Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, former president of Nigeria, has explained that his experience in government compelled him to abandon the idea of state ownership, which he initially favoured as a military head of state.
The former president who spoke in an interview with TheCable published on Monday, noted that he realised that the state cannot manage enterprise, as vested interests and corruption would inevitably set in.
Obasanjo dismissed the idea of floating a national career as an exercise in futility, as according the him, it is nonsense.
Obasanjo said, “When I was military head of state, we ordered 19 new ships to be built for the Nigerian National Shipping Line (NNSL), which was owned by the federal government. We had about five at the time, and with 19, we were to have 24 ships. We took delivery of some before we left office. President Shehu Shagari took delivery of the remaining balance. When I returned after 20 years, the shipping line had been liquidated. Not one ship left. Let me tell you the story of one of the ships. They sold it for half a million dollars. Then, they started the Oron merchant navy school and needed a ship for training. They bought the ship they had sold for half a million dollars for $2 million and spent another $1.5 million to refit it so it could be seaworthy.
“The ship went on the first voyage a week after I became president in 1999. One of the first things they brought to me was that the ship had been arrested for not being seaworthy and that I should bring $1 million to pay as fine for the ship that had been detained. I requested that they allow me time to look at the issues, and when I studied the issues, I told them to inform those who arrested the ship that I had gifted them the ship. The following day, the ship was released without Nigeria paying a dime. You can guess what happened there.
“We left 32 aircraft for Nigerian Airways in 1979, but we had only one serviceable aircraft 20 years after I left office. When you look at that and what happened to Nigerian Airways, some directors formed an offshore company, and it was the company that they gave the maintenance and repairs to. The same company would then engage the people that would actually carry out the maintenance and repairs. The payment would be to the offshore company who, in turn, did not pay the contractors. When I returned in 1999, I took a stance that I didn’t owe Nigerians an airline. What I owed Nigerians was secure and safe traveling. So, when they talked about this Nigeria Air project, you would know it is nonsense. When I say certain things, people say Obasanjo has started again. It is because I know what I am talking about.”
Obasanjo who also addressed the emerging phenomenon of coups in Africa, noted that it’s an evidence that liberal democracy as advocated by the West cannot work in Africa.
He said, “In 2021, when Col Mamady Doumbouya overthrew President Alpha Condé of Guinea, I recall that I travelled to Conakry. I spent two nights there. The coup leader didn’t want to meet with me because he didn’t know what I would say. They said he was out of town, which was not true. But I met every other important government official. I met his No 2 and his speaker. I listened to them and concluded that we had a new phenomenon on our hands. I realised that they had the support of the youths and were not thinking of staying in power for four, five years years. They are in for a generation.
“When I noticed this, I went to Addis Ababa to meet the chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat. I told him that maybe he had not seen what I was seeing. That I saw this in Guinea Conakry. He said I was talking about Guinea Conakry, what about his own country, Chad? He said Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea Conakry, and Chad were thinking the same way and they were connected. I said that was a new phenomenon in Africa. I said I was the one who in 1999 advocated that if you are not a government backed by the constitution, you should be suspended from the African Union, and these chaps don’t even mind any suspension. I told him that all the instruments we had used in the past would not work and asked what he would do about it. He told me about his challenges, especially with his country. So we have a situation where we have a continent where we have to rethink democracy. The liberal democracy we are copying from settled societies in the West won’t work for us.”
Asked the type of democracy that could work for the continent, Obasanjo said, “I don’t know. But we have seen that the liberal type of democracy as practised in the West will not work for us. We have to put our heads together.”
The former president also commented on the state of the economy, noting that while he knew that former president Muhammadu Buhari was not strong on the economy, he didn’t know he would be so reckless.
“(Bola) Tinubu said the other day that it was unacceptable that he would spend 90% of his revenue to service debts. I wasn’t spending 90% when I went worldwide to get debt relief. Do you think that anybody would give you debt relief today? Buhari was spending money recklessly,” he said.
” I know Buhari didn’t understand economics. I put that in my book. But that he could also be so reckless, I didn’t know. Who would you go to today and ask for a favor? Tinubu says he has trimmed the number of people attending the United Nations General Assembly. Is that news? He will meet with Justin Trudeau, and he will meet with Emmanuel Macron. That will not solve any problem.”
On refineries, Obasanjo argued that they would not work as long as the government keeps holding on to them.
“They (refineries) will not work as long as the government is keeping hold of them. When I was president, I invited Shell to a meeting. I told them I wanted to hand over the refineries for them for help us run,” Obasanjo said.
“They bluntly told me they would not. I was shocked. I repeated the request and they stood their ground. When the meeting was over, I asked their big man (MD) to wait behind for a little chat. Then I asked him why they were so hesitant on not taking over the refineries. He said did I want to hear the truth? I said yes. He listed four reasons. One, he said Shell makes its money from upstream and that is where its interest lies. Two, he said they only do downstream or retail as a matter of service. Three, he said our refineries would be bad business for them, that globally, companies are going for bigger refineries because of the economics of refineries. Four, he said there is too much corruption in refineries.
“I thanked him for his honesty. I knew we had a big problem in our hands. I had virtually give up hope on the refineries when God did a miracle. Alike Dangote and Femi Otedola approached me and said they would be interested in buying two of the four refineries. They said they would buy 51 percent stake in Port Harcourt and Kaduna. I was over the moon. I said, finally, this burden would be taken off the neck of the government. They offered $761 million and paid in two instalments. Unfortunately, Umaru (President Yar’Adua) cancelled the sale and returned the refineries to NNPC. Today, we are still where we were. Someone told me Tinubu said refineries would work by December. I told the person the refineries would not work. This is based on the information I received from Shell when I was president.”
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