In the next few days, former National Chairman of the All Progressives Congress, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun will be 80 years old. In this interview with select journalists, he reflects on his political sojourn and how he became a super permanent secretary at the age of 30. Adedayo Akinwale presents the excerpts:
How do you feel as you look forward to 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 a miracle happens in our lives virtually every day of our lives.
My 60th birthday was nice but the first birthday I really felt something strongly about was when I was 40. 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 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 Buhari presidential campaigns except when he was a candidate of the 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 first old Bendel State, before the creation of Edo where I became the governor.
I was equally active politically during the MKO Abiola presidential mandate and the 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 will 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 30. Can you reflect on why you were called a ‘super permanent secretary’?
That was a different world from Nigeria we have today. At the risk of being immodest, I was lucky to be a very good student. I read a lot from 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 ‘consumed’ 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 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 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 skills.
However, most important, I had to do my homework. Somebody like Asiodu would come to meetings with a notebook and whatever the newspapers had, he must have read all and made notes. It influenced me positively, because whenever I read papers, I make notes too. We had a person like Ayida, who was a bundle of common sense and very intelligent. He would dissect something you thought was impracticable and made everything look very normal.
With that kind of tutelage, it was not surprising that I found myself on a lot of boards like Nigeria Airways, Nigeria Ports Authority and Nigeria National Shipping, among others. Before I attended the meetings, I had already done my research on the subjects of the agenda. I contribute in such a meaningful manner that even my worst enemy would know that I knew what I was talking about.
The truth behind the name ‘super permanent secretary’ is that I was more powerful before I became a permanent secretary. There were instances of permanent secretaries delaying 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 MoU but when I went through the documents, pointed out the flaws, we had to reconvene to sort out the issues I raised. I was just lucky that I usually did 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 the 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 months’ 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’s life took place.
Still wanted to be sure, 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 a substantive permanent secretary and gave me a ministry when my seniors were yet to get one. That is the story of the so-called ‘super permanent secretary’.
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 the passport became a serious issue. I was also drafted to Internal Affairs. Whether that qualified me or deserved the name ‘super permanent secretary’, I don’t know.
But we all know that the Ayidas, the Asiodus 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 perm secs 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 in your life?
One pound was the turning point in my life. I was very small when I gained admission into St Patricks College, Asaba. In fact, my getting tall was towards the end of my college life. I had two teachers that everybody feared most, Latin teacher and 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 classes 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 came third 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 by way of conversation, I told him I did very well.
Previously, he would stop at that but he went further that day asking about my position in the class. When I told him third in a class of 90 students, he stormed into his room, came out and gave me one pound. I had never seen 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 acknowledgment 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 were what I considered a turning point in 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 sheer significance of that gesture and the magnitude of that sacrifice made a deep impression that never left me.
In retrospect, what would you have done differently if you had another opportunity?
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 of that underdeveloped ranking. We were ahead of Brazil, India where at that time people were dying on the streets because of hunger. We were ahead of Malaysia and a few other countries.
We had the resources, good planning, we brought in the UN, 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.
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 councillor or member of the House without any work experience and livelihood. This is the greatest bane of Nigeria’s politics today. I want my children to see what life is like. Let them struggle to attain and if they want to go into politics, knowing that 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 a path 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.
How would you want to be remembered by the time you join your ancestors?
I want to be remembered as somebody who did his 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. You just have to respect your own principles and yourself. I want to be remembered as a man, who people will say that they want to be like him through my lifestyle. 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 my life as worthwhile. In my whole career, I have spent my life doing things that will better the lives of an average Nigeria.
I want to go, knowing that I gave it my best. I may not have solved the problems, but I did everything with all the wisdom, strength and the 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 could 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 one 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.