By Bashir Adefaka
Chief Philip Asiodu, 77, has paid his dues as a very articulate Nigerian leader. He became Permanent Secretary at the age of 31. His retirement from service in 1975 when he was Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Petroleum and Energy was believed to be mischievous and premature.
He later became Adviser to President Shehu Shagari on Economic Matters (1983); Member of the Constituent Assembly (1988 – 1989); Secretary (Minister) for Petroleum and Mineral Resources under the short-lived Interim National Government (1992 – 1993).
Chief Asiodu returned to national limelight in 1999 when he slugged it out with Chief Olusegun Obasanjo as a presidential aspirant in a PDP’s presidential primary election, which the General won and subsequently emerged as President of the country.
Upon settling down for government business in 1999, President Obasanjo found the Uzoma Onyia of Asaba and reputable economist the best bet for him as Chief Economic Adviser, which he was between 1999 and 2001. 36 years after his retirement, in this interview with Saturday Vanguard, he picked holes in the then post-Gowon military regime which he blamed for the destruction of the civil service of the dream of Nigerian founding fathers, last week, in Lagos. Excerpts:
You have been so tall in achievements that I don’t know where to start from. May I, therefore, open this talk by asking which background Chief Asiodu is coming from?
Obviously I was born February 26, 1934 My childhood life was interesting. I was born in Lagos but within two months or so my father was transferred to Calabar. So I really became conscious of the world as a little boy in Calabar. Then my father was transferred from Calabar back to Lagos and when I came to Lagos he put me in St. Paul Catholic School, Ebute Metta, under the headmastership of Chief J. F. Odunjo who later became a commissioner in the Western Region.
Of course Chief Odunjo was a famous Yoruba Language teacher; he wrote the popular Yoruba textbook, the Alawiye and then I went from there to the King’s College, which of course was a non-sectarian school but we were allowed to practice our religion and so on. Though not a sectarian school, King’s College adhered to basic principles which helped them for the quality of honesty, integrity, patriotism, resilience in facing what you had to face.
So in terms of income level when most Nigerians were subsistent farmers or petty traders, you would say that my father belonged to fairly comfortable middle class. In terms of accommodation we lived in, the schools we went; in fact there was no doubt about where to get your school fees from and no question about what food you ate. So, as a little boy when you felt hungry you were fed.
We were under better hygiene routine; you ate well and of course also you also took some fruits. And every week on Saturday they had to purge us. They gave us something to purse ourselves and you had to go to stool at least three times before you were allowed to take your breakfast (laughs). And then once in a while, maybe once in two months you had to be de-wormed. All these were regular requirements in those colonial days because, it is said prevention is better than cure. I therefore never really fell ill as a little boy.
Definitely your career started from somewhere. What particular score would you say catapulted you unto the level of a Permanent Secretary and what made you super as one of the five celebrated ‘Super’ Permanent Secretaries of your days?
Yes, ‘super’ was a term invented by you journalists but to start with, first, I told you about the circumstances in which we grew up. In those days in the elementary school you had these tutorial and policy things nicely framed and hung against the walls of the classrooms, things like, “honesty is the best policy”, “punctuality is the soul of business”, “a stitch in time saves nine” and so on. When you were growing up you had songs probably invented by Empire days people … like ‘Voice of spirit!’ Voice of courage!’ like those who say, ‘I dare!’
You know, so these were the things and then you had the background and then you were privileged now, as we were, to be brought up in a school which in England would have been a good school, in a school where we left and moved straight to Oxford University and performed equally well.
Now coming from that background, I remember even in our elementary programme during the strike of 1945 we would pick West African Pilot talking about liberty and was supporting the strikers and others. People at that time thought about the future, not in terms of the person himself to be a rich man or so, but contributing to making the country free and great.
Now you had that as your background; you learned that “honesty is the best policy”, you learned to keep to your word. In fact they used to say that a man’s word was his bond and reading Latin and Greek, and reading Greek mythology and the great achievements of the Romans, you know, gives you an idea of what is humanly possible.
Now, again, coming from that background and now entering the civil service and then you find that you swear your oath to do your best and that you must abide by the rules and what was called ‘general order’ in the civil service regulations: Things you may do and not do; how you do with public funds, you know, financial instructions.
And we went into a system then, as you enter into the civil service, you can see three or four outstanding examples of people who have succeeded in the service. In our time we had the governor-general, we had the chief secretary, then the chief commissioner supervising senior residents and then they moved down in that order; everyone doing what he had to do knowing he’s judged not by any extra factor but just on the basis of merit and productivity. You entered the civil service with qualifications which must be known.
Everybody knew what he had to do. We had stages of training and we had stages of assessment and every year you were assessed by people who were fearless, objective and willing to help. You went out of your way looking for talents and you encouraged them.
As I said, people may be taught to be good but people have the tendency to be weak. People are easily tempted but you were guided and conscious of the fact that punishment for infractions of laid down rules will be visited upon you regardless of who you are. While that is there, most people sit up.
