*There is no radicalism again in Nigeria
* Insists Nigerians have become used to injustice
*I wanted to organize like Awolowo, he says

A senior colleague described him as an angry man. Don’t miss the point: His anger is directed at the system. He should be understood. If a man, in just seven years as federal commissioner for works and housing can build about 20000 kilometres of roads and today, the total network of roads in the country can not proportionally measure up to that even if by half, he should be angry.This is the second part of the interview we commenced last week. In this part, Okunnu places so much store by the relationship between him and the former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, after which he dropped a bomb shell: “Obasanjo got drunk with power”. He said much more. Excerpts:

By Jide Ajani,
Deputy Editor, & Anthonia Onwuka

So, how many did you build under General Gowon, especially against the backdrop of the alleged wastefulness of that regime?
By the time I was leaving, I left over 20,000 kilometres of roads in those seven years.  We took over state roads and encouraged state governments to take over local government roads.

By extension, what this could have meant could have simply been that had, say, 10000 kilometres (about half of what you built) of roads were built every other seven years since 1974, Nigerians wouldn’t be complaining as they are today that there are no roads?

Wait a minute let me even explain this to you. Engineers would tell you that these roads newly constructed, some rehabilitated, have life span.  A conservative engineer would say five years for heavily trafficked road, or seven for a road with light traffic.

Unfortunately, these roads which were built in the 1970s, if you see the state of these roads today, most of the roads were neither rehabilitated nor reconstructed.  In fact, none has been rehabilitated, over 35 years after they were constructed, none to my mind.

At best what they may do in some of them would have being minor repairs – and I would like to see one minister of works who came after me to come out and say they reconstructed this road or that road, or major rehabilitation – most were never reconstructed.

Rehabilitation is doing major repair on the road, reconstruction is digging the whole thing up and rebuilding and also re-alligning the road – a road which was 60 miles before, when reconstructing, may be reduced to 55 miles because you have eliminated some bends.  We have neglected this. It is a criminal act. I was in Akure last week, Lagos/Ibadan, which was not my road, makes me sad any time I go through the road.

I feel worse going on Sagamu/Benin road.  I traveled on that road three years ago.  I just refused to travel by air and I said I wanted to see the road I built.  It’s a sorry, sorry thing.  It makes me sad and atimes you feel like crying; beautiful things in those days but today, terrible.

That Sagamu/Benin road is annually being repaired and it’s like the repairs are forever yet people are made to suffer plying that road?

Well, I do not see the money and I do not see the repairs.

Let’s look at Obasanjo, the man you handed over to as minister before he became head of state and then civilian president.  People refer to the years 1999 to 2007 as years of waste because they say Obasanjo failed Nigerians and we got it all wrong in those eight years.  What would be your opinion?

First of all, General Obasanjo is a personal friend and we are still friends; the friendship dates back to even before he was the Commander of the Third Marine Commando.  We knew ourselves and we still remain friends right up to today.  When I was a federal commissioner, we were friends.

When he took over from me we remained friends.When he was Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters, I used to dine with him on his table. He would often chide me with eating with fork and knife while he used his hands to eat and we would laugh about it and crack jokes.

After the coup that brought him in as head of state, we remained friends. We are still friends and any time we meet it is ‘Femi’ and ‘Segun’ relationship. But in governance, his only achievement during the first time was just his handing over to Alhaji Shehu Shagari as the civilian President.
(Long Pause as if waiting for the next question)  That’s all?

Yes!  That was all he achieved. That was the only thing I can honestly ascribe to Obasanjo as his achievement during his first term of office as a military head of state.

Okay, what of his second coming which lasted eight years?

From 1999 to 2007, he carried out some reforms in the financial sector, monetary sector, he didn’t achieve his aim of salvaging the falling value of the naira.

Before he became President he always decried the falling value of the naira ceaselessly but he did not salvage it as President.

The fall of the naira started during the time of General Babangida.  When Nigeria converted from Pounds to naira in 1973 or thereabout, the value of the Naira was 10 shillings. Not One Pound, that’s half a pound, that was one naira and it still retained its strength through the Murtala/Obasanjo administration and during the Shagari administration and then Muhammadu Buhari, we started seeing 1 to 5, 1 to 10 and we were saying good Lord, what is happening to our economy and our currency?

The naira had been devalued: One Pound to 10 Naira – that was the worst you could think of and which we thought of at that time. But today, what is it?

One to over 200?

