Chief Phillip Asiodu, former “Super” Permanent Secretary and a key figure in the prosecution of the Nigerian civil war speaks on the behind the scenes maneuvers including diplomacy which ensured the non- recognition of Biafra by any major world power. The octogenarian who also served Nigeria at various times as Minister of Petroleum, Chief Economic Adviser, member of the Presidential Advisory Council, etc also speaks on squandering of Nigeria’s riches, blotted dreams and the Nigeria of our dreams. SATURDAY SUN met him in his office in Lagos. CHIDI OBINECHE brings you excerpts of the exclusive interview.
Nigeria has had its own fair share of crises. The insurgency in the Northeast and the intractable herdsmen attacks may have caused the federal government to go for external loans ranging from $1bn to the latest $2.3bn. You were a principal actor in government during the civil war; how much did Nigeria borrow?
No. The point is that even to fight the civil war, we didn’t borrow. At that time, there was this approach by all the public servants including the military to be frugal with the funds we had. When you look at what we have been doing in the last 20 years, it is very, very sad. In the first republic, the salary of the federal minister, the federal permanent secretary and a university professor were more or less equal. The legislature was part time and the salaries of the legislator were about one third the salary of the minister. What do we have today? We have a situation, which doesn’t exist anywhere else and this started terribly after 1999 where the Nigerian senator has a salary and allowances of just about N25m approved by the Federal Allocation and Mobilization Committee. And then, on top of that, when last I looked at the figures at the Presidential Advisory Council in 2010, we saw N37m per senator for constituency expenses every month. When we calculated it, it came to about N214m that a senator will take. At that time when I was in government, I knew that the budget (recurrent and capital) for the 109 senators and 360 Reps was about N14bn to N16bn. But by 2010, it had come to N141bn. Now, when you consider that in America, for instance, a senator gets about $175,000. The minimum wage, I am talking about 2016 was about $25,000, that is, 7:1. We are talking about N114bn to N214bn, about 8:1. The salary of the American president was about $175,000. Even then, it is about 13:1. There is no parliament, which costs as much as ours and to what purpose? When you look at their sittings, are they up to 20% or 30% present? In the first republic, we made sure that by August the draft estimates were ready against the budget session. In two months it will be thoroughly scrutinized and approved. Then in four months, five months, and down the line, it will now come when bills and the law would have been ready. What do we see now? The budget sessions are unnecessarily delayed and it even spills into the New Year. So is there really a job for our legislators?
Is that why the government is resorting to other means to fund the budget?
You see, when you have such situations, you have to look for other ways to fund the budget. Is it necessary for us to pay such salaries to our legislators? I think some of them think that the executive is also costing us so much. Earlier today, I was discussing the first coup in Nigeria with a friend and how it turned the hand of the clock back. I said then, we had only one plane for the prime minister. The prime minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa had been distracted for two weeks hosting the commonwealth conference. At the end of the conference, Makarios, the head of government of Cyprus requested to visit the regions and the prime minister gave him his plane. The Prime minister who normally might have flown to his village to rest was in Lagos. Makarios was in Enugu and Okpara had to be there. He was due to go to Kaduna from Enugu. So Sardauna quite unusually was also in Kaduna waiting. How many federal planes do we have now? Is it really necessary to have so many? So there are patterns we have gone into which are not the best way of using scarce resources. I must stress the point that it is very, very difficult to understand borrowing in order to cover recurrent expenditure and not borrowing to invest in projects that will yield the resources for us to pay back in future. It is not correct to do this. We have to look again at our patterns of expenditure and tailor it to what we know we can reasonably raise as revenue. We have to live within our means and this is what we have been doing for too long.
Was it not because of the famous oil boom at the time that helped Nigeria not to borrow after the war?
