•Attacks Tanko Yakassai over anti-Igbo/Yoruba position on restructuring
•1999 presidential poll: l was told to create a stalemate by saying l won, make Nigeria ungovernable for OBJ
•Mistake as a top banker: I was too trusting
•Growing up: My life started on sad note when I lost my mum at age 8 but my dad rose to the occasion
By Dayo Johnson, Regional Editor, South-West
CHIEF Olu Falae clocked 80 on September 21. In this interview, the former top banker, Secretary to the Government of the Federation under the Babangida administration and Finance Minister, as well as presidential candidate of an alliance in the 1999 elections speaks on his growing up, happy moments, regrets and the Nigeria of his dream.
Now that you are 80, can you say you have seen the Nigeria of your dream?
It is certainly not so. It is becoming more and more distant from the Nigeria of my dream. Very sad.
Can you recall your happiest moment?
Very difficult to recall any particular day as my happiest moment because what happened to you when you were 12 and you were happy might happen when you were 25 and invoke a different kind of emotion. But I can say that the most exciting thing I remember was the day I read in the newspaper (West African Pilot) that I had been admitted into Igbobi College, Lagos.
It was new and I was the first person from this town (Akure) to be admitted into that school. Admission results were always published in newspaper. A friend saw it and ran to me in the rain to show it to me. I can’t describe how I felt; it was as if I was given ticket to heaven. It was a very exciting day.
Tell us what growing up was like?
Like life in general? It has been ups and downs. My life started with a terrible dawn when I lost my mother at the age of 8 on October 20, 1946. Then I could not imagine life without my mother and those days I was so sad. I want to thank God that it did not destroy me because I could not imagine life without my mother. But I was able to achieve meaningful things.
I took many entrance exams and I was given admission in all but I was able to attend Igbobi College mainly because a friend here in Akure in 1952 said the college was the best and I felt that was a turning point. My father took me to his uncle in Osogbo, Chief Joshua Orisabinu Adedipe, who will take me to Lagos by train. But by the time we woke in the morning, the train we planned to take had gone.
We missed the train. We had to take a lorry from Osogbo to Ibadan. On getting to Ogunpa, we took another lorry to Lagos.
It was a dramatic journey from Osogbo to Lagos. At the age of 14, I was making the journey from Lagos to Akure and Akure to Lagos. Very safe then, but, at the end of the first term, I joined students who came from Benin and Ikare to travel by bus from Akure to Lagos and Lagos to Akure for one pound and one penny. The fare was one penny per mile and Akure was 241 miles.
I started paying that and arriving Akure in the daylight, between 5pm and 6pm, to the delight of my father. Igbobi College was an expensive school. Most schools, including Aquinas, Oyemekun and Christ’s School, were paying four pounds per term while Igbobi was paying thirteen but the thirteen pounds included tuition, school uniform, transport money back home after the term and the rest; very organized school. First few weeks was difficult for me because people were there from different parts of the country and later I started making friends, one of whom was Ebun Kalejaye who died sometime last year. Kalejaye was a friend who cared. As a medical doctor, he treated my family free.
A motherless child by definition suffers some things but my father was very fantastic and supportive and had unbelievable confidence in my future. He took me to school at the age of five years and three months. I was born on September 21, 1938; he took me to school in January 1944, St Stephen’s Anglican Junior Primary School, Ijomu, Akure.
When we got there, they gave me the first test, which I failed. The test was to stretch my right hand on top of my head and touch my left ear; that was the test of maturity. If you could not touch your left ear, then you were not six years of age. I could not touch my left ear and I was told to go home.
But my father said no way, that he himself attended that school in the past. My father was not allowed to return to the school then when he missed some classes and was asked to go home and return the following year. He never returned to the school and was asked to follow his uncle to farm. Because of that, he said his first son must go to school early in life. He said those who were with him in class now started avoiding him.
He showed passion for education and that was how he took me to school prematurely. My name today, Oluyemi, was the name of the last teacher who taught him in the school. He used the name as a memorial. Second, the slate he used while in school, he kept it for about 25 years and that was what I used to start school. It was from the slate I knew that my father’s name was Falae, my father wrote it on the slate. That was the kind of father I had and I thank God I did not disappoint him.
Do you have any regret in life?
My regret was my weakness and that is trusting people. I have never felt the need to hide anything about me and I did not believe anyone could harbour evil against me, which is very unwise of me. People just hate you for the sake of it.
When I was appointed as Secretary to the Government of the Federation, a week later, the Director of SSS came to me about my security arrangement and, as we discussed, he asked me who my enemies were. I said I had no enemy; he laughed and told me I had enemies. He said, ‘Do you know that this office you are occupying, there are people who are desperate to have it? Some of those people will not be happy that you got the job’. From records, there were about four persons who were anxious to have the job.
