In this interview he granted the leading Hausa newspaper, Rariya, Mr. Ekwueme talks about his life, his politics, his struggles and his visions for Nigeria.
Former Vice President Alex Ekwueme is one of Nigeria’s most respected statesmen alive today. He established the first indigenous architectural firm in Nigeria’s history and is the only Nigerian who was tapped to become his country number two citizen while still in school for his Ph.D. A democrat to the core, Dr. Ekwueme has since the late 70s remained one of the country’s most influential politicians. And not many people met their wives at the age of 12. He did and has remained married to her for 54 years.
In this interview he granted the leading Hausa newspaper, Rariya, Mr. Ekwueme talks about his life, his politics, his struggles and his visions for Nigeria.
Q. How is growing up like in Oko in the 30s?
Well, Oko was a very rural village but I didn’t actually grow up there because my father was a church teacher for the Church Missionary Society (CMS) which is now the Anglican Church and at time they were called CMS Agents that is Church Missionary Society Agents. Today they call them Evangelists. They were responsible for going to rural villages where Christianity had not penetrated and primarily to set up Christian churches so although officially I am from Oko, I was not actually born in Oko. I was born in a village about eleven miles east of Oko call Uga because sometimes my father was in charge of Emmanuel church at Uga so I was born within the church premises and from there, after I was four, my father was transferred to another town Nkpologwu, to Emmanuel Church Nkpologwu. There he stayed for just one year before he was transferred again to another church St Jude Adazi Ani where we stayed two years and where my younger brother, Professor Laz Ekwueme, the present traditional ruler of Oko was born. After that we moved to a place called Oba which is the remotest part of the state that my dad had to serve. He was the pioneer missionary there. He set up the first church and assimilated the first Christians and after two years there we came back to Oko. That was when we started living at Oko from 1940 generally and that was at the age of seven. It was then a very rural setting. And from Oko, I went to a primary school in a neighbouring town which was about 4 miles away and as we moved on foot everyday until 2 years after that-1942 February, my father died and my aunt then asked me to come and live with her because when my father died my mother had me and the traditional ruler Professor Laz and another Prof, the surgeon, Obumneme, and after my father died my mother delivered twin girls so the burden of looking after three of us and the twins was too much for her and her husband. So my aunt asked me to come and live with her which served two purposes. First, it relieved my mother the burden of having to look after me and secondly, I was able to keep my aunt company because she was living alone. But from there, to continue going to school there meant a journey of five and half miles every morning on foot which was very strenuous. But it toughened me because we used to leave in the morning as early as five o’clock and get to a stream on our way and we stop there to have our morning bath and from there we start walking from that stream to the school went uphill and it was very very strenuous. And you have to get to school on time because when you come late you now you are in trouble because it attracted corporal punishment. It was no pleasure. When we close we start trekking back five and half miles and gets back to my aunt’s place and I had to go to the stream to fetch water for us to use and come to help cook the evening meal. It was very strenuous but it was useful as I said it toughened me and I was able to cope with tough situations later in life.
Sir, from there to Kings College. How did you get to King’s College from a village?
That’s a good question. Fortunately my elder brother had gone into DMGS, Denis Memorial Grammar school at Onitsha. Infact, my dad just settled him in at the Grammar school in January and he died in February. So he was the one who suggested that I should take entrance examinations to what he considered good secondary schools in Nigeria and Kings College was one of them and he mentioned Government College Umuahia which was also a good school and then of course there was DMGS the one he was attending, there was Methodist College Uzuakoli, Hope Waddel College Calabar and so on. And the first examination that came up was that of King’s College. And that was June 1944, and then a month and half after we did the examination I was asked to come for the interview. They sent a warrant to enable the child travel by train to Enugu…
And, unaccompanied at the age of?
Yes at the age of eleven.
And then you settled in in Kings College
Yes, we did the interview and I was given a scholarship…four of us were granted scholarships and only 25 were taken to class one the following year. Officially we would have started in September but it was during the war so we started in January 1945.
Who were your contemporaries at Kings College?
