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Olusegun Obasanjo’s greatest fear

A waiter approaches Olusegun Obasanjo with a glass of red wine. He declines. “Wine is the drink of diplomats,” he says, with twinkle in his eyes.

Obasanjo is many things, but diplomatic is no longer one of them. And he knows it.

The former Nigerian president is in Johannesburg to promote his new book, Making Africa Work, written with Greg Mills, Jeffrey Herbst and Dickey Davis. It makes for grim reading: before telling us how to fix the continent, its authors outline in detail what has gone wrong: poverty, corruption, inequality, unemployment, poor economic growth.

But none of this is what keeps Obasanjo awake at night. For him, the continent is facing one major challenge that looms large over all others: what to do about Africa’s rapidly expanding population.

By 2050, Africa’s population of young people will have doubled, from almost 230-million today to 452-million.The conventional wisdom is that this unprecedented youth bulge is an incredible opportunity; a “demographic dividend” that will power Africa’s growth in the 21st century.

That’s if it is managed properly. If not, a huge rise in the numbers of jobless, disaffected young people could have the opposite effect — with devastating consequences.

“The youth are uneducated. Unskilled. Unemployed. They have frustration,” Obasanjo said.

Obasanjo turned 80 this month but he maintains a furious pace — he travels constantly, is always in meetings, and writes a few pages every day.

“I can barely keep up,” an aide whispers. Obasanjo only occasionally shows his age: he walks slowly in his intricately embroidered agbada robe, and when he speaks for too long he can lose his train of thought.

It’s hard to escape the irony of this senior citizen railing against the perils of the youth. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

Obasanjo explains that this threat is different from others facing the continent. “In my country, you have Boko Haram. It’s essentially localised. You have militancy in the Niger Delta. It’s essentially localised. You have some people in the southeast, talking of Biafra, I don’t even know what is happening there. It’s essentially localised … but a youth explosion will not be localised. It will be global. It will cut across religion. Its will cut across tribe and ethnic area. It will cut across geographical areas. It will cut across social areas. It will be a mess.”

It’s a mess that can and must be avoided, he stresses. But he rejects the idea of implementing some variation of China’s one-child policy. “I believe that the greatest instrument of population management is education, particularly girl-child education. One, the longer they stay in school, the longer it takes them to start producing children. Two, when they are educated they can manage their family planning better, and they can also manage their homes better … [Education] is fundamental. If we haven’t got that right, there aren’t many things that we can get right.”

Obasanjo had his chance to get things right. Twice. From 1976 to 1979, he was in charge of the military regime that then governed Nigeria, and then from 1999 to 2007 he served two terms as an elected president. But Nigeria is hardly a role model for African development. Surely Obasanjo must shoulder some of the responsibility?

That’s not how he sees it. He said he wouldn’t really do anything differently, and maintains that his major constraint was the relatively low price of oil, which in 1999 hovered around $9 a barrel.

“If when I became president the price of oil was $25 per barrel, of course there are things that I would have done that I was not able to do … with the benefit of hindsight I would say you never get the resources that you need. If I got the resources I needed, and if what I put in place my successors had continued, the situation in Nigeria would have been different today.”

And, he argues, the situation in Nigeria needs to be different — not just for Nigeria, but for the continent. The same applies to South Africa. As African superpowers, their success or failure will make or break their neighbours. “Nigeria and South Africa can do better than they are doing … If Nigeria and South Africa fail themselves and their subregion, they will fail Africa. And if Nigeria and South Africa fail Africa, where is our hope? Where is our salvation?”

The answer lies, perhaps, in East Africa, where Obasanjo identifies two countries that are doing things properly: Rwanda and Ethiopia. Over the past decade, both nations have posted impressive economic growth, and made major strides in areas such as education, healthcare and poverty reduction. But neither country is a democracy: both are de facto one-party states in which freedom of speech is an alien concept and opposition is violently discouraged.

In Making Africa Work, the authors argue against precisely this model, saying that only true democratisation can guarantee long-term-success; that even benevolent dictatorships are inherently unstable, and therefore unsustainable.

In Obasanjo’s world, neither Rwanda nor Ethiopia are benevolent dictatorships.

“I don’t know whether you would call them benevolent dictators. I would call them strong leaders. I believe that you need strong institutions which can now only be established by strong leaders and sustained by strong leadership. The talk is you need only strong institutions and no strong men, I don’t share that. Especially for a country that is still building up.”

This is, in some ways, a self-serving explanation: critics argue that Obasanjo was himself a benevolent (or not so benevolent) dictator at times, although clearly he would prefer the term “strong man”. Nonetheless, there is also something refreshing about Obasanjo’s insistence that good leaders — not that Rwanda’s Paul Kagame or Ethiopia’s Hailemariam Desalegn necessarily fall into this category — can define the success or failure of their countries; that African governments do have it in their power to overcome the disastrous legacy of colonialism and the structural inequalities that are built into today’s world.

Obasanjo tells a story about his time in power in Nigeria. “There was a time when we were talking of reparations, and I remember the British high commissioner said to me: ‘Well, when you bring your bill for reparation, we will send it to the Romans.’ ” His point is that every country has baggage and no one else is going to offer to carry it.

“After 60 years of independence, the blame game should stop. We should accept responsibility. And if, after 60 years, we cannot sit down and do introspection, and say, okay, now we have not done well enough here, we should do better … we shouldn’t continue to blame anybody.”

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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