Dr. Sylvester Ugoh, Harvard-trained economist and former Minister of Science and Technology, is among those that can be said to have seen it all in politics and economy.
With participation in the Second Republic, General Ibrahim Babangida’s transition and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), he discusses the politics of Nigeria with relative ease.
With the same candour, he talks on the Central Bank of Biafra, where he was the governor, explaining how he ran the two-man director institution for the 30 months the civil war lasted. Ugoh also dissects other issues in the land, identifying where the drift in the current democratic experiment commenced, as well as way out of the crisis.
The last time many Nigerians heard about you was during the PDP Convention of 1999. Since then, you have literally been off the scene. Why?
My wife was ill in the United States of America (U.S.), and my children, who were there, felt that I should come and stay with her because, usually, in the morning when they would have gone to work, she would be alone. It was not an easy decision for me to make. But considering her situation and how highly we regarded her, I decided to abandon everything here and move to the U.S. to stay with her and nurse her. That was how, I, more or less, disappeared from the scene in Nigeria.
Now that it is presumed that you are back, what do we expect from you?
Strictly speaking, nothing; because I am merely visiting. My wife did not survive the sickness. She eventually died in 2010 and my children insisted that I must remain in the U.S. I have been there since then. I visit Nigeria once a while. So, I am merely on a visit. I don’t intend to get involved at this time in anything happening in the country.
Accept our sympathy, sir.
Is it not curious that given your status as an elder statesman, you are saying that you do not want to get involved, even with the way things are going?
Yes, things are bad; but I cannot make any difference, if I were to be active. Many times, I have even wondered whether the service I rendered in this country did any good at all. But that is gone. Our situation is very serious. I don’t think a Sylvester Ugoh playing any part in Nigeria today can, alone, change anything. It is really not worth my while to spend any time here trying to correct the ills of the society.
How bad is the situation that you see and why do you think you can’t make any difference?
I my view, things are worse today than they were 20 years ago. In other words, whereas other countries are moving forward, if you check any area of our endeavour, you will discover that we are moving backwards. I don’t think we are successfully tackling the situation. So, being just one man, as I said, I don’t think I can change much, even if I were to put in the best that I have to offer.
You are a founding member of PDP. Do you still recognise the PDP that you people founded in 1998?
Things are worse today than they were when we founded the party. The party we founded is not the same today. It is the same in name; but the philosophy, the values and the commitment are not the same. Many people are in the party for what they can get out of it, and not for what service they can render to the country. That, I think, is what makes the difference.
Have you, in any way, expressed this concern to the leadership of the party?
No, I haven’t; but I don’t think they need my comment to know that the situation is grave. Any of them who is discerning would accept what I am saying to be true.
Olusegun Obasanjo was not part of those that founded PDP. To what extent do you think his emergence as presidential candidate of the party in 1999 contributed to the decline of the value system you talked about?
Strictly speaking, Obasanjo was imposed on the party. When the party was being formed, he was not available because he was not around. But the retired Army Generals felt that he would give them the security which they thought they needed and, so, imposed him on the party. As far as I am concerned, he ran the party as if it were a military organisation. From that day, the party started to decline, and one can hardly recognise it as what we had in mind when we were running around to form the party.
At that point of imposition, what did you, the civilians, do?
The civilians could not do much because, whether you like it or not, the military has a strong hold on Nigeria. Look at the people selected for the national conference. How many Generals do you have there? That gives you an idea of the strong hold the military has on the country.
Do you then see much coming out from the conference?
I don’t think the conference, as such, can solve our basic problems. This is because our basic problem, really, is not the constitution but the people who operate the constitution. I don’t think the conference is going to discuss the value system; or the fact that one can commit all sorts of crimes and get away with them. You don’t see any of the people committing these crimes being prosecuted and jailed as deterrent to others. So, many people in Nigeria believe that they can do anything and get away with it. That is the tragedy of the country.
During the General Ibrahim Babangida transition, you were the vice presidential candidate of the then National Republican Convention (NRC). Given the insinuations that the transition was programmed to fail, do you think your efforts were worth the engagement?
