Interviewed by Funke Olaode
Is it true to conclude that you are a happy man?
Everything about me is by the grace of God. The simple thing is just to look after oneself.
How do you think a good leadership can emerge in a situation where everyone has lost hope in the system?
It is a gradual process. Recently, when I went to the presidency I had cause to remind people that John F. Kennedy was only president for two years and eight months. America still remembers him for what he did. Our people should look at what they can do, concentrate on two or three things and get it started. On the issue of corruption for instance, quite a few people have been arrested. I think government should get the best lawyers that can handle cases, conclude two or three high profile cases with appropriate punishment and send a message.
Once a message is sent that you cannot continue to do things with impunity, people will adjust. There were good initiatives on agriculture under the last administration of Adesina who is now the President of the African Development bank. If it can be sustained I can assure you that within to three to five years, the agro-allied sector will blossom.
Why are you so passionate about the country?
Nigeria has been good to me. I am also passionate about the black race. The black man lost himself with the introduction of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Before then the human race was equal. I remember when I was growing up I read about the African resurgence with Nigeria at the vanguard. I learnt when the Greeks first encountered blacks, they didn’t think we were inferior. And when the Portuguese came to Benin, the roads in Benin were wider though there were no tarred roads then and they exchanged ambassadors. This was going on until 1664 when Atlantic Slave Trade was introduced that led to the dehumanisation of Africans and introduction of inferiority. And since the Second World War, Africans have continued to dance to the tune of inferiority complex.
In your view, what do you think could have been done differently since you were once part of the system?
I believe if the then Secretary to the Federal Government, Abdulazeez Attah who died in 1971 had lived a bit longer, Nigeria would have been better. Before his demise he used to lead a group of Permanent Secretaries and the Head of Service to the then Head of State, Gen. Gowon; that he must do this and that to get the country moving. With Attah’s demise that vision also ended. Gen. Gowon may argue but he listened.
Although there was civil war but we got the country united, used the little money we had without borrowing. If Gowon had acted quicker to do what his army people wanted, appoint civil/military governance and avoid the military coup of 1975, I believe that civilian rule would have come before 1978 in a more controlled fashion. The growth rate after the civil war (after Gowon was removed) was 11.75 per cent per annum and 10 more years of that, Nigeria would have escaped from poverty and be a first world country today.
You mean you had progressive proposals before the coup?
If Gowon had not been removed by 1975 all the good proposed ideas would have worked for this country. For instance, people like me were pushing for a language policy. If we had implemented that it would have been by the time a Northern pupil enters Junior Secondary School 1 (JSS1), he/she would be asked to choose one Southern language, which the school would teach you to read and write. Chances are that they would pick Ibo or Yoruba and a Southern pupil obviously would choose Hausa. This was proposed in 1975/76 which means by the end of last century in 1999, many educated Nigerians would have mother tongues, the adopted language, which is English and two other Nigerian languages.
Were you bitter that you were pushed out of service at a very young age?
I am not bitter at all. I was probably better off because by the time we were pushed out, I was planning to retire before the age of 45. I wanted 10 active years in the private sector. I know of a Malaysian leader who became Prime Minister about the same time as Tafawa Balewa in Nigeria. He stepped down after five years and helped to sustain transition into other governments. If we had had a transition probably we wouldn’t have the coup of 1966 and without that disastrous coup, we wouldn’t have the civil war.
By now Nigeria would have been a better place at worst like Indonesia but better than that because Indonesia is an Island scattered over 3 million square miles but Nigeria is compact. We are blessed with iron ore, oil and gas, lime stones, gem stones, gold, diamond, energy, cold, solar energy. We have a unique advantage where we are geographically: 3,500 miles to the markets of Europe and America, and 11,000 miles to Asia. With good leadership and consistency, Nigeria would be in the first world in 20 years.
What lessons should we learn from those experiences?
Having a good leadership at the helms of our affairs is key. I pray that we have a great leader. If all the past leaders (nationalists) had agreed to work in unison and not form regional parties like they did, we would have had a more united country.
How do you relax?
At every age or stage of my life I have lived a fulfilled life. When it is time to play games, I play; time to dance, I dance. I play golf occasionally. I read. l listen to serious music and I am happy to engage in discussion with younger ones who are intellectually sound.