First civilian governor of Edo State, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, recently, clocked 70. In an interview, Oyegun expressed his disappointment over the way the country is being run. He also spoke of his early life, how he had  to push truck in Benin and how he assisted  his mother to sell soap among other menial jobs to make ends meet. Excerpts:

By Gabriel  Enogholase

HOW does it feel to be 70?
It’s just like a major achievement. I looked forward to two ages – 40 and 70. When I was 39, I was very anxious to be 40, but when I became 69, I became very anxious to be 70.

For a lot of obvious reasons, when you look around you and see what is happening, you can not but wonder why God has spared you all that time and in good health too, and you wait for that day to be able to say thank you Lord for being so kind to me. You see people falling by your right side, by your left side as the Bible says, colleagues, friends, all sorts of people and there you are on your two feet in good health becoming 70. So, from a personal point of view, it is a major achievement for which I give thanks to God.

At 70, you have achieved much. Looking back, what is it that you think you ought  to have accomplished which you have not achieved?

A lot. My personal life has been very fulfilling, very satisfied. I don’t know if there is anything I can still ask for from God, except, for the rest of my life, please, let me have good health. That’s the major thing I can ask for.

Chief John Odigie-Oyegun
Chief John Odigie-Oyegun

Public service
But from the point of view  since I am a public man, somebody who has been in the public service, both as a career and now in the political career, I cannot but have, well, regret. Not regret as to my personal life, but regret as to the way the public, the polity of this country is going, because when you are 70, like Gen. T.Y. Danjuma said, when you are 70, you are in the departure lounge, you are waiting for your plane to take off.

So, now that I am in my departure lounge, I cannot but be sad at where the nation is. From the tender age of twenty-something, I started working for this nation. We really believed, we really saw hope, we really saw a future, we planned for a future, we helped to build the ingredients of a future but when I look back now, you find that, that future that you worked so hard for, that you believed in, even what was achieved is being dismantled, is not being looked after, is not being cared for, not to talk of making progress, it cannot, if you have blood in you, it cannot but make you feel  very, very, very sad.

At the time I was in development planning, we were even at a better  position than Brazil, better position than Korea, certainly better than Taiwan and some of these current Asian Tigers, not to mention India. All India did then was export some of their personnel into the rest of the world, public organizations, international organizations.

Resource wise and from  every point of view, Nigeria had all the ingredients for a very rapid take-off. We planned for that. To see today, like what the secretary of state, United States, Mrs. Hillary Clinton said, to see today that she can publicly express the sentiment that she cannot understand how the fifth or sixth, to use her own words, largest oil exporter in the world is still importing fuel for its vehicles and for its… that only sums everything up, that we have lacked leadership, we have lacked planning, we have lacked accomplishment, we have lacked implementation, we have not been able to visualize a great nation and work to make it a great nation.

Frankly, that beats my imagination. I cannot pretend to you that I understand. If it is corruption, it is even more stupid. Why must corruption exclude development? Why must you want to convert the total national resources and turn your back almost a hundred percent on service to the people? On moving the country forward, on writing your name in history, as having  made fundamental changes to the nation that you met.

Instead, government after government is presiding over the dismantling of the Nigerian nation, economically and otherwise. If I tell you that doesn’t make me sad, I will be lying. So, it is not as if I don’t have regrets, yes I have regrets. But it is regrets over things  I have no power over, I have no control over but at 70 it makes you very, very sad to see your dreams for the nation totally disappear for no justifiable reason. We have not had earthquake, we have not had major disasters, in fact God has blessed us in every way to the extent that oil per barrel rose to 150 dollars. So what more could we have asked for? What kind of country is this?

Where did things go wrong? Can you suggest the way forward? Do you also agree with people who say that the failure of today is the failure of our forerunners, which include you?

Well, I will not want to argue for or against that point of view. If you hold that point of view, you must have reasons, very good reasons, but I will only give you the facts of the case. I retired from the public service at a time General Babangida (IBB) became president.

I worked from my youth, twenty-something years in the federal service, became a permanent secretary. We planned, we planned, we worked, we accomplished. From the time Gen. Gowon was head of state, we built parts, we built the road system. I was directly involved in the decisions over Lagos-Ibadan expressway which was our first.

