The immediate past Chairman of the governing All Progressives Congress (APC), Chief John Odigie-Oyegun turns 80 next week. He shared his journey through the murky political terrain with ANDREW ESSIEN.
What is the feeling like celebrating your 80th birthday in the next few weeks?
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 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 years. 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 went into the trenches over June 12.
I have 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 age 30, can you reflect on why you were called a super perm sec?
That was a different world from the Nigeria we have today. At the risk of been immodest, I was lucky to be a very good student. I read a lot from the elementary school. I was such a voracious reader. At Standard five, I was already reading Julius Cesar 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 will be consumed that the staff would tell me to leave when they want to close for the day. And I will be there the next morning waiting for them to open the office. I actually prepared myself.
I went to the 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 don’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 skill.
However, most importantly, I had to do my homework. Somebody like Asiodu will come to meeting 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 note too.
We had person like Ayida who was a bundle of common sense and very intelligent. He would dissent something you think it was impracticable and make everything look very normal. With that kind of tutelage, it was not surprising that I found myself in a lot of boards like Nigeria Airways, Nigeria Ports Authority, Nigeria National Shipping among others.
Before I attend the meetings, I had already done my research on the subjects of the agenda. I contribute in such meaningful manner that even my worst enemy will know that I know what I am talking about. The truth behind the name Super Perm Sec is that I was more powerful before I became a Perm Sec. There were instances Perm Secretaries delayed 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 do my homework.
The story of my becoming a Perm Sec 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 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 Perm Sec 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 will be asked to take the minutes at Council Meetings. I spent another six months before they confirmed me as substantive Perm Sec and gave me ministry when my seniors were yet to get one. That is the story of the so called Super Perm Sec.
It was such that whenever there was a problem, I will 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 passport became a serious issue, I was also drafted to Internal Affairs.
Whether that qualifies me or deserves the name super Perm Sec, I don’t know but we all know that the Ayida’s, Asiodu’s 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 of your life?
One pound was the turning point of my life. I was very small when I gained admission into St Patricks Collage Asaba. In fact, my getting tall was towards the end of my collage 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 mistake, he would punch you in the stomach. The two teachers terrified me and always did poorly in the two subjects. The tradition was that a student drops two subjects between class 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 took the third position 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 it at that but he went further that day asking me the position I took. When I told him third in a class of 90 students, he stormed into his room, came out and gave me one pound. I have never seen it 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 acknowledgement 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 was what I considered a turning point of 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 share significance of that gesture and the magnitude of that sacrifice made deep impression that never left me.
At 80, what would you consider as your deepest regret?
Well, everybody has a regret perhaps there were one or two things one would have done differently. But I have every reason to give glory to God because he has been so good to me. Look at how many careers I have had. In the civil service, I made good the opportunity, I was respected and you won’t believe I retired when I was less than 50 years.
I ventured into business when I left civil service, became a fisherman and within two years, I became the chairman of Nigeria Trolley Owners Association for two years. I ventured into politics and became the first governor of Edo state. I later became the deputy national chairman of the ANPP, national chairman of the APC where my efforts were blessed with the first chairman to oust a sitting government at federal level. More importantly, up till this 80 years, I have never spent one day in the hospital.
In all your career progressions, which one would you consider you enjoyed most?
I don’t know about enjoying most because I enjoyed all of them. I don’t engage in anything that I don’t put myself into it. I must do it to my satisfaction and in a way that makes me happy, gives pleasure and fulfilment. I want to think that it is the reason God made me reach the top. I did not go into any of them to just earn a living. I only liked and enjoyed what I was doing.
In retrospect, what were the decisions you took you would have done differently if given the opportunity again?
I would say none because nobody should look back. When you make 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 Ezife 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 Independent celebration.
As at 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 will break out of the underdevelopment and developing nations. Nigeria has the best prospect to break out that underdeveloped ranks.
We were ahead of Brazil, India who at that time people was dying in the streets because of hunger. We were ahead of Malaysia and few other countries. We had the resources, good planning, we brought in 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.
What is your advice to the young politicians?
We are all headed in a wrong direction. Our politics should not be bitter but must be based on principles, believes and rooted in service. Our politics must be removed from the realms of violence like losing any one life to get someone elected. It does not make sense to me one dying let alone thousands.
Power should not be at all cost and we are going deep into the negative aspects of political life. I tried to bring in some degree of decency into politics but we are headed in the wrong direction and we have to get people who will lead us back from the rate at which we are going now.
I always think of the agony we have created for INEC, I pity the young man currently heading that commission. What is happening in the field, the kind of subterfuges and direct aggression, I wonder how they manage to cope.
It is really sad the way things are going and it does not have to be like that. This is what pains me. I thought we were coming out of it but we have sunk deeper that I don’t even know how we are going to get out of it again.
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