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49 Independence Anniversary : Why Nigeria is in trouble, by Olu Falae

*Nigeria cannot continue like this
*My deal with Ibrahim Babangida
*Discloses: ‘I won in Katsina and Gen. Yar’Adua panicked’
*The problem with a Buhari/Falae ticket

In this interview, Chief Olu Falae, the presidential candidate of an alliance of the Alliance for Democracy, AD, and the All Peoples Party, APP, responds to questions on the state of the nation, 49 years after. Far from the typical apportioning of blames. Falae insists that the Nigerian nation is in trouble, big trouble. “What has always bothered me about Nigeria is the pernicious doctrine embedded in the Nigerian system which seems to say that anybody can do any job.

There is no recognition or celebration of excellence.  Oh, you want to do something put somebody there, if he doesn’t do it well, we’ll put someone else there”. Not known to mince words, Falae insists that Nigeria has a long way to go. In this first part, enjoy the thoughts of a man who is passionate about his country. Excerpts:

By Jide Ajani, Deputy Editor

NIGERIA’s 49th year as an independent nation, what has always bothered you?
What has always bothered me about Nigeria is the pernicious doctrine embedded in the Nigerian system which seems to say that anybody can do any job. There is no recognition or celebration of excellence. Oh, you want to do something put somebody there, if he doesn’t do it well, we’ll put someone else there.

Any system that does not recognize excellence is not likely to go very far. You fail in a lower job in Nigeria you are promoted to a higher one. I know of people who were fired, who were sacked by Murtala Muhammed for  non-performance in a lower job who ended up becoming governors of states.

How do you promote people for incompetence?
So, the lapse of recognition of excellence and the failure to give excellence its rightful place in our system is something that has always bothered me. I believe in meritocracy; I believe in hard work. Those who have worked with me will tell you that I would work them hard but that I also work very hard. You asked me who is this man? I believe that most things are do-able. I have never flustered. To most problems, there are solutions. That failure to recognize merit and excellence continues to make us have mediocres as leaders. And it appears that that is okay by most people. There is no insistence that a better job should be done. That is not right but it seems we have settled for mediocrity.

Chief Olu Falae
Chief Olu Falae

49 years after independence, some people will look at you and count: Former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, former Finance Minister, Presidential Candidate. Farmer and so on…
All those things send the wrong signals completely. Most Nigerians do not know that, when General Babangida approached me to become secretary to the Government of the Federation in late 1985, I had retired from the civil service for five years.

I had been managing director of the Nigerian Merchant Bank for five years and I was not prepared to return to the public service. But because he insisted, I gave him a condition that I’ll be his man, provided he approached my bank himself and made the request that the Nigerian government would like to borrow me, free of charge, and you bank will continue to pay Falae his salary but he would be working free for government.

But that salary would be the equivalent of that of the managing director of the bank?
I didn’t even know what the conditions and arrangements were. The reason for that was this:  I was very sure in my mind that I would have to resign from that job within a year because I was sure I would disagree with this new military government – I didn’t know the people personally.

And I didn’t want to be trapped into the job by being dependent on the government for my livelihood and also I decided that I would not and I did not live in government quarters – I lived in my own personal house in Victoria Island; the house I built with a housing loan I took from my bank.

My official quarters in Falomo Close, Ikoyi, I never lived there because I thought if I lived there and I disagreed with government and I had to resign I would not be able to just leave because my house would have been on lease to somebody and I would have had to live with the indignities and anger but I did not want to do that so I wanted to keep my options open so I could keep my integrity intact so I insisted that I should be on loan to the federal government. So, I lived in my own house, I drove my own car though the federal government car would come in the morning, pick me up to the office and then drop me at home in the evening and then go. I did not earn any income by reason of my appointment as Secretary to the Government of the Federation.