One Pound to N250 because Obasanjo failed to perform the wonder and magic he promised Nigerians. So, the financial sector, Obasanjo did some things; he did some reforms.

But aside from that, Obasanjo’s presidency was a complete failure, complete failure. You talk of the infrastructures, the roads, total failure. This was a man who was federal commissioner for works and housing for six months, he knew what he met when he took over from me, the network of roads he inherited from me and then when he became head of state between 1976 and 1979 on the one hand and between 1999 and 2007 on the other hand, and then look at what we have today, it’s a complete failure. He’s not the only one as former leader who ruined this country.

Who else?
Look at Babangida – he was a complete failure. He dazzled everybody, a very good public relations man and that’s all. It’s all noise and nothing. You can’t look back and say he did this when he was President..

But some people will argue that Obasanjo did some things beyond the issue of reforms in the financial sector that Obasanjo brought….?
(Cuts in) Wait a minute.

Yes, Obasanjo brought his personal character to bear on the polity.  He stamped his character on government. Oh Yes!  He did. How?
He put his character on his government. He stamped his character on the government. He made things personal. He ran a personal government. Take his handling of the Lagos State finance. He went berserk. He just went completely drunk with power.

But the Supreme Court judgment was neither here nor there?
Let me tell you, it all started with the issue of the creation of local government. For one thing, no federal system or better put, a federal system does not recognize the local government as a major component of governance. Local government is a creation of states.

A federal system is a system whereby states – some people may call them provinces but it is commonly states – gather and say look, we want to surrender parts of our sovereignty to the common entity above us, which is the federal government, for that entity to rule on your behalf.  Local government is your own internal arrangement of how you govern the state.
And Nigeria became a federal system in 1964 and local government throughout the colonial period up till independence, throughout Balewa’s administration, through out Gowon’s administration up till 1975 and even through the Murtala/Obasanjo regime which terminated on September 30, 1979, local government had only featured as organs of state government; the creation, the functions, administration were done by the states and there were no forms of interference from the federal government.

Let me tell you, the North had its own version of local governments which was peculiar to the Northern region.  When six states were carved out of the North, they continued with their system, the NA system, modified by General Hassan Katsina when he was military governor.

Even that NA – Native Authority…?

You mentioned it. I don’t like to use that word because of what it connotes.

Which word?


What does it connote?
It is the ‘N’ part of it because of what it connotes. What it connotes in the dictionary is barbaric, very barbaric so I don’t like calling the ‘N’, that ‘N’, I don’t like mentioning it at all – that ‘N’ Authority.

In fact, I moved a motion in the Nigerian Union in 1957 that we should not use that ‘N’ word when talking about the NA, that ‘N’, spelt as N-A-T-I-V-E. Let’s say Local Authority. So the North had its NA system and the West had its Oba-in-council, which was reformed by Chief Obafemi Awolowo when he was minister of local government in the West. The East had its own system, modified by along the lines of the county system so everybody had its own system.

So, when did it change?
It was Murtala Muhammed who, in 1976, before his death introduced the common system with his local government reform of 1976.  The reform was to abolish the other systems and have councilor for education, councilor for health and so on.  The LG in the country collapsed and the reason is because most of them don’t do anything again.  They don’t carry refuse, they don’t tar roads they just don’t do anything again – the councilors and the chairmen just earn their money from Abuja; money which should have gone to the states as revenue.

That was the money Obasanjo seized?

Yes! He seized the money. He first bullied about four states and said he was going to block the revenue and he was going to do this and that and that he would not give them their allocation as defined in the constitution.  Not his money or the money belonging to the federal government, but money belonging to the local governments and the states. Worse still, a court gave its judgment, the Supreme Court gave its judgment, the highest court of the land said you have no right to hold on.

He refused to pay the money and refused to obey the judgment of the highest court in the country; he behaved like a lawless man.
Grudgingly, on the intervention of some of us, the leadership of the delegation from the South West, during the Reform Conference of 2005, he decided to release jst a fraction of the money, as if it was his own personal money and refused to release the remaining.

May Allah admit late Alhaji YarÁdua into Al Jaanna.

Within two weeks of his becoming President and Commander-in-Chief, he simply released the entire money to the Lagos State Government.

So, you see, power belongs to Almighty Allah, he only decides to give anybody he wishes power and when he decides to do otherwise, there is nothing anybody can do about it.

For Obasanjo, he just got drunk with power.