It was because of the wrong choices of leadership after 1975. If you look at the 1970- 1974 plan and the 1975- 1980 plan before the disastrous coup of 1975, you will see that the opening paragraph was “oil was a wasting asset” and that we should do our best to use the windfall we were getting from oil to invest in renewable resources. And we were notified then and it is still valid now of the enormous potentials in agriculture, modernized agriculture, agro- allied industries. There is no part of this country which cannot produce things and which can then be processed and packaged to earn the government revenues at any time. Before independence; before 1958, Nigeria depended solely on the export of such products. We planted Melina to produce pulp and papers. We should be exporting pulp and papers because Melina within seven years can be pulped. In Europe it takes between 25 – 30 years to pulp papers in those temperate zones. I used to be president of Jebba Paper Mills. I retired in 1975. I was invited to visit Kenya around 1983. I was taken to a paper mill, run and managed by the same Bana brothers, which they took over in Kenya the same time they started off in Nigeria. They were not only managing properly, they were now exporting papers. But in Nigeria, we had run down the Jebba Paper Mills. We have young, staple fibres for better quality paper. In the South west here we had Iwopin paper mills. It was Shagari that commissioned it. It was 95% completed, but is it producing today? Then we talk about cassava to starch. 30% of cassava gives you starch. Starch is used by paper mill industries and we have it in abundance in Nigeria. It is used in textiles and explosives and you can then go beyond that to glucose and it produces syringes that we use in hospitals. Look at the value chain. You talk about oil and gas. Even under Balewa, we started exporting oil in 1958. By 1964, the Port Harcourt refinery was commissioned. We were carrying petroleum products in tankers on our railways. Later on when I was redeployed, we introduced pipelines. Did we continue it? Do you ever see tankers carrying petroleum products from the coast where it is refined in UK to London, for instance? Or between New York and Chicago? There is something, which has gone wrong and that is the destruction of discipline of planning. Whether you’re in the private sector or public sector, if you don’t plan and have the discipline for continuity, you get nowhere. Since 1975, over 44 years now, we have lost discipline of planning. Money comes and money will disappear. I keep stressing to people, that throughout British rule, we never exceeded 40m pounds per year in terms of central revenue , but they built nearly 4,000 miles of railways that crisscrossed the country, telegraph lines, they built the harbours of Lagos, Sapele, Warri, Port Harcourt, Calabar. They built the schools which all of us went to and from where we went to the best universities in the world. After the first republic was terminated by the coup, the most disastrous thing that ever happened in Nigeria and Ironsi came for six months, then Gowon. In the first republic, it was in the third year that budget reached 50million pounds. What did they do? They started plantation schemes. They started the industrial centers; they built secretariats, expanded educational facilities. At that time the federal minister earned 3000 pounds; the professor earned 2,700 pounds, the permanent secretary earned 2,900 pounds. When we changed under Gowon to Naira it was 2 Naira to One pound. Even as a permanent secretary when I retired my salary was six thousand, one hundred and something Naira per year.
Apart from what you tagged discipline of planning, what else is responsible for the arrested development in Nigeria?
Reckless behavior. It was in the second year of the civil war that Nigeria’s revenue reached 100million pounds. We fought the war without borrowing. We ended the war and started the 3’Rs- Reconstruction, Reconciliation, Rehabilitation. You must live within your means. One terrible thing that derailed us was that in 1975, it was not just a matter of coup, we introduced disregard for due process. People were retired with immediate effect over the radio. Nobody bothered to enquire about what they did. Within three months, ten thousand public servants including academics were retired. This manner of doing things with impunity without respect for law and order has damaged us. Now, it means once you don’t go through due process you do things with impunity and rock the boat. Some people are still getting away with it and that destroys the system. Those who were thrown out in 1975, the layers of people they would have mentored were cashiered. Just before that coup, we had agreed on two LNG schemes; one in Bonny, the other in Escravos. They were negotiated with our international partners. What happened? As soon as the coup occurred, it was abandoned. From 1965 – 1975 when we finally agreed, we had lost a few chances of an LNG scheme. It took us up to 