Second Republic Vice President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, rarely grants interview. However, whenever he does, he speaks frankly and without fear or favour.
He did just that in this interview he granted an Hausa newspaper, Rariya recently. He spoke about his life in government, politics and business. He also talked about his family.
How was growing up like in Oko in the 30s?
Well, Oko was a very rural village but I didn’t actually grow up there because my father was a church teacher for the Church Missionary Society (CMS), which is now the Anglican Church and at the time they were called CMS Agents, that is Church Missionary Society Agents. Today, they call them evangelists. They were responsible to go to rural villages where Christianity had not penetrated and primarily to set up Christian churches. So, although officially I am from Oko, I was not actually born in Oko. I was born in a village about 11 miles east of Oko, called Uga, because, sometimes, my father was in charge of Emmanuel Church at Uga; so I was born within the church premises and from there, after I was four, my father was transferred to another town, Nkpologwu, to Emmanuel Church, Nkpologwu. There he stayed for just one year before he was transferred again to another church, St. Jude’s, Adazi Ani, where we stayed for two years and where my younger brother, Professor Laz Ekwueme, the present traditional ruler of Oko, was born.
After that, we moved to a place called Oba, which is the most remote part of the state that my dad had to serve. He was the pioneer missionary there. He set up the first church and assimilated the first Christians and after two years there, we came back to Oko. That was when we started living at Oko, from 1940 generally and that was at the age of seven. It was then very rural setting and from Oko I went to a primary school in a neighbouring town, which was about four miles away and as we moved on foot everyday, until two years after, that is1942 February, my father died and my aunt then asked me to come and live with her because when my father died, my mother had me and the traditional ruler, Professor Laz, and another Prof., the surgeon, Obumneme, and after my father died my mother delivered twin girls. So, the burden of looking after three of us and the twins was too much for her and her husband, so my aunt asked me to come and live with her, which served two purposes.
First, it relieved my mother the burden of having to look after me and secondly, I was able to keep my aunt company because she was living alone. But from there, to continue going to school meant a journey of five and half miles every morning on foot, which was very strenuous. But it toughened me because we used to leave in the morning, as early as five o’clock, and get to a stream on our way and we stop there to have our morning bath and from there we walk from that stream to the school, uphill and it was strenuous. And you have to get to school on time because when you come late you are in trouble because it attracted corporal punishment. It was no pleasure.
When we close, we trek back five and half miles and get back to my aunt’s place and I had to go to the stream to fetch water for us to use and come to help cook the evening meal. So, it was very strenuous but it was useful as I said it toughened me and I was able to cope with tough situations later in life. From there, I went to Kings College.
How did you get to King’s College from a village?
That’s a good question. Fortunately, my elder brother had gone into DMGS, Denis Memorial Grammar School at Onitsha. In fact, my dad just settled him in at the school in January and died in February. So, he was the one, who suggested that I should take entrance examinations to what he considered good secondary schools in Nigeria and Kings College was one of them. He mentioned Government College, Umuahia, which was also a good school and then, of course, there was DMGS, the one he was attending. There was Methodist College, Uzuakoli; Hope Waddel College, Calabar, and so on. And the first examination that came up was that of King’s College. And that was in June, 1944, and then a month and half after we did the examination, I was asked to come for the interview. They sent a warrant to enable the child travel by train to Enugu.
Did you go unaccompanied at the age of…?
Yes, at the age of 11.
And then you settled in King’s College?
Yes, we did the interview and I was given a scholarship. Four of us were granted scholarships and only 25 were taken to class one the following year. Officially, we would have started in September but it was during the war, so we started in January 1945.
Who were your contemporaries at King’s College?
In our class of 25, we were only (those of us still alive today) about seven. We were four from the East and that four, out of coincidence, were distributed among the four provinces. I was the only one from Onitsha Province, and there was Gogo Nzeribe, the trade unionist, who was from Owerri Province. There was Okon from Calabar Province and there was another person from Ogoja Province. There were four of us from the East, 20 from the West and only one from the North, Bashir from Ilorin. In the class above us, we had Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu and his first cousin, Emmanuel Ojukwu, and another boy, who later became the President of Nigerian Bar Association. We had quite a few bright people, like Professor Olaitan, who was at University of Benin and who later became an Arch Deacon and Adesugba who later became the Deji of Akure and others.
Was it after high school that you went to study architecture in the US?