Our class of 25 we were only (those of us still alive today) about seven. We were four from the east and that four out of coincidence were distributed among the 4 provinces. I was the only one from Onitsha province, and there was Gogo Nzeribe the Trade Unionist, who was from Owerri Province, there was Okon from Calabar province and there was another person from Ogoja Province. There were four of us from the East, twenty from the West and only one from the North, Bashir from Ilorin. In the class above us, we had Odimegwu Ojukwu and his first cousin, Emmanuel Ojukwu, and another boy who later became the President of the Nigerian Bar Association. We had quite a few bright people like Professor Olaitan who was at University of Benin and who later became an Arch Deacon. Adesugba who later became the Deji of Akure and others.
Was it after High school that you went to study architecture in the US?
Yes it was after Secondary school. I did my school certificate in December 1949 and we finished from King’s College in June 1950. Then in December 1950, I did a Higher School Certificate examinations which is called A Level now in Arts subjects- English Latin and history. Then, when the results came out the following month and I passed, the Principal who was my mentor, had gotten me back to the school to work as Technical Assistant and Science Instructor to the junior classes so while I was teaching there, in December 1951, I took another Higher School Certificate in the Sciences- Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics. It was the Principal who suggested that I should study Architecture because it was a field in which there were no Nigerians at the time and that with my wide background and my ability in arts, I should make a good architect. Fortunately then we set up that year and and they asked for arts students in North America in the secretariat in Broad Street and for the first time, Nigerians were eligible to apply for scholarship under the Fulbright Act sponsored by the Department of State to exchange students. That year, four Nigerians were awarded this scholarship but because we were a colony, we were not eligible to be awarded the scholarship as Nigerians so we were awarded the scholarship as part of the United Kingdom contingent so they took two of us undergraduates and two post graduates but they took us first to England where they took us round all the scenic places. The English speaking places like Cambridge, Oxford, the Theaters, Birmingham and opera and so on. After they thought we were sufficiently drilled, we went across to the United States.
While you were there you were eclectic in your choice of study-philosophy, sociology, law. Why did you take all these diverse courses and you had degrees in all of them?
First I had some crucial courses I had passed before coming into the full programme. First I had exemptions from Intermediate Bachelor of Arts degree of London University so I’d registered for the London University BA degree before I got the scholarship to come and study Architecture. While I was studying Architecture, well the American system then, coursework, we had to have a certain number of credits to get a degree and because I had done those Higher school in arts, English and History and sciences Physics, chemistry and mathematics, I was exempted from English language courses, I was exempted from mathematics courses for architects even from the sight and sound which you had to do in preparation for mechanical equivalent of buildings in architecture. But having been exepted from all these, I think they didn’t give me credits for that so I still had to make up to get the required number of credits required for graduation. So I used all those open spaces to concentrate on my electives- philosophy, sociology and so on. Within three years of my coming in, I took my London University external BA examination in History, Philosophy and Constitutional law. That was in1955 June and in August that year, that’s 3 months after, because I had accumulated enough courses in sociology, I was eligible to get a degree in sociology. Then the following June that they got me adopted in architecture in City Planning and then having got that I went for Master in Urban planning while I was preparing for it, I then took the intermediate degree examination of University of London in September in 1956. I passed. Then March of the following year after I had left the university, I received a Bachelor of arts degree in Urban Planning. While I was in London I was interviewed by Standard Oil which was establishing in Nigeria for the first time. They gave me a job to look after constitution and Maintenace Department. It was an attractive offer so I came home and took the job. Then I went on to practice. My practise was registered on January 2 1958. In 1976, after 20 years, I left my architecture degree and decided to go for a Ph.D degree, and that was in Housing. While I was doing my research I picked up my LLB part 1 where I left it in 1957. So in June 1977, I took the part 1 LLB examination of London University. Then in June of 1978, I took the part 2 finals and that’s the LLB degree. Then in October, I got a Ph.D before returning to Nigeria. Getting back to nigeria, I got talked into the National Party of Nigeria and on January 23, I was made a running mate to Shehu Shagari and the rest is history.
Is it true trhat you were the first to establish an architectural firm in Nigeria
January 2 1958, Ekwueme Associates Estate and Town Planning was registered and that was the first architecural firm in Nigeria.
You said that when you came back after your Ph.D, you joined politics. How did that happen?