Also, I did not live in government quarters. When it got to a point where it was argued that I had to have responsibility allowance, because the job of an SGF was far more important than that of a small merchant bank but I said no because in future it would be interpreted as my having collected two salaries while I worked as SGF. And so it was that when I left government and went into politics, somebody wrote a petition, thinking that I took it, that I was a fraudulent person, that I was earning salary as managing director of a bank and that I also earned salary as SGF.


That must have been during campaigns for the 1993 elections?
Yes, you got it. Somebody wrote to the Egbe Ilosiwaju Yoruba, which was to look at the Yoruba aspirants and then they sent a copy of the petition to me and I wrote and said I thank God and I thank the writer of this petition for giving me a chance to blow my own trumpet and I said I did not earn N1 from the federal government for the time I worked for it at my own instance.

They said I spent N1 million to refurbish my official quarters and I said it was the ministry of works that did the refurbishing and that I did not know how much they spent but since getting the petition I had written to them and they said in any case it was N158,000 that was spent; I attached that letter from the works ministry.


The person also said that I was a very fraudulent person that I travelled abroad with my wife at government expense and I said it was government policy that officials of ministerial rank were allowed to travel with their wives abroad because we travel very frequently and that as minister, I was entitled to travel with my wife five times out of the country but that I travelled with her only once – that was how reckless and fraudulent I was.

So, this petition came and I took the opportunity to put on record the facts. One does not claim to be a saint. I was inspired by Chief Obafemi Awolowo who never lived in government quarters when he was in the federal cabinet because I was living directly behind his house in Surulere. Elizade, Chief Adeojo, and I were living behind him.

To some youths, they’ll take a long hard look at people like you who give preachments about moral rectitude and say, ‘well, he’s comfortable so he can say all that’.  This, against the backdrop of the poverty in the land and which has pushed many people to do some many unsavoury things?
There are people of my generation who were fraudulent and more comfortable than I am.

At 49, what would you tell the younger generation?
Talking to the younger people, I didn’t go into that government to make money for myself and my bank was happy that it made its own contributions to the development of Nigeria and I also made it clear that I should be free to return to the bank whenever I deemed fit and it was stated in a letter which I have till tomorrow because I thought I would disagree with them but I never did.

The lives of some of us should make them believe that you can be successful without being corrupt or lobbying your bosses. You can be comfortable without taking undue advantage of your position. I am comfortable and I thank God and all these happened because I took advantage of all legitimate entitlements due to me. Let me tell you this story: I worked with a boss who believed in people building houses.

So, he called me around 1966 after working for three years and asked if I had built a house and I shouted, ‘house’?  I can’t even balance my budget.. He said, ‘go and build a house’. Soon, thereafter, my father gave me a plot of land in Akure, which he also got from his father but at that time I could not see how I would build a house.

Leave bonuses
So, in 1971, I got a Ford Foundation Fellowship to go and study for my masters in Yale so I went with my wife and children in that fellowship. I was on study leave with pay and the grant was also there. The very week I left Nigeria, the Federal Ministry of Finance issued a circular that henceforth, civil servants who go abroad for studies would receive overseas allowances enjoyed by diplomats because they, like diplomats were living in the same environment so there was no reason why their standard of living should be lower than that of the diplomats.

Chief Falae
Chief Falae

And those allowances were about three times your basic salary. For the entire period I was doing my masters, I was receiving all those but the very week I returned to Lagos, it was canceled. It was as if it was tailor-made for me. I’ve been exceptionally fortunate. And then my wife got a job in the Yale Health Centre. By the time I returned to Nigeria I had four thousand pounds sterling.

So I started developing the land my father gave me but as the money was running out, there was the refund to civil servants of the money called troop comfort funds deducted from our salaries; then there was the accumulation of leave bonuses because some of us could not go on leave during the civil war so in nine months, I had completed my house but I still had to borrow money from my bank to do the painting of the house.

