12/11/2014 07:02 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2015

Five Eye-Opening Things I Learned From Talking to a Nigerian President

Rebecca Trupin

Chief Olusegun Obasanjo is a walking history book. The stories of his life are similar to chapters in an eyewitness account of his country's formation.

Born into humble circumstances during British colonial rule in Nigeria, he ascended as a military officer and played a key role in ending the Nigerian civil war. Obasanjo became head of Nigeria's military government in the 1970s, and voluntarily passed the reins onto a civilian counterpart three years later. After resuming farm work and then later being thrown into prison by the dictatorial Abacha regime, he returned to leadership in 1999, winning two consecutive presidential elections. Today, much of his service as a statesman is centered on Africa's development.

The bulk of our conversation in his New York hotel room focused on the current state of Nigeria. I, along with a colleague and my professor, who was a minister in Obasanjo's government, interviewed him as part of our research project. What follows delves into the substance of our hour-long discussion but does not dig too deeply into his political calculus, what he did well or could have done better during his time in power.

1. Youth are the X factor

It has been 100 years since the British Empire amalgamated the protectorates that became Nigeria -- though colonial independence would not arrive until 1960. Whether the next century is a prosperous one hinges largely on decisions made today, both by and for the nation's youth. About 40 percent of Nigerians are under the age of 15, according to the CIA World Factbook. As Obasanjo said, this potential youth advantage will either be the catalyst that propels Nigeria to unprecedented growth, or it will morph into a "keg of gunpowder" that further destabilizes the country.

Whether it is Boko Haram's conscription of teenagers or the high rate of youth unemployment, failure to recognize and address challenges faced by young adults all but ensures a bleak outcome for the nation as a whole.

2. Nigeria needs better leadership

Nigeria is rich. Really rich. In fact, it has the largest economy in Africa and one of the biggest petroleum industries in the world. Sadly, corruption and resource mismanagement have largely negated the country's ability to apply its funds toward constructing a more even-handed society. The money has not trickled down the pyramid because it is stuck in the top tier.

The first step in resolving economic inequalities is differentiating between corrupt government leaders who perpetuate the status quo, and officials who are inefficient due to their lack of experience, Obasanjo said. He believes that aggressively prosecuting the former and better training the latter will result in better governance.

3. There is no secret formula

Singapore is known for many things, including its stringent laws and the broad reach of its government. At the same time, the country is an economic marvel. While discussing Singapore's financial prospects, Obasanjo related this story. Years ago, he took 40 young African leaders to the highly prosperous city-state. The key question on their mind: what was Singapore's secret formula for success?

Obasanjo recalled: "Lee Kuan Yew [the former prime minister] said, 'There's no magic. We did a few things right, and we continued to do them right.'"

On the way home, Obasanjo gathered the young leaders and told them that before any of them stepped off the airplane, they needed to pinpoint a few things they could do well. Once you know what those things are, he said, it is a matter of zeroing in on them to perfect your craft, and becoming as valuable as you can to your community.

4. Metrics. Metrics. Metrics.

Data aggregation and assessment must play a critical role in forming government policies. To drive this point home, Obasanjo mentioned two initiatives he was a part of that relied heavily on numerical analysis: one in agriculture, the other in measuring the perceived corruption of a country.

"Anything you want to measure, you can measure," he said. "If you cannot assess your progress, then (your efforts are) of no avail."

5. Presidents are human

During periods of his childhood, Obasanjo could not even afford shoes, and I found him to be well aware of his humble beginnings. I felt that his personal story lent credibility to the primary point he was driving at during our hour-long meeting: as improbable as it may seem, things can in fact improve dramatically in Nigeria.

In his opinion, any child -- even one too poor to purchase a pair of sneakers -- can become a major catalyst in improving his or her country. And when framed that way, Nigeria's capacity to capitalize on its potential seems a lot more promising.

Off to Nigeria

Our meeting was a precursor to the month-long trip I will be taking to Nigeria to conduct interviews and live with former President Obasanjo as a participatory observer. My program, called the "Leadership Enterprise for African Development," is part of an initiative that seeks to highlight architects of contemporary Nigeria, with the nation's centennial serving as our ruminative backdrop.

I gained a lot from that hour-long discussion, and I am looking forward to seeing just how much I can learn in the month ahead.

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