In an interview with Khadira Ahmed, Musikilu Mojeed, an award-winning investigative journalist and Editor-in-Chief at Premium Times, traced the genesis of what led to his book, The Letterman, which looks into numerous letters written by ex-President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. The book was launched recently. Excerpts:
Describe that moment in which you realised there is a treasure load of letters that could give us an insight into the man you are looking at.
Firstly, baba’s appearance today is a huge surprise because we wrote to him inviting him and he did not reply to our letter. I was told he was in Ethiopia. So, I am surprised that he is here. Anyway, I have this professional relationship with Baba for some time. Even though till this day, he is said not to like journalists, he has always related well with me. I don’t know why. But I try to maintain decent relationships with sources, high- and low-level ones. And most of the people in this room, I have one kind of relationship with them or the other. And that is the kind of relationship I have with Baba, going back many years. So, one day, we were reporting a story and I travelled to see Baba in Abeokuta. I asked him some tough questions and the session was a bit tensed. At times, baba got angry. In fact, there was a time I interviewed him, and he was so pissed off that if it were on TV, you will see him hitting me on the thigh seriously and saying: ‘Mojeed, do you really think I really did this or something?’ So, you could see expression of anger in him.
So, this day I went to interview him for a story we were doing. And after a turbulent interview, I was about going away when I sought update about the presidential library he was developing at the time. I said: ‘Baba, you were to build a library. What is the progress?’ And Baba was happy. I could see his face changed. It became animated. And he said: ’Oh, library? We’ve gone very far. If you are not in a hurry to leave Abeokuta, I could take you on a tour of where we are on the project.’ Of course, I didn’t need any persuasion to accept. Even though I had already thought I would go back to Lagos and return to Abuja that same day. So, Baba said I should enter his car. So, we went on a tour of the library and then we went to one small building holding the archives of the Presidential Library. You could see several files, artefacts, documents, well-labeled in boxes. There were also thousands of books. I think we spent not quite 20 minutes there.
But what fascinated me the more were the letters. Some in blue boxes, some in red boxes. And what I was thinking at the time was that there could be letters that would form the basis of exclusive stories. And I picked up one box and saw correspondences with foreign leaders. I pulled out some letters. As I was about flipping through them, Baba and his aides filed out of the archive. Since he brought me there, I abandoned the file and followed in tow. By that time, my appetite was sufficiently wetted, and I thought I needed to come back here. If not for anything, but the great stories that might arise from the letters.
Was it easy for you to convince him (President Obasanjo) to grant you access?
No. Baba never gave me access till now. This is a completely unauthorised work.
But you didn’t break into the library….
Let me explain to you what happened. Baba did not give access. In any case, I can accuse him of blocking access. Now, I left after he took me back to his car. I had my own car waiting at his house. He tried to make me to eat lunch, but I said no because I needed to fly back to Abuja. As I travelled back to Lagos, I said to myself that I needed to go back to that library. In any case, what I was thinking of were possible exclusive stories. Telling Baba that you want to go and look at his letters, the man was not going to allow that. So, I wanted to go the other way. Baba is the Coordinator of the Library. That is one of the positions he holds. But there is a Deputy Coordinator of the Library.
So, I tried to reach him. I couldn’t. Then I I called the Managing Director of the Olusegun Obasanjo Library Venture, a certain Vitalis Ortese. And I telephoned him: I said I want to do research at the library. He said the library was not yet opened to the public. He asked what kind of research I planned to do. I said I want to look through some of the books and documents in the library.
Well… if you call that lying. I told him that I wanted to do some research. He said you can do some limited research. And I said okay. On my first visit to the library, I spent three days in Abeokuta. But they said I could not take anything away from the library or make photocopies of the library because it was not yet opened. However, I took copious notes because I suspected that they might not allow me back. The staff in the archive saw that I was more interested in the letters. I was pouring through the letters. While they said I couldn’t take away the letters, I had my iPad, I had my phone.
At the point they realised that I was more interested in the letters, they said I needed to obtain official permission. I needed to write a letter. And the Board of the Library must approve it…. So, I simply went on with the work until a week ago when I gave Presidential Obasanjo copies of this book. But he still didn’t indicate whether he wanted it or not. This book is completely unauthorised and I don’t know if baba ever got intelligence that I was writing a book (on his letters).
Did you go through all the letters, or you feel Obasanjo kept some to himself?
My suspicion is that baba gave all he had without even realising what he had. Perhaps, if he knew, he would have removed some letters. If he knew the work I was doing in the library, he would have either stopped it or removed some materials from the library. I am not sure baba wants a controversy. I remember after people started talking about the book, one of his aides called me and said a particular letter I released was classified and I said no. Fifty years have passed and we still cannot be talking about that. I suspected that if I had approached baba and said this is the work I am doing, he probably would not allow it. I am not sure. I have read some books written by Baba, including My Command. I believe that if baba knew what records he had, the books would have been different. I believe he has forgotten a lot of things that happened in his life in the past, just like some details of his quarrel with Alabi Isama.