Yes, it was after secondary school. I did my school certificate in December, 1949 and we finished from King’s College in June 1950; then in December, 1950 I did a Higher School Certificate examinations, which is called A’ level now in Arts subjects- English, Latin and History. Then when the results came out the following month and I passed, the Principal, who was my mentor, had got me back to the school to work as technical assistant and science instructor to the junior classes; so while I was teaching there, in December 1951, I took another Higher School Certificate in the sciences: Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics. It was the principal, who suggested that I should study architecture because it was a field in which there were no Nigerians at the time. He stated that with my wide background and ability in arts, I should make a good architect. Fortunately then, we set out that year and they asked for arts students in North America and for the first time, Nigerians were eligible to apply for scholarship under the Fulbert Act sponsored by Department of State to exchange students. That year, four Nigerians were awarded this scholarship, but because we were a colony, we were not eligible to be awarded the scholarship as Nigerians. So, we were awarded the scholarship as part of United Kingdom contingent. So, they took two of us undergraduates and two postgraduates but they took us first to England and showed us round all the scenic places. The English speaking places like Cambridge, Oxford, the Theatres, Birmingham and opera and so on; then after they thought we were sufficiently drilled, we went across to the United States.
While you were there, you did Philosophy, Sociology and Law. Why did you take all these diverse courses and you had degrees in all of them?
First, I had some of the crucial courses I had paced before coming into full programme. I had exemptions from Intermediate Bachelor of Arts degree of London University; so I’d registered for the London University BA degree before I got the scholarship to study architecture. While I was studying architecture, owing to the American system then, we had to have a certain number of credits to get a degree and because I had done those higher school in Arts, English and History and sciences – Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics, I was exempted from English language courses. I was exempted from Mathematics courses for architects, even the sight and sound, which you had to do, in preparation for mechanical equivalent of buildings in architecture. But having been exempted from all these, I think they didn’t give me credits for that; so I still had to make up to get the required number of credits required for graduation. So, I used all those open spaces to concentrate on my electives – Philosophy, Sociology and so on. Within three years of my coming in, I took my London University external BA examination in History, Philosophy and Constitutional law. That was in1955, June, and in August that year, that’s three months after, because I had accumulated enough courses in Sociology, I was eligible to get a degree in Sociology.
Then the following June, after they got me adopted in architecture in City Planning, I went for Master’s degree in Urban Planning. While I was preparing for it, I took the intermediate degree examination of University of London in September in 1956, which I passed. Then March of the following year, after I had left the university, I received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Urban Planning. While I was in London, I was interviewed by Standard Oil, which was establishing in Nigeria for the first time. They gave me a job to look after constitution and Maintenance Department. It was an attractive offer; so I came home and took the job. Then I went on to practice. My practice was registered on January 2, 1958. In 1976, after 20 years, I left my architecture degree and went for PhD degree and that was on Housing. While I was doing my research, I picked my LLB Part 1, where I left it in 1957. In June 1977, I took the Part 1 LLB examination of London University. Then in June of 1978, I took the Part 2 finals and that’s the LLB degree. In October, I got a PhD before returning to Nigeria. Getting back to Nigeria, I got talked into the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and on January 23, I was made a running mate to Shehu Shagari and the rest is history.
You said when you came back, after your PhD, you joined politics. How did that happen?
At a dinner we had in Glasgow, after my PhD in October, there were many Nigerians there. Around September or so, the military government had lifted the ban on politics. Those who came from Nigeria were intrigued about the change from military to civilian administration and at the dinner they all said that I should come back and contest for governorship of Anambra State. I gave two conditions. First and foremost, I had spent 24 months doing this job and that I was really exhausted, really exhausted because during the research work and preparing for my LLB examinations, it took a lot away from me. And I shuttled back and forth to Nigeria 13 times during those two years. Although I had partners, who were running the firm, still those people who gave us their commissions asked of me because they knew me. So, I had a personal responsibility to ensure that those projects were properly handled; so I travelled 13 times. I said I needed to rest. After that, the next condition was that I didn’t have the resources for campaign and I wouldnt’ be able to rush into the campaign with that kind of energy. What they told me was not to worry, that they would take care of all that. They said I should just accept the nomination.
