I don’t know where Nigeria got it wrong —Odigie-Oyegun
Former governor of Edo State and immediate-past national chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, turns 80 today. In this interview, he recalls his adventures in life and as a member of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) among other issues. TAIWO AMODU was there.
WHAT is the feeling like, celebrating your 80th birthday?
I am actually holding my breath, looking forward to it so anxiously. I can hardly believe that 80 years have already rolled by, because a lot of events you start recalling like when America went to the moon; and they all sound like yesterday. I am happy, praying to God every day to wake me up because I want to see that day. I am counting days to my 80th birthday. I am really glad about it and I can’t wait to see my 80 productive years; 80 fulfilling years and 80 good years. I remember celebrating my 70th birthday in Benin and I recall that Babagana Kingibe was the chairman at the reception. I celebrated it because 70 years is a biblical promise and between 70 and 80, the bible says if you are strong and my prayer is to thank God that I am still strong at 80 years. My 70th birthday was good and it was the talk of the town and I had to give the testimony even though as a Catholic, we don’t believe that miracle happens in life like when a cripple is healed. However, we failed to realise that miracle happens in our lives virtually every day.
My 60th birthday was nice, but the first birthday I really felt something strongly about was when I was 40 years. I could not wait to clock 40 when I was 39. I was very anxious to get to the age of maturity. You are at zenith at 40 and after that age, one starts very gently and quietly on the downward slope. I am lucky to have good fortune between 40 and 80, specially blessed to the level of being the national chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC) with a distinct honour of leading a campaign that uprooted an incumbent government. I am lucky to be active in the political terrain and I participated in all the Muhammadu Buhari presidential campaigns, except when he was a candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC). The reason is that I realised then that all these so-called minority parties were not going to get anywhere. It was then we started working on the coming together of the regional parties. I was 52 when I entered the race to be the governor of the old Bendel State before the creation of Edo where I became the governor. I was equally active politically during the Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola presidential mandate and the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) days.
When I read some criticisms today and I think how many times I have put my life at stake for the nation, it surprises me. People pontificating now are the people busy sitting at home, yet talking to you that they went into the trenches over June 12. I had to run away and become a fugitive, yet they would say the man is too soft. I laugh at them, because they don’t know that people like me would choose and fight. It is not my nature to fight and I don’t go looking for one and if it is possible, I avoid it. But if there will be a fight, then, let there be a fight. When I believe in something, I give it everything, regardless of the attendant risk to my person.
You became a permanent secretary at age 30. Can you reflect on why you were called a ‘super perm sec’?
That was a different world from the Nigeria we have today. At the risk of being immodest, I was lucky to be a very good student. I read a lot from the elementary school. I was such a voracious reader. At Standard Five, I was already reading Julius Caesar and most of Shakespeare’s works. There was a library in Benin City where I spent most of my time reading all those novels. I would be worried that the staff would tell me to leave when they wanted to close for the day. And I would be there the next morning waiting for them to open the office. I actually prepared myself. I went to the university and then the luck was multiplying. They first sent me to Inland Revenue when I was employed. People were astonished when I told them that I didn’t want to work there, because I did not apply for Inland Revenue. They arranged for another interview and subsequently redeployed me to this very lucky new Ministry of Economic Development. It was there I came across people like Allison Ayida, Imi Ebong, Philip Asiodu, Abdulatif Ganchiga and, of course, Ahmed Joda, who is still very much alive. They are fantastic people that encouraged you to reason, to be critical, to speak, which helped at the end of the day to acquire that extra skill. However, most importantly, I had to do my homework. Somebody like Asiodu would come to meeting with a notebook and whatever the newspapers had; he would have read all and made notes. It influenced me positively because whenever I read papers, I make note too. We had person like Ayida who was a bundle of common sense and very intelligent. He would dissect something you think it was impracticable and make everything looks very normal. With that kind of tutelage, it was not surprising that I found myself in a lot of boards like Nigeria Airways, Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA), Nigeria National Shipping Line, among others. Before I attend the meetings, I had already done my research on the subjects of the agenda. I contributed in such meaningful manner that even my worst enemy would know that I know what I am talking about. The truth behind the name ‘Super Perm Sec’ is that I was more powerful before I became a permanent secretary. There were instances permanent secretaries delayed meetings for me to be part of them.
There was a particular international negotiation in the then Yugoslavia. I was late by one day. They had reached agreements and signed the Memorandum of Understanding, but when I went through the documents and pointed out the flaws. We had to reconvene to sort out the issues I raised. I was just lucky that I usually do my homework. The story of my becoming a permanent secretary is an interesting one. When I was very young and a Level 15 officer, Udoji report qualified everybody from Level 15 for selection. I was in NPA board meeting when someone informed me about my nomination. I was surprised and thought it was all a joke and even many people questioned my competence to the extent that the then Head of State, Murtala Mohammed, tried to find out who I was. My nomination caused a lot of dismay in the system and when the late Adamu Ciroma, then Minster of Education, was going on his annual three-month leave, I was drafted to act on his behalf for the duration. It was another job and experience. I sorted things out there and when Ciroma resumed, I was sent to the Ministry of Works where there were mundane issues like competition among the professionals. I spent another three months there to total the acting period of my nomination to six months. I was in the Ministry of Works when the coup that cost Murtala his life took place. I was appointed the acting permanent secretary and deployed to Cabinet Office, an equivalent of the Presidency now. I was in charge of the economic department. They were obviously satisfied that when there were difficult issues, I would be asked to take the minutes at Council Meetings.