We even took on the World Bank. We were going to get a World Bank loan for that road but they came with this idea that ‘oh’ from Lagos to Ikorodu, yes, there is justification for four lanes. From Ikorodu to Sagamu, it has to be two, from another Iperu or whatever two.’ We said, look, this is rubbish. We are going to think of the future, we are going to build for the future’ and we cited the example of Carter Bridge, it was a two-lane highway. But when Lagos began to grow, we suddenly found it was, in fact the British left enough room for a four-lane highway, so why must we at that age be looking  static and not looking forward?

So, we said ‘sorry, if that is your condition, we will build the road ourselves.’ I was also there when the decision was taken to build the Sagamu-Benin Road. It was the second expressway and so on and so forth, those roads were built. Tincan Island, I was director in charge of utilities planning in the Ministry of Economic Development. Tincan Island was our concept. Onne Port, the deep-sea port in Port Harcourt, was our concept; we built, we expanded the Murtala Muhammed Airport, etc, etc.

We had a basic telephone system. We were running an airline. We had a shipping company, we had everything. So, how can you blame your forebears, your forerunners? All these things in the last 10, 15 years, they are becoming scrap. And let them not say old people, they are not people. Who is governing you today? There’s hardly any leader over 50. The oldest of the governors is probably  forty, forty-something. The president himself is probably fifty-something I guess.

Colonial masters

So, how can you blame? When people say these things, sometimes I marvel. Don’t you look around? From military times, you were being ruled by people of thirty-something years old. So, you must examine the orientation of the youths for this country. We in our time were blaming the colonial masters. The present people are trying to blame people of our generation whereas when you look at the realities… okay even if they did wrong, what stops you from correcting these things? We’ve sold the total national patrimony.

Ethiopia had civil war for decades. They had international wars with Eritrea, with the rest… they’ve never stopped running Ethiopian Airlines up till this very day. Ethiopian Airlines is still flying. Why can’t we run our own? We brought Virgin, went into partnership with them. Because of corruption and all these things, even that partnership has collapsed.

So, please, you people should look at what is wrong with the present. What can we do about the present? The past did theirs. You cannot drive to Lagos now. We built that road. Are we responsible for its non-maintenance? No! I don’t know how many of you have been to Lagos.

The Apapa-Oshodi expressway – it is a disaster, it is a mess, it is a disgrace that we have a major artery like that in that kind of condition. Airport Road from that same road to the International Airport, when you see things like that,  you start wondering: Is there madness in this country?

Inspirational leadership
What is happening in the center? Why? And you cannot but say well, somehow we have never, never got leadership, inspired leadership, inspirational leadership. There is no time in this country we have not had imposed leadership, no time, at the center.

The NPC, Ahmadu Bello refused to come to the center. He sent Tafawa Balewa. Then we had military coups upon military coups. Shagari wanted to be a senator, they sent him to become president. When Obasanjo became a civilian, the military combined to impose him on the nation. He left and people have spent billions trying to be president, he went and selected somebody.

So, there is something wrong, basically wrong at the center and the only thing that can correct it is the day the people of this country can have the freedom to truly, honestly and freely decide who should rule them. The people can make mistake  but after four years they will correct it.

But what we have today, they don’t  have the ability to correct any mistake  because people have stolen their sovereignty and the decision is made for the people. So, until we can get to that point, we are in very serious trouble. We have a leadership problem.

What was your growing up like?
Truly, it is quite an experience. Today, people shake my hands, and say oh, your hands are very soft. You probably didn’t have a hard life. That is not the reality. I come from a middle-class family. My father was a senior civil servant. He rode a car and the rest of it.

But we were many. Five wives as at the time he died, 26 children, and so his income obviously could not go round and he did the very best he could with every penny that he earned. When we realized that fact, that’s a story one would tell some other day – we went out and started trying to supplement. I worked in building sites. I have carried truck in this Benin, with wonderful experiences. I have sold Sunlight soap round the streets of Benin and they were wonderful experiences.

You will go and sell soap, you arrive home one day and you find that, inexplicably, and you are short. You count the soap that you have left and you count the money that you have and you are short and you weep. Of course, one was very young. And you weep and weep and weep. You cannot even remember where the mistake occurred. So, these are wonderful experiences that one had. You take woman’s luggage from the market in a truck to the house. You have agreed six pence or four pence.

You go to the house, she gives you three pence. There is nothing you can do, you are alone, and you are a small boy. These are all wonderful experiences. When people see me today they don’t know I passed through that kind of thing. I had a strict father, a disciplinarian of a father and one grew up under those conditions.

So, it was good, it was challenging and I was always very lucky, I must confess. God was always on my side and,  from one good luck to another good luck, I became what I am for which I am grateful to God.

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