Your role in Nigerian history has helped to produce the nation we know today. What does democracy mean for you?
Democracy is more than just an election. Democracy must involve popular participation, not just by getting people to vote once in four years or once in five years, but popular participation in social life, in economic life, and in the political life of the country. It must involve fundamental freedoms, including freedom of speech, freedom of choice, and freedom from physical harassment. But underlying these freedoms there must also be security: food security, employment security, and security of life and property. Democracy to me must embrace all of this.
After your release from prison you became president on May 29th, 1999, a day now known as Democracy Day in Nigeria. How did you feel?
That was less than one year after I was released from prison. I was meant to die in prison because Abacha told a number of people that I would not come out of detention alive. Two of my compatriots did not come out alive. Only the grace of God saved me. When I got out my economic and social life was in disarray. My egg farm's production had decreased from 5,000 trays of eggs to 200 trays by the time I came back from prison. My NGO had to move to exile in Ghana because Abacha wanted to destroy it. My children had stopped going to school because they couldn't pay the school fees. At first I didn't want to contest the election, but my supporters convinced me to. I went through with the election campaign, winning almost two-thirds of the votes cast. The result of that election vindicated me completely. It helped me put the humiliation of prison behind me and think only of the future. Having been head of state before and having had a sabbatical period when I was imprisoned made me very motivated to reform the country and work for stability. For example, I was one of the founding members of Transparency International.
When you left office, Nigeria had paid all its foreign-debt, entering an age of stability. What is your vision for the future development of Nigeria?
Leadership and development are key. Development starts with human capital, meaning education, health, and agriculture should always be the foundation of the state. Then comes infrastructure in the form of roads, electricity, communication, transportation, and water. These are things that you have to do concurrently. Then, of course, you are not in isolation. You are part of the world. And so your relationship with the world also has to go hand in hand with human capital and infrastructure. You must have a leadership that facilitates agricultural growth together with industry or manufacturing and the growth of these together with both local and foreign investment, and finally hand-in-hand with human capital development.
How can Nigeria achieve its potential in the years to come?
When I came up with Vision 2020, Nigeria was the second largest economy in Africa. I sat down with all our economic experts, economic ministries, and the Central Bank and we came to the conclusion that certain things had to be done. There are about seven or eight indicators that can help us improve on where we are now. And since we have done it before, we have shown it is not impossible. If, in four years, we can almost double the key commodities in commercial production then we can do what needs to be done again. When we were growing our economy in the four boom years, agricultural growth was at about 7% per annum; the total economy was growing at about 7.5% per annum. It wasn't driven by oil production, as oil was growing at 3%. It can be done and all we need to do is to make sure that the correct policies are in place.