AS he clocks 80 today, first Civilian Gover- nor of Edo State and immediate past Nation- al Chairman of All Progressives Congress (APC) , Chief John Odigie-Oyegun relived his life, career and foray into politics.
According to him, at 80, he has reached the zenith where he can sit back and relax.
In this interview with Daily Sun, the octogenarian opened up on happenings in APC, his face-off with his successor and the House of Assembly crisis in his home state.
What is it like turning 80?
I am excited, very, very excited. Strangely enough, I am even nervous about it. I have looked forward to it. I am glad it is coming when I am relatively still on my two feet. I am not really good at celebrating birthdays. But I think this should be the Rubicon, so to speak; the apex, because that is what the Bible tells us. Even though it says 120 in another context, but it says 70, and if you are strong, 80! So, God has given me strength. By His grace, I will make 80. For me, that is it.
People will be surprised when they hear you say a bit nervous. How do you mean?
That occurred to me twice in my lifetime. When I was 39, going to 40. Every day I was 39, I was counting the weeks and the months until I became 40. For me, at that period, 40 was significant. Don’t ask me why. But from my own readings and the little I know, you peak at 40 and after 40,
a period of decline gradually sets in; very gradually, very interested people. So, maybe that was why it was significant because at that point, you have reached your apex. That probably is the only explanation I can give and 80 has the same significance for me.
80 is not so much, maybe because we have a situation at the moment where people feel with the kind of mortality rate, the life span that we have in Nigeria generally…
No. I wasn’t really thinking about span. Yes, of course, we are mortals. So, as you get closer, you keep saying God, please, help me cross that point. May be, the word is not nervous, but expectant. I think expectant
is the better word for that day to dawn and say hurray, thank you God, you brought me this far.
And at 80, you will also give word on where you have been to say that you have seen it all…
I don’t want to say that yet. At 80, it is truly time to relax, it is truly time to take a back seat, it is truly time to reflect and it is time to think of the little good you can still do before you have to meet your appointment with your creator.
Specifically, what will you be doing with the rest of your life?
Number one is to relax. Number two, just think. Number three, what good can I still do, given that God has continued to give me grace and God has continued to sustain me with strength relatively. What good can you still do to nurture those around you and those coming after you? At that point, I think that is all. You won’t be looking for a career, you won’t be looking for a job, and you won’t be looking for any of those things. What little good with the strength God has continued to endow me with can I still do?
Starting life and getting to this point, would you say you achieved all that you set out to achieve?
It will be a miracle if one achieves everything. It will be a miracle if one does not have regrets and it will be a miracle if you do not wish you could have done things differently. But I don’t dwell on those things because they are all part of life’s process. And when these things happen, you openly learn and you move on. But to more directly answer your question, I am very happy, very fulfilled, very satisfied that I have led a good life. I have succeeded in most of the things I set my mind on and I am absolutely grateful to God that He has led me through all the experiences that have become part of my life.
Growing up, what was actually one of the key challenges you had?
Growing up, what kind of age are you talking about?
You know in those days, picking a wife was a big problem or picking a career was a big problem. Which of them was most challenging to you?
I didn’t have any of those problems. If I even have any challenge, it was to have enough money to buy books because I was a bit of a voracious reader. So, I took to going to the library. It was when the libraries were really functional in those days. Otherwise, normal polygamous family, with its own challenges – an educated father, senior civil servant and of course, things were difficult. We had a large family, but he provided to the very best of his ability. He made sure we all went to school; he made sure we were all educated, but we didn’t have the luxuries of course. Your mother had to make up for pocket money, the garri you will take to school, the sugar you will take to school, the Cabin Biscuit that you will quickly take to school; your mother had to labour to have money to provide all of those things. Otherwise, my transition from one level to the other was relatively smooth.
When it got to the point of picking a wife, can you tell us what it was like?
I just gravitated into it without a deliberate plan. Although it was time to get married, it wasn’t quite like that. I was a young man in quote, enjoying myself. But then, the process – you run into somebody that is different. This is a very descent, very different lady from all the ones I have been meeting. Interesting! That was how it happened. We had a problem because her ethnicity was different. Her mother said no. Eventually, when we met her father, her father said, why not? Beautiful! Gradually, I had even dreamt that the children will marry Benin people and produce a lot of children. So, the issue was decided in my favour.
What was the challenge like at the time you served in the civil service, the legacy and serving under the military?
