He is an encyclopedia of some sort. The history of Nigeria revolves around his finger tips as he bats no eyelid in telling it. He is a politician of note and to most people, a revered one with some modicum of integrity. In 1979, he ran for legislative seat in the Benue State House of Assembly on the Platform of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), and was consequently, elected the Deputy Speaker of the House.
In 1982 he was appointed Federal Minister of Communications, and later became Minister of Steel Development. His tenure ended in December 1983 when a military coup brought Major-General Muhammadu Buhari to power. In 2001, he became the National Chairman of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) but left the scene under a controversial circumstance.
Today, he is one of the founders of the newly registered All Progressive Congress (APC). Looking back through the years, Chief Audu Innocent Ogbeh in this no-holds-barred and time-consuming exclusive interview in his Abuja residence tells Saturday Vanguard that the PDP he once chaired is a party of Killers amongst other turbulent national issues. The following are the excepts of the interview
Nigeria will be 100 years by January 2014 having been amalgamated in 1914. And it’s been 53 years of the country’s post-independence existence. How has the country fared?
We started off well. It was a land of hope, a land of opportunity, a land of sunlight and faith, land of very proud people. Nigerians are hardworking and very committed. And it went on. It had its own challenges until the unfortunate tragedy of 1966. And then all that hope; true federalism which we had then, all that regional competition for excellence simply came to a halt under the unitary system of government which the military brought along.
And then the culture of violence came into this country. Gun was a solution to political problems and we are here now. We haven’t recovered yet because the hands of the military have not left the scene yet. A British Journalist told me this once: He said you Nigerians made a mistake.
You allowed the Army to hang around too long. He reminded me that in 1945, Winston Churchill, the hero of the Second World War contested election with his own deputy, Clement Atley. They refused to vote for Winston Churchill and voted for Clement Atley. Then I asked him why. Were you not being ungrateful? He said no, they did want any professional soldier hanging around too long in government. And he said but you are paying for it in your country.
Are you saying that 15 years down the line, democracy hasn’t set the pace to correct the anomalies apparently perpetrated by the military?
A strong and violent culture does not dissipate very quickly. It gets engrained in the blood system of people. The choice of candidatures by the opposition is always predetermined by strong men and individuals who believe that they own the estate. If you argue with them, you pay very severely. And the most difficult person to set free is a happy slave. So, most Nigerians would rather not risk challenging arrogant authority.
They will just blend. And Nigerians have the courage to say, sorry, this is wrong. And a few who have tried have paid dearly, some with their lives. And we haven’t had time to mourn them even. So, people have learnt the lesson of acquiscence, grumbling in their bathrooms. I call Nigerians bathroom vocalists and bedroom heroes who would rather complain to their wives and children but outside there, they are busy flattering, cringing and crawling before arrogant authority. That’s what we are.
But talking about the military, many Nigerians will be quick to point out the legacies of the military than the civilian rule, why is it so?
In terms of infrastructure, roads and bridges, yes, they built a lot; I mean Gowon did a whole lot. Obasanjo, Murtala did quite a bit but you realized that the destruction of Civil Service, unfortunately
happened under the Murtala regime; those arbitrary retirements. They were permanent Secretaries in Lagos who went to their early graves. I know one of them before he died. He couldn’t afford a gateman in his house in Lagos. If a visitor came, he had to come out of his house to open the gate. He had no money. But he was presumed corrupt. Those retirements with immediate effect changed the Civil Service into the near monster it is now.
Politicians are called corrupt. Check the Civil Service. Only God knows what goes on there. So, in terms of physical achievements, yes. Democracies are not particularly famous for physical infrastructures. In fact, when people call something the dividends of democracy, it is a funny misnomer. Roads and bridges and water systems are no dividends of democracy. Real dividends of
democracy are the intangibles: Freedom, the rule of Law, equality before the law, a fair and just police force that doesn’t protect the rich against the poor, the freedom and hope of the youth, the participation of all in the democratic process and the accountability of the rulers. You can’t say that under military rule.
Even under civilian rule now, it is difficult to hold civilians accountable because we have all learnt to cringe and crawl before powerful men who have money, and the monetization of politics which has come about because it became quite obvious. If you were a strong contractor, favoured contractor under those regimes, you were likely to succeed them when they were going away. So, physical achievements, yes, they did their bit but what has happened to the norms? What has happened to this evil called materialism? Ambivalent morality! Nothing is wrong or right. It depends on what the ruler wants.
If you reason this way, one gets the impression that when Olusegun Obasanjo, a full blooded soldier came as civilian president, you would have rejected being the National Chairman of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)
In 1999, I was a campaign Director for Dr. Alex Ekwueme. I fell victim to an assassination attempt in Benue, December 7, 1998 when a former military man sent a gang of nine to have me murdered in my house. There was no investigation till tomorrow. It was not an issue. So, today, later then, of course, I became Chairman, and I said, fine, this is the choice that Nigeria had made, then let’s make it work. But the hood does not make the monk.
The fact that a man is in agbada (flowing gown) doesn’t make him a changed soldier. He has gone through 30 years of training in a certain line of thinking. You can’t change him overnight. He sees the place as a garrison and he is the commander in the garrison, the terminology he has used before and so he is familiar with it. And if you disobey, you are going to the guardroom.
But somehow, both of you fell apart in the course of your regime?
Yes, we did.
Because, there were certain things I thought were wrong.
What were these things?