Some people who know the name and person, Femi Okunnu would say you used to be fiery once upon a time but that today …?
They don’t know me and that is the truth.  They don’t know me.

I’m looking at the philosophy or radicalism which you were known for in the 1960s and 1970s?  Okay, affluence and comfort?  Those who claim to be in that fold may not really count you as one of them?

Well, you’ve used the appropriate word for them, those who claim to be in that fold.

In my younger days, I was branded a communist.

A communist! Why?
It had to do with the Anglo-Nigerian Defence Pact.I moved the motion for the repudiation of that pact and we succeeded. I refused to disclose the name of my informer who told me about the existence of that Defence Pact but because of what we are doing now, I think I would have to disclose it. The Defence Pact entered into by our leaders, political leaders, before independence, which was to have a staging post in Kano, a military post based in Kano.

And as a young man and as a student, we moved against it.

Sorry for cutting in, before we forget, who was your informer?

It was the late Mallam Aminu Kano who told me.  I refused to mention the name for quite a lot of years but I can tell you now that it was Mallam Aminu Kano who told me about the existence of the Defence Pact.

It was a pact entered into by our leaders, all of them and the British Government.

Could that have been one of the conditions they had to meet before independence was granted the Nigerian nation?
Well, they forced it on them and they entered into the agreement. I was President of the Nigerian Union at that time and I organized a demonstration in London at that time with students and people carrying placards. It was staged very close to the House of Commons.

We would not be allowed to go to the House of Commons but we staged our protests very close to the place so the members of the House could see for themselves that some people were demonstrating against what they had agreed upon with Nigerian leaders.

As the President of the Nigerian Union of Great Britain and Ireland, I did make contact with the press in Nigeria and we also made contact with some political leaders who shared our sentiments in the political parties here in Nigeria, Action Group, NCNC and even NPC.  We made contacts with them and we informed them of the existence of the Defence Pact.

When I returned back into the country in 1960, I and some other colleagues of ours, formed the Nigerian Youth Congress, we staged mammoth demonstration on the streets of Lagos, the likes of which Nigeria has never witnessed again, against the pact.

It was after that time that the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo then made it his own cause.

For us, working with the organized labour (the radical wing of the labour movement led by Wahab Goodluck and S O Bassey) and the students movement, led by Osita Okeke and especially the students union of the University of Ibadan, led by the late Dapo Falase, we had this mammoth crowd protesting against the Anglo/Nigerian Defence Pact.

This demonstrations led to the abrogation of the Anglo/Nigerian Defence Pact by the Nigerian government. The Nigerian government had to abandon the pact. I was also involved in killing the Detention Bill.

The Detention Bill was a piece of legislation by our leaders, including Chief Ladoke Akintola who had become the Premier of the Western Region by that time, the late Sardauna, Ahmadu Bello, agreed on the Detention Bill, to detain any Nigerian without trial, without stating the cause for as long as they wanted.

So, I went on radio to give a talk on it and denounced it.  You went on radio, how?  Were you invited?

I used to give news talk after the 7 O’clock news, I used to give news talk for about five minutes, at the Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation.

So, that day I chose to speak on the Detention Bill and it gave some people in government a lot of indigestion. Again the Detention Bill was dropped.My record in government, I think I tried to be as radical as anybody could be. I introduced the left hand drive.

I initiated the metric system as the federal commissioner for works – I worked with architects and engineers who had to use measurements in conjunction with the Ministry of Trade.

I virtually nationalized the Nigeria Building Society; I bought over the British interests in the Nigerian Building Society and we renamed it Federal Mortgage Bank.

I tried to do a few things which a radical could do when I was in government.

But today, you talk of radicals, I don’t see them on the streets. I even chide students.  I hear that in some universities, student unionism has been banned.

So, what would you have done about that?
In my days, I would have gone to the streets protesting. I would like to see students demonstrate against any injustice.
People no longer do that and some have come to the conclusion that, perhaps…?

Perhaps what? Nigerians, unfortunately, have grown to accept injustice as part of life.

A few protests, yes.May be one or two articles in the newspapers, yes.No continues protests.
So, the so called modern radicals, I don’t see what they’ve done.We fought not only against the white man but we also fought against Nigerian leaders.

We tried to say this is the way out. In our days we did not believe in the alignment with the West of the east and that was why we said we were Non-Aligned.