At a dinner we had in Glassgow after my Ph.D in October, there were many Nigerians there. Around September or so, the military government had lifted the ban on politics. Those who came from Nigeria were intrigued about the change from military to civilian administration and at the dinner they all said that I should come back and contest for governorship of Anambra state. I gave two conditions. First and foremost I had spent 24 months doing this work and that I was really exhausted…really exhausted becare during the research work and preparing for my LLB examinations, it took a lot away from me. And I shuttled back and forth to Nigeria 13 times during those 2 years. Although I had partners who were running the firm but still those people who gave us their commissions asked of me because they knew me. So I had a personal responsibility to ensure that those projects were properly handled so I travelled 13 times. So I said first I need to rest. After that, the next condition was that I didn’t have the resources for campaign and won’t be able to rush into the campaign with that kind of energy. What they told me was ‘don’t worry. We will take care of all that’. That I should just accept the nomination.
I came back to Nigeria in November and by the time I came back they had formed the parties and it was four days before the primaries but however they postponed it for another one week so I came in 11 days to the primary nomination. And true to the promise they made, they had mobilised people. And many of those who had indicated interest to run all stepped down and said they would support me. Anambra state as it was then composed, had polarisation between its north which is now Enugu State and south which is presently Anambra and people from Enugu state already felt they were dominated by people in what is Anambra now. And CC Onoh wanted to be governor and from my own part the state, there were three of us. We sat down and everyone stepped down except Chuba Okadigbo. So we came to the primaries and there were three of us coming from what was then Anambra and only one cominig from Enugu so the result was foregone conclusion. Then we went to Casino Cinema in Lagos, on December 10, for the presidential primaries, it was there that Alhaji Shehu Shagari was nominated after Maitama Sule stepped down so we didn’t go for a second ballot. There were general arrangements the party had agree to before I came back from the United Kingdom. The north were to prduce the president and they were six of them contesting for it. Four western states should produce the Chairman of the party and what is now the South East should produce the vice President and what was called Southern Minorities or the South-South today should produce the Senate President. So after the presidential primaries at Casino Cinema, matters came up for the selection of Vice President. The Committee that was set up by the party to go to Anambra and Imo to find out whom they thought would be able to partner with Alhaji Shehu Shagari in the contest of the country went round but didn’t quite conclude. In fact they were to do their work between that time and to finish by December 26th or 27th so what happened was that because I was not mentally prepared for Vice President, what I came back to contest was that of governor. So on the 21stDecember, while the committee was going round, I left the country with my family. We went to Douala in the Camerouns. Then on the 24th we moved from Douala to Nairobi so we spent Christmas in Nairobi and then came back to Nigeria on the 29th December by which time they must have finished the selections but they hadn’t.
We returned . At the Hotel Presidential Enugu, where the state chairman of the party Dr. Ralph Orizu, former president of the senate was staying, he called leaders of the party from Anambra and Imo to come to his suite and when they came, he told them that the slot for vice president had been allocated to Anambra and Imo and that Anambra and Imo States should bring one person each who they would like to occupy the slot, and that those two people should bring their CVs the next morning. So as it turned out, the state executive submitted my name. So the next morning, we submitted our CVs to Alhaji Shehu Shagari and he spent the next day in Enugu. Then the day after that they moved us from Anambra to Benue. When we got to the Anambra/Benue border, the Benue contingent had come to meet us so while we were exchanging greetings, Alhaji Shehu Shagari called me aside and said that he had reached agreement and that he would like to work with me. So I thanked him for the honour for considering me a suitable associate for the office of the president. So we went back to Lagos after the tours and they fixed a National Executive Council meeting and I was in London for my convocation. The treasurer of the party in Anambra state called me on the phone and said ‘what are you doing there?’ I tried to explain to him and he said ‘jump into a plane and come back immediately’. I said what is happening but he said just jump into a plane and come immediately. I came back and so on the 23rd January at the NUC, I was invited to Jibowu street and after the NUC met, they had consultations with Alhaji Shehu Shagari and he announced to them that the party had adopted me as running mate to Shehu Shagari.