I came back to Nigeria in November and by that time they had formed the political parties and it was four days before the primaries. However, they postponed it for another one week; so I came in 11 days to the primary nomination. And true to the promise they made, they had mobilised people. Many of those who had indicated interest to run stepped down and said they would support me. Anambra State, as it was then composed, had polarisation between its North, which is now Enugu State and South, which is presently Anambra. People from Enugu State already felt they were dominated by people in what is now Anambra and CC Onoh wanted to be governor. From my own part of the state, there were three of us. We sat down and everyone stepped down except, Chuba Okadigbo. We came to the primaries and there were three of us coming from what was then Anambra and only one coming from Enugu; so the result was foregone conclusion.
We went to Casino Cinema in Lagos, on December 10 for the presidential primaries; it was there that Alhaji Shehu Shagari was nominated after Maitama Sule stepped down; so we didn’t go for a second ballot. There were general arrangements the party had agree to before I came back from United Kingdom. The North was to produce the president and they were six of them contesting for it. It was agreed that Western states should produce chairman of the party and what is now the South East should produce the vice president and what was called Southern Minorities or the South-South today should produce the Senate President. So, after the presidential primaries at Casino Cinema, matters came up for the selection of vice president. The committee that was set up by the party to go to Anambra and Imo to find out who they thought would partner with Alhaji Shehu Shagari in the contest of the country, didn’t quite conclude. In fact, they were to do their job between that time and December 26 or 27. I was not mentally prepared for vice president. What I came back to contest for was that of governor. On the December 21, while the committee was going round, I left the country with my family. We went to Duala, in the Camerouns. On December 24, we moved from Duala to Nairobi, so we spent Christmas in Nairobi and then came back to Nigeria on December 29 by which time they must have finished the selections. Incidentally, by then they hadn’t.
When Alhaji Shehu Shagari came to Anambra and at the Hotel Presidential, Enugu, where the state chairman of the party Dr. Ralph Orizu, former president of Senate was staying. He called leaders of the party from Anambra and Imo to come to his suite and when they came they told him that the slot for vice president has been allocated to Anambra and Imo and what he told them to do was for Anambra State to bring one person, who would like to occupy this slot. Also, Imo State should do the same, so that we would have two candidates, who should bring their CVs the next morning. As it turned out, the state executive submitted my name. The next morning, we submitted our CVs to Alhaji Shehu Shagari and he spent the next day in Enugu. The day after that they moved us from Anambra to Benue.
When we got to the Anambra/Benue border, the Benue contingent had come to meet with us. While we were exchanging greetings, Shagari called me aside and said he had reached agreement and that he would like to work with me. I thanked him for the honour, for considering me a suitable associate for the office of the president. So, we went back to Lagos after the tours and they fixed a National Executive Council meeting and I was in London for my convocation. The treasurer of the party in Anambra State, Sir Jim, called me on the phone and asked what I was doing there. I tried to explain to him and he said I should jump into a plane and come back immediately. I came back and so on January 23, at the NUC, I was invited to Jibowu Street and after the NUC met, they had consultations with Alhaji Shehu Shagari and he announced to them that the party had adopted me as running mate to Shehu Shagari.
How did you emerge as an vice president to a northern president when Zik from your locality was the presidential candidate in another party, NPP. Did it add any political pressure on you since both of you are from Anambra State? Was there any pressure from your people?
At the dinner in Glasgow, I informed them that I would like to get involved in the governorship thing and I would like to do it on the platform of a party that had a nationwide appeal. And as of the time we were doing primaries at Enugu, Zik had not declared for NPP. In fact, a delegation had gone to see him at Nsukka and I think it was on their way back that one of them, Chief Agbaje, from Ibadan died in an accident. What he told the delegation was that he would consider their invitation for him to join and that he would announce a decision in due course. As soon as we finished the nomination in Enugu, the following week NPP came to do their own, Zik then declared for NPP. He was persuaded by a team that went from Lagos, some of his old colleagues in NCNC to come and join the NPP and to lead. Waziri Ibrahim pulled out and took his own group as Great Nigeria People’s Party (GNPP).
Did you have any form of relationship with Alhaji Shehu Shagari before your nomination as his running mate?
Well, it was when he was commissioner for finance and a mutual friend of ours, who has passed on now, took me to him because the military were acquiring my property in Port Harcourt and had defaulted. They had not paid their rent up to date, so he told me that Alhaji Shagari would be able to help me. I saw him and he called Alhaji Shehu Musa, the late Makama Nupe, who was a deputy permanent secretary in Ministry of Defence and told him that he was sending me to him and that he should solve the problem. When I got to Alhaji Shehu Musa’s office, he invited one Shittu, one of his assistants who took the matter and they sorted it out and paid all the areas they were owing. That was my closest contact with him, prior to NPN convention.