Even in your own days, when Generals Muhammadu Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon came and said people must queue, didn’t
you see Nigerians falling in line? But as soon as that (discipline) was removed, we went back into the mess. In those days, civil service, in fact compared to being a peasant farmer, was good position.
The civil service is for those who are motivated to serve the country and in the process become well known. You want to exercise authority, not in the sense of a tyrant, the authority based on performance. They enjoyed that. It is easy to abuse power and it is easy to abuse the authority, which is what is happening today to the great destruction of national progress. That was how we entered the public service.
In 1960 when the British left, our Federal revenue was not more than 40 million pounds. It was under Balewa and Okotie-Eboh that it reached 50 million pounds for the whole. Under General Yakubu Gowon, in second year, it reached 100 million pounds and by then we were in Civil War, which we fought without borrowing money.
The point I want to emphasize here is that with this little sum of money, all the harbours were built: Lagos, Warri, Sapele, Port Harcourt, Calabar. The 4,000 miles of Railways: Port Harcourt to Kafanchan to Kaduna; Lagos to Ilorin to Kaduna; Kaduna to Nguru and then Zaria to Maiduguri were built from the same little sum of money. It was with this also that the country was crisscrossed along the telegraph lines so that if you sent a telegraph, up till the time we had higher technology, within 24 hours you could deliver.
It was with this little amount that the schools we went to were built and maintained from which we could go, without apology, to the best university in the world, Oxford. This is to show you how resources were used very, very, very prudently for the benefit of the people. Then what do we have now?
After the first negotiation in which I participated on partial nationalization of oil companies and all that, we were now thinking in the premises of over four billion naira revenue in 1975. Of course within three months of that, General Gowon was removed and that was a watershed for the evolution in the Nigerian civil service.
We were in the processing of transforming the Nigerian civil service but then, unfortunately the political problem came; the military struck in 1966 and a great tragedy for us, thereby, was that the coup truncated our political revolution and created a great setback for the dream of our founding fathers of how they would make Nigeria better.
However, Generals Aguiyi Ironsi and Yakubu Gowon military governments did not interfere with the civil service and that was why we were able, with the authority and the competence of the civil service, to survive the first two coups of 1966 they respectively led.
And that was why we were able to provide the things with which the country was stable and to achieve the transformation of Nigerian Army from just less than 10,000 people to 200,000 to fight the civil war and organize all the logistics. We made sure that they were equipped.
Unfortunately for the country, General Gowon promised to appoint some new military governors and because he kept postponing the announcement of names of those new governors, his lieutenants thought it was the scheme by the civil servants especially the so-called ‘super permanent secretaries’ (laughs), which wasn’t the truth. They had other fears.
In fact, unknown to them, a year before the coup we had urged Gowon to appoint eight new military governors but for his own reason he didn’t do it in time. And I have from a very reliable authority, talking to some of those who did the coup that if in fact on the eve of his going to Uganda he had announced that the six or eight new military governors would take over at certain date, that the coup would not take place.
I am saying that if Gowon had announced the names of the eight new governors before he traveled to Uganda, there would have been no coup. And if the coup didn’t come through, we would have been spared this misconception that we now have. Within two or three years I believe the Head of State would have been persuaded to organize a transition and orderly hand over.
And unfortunately many people thought this was from the civil service’s advice. Gowon is still alive, no civil servant advised him (against the new governors appointment). It was the contention and pressures he was having from his military colleagues who had been to the war and who wanted also to be in power politically because, when we heard about it in the civil service, we were very distressed.
And so when the coup removing Gowon came, its tragedy was that they decided to destroy the civil service and I must say that very surprising for the military, if in fact it was simply a question of saying that the so called ‘super permanent secretaries’ did what was alleged, which they didn’t like, it was enough to have asked some of us to go. There is no explanation for a military coup which thrives on discipline to do what they did; removing hundreds of civil servants who only lawfully carried out instructions from permanent secretaries, their deputies and so on.
I do ask some of the military, “Compare it with a situation when a young officer gets instruction from a General and he does not carry it out.” If in fact we did things wrong, then punish the permanent secretaries. You cannot go below them sacking deputy permanent secretaries, executive officers down to messengers.
No! By doing that, 10,000 people were relieved of their positions within a period of two months without due process, without query and answer. And later on, when the Pedro Martins Commission of Enquiry looked into it, they found that more than 99 percent of the civil servants were gone….
This was something that had been going on in the era of 60 years where people were recruited on certain qualifications, where there were stages you had to pass through, the time for examination, the time for assessment, in fact we went out of our ways to look for talents and push them forward. And you would say it was a merit-driven society.
I don’t want to sound immodest; I became a permanent secretary at the age of 31. There were people who were 55, 60 and in any ministry in which I went as permanent secretary I would quickly eye three or four people at the level of deputy perm sec or so, who I would encourage and groom.
Even I made them sign some of my documents so that my colleagues would recognize them so that if I was not around, you could call one or two people and work would go on. We subscribed to the culture of collective responsibility where the success of one ministry was the success of all.