At a time, I decided I will not come into the civil service because I was comfortable in my banking job. In banking job, you can see the outcome of your performance in the balance sheet, whereas in the civil service, you may have the feeling that you are doing well, but it is not demonstrable quantitatively as in banking that, last year, you made a profit of N45million, this year you made N50million. In banking figures, nobody can deny that you have improved if you made profit.
Besides, I don’t like the bureaucratic life as you have it in the civil service. One thing I enjoyed is controlling my time. In the civil service, you cannot control your time. One of the mistakes I made was that I trusted people. In the banking job, I gave some people loans. Good lending should not be based on collateral but on the quality of the project. There were lots of people I gave loan who disappointed me and, on a number of occasions, we had to dispose their assets to recover our money. I was terribly disappointed. Outside banking, people in the civil service also misrepresent facts to achieve their selfish objectives. Over the years, I learnt my lessons.
Tanko Yakassai said recently that restructuring is a Yoruba agenda promoted by the uninformed Igbo. Do you agree?
I understand something about restructuring; if he knows what it is, he would not have make that senseless comment. Restructuring means how we can go back to constitutional arrangement we had before, which all of us agreed at independence. Before independence in 1958/1959, there were constitutional conferences in Nigeria and London between the British colonialists and the regional leaders and parties (the North, the East and the West).
After a lot of negotiations, agreement was reached on the constitution for Nigeria and that was the regional/federal approach which gave considerable autonomy to the regions. Nigeria is a heterogeneous society. In other words, there are too many ethnic groups and languages, cultures, aspirations, values, religions in Nigeria. We are not homogenous; we are not of the same tribe, language and tradition.
So, in a highly varied society like ours, you need to give different groups their own area and domain for activities. Then give them a central government that oversees defence, security, communications, currency, banking, customs and insurance.
Those things are best done centrally but all other things are reserved for the regions. In the Western Region of those days, which was 80% of the Yoruba plus the Bini, the Urhobo, the Itsekiri and the Western Ibos of Asaba, it was more homogenous unlike the whole of Nigeria where we have 440 different ethnic groups. It makes sense to have a government with a group of people where 80 percent speak same language and are of the same culture.
They are more likely to agree on many things because of the commonality. That is what we are talking about. It is unreasonable to pretend otherwise. The old Northern Region, they had Hausa/Fulani making 60% of the population at that time. It made sense because they were more likely to agree on so many things than the whole of Nigeria acting together.
Eastern Nigeria, the Igbo were at least 60/65 %. It was for this reason that the government there will most likely agree on so many things. Pragmatic commonsense was the basis of that regional approach. Every region had the constitution of its own. There were four constitutional documents at independence: Western Region, Eastern Region, Northern Region and the Federal Constitution.
The present generation never heard about it, all they heard about is one constitution. Yakassai is older than I am, he knows about all I am talking about. He knows that the East, the West and the North had that agreement. He knows it was the military that came and undid that. He knows that since the military did that, Nigeria has been deteriorating.
Competitive development is gone, peace has eluded us. This over concentration of powers, resources at the centre, as if we are one homogenous people, has not worked. In Akure township, a state capital since 1976, you can still count 200 roads that are not surfaced, there is no pipe borne water that is reliable. I don’t know of any state capital that has central sewage system. Most rural roads are impassable.
The road l take to my farm since 1985, if you see it, you won’t believe that people still ply that road. Our children coming out of school have no work; that is why we have a lot of crime: Yahoo-Yahoo, kidnapping and all of that.
The system the military imposed on us has not worked. If you try a system for more than 50 years and it has not worked, does it not make sense if we look at what we used to do that produced better results which is the regional constitutional arrangement, which all our leaders agreed to?
Let us go back to a system that looks like that. We are not saying we should go back to exactly what we had then, of course time has changed. States have been created. Let’s have regional governments that have more power and resources to develop. They will be coordinating the activities of state governments. For example, there are things that are best done centrally like immigration, customs and currency.
Similarly, at the regional level, there are things that are best done regionally for the benefit of the people. For example, in the South-West, education is our priority. If you have regional government, the states will collaborate with the regional government on educational materials and how to bring down the cost.
That is a huge advantage. What Tanko Yakassai said does not make sense. Two, rivers don’t recognize state boundary, they flow where they want. Osun River, the source is in Ekiti, goes through Osun, Oyo and Ekiti, that is three states. A day must come when we need to harness water resources to grow agriculture.
We will substantially improve our food production with water resources. Since Osun River flows through three states, this can be best harnessed by a regional government that will take into consideration the water needs of the people of these states.
These are some of those things we are saying. Going back to what we had at independence but considering the changes that have taken place since then, that is what we call restructuring. What worked for us was parliamentary government, which is cheaper than presidential.
The Federal Government says killings in the country have reduced drastically. Do you share this view?
I don’t know who their statisticians are on killings. All I know is that I still read about killings in various parts of the country. If it is reducing, we shall thank God for that but for total stoppage, we need to go to restructuring of Nigeria. I used to travel from Akure to Lagos at the age of 14 all by myself. That is what we are looking for. Can anybody in Benue, Plateau do that now? Is reducing the issue, how has that translated to development? We need a fundamental change in the arrangement of the country. This system has not worked.
