Alhaji Lateef Olufemi Okunnu, CON, was Federal Commissioner for Works and Housing between May 1967 and December 1974 during the General Yakubu Gowon military regime. The 75-year-old Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, spoke to Vanguard in his Victoria Island office in Lagos, recently. Excerpts:
Let me start by asking what factors worked for your emergence as General Yakubu Gowon’s Federal Commissioner for Works and Housing and what would you consider as the top-most challenge you had serving Nigeria in that capacity?
The main factor I was invited to serve at that time in the government of, not General but Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon was because Nigeria was on the brink of Civil War. Indeed, the country was going to break into bits, not into two, following the January 15, 1966 coup and the various unfortunate events especially in the Northern Region of the country. The May riots, for example, when several Nigerians from the Southern regions especially the Eastern Region were killed in cold blood. That brought the people of Nigeria to move away from the centre gravity as it were.
So, following this unfortunate incidence and the coup of July, 1966 which brought Gowon to power, the people of Eastern Region felt aggrieved because they had the worst of the killings in different parts of Northern Region. Although Nigerians from Northern Region were also killed especially in Enugu and so on but that was on a small scale.
So people in Eastern Region, the Ibo speaking Nigerians, felt very much aggrieved and tried to pull apart. What General Gowon did in July, soon after assuming power, was to summon the leaders from the four regions and also from Lagos, which was Federal Capital at that time, to form the act of Constitutional Committee to see how and what changes were necessary to be made in the existing Constitution to bring the people back as one family.
That was a long process and at the end of the day, we failed to reconcile the Eastern Region with the rest of the country. The seed for rebellion, in fact for secession was sown at that time and then the country remained in limbo up till May 1967 when Lt. Col. Ojukwu, who was then Governor of the Eastern Region, declared secession of the East from the Federation.
I have always been a federalist all my life and I remain a federalist. I remain a One-Nigeria man and I have remained in that position since my student days in Lagos, in UK as a young man and young lawyer in the 60s and in the leadership of Nigerian Youth Congress in the 60s and till tomorrow, by the grace of Almighty Allah, I remain a federalist. I don’t believe in secession and as I keep on saying, if the Yoruba speaking part of the country wants to secede, Lagos will not be part of that secession. I remain a One-Nigeria man.
And so, when the country’s unity was being threatened: the East was threatening to create Biafra, there was a threat to create Oduduwa State in the West and the North was clamouring for confederation. Of course, when we talk of secession, Northern Region was the first to threaten the national structure of the country at the Ibadan Conference in 1950. But that is history. In 1967 the country was going to break into bits and I was invited to join the Federal Government as Federal Commissioner for Works and Housing. And I accepted to join the military government at that time.
At the time you were invited by the Head of State, General Gowon, to play a ministerial role in his government, Chief Obafemi Awolowo was also invited as Federal Commissioner for Finance and late Chief Anthony Enahoro as Federal Commissioner for Information and Culture. What was the working relationship between you and all of them including the boss, Gowon?
I wouldn’t call General Gowon the boss. He was the Head of Government of which I served. It wasn’t the question of boss and servants as it were.
As you rightly said, he invited Chief Obafemi Awolowo; a great leader in his own rights. My quarrel with Chief Obafemi Awolowo is that he did not put himself up as a leader of Nigeria at that time. He was the leader of Western Region just as Sardauna Ahmadu Bello was the leader of the Northern Region and Zik unfortunately reduced himself from being the national leader we knew of and I knew of in the late 40s and late 50s to be a regional leader of Eastern Region.
But aside that, a great man like Chief Awolowo with his past experience in politics, building up Western Region of the country, with nationalists like Alhaji Aminu Kano being invited to join the government (of Gowon) representing Kano State after the creation of 12-state structure, was interesting. You know, Gowon broke up the whole regions: the North into six, the West, two and it became three when the Mid-West was created and we had what we had been agitating for or people older than me were agitating for in late 50s – Lagos State. From the East came three states: Rivers State, South Eastern State and East Central State.
So, with the leaders like Awolowo, Aminu Kano as I mentioned, Tony Enahoro from the Mid-West, T. S. Takar from Benue, Ali Munkunu from North East at that time, with such great leaders I was privileged to serve as a young man. Takar was nearest to me in age, he was a year or two older than me and others; Dr. Arikpo and another great man from South East, Briggs from Rivers State and Dr. R. B. Dikko from North Central, I was privileged to be invited to join that band of brothers to serve in the government of General Yakubu Gowon. And we carried out assignments to the best of our abilities and collectively too up till 1975. It was the good band of brothers, nationalists who rendered great service to this country.
General Gowon’s government remains celebrated for having put in place the structures Nigeria continues to show and that is traced mainly to your ministry as Federal Commissioner for Works and Housing. Failure to build on those structures has been blamed on lack of quality based leadership. What is your take on that?