What kind of person do now believe Baba is having read several of his letters?
Growing up, especially for those of us in the South-West, Baba was not so much of a hero and that was the mentality with which we grew up. There are claims that he deliberately did not allow a Yoruba man to become president by swinging victory in the direction of Shehu Shagari in the 1979 presidential election. That is why even in 1999, the Yoruba people were not enthusiastic about his candidacy. I don’t know how much of a hero he is today even in Yorubaland. Because of that history, we grew up not liking him. Let me say that I grew up not liking him. Even in journalism, my perception about him had been shaped, which is also a dangerous thing for a journalist because you must be open-minded about people and things. I realised that I was wrong. Even as I was relating with him. I was not his fan, but I was just doing so for professionalism. If I wanted interview, I talked to him. If I am writing a story that concerns him, he talked to me.
But when I started researching, the things I saw shocked me. But reading his letters, the ones in the book, the ones I still have that are not in the book and the ones I read at the library, suggested to me that there is much more to Obasanjo than we all know. For instance, I was amazed that as a young man of around 30, he already knew the importance of record keeping. The first thing he did when he arrived the war front was a memo to his officers and men asking them to submit whatever record they have collected about the war. He also advised them to keep personal war diaries. He kept so many records that he was able to write a book at the end of the day. I am sure he is going to write about his current Ethiopian experience in mediation.
Will you say Baba was right in the letters he wrote? What are your impressions of the letters?
I didn’t get the chance to interview all the characters involved in the letters. In my book, I am not saying the letters are good or bad. For you to come to a conclusion about anything, you must consider all the context. And for you to get the accurate context, you have to talk to all the characters involved in the letters. But I could see that most of the things that Baba said in his letters are good. Whether the others were right or wrong, that I can’t say.
How significant and historical were the letters?
Well, the letters were very significant and historical, which was why I spent years working on them. Until I started researching, I didn’t know the full details of what Obasanjo did for the apartheid struggle and for the liberation struggle in Africa. If you read the book, you will see that Obasanjo spent his time and resources, including funding guerrilla movements in Africa, just for Africa to be free. In reading the book, you will see that he is one of the soldiers that consistently preached transparency. One thing I noticed, maybe I am right or wrong, I think Bishop (Matthew) Kukah hinted at that, Obasanjo appeared to have some kind of moral superiority over his superiors and subordinates, which appears to be why he speaks to people candidly, and nobody can do anything about it. There was a statement he made to former Army Major General, Adeyinka Adebayo. Adebayo had told Alabi Isama that he helped Obasanjo to secure a piece of land in Ibadan and this made him angry. At that time Obasanjo was a Colonel and General Adebayo was a Brigadier and was the governor of Western Region.
Obasanjo wrote to him and accused him of peddling falsehood, a behaviour he said was unbecoming of an officer. And that only God knows all the falsehood he (Brigadier Adebayo) had been peddling about him. He told his superior that if there’s anything that he has benefited not as a citizen of Nigeria, General Adeyinka should tell him, and he would return it. So, you could see the courage with which he wrote a number of letters. In fact, he was telling the Chief of Army Staff one day that if he felt that he (Obasanjo) had done anything wrong, he should withdraw his commission. In essence, he was saying that if he I had done something that you don’t agree with, sack me. That is one of the things that shocked me while working on this book. Today, there are several Army officers with no offences who were either forcefully retired or dismissed and they have not gotten justice since. Now, look at a Colonel (Obasanjo) standing up to his Commander-in-Chief, his superior, saying whatever he believed was right. He got away with it.
Writing this book, I can also see that diplomacy in Nigeria is at an all-time low. We could see through Obasanjo’s letters the influence Nigeria wielded not just in Africa, but around the world. Most African countries ran to Nigeria for solution to their problems. The first visit of an American president to Nigeria was during Obasanjo’s regime. You could see that even though Obasanjo was friendly with Jimmy Carter, he stood up to him whenever the U.S. did anything against Nigeria’s interest. It does appear to me that Nigeria has lost her place as a strong nation. How many small nations come to us now? And we are not even presenting the right kind of example?
How can Nigeria regain its pride of place as a strong nation?
If we have the right kind of leader who understands what he is doing and has strong convictions, we can regain that. It’s so sad that the quality of leadership that we have has continued to erode. And that is at the heart of our problem. We had an Obasanjo who understands issues and can hold his ground with anyone around the world. And then you come down to somebody who doesn’t understand what is even going on at meetings. How do you want to make progress? I think Nigerians should know that there can be no progress if we do not solve the issue of the quality of leaders we have in our country.