1993 before we got there. Look at what we would have gained in the wasted years of about 15 years when gas was cheaper? And markets were freer for us to enter. This idea that when you take over you must see 100% wrong in what your predecessor did, we must get out of it. As I tell many people, you go to a building and you see “commissioned by XYZ”, you don’t see “foundation dug by ABC”. You don’t lose anything by allowing projects initiated by your predecessor especially if the projects were sound. What we must do is to embrace a situation where we begin to envision where the country should be in 2025, for instance. We can have a 20-year-old vision, work it out, and publicize it. Let anybody who wants to rule say this is the vision I want to implement. Can you go round and see all the abandoned projects that litter all over the places. Much money had been wasted on them and nothing realized. In 1964, I was Deputy Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Lagos Affairs. The International Nations group came and gave us a report in which they projected where Lagos was going and said we should have mass –transit from ikeja to Ebutte road which we could have done and expanded. There was a plan for schemes for central sewage in Lagos. Money was voted for it in the 1965 budget but because of the crises in 1964 and the coup, it was abandoned. Now, look at the situation today. It then took us 20 years before Jakande signed with the Paris based group to do a mass- transit scheme for Lagos. That time, some of the military Generals like Yar’adua agreed that this was a very good scheme. The Lagos and Cairo schemes were started at the same time. Unfortunately, during Buhari’s first coming as military ruler he cancelled the Lagos scheme. Some of the people who advised said Lagos is not the capital, we are going to Abuja. New York is not the capital of the US. It is not even the capital of New York State and we had agreed before embarking on it, because I was the project consultant, that any city that had more than two million people cannot exist by taxis and buses. We had identified 14 cities for preliminary designs so that we can get the necessary waivers for ample space, just like the colonialists did for us. When they designed Ikorodu road, they had specified scope within which you cannot build. Now, 60 – 70 years, we are building 10 lanes there now without destroying anybody’s house; without paying any compensation. That is planning. At the time the mass transit scheme in Lagos was cancelled in 1984, we had made a down payment of 15%, over $60m. And we had been given a loan of $450m with fixed interest of 6.5%. But one and half months after, the EU revised their programme and the minimum took it to 12.5%. But we had already gotten 6%. For 25 years. Now, when we cancelled, we lost it all. Not only that we were taken to the international court and costs for damages of $600m were awarded against us. By the time we’re paying it, it must have come to about $3bn and we have nothing to show for it. But not only that, to show you the irony of the situation, Lagos and Cairo that started designing the same day, and we cancelled our own, but around 1991- 1992, another military regime sent Nigerians as honoured guests to the commissioning of the Cairo Mass Transit. Without that mass- transit today, Cairo would be in the same gridlock as Lagos is today. As I said, we had identified 14 cities. We started with Lagos, Ibadan, Ilorin, Kaduna, Kano , Makurdi, Enugu, Portharcourt; then across, Benin, Abuja. Preliminary plans were made for Abuja, but I understand that the plan and the master plan have not been respected. So when we now want to build, in Lagos today the costs would be astronomical. Again I am very sad, because under Fashola, the plans to build it from Okokomaiko, Badagry road to Lagos somehow has been frozen. This must not continue if we are to make progress.
Where is Nigeria going, with all these setbacks and problems?
We have to learn from our mistakes and realize that no country or entity gets anywhere without forward planning. And so our leadership must agree and I think it is not too difficult. You remember that not quite long ago, we had 2020 and earlier 2010 vision plan. We need to dust them up, revise them; we should now agree that this is where we want to be in 2040 to escape from poverty. And there is one other thing I must stress here. You know, during the civil war, we were consulting on what to do when the war ends. There was a big conference we had in Ibadan in 1969 chaired by the late Chief Simeon Adebo who was the permanent representative in the United Nations. And we had some ex- politicians, some civil servants, academicians, Journalists, students, and that was where we mapped out the basis of the 3Rs, which formed the basis of the 1970- 1974 plan. We agreed to have Rehabilitation, Reconstruction and Reconciliation at the end of the war.
But some people argue that the three Rs as enunciated were mere sloganeering as nothing really came out of it?