I’ve told this story to inspire younger people. And when I finished building the house, someone stayed there for a while and by 1976, Ondo State was created and the then managing director of First Bank said he had succeeded in persuading the Ondo State Government as its bank because then there was no Central Bank in Akure but First Bank had no branch in Akure but First Bank had to be on ground within 30 days and he said he had sent his expatriate officers to Akure but they could not find a suitable house so he was desperate and he said he knew I was building a house in Akure and I told him the location he said he would take it.

So, First Bank took that house and paid me five years’ rent with which I started building another house so I can go on and on. The point is that it is possible to be comfortable. When I left government and became managing director of NMB in 1981, before I left government, I had been given a plot of land in Dolphin Scheme but when Jakande came he canceled it. I went to him to complain and he said he would replace it. Years later, I was in the bank and my board said you are costing us too much money because the house I was living in was N80,000 a year.

The board wanted me to get a plot of land, and that the board would approve loan for me to build because I had no house here. The following week, I got a letter from Alhaji Jakande opposite the Law School in Victoria Island and I went back to my board to say I now have land.  The loan was approved for me and I put up two houses in Victoria Island but when the housing loan did not suffice, I took a commercial loan to complete it.  I leased out one for five years and used the money to liquidate the commercial loan; and I lived in one. What I am trying to say is that it is always possible for you to be comfortable without being fraudulent.  All these are verifiable.

I look at the whole story and ask: What manner of person are you?
I am an ordinary Nigerian. I am not exceptional in any way and I know God has given me a lot of talent for which I am grateful. My entire career has always been nearer the top of the class. I became a federal permanent secretary at 38 years, in a federal service that was dominated then; at 42, I became the managing director of NMB.


How many years did you put in before retiring?
21 years.

Nigeria at 49:  Look at President Yar’Adua and his style?
My honest view is that the post of president is a very difficult one. I have worked closely with two presidents – Obasanjo as military head of state and Babangida – so I can claim, therefore, to have direct knowledge of what that position involves. It’s an emergency position, crises management position, therefore, if you go in there without having a blue-print of yours, without a broad idea of what you want to do in office, already in your conception and on paper, it’s going to be very difficult for you to make substantial change possible.

You’re most likely to spend your time fighting bush fires, fire brigade approach. Umuleri/Aguleri crisis, you enter into it and fight that for the next four days; then there is crisis of yellow fever outbreak somewhere else, you rush to WHO to get vaccine; then the president of Ghana telephones you to say there is a flood disaster in upper Ghana, help mobilize relief materials and you’ll continue like that for so long. Unless you have a commitment to a direction before becoming head of state, even if you are the best brain, you are not likely to be able to achieve anything ground breaking.

Look at the way the country has been governed since independence. To the best of our knowledge, this president didn’t have a blue print before he was drafted into it. He was not planning to be president he was more or less hijacked into the thing; don’t forget that Obasanjo himself was hijacked into the thing by the military; don’t forget that Shehu Shagari was also prevailed upon to come and be president. We’ve never really had a president who wanted to be president.

We need somebody who wanted to become president – somebody who has thought about it, who has prayed about it, who has a vision for it and who has put down the type of things he wants to do once he becomes president.  I’m not saying these are just all you need to rule a country but what I am saying is that at least on your first day in office you are not blank. When people talk about education, you have your idea of what and how it should be; they talk about education, you have your conception of how that critical sector should be handled. If you go in there without that, then you are in trouble from day one.

But some people have the impression that Babangida had his own clear idea of what to do with Nigeria when he became military president and you worked with him?
What I will tell you is that Babangida’s problem from day one was the debt crisis; the debt crisis. Foreign banks were no longer going opening letters of credit for us and the International Monetary Fund, IMF, wanted us to come and take their loan with conditions attached but we told them that that would not be compatible with our national interest.


But one of the things Nigerians were not told was that the IMF was going to post one or some of its officers into your ministry of finance and central bank, physically and that anything including medicine, no imports would come in – a meltdown was imminent.