Let me correct you in one respect, the achievements of General Gowon’s government did not rest solely in my own performance in the Ministry of Works and Housing. It was the government of General Gowon, which pioneered ECOWAS along with the Republic of Togo. It was the government of Gowon, which initiated the free primary education scheme, which Generals Murtala Mohammed and Obasanjo formally launched. General Gowon laid the foundation and I was present at Race Course in Sokoto in January 1974 where he made that great statement of free primary education for all children in the country to be financed by the Federal Government although primary education is a state government’s responsibility.
And there were other great events and activities. Take the National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, to bring youths together to areas they didn’t know; areas outside the areas of their births to serve the parts of the country for one year after graduation. These are some of the highlights of great achievements in the time of General Yakubu Gowon. And I would dare say, as I stated in my autobiography, which I commissioned last September, there is no government which has permanent structures or set permanent structures in this country than General Gowon’s government.
What is your role in these achievements?
I can now come back to the original question about my own parts in this great drama of creation of a new Nigeria. I met two North-South roads in the country in 1967 when I was appointed Federal Commissioner for Works and Housing. I met Port Harcourt-Enugu-Otiripo-Makurdi road straight to Lafia, Jos, then Kaduna and from there to Kano. I met also Lagos-Ibadan-Osogbo-Ilorin-Jebba-Kotangora-Kaduna-Zaria-Kano road. I added two more North-South roads: Calabar-Yola-Maiduguri on the Eastern border of Nigeria with the Cameroon.
And I added also in the middle, Warri-Benin-Auchi-Kotonkarfi to what you now call Abuja straight to Kaduna. That’s the fourth North-South road. The fifth one which I always credit General Gowon for is the one from somewhere on Lagos-Badagry Road to Abeokuta to the region around Kainji Dam to Sokoto on the Dahomey border. That was the fifth North-South road, which we established in General Yakubu Gowon’s regime.
Of course the most prominent road from the East-West is the Abeokuta-Shagamu-Ore-Benin-Asaba-Onitsha-Enugu to the border with the Cameroon. Also you can talk of Ilorin to Kabba that’s another East-West. Generally I met under 7,000 miles of Federal roads in the country and with the consent of the various states’ governments I took over states’ roads and by the time I left the government, the Federal road network had risen to about 21,000 over three times in milage which I found.
Let me say this with all due humility that by the time I left the government in December 1974, most of the Federal roads in different parts of the country, I mean in all the states of the country linking the states’ capitals and other towns in the country were either newly constructed or under construction in 1974 or construction was about to begin with plans already laid down or set out to construct them. That was the measure of the network of roads, which we created during General Gowon’s regime.
But successive governments are said not to have done much in building on those structures. What is your feeling about that?
It’s unfortunate that succeeding governments since 1974 failed to maintain most of those roads let alone to reconstruct them. You see, these roads were not built forever. You ought to maintain them, repair them when they become worn out and the heavily used roads within seven years will need not just rehabilitation but reconstruction. Unfortunately since 1975 the new roads we reconstructed or we built at that time, nothing satisfactorily has been done on them. Like Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, which although is a two-lane dual carriage, I left sufficient median to ensure extra two lanes on either sides for future expansion. I left also a wide shoulder to ensure an extra lane.
We have been promised 10 lanes Lagos-Ibadan Expressway but nothing of such promised has been fulfilled although it has been planned. The plan is there. The Federal Government does not need to apply any inch of land to make Lagos-Ibadan Expressway that is currently two-lane dual carriage a five-lane dual carriage on each side making 10 lanes. Now, it’s sad that since 1974, a heavy traffic road like Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, which should have been reconstructed in the 80s, is yet to be reconstructed. We are now in 2011 and that road is in bits and pieces and they are yet to reconstruct it.
The Sagamu-Ore-Benin Road, again two-lane dual carriage, is even worse. That one was hardly repaired just in patches. A road, which in those days would normally take you three hours normal trip from Victoria Island to Benin; if you do it in six hours now you are lucky. It’s in bits and pieces! And no government since 1974 especially let me say since the 80s has thought it fit to reconstruct that road. I can talk of many other roads in the country which have been left uncatered for. So, that speaks volumes about the commitment and sincerity, the commitment to one Nigeria, the commitment to improving and building the country into a great nation not only in Africa but also in the world.
Does this failure have anything to do with the kind of leadership in charge of the country?
In short, many of our leaders, Heads of State, are shortsighted. All these years, there are areas where they should have made some positive contributions to the well-being of Nigerians and to the greatness of economic prosperity of this country of which they have woefully failed! Woefully failed! Mention one area they have not failed! Is it infrastructure like roads we’ve been talking about? Railways are hardly in existence now.