That is unfortunate if they said that. Let me tell you, you know the Niger Bridge was blown up. As soon as the war ended, within six weeks with a bailey bridge you could cross over, and I crossed over with my friends Ahmed Joda and Allison Ayida, and we went to where people were being fed. Things were restarted. Remember Ukpabi Asika, and the role he played. Statistically you could see the 3Rs at play. Weren’t schools reopened? Weren’t roads reopened? Reconstruction was on. My father’s house in Asaba for instance, 10 days before the war ended, it was intact. After the civil war and they said soldiers must get out of town and go and put up in barracks, some characters went and uprooted the doors and windows. They didn’t know whether the structure was sound or not. But under the programme building materials were brought and made available and I was able to rebuild. Most importantly was that the economy started growing and between 1970 and 1975(this is documented) the economy was growing on the average of 11.75% per annum. By 1975 Nigeria was above or at par with the Asian tigers. And we already had $1,100 per capita income, which was low middle income. And we know where we were before. Can you imagine if we had sustained that 11.75% per capita income for another ten years, which was possible. But what happened? The coup of 1975 halted it with discipline rendered asunder. The habit of leading teams was no longer there. The people who would have helped to mentor were no longer there. The result was that by 1980, our economy was negative- minus 1%. In the decade from 1989 – 1999 it grew only at 2%. Population was growing at 10%, increasing poverty. If you consider 2%, 3%, with 11.75% then you know how badly we have fared. But under the 1990- 1994 plan, it could have gone from 4.5% and by the time we reached 2010 it would be 10%. This is very possible. See what China has achieved in 30 years. When I first went to China in 1984 under the auspices of the European Management Forum, almost all the houses in a city were built with mud and there was only one European type first class hotel in that city. Shanghai was a bit ahead. Then they started this modified capitalists incentives. I went back with a delegation in 2000 as Chief Economic Adviser to the president, the city was as if it was a miracle. This was what can be achieved with people with leadership, consistency and determination. I weep when I look back. Under Shagari, you know they started some housing schemes, then for the next 10- 15 years, if you are driving through Lagos- Ibadan, Enugu wherever, you will see abandoned, nearly completed houses. Before then in 1975, I was in a committee that invited the Romanians based on their success after the 2nd world war in mass transit and they gave us a programme whereby we could do houses at 30% of the cost. By having pre- semi manufactured houses, we had started some and my committee had agreed on Festac. Festac as built is only ¼ of what we agreed and it would have taken us up to the black water lagoon. We were planning, interfacing with the industrial center in Ikeja, to make sure they relocate their workers and provide adequate facilities and all that. But even at the ¼ that was built, all the open spaces we had for parks, cars, planes, churches, mosques, etc, they were all bastardised. We had 200 meters green space from mile2 to Agbara. They no longer exist. This lack of discipline and continuity is our bane. We had invited an expert before the coup to advise us on land use. When I was a young boy, I played in Ikoyi park, my children played there, when I became a grandfather, no park. Then with our 6th sense of humour, having destroyed the park and carved it out for plots without thinking of where the services will be, what do we do? The park is gone but we have a Parkview estate? This is a side commentary, but it shows how we are doing things without thinking.
June12 is now Nigeria’s official democracy day. What is your reaction to it and can you juxtapose it with the call by the outlawed Indigenous Peoples of Biafra, IPOB, which declared May 30 as Biafra day?
All those dates don’t mean much to me. I am more concerned with our attitude to development, to governance, and respect for human dignity. As for May 30, I am not for division. Emeka Ojukwu and myself were very good friends in school, Kings College, Lagos, and Oxford University. In fact when the coup happened, he wanted me to join him in Enugu and I told him that I was not a regional man. And Ojukwu told me ‘we shall abolish the regions within 6 months’. As I told you, no coup in this country occurred without long notice. For the January 15, 1966 coup, there were talks about a majors coup and a lieutenant colonels coup. And he said ‘we will abolish the regions within 6 months’. Before then at Oxford University, he, Ahmed Joda, Oluwasanmi, Joda had talks about how to go back to Nigeria, grow Nigeria and all that. And I know that his first profession was military. He wanted to join the military. The military then wouldn’t have graduates like him. Later on, he joined. During the counter coup of July 29, 1966 where the Igbo and their officers were slaughtered in their numbers, the civil service then was still being respected by the army. I fixed a meeting as the federal government representative in Nkalagu cement factory. Nkalagu had been partially privatized and completely Nigerianized with a new General Manager, Njoku, but there was a convention for the Scandinavian people to visit once in a year just to keep to standards. I fixed a meeting for August 1, and did not seek for its cancellation. So I drove to Ikeja airport with my friend Allison Ayida and flew into Enugu and they were surprised to see an Igbo speaking man. They asked, ‘how did you come?’. I said I came through Ikeja.