Of course, not! Babangida had no idea of handing over power. He maradona-erd every Nigerian to believe that he was going to hand over power, when he had no intention of doing that. So we were all sucked in. There was no doubt that that exercise was really futile because it didn’t lead us to anything, except that there was a swell of disgruntlement and disappointment that made the military to ask Babangida to “step aside”. That was the only thing it achieved and not much else. But then, (General Sani) Abacha was not better than Babangida. It was a continuation of the same old military junta running the country as if it were their private estate.
Though you have not been in the country, from what you have heard and read, how would you assess the current administration?
I have not been around. But the current administration is bedeviled with so many problems. Its authority is even questioned in some parts of the country; some of its intentions are, to many people, suspect. So, it has all these negative issues to deal with. Of course, as I had said, the incidence of people committing all sorts of crimes without being prosecuted, has continued.
That hasn’t helped them. This is in addition to the fact that since 1999, when Obasanjo promised us that within the end of his first year, we would have uninterrupted supply of power. From that day till date, we still do not have uninterrupted supply of power. Without regular supply of power, the economy cannot move. So, the current administration has too many problems, and I don’t think it is making much progress in solving them.
Do you think it is due to lack of capacity or political will?
I don’t know what is responsible. All I know is that from what I see, not much is being done to solve our basic problems. Whether it is because of lack of capacity or lack of will, I don’t know. I am not close enough to know the reason. All I know is that I can see the evidence of lack of progress.
Obasanjo comes around today to pontificate and make comments, even passing judgment on those that succeeded him. Given what he did or failed to do in eight years he was in the saddle, do you think he has the moral right to criticise others?
In my view, he should just do what (former President) Shehu Shagari did – go home and keep quiet; ‘sidon look’ as he would say. But coming out to pontificate is merely exposing himself because he did worse things than his successors, though much was expected of him.
Let us go back a little. You were the governor of the Central Bank of Biafra. How did you run the economy of that obviously besieged nation for three years, yet Biafra did not have the problem we are encountering now?
It was a different situation. Practically, most people in Biafra were interested in the success of the war. They were not interested in amassing wealth. So, the commitment was stronger than it is today. The people were prepared to make sacrifices which, today, people are not prepared to make. So, the situation is different. That, I think, explains your observation.
What did you do, practically, to run that economy?
I did not really run the economy as such. What I did was that, with the withdrawal of the Nigerian currency from Biafra, we had to try to create a money system that could be used to substitute for the Nigerian Pound, to facilitate buying and selling of goods and services.
So, my primary attention as governor of Central Bank of Biafra was really to make sure that we had enough currency to facilitate the running of the economy. That was the only thing we did because we were in a war situation and could not engage in other activities that a Central Bank ordinarily undertakes.
Were you printing currency?
Of course, yes. We did. We had to create a Biafran currency. We had to print the notes and put them into circulation. That was what was used for trading once the Nigerian currency was withdrawn from circulation.
Inflation was not as high as it is today. How did you achieve that?
As I told you, commitment by the people was strong. Moreover, we had help from the International Red Cross (IRC) and other donor countries. Also, people who were not involved in military activities farmed anywhere they wanted. Even school football fields were converted into farms. So, we were, at least, able to produce something, though the problem Biafra had was that as the war situation got worse in some areas, the people from there moved to other areas. Of course, there was hunger. We cannot run away from that.
What was your relationship with the Biafra Head of State, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu?
There was nothing much. He just handed over the bank to me and asked me to take care of it, so that he would not have to worry himself about what was happening in that field.
Even when I asked him to appoint some other members of the board to help me run the place, he said he had not complained about my running it alone; that I should go ahead; that he didn’t have any more people to give me; that everybody else was busy. He had complete confidence in me and allowed me to run the bank as I would because he felt I was doing the right thing. Only on a few occasions would he send for me, if he needed some information; otherwise, he left me to run the bank without any interference.
How many people were on the board of the Central Bank of Biafra?
There were only two of us. Even then, the other person was on the warfront. So, I was a one-man board, in fact.
Who was the other person?
The late (William) Uzoaga who was a professor of Business Administration, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN). He was in the Military Intelligence; so, I never saw him.