How was your working relationship with the President? I am asking this because of the problems we are seeing these days between principals and their deputies.
We had a very close working relationship. He is a person who is forthright and principled. I tell you one thing: in the first cabinet council meeting we had, I didn’t say anything because usually memoranda were signed by the president and of course, he didn’t draft them. It was drafted by civil servants, but declared under his name. As soon as the meeting ended, he invited me to his office. It wasn’t a very expansive office. From the Council Chambers to his office was just a flight of stairs. And he asked me why I didn’t make any contribution to the discussion that went on at the council. I told him that the memoranda came under his signature and I found a lot of things I was not happy with and I didn’t think it would be tidy for me to start pointing out those issues because it would seem as if we were working at cross purposes. I said that there were two ways of handling these issues. I asked if I could see these memos and add my input before they are sent out, which would preserve the integrity of the presidency. He said that I should go ahead and add my views. He said he didn’t know that this problem was sometimes created by civil servants and sometimes they come so late, a day or two before council meeting and there won’t be time to go through it. he stated that I should be free to express my views on any of the items; so I thought it was very unusual because most people will be sensitive about seeing a paper they signed being criticised by their deputies.
We worked together amicably. Even at that time there were cases of physical fighting between governors and their deputies. We had problems in Rivers between Melford Okilo and Frank Eke. We had problem in Kwara between Adamu Attah and Shittu and a few other places, but we never had a cause to quarrel.
One of thing Nigerians believed of your government is that the President and his deputy were men of proven integrity but the government was accused of massive corruption. Could you to give us an insight on how two of you dealt with that issue of corruption?
Problem of corruption was magnified beyond proportions because the media was in total control of UPN, which was in opposition to us. Well, as you can see, when the military came in and they set up military tribunals, the first people jailed for corruption were those taking kickbacks from the Great Nigeria Insurance, which went up in flames a few days ago. It wasn’t on NPN government; it was UPN people and the people, who had longer sentence for abuse of office was not NPN governors; it was NPP governors. So the thing was magnified out proportion. When contracts were awarded it was out of competitive tendering process. Directors had power up to N250, 000. Perm Secretaries had up to so much and ministerial tenders board had so much and beyond that it has to come to Federal Tenders Board. Now admittedly, we had a few ministers whose conduct fell below the norm and it’s a difficult thing to police because it’s not something that is easily proved, so that you say this is the proof. Once you heard that sort of thing and you confront minister or the person concerned and he deny totally that there was ever such misconduct. But what happened then was that during the second term, of course, we knew that this problem was there. We required all those who were appointed as ministers to sign undated letters of resignation so as not to cause us any embarrassment, so that when we have this sort of story about a minister collecting money, we would just say that he had tendered his letter of resignation on personal grounds.
My friend, Ibrahim Tahir, said he was not going to sign because it was unconscionable to ask someone to sign a letter of resignation in advance but I think it was better. Two of us were taking, just two of us. I asked him if he wanted to be a minister. He said yes and I told him that I was afraid if he didn’t sign the letter, he would not be a minister. May his soul rest in peace. He was a good man. So, we had taken adequate steps to prevent any misconduct by our ministers during the second term, but of course, after a few months we didn’t have the time to practice it. And you see the calibre of people we got in during the second term, like Emeka Anyaoku, Aliyu Dantero and of course, a few fresh people who left being politics for too long.
Shortly after the 1983 coup, there was a coup. The principal officers, particularly, at state and federal levels, were arrested and detained by the military, including the president. What can you tell us about what happened?
As you know, I was first the person to be arrested. They came to my house at about 1am and it was my friend’s son, who came to arrest me. You know the Emir of Gwandu? Each time we went to Sokoto, the Sultan Abubakar III was getting on with age so he always delegated the Emir of Gwandu to stand in for him; so we developed personal relationship. So, it was Major Jokolo, who came to arrest me. After I was arrested, we went to the house of Benjamin Chaha from Benue. In the first term, we had NPN/NPP accord, so the Speaker came from NPP and that was how Edwin Umezueke became Speaker, otherwise Benjamin Chaha would have been Speaker. Because of that, he was made a minister. That position was zoned to North Central. So, Benjamin Chaha was coming to the House for the first time. He was a school teacher and my house was very close to his place and apparently the driver forgot the way to his house and he went round and round, looking for it. So, when we got there, anyway, he was very frightened. When he came to the car and saw me, he calmed down. He said if I was there and was not panicking, why should he be panicking. Well in plain language, it would be called treason to dismiss an elected government and assume power by force of arms.