I mean, like allowing bullying as an instrument of governance. Allowing arbitrariness and extra-constitutional methods of solving problems. At one point, things were going on as if Nigeria was Chicago of 1950 under AlCarpol. If you disagree, a large quantity of police men are sent to take a governor, lock him up and you want to swear in his deputy. Where on God’s green earth can a democracy function this way? Democracy is not anarchy.
It allows freedom but insists on lawfulness. I said, hey, we can’t run this country this way. Imagine all the assassinations that took place. The deaths, the mysterious deaths: The Attorney-General of the Federation; Harry Marshall; Dikibo; and Funsho Willaims in Lagos. There was a party chairman in Kwara, Hamman Patigi who was murdered on the road and shot to pieces. Till today, not one of these incidences has ever had anybody brought to trial.
And I said, this can’t be. We can’t go on this way. In the end, you know, we are accountable to God. With all that this earth has to offer, one day you will die. If you are lucky, they find a coffin for you. Some people die in an air crash, you can’t find their bodies. We have to give account to God someday.
Let me take you back to emerging time of democracy. Fifteen years down the line, have we made any progress?
Well, we have tried. We are trying to battle with the rule of law; it is not working too well. There are jokes now that you shouldn’t pay a lawyer. It is better to pay a Judge which the current Chief Justice is fighting because the Judiciary got destroyed by politicians. I have been warning that if we carry on like this, the politicians will destroy the Judiciary irreparably. The bribes are just too large and in foreign exchange. Too attractive.
People pack huge volumes of cash and go around at night, corrupting Judges and making it impossible for them to give justice. Well, there is an effort to repair the place. I hope she will go far enough. In terms of understanding democracy, the dignity and the meaning of democracy, and the principles of accountability, we haven’t done that well.
In terms of the sensitivity to the needs of the people, most of the political classes are too comfortable to recognize that the widow who voted for them in election, the unemployed graduate, the retired civil servant, that policeman on the street are grossly under nourished economically. And the worst part is that we sit here and allow our economy to die; allow the Naira to sink. We import all manners of junks and when you talk, you are told we are part of a global world. What nonsense is that? Global indeed? You can’t even make toothpicks. Nobody makes pencils for our children to write. Of the 18 million children in Primary
Schools, we don’t make pencils here. We don’t make erasers; we don’t make rubber bands for tying Naira notes. Everything is shipped in. You transfer your own currency to sustain the economies of other countries and by so doing transferring jobs, then, you bring unemployment along with the goods. Your children in search of jobs pursue those jobs in the economy which you funded, and when they go there, the best they can get is prison?
For crying out, do we need a professor from Harvard or a soothsayer to tell you that you are being deliberately foolish? Yes, import what you desperately need, what you don’t need, cut down. Of course you have an interest rate regime at 27/30 percent. Since 1986, the so called Structural Adjustment Programme. Where on God’s green earth, do you have such interest rates now? And yet this country is dreaming about creating jobs, about industrialization? I pay that interest rate then I buy diesel to run my factory and I want to compare with the man in Japan and China?
I have never seen such suicidal lunacy in a country in the name of economic policy. And I challenge any of them to a debate on this matter. When will this economy really begin to grow? When will the real sector begin to grow? Why should the banks be licensed institutions of extortions?
And they are declaring 104 Billion Naira profit? Sure, I expect 200billion as profit by the end of this financial year from some banks. Meanwhile, there are a thousand defences of why the interest rates can’t go down. And we on top connive with this evil, torturing our people? I feel deeply pained that this racket goes on and nobody talks about it. It is not a subject for debate among politicians or anyone.
Not a few persons still express surprise that a politician who grew to become the national Chairman of the ruling party would ditch the party for another…
(cuts in) Yes, I was the National Chairman. Why did I go? We were among the founders of this party. I remember the old parade ground, September 30, 1998 when we all gathered there and Professor ABC Nwosu and one Mr. Charles Ego, Chief Press Secretary to Shagari in those days pulled away from the crowd and looking at the crowd, ABC said, Audu, I hope we can build a party that will really lead Nigeria forward.
That was our dream from all over the country. That was our dream. I don’t know I would be the Chairman. But then I was attacked, so on and so forth. When I came into the party and became chairman, I had my own dreams. I often called myself a foolish idealist. In a very pragmatic, realistic society here, I am a bit of a foolish idealist. I found out that those ideals don’t work here especially when I escaped three assassination attempts. From this house where you are, I was nearly kidnapped on August 11, 2005 by five men, three in police uniform, two in plain clothes in two unmarked cars.
They claimed to have been sent by the Police Headquarters. They came at 5 pm and again at midnight. Then my son called me, and said the police have been looking for you and I said “for what?” and they were from the Police headquarters? I was away in Benue at the burial of Senator Adagba. So, I called the IG, I couldn’t get him. I called Atiku, former Vice President Atiku Abubarkar and he called the IG and the IG said he sent nobody to my house. I said, okay; let’s call theCommissioner of Police.
He said we have noth
ing against you to arrest you, for what? I later found they were sent by a certain leader of the party. I was to be picked, shot and dumped in the bush because some of the policemen confirmed it to a friend of mine. Would you remain in the party like that? Earlier, armed men had pursued me to my house in Markudi, February 2005; I had just left the party. You know, people ask me this question. So, why do I have to stay in the party where death is the only instrument of resolution of disputes or disagreement? I don’t have to be in politics. I got in earlier.
I played my part, apologized to those who are not happy with me; thanked those who are happy. But I don’t have to be in it. I have a few things I do to feed myself. If this is the place, then I quit