Chinua Achebe, in his book, There was a country, blamed Nigeria’s problems on the exclusion of the Igbo. Do you think Nigeria could have benefited from the civil war if the authorities had handled Biafra differently?
There is no doubt about that. You know that, in Biafra, we had research and production department, called RAP. Most of our scientists and engineers were involved in trying to develop and produce different things. At the end of the war, if Nigeria or those in charge with her administration had cared, they would have assembled most of those scientists and engineers to create for them facilities or employ them in existing facilities to continue to develop things they were developing during the war.
But because the scientists were Igbo and they saw no need to encourage them, they were left to go. Thus, years after the Ministry of Science and Technology was established, those people who would have been really the core of scientists and engineers that could go into development in various areas of science and technology, had been dispensed with or had dispersed and could not be reached. That was a terrible thing.
By the time the Biafran experiment collapsed, how did you feel?
For me, it was unfortunate. But I am one of those who, in whatever they want to do, put in their best. If at the end of the day, my best does not succeed, I accept it as the will of God because I couldn’t have done better than what I had already done. That was how I took the Biafran experience. We put in our best.
Do you have any regrets getting involved in the exercise?
Looking back, do you think that war was inevitable?
At the time, yes. I don’t think we could have stopped it. And the sad thing about it all is that I don’t think that even we in Nigeria have learnt anything from that tragedy. We have continued to accept the philosophy of unity, but not its consequences or implications.
Why do you think so?
You can see what is happening in the country. Weren’t the Igbo again killed in the North? Haven’t they been driven out of the North? Now, Boko Haram is killing their own children because there are no more Igbo to be killed in the North. This, I think, is a tragedy. At the confab, I think they should really decide if we want to stay together as a country. This is because I don’t see what can be done. I do not know the value system that informs people killing their children because other children are no longer available to be killed. Is that how we are going to develop?
Recently, some youths who went for job interview were killed in stampede. What do you think is the way out of the unemployment situation in the country?
If you do not have uninterrupted supply of power, you cannot have a sustainable manufacturing industry. You don’t manufacture with generators; no country does that. That is why my greatest disappointment is that, in 2014, we still do not have uninterrupted supply of power, when we have gas, hydro, coal and all the resources needed to generate power. I understand that distribution of power has been privatised; but privatised to whom?
Do the people it has been privatised to have the capacity, experience, resources? I don’t see why we should limit ourselves to Nigerians, if Nigerians don’t have what it takes. There wouldn’t have been any harm in getting Nigerians, giving them certain percentages and making sure that foreigners who have the experience are involved. Then you would be sure of result. But to privatise the thing to the old Generals and old politicians is just a waste of time. Nothing will change. One should not use such a vital sector for political patronage.
What was your worst nightmare during the civil war?
Of course, our worst nightmare was that we would be routed. Don’t forget that the problem we had was that Biafra had no Army. We just had some Igbo or Eastern military officers and men who ran back from other parts of the country. Most of them came back empty-handed; no guns, no equipment; worst still, no support from any European country because Britain made sure that didn’t happen.
There was no support from any of our neighbouring countries because these were practically colonial creations. Their colonial powers wouldn’t allow them. When Bangladesh, which was Eastern Pakistan, decided to break off from Pakistan, with the support of India, this was possible. If India had not supported the move, there would have been no Bangladesh. Biafra did not have an India as a godfather.
This was the problem we had. The British were so anxious to control the oil in the delta that they were prepared to get the Igbo destroyed, to retain that oil. Perhaps, if there had been no oil, they wouldn’t have cared whether the Igbo became independent or not.
There is still this issue of Obafemi Awolowo advocating starvation as war strategy against the Igbo. Achebe commented on this in his book. Do you agree with views held by Achebe?
Awolowo, don’t forget, had been prosecuted and jailed by the previous civilian federal government. He was serving his term in Calabar, Eastern Nigeria. And there is no doubt that Dr. Michael Iheonukara (M.I.) Okpara, who was the Premier of Eastern Region at the time, did try to make his stay there as comfortable as possible. But when General Yakubu Gowon took over power and reconstituted his government, he released Awolowo and made him his number two man. He gave him a lot of responsibilities in government.