The war was raging then?
No war then. This was in 1966. I was to go back in two days but they kept me there for two weeks for one reason or the other. And really at that time there was tension because people had been slaughtered since May as they were returning home to the East. You know the army under Ironsi had been moved. So the brigade in Enugu was northerners, but the commander was Igbo, Col Ogunewe. Igbo must be eternally grateful to that fellow because he managed the situation calmly and creditably. Can you imagine nearly 2000 fully armed troops running amok out of fear. But they had confidence in him until the negotiation was achieved that they can go back with their arms in the train. Many of the Igbo who were coming from the north between Kafanchan and Enugu, people would go to the train and kill and maim them. It was terrible. Again, when things were deteriorating, we then went on a delegation sometime in October to Ojukwu to tell him that things were getting messier and he should review his stance against the federal government. We asked him ‘what is it you want, so that we can prepare a conference’. You know they had suspended the conference which Gowon was to attend to deliberate on the future of Nigeria. He thought it wasn’t safe anymore. Fortunately for us, the meeting was to be for 10am but he didn’t come until about 4pm. And we didn’t raise this point until about 6pm, and just as he was about to tell us, the late Mojekwu, a lawyer, came and broke up the meeting. If he had told us that, things would have been prepared more properly, and Aburi would have been more fruitful because everybody would have known what we went there for.
Why did he break up the meeting?
He was…. I don’t know where he was from …but you know that when he died, the lawyers didn’t go. Many of the lawyers didn’t go for the funeral. For some reason, even though he was the chief scout of Nigeria before, his orientation was not very helpful. He didn’t want Ojukwu to tell us what he really wanted. Maybe he feared that we may persuade him and get an accommodation.. I don’t know.
So, that affected the attendance and outcome of Aburi?
No, Aburi hadn’t come up that time? They thought Gowon was going to seek full advice before coming … I don’t know. Before that, we, from my house at 14 Cameroon road Ikoyi, wrote to Ojukwu. Ayida and myself did it . We said ‘don’t be deceived. Don’t go into secession. We don’t need war. What are the things you want, so that we can look at them.’ That letter was taken by another Kings College boy, Gogo Chu Nzeribe.( All of us were Kings College boys). Gogo was a great Nigerian who was unfortunately killed here in Lagos even before the outbreak of the war. Ojukwu told him it was too late. That letter is still there. He went into details. It was unfortunate. I know Ojukwu’s attitude when we were students. And I warned him when he said ‘we will abolish regions.’ I said no, ‘by the time you participate in people’s wishes, anguish, you will be with them.’ But the point is that with a different type of leadership and advice, things would have come out differently. And I keep saying this, if anybody reads decree no 8 of 1967, published by the federal government at the insistence of Gowon, even though as permanent secretaries we criticized it. What is decree no 8? If it had been accepted by Ojukwu and the eastern government, within three months, Nigeria would have ceased to exist. But they rejected it because he said it wasn’t what they agreed in Aburi. When you read it you will understand what I am saying. If you are a Senior Assistant Secretary, you need unanimity. If any region was attacked, you need the combined efforts of others to repel it. To fight, you need unanimity. Without unanimity you won’t fight. To appoint an ambassador, you need unanimity. Nigeria would have finished without a gunshot. But they rejected it because they had a fixation on “Aburi we stand”. Permanent Secretaries were advising him that no power in black Africa can stop Biafra. Igbo had people who could have been captains of merchant ships. No merchant ship was bought. They didn’t anticipate a blockade? Or he thought that a Chinese captain, or English captain, or even a Yoruba captain will risk his life to beat a blockade against NNS Nigeria? So the low quality of thought that went into the whole thing was not pleasing. And when I hear the Ahiara declaration, sometimes I marvel. You know Ojukwu did history and one