It was said that President Shagari and you had information that soldiers were planning. Why didn’t you arrest them?
Maybe President Shagari got a hint. I didn’t have a hint.
During the regimes of Mohammadu Buhari and Ibrahim Babangida, you were relatively quiet. You didn’t engage government during this period, but when Sani Abacha came you were so active and even led some opposition to the military. What were you doing during Babangida and Buhari period?
First, in the Buhari period, which lasted for 20 months, I was in detention. I went from Bonny Camp first to a House on Temple Road and from there to Kirikiri; then from Kirikiri to Ikoyi Prison. It was there in Ikoyi Prison in August that Buhari was shunted aside by Babangida. It was Babangida who got us out of Ikoyi Prison and back to house arrest, where we started. I was in house arrest first at Hawksworth; then from Hawksworth to Roxton; then from Roxton to Milverton. That went on like that for a space of about 10 months. From there, I was taken to my home at Oko and placed under restriction. I could not go out of my local government. I was not allowed to make any statements; so naturally I had to comply because I signed that I would comply and I did comply.
After the restriction within my local government, they expanded it and said I should not move out of my state. From my state I was kept within Nigeria until 1989. Six years after that I was allowed to travel out of the country. That’s why you didn’t hear much from me. Then Babangida came and on the face of it promised to hand over after a period of time. He set up institutions, Centre for Democratic Studies, so many institutions and he created political parties. Well, what I decided was that I would not participate in any political activity. I wouldn’t be a member of any of the political parties and institutions.
Then when Abacha came, what really triggered me was his modus operandi. He came and it was clear that he didn’t have any regards for the civilian population. He thought everything was to be accomplished by force of arms. We organised first as civil society, nine of us, to try and really appreciate that if we didn’t extricate ourselves from the military, we would remain slaves to them forever. Then from the Institute for Civil Society, we decided to hold a summit, which was held at Eko Hotel. While that was holding, he sent thugs to disperse us. After that, we heard that he was planning to transit from a military to civilian head of state and we found that that was unconscionable. If he want to run as a civilian, he should retire from the army and come on one of the political parties and contest for nomination, not to use his position to manipulate political parties into nominating him as a sole candidate.
After the summit, all of us in civil society met again and recognised the summit. We felt that it was widely assumed that they were all supporting Abacha because he was a northerner; so we agreed that they would make the first move, telling Abacha that what he was doing was not acceptable. We met at Kaduna and drafted a memorandum, which Solomon Lar delivered to him by a group of 18. Then after that, I called a full meeting at Glover Hotel in Yaba, where 34 of us met and I prepared a memorandum, which we gave to him, which was G34 Memorandum.
So it was the G34 that metamorphosed into PDP?
Well, the G34 midwifed the PDP. After Abacha’s death and Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar came, we were allowed to start partisan politics. It was G34 that called the associations we had in Lagos and eventually decided to get political associations because we had come to the conclusion that unless we were together irrespective of ethnic and religious affiliations and even political tendencies, it would not work. We believed that we must forget every differences and come together; so the associations that were in existence came together. ANC, ADP, PDN, PCS, PNS and so on. That’s how PDP emerged formerly on August 21 at National Conference Centre. It formerly became a party.
During the 1994/95 constitutional conference, you championed the restructuring of Nigeria into six geo-political zones. What was the motivation?
What was exactly wrong with the structure of the Nigerian federation at independence and thereafter? We had three regions… the North, the East and the West. The drawbacks of that structure was that the North was bigger than the other two regions put together, which meant that in parliamentary system if all the other MPs vote together, which they did, they will always produce the Prime Minister. This meant that some parts of the country will consider themselves as second-class citizens if they cannot aspire to the highest office in the land. That was the first pitfall. Second one was that we met the structure for each region, such that in each region we had a majority ethnic group and then a group of minority ethnic groups. In the North, Hausa/Fulani, then the others, Kanuri, Gwari, Nupe and so on coming down to others like Angas and Tarok.
