current downward trend, it will not be long before we go back to where we were before.

On the issue of Boko Haram, I believe that Boko Haram is a product of many things, including Islamic fundamentalism, international terrorism, drug trafficking and consumption, indoctrination, poverty, unemployment, particularly among the youth, ignorance, and inadequate understanding of religion. There is a mixture of different causes, for which we cannot just prescribe a medicine and get a solution. This is especially so because of the linkages developed to outside forces or interests. So we have to understand the nature, the structure, even the support, internal and external, that such a body enjoys, and to disentangle, or remove and break, the strands of the causes that I have mentioned. Among the first things that are necessary is intelligence. This includes intelligence from within the country, from neighboring countries, from the region, and from countries that have intelligence about international terrorism and fundamentalism, and also about drug trafficking. And the outside linkages require collaboration or cooperation, because with linkages from outside, the more we try to uproot Boko Haram from within, while leaving out the external connection, the less successful we will be. So we need to apply the root, stem and branch solution, use a policy of carrots and sticks, and prioritize our actions. It is, for instance, probably easier to deal with drug trafficking than poverty. We may need to mount a process of re-education of those who have been indoctrinated, so that they understand what the Book says about their religion. And where it has been misinterpreted, it needs to be corrected. But this needs to be done by those who are respected as authority.

What is currently happening in Mali is dealing with one important element, the external linkage. What is important is to make sure that the people being chased out of Mali do not have a haven somewhere else, in neighboring countries, where they can regroup and launch out again. So we can take advantage of that, look at ways to prioritize our activities, and decide who will do what.

As president, you faced many challenges, and as former president you are still very active. Where do you draw your strength and values from?

I draw them from my God in heaven, who I worship through Jesus Christ, my savior. My strength, all that I do, is done by the grace of God. I cannot actually do anything myself, because as a man, I am weak, fallible, and inadequate, but when strengthened by God, there is virtually nothing, by the grace of God, that cannot be done. My daily prayer to God is that God may strengthen me to serve His purpose in the service of humanity.

Are faith-based organizations active in the area of improving governance in Nigeria? Which of those have the greatest impact?

Nigerians are religious, practicing the Christian, the Muslim, or the African traditional faith. And I will not just throw out African traditional religion, because the tenets of what they do and believe in are strong in human relationships and service to humanity. So we are a religious society. On a Sunday, go to Nigerian churches, they are always full to capacity. On a Friday, go to Nigerian mosques, they are always full to capacity. All leaders of Nigeria since independence were reasonably religious. After the elections of 1999, when I moved into the presidential compound, there were four mosques, and before I left, I added a chapel.

But maybe not all of us practice, what our different religions teach us. And this is not just a problem in Nigeria, it is a problem all over the world. And that is where the challenge is.

And what can these faith based organizations do with regard to security, another important issue in Nigeria now that Boko Haram is using religion to fight Christians? 

Let me correct you. Boko Haram claims its objective is establishing the sharia. But they have been killing indiscriminately; both Christians and Muslims have been victims. Although Boko Haram tends to use explosive devices more against Christian religious places than against mosques, they have also attacked mosques and Muslim leaders. So what can religion do? No religion, neither the Christian, nor the Islamic, nor the so-called African traditional religion says that you shall kill! No, it is considered a sin by all religions. But their teachings need to inculcate this better in their followers. All religions talk about loving your neighbor, Islam stands for peace! There is no Islamic organization that stands for violence, killing, and destruction. The same is true for the Christian or the African traditional religion. But just as we have fundamentalist Muslims, we have fundamentalist Christians and African traditionalists.

You were elected president at the turn of the millennium. There was talk about an African Renaissance, and you initiated the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) together with the presidents of South Africa, Algeria, Egypt, and Senegal. It was at a NEPAD meeting in Abuja in March 2003 that the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) was created. How would you describe what happened to NEPAD and the APRM since then? Who are the new drivers of the African Renaissance? 

Let me clarify. Three presidents started it, those of Nigeria, Algeria, and South Africa. Later on, we brought in Senegal and Egypt. Last year, NEPAD celebrated its 10th anniversary, this year, APRM started its celebrations at the end of January in Addis Ababa, but the anniversary is actually in March. I left government in 2007, and until then, I was both chairman of NEPAD and APRM. So as a founding member, I know the origin, the history, and the aspirations of NEPAD. NEPAD is the only collective program of AU, which has a common objective but allows for differentiated implementation, so that each country goes at its own speed. As to APRM, if we had insisted on including every member of the AU, we would not have moved, so we made accession to the APRM voluntary. Seven countries started in 2003, now we have 35, so progress has been made. But when you look at progress made in Africa in terms of governance, democracy, elections, number of conflicts and conflict resolution, and particularly in economic growth of more than 5 percent, a lot of credit must be given to NEPAD, and also to the Millennium Development Goals, the MDGs. All came together at the turn of the millennium. We can certainly do more than we have done and learn from the lessons of the past ten years. The UN has set up a High-level Panel to look at post-2015, maybe the African Union should also set up a high-level panel to review NEPAD and APRM.

What advice would you give a young ambitious politician who wants to be politically successful, but keep his/her integrity? 

When I was a member of the advisory council of Transparency International, we talked about “islands of integrity”. No matter how corrupt a society is, you can still have such islands, be it in the legislature, the executive, the judiciary, or the media. I do not believe that everyone in politics is corrupt. But we need a critical mass of people who say no to corruption. The point is, do not let us accept corruption, but fight it, bearing in mind that this cannot be done overnight. Forward ever, backward never!

Original source: Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs 

Chaired by Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, the Africa Progress Panel (the Panel) includes distinguished individuals from the private and public sectors, who advocate on global issues of importance to Africa and the world.

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