of his areas was military history. He said he was going to use the tactics of Fredrick the great. In Frederick the great time, people were on Arrows and Horses, not armoured cars, not Ogbunigwe. That is by the way. But he was a well intentioned person. It was unfortunate how things went. Look at the current debate on restructure. Has any two people defined restructuring to mean the same thing? So we must get down. What is it you want? What is the template? And how do we achieve it? My attitude is that all these things should not matter but rather, the black people should focus on the attainment of a significant buoyant and stable economy , significant powerhouse to be disintegrated to clannish groups perpetually at war and to be used and played around by the Europeans. Or do we want unification? The unification of Germany was only achieved at the end of the 19th century. It is not like the British, the French, and the Spanish who ruled around the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries had formed themselves into what they are. If you look at China and India, the cast system in India, the different races in China, but with leadership. Justice, fairness, education, infrastructure, good standards of living, they are where they are today. I hope that in the nearest future there will be a black state of significant power. Obama should have propped up a Nigerian state internationally respected to reap the full benefits of his historic achievements in America. If we had done the right things, certainly by 1999, illiteracy would have ceased to exist in Nigeria. We can set a new goal of 2040 to realize that. It is possible. There will be no question of having the so-called disadvantaged states, and so, we will be able to reintroduce merit, competence, performance as criteria in our systems. Then, we should also put in place a system as in other democracies where how much you contribute to a political party must be limited. How much a party spends must be limited, so that we do not continue with godfathers who are making democracy a mockery. If the coup of 1975 had not happened, I am confident that by 1977, following the success of the National Youth Corps scheme, we would have pushed for a language policy. That language policy may not be very revolutionary but it will accelerate national integration. For instance, if your parents are from a particular tribe, you learn their language at home. When you go to school, you learn the language of the particular area. I started with Efik in Calabar because that was where I went to school. When you are ten, English is introduced. If you are in the north you must choose a southern language which the schools like the unity schools are equipped to teach you. A northerner will choose Igbo or Yoruba. If you’re in the south you must choose Hausa; not Fulfulde. This means that just like in Switzerland, any meeting by any Nigerian, the discussions will likely be in Language of choice. When we go to the same quality schools, speak the same languages and even wear the same dresses, we won’t be talking about ethnicity today. Every major religion, whether it is Christianity or Islam says God is omnipotent, omniscience, omnipresent. If it wanted everybody to speak the same language, be the same colour, He would have made it so. Why then should we not bequeath good leadership, continue to extend what we have in Lagos already. You see a family with different religious backgrounds and live together in harmony. We can maintain Nigeria as a secular state, keep our religions and live the tenets of democracy.
Some people accused Gowon of being too young, inexperienced and exuberant, and that was why there was no restraint in declaring war on Biafra at the time he did. Having worked closely with him then, do you share the view?
That is not true. Gowon was too young? What does that mean?
He was just 29years old
How old was Alexander the great? How old was Napoleon? How old was Zik when he was tried in Ghana and came back here? He was tried in Ghana for sedition. When he published the Renascent Africa in 1937 and started the battle for Nigeria’s independence, how old was he? He was 33. Bede the young, the head of government of England who confronted Napoleon was prime minister at 21. He was prime minister for about 18 years before he died at 43. No, 31 was not too young. Morning shows the day. What is important is your upbringing and intellect.
But was he experienced?