In the West, Yoruba and then Edo, Urhobo, Itsoko Itsekiri, Western Ijaw. In the East, Igbo majority, then Ibibio, Efik the Eastern Ijaw, Ogoja area, Ogoni. So all these minority groups felt that in the structure of the region they were again second-class citizens. The Midwest was able to be established as the first region. The minorities in the East and North were not so lucky, so my thinking was how do we cure these two defects. First, the overbearing size of land in the federating units and secondly the conflict between the majority and minority groups and of course, if you cure these two then we have a stable country. We said that we should have in the North three zones: North West, mostly Hausa/Fulani, North East and North Central, mostly Minorities. South West, mostly Yoruba, the South East, mostly Igbo and South-South mostly minorities again. Although we have some Igbo in Delta, you have some Yoruba in Edo and you have some Hausa in Auchi, so with this arrangement we now have three majority zones and three minority zones. That is also three zones in the North and three zones in the South; so we cured the first defect of the first structure. That was the logic that informed the proposal
The presidential campaign you ran during the formation of the PDP was exciting because of the issues and the difference was clear between the two emerging leaders, but most of the northern elders. like Adamu hiroma or those in NPN rallied around you and were supporting you, but somehow Obasanjo was also supported by the military. So the military was for Obasanjo and politicians were for you and he got it. In 2003 similar thing happened. What actually played out then?
It was not quite right to say that politicians were for me while the military was for Obasanjo. Two politicians, for example, were for Obasanjo. Rimi was a politician. Even in the stadium, where they were choosing the candidate, he was campaigning for Obasanjo in Jos. And then Bamanga Tukur, for instance, who was in ANC, who I campaigned for in 1983 when he was running for governorship of Gongola, campaigned for him. He gave his reasons for supporting Obasanjo in the book: ‘This House Has Fallen.’ You see where he was interviewed and he said Obasanjo was like a truck driver and I was like a limousine driver. You know Obasanjo is a rough person and I was a gentleman type of politician and that what Nigeria needed at that time was a truck driver and not a limousine driver. So, he was supporting Obasanjo. Those are two politicians, who supported Obasanjo. Even Solomon Lar, may his soul rest in peace, who was the Chairman of the party and who was my deputy in all those organisations, supported Obasanjo in Jos. Jerry Gana, who was my secretary in Civil Society, secretary in G34, secretary in PDP, secretary in Board of Trustees when I was chairman, was also an Obasanjo man.
It was not just a military affair. We had more to it, but what most people didn’t understand is that I could have scuttled the whole thing in Jos because in November 1998, at a meeting of the National Executive Committee of the party, which we had before local government elections of December, the government had said it was the performance of the local government elections that would decide which parties would get final registration. So, it was crucial for every party to succeed in local government elections and at this meeting it was stated in black and white that anybody who did not win his local government would not be eligible to contest for presidency. It was also stated that anybody who did not win his ward would not be eligible to contest for governorship. After the election of December 5, the next NEC meeting, which was chaired by the late Afolabi, as Solomon Lar was not present that day, approved and confirmed this decision of the NEC. Now in my pocket in Jos, I had a copy of the decision and also the constitution of the party as at that time was that of a corporation. Chairman of the party was like the chairman of the board and secretary of the party was like the Managing Director; so it was the secretary who had executive powers, not the Chairman. When the result was announced in Jos and they said Obasanjo won, I had the option of saying I didn’t accept it or I accepted it, embrace it and work together to make sure the party won. I could have said that of all the candidates that contested, it was only six that were eligible and of those six, I had the highest number of votes and so I expected the party to send my name to INEC and having said I could have read the minutes of the NEC meeting and everybody would know that it was incontrovertible that a person who did not win his local government area, his ward, polling station in front of his house couldn’t be the candidate, going by the NEC decision. And this decision was mentioned at the screening committee when we applied to contest.
When the screening committee had read the letter and its implications, Solomon Lar (may his soul rest in peace) wrote to them to plead that they should give Obasanjo provisional clearance to contest. That provision turned out to be solid but then I could have made a point that out six of us who won our local governments, I had the highest votes among those who qualified to contest and I expected the party to nominate me. The next day the secretary who had executive powers had sent my name and letter to INEC as party candidate. Solomon Lar would have sent Obasanjo’s name and letter to the same INEC. So there would have been confusion in the house of PDP. Secondly, it may give the military the chance to prolong their stay, which would defeat all the efforts we made and the risk we took to place my life on line during Abacha. My own personal ambition was not worth putting Nigeria at risk; that’s why I embrace Obasanjo and went on to campaign for him.
