Former military governor of Akwa Ibom and old Bendel State and a senator in the fifth National Assembly from Kogi State, Brigadier General Tunde Ogbeha (rtd) , sees the current state of affairs in the country as degenerating in terms of the level of corruption and poor leadership. In this interview with Onyebuchi Ezigbo, Ogbeha, who turned 70 years last Friday, bared his mind on several burning national and state issues. Excerpts:
At 70, what are your reflections, especially the time spent serving your fatherland?
For me to attain the age of 70 is a privilege and I want to thank God for this privilege, because the bible says ‘three scores plus ten’ and by the grace of God, I reached this age on Friday. By and large, it has been a wonderful period. I grew up in a middle class family. My parents were not rich and they were not poor. They were able to pay through I and my sibling’s education. They were able to maintain us. We were satisfied, we were happy and I would say we grew up in a very friendly, happy and satisfying environment.
Having laid down that foundation, I picked it up going to the Nigerian military school in a very interesting circumstance, because military school was not the choice of my parents. They wanted me to go to Saint Paul’s College in Zaria, which I passed, to continue the tradition of attending Christian-based school.
All the primary schools I went to were all Anglican primary schools in Kaduna, Kano, Jos and Maiduguri. Those were the cities I had my primary education but in looking for adventure I ventured into the Nigerian Military school, without the knowledge of my parents and when they got to know, they accepted it after some bitterness and that was how my career started.
In military school, it was a successful outing. I had my school certificate and from there I got admission along with my colleagues into Nigerian Defence Academy. Incidentally, on the 3rd of September 1967, which means after celebrating my 20th birthday, I had the privilege of gaining admission into the Nigerian Defence Academy and it was like a birthday gift. We went through the rudiments of training, graduated as a Second Lieutenant and in my career, I think I have had it good, because I worked hard for it and worked hard to excel. I worked hard to merit all positions, appointments and promotions that I had.
Did you participate in the Civil war?
No, I didn’t because we graduated on 15th of March 1970, the Civil war ended January 1970 but we had the task of restoring peace and trying to implement the three ‘Rs’ of General Yakubu Gowon; rehabilitation, reconstruction and resettlement and it was as tedious as the civil war, trying to reabsorb those who fought against their fatherland.
In that case, would you say that the policy of reuniting the country achieved its objective during the military regime?
I think to a very large extent it did. Don’t forget that at the end of the war, General Yakubu Gowon declared that ‘there is no victor, no vanquished’ and things were done in a way to re-absorb those, who broke away and that was done peacefully and the integration was very successful and there was not much friction in integrating those who went away.
What is it that you can say worked well under the military, which you were part of as governor in two states and which in the present democratic experience appears to be a challenge?
By the grace of God, I had the opportunity of being governor of Old Bendel and Akwa Ibom States. I had the privilege of establishing their administration. It was challenging in the sense that there was less of politicking, more of developing and giving people a sense of belonging. Like in Akwa Ibom State, the euphoria of state creation and the need for the state to move forward was very fresh in the minds of Akwa Ibom citizens to the extent that the happiness of trying to move the state forward was there and that indeed moved the state forward. In Bendel State, it was the issue of trying to restore, rehabilitate old infrastructure, because Bendel State as you know was one of the old states and it was a different challenge but these challenges we addressed patriotically in the best interest of the individual states.
When you the military era to the civilian government, there appears to be more corruption during the former, because the checks and balances in a democratic setting were absent during the military era, do you agree?
I don’t agree with you that there was more corruption in the military than there is now. In the military, we had the strictest standard possible to observe. As a military governor in the two states I presided over, my security votes wasn’t more than N5000 but today security votes run into billions unaccounted for. Even the N5000 that we were entitled to, we render account to the general headquarters.
So, I will not agree with you that corruption was more during the military and I think as Nigeria grew and progressed, the scale of corruption grew with it. That is the way I see it, because you can’t ascribe the level of corruption that exists now to what was happening in the first republic or the military era.
So, what brought about the growth in corruption?