Nobody thought those military boys to come and govern. He didn’t have experience in governance, but exuberant, no. He was very hesitant. You have to push and push. That was why some of us were blacklisted and called “super perm secs”. We were kind of fire brigade. The nickname was an abuse. He wasn’t exuberant. You see him today going around. Is he exuberant? No, he is not. If anything he was hesitant. But the point is that like Ironsi, he respected the civil service he met. He did not interfere with the civil service. He was ready to listen to advice, to have people argue and then make a choice. Some of the people who succeeded him landed us in trouble, because they knew everything. Nobody does. One little thing we had was that when Ojukwu was communicating with him, he thought it was a secret between two former military pals. He didn’t make it available to us for us to analyze and react. That was how Aburi was staged without adequate preparation.
You were not involved in Aburi?
No. In fact he told the head of service 36 hours to the time. Most of us were not aware. No Perm Sec went there. But when he got there, there were Perm Secs with Ojukwu and one of the most brilliant minds in this country Dr Pius Okigbo. He came back and the analysis showed that Nigeria would cease to exist. It is this same way that a decree was put forward and that decree would have finished Nigeria. Maybe, later on we would be fighting and negotiating on how to come to a concert of powers. But that didn’t happen. Let me tell you some of the asides. We were pushing the decree and some people didn’t really know what was about to happen to Nigeria. I remember being interviewed by some leading newspapers abroad during our visit there during the crisis. The entire space was convoluted and we needed the best of diplomacy to sail through. The French did not really forgive the British for leaving Nigeria as one country. In their own time, they ruled French west Africa from Dakar and Brazzaville. When the independence movements were heating up in 1958 they introduced the dual card, divided French west Africa into 40 states and Equatorial Guinea into 4 states where they ruled from Dakar to Brazzaville traversing the 16 or 18 capitals. And each one of them had a French counselor in the treasury office working with them to decide what your budget will be which must be approved by France. The point of the story is that the evolution of their economy y was not growing the way we were growing because of the atomization. And so, the war came and they were ambivalent. Actually, Charles De Gaulle pushed by Focal was tending towards the recognition of Biafra. Ambassador Focal was the head of a certain powerful bureau in Paris. After some time they wrote Gowon a letter in which they were talking about the need for self-determination. We, here replied the letter with Gowon’s cooperation and said we will exercise self determination after independence, after all if any one says the people in Brittan, that is, a part of France that was demanding secession from France should also be recognized should that also be admissible. When we reached that side, they said ‘oh, that was an insult.’ He had gone to Canada and said Qui Quebec (give the people of Quebec freedom) . Quebec was campaigning to break away from Canada. By this time, SCOA, CFAO, found out that they were doing more business in Nigeria than the whole of the French West Africa countries combined. So luckily for us, they were more at home with Des Armees ( the minister of defence). The minister of defence and the commercial/ industrial interests were not quite at par with this Focal wing. We had bought SOZ missiles for the Navy from France; we had bought Pads, very good armoured carriers from France before the crises. We could not officially now, get the rockets, the ammunitions for the pandas. We were told countries which we were to get permission to import from France. So France was not forthcoming, pushing some African countries to recognize Biafra, telling us where we could get the pandas. If black people want to make a mess of themselves, they are only too happy to help us. This is the lesson for us to learn. They were ready to play up anything to set us up. After I gave the interview in New York, I remember telling the journalists that ‘look here, I am speaking to you; I am Igbo speaking, and Ojukwu was a personal friend in School and in the University.’ One the newspapers, I still have the cutting screamed the next day that they interviewed Phillip Asiodu, a Nigerain Perm Sec and ex- member of the Igbo tribe. So as far as they were concerned Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa were like republicans in democracy. Can you imagine? I then went to San ray, and there I saw on television, a Monsignor, you know Owerri was captured by Nigerian forces and later recaptured by Biafran forces.
