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Stella Obasanjo Biography


Activist, Nigerian first lady

Obasanjo, Stella, photograph. Nic Bothma/EPA/Landov.

Stella Obasanjo became famous not only for being the first lady of Nigeria, married to Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, but also for being a political activist in her own right, supporting such causes as women's liberation, youth as leaders of tomorrow, and the rehabilitation of a war torn Nigeria. She was a trailblazer in her role as first lady and showed Nigerian women the way to becoming more involved in the rebuilding of the country. Obasanjo will be remembered as the kind of first lady that countries desire to have as a figurehead of their nation.

Born November 14, 1945, Stella Abebe met her husband, Olusegun Obasanjo, when he was a military officer. According to the P.M. News, she found him to be rather dull at first, but was finally won over by the man's intelligence and perseverance, two traits she said helped make her husband a great leader. He was imprisoned in 1995 for taking part in a coup to overthrow the government, and while trying to have her husband freed, Obasanjo began to exhibit the activism that many applauded her for.

As a champion for women, she addressed a crowd after violence had broken out in the region. "As you celebrate the second Ebonyi Women's Day, I want to charge you with the responsibility of championing the cause of peace in your state. You must do all in your power, individually and collectively to ensure that the recent reports of violence in Ebonyi State are also the very last," Obasanjo stated in a speech located at the Africa News Service. Urging females to be strong and independent is one of the major issues the first lady supports. She once commented that even though her husband had made a commitment to improving living conditions in Nigeria, "things will continue to deteriorate in the country unless more women were allowed to participate in governance," according to the Vanguard. The country was injured earlier, both economically and politically because of different military factions fighting internally. In that world "women have long been marginalized," the Vanguard quoted her as saying, and according to Obasanjo, unless this stops the country is in danger of continuing to deteriorate. At a special session on peace at Addis Ababa on November 23, 1999, Obasanjo's work in Nigeria for promoting female activism was noticed by K. Y. Amoako. She stated in a speech located on the Economic Commission for Africa Web site: "Mme. Obasanjo, we believe that this new spirit [of female activism] is beginning to be seen in your coun-try, where women have been among the most engaged actors in the democratization process." The role of women in politics was just one of the issues that Obasanjo supported with her political intelligence and personal dedication.

Another cause that Obasanjo always championed was the development of Nigerian youth. Obasanjo has called Nigerian youths, "potential leaders of tomorrow," according to the Africa News Service, and she encouraged them to be smart and safe so that they can remain healthy, non-violent leaders in the future, helping bring Nigeria prominence and success in the world marketplace. In summer 2001, Obasanjo took part in a program for youth, Success Academy for Youths (SAY 2001). At the closing ceremony she discussed how important programs such as SAY were to the eventual success of the country, "[Youths] are the future of the nation and only the foolish will neglect giving them attention,"as reported in Vanguard. She emphasized the importance of being openly aware of the problems facing Africa as a whole, including the AIDS/HIV epidemic and other such things as malaria and violence. She believed that the time had come for violence as a means to an end to be abolished, and she punctuated that this must start with the Nigerian youth.

Another cause that Obasanjo backed is luring expatriate Nigerians back home. Her husband's government is "the first democratic government [in Nigeria] in 15 years," according to the Christian Science Monitor, and many have returned or begun to establish business in the country. "Even if you cannot relocate to Nigeria immediately," Obasanjo plead in the Christian Science Monitor, "visit home to see in which way you can lend us a helping hand in rebuilding the country … I am inviting you to please come home and rebuild our nation." To encourage Nigerians to return home, some have even been called personally by the government to encourage them to think about returning to take part in national service. If Nigeria is to become a successful country, Obasanjo continued in the Christian Science Monitor, the sons and daughters of Nigeria need to stay and help put the country back on its feet.

Being a first lady might seem like a position that contained interest only because a woman was married to a powerful man, but Obasanjo gained power in her own right, something that became very evident in October of 2001. At a reception organized to honor Obasanjo's visit to the state of Ondo, the Governor Adebayo Adefarati, quoted in Vanguard, "pleaded with the wife of the President Chief (Mrs) Stella Obasanjo to prevail on her husband not to sign into law the contentious electoral bill." When Obasanjo supported a cause, people noticed. She had, in fact, criticized past first ladies for what she said was, "reckless spending of public funds on non-sustainable women programs," according to This Day. She also declared that female programs in the past "treated us to [a] female parade, replete with flamboyant trapping which only gave out a contradictory message of women in celebration of their luck and fortunes." She had also been called, by The Post Express, "delectable," a trendsetter who the country actually looked to for fashion know-how. In 2000 she was awarded the African Civic Responsibility Award 2000, according to The Post Express, for her work on behalf of the children of Nigeria. As she told the P.M. News, "So with this, being a First Lady, I do not see it as an avenue to be arrogant. First Lady is just another form of public office … I see this opportunity as a call to service not for personal aggrandizement at all." Her grace and compassion did not go unnoticed.

At a Glance …

Born Stella Abebe on November 14, 1945, Nigeria; died on October 23, 2005 in Malaga, Spain; daughter of Dr. Christopher Abebe (first African chairman of the United African Company (UAC)) and Therasa Abebe. married Olusegun Obasanjo (1976); children: Olumuyiwa (son). Education: Attended University of Ife (Obafemi Awolowo University), 1967–69; studied insurance in Scotland and England, 1970–74; Pitman College, London, confidential secretary certificate, 1976.

Career: Political Activist, First Lady of Nigeria, 1999–2005; Child Care Trust Foundation, founder, 1999–2005.

Memberships: Peoples Democratic Party.

Awards: African Civic Responsibility Award, 2000.

Just weeks before her 60th birthday, Obasanjo experienced complications after a routine cosmetic surgery and died. The news came on October 23, 2005, the same day a Nigerian plane carrying 117 passengers and crew crashed, leaving no survivors. The country mourned openly for the first lady and those lost in the crash. Tributes to Obasanjo's life long humanitarian efforts abounded: mourners quoted by Africa News Service called her a "mother to all Nigerian children," a "tireless advocate," a "gem." In her memory, a market and a lake were renamed to honor her, and the Child Trust Foundation continued to serve Nigeria's children. As Samson Ewang, a former military administrator, put it to Africa News Service: "Obasanjo touched lives, she affected humanity and left the society better than she met it."



Africa News Service, October 19, 2001; November 15, 2001; October 28, 2005; October 30, 2005 October 31, 2005.

Christian Science Monitor, February 26, 2001.

P.M. News (Lagos), May 14, 2000.

The Post Express (Lagos), October 10, 2000; October 16, 2000; January 20, 2001.

This Day (Lagos), May 13, 2000; July 30, 2001; November 6, 2001.

Vanguard (Lagos), May 4, 2001; August 20, 2001; October 20, 2001; October 25, 2001.


"Remarks of K. Y. Amoko at the Special Session on Peace," Economic Commission for Africa, www.uneca.org/eca_resources/speeches/amoako/99/112399speech_amoako_special_session_for_peace.htm (March 24, 2006).

Nigeria Direct, www.nigeria.gov.ng/headlinesoctober24.aspx (March 21, 2006).

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