“Oh, it’s a gentle man and lady”, he says, strolling out of his private office as he makes his way to the meeting room where he plans to grant his guests a scheduled interview. Sporting a blue shirt on a grey pair of trousers with a bow tie, his signature, Alhaji Lateef Olufemi Okunnu, former federal minister of works during the regime of General Yakubu Gowon, although 80 years; his poise does not betray the declining physique often identifiable with a man of his age.
Smart, sharp, courteous and cerebral, the Senior Advocate of Nigeria exhibits an impressionable retentive memory as he reels out dates, facts and figures with much ease. Without wasting time any further, Okunnu in an interview that lasts a little over an hour speaks with Olawale Olaleye and Nkiruka Okoh. Excerpts:
How does it feel at 80?
Not differently from how I felt at 70. Physically, there is some little difference but otherwise, I thank God that I still retain my poise and I am still fairly healthy, all that is due to Allah. But the feeling generally- not too differently!
How would you compare government in terms of infrastructural development in your time and now?
There is a world of difference! Remember that I became a member of the federal cabinet- we call it the Federal Executive Council now; it was under a military regime and so, the responsibility of not only making laws and also executing the laws, that is the executive and legislature- fell largely on us. So, I was not only a cabinet minister to execute policies and laws, in technical terms but to also make the laws because the laws which we made for the Constitution, that area was the exclusive preserve of the Supreme Military Council.
But the council didn’t meet often so even areas where the laws border on the constitution, we still discussed them and then, we virtually passed the laws. Of course, the ultimate thing was lawmaking at that time. The Head of State will sign it in form of a decree but the draft will come to us in form of a decree. That process is not different from what we have now- the legislature passing the bills and it becomes law or act of parliament with the signature of the president.
Now, in composition of the cabinet, we were 12 a member of the cabinet coming from each of the state, that’s when the four regions were abolished and we had the 12 state structure. Of course, during the war there was no representative from the east central state of Nigeria because it was at war at that time, so we were 11 and today, there is a world of difference because the constitution, although prescribes a member of the federal cabinet from each state of the Federation, because of the large number of the states, I find it very, very unreasonable and has some heavy toll on the finance of the country to insist that a member must come from each state of the Federation.
It makes the cabinet to be 36. I believe it is even more at the time you count ministers of state and the rest of them. In my time, there was no minister of state; we had a responsibility for the ministry, period! No minister of state, no federal commissioner of a lower rank, no. So, 12 of us with the service chiefs- the navy, the air force, the army and also the officer in charge of the supreme head quarters and the IG of the federation, that was the composition of the Federal Executive Council in my time very compact and very effective.
Mark you, as I said, we were not only the executive, along with the head of state but we were the legislature. So, we carried a very heavy load and I think it worked very well for this country, I find it a drain on the economy of this country to have every state represented in the cabinet. That is a huge difference in the composition and working of the cabinet in my time and today.
Looking back, since you were in charge of works, would you say government policies succeeded?
Well, with all humility, I will say that, I was not only in charge of works, my portfolio was Federal Commissioner for Works and Housing and I was in charge of housing. On account of the difference between then and now, I was also in charge of federal surveys and federal lands; it was fairly large portfolio which I held. But today, we will be thinking in terms of two, three, four ministers manning these things and the work has not expanded.
With all due respect I think in the ministry of works as far as highways are concerned, I met in May 1967 when I was appointed about 7000 miles of federal roads and when I left, Dec 1974, I left over 21000 miles of federal roads. We had taken over with their consent, state roads. In fact, state governments were anxious that the federal government should take over some of the roads and so I met two North-South roads- that’s, Lagos/Ibadan/ Jebba/Kontangora/ Kaduna/Zaria/Kano straight to Daura on the border with Niger. And the second North-South road was Port-Harcourt/Enugu/ Oturukpo/Markudi /Jos and again to the border.
