*‘We should not celebrate slavery in the name of centenary’
*Tells Obasanjo to retire from politics

Federal Commissioner for Works and Housing in the General Yakubu Gowon regime, 1966-1975, Alhaji Lateef Olufemi Okunnu, SAN, 80,  remains a major name in the building of modern Nigeria. He oversaw the programme for the change-over of traffic from left to right-hand which started in 1969 but became effective on 2 April, 1972 following the recommendations of the Alhaji Babatunde Jose Panel. The octogenarian explains,  in this interview, why Nigeria should not celebrate slavery in the name of centenary.  Excerpts:

By Bashir Adefaka

How do you feel at 80?
Well, let me say the birthday, on 19  February, 2013, was like any other day to me.  It was an occasion to thank Allah for His blessings and keeping me alive till this time; healthy and I am satisfied with the life I have lived; the life of service: service to Islam and service to Nigeria.  So, it was an occasion to thank God really, not to celebrate. And I started receiving good wishes from the students of King’s College who, every year, always wish me happy birthday.

Nigeria will soon clock 100 years, 20 years older than you, and the government of the country is glowingly preparing for it.  What kind of Nigeria would you like to see at 100?
It is absolute idiocy for anyone to want to celebrate 100 years of bondage or to celebrate the occasion when we were under colonialism.  We do not celebrate slavery.  Celebrating independence? Yes.  Celebrating the day when British established its rule over the country now called Nigeria? No, capital ‘NO’.  It is absolute idiocy for anyone to celebrate the day Nigeria came under colonialism.  You do not do that!  Independence?  Yes. Occasion for expression of nationalism? Yes. Enugu mines, Odi massacre? Yes!  Aba riots? Yes.  Slavery? No.  Colonialism? No.  I have never heard of any country celebrating the birth of colonialism.  Away with it and I really hope that the government will have nothing to do with it.

I heard that the idea came from the private sector.  If they want to celebrate the day the British entrepreneurs and traders came to Nigeria, that is their business!  If they want to celebrate the Portuguese who came before the British, that is their business!  But, to me, it is absolute idiocy. You do not celebrate slavery and you do not celebrate colonialism.  We did not celebrate the Berlin Conference of 1885, we did not celebrate the day Africa was cut into pieces by Europeans to satisfy their interests.  So, it is no celebration as far as I am concerned.  Nigeria should not celebrate slavery.

What is your state of mind regarding the latest revelations and developments in the nation’s judiciary which border on corrupt practices at the bench?
By dismissing two, three corrupt judges, we should give kudos to the judiciary and that is how it should be.  But let us talk about Nigeria as a unit.  As former American President Bill Clinton said, we are not moving forward.  He himself said that when he became president, he pencilled Nigeria as one of the 20 countries which would be up there in economic terms in this century and he said we are not there yet and that we are still far from it.  We do not know how to spend our money.  We are not spending our money from the resources of this country, especially the oil money, wisely.  We are not spending it to create wider economic base for this country.  The bulk of the money is going into recurrent expenditure; salaries and part of it stolen by all forms of government both federal and states.

Viable industrial base

We should concentrate  on creating a large, viable industrial base in this country.  Manufacturing is suffering.  Capital expenditure in our budget, federal or state, should take about 60 percent, not 15 percent or 20 percent as it is now. And we should reduce the cost of governance.

Let me tell those who are asking for new states, for goodness sake, do not kill the federation.  The more states you have, the weaker the states in federal structure because they have no money to sustain the state governments.  So, let us forget about creation of new states and concentrate, at the federal level, on spending money wisely on capital projects.  Industries have closed down in the past five years in Nigeria.  Why?  Because there is no electricity to power those industries.

Government should spend so much time as we did in our time under General Yakubu Gowon, 1967 to 1975.  We built these roads.  I am sad to see the roads I built throughout this country in this sorry, poor state and the various governments, right from the  Babangida government, are guilty of the poor state of infrastructure, especially the highways.

