By BEIFOH OSEWELE
In the rundown to the 1991 governorship election under then President Ibrahim Babangida transition, he was clearly the underdog. As the standard bearer of the little-to-the-left Social Democratic Party, SDP, not many people gave him a chance against the little-to-the-right National Republican Convention, NRC, which fielded Lucky Igbinedion, who had just finished his tenure as chairman of Oredo local Government. But in a situation reminiscent of the Biblical David and Goliath, the ‘smaller’ man floored the giant in spite of the support of his influential billionaire father and Esama of Benin, Chief Gabriel Igbinedion.
Ever since, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, a retired permanent secretary who ruled Edo State for 22 months as governor, has remained a recurring decimal in Nigeria’s political landscape. But in a recent interview, Odigie-Oyegun, now a stalwart of the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN brushed aside the Goliath-David analogy. Although he entered the race by ‘absolute default’, he said he was never in any doubt that he would triumph.
“I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t convince myself that there was 50 plus one chance of becoming elected,” he said. “That was what happened. I did my homework. There was no Goliath. It was a paper Goliath. The people didn’t do their homework, I did my homework. I won’t go into a fight with somebody I know would thrash me. So, if really you want to call them Goliath, it wasn’t even one Goliath, it was two Goliaths that I was dealing with because the chairman of NRC, Chief Tom Ikimi, was also from Edo State. But because I did my planning very well, I was able to floor them completely.”
Born on August 12, 1939, in Warri, Delta State, he attended St. Patrick’s College, Asaba, and the University of Ibadan where he obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Economics. He served in various capacities as a federal civil servant working as a development planner. After his retirement from service, he ventured into politics and was elected first civilian governor of Edo State on the platform of the Social Democratic Party, SDP. The administration lasted between January 1992 and November 1993 before the late General Sani Abacha truncated it.
Chief Odigie-Oyegun, who in the last general election, ran as vice presidential candidate to Ibrahim Shekarau on the card of the All Nigeria Peoples Party, ANPP, in this interview, takes a stroll down memory lane and talks about his upbringing and lessons from his parents that shaped his life.
I have heard people say Chief Oyegun is a good man. How often do you hear such commendation and what is your reaction?
It has two interpretations: nice man can be negative. When they say he is a gentleman, he is harmless, that, in today’s connotation, can be negative. It can also mean: he is straight- forward; what he sees is what he thinks, and whatever he has to do, he would do with all fairness without looking at anybody’s face, or external consideration. Then, it becomes a positive thing. And I see a lot of that.
That is basically what I am, and I am glad that very often too, people recognise that and respect me for it. It is not part of today’s ethics, but it gives me the impression that we’re not totally lost, yet, that we still respect people who are a bit ‘different’ and can be trusted to do things properly, and to enthrone merit if entrusted with any assignment that requires honesty. I see that happening very often, I feel flattered by it. In fact, that is the reward most times that I get for not being, in a material sense, able to compete. When you hear people talk in millions and billions, today, I just laugh, because I am not in that kind of league. But when I see the deference that people pay to me, because of who I am, not because of what I am, I feel very content. I feel rewarded, and that is good enough for me.
If I understand you at all, you have this feeling that things are no longer the way they were in you childhood days. What went wrong?
In any society where crime is not visited by punishment, where performance is not rewarded, you get the kind of decay that we have today. If a man is appointed to do a job, and he does not perform, he must know why he is being penalised. But that does not exist. Our institutions are decaying because people are put there for considerations other than performance, and their activities are not even policed afterwards. So, the system just keeps nose-diving.
As a student at St. Patrick’s, Asaba, you want to tell us the dreams you had?
It is difficult to say, because you just coasted along. The society was very finely structured, so that you just moved from one level to the other. You wanted a degree, nobody gave you advice as to what course to study or what not to study. We just selected courses based on which one really captured your fascination. It had nothing to do with long-term ambition. Mine was easy because I hated the sight of blood. I reacted very negatively to human sufferings, I suffered as much as the person I am watching suffering. So, the issue of wanting to be a doctor was totally out of it. I naturally gravitated towards the arts and social sciences. At the end of the day, the ambition was to get a good job in the civil service, which was quite satisfying. Everything was laid out; ones you got your three papers in the A’ Levels, admission to University of Ibadan was virtually automatic. Once you got a good degree, a job in the civil service was virtually automatic. So, life was very equable. The real challenges were very few. Going abroad was not an issue because it was only when you couldn’t make it that you then struggled one way or the other to get high education by alternative means. The kind of challenges that occur today didn’t happen then. The business world was just beginning to take its first steps. I remember being interviewed for a job in Eder Dempster, Lever Brothers and Shell, which I got, but the pull of the civil service was too strong, that in spite of the fact that Shell’s salary was three times what I was earning in the civil service, I was still prevailed upon to remain in the civil service. So, that tells you that at that time, monetary and material considerations were not the issue.