He threw the issue to the public and said they should debate it but on December 18, would mean a return to some form of colonialism. The banks will not do anything for us without going to the IMF and without going to the IMF, we won’t be able to import 1985, he made a broadcast, enough of the debates, he said, and it was clear that we would not take the IMF.  The structural adjustment programme of that regime was announced in December, 1985, while I came into that government in January 1986.

All I did was to articulate the programme. One thing you have to give to Babangida is that he came to grips with the dominant issue of his time – he did not dodge it, he did not avoid it. At the end of his tenure, he made mistakes with his political programme, first by disqualifying the 23 presidential aspirants of the SDP and NRC, and I was one of them. He had no need for that.

Two, when there was a rerun and Abiola won the election, whether he annulled it, or somebody else did it is another matter but it happened during his watch. If he didn’t want to back Abiola, he should have told him so. Because you have to also remember that Abiola was a business man and all he would say is that he would not do anything against the will of the government. All he would have done was to have called him and said ‘Bashorun, please I wouldn’t allow you to contest and Bashorun would have gone home.  That was the error of government.

Okay, what about the future of Nigeria, 49 years after. This system can not continue and must not be allowed to continue. Something is bound to give. What it is and how it would come about I can not say. But something drastic must happen to release the Nigerian genuis which is today imprisoned and the way you know that there is the geniuse is the way it tries to release itself through such vices as 419.

When I was campaigning, people kept asking how I intended to solve some of the problems and I kept telling them that I would knock down those walls of imprisonment which has kept our people down for so long and I would re-align matters such that personal interests would align with the Nigerian interests

Free and fair elections in Nigeria?
I do not think the PDP will allow free and fair elections in Nigeria. I don’t think so. I pray they do, for their own sake and for the sake of Nigerians yet unborn. I don’t think the PDP can afford to have electoral reforms and political reforms, neither will they allow INEC to conduct a free and fair elections.

What about the politicians?  Between the national chairman of INEC and the Resident Electoral Commission, REC, the powers are enormous especially the REC.  What arrangement would you proffer with a view to having proper reforms, beyond the issue of just appointment …

(Cuts in)  One thing that must happen is the mode of election and not the issue of chairman. It is the mode of elections; if the mode of election is right, other things       would begin to fall in place. And I’ll prove it. In 1993 during the June 12, presidential elections, you go to the polling centre, there will be accreditation for all those who want to vote and that stops at a particular time.


By 12 noon, the polling officer would announce to everyone there that 382 persons have been accredited to vote. The polling officer would again announce that 500 ballot papers with serial numbers have been allocated to that polling unit. Then voting will commence, everyone would get his voting papers, vote in secret and drop the papers in the boxes in full view of everybody.  After voting, all of us would be there to witness the counting and it is so recorded.

The rest is collation.  If that is done in every polling unit in this country and if while voting is going on between 12noon and 2pm, there should be no movement. And even when the thugs come to try and disrupt voting, they will meet resistance because we’ll all be there. That way, you minimize rigging and the election will reflect, substantially, the choice of the voters.

So, even when at the collation centre they declare the loser winner, with the unit records, you can then go and prove your case in court like Papa Ajasin did in 1983 in Owo – he had his records. And the courts can even wait for almost two years now for you to prove your case, unlike my own when I had just 21 days to challenge the results in 1999. Mode of voting is crucial because those coming with the intention of disrupting the thing would also know that people are waiting for them, it would be war.

Back to the 1999 elections.  Just before the Alliance for Democracy, AD, was to be formed, its leaders pulled out of the All Peoples Party, APP, because of what they described as the presence of some Abacha elements.  But just some four months later, the same AD leadership went into an alliance with APP.  How did this come about as the presidential candidate of that alliance?

Well, I think it came about because after the first set of elections, it became clear that AD plus APP was the majority with over two million votes and we reasoned that if we come together for the presidential elections we will win the elections. Discussions were then initiated and it was a low level kind of contact. Eventually, we agreed but the APP did not seem to have carried some of its own leaders along because they had more votes than AD and if you want to follow the logic of numbers, they ought to be the senior partner so why should they concede the presidency to AD, so the answer is clear.