How did you emerge as an Igbo Vice President to a northern President when Zik from your locality was the Presidential candidate in another party NPP. Did it add any political pressure on you since both of you are from Anambra state.Was there any pressure from your people?
One of the things I mentioned at the dinner in Glassgow was that I would like to get involved in the governorship thing and I would like to do it on the platform of a party that has a nationwide appeal. And as of the time we were doing primaries at Enugu, Zik had not declared for NPP. Infact a delegation had gone to see him at Nsukka and I think it was on their way back that one of them, Chief Agbaje from Ibadan, died in an accident on their way back. What he told the delegation was that he would consider their invitation for him to join and that he would announce a decision in due course. But as soon as we finished the nomination in Enugu, the following week, NPP came to do their own. Zik then declared for NPP. He was persuaded by a team that went from Lagos, some of his old colleagues NCNC, to come and join the NPP and to lead. Waziri Ibrahim pulled out and took his own group as Great Nigeria People’s Party (GNPP).
Did you have any form of relationship with Alhaji Shehu Shagari before your nomination as his running mate?
Well, it was when he was commissioner for cement and a mutual friend of ours who has passed on now, took me to him because the military were acquiring my properties in Portharcourt and had defaulted. They have not paid their rent up to date so he told me that Alhaji Shagari would be able to help me. So I saw him and he called Alhaji Shehu Musa, the late Makama Nupe who was a deputy Permanent secretary in the Ministry of Defence, and told him that he was sending me to him and that he should solve the problem. So when I got to Alhaji Shehu Musa office, he invited one Shittu, one of his Assistants who took the matter and they sorted it out and paid all the arears they were owing. That was my closest contact with him prior to NPN convention.
What was the nature of your working relationship with the President. I am asking this because of the problems we are seeing these days between principals and their deputies.
We had a very close working relationship. He is a person who is forthright and principled. I tell you one thing — The first cabinet council meeting we had and paper had been circulated earlier on but throughout the meeting, I didn’t say anything because usually memoranda were signed by the president and of course he didn’t draft them. It was drafted by civil servants but declared under his name. So as soon as the meeting ended he invited me to his office. It wasn’t a very expansive office. From the Council Chambers to his office was just a flight of stairs. And he asked me why I didn’t make any contribution to the discussion that went on at the council. I told him that the memoranda came under his signature and I found a lot of things I was not happy with and I didn’t think it would be tidy for me to come and start pointing out those issues because it would seem as if we were working at cross purposes. So I said that there are two ways of handling these issues. Either I see these memos and add my input before they come which would preserve the integrity of the presidency. He said that I should go ahead and add my views. He said he didn’t know that this problem were sometimes created by civil servants and sometimes they come so late, a day or two before council meeting and there won’t be time to go through it. That I should be free to express my views on any of the items so I thought it was very unusual because most people would be sensitive about seeing a paper they signed being criticised by their deputy. So we worked together amicably. Even at that time there were cases of physical fighting between governors and their deputies. We had problems in Rivers between Melford Okilo and Frank Eke. We had problem in Kwara between Adamu Attah and Shittu and few other places but we never had a cause to quarrel.
One of the stuff of your government is that the President and his deputy were men of proven integrity but the government was accused of massive corruption. I want you to give us an insight on how two of you dealt with that issue of corruption
The problem of corruption was magnified beyond proportion because the media was in total control of UPN which was in opposition to us. Well as you can when the military came in and they set up military Tribunals, the first people to be jailed for corruption were those taking kickbacks from the Great Nigeria Insurance which went up in flames a few days ago. It wasn’t NPN government, it was UPN people government. And the people who had longer sentence for abuse of office was not NPN governors, it was NPP governors. So the thing was magnified out of proportion. When contracts were awarded it was out of competitive tendering process. Directors had power up to N250, 000, Perm Secs up to so much and ministerial tenders board had so much and beyond that it has to come to Federal Tenders Board. Now admittedly, we had a few ministers whose conduct fell below the norm and it’s a difficult thing to police because it was not something that was easily proven so that you say this is the proof. Once you heard that sort of thing and you confront the minister or the person concerned and he deny totally that there was no such misconduct. But what happened then was that during the second term, of course we knew that this problem was there So, we required all those who were appointed ministers to sign undated letters of resignation so as not to cause us any embarrassment so that when we have this sort of story about a minister collecting money, we would just say that he has tendered his letter of resignation on personal grounds. My friend Ibrahim Tahir said I am not going to sign this thing because its unconscionable to ask someone to sign a letter of resignation in advance and I said but it was better. Two of us were taking…just two of us…and I said ‘do you want to be a minister?’ He said yes I want to be a minister and I said that I am afraid that if you don’t sign this, you will not be a minister. May his soul rest in peace. He was a good man. So we had taken adequate steps to prevented any misconduct by our ministers during the second term but of course we didn’t have the time to practice it. And you see the calibre of people we got in during the second term like Emeka Anyaoku, Aliyu Dantero and of course a few fresh people.