My father, for example, asked me: what is your hurry? You have a good, stable job, why are you going to bother with Shell? Shell was an outlandish kind of job that didn’t confer any dignity and status even though the money was big. That was the perception at the time. So, I ended up staying back in the civil service.
What were those values you held sacrosanct as a child?
I was particularly lucky because mine started right from the home. I had a father who also was a civil servant under the colonial rule. So, these things kind of just naturally rubbed off on me. There was a kind of natural osmosis. You could see that there were boundaries, there were guidelines, and there were things that were not done. You were virtually an outcast if you did anything to bring shame to the family.
My dad kept telling us that if you stole one shilling, the Whiteman would use one pound to pursue you and make sure that they nail you. Things like that and his total style of life-the humility, minding his own business, being correct as a normal thing was the normal way to be. It wasn’t like a garment that you wear. All those really helped. I had the luck of coming from that kind of background. Today, when I look back occasionally, I say ‘Thank God I had that kind of upbringing.’
But when you see the change in society where what matters is what you have and how flamboyant you can be, you are bound to look back occasional and say, ‘would I have change anything if I had to live my life all over again?’ It is a plus if society has guide posts, if society has values, if society is anchored on the right ethics, in which case merit becomes the only thing that matters, and you do not need to lobby. I never lobbied for anything in my whole life. So, I am surprised today the kind of heavy lobby that there is. Even to get a cleaner’s job, you have to lobby.
We enjoyed the way society was then, but today, if you want to live like that, then, of course, you would be living in a word that doesn’t exist. That is why transformation is necessary. We must go back to some of these old values. We must have benchmarks to some of these old values. There must be clear demarcation between what is right and what is wrong. There must be clear demarcation between a decent man and what we used to call ‘money miss road’ kind of person.
Today, the money-miss-road kind of person wants to govern. It doesn’t matter how he got his money; in fact, most of the times, the society is aware of how he got his money; but it really doesn’t matter anymore. So, it’s yes to transformation. This society must be transformed. There must be a basic level of acceptable conduct. We must redefine the lines between right and wrong. We must learn again to reward right and punish wrong, all of which do not exist anymore. And that is more critical to our long-term development. It is more critical to our acceptance worldwide as a people. It is more critical to our acceptance worldwide as a nation with which you can do business, than how well tarred our roads are.
Unfortunately, because we don’t have ethical benchmarks, it has affected even the structures and institution of our polity and everything is generally in a state of decay. Because of that people look at us and say, ‘these are not people you can do business with.’ People look at us as people that are unserious. People look at us as a country without benchmark, without standards; a roller coaster kind of country. In spite of our population and potentialities, they see us as a country they cannot do business with. So, that is the evil of this loss of morality, ethics and standards in our systems.
Like I always say, any fool with a little bit of common sense can build roads, build dams and do all those other structural things, but in terms of restoring basic common human decency, which means re-orientating the minds, the heart of the people, it is a much more difficult task. And without that kind of transformation, the country is not going anywhere. The level of corruption in Nigeria today would not exist if we had that kind of truly transformative agenda in the nation.
If you were to live your life afresh, would you change your nature?
Fortunately, I am trapped in the Nigerian past, which hardly exists today. But somehow, by God’s grace, one is managing to survive in the new millennium in which we find ourselves.
To answer the question, I will not change my basic nature, but I would be a little bit more attentive to the fact that you need to survive. We are talking about hindsight, which is a 20-20 kind of vision: given the kind of opportunities that I had, which were limitless, I had limitless opportunities and the issue of abusing anyone of them did not even come. I was the chairman of the Federal Housing Authority, I don’t have a single land anywhere. I was one of the ‘creators’ of Abuja, those who put the very first facilities in Abuja, as Perm Sec, Communications then, but I don’t have land or a building in Abuja. These are the things one would correct if one had a second chance; one would not be so extreme. But that, as we say, is the benefit of hindsight. But I am happy; that is the important thing. I am totally happy, totally fulfilled, totally content. I sleep soundly. I don’t look behind me or over my shoulders. I think that is enough reward. When you come to think of it, it is clearly enough reward.
