UWM hosts Nigerian leader Obasanjo

Former Nigerian President Obasanjo (second from right) visited the American Geographical Society Library while at UWM. He was particularly interested in the display of  maps of Nigeria.

An internationally known African leader visited the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) on June 12.

Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, who served as president of Nigeria from February 1976 to October 1979 and again from May 1999 to May 2007, is credited with transforming Nigeria into a democracy and fostering economic stability. In 2008, he was appointed by the United Nations as a special envoy for Africa and has since overseen democratic elections across Africa on behalf of the African Union and Economic Community of West African States. He is also a member of the Africa Progress Panel, a group that advocates for equitable and sustainable development in Africa.

Obasanjo chats with Chukuka Enwemeka, dean of the College of Health Sciences.

Obasanjo was accompanied by a delegation of Nigerian dignitaries. The visit was intended to establish a foundation for future relationships between Nigeria and UWM, according to university officials. “We want strengthen our ties with Nigeria,” said Provost Johannes Britz, noting that UWM has a number of Nigerian faculty, alumni and students.

Nigeria, a nation of 170 million people, is part of a rapidly growing region that is attractive for further development, Britz noted. Nigerian researchers share many interests with UWM, including work in health, freshwater, sustainable agriculture and climate change, he added.

At UWM, Obasanjo toured the American Geographical Society Library and the School of Freshwater Sciences, and spoke to university officials and members of the local Nigerian community at a reception.

Obasanjo is revered among Nigerians, who affectionately refer to him as “Baba,” or Daddy,” said Chukuka Enwemeka, dean of UWM’s College of Health Sciences and a native of Nigeria. Obasanjo, who grew up in an impoverished, remote village, became an engineer and career military officer, fighting for his country and in the nation’s civil war.

His protests against a repressive regime landed him in jail for a period, making him, with Nelson Mandela, one of two African leaders who “went from prisoner to President,” said Enwemeka.

When Obasanjo headed the country as a military ruler in 1976, he engineered the country’s transition to democracy, said Enwemeka, and voluntarily handed over power to an elected government. He was re-elected in 1999 and served two terms.

Reflections on Africa past and future

In his speech, Obasanjo talked about economic progress in Nigeria and Africa, with annual GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth rate hovering around 5.7 to 6 percent, compared to an average of 4 percent in Western countries. He mentioned the country’s efforts to build a solid infrastructure and a strong education system, and develop the commodities and natural resources that can provide economic benefits.

He also spoke about the need for international investment to continue permanent and sustainable growth. “The return on investment in Africa is among the best.”

Obasanjo talked about how his own life experiences impacted his role as a national leader and an international advocate for African countries. While his village was very rural, the people were happy and looked out for each other. “My parents were illiterate, yet put across to us the essence of hard work, the essence of integrity, honesty, morality and hospitality.”

The village of only 500 people included five different tribes , as well as Christians and Muslims. All lived in harmony, with the village church located next door to the mosque, he recalled.

His experiences in the military cemented his interest in peacemaking and conflict resolution, he said. He also lived through the exhilarating and disappointing period in the 1950s and ’60s as African nations gained independence, only to falter in the midst of economic problems and civil wars.

“Now we have a second chance, but we need to build the infrastructure,” he said. Obasanjo talked candidly about the challenges Nigeria and other African nations face in finding money to develop agriculture, fight corruption and deal with multinational corporations that attempt to exploit the country’s resources. One such corporation has been in Zambia for 12 years, he said. Each year it declares a loss, yet it continues doing business there.

His quiet sense of humor had the audience smiling and chuckling at times. For example when he talked about the difficulties of finding investment for agriculture, he noted farmers have difficulty in repaying loans with interest rates of 15 percent or more. “Nobody makes that kind of money from their crops, unless they are growing cocaine.”

He is also a strong believer in education, and currently heads a secondary school and college in Nigeria. “I believe very much in education. If we are going to break the cycle of poverty, education is the instrument.”

He travels internationally on behalf of African nations and Nigeria, and is a proponent of international collaboration in academics and education. “Whatever we want to do in that area, I will be willing to work with you,” he told the UWM audience.

Christian Akiwowo, who earned his master’s degree in Educational Psychology in 1976 from UWM, helped facilitate Obasanjo’s visit to the campus and moderated a question/answer session after the speech.

UWM officials presented Obasanjo with a leadership award for his work.

In addition to Obasanjo, members of the Nigerian delegation that visited UWM included: Surajudeen Ayobami Akande, an aide to Obasanjo; Deputy Chief of Mission-Ambassador Bassey E. Archibong of the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, D.C.; Stephen Momoh-Baba, minister for information, culture and education in the Nigerian Embassy;  and Linda Oyewopo and Otunba Abbey Badejo of Prometheus Consulting, an international consulting firm based in Chicago.