I spent another six months before they confirmed me as substantive permanent secretary and gave me ministry when my seniors were yet to get one. That is the story of the so-called ‘Super Perm Sec.’ It was such that whenever there was a problem, I would be deployed there. For example, when the Ministry of Communication collapsed, I was sent there for four years to resuscitate it. It was the same thing when passport became a serious issue; I was also drafted to Internal Affairs. Whether that qualifies me or deserves the name ‘Super Perm Sec,’ I don’t know, but we all know that the Ayidas and Asiodus of this world were the real ‘Super Perm Secs’ and if I am honoured to be in that group, so be it and I give God the glory. However, the people who brought me up in the civil service were the people I later joined on the same table of permanent secretaries and the first time I was to say something, I was shaking because they were my bosses. Government equally took me to General Purposes and Economic Committee (GPEC) where everything in the civil service was decided, including promotion and budget.
What is the turning point of your life?
One pound was the turning point of my life. I was very small when I gained admission into St Patricks Collage, Asaba. In fact, my getting tall was towards the end of my college life. I had two teachers that everybody feared most; my Latin teacher and that of one other subject. The Latin teacher would tell us to translate a passage into English and once you made a mistake, he would punch you in the stomach. The two teachers terrified me and I always did poorly in the two subjects. The tradition was that a student dropped two subjects between class three and four and I decided to drop the two subjects, but resolved to pass them before doing so. I passed them well and in a class of 90 students; I took the third position in the transition of class three to class four from the previous 40th or 30th position. During the holiday, I had a good uncle, who also grew up with my father that I visited, and he asked me about my exam. I told him I did very well. Previously, he would stop it at that, but he went further that day asking me the position I took. When I told him third in a class of 90 students, he stormed into his room, came out and gave me one pound. I have never seen it or handled it before. That was in 1954 or thereabout.
With that appreciation that time, I never looked back again knowing that good thing is appreciated and rewarded. As a matter of fact, I am still planning to set up a one pound foundation in honour of that my uncle. There are too many children today that don’t get that kind of acknowledgement and recognition because the history of their lives is totally different. The history of my life would have been totally different and if there is a turning point in my life, that money and gesture was what I considered a turning point of my life. The money was a huge sacrifice and even when I later became a clerk in Lagos, after finishing secondary school, I was earning seven pounds. The share significance of that gesture and the magnitude of that sacrifice made deep impression that never left me.
At 80, what would you consider as your deepest regret?
Well, everybody has regret; perhaps, there were one or two things one would have done differently. But I have every reason to give glory to God because He has been so good to me. Look at how many careers I have had. In the civil service, I made good the opportunity. I was respected and you won’t believe I retired when I was less than 50 years. I ventured into business when I left civil service, became a fisherman and within two years, I became the chairman of Nigeria Trolley Owners Association for two years. I ventured into politics and became the first governor of Edo State. I later became the deputy national chairman of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), national chairman of the APC where my efforts were blessed with the first chairman to oust a sitting government at federal level. More importantly, up till these 80 years, I have never spent one day in the hospital.
In all your career progressions, which one would you consider you enjoyed most?
I don’t know about enjoying most because I enjoyed all of them. I don’t engage in anything that I don’t put myself into. I must do it to my satisfaction and in a way that makes me happy, gives pleasure and fulfillment. I want to think that it is the reason God made me reach the top. I did not go into any of them to just earn a living. I only liked and enjoyed what I was doing.
In retrospect, what were the decisions you took that you would have done differently, if given the opportunity again?
I would say none because nobody should look back. When you make a mistake, it is meant to teach you a lesson and to instruct you. One should benefit from it, because nobody goes through life claiming perfection in everything he does. I made mistakes, learnt from the mistakes and moved on. I cried sometimes and smiled at other times and those are the realities of life.
At 80, would you say this is Nigeria of your dream?
I will tell you something. I enjoyed the civil service of the 1960s. We were burning with passion; Olu Falae, Chukwuemeka Ezeife and one or two others in the service then. We all enjoyed what we were doing, burning with that spirit of nationalism and part of the independence celebration. As of the time we were in the economic development, oil was virtually gushing out and the potentialities, including all international reviews, tipped Nigeria as one nation that would break out of the underdevelopment and developing nations. Nigeria has the best prospect to break out that underdeveloped rank. We were ahead of Brazil and India in which, at that time, people were dying in the streets because of hunger.