Shortly after the 1983 coup, there was a coup. The principal officers, particularly at state and federal levels, were arrested and detained by the military including the president. What can you tell us about what happened.
As you know I was first the person to be arrested. They came to my house at about 1 AM and then it my friend’s son who came to arrest me…you know the Emir of Gwandu. Each time we went to Sokoto, the Sultan Abubakar III was getting on with age so he always delegated the Emir of Gwandu to stand in for him so we developed personal relationship. So it was Major Jokolo who came to arrest me. After I was arrested, we went to the House of the Speaker where they arrested Benjamine Chaha from Benue. In the first term we had NPN/NPP Accord so the Speaker came from NPP and that was how Ume Ezeoke became Speaker otherwise Benjamine Chaha would have been Speaker. Because of that he was made a minister. That position was zoned to North Central. So Benjamine Chaha was coming to the House for the first time. He was a school teacher and my house is very close to his place and apparently the driver forgot the way to his house and he went round and round looking for it. So when we got there anyway, he was very frightened. When he came to the car and saw me, he calmed down. He said if I was there and was not panicking, why should he be panicking. Well in plain language, it would be called treason to dismiss an elected government and assume power by force of arms.
They said you had information that these soldiers were planning. Why didn’t you arrest them. It was alleged that both President Shagari and you got a hint that they were planning the coup?
Maybe President Shagari got a hint, I didn’t have a hint
Sir, during the regimes of Buhari and Babangida, you were relatively quiet. You didn’t engage government during this period but when Abacha came you were so active even leading some opposition to the military. What were you doing during Babangida and Buhari period?
First, in the Buhari period which lasted for 20 months, I was in detention. I went from Bonny Camp first to a House in Temple Road and from there to Kirikiri then from Kirikiri to Ikoyi Prison. It was there in Ikoyi prison in August that Buhari was shunted aside by Babangida. It was Babangida that got us out of Ikoyi prison and back to house arrest where we started. House arrest first at Hawksworth then from Hawsworth to Roxton then from Roxton to Milverton. That went on like that for a space of about 10 months. From there I was taken to my home at Oko and placed under restriction. I could not go out of my Local Government. I was not allowed to make any statements so naturally I had to comply because I signed that I would comply with and I did comply. After the restriction within my local government, they expanded it and said I should not move out of my state. From my state I was kept within Nigeria until 1989. Six years after that I was allowed to travel out of the country. That was why you didn’t hear much from me. Then Babangida came and promised to hand over after a period of time. He set up institutions, Centre for Democratic Studies, so many institutions, and created parties. Well what I decided was that I would not participate in any political activity. I wouldn’t be a member of any of the parties and institutions. Then when Abacha came, what really triggered me was his modus operandi. He came and it was clear that he didn’t have any regards for the civilian population. He thought everything was to be accomplished by force of arms. We organized first as civil society, nine of us to try and really appreciate that if we don’t extricate ourselves from the military, we will remain slaves to them forever. Then from the Institute for Civil Society, we decided to hold a summit which was held at Eko Hotel. While that was holding, he sent thugs to disperse us. After that we heard that he was planning to transit from a military to civilian Head of state and we found that that was unconscionable. If he wanted to run as a civilian, he should retire from the army and come into one of the parties and contest for nomination not to use his position to manipulate political parties into nominating him as a sole candidate. That in short he would be returned unopposed. I guess all the decrees he passed said that no public servant should take part in partisan politics. So after the summit, all of us in civil society met again and recognised the Summit and felt it was widely assumed that they were all supporting Abacha because he was a Northerner so we agreed that they would make the first move, telling Abacha that what he was doing was not acceptable. So we met at Kaduna and drafted a memorandum which Solomon Lar delivered to him by a group of 18. Then after that I called a full meeting at Glover Hotel in Yaba where 34 of us met and I prepared a memorandum which we gave to him which was G34 Memorandum.