I’m aware that one of the governments made an attempt; they constructed the rail from Ajaokuta to Warri, 20 kilometres short from Warri because it didn’t get to Warri and not completed. I gathered that the government has now just given a go-ahead to rehabilitate that railway which was built to European standard, that is five feet three inches instead of three feet six inches lane. So, if that comes on board, that will be great! The water ways have been neglected and no serious attempt to make use of water transportation in this country.
Is it electricity with the dams built by Tafawa Balewa government; the Kainji Dam started by him, which General Gowon government commissioned in 1968 or there about? What has become of Kainji Dam? What has become of the Jebba Dam and the two other dams built in those days? What has become of the various dams built to supply water for the people of this country sponsored and built by the Federal Government? What has become of our telecommunications? The P & T is dead! NITEL or whatever you call it is completely dead and PHCN or whatever they call it now is epileptic! No government has made any serious effort to put the telecommunications system right.
But the mobile system of communication, as we have now, has been taken to be an improvement over the NITEL of the old…
(cuts in) Yes people talk about mobile system and that General Obasanjo brought it. He did not bring mobile nor did General Abacha before him bring mobile system. None of them brought any mobile. Mobile was bound to come into the country because, at the time we were still talking of mobile telephone system, drivers and stewards were using mobile phones in Dahomey (Benin Republic); next door to us. So it was bound to come. The measure of success in telecommunications is whether you have put the land telephone system right or not. And land telephone system is not working. It’s dead! Which means that the so-called achievement in telecommunications is a mirage. It did not happen.
So many areas of public life has gone to pieces. Is it the national politics and the people now in the various Houses of Assembly not to talk of National Assembly? Are they nationalists? Are they people who have the love of the country at hearts or the love for their pockets? In majority of the cases, it’s the love for their pockets that they have not the love for the country. Because if they have the love of the country at heart, they would not vote themselves excessive salaries and allowances. They will not interfere with executive functions: they rang that out of Obasanjo government to create the so-called constituency projects.
In your own experience of world politics, can it be said that constituency project is alien to legislative practice?
There is nothing like constituency project. Execution of projects rests solely on the executive branch of government whether Federal or state. Legislature should have nothing to do with the execution of projects. It’s because they have an avenue to steal public funds that they talk of constituency projects. It’s not their function. They are to make laws not to execute any law. Execution of laws is the function of the Federal Government. Making of laws is the function of the legislature. All these oversight thing is blown out of proportion. America, which is the foundation of our type of Federal system of government, placed this so-called oversight function to the minimum.
In practice, what would you say oversight function really means?
In practice, oversight function is an avenue for legislators to make money out of not only government authorities which is the only organ that they oversee, they even also invade the private sector against the Constitution to extract money. So, the money they make for themselves by the allowances are the highest by any legislative body in the world, more than what the American congress men and women earn. That is torture! That is bad! That is stealing public funds. If the legislators are to spend 25 percent, as revealed by the Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria, of the recurrent expenditure of this country for their own overhead, for their own pockets, then, there is something seriously wrong with Nigeria.
What then do you suggest because the lawmakers have to at least be appreciated for doing what they do for the nation?
Legislature should not cost us more than five percent. The lawmakers should get allowances, not salaries. They should get allowances for attending their duties in the legislative bodies not salaries. These salaries they are paying themselves should go into improving education, public health; they have roles to play in those fields not only the states. The states’ governments have their own primary aims: primary education, secondary education.
The Federal Government has its own role in secondary education in someway and it’s there already. Public health is in tatters. President Obasanjo tried to rebuild UCH, University College Hospital in Ibadan and LUTH and, I believe, Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital and such other national hospitals throughout the country. But what is the end result? Not much. Public health still suffers greatly in this country.
Agriculture: there is the need for revival of primary agricultural products in the country to bring Nigeria back into its first position in non-oil production. Nigeria was first in the palm oil production, third in palm kernel production when I was in primary school; that’s the geography I learned in the late 40s and early 50s. Nigeria is nowhere now. Malaysia, which bought our palm fruit seedlings to experiment in their own country whether it would succeed or not – because it failed in Ghana, which also tried – it’s Malaysian palm oil that we now sell and eat throughout the country. We killed palm oil production in the country.
Cocoa is lifeless. The government, not just Federal now, the state governments where cocoa production used to be the foundation of wealth and I’m talking of Ondo, Ekiti, Edo, part of Delta, Oyo. Along with the Federal Government’s assistance, these are areas where we need to go back to. We need to go back to source, the good old days of timber production, groundnut and cotton production in the North.
These are the hallmarks of Nigeria’s greatness in the colonial days and in the post-independence days. We killed agriculture in this country, we should go back to resuscitate it and we should go back to the basics and improve. There is hardly any state in the country which hasn’t the wealth to develop agriculture.
And I will surprise you also because these are figures we got during the Reforms Conference in 2005, every state in the country has minerals which could be exploited. What are we doing, seriously speaking, to exploit these minerals? Instead of spending money on all these things, legislators vote fat salaries for themselves.