I left two more North-South roads. I left in my time, Warri/Benin/Auchi/Koton karifi to what we now call Abuja- now Abuja to the North. I also left Calabar/Yola/Maiduguri North South roads. General Gowon was keen on the roads on border, on the Western side of the country, the border with Dahomey we can call it, say Badagry right to the North to Sokoto. So, we can say we left five North-South Roads. Now, by the time I left in December 1974, most of the federal roads- we called them highways at that time, the construction not rehabilitation had either just being completed or under construction with some of the roads or the other roads construction was on the drawing boards and they continued after my time.
In short most of the federal roads by the time I left the ministry in 1974 had been reconstructed. Re habilitation is limited construction, when you are rehabilitating a road, you need the alignment by and large as there might be little alignment, because of the bends, you leave them and you have minimal reconstruction more or less. You don’t dig deep. But construction means you dig the foundations and rebuild the roads yourself. Now, for road construction, depending on the usage, the amount of traffic on the road, usually 7-10 years you reconstruct, or at least you rehabilitate.
I am sad to say that the road network I left in 1974- over 21000-22,000 miles of federal roads, the state of the roads today is a complete apology. Successive governments, especially at the time of Babangida, Abacha and Obasanjo failed to rehabilitate let alone reconstruct these roads. So, the roads are in ruins. Sagamu to Okene is an example of such roads. Lagos/Ibadan expressway is one of the projects. I am sad to be on that road. It was reconstructed, completed soon after I left the ministry in late 70s. I laid the foundation for it; it was one of my projects.
I dictated the width and also left the wide median with concrete- two-lane dual carriage way with the hope in the median that it would become four lane-dual carriages- four lanes on either side. That’s why that reservation was made at that time. So, I am sad to travel on some of these roads. I was due to go to Osogbo for a conference but I dread the road from Ibadan to Ilesha. I have been on that road in the past two years, about three or four times and they are in very bad shape. So, that is for federal roads.
Housing under the military regime became a residual power or function. Otherwise, housing is a state function; it is a residual matter. You don’t see housing on the exclusive list and any power/function you don’t see on that list, like housing and lands are residual and federal should have nothing to do with both of them except within the Federal Capital Territory. But in my time, I had the whole country because housing had become residual because the military government had suspended that section of the Constitution and gave to itself, the power to govern for peace, order and good governing in the country and that means for everything.
But even in my time, I left housing as it was in the constitution, a state matter. Housing, apart from FESTAC housing for festival of Arts, was limited to Lagos which was capital of the country at that time. The area that I moved and enjoyed very well at that time was housing finance and I nationalised the Nigerian Building Society and transformed it into Federal Mortgage Bank. The Federal Mortgage Bank is my baby.
In surveys, I negotiated the Nigerian Dahomney border, you will hear more about the Nigerian Cameroun but I think with all humility, I thank God that I was able to negotiate the border with the Dahomney government without any problems. That is an area in which I think the survey, apart from setting up an African Survey School/Institution for the training of surveyors from different parts of Africa; these were some of the things we did in our time.
Incidentally, I hear of Trans-African highways, we started it- Lagos to Daura, with the intention that the Niger and the Algerian governments would be able to continue right to Algiers. The Lagos/ Dakar, we built our own side of the Trans-African highways, hoping that Dahomney, Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast right to Senegal before we talk of Guinea, would be able to fulfill their own part of the agreement. But Lagos to Nairobi, that’s another trans-African highway. It was started- let me give credit to Balewa’s government- they had started the thinking but we did not only the thinking but brought the parties together and started the actual construction of the road.
As a federal minister, isn’t it curious to know how you were able to strike of interest between the Federal Government and your state, Lagos?
Let me put it this way, my responsibility was to the country as a whole and I still hold on to that, that as a federal official in government, your loyalty was to Nigeria. As far as Lagos was concerned and not only in Lagos, I had good rapport with Brigadier General now, he was a Major at that time, Mobolaji Johnson, very close. I had dialogue with him and we had very little disagreement between ourselves. With Brigadier Gen Ogbemudia, we were very close and that’s how I was able to scale through my program in the Mid-western states.