But because of the June 12 crisis, because of the death of Abiola, because of the NADECO offensive, there was an unspoken consensus that the next president should come from the South West and that was why PDP picked Obasanjo and the AD/APP picked me.

And because APP could not point to any of its members in the South West who had the status and the stature of running for the presidency, so its was easy for us to persuade them to let me be the presidential candidate; also, the fact that I was one of the people in the vanguard of NADECO and also the key leaders of the APP at that time, Mahmud Waziri and Shinkafi were close friends of mine and we had worked together at the centre, so it made it easy. And the fact that they were not uncomfortable with the person the west was putting forward.

But that led to some serious problems in their own party. Olusola Saraki was very angry, he wanted to run and his complaint was that the party did not agree to concede to AD; then you had Ogbonaya Onu, former governor of Abia State was also there but the establishment had already made up its mind that the West should produce the president and that was it.

What regrets would you say there were in your career or when you look back, there could have been some things which you would have better handled?
I think, the election of 1999, I would have done a little more homework than I did then; and what do I mean. I thought that I had the voters with me because wherever I went it was overwhelming and I thought that was sufficient for me to be president; now I know better. There are key players in the system, particularly during the military regime, capable of not only countermanding the votes of the people but who could do much more.

What I would have done would have been to relate more to those people in the run up to the elections as a means of ensuring victory but I was not going to undertake any witch hunt. I said so during the campaigns but not loud enough and not often enough, to really drive my point home.

An example: I went to Warri and the leaders of Delta State reminded me that during the carving of the Midwest from the west, some assets were not fairly shared and they wanted to know if I would address that matter in the interest of fairness towards them and I said to them that since my mandate would start from the day of my inauguration, I would be too busy dealing with the issues of the moment and, therefore, I would not likely go back to old issues and look for trouble but that if in the course of my tenure they were able to make that historical issue current, I would act but that it was up to them. Now, I told them I would be fair if the thing became current, they said they knew I would be fair but I should have proceeded from there to promise much more.

At that time, there was a committee of retired generals who played a crucial role at that time and maybe, now looking back, may be I should have requested a meeting with them for me to address them, to let them know that I was not going to pursue anybody, that I would pursue my manifesto and I would be too busy doing that to change the lives of Nigerians than to start chasing some people up and down. I should have met with them.

There were other personages I ought to have met privately, not to compromise, but so that they would know me more personally because knowing somebody from a distance is not the same as having that inter-personal relationship and I am not saying that all these would have been enough to stop them from rigging the elections the way they did but these just might have made some difference. There were many people who spoke for me. Bamaiyi, for instance, said during his trials that he objected to the idea of the military handing over to another military person. He mentioned my name as an alternative. Those are some of the things I might have done.

The mega party issue, some people are asking for the possibility of an Olu Falae and a Muhammadu Buhari ticket for the presidency – do you see that ever crystallising?
Well, I’ve heard it said in some quarters several times in the past, even before the mega thing came about. Even in 2007, some people came to me and said a Buhari/Falae ticket is a dream team and I said they should forget about it. People have said so to me but it is not something that is on the cards now. I’m 71years now, in 2011, I will be 73 years and Buhari would be 71 and we’ll have a combined age of 144 years a geriatric ticket (laughs). But I think we are two of a kind. We speak our minds, we say what we’re going to do; we don’t believe in tricking people and lying to people. The things that frighten people about me and about him would create a combination such that many more people would then become frightened. (laughs)

Your life as a person: Some people unwind with women, some find pleasure in alcohol and some it’s the quietude of the environment. What gives you the kicks?
For me, these days, I try to read and read and read. When I was at the Igbobi college, we were mandated to read a book per week and then you summarise for your English language teacher. Some of us took it beyond that and went as far as four books per week. When you get to my room, my bedroom, it’s like a library and you would be surprised the type of things I read. I read about things like the origin of HIV for instance.


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