* Okunnu

I am happy to hear that the government of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan is going to – I hope -rehabilitate the Warri-Benin-Auchi-Kotonkarfi-Abuja Road.  It is one of my roads.  It has not been rehabilitated since that road was built in the 70s.  There are many other roads like that.  Lagos-Ibadan Road is still in very poor state and there is controversy over that one.  Shagamu-Benin Road is also in a very, very poor state.  When the government of General Muhammadu Buhari came in 1983 to 1985, the roads were still okay.  But the successive governments from the time Buhari left, up to the time of Obasanjo’s civilian administration, are guilty of this non-performance as far as federal highways maintenance is concerned.

Plea to Obasanjo
And let me plead with General Obasanjo that he is no longer the president of this country.  He should stop harassing successive governments.  Let him leave them alone! You have served your terms.  You served your term as military head of state, 1976 – 1979, three years, and you served eight years as civilian president.  Leave Jonathan alone to govern.  Stop harassing him.  Leave him alone to govern and retire gracefully as an elder statesman.    That is my birthday advice to General Obasanjo.  He is my friend and I am giving this friendly advice to him: Retire from active politics and be an elder statesman.  You have the opportunity to advise at the Council of State. Stop harassing Jonathan on the pages of newspapers or in People’s Democratic Party.  Retire from active politics and be an elder statesman.  That is the role which befits a retired president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Corruption has remained  a worrisome phenomenon.  Why some point accusing fingers at politicians who are the rulers, others put the culpability on civil servants.  Who is to blame and what is the way out?
All of them are guilty.

But in your time as Federal Commissioner for Works and Housing, the same civil service was there.  How did you handle them? Who is to blame really?
There are clean people, there are honest, well-meaning, disciplined people still left in Nigeria.  They are out there.  But maybe they do not allow them to thrive.  The weight of corruption is so heavy that it also covers those who are not corrupt.  But you see corruption in almost all the various segments of our economy, whether in the public service, in the legislature, in the judiciary as you have found two, three judges being dismissed from the bench.  There is corruption all over; it pervades the whole society and I hope that, with determination and courage, the governors and president of Nigeria will help to reduce corruption to the barest minimum.  You cannot wipe it out. There will still be bad eggs but you can reduce it to the barest minimum.

Your time in the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing will, for a long time to come, be remembered for the building of what is today called Nigeria railway to  boost transportation in Nigeria.  Sometime ago, you gave an advice to Lagos State government on how to build railway to mitigate traffic logjam in the state, which I believe Governor Fashola is working on. But, generally speaking, why do you thinkNigeria railway remains a sorry case in Nigeria today?

I did not talk much about the railway because that was under the portfolio of the Federal Commissioner for Transport  in our time.  I would rather put it this way: Before we came in, there was this integrated transport system: the railway, the highways – federal, regions and local governments – also there were shipping lines.  Shipping has not been really developed to a reasonable standard up till now, especially inland waterways.  We just have it on paper but, really, the Inland Waterways Authority Act runs foul of the Constitution.  That is another matter entirely.

Now, I am happy that the government, as we have read and, I think, I have seen one or two trains passing by somewhere in Yaba; I am happy that they are now reviving the railway system, which was comatose.  In my time, it was still running very well as it ran before our time, during the Alhaji Tafawa Balewa regime.  And, of course, the colonial people left a reasonably good, not really very good railway system. because the standard gauge is about 5-foot 6” or something, but what we have is about 3-foot 6” which is not fast enough.


The standardisation of a  railway system, especially the tracks, which was mooted some 20, 30 years ago, I hope the government should now go back to it, modernise the tracks and make them up to international standard.  But it is welcome news that the railway is being revived for carriage of people and goods in the country.

Let me correct you, in my time, I concentrated largely on effective transport system or highways throughout the country, not only Lagos State.  Lagos State, of course, had its own fair share of good roads, bridges and so on.  But I am very much impressed by the progress which former Governor Bola Tinubu and now Governor Babatunde Fashola in their respective times have put into the traffic situation in Lagos.  Beyond reason, they have improved the transportation system especially the highways in Lagos State.  You see the roads all over the place; there is a Lekki-Epe Road that is wonderfully put through by a state government, which has not got so much money as the Federal Government.

I see the Badagry-Lagos Road and rail road which are being built.  Again that is revolutionary.  It was to be the first of its type in Nigeria.  So, I commend Lagos State government for its foresight and I am very happy they are following our footsteps.  They are doing very well in many areas especially on transportation.


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