Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo supported President Robert Mugabe during the early years of the Zimbabwe crisis because he believed that he owed a debt to Mugabe.
A cable released by the United States embassy in Abuja said Obasanjo and Mugabe had been friends for 25 years and had developed a deep person bond.
But more importantly Obasanjo was Head of State during the Lancaster House negotiation and had repeatedly stated that he pressured Mugabe to accept a constitution that would hold land reform in abeyance even though Mugabe wanted to forge ahead immediately on the issue.
In the late eighties and early nineties, Obasanjo also counselled Mugabe to bridle his drive for land reform so that events in Zimbabwe would not scare apartheid supporters and thus throttle reform in South Africa.
“After having twice asked Mugabe to cool his heels, Obasanjo feels obliged to support Mugabe on land reform now, the flaws that riddle its implementation notwithstanding,” the embassy said.
The same applied to ordinary Nigerians. They believed that land issues were at the root of the political crisis in Zimbabwe and they deeply resented pressure from Britain because they felt that Britain did not do nearly enough to realise a fair and equitable redistribution of land in years past.
For them, land redistribution was “justice”.
Viewing cable 03ABUJA534, NIGERIA: THE FOUNDATIONS OF OBASANJO’S FANTASIES
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 ABUJA 000534
CAIRO POL FOR MAXSTADT
LONDON FOR GURNEY
E.O. 12958: DECL: 03/04/2013
SUBJECT: NIGERIA: THE FOUNDATIONS OF OBASANJO’S FANTASIES
Ref: (A) Harare 422
– (B) Abuja 343
CLASSIFIED BY AMBASSADOR HOWARD F. JETER; REASONS 1.5 (B) AND
¶1. (U) Although not a formal member of the Front Line States,
Nigeria was in the vanguard of those fighting for the
liberation of southern Africa. The current Chief of Staff of
the Air Force has told us stories of the role he played in
ferreting weapons to ZANU to shore up ZANU’s fight against the
¶2. (C) Nigeria’s support for Mugabe today is rooted in the
era of liberation. Nigerians generally, not just Obasanjo,
are loathe to “abandon” someone they see as both prot ?and
ally, the more so when there is a widespread perception that
“the West” (especially the UK) is carrying water for white
farmers whose forebears expropriated land belonging to the
rightful black owners. In other words, the Nigerians believe
that land issues are at the root of the political crisis in
Zimbabwe, and they deeply resent pressure from the UK, feeling
HMG did not do nearly enough to realize a fair and equitable
redistribution of land in years past. They also ignore the
overwhelming evidence that the GOZ is redistributing land not
to right historical wrongs but to provide favors to supporters
while punishing opponents. For them, this redistribution is
“justice”. The lack of reference to historical antecedents
and established principles of land redistribution in Africa
does not invalidate the “principle,” in their minds.
¶3. (C) Obasanjo also believes he owes a debt to Mugabe, a
friend for more than 25 years with whom he has a deep personal
bond. Obasanjo was Head of State during the Lancaster House
negotiations and has repeatedly stated that he pressured
Mugabe to accept a constitution that would hold land reform in
abeyance even though Mugabe wanted to forge ahead immediately
on the issue. In the late eighties and early nineties,
Obasanjo also counseled Mugabe to bridle his drive for land
reform so events in Zimbabwe would not scare apartheid
supporters and thus throttle reform in South Africa. After
having twice asked Mugabe to cool his heels, Obasanjo feels
obliged to support Mugabe on land reform now, the flaws that
riddle its implementation notwithstanding. Obasanjo adheres
firmly to an erroneous belief that Zimbabwe’s political and
economic crisis today is unrelated to the chaos arising from
political events that have taken place over the past year.
¶4. (C) The Nigerians, again not just Obasanjo, find it just
excruciatingly difficult to criticize Mugabe when they see him
in conflict with his old adversaries (white Zimbabweans); this
makes them want to see inequalities in land distribution as
root rather than secondary causes of political and economic
crisis. Zimbabweans and Nigerian diplomats in Zimbabwe see an
autocratic and increasingly brutal old man who refuses to cede
power gracefully. Nigerians in Nigeria, including Obasanjo
himself, still see the Mugabe they supported in the 70s.
These factors, together with the points made in para four, may
underlie Obasanjo’s willingness to believe GOZ assertions
despite all evidence to the contrary. Of course, we cannot
confirm that Nigerian diplomats in Harare report faithfully to
Abuja the views they hold forth to U.S. diplomats. Ambassador
Olufemi George, the MFA Under Secretary for Africa, professes
a firm belief that land is the fundamental cause of Zimbabwe’s
instability. Other key advisors, including Foreign Minister
Sule Lamido and International Affairs Advisor Ad’Obe Obe, take
equally hard lines. The position that Obasanjo takes on the
Zimbabwe question is fed and reinforced by these hardliners.
¶5. (C) Obasanjo was clearly annoyed with Australia for having
implemented sanctions that went beyond those imposed by the
Commonwealth. He made that clear in his letter to Howard, and
it was one of the first points he raised in a meeting (ref B)
with Ambassador Jeter and AF DAS Bridgewater. His personal
distaste for Howard magnified Obasanjo’s outrage at Howard’s
unilateral action. Animus toward Howard is pervasive within
¶6. (C) Obasanjo has also been unhappy with MDC leader Morgan
Tsvangirai, whom he views as unreasonable and inflexible. The
fact that Tsvangirai went to the media with details about an
earlier meeting with Obasanjo reportedly annoyed the Nigerian
President. Moreover, Obasanjo tends to regard the views of
those shorter in the tooth than he (whether in chronological
years or in years of experience as a national leader) as less
worthy of serious consideration than those of contemporaries.
This tendency has at times heightened domestic tensions, and
it may be a factor in his dealings, respectively, with Mugabe
¶7. (C) That said, the British High Commissioner here
believes that there is flexibility in Nigeria’s position.
Obasanjo desperately wants to hold the next Commonwealth
Summit in Abuja and will not jeopardize that opportunity even
for Mugabe. The HC told Ambassador Jeter that if a
recommendation for Mugabe’s continued suspension comes from
the Commonwealth Secretary General and Secretariat Obasanjo
will not oppose it and will go forward with the Commonwealth
Summit even if Mugabe is excluded. However, if the
recommendation comes from Howard, it will be much harder for
Obasanjo to swallow.