Q & A with Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria's Big Man

Olusegun Obasanjo is a rare leader in Africa, a general who ruled Nigeria in the 1970s and returned as its civilian president from 1999 to 2007. The 72-year-old is also U.N. special envoy to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He sat down with NEWSWEEK's Jerry Guo in his hometown, Abeokuta, to talk about the future of his country—Africa's most populous—and the continent. Excerpts.

For the past two months, your successor has been medically incapacitated. Has the recent appointment of Goodluck Jonathan as acting president defused the crisis?
The president was ill; anybody can be ill. I don't believe a "permanent" acting president is a permanent solution, so I think more steps have to be taken.

After the Christmas bomb attempt by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, should we be worried that Nigeria is the next terrorist launchpad?
That is absolutely false. A young, impressionable boy was captured and brainwashed. That should be regarded as an aberration. But we were slow in reacting. We should have condemned terrorism everywhere. The father of the boy was a minister when I was military head of state, a complete gentleman. What did he do or not do? How did this happen? How can we prevent another Abdulmutallab? All this, we want to know. The U.S. authorities should know Nigerians are serious.

The majority of Nigeria's wealth comes from oil, yet its infrastructure and development lag behind much of Africa. Is there truth to the oil curse?
I believe God knew what he was doing when he put oil under our ground. It should be a means to an end. [But] when we realized we were an oil-producing country, we neglected sectors like agriculture. Every Nigerian started to live on oil. We were not leaving anything for a rainy day. But for the first time since independence, our agricultural sector grew by 7 percent for four years [during my term].

What do you say to China's increasing economic domination—some would call colonization—of Africa?
I take offense to calling it colonization. The Chinese are investing in Africa just as they are investing in America. The Americans are in the greatest debt to China today, so is that colonization? We regard America and Europe as old friends. We keep old friends but we make new friends in Japan, India, and China.

Is Obama not doing enough in Africa?
I was not expecting that he would open the U.S. Treasury for Africa. President Obama is an American, and what is para-mount for him is the American -interest. If Obama tried to do too much for Africa, it would be counterproductive.

You attempted to reform the notoriously corrupt bureaucracy. What are the lessons here for other African leaders?
Eradicating corruption is not a one-day affair. Before I came in, corruption was a way of life, particularly in the ministries. But we cannot load the ministries with all party men. It's a question of finding the right person for the job.

Who on the continent is doing a good job?
A country that has managed very well is Botswana. They don't do things to please anybody; they do things to satisfy their own country. If you want to take an individual, [Rwandan President] Paul Kagame, maybe because of what the experience of genocide has taught him.

Are you optimistic about Africa?
When I left office in 1979, I was about the only one who had really left public office on my own. Today, we have almost a dozen in Africa. When I was in government, I had in the reserves $3.7 billion. After eight years, after paying a debt of $34 billion, we still had $45 billion left, and the growth of the economy was between 6 to 7 percent per annum. So, you see, it has been done before.