It was a different world, different country. When the coup happened when I was already in the service, the very first coup, it was a fantastic period. The euphoria of independence was still there. We had just started a new ministry of economic development to which I was finally deployed and where I worked with some of the most fantastic civil servants that this country has ever produced. The euphoria became that of a country with great promise. Everybody saw that. And oil started to flow almost at about that time. It was there all this time, but it became a really significant contributor to national resources at about that time. The entire world, particularly the World Bank and the rest of it, rated Nigeria very, very high given the resource base that we have and the kind of human resources that we have. So, we worked and worked with such commitments. There were times some of us stayed in the office overnight, particularly when we were drawing up the development plans. We will go to what was Bar Beach, different from what it is now. It was almost one kilometre and there were all sorts of eating places, drinking places and there was even a hotel on that Bar Beach. What is there now, you can’t compare it with what it was. So, we will go there, have a meal, relax, have fun and go back to the office. The commitment was such that we were on the 22nd floor. Often, there will be no light and we will walk 24 floors to get to the office. So, we enjoyed working with people like our contemporaries – Olu Falae, Ezeife, former Governor of Anambra State. Falae was first to be 80, Ezeife followed and now I am next. So, we worked with such joy. The reality is that there is hardly anything that exists in this country today, the history of which we don’t know because we were right there at the formative period and the idea stayed and we helped to push it through the process of implementation. Those were great days, very great days in itself.
I know it will be pricking your mind and you will be feeling sad whenever you now see the civil service that you belonged to. Isn’t it?
The value systems were so different, two different countries. Value system were so different, we were just ex-colony, so the usages and the rest about the British were all still very much in place, although some were different, totally different.
People believe that people like you who were very excellent, left the civil service early as a result of the incumbent president. Is it true? Was it a dream cut short?
I did leave. It was a bit premature. There is no question about that. And coups were popular. We were all very young when Ghana had its coups and coups all over the world. And when we had our own, we all hailed it, but with maturity. Well, when the coup that brought in the then General Buhari, I was happy because of his understanding of the growing problem in the country, particularly, corruption and this banned substance, drug and the rest of it. He appreciated that and he made that his key, and discipline. Those are still the problems we have today in this country – corruption, indiscipline, and to some extent, these bad circumstances. Once those things are present, you cannot have more ethics in society, you cannot have respect for due process in the country, you cannot have law and order in the country.
Anyway, back to the beginning: So, when he was in government, I was very happy. I was close to that administration, particularly close to Idiagbon. We went everywhere together. Whenever he was travelling, he always made me part of his team. Even though I was perm sec (permanent secretary), I had been drafted to sort out the import license problem.
So, I had a very heavy schedule. When the coup against him came and he was removed, I was very upset. Very, very upset and I couldn’t adjust to the new situation. One thing led to the other, of course, a military man was posted to the ministry as minister, but I didn’t quite recover from the anti-Buhari removal. And we greeted
a bit, we didn’t get on very well; not that, I don’t know how to put it. I must have been truly deeply upset because with the military in power, you don’t take that kind of risk of challenging your boss. Of course, all those things happened and it became firmly clear that there was no way I could continue because if I did not dismount, I will be dismounted probably on the TV and the media houses. So, one day I came to the office, I called my secretary, I told him I was leaving. The fellow almost collapsed. He said Oga wetin happen? And I dictated the letter of retirement to him and I left. Yes, it was a bit because I think I was about 50 when I left the service. It was predicted anyway. Don’t forget that the then Secretary to the Government when I became permanent secretary and they were receiving me, he told me and said well, you have become perm sec very early, which means you will leave very early because youareabitofafreespiritandyousayitas it is. And when it did happen eventually, I said ah, I knew all along, but I didn’t take it seriously.
You happened to play a key role in transiting from a ruling party to an opposition party. Would you say that has been your happiest moment?
It was one of my greatest achievements. Yes, there is no question about that. But it didn’t sweep me off my feet because that was an idea I had worked on for years – that the parties must come together to be able to give the people of this country choice. There was one nationwide PDP. And then there were parties that were more or less regional in scope. There was no way any of the parties could challenge the PDP. So, coming together was the medicine for entrenching democracy in this country. And today, we have two large parties. The minute we came together, I was sure that we were going to win the elections. So, for me as a person, it didn’t come to me as a surprise.
I was very, very sure because we only needed to listen to the people and know that they want change, they want a credible alternative they can vote for without feeling like they are wasting their votes. And once we presented the party to the public, I knew we were hopeful.
How do you feel that when you were leaving the party, you had to fight a lot of battles?
In politics, it is normal. You must have controversy. You must have conflict of interest and all that. It is normal. My joy is that I handed over a party that was intact. That doesn’t mean it was without issues. Of course, it had a lot of issues.
But even before you left, especially those occupying leadership positions, some were already feeling that the party was not moving in a right direction and that was why the National Assembly was not on the same page with the executive and that the party was not doing what it should have done. How true is this notion?
Well, that alone, is a story for another day; how the National Assembly became the way it turned out to be. That alone is a full story and too many people don’t know all the things that happened that made the result inevitable. It was these same party leaders that on the day of the opening of the National Assembly, insisted that our elective representatives, we should all meet at the International Conference Center. When such a thing happens, that was tragic. That decision was tragic. We leave it at that. That alone is a whole special interview.