So it was the G34 that metamorphosed into PDP?
Well the G34 midwifed the PDP. After Abacha’s death and Gen. Abdulsalam came and we were allowed to start partisan politics. It was G34 that called the associations we had in Lagos and eventually decided to get political associations because we had come to the conclusion that unless we all go together… We believed that we must forget every differences and come together so the associations that were in existence came together – ANC, ADP, PDN, PCS, PNS. And so that was how PDP emerged formally in August 21 at the National Conference Centre in Abuja. It formerly became a party.
During the 1994/95 constitutional Conference you championed the restructuring of Nigeria into 6 geo-political zones. What was the motivation?
What was exactly wrong with the structure of the Nigerian Federation at independence and thereafter? We had three regions-the North, the East and the West. The drawbacks of that structure was that the north was bigger than the other two regions put together which meant that in a parliamentary system if all the other MPs vote together, they will always produce the Prime Minister. Which meant that some parts of the country will consider themselves second class citizens if they cannot aspire to the highest office in the land. That was the first pitfall. The second one was that we met the structure for each region such that in each region we had a majority ethnic group and then a group of minority ethnic groups. In the north, Hausa/Fulani, then the others like Kanuri, Gwari, Nupe and so on coming down to others like Angas and Tarok.
In the West, Yoruba and then Edo, Urhobo, Itsoko Itsekiri, Western Ijaw. In the East, Igbo majority then Ibibio, Efik the Eastern Ijaw, Ogoja area, Ogoni. So all these minority groups felt that by the structure of the region they were again second class citizens. So it was in their interest that they should be in opposition. The Midwest was able to be established as the first region. The minorities in the east and north were not so lucky so my thinking was how do we cure these two defects. First the overbearing size of land in the federating units and secondly the conflict between the majority and minority groups and of course if you cure these two then we have a stable country. So we said that we should have in the north 3 zones, North West, mostly Hausa/Fulani, North East and North Central mostly Minorities. South west mostly Yoruba, the South East, mostly Igbo and South-south mostly minorities again. Although we have some Igbo in Delta, you have some Yoruba in Edo and you have some Hausa in Auchi so with this arrangement we now have 3 majority zones and 3 minority zones. That is also 3 zones in the north and 3 zones in the south so we cured the first defect of the first structure. That was the logic that informed the proposal.
Sir the presidential campaign you ran during the formation of the PDP was exciting because of the issues and the difference was clear between the two emerging leaders but most of the northern elders like Adamu Chiroma or those in NPN rallied around you and were supporting you but somehow Obasanjo was also supported by the military. So the military was for Obasanjo and politicians were for you and he got it. In 2003, a similar thing happened. What actually played out then?