The Warri/Benin/Auchi roads, for example, when we were commissioning the Warri Benin Section of the roads, the Brigadier was there sitting next to me, we had very good rapport. I had a good rapport with the governor of the North Eastern states. These were people when on tours in their states, accommodated me in their own special guest houses and a few more like Asiken, a close friend, Wole Rotimi who was my junior at Kings College, still a friend. We just lost a friend, Bayo Akinola. But Wole from Kings College days was a friend. Anytime I went to Ibadan to tour with him, I was in his guest house. So, I was privileged to have good rapport with not only Lagos but with many other states.
Let’s look at the federal government relationship with Lagos from a federalist perspective; how fair was the relationship? And what should happen to the landed properties that the federal government still holds on to after the capital was relocated to Abuja?
Well, the issue of land, the so called federal properties in Lagos, to me is very simple. The position is very simple. It is only that the federal government still looks at Lagos as a federal territory. That is at the heart of the problem between the two governments. When Lagos was created, General Gowon set up a committee- a joint committee of the two governments with four members on either side. From the federal government, there was now president Shagari, Prof Bayo Adedeji, federal commissioner for economic development; Mallam Aminu Kano who was at that time Commissioner for health, myself and a representative of the Commissioner for Justice, Dr Elias. I think it was Justice Jinadu.
On the Lagos side, we had Chief I.S Adewale who at the same time doubled as Commissioner for Finance and Economic development; late Ganiyu Dawodu, who was commissioner for Health and my late friend, Prof. Seriki who was Commissioner for works and planning on the Lagos side and I think Justice Agoro represented Lagos for the Ministry of Justice. Now, we settled the issue of federal government quarters in Lagos, especially the city of Lagos and the principle was this that any official hitherto federal official whose function was transferred to Lagos state like health and hospitals, quarters occupied by such officials became Lagos state quarters, so medical officers, doctors in Island Maternity or General Hospitals whose functions were transferred to Lagos State, their quarters also became Lagos State quarters.
That was the simple logic and we had a list of such officers with the addresses they occupied. The 1972/1973 report was accepted by both governments and of course, the Supreme Military Council also sanctioned it. That was the starting point, the principle on which state lands was divided, as regards to title. Later, in the 70s, as you know there was a land use decree and the land use decree, now land use Act states that title to every inch of land in every state is vested in the governor of that state except land held by the federal government in the state as at the time the decree came into operation.
This meant that after March 1978, the federal government could not acquire land anywhere in the federation. It is stated there. All the federal government can do up till now is to request for land from the state governor for any land it requires for any purpose. Unfortunately, federal government has violated that Law/Act, for example, trying to acquire land in some part of Lagos, Banana Island, the one which led me to go to court against the federal government, that is, Elegushi Vs Attorney-General of the Federation. The Osborne road does not belong to the federal government at all.
Accidently, the decree which the federal government passed in 1952/1953 on lands title vesting electoral Act/decree which I challenged in court, the federal government is still violating the judgment of the court. Typically, up till now. So, land and Ikoyi- there is Ikoyi state land which vests title to the whole of Ikoyi Island to the government. That Act used to be Ikoyi crown lands ordinance. It became Ikoyi state land in 1960 after we had gotten independence. The federal government transferred that Act on the creation of Lagos State and land registration Act to Lagos state and they became Lagos state Laws.
The effect of that transfer by operation of the law under the constitution, was that title to the whole of Ikoyi, whether FG quarters or not, is vested in Lagos State and the governor of Lagos State. That is the Act which became law of Lagos State. It was the ordinance before independence. That has nothing to do even in our formula in apportioning quarters between Federal and Lagos State. That is fundamental and what people have not grasped yet. So, these are areas of conflict between the two governments.
Professor Achebe died a few days ago and it brought back echoes of the civil war. What are your reminiscences and your take on his book- There Was a Country?
Well, as a Muslim, I will say may Allah accept him into Al-Janah and I hope his family will take the pains as a natural thing. We all must go. He led a very useful life. He led the trail in African literature; he was a huge man and author. It was okay to write about Igbo speaking Nigerians, made it key notes of his literature and expanded into the world, sort of. Now, when his book was published late last year, I was one of the very first to criticize him, especially on the allegation of genocide and he named General Yakubu Gowon, then head of state and Chief Awolowo as committing genocide.