But I think some clarifications need to be made as some people didn’t understand what happened.
All I can say is that what happened, happened largely because these same leaders insisted on a meeting between the president and our elected representatives on the same morning that the House was holding its inaugural meeting.
So, what happened now? You also have been someone who has always wanted a better society. In fact, many associate you with transparency and probity. Yes, you succeeded in helping to push out a government that was in quote unarguably unpopular among the people. But we have also seen that we transited into another administration where we have seen insecurity, we have seen a whole lot of things, promises not being kept. As an elder, how do you feel about this?
First, let me say that there is nothing like being in government and being confronted with the reality. All of us, even people like me, there were different times in our lives when we were not close to what was going on. You had that tendency to think that once somebody gets into office, he becomes stupid. The solution is like the spectator watching football – why didn’t he pass it to that thing, why didn’t you shoot the ball and you are sitting down watching the ball and you think that the man who is in the pitch, who has to take it second by second, he was stupid. It is not like that. When you get into governance, you face the reality and reality may be totally different from what you thought they were. And problems will be more serious than what you thought they were.
Secondly, you are solving one problem and many more are germinating in other places. We took over with Boko Haram and that was the battle cry. Little did we know that all these equally challenging issues will arise all over the place and today, we are confronted with, and we have to deal with them. I don’t know how else to put it. A
lot of security things are happening which people who know may not be in a position to quite tell the public and may not be in a position to tell the public what they are doing until the result totally manifests. That is the kind of restraint and constraint. So, we all who are not in government, starts pontificating about what ought to be done, what should be done and the rest of it. It is a problem, I agree.
There is this break in communication that makes it look as if government is doing nothing.
If you also look at where you are coming from and the level of unity that the country enjoyed in the past and the dream and presently, we have a situation in the country where the indices appear to be widening every day, the North- South dichotomy. Are you not getting worried?
I am worried. I have to accept your point there that quite a lot of things are not going right. To my mind, it is now the immediate, urgent challenge of the government in its second term to frontally address these issues and these challenges and these problems because there is no question at all. They are not healthy for the nation and yes, they are worrisome. I find them worrisome too. But it is my hope and prayers that they will be effectively addressed.
You waded into the problem in Edo State and the whole thing seems to be deteriorating and you see what the National Assembly came out two days ago with. What is your take on the whole issue?
Well, from what I hear and read, many people intervened to try to hammer out some settlement. And I think being an elder statesman; I will leave it at that for now. But the principles are clear. The genesis is clear of what gave rise to where we are now. As I have always said, if we don’t kill tribalism, it will kill this country.
Some people think the way you speak about your successor, coupled with the way and manner you left, you have not forgiven him and not at peace with him even though you said you have moved on…
No, no, no, no. Get the picture right. I left as national chairman. After a successful convention, I elected my successor. I will challenge you to produce a single comment that I ever made on the management of
the party between that time and about two months ago. None! I have done my bit and it is the turn of the new chairman to do his bit. For me, that is the end of the matter.
I moved on! Then, of course, I don’t know what their internal politics is. The deputy man wrote the letter that he wrote. For me, that was still not any of my business. It is an internal matter. But unfortunately, in trying to defend the national chairman of the party, some members of his executive got the state to, South-South, my own zone, to write a letter that blamed me for planting that man. One year after! I have left. That is all. That was the truth. You can’t do that. It is rude. How can you do that? So, that is it. It has nothing to do with any other issue. At that point, I think I had to stand up and I answered for myself. Of course, I am so patient, everybody thinks oh, you can dump anything on him, it doesn’t ever matter, he doesn’t ever speak, and he won’t talk. This time, I disagreed and I had to talk. So, you better get the story right. It has nothing to do with forgiving. As a matter of fact, it has nothing to do with him. I gave four days after that statement was made. If in those four days, somebody had said ah, no, no, no, no, don’t bring in this man, this man has left, leave him alone, the party is now ours to manage, that is the end. I will not accept anything. But there was no such attempt to call the people who issued that statement to order. So, I had to speak up for myself.
What is actually the best way to solve Edo crisis?
I don’t know. God will show us a way. But every dispute must be resolved. And we will findawayoutofit.
Why do you push everything to God, even the one that we can do?
No, no, no, no. I am not saying that God will come down and do it. But it is God that will give you the wisdom. We will find a way to resolve the problem.
At 80, what do you want to be remembered for?
I have been a man of principle for the young people to see that even in this tumultuous nation, somebody like me can also make it to the very top so that as a young man, you really don’t have to play by the rules of others. You play by your own rules, by the way you were brought up, by the principles that you stand for and you can still succeed. You don’t have to join in the rat race. I gave this country which gave me all I have, all also, all the energy and the wisdom that God Himself has endowed me with.