Quite apart from all I have said, to me personally is that, we have a duty to restore the black man dignity and Nigeria as it is, we now have enormous resources. We are in fact the only combination and population which can create a respectable policy in the world and it behooves us to use that as a catalyst for restoring the dignity of the black man.
With that kind of motivation, I could not subscribe to the disintegration of Nigeria and cannot also subscribe now. And that is why over and above our oath to defend Nigeria, we found it so necessary to work beyond the normal hours of duty and beyond our departmental callings in ensuring that keeping Nigeria as one was realized.
Now this led to the fact that a few of us, apart from doing our work in the ministries, were concerned and when you are concerned and doing your best, people know. About four or five of us were made to be in a council with General Gowon planning to make sure that we succeeded in the civil war.
We took it upon ourselves, we were everywhere abroad helping our diplomacies in explaining the war end of the Federal Government and our plans after the war. We took it upon ourselves, George, Ayida, myself and so on, to visit the warfront because many terrible things were happening; the instructions given to the Army men but if anyone of us and international observers could be there, we felt it woul help the situation.
So we gave them, beyond the personal risk, the general logistics that anybody could give at war front. How many like us had gone and got killed at the war but thanks to the competence of the civil service, that didn’t happen and it is because of this, some people decided to say we were super permanent secretaries. We never knew we were.
What did you see after the 1975 ouster of the General Gowon-led Federal Government?
In the post 1975 we now had a situation whereby it became clear that the objective, confidence on which the civil service was built was no more. People now conspired against the civil service and people had been retired from cheer whispers and gossips. You know things, as Achebe said, fall apart and they then followed it up with the theory of Federal Character.
And what about that, I mean if the Federal Character was a borrowed idea to restore your kind of civil service?
Nothing is wrong with the Federal Character but they should recruit people who must have the minimum qualifications. After that, once you come into the civil service, let the appointments be based on merit and productivity going through the stages, making sure that you do career planning where everybody is given every opportunity to improve himself.
In my time people were taken and told to go to Lagos where you were challenged, you learned and you conquered. But where you degenerated into quota, you must have had permanent secretaries divided by states, may be sooner or later by division, whether you are number 20 or 30 in performance, it’s your turn, you will get no where.
How should the Federal Character be made better?
The world today is highly competitive. The world is led by the best. Today the Europeans will go to America. Americans will come to Europe looking for best people to run their organizations. We cannot deploy and send somebody from first 11 and say we want to win.
Again, I believe that we are equally endowed with basic intellect in this country. What we have to do is to make sure that there is quality education to the poorer throughout Nigeria and with education we don’t have any need to invent any artificial way of ensuring Federal Character because, intellect is already distributed.
Even in giving the same education, challenge, giving the same basic qualification to enter the courses, challenge to go through the courses, challenge to be productive, we will end up not by an artificially ordered Federal Character but Federal Character based on ability and then performance.
In any case, to say that in any department, as I saw one terrible document in 2000 saying states should have less than 2.3 percent from this and this from that by taking hundred dividing it by 36. I call it nonsense. In a well bill, an area we have fine geniuses in mathematics or give geniuses of management, what does it matter? Five years, 10 years down the line, it will be other places. We are drawing back ourselves.
To bring this discussion to temporary conclusion because we will still have to talk, what is your idea of what the average Nigerian needs as a leader that once sought to be President of this great country?
The average Nigerian wants access to good education, good health, water, job, of course for that you must have power too. Who delivers it to him? Whether a Fulani or Ibo or Yoruba, does it matter? And it shouldn’t matter. In fact we should be thinking in terms of how to make the economic integration of West Africa a reality and that is one of my regrets.
I had hoped the way we were growing before the final destruction of 1975, from after the civil war the country was growing at 11.5 percent per annum. If we had sustained even 10 percent per annum for 20 more years, today the per capital income of Nigeria would not be less than 20,000 dollars and the …. of Nigeria will be very different from what it is now.
Look at Malaysia that came here to borrow palm oil technology, it is now far ahead of us. Look at even Singapore. Nobody owes us a living it is only we, ourselves, who will decide what and where we want to be. When we do, the world will applaud us. At the point I’m talking about in the late 70s we were low middle point already. We ranked about number 58 on the top. Today we are 157 or so.
People have overtaken us because, we destroyed the civil service; we abandoned the plan of 75 years which was the emphasizing of capital and intermediate products, agro-allied industry, petrochemical, which would have given us a very serious developmental pyramid.
When people talk today about 30 percent performance in the industrial sector, this is 40 percent of the 10 percent capacity of the 70s. If we had been growing the way we were growing, 10 percent per annum if you like, with that 10 percent per annum – every seven years something doubles. So what we had would have doubled. And so in 1986, if it was one, it becomes two; 1989 it would be four; in ’96, eight; 2002, 16 and may be now 32 percent.
So you are talking about 40 percent of 10. You should be thinking about 40 percent of 32. So whatever we have is less than 2 percent of what it used to be. That is why the contribution of manufacturing industry in GDP today is under four percent. Under the 20:2020 plan we are hoping to take it to about 20 percent. Forget 20:2020 in immediate circumstance, what we have to do is to invest energy.