It was not quite right to say that politicians were for me while the military was for Obasanjo. Two politicians for example were for Obasanjo. Rimi was a politician. Even in the stadium there where they were choosing the candidate, he was campaigning for Obasanjo in Jos. And then Bamanga Tukur who was in ANC who I campaigned for in 1983 when he was running for governorship of Gongola. He gave his reasons for supporting Obasanjo in the book ‘This House Has Fallen’. You see where he was interviewed and he said that Obasanjo was like a truck driver and I was like a limousine driver. You know Obasanjo is a rough person and I was a gentleman type of politician and that what Nigeria needed at that time was a truck driver and not a Limousine driver. So he was supporting Obasanjo. Even Solomon Lar, may his soul rest in peace, who was the Chairman of the party and who was my deputy in all those organisations, supported Obasanjo in Jos. Jerry Gana who was my Secretary in Civil Society, Secretary in G34, Secretary in PDP, Secretary in Board of Trustees when I was Chairman, he was also an Obasanjo man. So it was not just not a military affair, we had more to it but what most people didn’t understand is that I could have scuttled the whole thing in Jos because in November 1998, at a meeting of the National Executive Committee of the party which we had before local government elections of December, the government had said that it was the performance of the local government elections that would decide which parties would get final registration. So it was crucial for every party to succeed in local government elections and at this meeting it was stated in black and white that anybody who did not win his local government will not be eligible to contest for presidency. Anybody who did not win his ward will not be eligible to contest for governorship. After the election of December 5, the next NEC meeting, which was chaired by late Afolabi because Solomon Lar was not present that day, approved and confirmed this decision of the NEC. Now in my pocket in Jos I had a copy of the decision and also the constitution of the party. The chairman of the party was like the chairman of the Board and Secretary of the party was like the Managing Director so it was the Secretary who had executive powers not the Chairman. When the result was announced in Jos and they said Obasanjo won, I had the option of saying I didn’t accept it or say I accept it, embrace it and work together to make sure the party wins. I could have said that of all the candidates that contested, it was only 6 that were eligible and of those six, I had the highest number of votes so I expected the party to send my name to INEC and having said that and read the minutes of the NEC meeting it was incontrovertible that a person who did not win his local government area, he didn’t win his ward, he didn’t even win the polling station in front of his house so with the NEC decision he couldn’t be the party’s candidate. And this decision was mentioned at the screening committee when we applied to contest. When the screening committee read the letter and its implications, Solomon Lar (may his soul rest in peace) wrote to them to plead that they should give Obasanjo provisional clearance to contest. That provision turned out to be solid but then I could have made a point that out of six of us who won our local governments, I had the highest votes among those who qualified to contest and I expected the party to nominate me. The next day the secretary who had executive powers could have sent my name and letter to INEC as party candidate while Solomon Lar would have sent Obasanjo’s name and letter to the same INEC. So there would have been confusion in the house of PDP. Secondly, it could have given the military the chance to prolong their stay which would defeat all the efforts we made and the risk we took to place our lives on the line during Abacha. My own personal ambition was not worth putting Nigeria at risk and that was why I embraced Obasanjo and went on to campaign for him. Few days after, fund raising was done at the congress hall and I chaired that fund raising ceremony.
Times have changed since you left government. One is corruption. The magnitude of corruption now is very high. The military accused Shagari government of corruption but what is happening now makes it look like child’s play. How do you feel?
I feel very sad that I think we must leave the blame squarely at the feet of the military because the military that was accusing us of corruption had absolutely no checks. I said earlier on that no contract was awarded without tender. Except those of defence that didn’t have to come into the open, military procurement. Otherwise, everything was transparent. But in their own case, there was no processing. Just call somebody and give him a contract without due process and unfortunately the civilians that came after them thought that that was a way to operate and the public servants helped to encourage corrupt practices in all areas of governance. But as I said, when we had a workshop on anti-corruption in 1991, I told them that corruption exists in every country and most human beings have the tendency of being corrupt if they think they will get away with it. Corruption is low in America because it is difficult to get away with it. They will track you down. We can reduce corruption if we take just two steps. The first one is to allow an exception to our jurisprudence especially the part we inherited from Britain that says you are assumed innocent until you are proven guilty. And that puts the burden of proving you guilty on the person who accuses you so that can be very difficult burden to discharge. So we need to give exception in some cases and say you are presumed guilty unless you prove yourself innocent. For instance if you are a civil servant on level 10 and you are driving a Mercedes Jeep and you are living in a palace in Maitama and your lifestyle is such that cannot be justified or defended by your legitimate earnings then you are deemed guilty until you prove otherwise. If the structure of that jurisprudence make that exception, then the incidence of corruption will reduce. The second one is to have whistle-blowers protection Act. Anybody who demands gratification from you, you are free to meet his demands provided you will blow the whistle on him immediately and whatever is been recovered from him, some of it would be returned to you and you will be protected by law from being accused of inquisitorial harassment. A slight change in our jurisprudencial norms and promulgation of a Whistle-blowers Act will bring down corruption.
Your last attempt at the presidency was the nearest for any person of Igbo ethnicity. How do you foresee an Igbo presidency in the nearest future?
