By Simon Ebegbulem, Benin-City
Senator Spanner Okpozo is a Second Republic senator and Niger Delta leader who does not need much introduction. In this interview, Okpozo goes down memory lane, speaking on the pre-independence and post-independence days. He also gives a perspective on the proposed National Dialogue and life as a politician. Excerpts:
Today, we have several challenges such as kidnapping, corruption, terrorism among others. Can you tell us how the nation was while you were growing up. Was it this turbulent?
What was most paramount then was agriculture; from the colonial era down to independence, every household was looking forward to what it could get from its farms. No much attention was paid to government involvement. Those days, the first establishment was local government and those councils were not set up to sustain the local communities. They were set up for administrative purposes. We had local police, there was no army in any local government except at the national level because we were under British rulership which recruited only few soldiers who were just there to defend the center. The police were only there to maintain law and order and they were very few. Like when I grew up in Benin, we had local policemen, so also in my village in Isoko. They will arrest and take you to customary court for trial but they were not involved in going to houses to extort people. There was discipline. And because we had local policemen, crime was very rare because they will also know a criminal. But Nigeria, from 1960 to 1963, after fighting for independence, went for national police, what we have today as Nigeria Police Force. The leaders felt that their experiences with some African nations may lead to break down of law and order, there may be inter-tribal wars, wars between nations, and on that basis, they enlarged the Nigerian Army. Then we had Azikiwe, Sadauna of Sokoto, Awolowo, these people were running the nation very well. But things started changing in Nigeria due to the intervention of the military in our politics. There were coups and counter coups and the people were suffering, the economy was being destroyed and poverty started. When the civilian government came in 1999, things were not too good because there was corruption everywhere. Obasanjo’s administration was better than that of Babangida in terms of corruption. Corruption was embedded in every nook and cranny of Nigeria during the administration of Babangida. Yar Adua came and tried to do his best but he died in office. Then Jonathan came now, there is still massive corruption in the country.
In our days, families were very large because then there was no restriction on the number of children one could have or how many wives one had to marry. Then if you marry many it means you have a large farmland and if you marry one you will be incapable of producing enough to take care of your family. The only problem we had then was education. Education was really poor then because government was not spending money on education until Awolowo came and brought free education and people started pushing their children to school. It was much more pronounced during the time of Awolowo, he did a lot in the West and that was why you find out that Yoruba are educationally better than most ethnic groups. That is why the first broadcasting house came from that area, Western Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation, it was from cocoa money that they built it. But the North was relatively poor due to the size of the area and the resources that were available. In the East, there was less concentration on education even though Zik was there. But what is significant those days was that local government councils were there to keep the environment neat. They were self-sustaining, they were not there to collect money from the Federal Government for development purposes. Local resources were available, they were not in charge of schools until Awolowo came to say that local governments should be spending some fraction of their money on primary schools.
… My house then was like a house of the Isoko people and I cherished them because they were patriotic and that is why when this new generation comes and talk about politics, I always laugh at them because they don’t know what it means to be a politician. It means service to the people but they think it is service to make money. I was paid N5, 000 per month with some allowances and car when I was in the Senate. When I was made the Chairman Senate Committee on Environment, I was given a car, so I gave my friend, who was a judge in those days, Azinke, my own because he had none. So I was in the Senate without a vehicle other than the one I had before joining the Senate.
It was a Peugeot 505 they gave me and I had another Peugeot 505. I now said ‘why should I have two when my brother doesn’t have any?’ We were not in the Senate for contracts and throughout my stay in the Senate there was no contract, no constituency allowance, no night vigil allowance, no travelling allowance, no girls allowance. We go to the Senate at 9am, leave at 3pm; around 4 we go back for constituency matters and plan agenda for the next day. And sometimes we would stay there till about 1 am; our sleeping period was very short and we didn’t ask government to bring money we are travelling by air because we didn’t travel by air. We used our vehicles travelling to our constituencies from Abuja and vice versa. Today, a senator has 4 to 5 vehicles, it is appalling…
Read the full interview in tomorrow’s edition of Sunday Vanguard.