In government I stopped this unilateral largesse of giving land to foreign governments to build offices.  I insisted that it must be based on the need for reciprocity.  The then Prime Minister of Britain, Harold Wilson, did not like it.  If you gave us a state land in your country then you will be entitled to have state land in Nigeria too.

Mark you, there are still some individuals who stand out and do their bit.

In our days, when we had the Nigerian Youth Congress, NYC, which was a broad thing, working with labour.

So, how come you ended up in the National Party of Nigeria, NPN, during the Second Republic, and not a party like the Peoples redemption Party, PRP of Mallam Aminu Kano or the Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN?

The major consideration at that time was the coming together of people from the different parts of the country.  The reason why I never joined the Action Group, AG, was because Chief Awolowo, a great man, a man of great ideals, a man of huge organizing abilities and I tried to copy him in those areas but his thoughts were mainly for the Western Region.  He was a regional man.  He was a regional leader and I didn’t believe in regional politics.  I read all the newspapers.

As a Kings’ College boy, I believed and still believe in Nigeria, that I came from Lagos and I speak Yoruba is an accident of birth.  I could have been born in Yenegoa or Kano and I would have been an Ijaw or Hausa.   That was just the point of departure between a good number of us and Pa Awolowo when we were young men in Nigeria and UK.

Unfortunately, it was too late in the day when Chief Awolowo evolved as a Nigerian leader but as I said, he was a man whom I admired very much in many respects.

So, when with the return of politics in 1978, I looked at the terrain and discovered that there was no ideological divide because there was no socialists party, it was all Nigerians doing their things as regional people – the Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN, was of the West and you had the other parties too. But you had the National Party of Nigeria, NPN, embracing people from all over with Nigeria as the focus.

But let me end up with this, Bola Ige and I were very, very close in the UK.  We were together, occupied the same double bunk bed but we regretted in latter years that we didn’t take photographs of ourselves as night workers in the factories with conveyor belts.  I didn’t join active party politics until 1978.

So, how did you find active party politics?
I found politics to be very dirty; I found it to be very corrupt because you spend some money, you go there and you make 100 times more money than you spent because you have to get that money out. And I said I was not interested in any ministerial post because I had been a federal minister for almost eight years but I wanted to organize Lagos NPN like Chief Awolowo organized the AG but I was denied that opportunity by those looking for position and I saw how they did it and how money became the object of worship so I left.

You came in and just left like that?
Oh! By 1982 I was gone, I was disillusioned and I refused to be in the centre of power, I had been there but I gave President Shagari my support and my senior in Kings College, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, I gave them support.

Current events?
It is a disgrace that we’re still talking of election petitions six months to the next election, petitions which arose from elections held in 2007, it’s madness, it’s madness.

One of the problems of Nigeria is that we don’t believe in the past.  We don’t believe, we don’t know, if we know, we don’t show that we’re capable of believing in the past, that election petition should continue after years, then we’re mad, all of them are mad.

This same country, in 1979, the contest between Chief Awolowo and Alhaji Shehu Shagari, the tribunal sat within three months and within the same three months, the Supreme Court gave its judgment and whatever our feelings were, President Shagari did not have a hangover of litigation.  We had done this before and I don’t even believe in this six-month extension to clear any petitions.  We’ve done it before so why can’t we do it again.  What is the exigency now?  What has caused this mess we created.  We did it before, 20 years ago. The United States holds its election in November and by January 20, a new president is sworn in.

But somebody who should know has even suggested that we move the handover date to October from May?
What is it that would make my friend to say that we should amend the constitution to say that we should now amend the constitution to change the swearing-in from May to October? There is something definitely wrong with that suggestion.  The situation is crazy, it is madness.  We don’t follow principles!

And I’ve also discovered that there is no continuity in governance, most of our leaders come in and change things and unfortunately, most of our political leaders believe that the air we breathe in has been brought in by them and that before they came in we never had air.

Look at the Jonathan administration: He appointed Jega and the thing was delayed; didn’t they know that we needed a new voter register?  This is not something that you do even in nine months.  Again, it’s funny. Jega should have been appointed a long time a go so that we can have this exercise long time ago.

The regret is that Nigeria was better off before. I still have great hope in Nigeria, that the young persons in their 30s and 40s should not follow blindly the money politics that we the elders have used to ruin this country and that we should regard ourselves as Nigerians.  Let us take Afenifere, Ohaneze and Arewa out of politics and build a nation for all of us.  All these rolling plans don’t mean anything.


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