I think we now have or are having leaders, who are greedy, self-centred, not committed to the progress and development of the country and as such a lot of efforts were going into corruption. What should be used to the benefit of the people are being used by individuals who are more in minority and the scale of corruption keep rising as the years go by and I believe that we are not having committed leadership, who have the interest of the nation and the people at heart, because if we have that, the rate of corruption will be less or non-existent.
But as it is now, everybody dwells in corruption practices, because most Nigerians are looking for the fast track approach. The concept of hard work with results doesn’t really appeal, people are looking for fast track, where they do less work and get more money. Rather than working hard and reaping the benefits, people want to reap, where they did not sow and that is the culture that operates now. You find young men leaving universities and schools thinking of millions and billions even before they start the first job and that was not the attitude.
You rose to become a military governor during the military era and afterwards during the civilian era, you contested and won an election to become a senator. Would you like to be called a converted democrat like some of your colleagues?
Well, if you want to call me a converted democrat, fine. But I want to tell you something that within the military, there is real democracy. The difference is that the military with its own democratic ideals also recognises a common structure. A Commander can’t take a decision without asking his subordinates to contribute to that decision, then, at the end of the day, the decision becomes yours.
So, it is democratic in the sense that you seek advice before a decision is taken. You ask people and try to do things that will improve the welfare of your troops, so, there is that element of democracy in the military and that is why, it is not too difficult to convert to a democrat. It was easy and I think we excelled ourselves – the military men who joined politics.
You were in the military during the June 12 saga. Why do you think that election was annulled?
I wouldn’t know because I wasn’t a participant in aborting the June 12. I was an officer and I wasn’t in the decision-making body but those who aborted the June 12 knew why they did it and I think the June 12 issue has been addressed many time by those actors, who were very active in that exercise.
Now, Nigeria is almost at a crossroads in terms of the unity of the country. A lot of issues have arisen, one of which is that some want out while others are serving their countrymen quit notice. What is your position in all these?
It is sad that these agitations are taking place to the extent that it will appear as if the separation is going to be very forceful. It is unfortunate because after the civil war, one thought that this country will never see another civil war. We may not survive another civil war. God forbid! But it is unfortunate that agitations are coming from all corners of the nation. Other than dwelling on the issues that unite us, we are dwelling on the issues that divide us. Ojukwu said after the war that he was proud to lead the Biafrans but as it stands at the time he was giving that interview that he would never support another agitation for Biafra.
I think it was a very genuine conclusion that he made and I think there are so many things that unite us that we are not exploring rather we are exploring those things that divide us. I, on a personal note, will like to see a united Nigeria because there are too many things to gain from each other. I am not sure a divided Nigeria will be successful. A divided Nigeria will be worse than Somalia. A divided Nigeria will be worse than Libya today. A divided Nigeria will be worse than South Sudan.
So, I think we have every reason to remain one and work on those things that divide us and how do we work on those things? We must find the causes of these agitations and our leaders should address these causes. The political leadership must address those issues that divide us zone by zone, region by region and try because you can’t satisfy everybody but as much as possible ensure that justice, equity, fairness are displayed on all sides and work on those issues that divide us.
Aside those clamouring for separation, there are some of the politicians from both sides of the divide, who feel that something, a kind of compromise in the form of restructuring is the answer to reuniting the country. Do you think Nigeria really desires restructuring?
Personally I don’t know what they mean by restructuring; I don’t understand.
Some are talking about restructuring the affairs of government, economy, devolution of power, and so on?
Yes I know. I said I don’t understand what restructuring they mean. If restructuring is bringing food to the table of Nigerians, yes. If restructuring gives a sense of belonging to everyone in Nigeria, yes. If restructuring is fair and equitable to all sides and parts of Nigeria, yes. But outside that, I think some people – some political gladiators are grandstanding with the issue of restructuring. I personally don’t think we need restructuring.
I think what we need is to ensure that we are fair to all, justice to all, that nobody is above the law and nobody is in a privileged position than the other. That is what I would say of my understanding of restructuring but I think some of these agitators for restructuring don’t even understand what they want or what restructuring means.