Awolowo’s main interest was to make sure that Nigeria won the war. So, as far as he was concerned, whatever policy that would help him win the war was acceptable. And he followed it. That was his own idea. You would find out that even at the end of the war, Awolowo, who was an alumnus of UNN, did not lift a finger to help rehabilitate the institution. So, he did what he thought was the best thing for Nigeria. I don’t think anyone denies that it was his position that everything, including starvation, was fair in war. That was his position.
Do you mean that Awolowo was an alumnus of UNN?
Yes, he was given an honourary degree by the institution. I was teaching at UNN at the time. So, I know what I am talking about.
In present-day Nigeria, the economy of the East does not seem to be faring well, despite the people’s entrepreneurial spirit. What do you think has gone wrong with the Igbo man?
A lot of things have gone wrong. The value system in Igboland now is not what it was before the civil war. That is part of it. Money, irrespective of how it is made, means everything to many people, now. This is why people are prepared to counterfeit drugs – literally killing people to make money. It was not like this before the civil war.
Secondly, agriculture, which was very important under Okpara, the last Premier of Eastern Nigeria, has been completely neglected.
Of course, the school system has totally collapsed. So, when you think seriously about our problem, you would see that we are in a deep pit and it will take us some time to come out. This is really the problem of Eastern Nigeria.
Do you think it has to do with the quality of leadership, particularly the kind of governors we have had since 1999?
The governors have something to contribute. If you look at some of our governors, they don’t even have the right conception of what governance should be. They don’t see it as service; service to the people. When we were in politics, for me, it was a matter of service. But today, it is a matter of personal aggrandisement. If that is the ambition or objective of whoever that is there, the people come second or even third in his order of priority. So, the governors have their share of blame.
But don’t forget that, really, the federal government has to give the framework for the states to move in and work. However, you find out that in most of the states, the government does not collect taxes. They do not have independent sources of revenue; absolutely none. Every month, they go to Abuja, cap in hand, to collect the revenue allocation for that month, come home and share it and wait for the end of the next month to go back. Many of them have even no projects to talk about.
You had held many prominent positions, yet people do not know you as a ‘rich’ man. How did you resist the temptation of amassing wealth?
I am rich; I have children who are successful in their own right. That makes me rich. It was never my ambition to amass wealth; I didn’t need it. All I needed was to educate my children, and I could do that with the resources available to me. I don’t envy those who have billions and trillions of naira. It makes no sense to me.
If you have the opportunity of living your life all over, would you still hold on to that philosophy?
Absolutely! This was something I learnt, not only from my parents but from the schools I attended. I went to Catholic primary and secondary schools before I went to university in the United States. I was taught, and I learnt, not to touch anybody’s thing. When I was in government, I was clean.
You are 83. Looking back, would you tell us how it was with you while growing up?
We grew up under colonial government in a very rural area, in what today is called Imo State. I went to a school in my village – St. Patrick’s Catholic School. Because the Catholic priests and managers of the schools were so particular about which secondary schools the children wanted to go, we were channelled to go only to Catholic secondary schools. At that time, there were only six Catholic secondary schools in the whole of Eastern Nigeria – CKC Onitsha; CIC Enugu; QRC Onitsha (for girls); St Patrick’s College, Calabar; Holy Family College, Abak; and CCC, Uyo (for girls) in what today is called Akwa Ibom. Those were the only Catholic secondary schools. We had to get into one of them. So, the competition was very keen. Our priests who were teachers and those they trained to teach us were particular about our moral upbringing. I grew up with it. We were very proud of our schools and one wouldn’t do anything to soil the name of their schools.
What do you think is the way out of the huge mess we are in today?
Frankly, it is my view that if we want to move forward, if we want a change for the better, we have to live by example. That has to start from those at the top. People are lawless in Nigeria because they feel they can get away with it. Once they know they can’t get away with it, everybody will sit up. In civilised countries, everybody is under the law. But in Nigeria, there are many people who are above the law. That is the problem.
• This 2014 interview was first published in TheNiche