By Omezia Ajayi
Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, national chairman of the All Progressives Congress, APC, former governor of Edo State and a retired permanent secretary has carved his name in gold as being the first chairman of an opposition political party to wrest power from a ruling party. Odigie-Oyegun was very active in the fight against military rule, having been an active member of the National Democratic Collation, NADECO. For his efforts, he is today being honoured by the alumni of the University of Ibadan as the Alumnus of the Year, 2016, the highest honour by the association.Odigie-Oyegun in this interview recounts his life experience. Excerpts:
Why the choice of the University of Ibadan for your degree?
At that time, the in-thing was to go to UI. It was only when you were not qualified enough to be admitted that you then sought other avenues, and that was what happened. So, the circumstances were different. The University of Ibadan was the pinnacle of your ambition. If you did not get your three papers at one sitting, of course, you did not stand a chance of getting admitted.
You went into the federal civil service rising to the position of Permanent Secretary. What was it like serving your father land in the public service?
Fantastic. Truly nothing like it. When you look back at those years, and you look at what is happening today, totally different worlds. At that time, you did not even dare go to your permanent secretary not to talk of discussing loot or lobbying for anything. That was anathema. You did not lobby for promotion; you did not lobby for posting, or anything and merit was very critical because it was highly recognized.
There was no fear of witch-hunt. In fact, it was a problem if you could not reason and you could not speak, and you could not defend your point of view. That was a problem. So, some of us, because of that kind of background, had problems much later on in our career, but it was a fantastic civil service. For instance, I got whispers about the possibility of my becoming permanent secretary when I was attending a board meeting of the Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA), because you never knew things like that would happen, but somehow, somebody heard of it and called me out of the meeting to inform me. Just to give you the idea that at that time, the golden days of the civil service where merit was everything, lobbying and corruption were absent. You dared not buy a car that was out of sync with your economic possibilities. It was not done. They would ask you.
What was the reason for your early and voluntary retirement?
I retired voluntarily because the kind of upbringing we had in the civil service became a disadvantage when the military came in. For a long time, we had no problems, but I think there was a stress-factor involved. When the Buhari administration with which I empathised a lot, because discipline was becoming a problem, corruption, drugs were becoming a problem; I was on all fours with that administration and when they coup happened, and they were removed, I was truly upset and so in my usual forthright manner in which I grew up in the service, I said a few things and resisted a few things that created issues for me, I just knew it was time to go. When the new government came in, my problem started immediately, and I knew that by the time they would appoint permanent secretaries, it was almost certain I would not be on that list. So, I just said to myself, instead of facing that humiliation, I better just go while I was still on my feet.
You served briefly as governor of Edo state. What was your experience like?
Lovely and beautiful. It taught me one thing, and I think it is a universal truism that when people trust you, when they believe you are acting in their interest, they tend to take to you, and that was clear for most of my period in Edo State. Then, almost like now, there was no money. I think we got less than N100 million most times in any month because the last budget I presented was about N1 billion; the first time anybody was declaring billions. And that was for the entire year, and salary almost took everything. At the end of the day, you are left with almost nothing.
At the best of times, I do not think we were left with more than N15million or N20million to manage the state in any month, but that is where prudence of resource management comes in. But as at the time I left, I owed nobody salary, I owed nobody pension, no lack of payment for work done because my habit from the time I became permanent secretary, unless the money was there, I would not give out a job because the effect is simple; people would go and borrow money to execute the job, then they come back after one, two, three months or even a year and you are unable to pay them; you have only ruined them and for me that was totally unacceptable. So, unless the flow of money was reasonably sure to me, I would not allow a job to be awarded. I had the challenge finally with the salary issue, and I called the unions for debate.
I told them I did not want to lay off staff. They had just gotten one or two increases; that was during the Babangida regime when they would just virtually decree things. Two, three times, they reduced our percentage of the Consolidated Revenue Fund, meanwhile the workers’ salary went up. So, I called the workers and persuaded them to give up some of the increases that you got, but repayable to you at retirement; we called it compulsory savings. I told them that would save their colleagues from being fired, and the union leaders agreed but of course, it turned out that they had difficulty persuading the workers. That was the issue we had. Otherwise, it was a most pleasurable experience.