Well, it’s something that has to be based on structural refinement. I don’t think any Nigerian will be happy if his regional block or ethnic block or geo-political block is seem to be excluded from vying for the highest office in the land for whatever reason. In 1987 I understand Umaru Dikko gave a press conference in London after he escaped from here where he said that the coup which took place in December 1983 was put in place by the Army to prevent me from taking over from Shagari in 1987 and they didn’t want it to linger till that time so they decided to do it at a time we were complaining of the elections, hoping that they would receive the sympathy of non NPN supporters. I don’t know how Umaru got his information but that is what he said. Then in 1999, the same scenario played itself out in a different way. Also in 2003. You know the format was that presidency was just a single term. Now if I had won in 1999, by 2003 I would have served one term and it goes to the North East with a vice president from South South to serve one term. By 2007 a south-south man would have served as a president and he would have someone from Northwest as his Vice so by 2011, a person from Northwest will be president with a VP from South West. By now we would have the opportunity for every geopolitical zone to produce a president and I am persuaded that every geo-political zone in this country has competent man power and can serve in the highest office in the land. It appears that there is a concerted effort to prevent a particular zone from achieving that purpose and its not going to be a very healthy development for the country.
Now to the home front now. You have been married to Mama Beatrice for the past 50 years. Whats the secret for this longevity and cordiality. During your tenure as Vice President you and President Shagari didn’t have First Ladies. They operated behind the scene?
Well this 2013. Next month December 19, I would have been married for 54 years and the secret is in Dame Beatrice for bearing with my inadequacies and I do have a lot of them because she isn’t the type of person she is, she could set the house on fire. I have said so before at our 50th wedding anniversary but may be because we started as little children. I was 12 and she was 10 when we first met. We were actually living opposite each other in Port Harcourt and gradually, through secondary school and so on until we got married many years after that. Maybe because of that long period that she was able to tolerate all my inadequacies and idiosyncrasies and that’s why we are together and living happily today.
How would you like the Nigerian society to judge you?
Well, I cannot and should not blow my own trumpet. My music teacher in secondary school said you have to blow your own trumpet because if you don’t no one will blow it for you until it gets rusty. But I will like to be remembered as someone who came into public office to render service and rendered that service selflessly.
What is your vision then for Nigeria and for the future?
My vision for Nigeria is that Nigeria should become a nation rather than a country. Ghana is a nation. The type of massacre of people from certain groups that takes place from time to time in Nigeria won’t happen in Ghana. You will not see people from Ashanti descending on the Fantis and the Ga and others and killing them as if they are not citizens of the same country. And when you talk a Ghanaian without being told you will see that he is talking as a Ghanaian but when you talk to a Nigerian, by and large it will not show that they are Nigerians first and foremost.
How do we make it into a nation?
It is the role of the government to promote national integration. National integration will not fall from the sky, it has to be worked very hard to have national integration. It can start in a small way. My first son, who is here, Pastor Goodheart of the House on the Rock, went to ABU. His wife is a young lady from Osogbo, Osun State. They are living very happily. My second son is an architect, his wife is a young lady from Okene, an Igbira girl. My third son, his wife is a young lady from Obudu in Cross River. We are having a mix up on it among the younger generation. Some of the old people see themselves as Nigerians and the company they keep because they went to schools where they had a chance to mix with other Nigerians. I went to a school where I lived in a boarding house with people from all parts of Nigeria, we lived together played together. As an example, my first child, my daughter, came after nine years of marriage by this time we were in the middle of the civil war. I was at the Biafran side, my best friend in school Rex Agbofure, first Nigerian Principal of Kings College and he was Director of Education in Commonwealth states. In the Christian tradition, when you have a daughter, you go for christening. You have one godfather and two godmothers for boys you have two godfathers and one godmother for girls. So my daughter’s own in 1968 when she was born the godfather I selected for her was this my friend from Urhobo who was on the Nigerian side while I was on the Biafran side and an Urhobo from Delta State. It didn’t make any difference to me that he was Urhobo so the schools children attend now will make a difference in the their outlook on Nigeria and with time we will build up a Nigerian nation. We have to work very hard at it. It won’t come as a gift.