During that recapture, the Catholic Assumpta Cathedral which was under construction for over two decades came alive. They went there and took the picture and the monsignor was saying ‘ Igbo, so religious. As soon as they recaptured the city they started reconstructing the cathedral’. That was misleading. Somebody must have told him that. He didn’t come there. It is a great lesson and one would hope that those of us who are singing the ethnic / tribal songs will learn something from the war. If today we have progressed to the extent that there are not many illiterates, there are many agricultural and agro- allied industries, petro- chemicals, textile, among other factories and jobs, there will be ease. When everybody develops, taxation is not about oil. We had hoped that before the turn of the century, oil is important but will not be more than 30% of our revenue. We thought we should begin to stop the monthly visit to Abuja by state governments for allocation or share outs. Because of that some are even demanding for more states. Most of the states are weak and for that some people argue that we are not capable of running a true federation. But as far as I am concerned, if they read the speech of Gowon which we all contributed to when the 12 states were created they will understand more. He said “each state must be capable of fulfilling the functions of a region”.
There was no basis for any other state beyond the 12. Some people are now demanding 45 states because they think we will still be sharing. In another 35 years, oil will probably be like Tin; completely forgotten. But if we develop our agricultural industries and manpower, we will wax stronger. When you go to America and Europe, Nigerians are at the head of some of the critical industrial complexes. They have the intellect and the know-how. Look at the evolution of the ICT, many of us are using us for other things and they need to be reoriented to channel the knowledge into useful ends. I believe that good leadership can do it. We need to read the history of people and other countries that have become great.
Who would you consider your hero of the Nigerian civil war?
The pattern was so variegated and there were so many pros and cons about each person. I really, cannot tell you in military terms that this is the man that stands out. But if it a question of the leadership, or creating the enabling atmosphere for us to have succeeded in the diplomacy which prevented the recognition of Biafra by all the major powers, which made most of the African countries reaffirm their support for One Nigeria at all the meetings of the OAU (now, AU, and I attended two or three of them) then give it to Gowon as the national leader at that time. He allowed the famous quote from Mao Zedong “let a thousand flowers bloom, let schools of thought contend”. He allowed debates, robust debates, and at the end we always came to a consensus. He did not discriminate between the military and the civilians. This style brought us to some distance. Despite the upheavals of 1975, we still believe that the way we are going now will not take us anywhere and we must retrace our steps and embrace good governance. Good governance has to start good conscience, orientation and commitment. In the first republic who were the drivers of the polity? They were ex- activists, headmasters, lawyers, doctors, successful Journalists, people with a track record of what they did. Then look at the present contenders for office. In the meantime Nigeria has produced people respected all over the world. There was this military doctor who devised a much cheaper and effective instrument to conduct heart operations. I hope they helped him to get a patent because what normally happens is that one of the multi- nationals will take it, just modify one or two things and go and patent. I say this because we have very talented people. When I was last in government and I had the opportunity of accompanying Chief Obasanjo to the United States, one of the shocking discoveries at the time when we visited a certain complex was to see about 9 Nigerians in front of us with NISER Patents which you don’t get for nothing. Much earlier when I was commissioned by the Public Service Commission in 1973 on the manpower requirements of the 1970- 1980 plans, I secured a special mandate to go to the United States of America and talk to all willing Nigerians with masters and doctorates. Our embassies and consulates organized it and I went to at least 12 centers – Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Massachusetts, Chicago and so on and interviewed these Nigerians, brought some of them back.
I negotiated their salaries, negotiated their positions, and all that. That was Nigeria. The chairman of the commission then was Sule Katagun. The deputy was Samuel Manu who was a very brilliant man. They didn’t say the people I brought ought to be from this tribe or that tribe or this religion or the other. Of course I had one or two people from the commission with me. I remember I know this might interest people; I don’t know where I met that one, whether in Chicago or so. He said, look here, I have a Lincoln and I am making 50,000 bucks monthly. Well, 50,000 then in 1973 sounded fine, but I said to him’ how much will you earn to live in a house, have a garage that can accommodate two cars, have a cook/ steward and be able to have a driver. He said yeah, you must be making 100,000 bucks. I said yes, we are doing it on 3,000 pounds.
We must pray for divine accident for great leadership. Those of us who are now called yesterday men as someone called us the other day have nothing but good wishes for the emergence of this leadership. We have talked so much and people are not listening. I feel that what we should do now is to get people together , map out a programme, long term twenty year programme , publicize it very well in the country and challenge the parties. These continuities, which have made us to retrogress must stop.