The accusation was totally false and misplaced because during the war, not only did I spend my time running my ministry, next to Mr. Okoye, external affairs commissioner, I think I carried the load of Internal Affairs of the country. Next to him, there was no body, specifically on the civil war. Apart from Chief Enahoro who led the federal delegation to Kampala and largely to Addis Ababa, I led the federal delegation to Niamey about May 1968 when general Gowon and Chief Awolowo returned from Niamey having met with the people face-to-face but I went to take over the federal delegation from Prof Njoku who was the leader of the Biafran delegation and in August that same year, there was another delegation.
Chief Enahoro led the delegation but he was there for about a week; Ojukwu himself was there and he left after a couple of days. So, Tony returned and I led the delegation for about 4/5 weeks after. I was also the leader of the Federal delegation in Monrovia about April 1969 and late Justice Mbanefo, one of the best brains in legal profession, led the Biafran delegation. Now, at these various conferences we discussed the return of Biafra to the Federation but because Ojukwu did not want a return of Biafra, he wanted Independence of Biafra, we got stuck at every stage and discussions didn’t last more than a few days.
In fact, in Monrovia, we discussed it briefly, the bulk of the discussions we had during these peace talks was about passage of relief materials to the rebel enclave. So, if you want to starve the other side at war with you, why should we sit down for weeks, for months discussing food, relief- medicine to the rebel area? Can you call that genocide? So, genocide is completely misplaced. I spent a majority of the time as leader of the federal delegation discussing with Prof. Njoku at the two places, Niamey and Addis Ababa. The Addis Ababa conference was not over until the third week in September from Monday 5th August and Monrovia in April 1969.
It was all about how to relieve the hunger which our fellow Nigerians, the rebel enclave suffered and we discussed passages- corridors, Lagos to Benin to Asaba to the rebel enclave, by air or by road- they rejected of course. We examined Port Harcourt to Aguta to Onitsha by water, by river. We discussed Port Harcourt direct to Uli-Ihiala, the only airport during the war, Uli-Ihiala. Incidentally, it was a section of Port-Harcourt, Onitsha, Enugu road which Federal officials, engineers who fled to rebel areas, turn into runways but we discussed relief materials by various means, most of them were rejected by Ojukwu because he really was not interested in relief support; all he wanted was direct relief flights from Outside Nigeria straight to rebel area which was unacceptable to the Federal Government.
So, he rejected them and he used starvation as a weapon of war. I went over to Monrovia, to the capital of Ivory Coast to Abidjan for the discussion of the return of children whom Ojukwu fancifully took outside the country, that they were starving and had kwashiorkor and he air-lifted them, used that as a weapon of war because kwashiorkor was all over the country anyway. He sent some to France and the others to Abidjan and I held discussions with the government of Abidjan on behalf of the federal government and they were anxious that the Children be returned and they were returned. That was soon after the end of the war.
I will like to say that my autobiography detailed all the peace talks, it’s about a hundred pages and I understand it is online. A chapter of the peace talks is online and I detailed the various discussions, the corridors and all. Now, I will like to end that aspect, by asking: has there been any war in history or now when one side discussed passage of relief to the other side? Has there been any? Not in world history. You won’t see anywhere in the history of the world where the combatants who were killing themselves spent time to discuss reliefs- one side to the other side. Are they discussing relief materials in Syria? In Iraq? In Spanish civil war? In Portuguese civil war? In the unification of Germany? In the Unification of Italy? 1870’s Napoleon’s war? The Battle of Waterloo? The Greek? Anywhere in the world? So, how can you talk about Genocide? The wars going on now, the civil wars, they don’t talk about relief materials for the other side.
So in the history of warfare, General Gowon’s government has established one standard, relief. And let me add this also, at the time this exercise was going on, there was a body of international observers who observed the conduct of federal troops and also toured the rebel areas to see whether by and large, the conduct of the war was civilised or not and the reports are there for people to see. So, it was fancy of the imagination of the late Achebe to talk of genocide or accuse General Gowon or Chief Awolowo of promoting genocide.
As a Muslim, what are suggestions to the Boko Haram insurgency?