We were ahead of Malaysia and few other countries. We had the resources and good planning. We brought in United Nations and World Bank; and it was a fantastic atmosphere with expatriates, professors and civil servants planning for the growth and development of this country. Seeing the bright future that was beckoning us, don’t ask me where it all went wrong. Whether it was the nosedive we took into military intervention, I cannot tell. It is difficult to explain the persistent, inexorable downward trend to the extent that we now leave it to prayer warriors.
Was it easy taking your wife among the litany of ladies all over you then as someone with a promising career?
Who was her when I married her? We are now 54 years married and I was nothing, but just a struggling man in the Ministry of Economic Development. I was rascally, of course, but when my rascality took me there, I got stuck because of the quality of what I ran into. Marriage is not easy by nature because it is entirely different when you are into girl and boy friendship. Marriage requires a lot of tolerance and she has been extremely tolerant, given how rascally I am. With all the ups and downs, she has been nice in the last 50 something years.
Why has it been difficult to see any of your children in the limelight, whether in politics or civil service?
I worked as a civil servant for many years after leaving school. I worked at a private industry a few years before I became an accidental politician. The worst attribute of politics is to have somebody going into political office either as a councilor or member of the House without any work experience and livelihood.
This is the greatest bane of Nigerian politics today. I want my children to see what life is like. Let them struggle to attain heights and if they want to go into politics, they would know they have something to fall back on. They have careers, beautiful professions. I am not going to talk them into politics. I will rather talk them into taking good care of themselves. They have to cut out paths for themselves and politics will then become like a calling, not a means of livelihood. Today, it is very difficult to quantify the percentage of those that use politics as livelihood and that is what is generating the do-or-die aspect of our politics.
What would you consider as your unfulfilled dreams?
This is a very sensitive issue, because I have looked at the lives of the founders of this nation; Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ahmadu Bello and the group directly under them, one by one, they have passed on. I have always asked myself a question; take for instance, Awolowo, who we know how passionate he was, on his death bed, did he feel fulfilled? I cannot answer that question because he is gone just like others.
I said to myself, Lord, we are not on the path yet to greatness, because we have all the ingredients to greatness, but somehow, we have not been able to attain our destiny. I have told myself that we cannot solve our problems before my time is up. However, I want to be on my own death bed, knowing that we are finally on the path to true greatness. I am still waiting.
How would you want to be remembered by the time you join your ancestors?
I want to be remembered as somebody who did his level best to prove that honesty pays, that integrity pays, that you don’t have to play by the rules of the generality; you don’t have to move with the mob, and you just have to respect your own principles and yourself. I want to be remembered as a man who people would say they want to be like, through my life style. I want to be remembered as a man who was focused and if I can affect one to five lives for better, I will consider myself and my life as a worthwhile. In my whole career, I have spent life doing things that will better the lives of average Nigerians. I want to go knowing that I gave my level best. I may not have solved the problems, but I did everything with all the wisdom, strength and knowledge that God has given me. One of the things I am trying to do with the rest of my life is to show that my admiration for people as individuals cut across party lines. I want to show that politics does not have to be like it is now, unprincipled, abusive, violent; and that whatever objective we think we are achieving doing those things can also be achieved, even though it may take a little longer.
I said not too long ago that leadership can be by fear. People will see that you have power and fear you without necessarily respecting you, but because they know you can do damage to them.
My concept of a leader is that he should be a man who believes that everybody has a contribution to make, that everybody deserves to be listened to and that everybody has a point of view that must be heard. The easiest decisions to implement are the ones reached by consensus. With a decision a leader forced down peoples throat and they accept because you are mighty and powerful, they will throw spanners in the works with the very first opportunity they have. But if they do something for you because they respect you, that is a leadership that is enduring. Leaders must teach the followers to be better citizens and know that there are alternative ways to sort out issues, short of bringing out a sledge hammer to show everybody how powerful you are.
What is your advice to the young politicians?
We are all headed in a wrong direction. Our politics should not be bitter, but must be based on principles, beliefs and rooted in service. Our politics must be removed from the realms of violence like losing any one life to get someone elected. It does not make sense to me one dying, let alone thousands.
Power should not be at all costs and we are going deep into the negative aspects of political life.
I tried to bring some degree of decency into politics, but we are headed in the wrong direction and we have to get people who will lead us back from the rate at which we are going now. I always think of the agony we have created for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). I pity the young man currently heading that commission. What is happening in the field, the kind of subterfuge and direct aggression, I wonder how they manage to cope. It is really sad the way things are going and it does not have to be like that. This is what pains me. I thought we were coming out of it, but we have sunk deeper that I don’t even know how we are going to get out of it again.
Who are your role models, dead or alive?
I have mentioned some of them in the civil service. But if you are talking of politics, for me it ended with the Tafawa Balewa administration with flamboyant people like Okotie Eboh, Ladoke Akintola, Mataima, Sule with his golden voice; Ajah Nwachukwu, among others. Even up to my time, I will say that politics was still relatively not violent. I campaigned with no incident of thuggery and violence.