What is your take on vote-buying?
There is an antidote. Buying of votes is a crime. Electoral Act clearly defines it as a criminal act. Two, it is the duty of every citizen to assist law enforcement agents to end and detect crime. Three, it is a duty of every citizen as a voter to assist the police to prevent people from buying votes. Therefore, on election day, any voter who sees that should alert the police to arrest the perpetrator.
Four, if the police refuse to act, the citizen has a right to exercise his duty by seizing the item which is being used to commit the crime which is money. Take it and give it to the police to serve as exhibit for the prosecution of the criminal. That is the only way to stop it physically.
Should Nigerians expect any positive result from the coalition of parties – CUPP? Is anything good going to come out of this coalition?
Some parties in the coalition are sending wrong signals to the public; maybe they think they can go it alone. But they are deceiving themselves; it is not likely to happen. INEC has a deadline to file your nominations. Since discussions are ongoing, we don’t want to be caught in the web; my party (SDP) is filing nominations. People are buying forms. Whatever happens, we have to file nominations. In view of the discussions, we pray we come to a good conclusion because we told our colleagues that we must create an open mind.
There must not be ego trip. For example, in Gambia and Senegal, when the opposition parties came together to unseat the President, the platform used was not that of the largest opposition party. It was the platform of one of the smaller opposition parties.
Why they did that l don’t know. They did and it worked. Coming to Nigeria, in 1999, you will recall (defunct All Peoples Party) APP and Alliance for Democracy, AD, formed an alliance. APP had more lawmakers than AD, but it was the AD platform that was used, my humble self was the presidential candidate of the alliance. It is not a strange thing. We are saying let’s keep all options open.
Some leaders are advocating for a six-year single tenure for President and Governors. Are you in agreement with them?
I subscribe to single term government at all levels. I will be happy with five years. So that when you come in, you will programme all you need doing for the years, do it and leave the place. This two-term thing is designed for a more mature society where people don’t see office as their father’s thing. What is going on, they spend the first term deceiving people, doing what they called ‘quick win’ to make money from projects and prosecute second term.
But, if you want to start single term, the present administration should not be a beneficiary. Anybody in office today, if you introduce it, goes home. Otherwise, if you introduce it, it will be four plus six years making ten. No. Anybody in office is disqualified.
One of the presidential aspirants said that President Buhari is not in charge. According to him, a cabal is the one in charge.
I don’t know. There are all kinds of groups that use power. They exist in every government. I believe that to arrive at his decisions, he listens to some people from certain quarters. For example, the removal of the former Director of SSS and his replacement with the most senior officer was the right thing to do. But replacing him with a person from the same region as the President, in my view, is insensitive. It is most unfortunate.
2019 general elections are months away and politicians in different political parties appear desperate to win. What’s the way out?
I think we should be praying to God to intervene. These days, politicians are desperate. I am a politician and I was not desperate when I contested. If I was desperate, after the 1999 presidential election, the two parties which sponsored me held a meeting in Abuja and said that we should made Nigeria ungovernable, that I won that election but our mandate was stolen, and I said no because I had come to politics to make things better for the masses, not to get there involving in bloodshed and making people suffer.
Dare Babarinsa once wrote that it was not Goodluck Jonathan that showed good statesmanship, that it was me in 1999, that the whole nation was waiting for me to make a pronouncement, rejecting the result of the election.
There are millions of Nigerians who can be the President of Nigeria, why should I feel that it must be me and if not me there would be hell? Who am I? I just felt like if I became the President, I will do my best to make Nigeria better and if the people say no, so be it.
We just pray that we would mobilize support for someone who has some attributes that would enable us to run a government that would be fair to everyone. We are looking for a normal human being who must have enough education to broaden his mind, who will not be a narrow-minded ethnic or religious bigot, who will recognize that Nigeria belongs to all of us.
Presidential candidates have emerged in parties. How do you rate them?
l think anybody who is better can win this election because Nigerians are frustrated and they are desperately looking for someone who can take them out of this suffering. Today we don’t need a northern President or southern President or Muslim or Christian President; we need a President who can address the problems of Nigeria, who can bring Nigeria together and re-kick the engine of growth and development of Nigeria and job creation. That is the person we are looking for.
Anybody who can convince us that he will do all of these, let us vote for him, whether he is a man or woman from any religion and from any part of the country.
What is your take on the clamour for the ‘not too young to run?’
The President must be competent; we are not looking at age, this person must be mature, he or she must have other attributes of education, knowledge, courage, passion, love and respect for the people that would enable him to carry the people along.
My position is that I will support any man who, in my opinion, can rule this country. It is not a matter of age, we have many people who are in their 30s, 40s, and are useless and also we have people in their 60s who are relevant. All we can say is that whoever wants to be President must be mature and have all other attributes that will enable him to carry the people along.