Not as a Muslim but as a Nigerian, Boko Haram is not following the tenets of Islam. Islam does not sanction suicide. Allah gives life and Allah takes, not your own life. Allah does not permit you to take your life. Suicide is not permitted in Islam. Book Haram members may have their grievances not on religion because nobody can impose religion on another or one section impose religion on another. Indeed, there is an injunction in the Quran; there is no compulsion in religion.” Follow your own, I’ll follow my own”. That short Sura says it very well. Carry on with your own way, while I carry on with mine.
There is tolerance in Islam. It is misinterpretation to say Islam is not for peace. Tolerance is there and the name Boko Haram means book; Haram translates forbidden. When Quran was revealed, the first Sura, the first word which angel Mikhail uttered to a stark illiterate was ‘read, Iqra, read in the name of your Lord’. So, how can you say Islam is against book or knowledge? No, several passages in the Quran, Allah asked, can’t you read? Can’t you reason? Can’t you think? Is thinking not knowledge? Can’t you read? Can’t you reflect? Those questions are all over the various Suras and chapters of the Quran.
So, Knowledge is fundamental in Islam and those who are killing other people may have their other agenda, they are not promoting Islam; they are not acting according to the tenets of Islam. Well, it may be the weakness of the Intelligence agencies because I will like to believe the days of the British or America, the CIA could have found out who the Boko Haram members are. So, not knowing who they are, not knowing their purposes or their objectives, all these to me, amount to the failure of the intelligence services in the country.
Now, a word about this idea of Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa and so on, the press has a role to play there. What is dragging Nigeria down on all fronts, economically or what have you, is ethnicity! The leaders of old, especially Awolowo in a way in his own time, did not harness it. In the case of Doctor Nnamdi Azikiwe, he was pushed into embracing Igbo National Union as counter poise for Chief Awolowo’s Egbe Omo Oduduwa, which he used as a platform for political power. So, you see, those people especially Chief Awolowo, although I didn’t agree with him, on political grounds especially for the Westerners philosophy. I was born as a Nigerian, I remain a Nigerian and on that score, I disagree with Awolowo.
I recognise his qualities as a great leader. We were in Cabinet together until he resigned in 1970. I admired him very well. He used Egbe Omo Odudwa as a vehicle to achieve power and once he achieved power as a minister in charge of government business, western Nigeria, Egbe Omo Oduduwa receded to the background as a cultural organisation. Action group was a vehicle for politics not Egbe Omo Oduduwa. He relegated it to its cultural background. Igbo States Union also was not huge.
But today you are either Ndigbo, Afenifere, Arewa, Ijaw youth and it is ethnicity which is dominating politics in Nigeria and as long as ethnicity remains dominant in our body politics, we will never get it right in Nigeria, it is just a dream. And I give these two examples, India with 1.3 billion, have you seen an Indian say I am a Bengali or Guajarati or that I am from Madras? Have you anywhere in the world, have you seen an Indian boat that he is a Bengali? No!
Have you seen a Chinese say, “No, I am a Cantonese? It is Nigerians who will say, I am Igbo, I am Yoruba, I am Ijaw and that consciousness dominate our lives so that you are not thinking as a Nigerian if you are in position of authority with your ethnic group on your mind. So, please, help us to kill ethnicity, we can’t wipe it out. But we should put it in the background for the promotion of culture. That is the place of promotion of ethnicity. For politics, let us define our politics. In political terms, as is done in most parts of the world. We should first be Nigerians. I am a Nigerian, yes I was born in Lagos but from my child hood, I have remained and I would die as a Nigerian.
On that score, what do you think of the allegation of marginalisation by some sections of the South-west?
That is rubbish, absolute rubbish! Just like the Igbo crying marginalisation, the North is also saying they have been marginalised. The North had Balewa as the leader of NPC. General Gowon to me is a Nigerian because he had problems with the North. Some of them claimed he was not following the Northern Agenda. It even affected me because they thought I was a bit close to him. Yet, the North also had Murtala, Babangida, Abacha, Abubakar but the North now say they have been marginalised and the next president must come from there, No.