You can see that some people are holding conferences or workshop to come out with what they understand by restructuring and Nigerians can’t agree on restructuring. But for me, if restructuring will bring food to Nigerians on the table, will enhance the economy, will be justice and fairness to everyone, then, fine. We can go on that but restructuring the way they are agitating is not that. Some people want more power than the others and I don’t think that should be the political structure that should be encouraged.
What would you say is the way out under the circumstance?
We have a constitution and we have been operating that constitution. If the operators have found out that there are some aspects of that constitution that require amendment, that should done and I think the National Assembly has been doing it. I think that job should be left to the National Assembly. Our constitution doesn’t require referendum. Some people are calling for referendum – on what? It is unconstitutional. So if there is any restructuring that should be done, it must be done within the existing constitution.
If you don’t want the present constitution, then, bring about another constitution. Do you want to go the way of Venezuela? Elect another body to come and write a new constitution while the National Assembly is sitting down there? You are calling for chaos and I think if the National Assembly is calling for constitutional amendment, the people have the right to make their views available and as far as I am concerned, they have been holding public meetings and public hearings to effect whatever changes they feel is necessary in Nigeria. I am of the view that any restructuring must be done within the constitution we operate today.
Some people have actually taken a swipe at the military for foisting what they call the ‘unacceptable constitution’ on the people. Do you think they are right?
Well, you may say so but the point is that we had a constitution. There was a constituent assembly and Nigeria has been operating this constitution since 1999 till date and it is when this agitation started that people are thinking that something is wrong with the constitution. For me, I don’t think anything is wrong with the constitution. It is the operators that are wrong.
This constitution we can operate it in a way and manner that it will be fair to all but the people operating it are not fair. So, saying that the military imposed this constitution, okay, let us agree that the military imposed it but the military also provided for amendment of those constitutions. So, if you look at the areas you think are not in line with what the Nigerians want, there is a provision for you to amend such provisions and I think over the years, each National Assembly as it comes tried to tinker with the constitution and that is where we are today.
Some have also faulted this argument for resorting to the National Assembly for the purposes of amending the constitution. They reckon that previous attempt to tinker with the constitution has met with stiff opposition from some parts of the country that is dominant in the National Assembly by virtue of the old constitution hence they want to stick to the status quo?
So is that a reason to go outside the National Assembly or to go outside the constitution to amend? That is why I am telling that you if you want to take the Venezuela experience, where you have a National Assembly and the president on his own organised another constituent assembly to come up with a new constitution, is that what you want? Obviously, it will be chaotic. The people voted in members of the National Assembly according to the constitution, you must allow them to play the role the constitution has assigned them. You can’t sit outside the constitution and say this must happen. It would be illegal for anybody and any government to say ‘we have a referendum, do you want this constitution or not?’ We don’t have that provision in our constitution and my considered opinion is that whatever restructuring that we want in Nigeria must be done within the constitutional provision.
Your state, Kogi, has witnessed some turbulence since this dispensation politically. What do you think is wrong in with the state?
I want to believe that Kogi State is plagued with unstable leadership. Without trying to announce or praise myself, I was one of those who played a central role in the creation of Kogi State and one feels very disappointed and aggrieved over what is happening in Kogi State. What is happening in Kogi State is that of very bad leadership – a leadership that doesn’t take into account the welfare of the people; a leadership that is not compassionate; a leadership that has no vision – that is what we have now.
It is a disastrous state of affairs and we have to contend with that situation probably in the next two years, because two years have passed already and the people of Kogi State have to take a decision on what they want but in this dispensation, I would say this has been the worst government or administration that Kogi State has ever had.
You are a top member of the PDP and the party has also had a fair share of its crisis since this dispensation and people’s view is that the party is on the way to recovery. Do you share the view that PDP will come back to power in 2019?
Very much I do, because I think PDP has realised those pitfalls that made it to lose election and as long as we block those pitfalls, I am sure that we will bounce back. Specifically, I am talking about the level of impunity that was brought into PDP. The level of injustice and of course, PDP took its success for granted and took many people also for granted and if we have realised that situation and we make amends, we don’t impose people, we don’t force people into position.
APC has spent two years in power. Do you think APC also has made significant strides to warrant their retention of power in 2019?
The people are still waiting for the promises. We still have about two years to go and the people will decide whether those promises have been met or not.