There were so many abandoned projects, and I decided that instead of starting new projects, let me complete the ones that were there and brought them into use by the public because they had invested a lot of money in them and we could not just write them off. The very day I was sworn in, I declared education free. So, when people today talk about free education being unaffordable, I do not understand it. I called the vice-chancellor, rector, provost and heads of other tertiary institutions and asked them to tell me what each student paid into the system. They gave me the student population as well as how much they generate from them, and I told them ‘fine, subject to increases everywhere,
I will give you what the students are supposed to pay. So they are free to attend classes’. And that was it, and we managed that very well. I introduced the public bus service and registered it as a limited liability company, and we had an arrangement with those managing it. I would buy the buses; you would manage and maintain them properly and meet your recurrent costs, but I would always provide the capital, and that one worked very well. When we needed to build a student hostel in what was then Edo State University, I called the students of Auchi Polytechnic and asked them to design it, do the architectural drawing; called the students of the then Edo State University to supply the labour while we would supply the materials. We had to do these innovative things to succeed. It was a very lovely experience such that till today, from the very first day I left office, I could walk the streets of Benin freely.
How did you feel when your tenure was cut short?
Oh, very, very, bitter. Not because my tenure was cut short, annoying as that was, but it was a period of promise. You could see the future; the governors were mostly of high quality, and we interacted very well and had a mission of where the country was going, then the military struck again, and it became clear to me all of a sudden, that the military was the source of the nation’s problems. They had to voluntarily or with a little push, be taken out of the political scene on a permanent basis and that was why NADECO came about.
That was the mission of NADECO: an end to military rule. June 12 was grafted when Abiola came to join us. We were meeting then somewhere in Ikeja GRA when Abiola applied to join, and I remember I got up that day and said he has to accept that the core of the struggle was a permanent end to military rule. Once we got the military out, we could cope with democracy with all its imperfections, but it was still a better option than military rule. We fought till the end, won 50 per cent. We would have won 100 per cent but for the strange death of the dramatis personae, but we got the military out of politics with God assisting us in the process.
Why did you go into exile?
Simple. The minute I was declared wanted, the choices before me were very stark. We were bitter political enemies in Edo State. The late Aikhomu, for example, believed that I organized those who burnt his house and other attacks in Edo State including the attacks on some leaders of the then NRC and those even within the SDP, who became collaborators, not to talk of the political people that I defeated in Edo State. I was even in Lagos when all that happened. So, it was clear that if I found myself in Benin Prisons, that I would most likely not come out alive. So, the choice was stark. The truth of the matter was that I went into hiding for quite a while, and it became uncomfortable for those who were hosting me; even for me, it became a bitter assault.
And I contacted friends in the security services to say, ‘look, I am tired of hiding. I’ll come out, stay in my house and I won’t say a word’. And I was told, ‘well, that may not be enough. You have to say you support us’. And I told them, sorry, I would not do that. ‘I am ready to keep quiet, but I am not ready to say I support you.’ And, it was a friend; so, he said, ‘well, my advice is, if there is any way you can get out for a while, please do so.’ And, that was how I went into exile.
Talking about the APC how has it been running the party and transforming it from an opposition party to a governing party?
Tough, rough and stressful; but a totally rewarding experience. I did not know I still had so much to learn, and I am still learning every day. We were dealing with groups that had never held power at the centre. So, there was a little bit of inexperience. Before we got into government, the vision was a lot clearer; the mission was definite – get rid of these people who are ruining the country. So, we all rallied around that single banner -get rid of these destroyers of our nation and we succeeded but once you succeed, the issue of putting everyone in positions become problem number two.
How do we fill the positions? Who is more important than who? Who occupies what position? Who are the most important groups in the party? What level of hold would they have on the structures? All those became divisive issues, which to be honest we have not totally resolved up to this point in time and which also gave rise to some of the problems that exhibited themselves in the National Assembly and places like that, but we are working on it. Distresses have come, but eventually, in the long run, people would start accepting the relative positions within the party, settling for what they have or what they can get.
If you have another opportunity to reverse one decision you took in the past, what would that be?
In life? That is a tough one. A lot of decisions, not just one, but some of which are private. If you want to limit it to the recent past, I would say the decision to allow the meeting that was called to take place on the day the National Assembly was being inaugurated. That was a bad mistake. It was not my mistake, but I take responsibility because I was persuaded and I agreed to call that meeting. If it did not take place, we probably wouldn’t have the PDP person there today as the deputy Senate president and a lot of the anger within the leadership of the party may not have turned out as strong as it became.
Looking back, would you say you are fulfilled?
As a human being? Oh, God has been generous to me. So, I am totally fulfilled. Many years ago, I looked at the lives of Awolowo, Zik, Papa Ajasin, Ahmadu Bello, Tafawa Balewa and the rest of them who contributed to the development of this country but who on their death-beds felt a lot of frustration that the vision they had for the nation, were not on the road to fulfilment. And I said to myself, God, I want to be on my death-bed, knowing, not that all the problems of this nation have been solved, but knowing that we are finally on the right path to greatness. Today, I feel fulfilled. I think we are on the right path to greatness. I think we are beginning to grapple with the forces and issues that held back this nation. It is not yet Uhuru. Tons of problems but the people now know the difference.