As I said recently, the Yoruba say they have been marginalised, but the Yoruba have had two heads of government; Obasanjo, head of government/head of state for 11years in our history and Shonekan was head of interim government and they still claim marginalisation. There are Yoruba in President Jonathan’s government, so, what is the marginalisation? The Igbo say they have been marginalised, apart from the President, the Chief Justice, The President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the most powerful man, is the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, yet they still say they have been marginalised.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Coordinating Minister of the economy of the federation, yet they still say they have been marginalised. You see, all that is part of the ethnicity which I want us to remove from our politics. Incidentally, I found the irony of this outcry from my friends from this part of the country who claim that Yoruba have been marginalised. It is Can irony that Chief S.L Akintola and my principal in chambers, Chief Remi Fani-Kayode, (I joined this chambers in 1960 when I came back) prepared a pamphlet of how Yoruba was marginalised in the federal service.
I think it was in 1963 or there about and they were lampooned by those who are now crying marginalisation, because they were in opposite camp, Action Group as against the party being formed later, and that’s why Chief Akintola with his deputy, joined the government of Balewa. So, it is now the turn of those who had moved from the Action Group to the UPN to cry marginalisation. Nobody is marginalising anybody.
Lastly, you were in the NPN, can you compare the quality of politics then and now; and how would you reconcile your radical background with the ideological character of the NPN?
When NPN was formed at that time in 1978, there was no division of ideology in the landscape. UPN was not a 100 percent socialist group or radical. It had some radicals, it had some conservatives. NPN also had two shares of radicals and conservatives. Indeed, Mallam Aminu Kano was very much at the centre of NPN before he pulled out. We were very close from my student days, so, at the time you are talking about, there was no ideological division. NPN had its own radicals and conservatives; UPN had its own radicals and conservatives.
Why I opted for NPN was that it was all Nigerian, it covered most parts of the country. UPN was mostly western and middle belt just like Action Group. I wanted a party with a Nigerian outlook and that was what I found with NPN at that time and that was why I joined NPN. But, you see, the moment I was no longer comfortable with the practice of politics, I pulled myself and that was 1981/82. I refused to play a central role because I said what else do I want? As a minister for almost 8 years, Allah had given me the opportunity, what else?
To be president? Everybody wants to be president! So, what else? As I said, in my time, we were both legislative and executive and left with a little bit of credit in works and housing as I served in lands, survey and also in foreign affairs because I helped to shape the foreign affairs. So, when I found the dirty part of politics, especially the money aspect because I refused to take any post until the former vice-president, very close friend of mine and an old boy of Kings College, Dr Ekwueme, who was the head of Parastatals at that time offered me membership to the board of Director of UBA, but of course, I rejected out of pride having being a minister.
Mallam Murtala came here to plead with me, he was then the MD of UBA that I should accept, I said no, not board member. At that time, the chairman who was from the North was a regional minister before the coup. But later, Shagari’s government invited me to be Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council of University of Agriculture, Markudi, so I said well, let us go, I’ll deal with young persons. So, I accepted.
There was no Chancellor ahead of me, I was number one and I was there till Buhari came and as soon as he came, they said yes, there will be changes but it did not affect Universities. I told Longe who was my Permanent Secretary- he was at that time the head of service to take my letter of resignation as Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council, so I didn’t want the radio to announce that I had been retired.
So, politics now is cutthroat. No love lost between the parties. Within the parties, it is also cutthroat. That was not the student politics I took part in or my understanding as a youth. Nigerian Youth Congress, I founded it, it was very radical in the 60s. The demonstrations are things I look back on and thank God for allowing me play that role to kill the defence pact and also to stop the detention bill which all the premiers including Okpara had agreed with Balewa- detention without trial.
I used to have five minutes news talk and I used the five minutes between 7:10 and 7:15 and there was conflagration in the newspapers. The government was bound to abandon detention without trial. It was Biola Olasope who was the head of the news talk at NBC and there were some enquiries which the board established and they dished out some punishments for allowing me to lampoon the government on its radio. And because T.O.S Benson was the minister for Information at the time, we used to joke about it.