Your last attempt at presidency was the nearest a person of Igbo ethnicity came. How do you foresee an Igbo presidency in the nearest future?
Well, it’s something that has to be based on structural refinement. I don’t think any Nigerian will be happy if his regional block or ethnic block or geopolitical block is seem to be excluded from vying for the highest office in the land for whatever reason. In 1987, I understand Umaru Dikko gave a press conference in London after he escaped from here, where he said that the coup, which took place in December 1983 was put in place by the Army to prevent me from taking over from Shagari in 1987 and they didn’t want it to linger till that time so they decided to do it at a time when we were complaining of the elections, hoping that they will receive the sympathy of non-NPN supporters. I don’t know how Umaru got his information, but that is what he said. Then in 1999, the same scenario played itself out in a different way. Also in 2003. You know the format was that presidency was just a single term. Now if I had won in 1999, by 2003 I would have served one term and it goes to the North East, with a vice president from South South, to serve one term. By 2007, a South-South man would have served as a president and he would have someone from North West as his deputy; so by 2011, a person from North West will be president with a VP from South West. By now we would have the opportunity for every geopolitical zone to produce a president and I am persuaded that every geopolitical zone in this country has competent manpower and can serve in the highest office in the land. It appears that there is a concerted effort to prevent a particular zone from achieving that purpose and it’s not going to be a very healthy development for that of the country.
You have been married to for the past 50 years. What’s the secret your successful marriage? Also, during your tenure as Vice President, you and President Shagari didn’t have first ladies. What happened?
Well, this is 2013. Next month, on December 19, I would have been married for 54 years and the secret is in Dame Beatrice, for bearing with my inadequacies. I was 12 and she was 10 when we first met. We were actually living opposite each other in Port Harcourt and gradually, through secondary school and so on until we got married many years after that. Maybe it’s because of that long period that she has been able to tolerate all my inadequacies and idiosyncrasies and that’s why we are together and living happily today.
How would you like the Nigerian society to judge you?
Well, I cannot and should not blow my own trumpet. My music teacher in secondary school said you have to blow your own trumpet because if you don’t no one will blow it for you until it gets rusty. But I will like to be remembered as someone who came into public office to render service and rendered that service selflessly.
What is your vision then for Nigeria and for the future?
My vision for Nigeria is that Nigeria should become a nation rather than a country. Ghana is a nation. The type of massacre of people from certain groups that takes place from time to time in Nigeria won’t happen in Ghana. You will not see people from Ashanti descending on the Fantis and the Ga and others and killing them as if they are not citizens of the same country. And when you talk to a Ghanaian, without being told, you will see that he is talking as a Ghanaian; but when you talk to a Nigerian, by and large it will not show that they are Nigerians first and foremost.
How do we make it into a nation?
It is the role of role of the government to promote national integration. National integration will not fall from the sky. It has to be worked very hard to have national integration. It can start in a small way. My first son, who is here, Pastor Goodheart of the House on the Rock, went to ABU. His wife is a young lady from Oshogbo, Osun State. They are living very happily. My second son is an architect; his wife is a young lady from Okene, an Igbira girl. My third son, his wife is a young lady from Obudu, in Cross River. We are having a mix up on it among the younger generation. Some of the old people see themselves as Nigerians and the company they keep because they went to schools where they had a chance to mix with other Nigerians. I went to a school where I lived in a boarding house with people from all parts of Nigeria. We lived together played together.
As an example, my first child, my daughter, came after nine years of marriage; by this time we were in the middle of the civil war. I was at the Biafran side. My best friend in school, Rex Agbofure, first Nigerian Principal of King’s College, was Director of Education in Commonwealth states. In the Christian tradition, when you have a daughter and you go for christening you have one godfather and two godmothers. For boys, you have two godfathers and one godmother. So my daughter’s own in 1968, when she was born, the godfather I selected for her was this my friend from Urhobo, who was on the Nigerian side, while I was on the Biafran side and an Urhobo from Delta State. It didn’t make any difference to me that he was Urhobo; so the schools children attend now will make a difference in the their outlook on Nigeria and with time we will build up a Nigerian nation. We have to work very hard at it. It won’t come as a gift.