How was your journey as a civil servant?
I started in the Ministry of Economic Development, which was a new ministry then. Being posted to that ministry is one of the best things that have happened to me in life.
Was your dad educated, and what did he do?
In terms of paper qualification, you would say not very educated, but remove the fact that he was my father, if it is possible to do that, I think he was one of the most brilliant human beings I have ever come across. To start with, even his writing alone, I have hardly seen anything to equal it up till this day. And he spoke English like he went to Cambridge. Of course, he was a colonial civil servant. He worked in the court system.
Was he an interpreter?
No, I think he was more of an administrative aide. Of course, when it became necessary, like in the Benin area, he would interpret. But most of the time, we were in Warri and Ibadan, and he didn’t speak Urhobo or Yoruba. So, he couldn’t have been an interpreter. But he soaked in so much knowledge that he became the first, and I think the only non-graduate who became a deputy chief registrar of a high court, first in the then Western Nigerian. Then, he helped in establishing the Midwestern high court system when the region was created.
What kind of a man was he?
He was very down to earth, a very strict disciplinarian, strong in his belief of right and wrong and committed to education. He had so many of us, fortunately, that he tended to concentrate post-secondary school on the male children and he directed the female ones into the professions-secretarial work, nursing and things like that. But as God would have it, we all ended up doing very well. Those that didn’t originally start with university education eventually became graduates and the rest of it. I remember that he was very much sought after by lawyers, including some people who later became judges of the high court, in terms of court procedure, court formalities and the rest. He became really a reference point. Those were the things we saw and lived through.
When you say he was strict, I have the feeling he was good with the cane. Am I right?
You can say that again. Like I said, he was a strict disciplinarian, and when he had cause to apply the cane, it wasn’t a funny experience because you could hear the cane whistling down before it finally landed. But at the end, we all benefitted.
What are the lessons you tapped from him that shaped your life?
I think, basically, contentment, peace of mind. He wasn’t aggressive as such. I remember what he used to say, and one of my sisters has that name-Amenaghawon (transliterated, it means: the water that you would drink is not going to run away from you.) That was what was basic for him in life- don’t worry yourself, what would be would be.
I remember once I resigned, and he said to me, what are you worrying yourself for? Where are you going? Have a rethink and stay where you are. And he turned out to be right, at last, because, thereafter, I moved on very rapidly within the system. He had that inner calm. He had that intensity of look, of mind and of thought. He looked at you and you cannot but have the feeling that he was looking through you and seeing you as you really are. He was a man of very deep thoughts; he considered all aspects of any issue. He also liked a good laugh. I pray I got all of these from him, including his intelligence. He was truly fantastic.
I would be proud if anybody tells me that I am like my father, because it was quite a height to attain; very distinguished height to attain. He was a really content person. He never worried himself. As a result, he lived a fulfilled life. I can’t remember him being sick. And when eventually he had hernia, the sheer thought of it almost killed him. He was diagnosed with hernia and he had to be operated, and his blood pressure hit the roof. Otherwise, he was never ill. It was a motor accident that resulted in his death. He was never ill. Thank God, I also got that part of him. I am glad he transmitted that part to me. I have never had to be hospitalised because I am ill.
You want to recall some of the best pieces of advice you got from him?
Never touch what is not yours. That was basic. I can’t remember what precipitated that discussion, but he said to me: ‘You must not touch what is not yours, you must not steal in government.’ He was talking in respect of the ethics of that time, because he said, government would pursue you with everything they have until they nail you. That just got stuck and etched in my mind. All my life, that became a guiding principle. Secondly, he never failed to preach the gospel of contentment, be satisfied with what you have, live within your means; what should come to you would come to you; what would happen would happen.
You must have thought of him as high-handed when he was tell you all that…
Not highhanded, rather a bit tough. With a child’s eye, sometimes, when you get a real beating, you don’t think you deserve it. But still, it was a lesson because he still told you what you must not do. In all my life, I think it was only once that I was beaten that I felt that I deserved it.
What was the offence?
He sent me to buy a particular denomination of stamp totalling about one shilling. When I got there, I told the man across the counter precisely what my dad wanted. He said they didn’t have that denomination and convinced me to take two of the value amounting to the same thing. I took it and went home. Of course, my father was livid with rage because he said that wasn’t what he sent me. It then occurred to me that I should have told the post office man that was not what my father wanted.