By Bode Olagoke
Chief John Oyegun-Odigie is the National Chairman of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). In this interview, he reveals how the party is building a new foundation for a progressive Nigeria and his fond memories of Nigeria’s independence. BODE OLAGOKE brings excerpts.
hat was it like on October 1, 1960? How did you feel?
Well, I was an undergraduate. I was there for the festivities. I was there the mid-night the Union Jack, that is the British flag, was lowered and the Nigerian flag hoisted. It was a most exhilarating experience. There was that feeling of nationalism in you. We were like thank God ‘we are free at last’, using the famous Martin Luther King’s expression. It was great. The nation was full of promise and we were confident that we were going to go places and it was a wonderful moment.
A lot have been said about Nigeria’s past glory. Going forward, what can we do to restore this lost primacy?
At independence, we were just taking over from our colonial masters. Many of Europeans were still in the system. I came into the system in 1963 and we still had many of them, even the Secretary to the Federal Public Service Commission was a white lady. We had many expatriates in the ministries, departments and agencies. There were still standards and things went very well.
I think our problem started with the military coup. I was a youth then, hot-headed, energetic and adventurous. There were coups all over the place. I cannot say that when the coups happened, we did not say “hurray”. We cheered them on, but looking back now with the benefit of hindsight, I think that was the beginning of the Nigeria’s problem. We have not been able to truly put things together again. Apart from military rule messing up our federalism, and which we are yet to resolve there is still that centralised approach to everything.
Of course, there is this outcry about true federalism or restructuring as some seem to call it, however, you would find out that they mean almost the same thing. So, with the military coups, we had young officers taking over and everything became ‘with immediate effect’. We had the civil war with all it entails and the issue of short-cut to wealth started permeating the system. Also, the purge in the civil service led to a situation where people came and started introducing totally different dimension to civil service.
By and large, I think as a nation, we have come quite far, but definitely far short of what we should have been because as at the time I came into the service, through the planning ministry, Nigeria was comparable to nations like Brazil, South Korea, Malaysia and it was clear that with our resource potentials; our oil and others, the sky was seemingly our limit.
Even by World Bank standards, one of the best prospects to come out of the Third World status was Nigeria. We were rated higher than Brazil and others but that is as far as it went. We, somewhere along the line, took the wrong turn: standards collapsed and real long-term planning collapsed. Visionary leadership also collapsed. In a situation like that, we are where we are today with all the corruption, lack of business standards, ethics and what I would like to call ‘the blurring of the difference between right and wrong’.
Those were the problems plaguing and holding us back. But hope was restored with the Change Mantra of President Muhammadu Buhari. Work is ongoing to turn the Nigerian ‘titanic’ to a very purposeful direction before it hits the rock. That’s the work the Buhari administration is doing: Salvaging the system through visionary leadership and creating a new economy for the nation using the totality of our resources.
Are you saying that the APC has all the answers to the problems we have encountered since independence?
Well, I do not know about having all the answers but, yes, we know the problems and we have solutions to them. The system needs drastic change in a lot of directions. We had a collapsed economy principally due to economic mismanagement and the impact of the collapse of the oil market. That has slowed things down drastically.
Secondly, there is the push back; the fight back by the forces that want ‘business as usual’ which this country cannot sustain. So, yes we are upbeat, though resources are very thin now, but we are very much in the reconstruction of a new and sustainable economy. We are trying to move away from a consuming economy to a producing economy. We have to diversify our revenue sources from oil, with emphasis on agriculture, solid minerals, infrastructural development and permanently solving the power problem.
However, the foundation for long-term incremental progress in the power sector has been laid and it is now a function of increasing power generation and the ability to transmit and distribute. All of it is work in progress. Yes, we do have solutions, but they are not solutions that you can buy and just install and hope the problems would be solved, no.
It involves ethical rebirth in the economy. It involves new sources of revenue. It involves our ability to feed ourselves and it also involves major infrastructural development which is currently underway particularly in the area of rail and road transportation. So, the turnaround of the Nigerian ‘titanic’ is very much underway but it is still work in progress.
Some have said restructuring is the way forward, while others think a return to 1963 constitution is it. Where do you stand?
There are so many facets to this cry that I cannot just stand up now and tell you where I stand. As of today, I stand where the manifesto of the APC stands and that is true federalism which involves some degree of devolution of powers and resources to the states so that they will be better able to provide infrastructure, services and development for their people.
I have heard the suggestion by the South west, which is advocating a return to regionalism. Currently at APC, we have a body set up to look at, and define true federalism. They are going round the country to collate the actual views of the people which will enrich what is in our manifesto. Things like what do the people really want which can be enriched by contact with stakeholders? What have we missed out?
I think I have no doubt at this stage that some degree of return to true federalism would happen at the end of the day. When it would be, I cannot tell you, but it will happen.
Will it be under the APC?
I sincerely hope so because it was a major plank of our being elected.
You had recalled how we held so much promise than Brazil, Malaysia and others. Do you see Nigeria overtaking these countries again in the next 57 years?
If the APC agenda is sustained, Nigeria is going to make tremendous progress in the next few years. There is no question about that at all because we have the natural resources. We have a very vibrant and innovative population and the ingredient that has been brought in by President Buhari is the visionary and incorruptible leadership and when you put these ingredients together, it adds up to progress.
If you were to place a timeline, how long would it take the APC to actualize its objectives as contained in your manifesto?
It is difficult to say because first, I do not want to be misinterpreted to say that the APC will be in power for the next 10, 20 or 50 years. We will be in power for as long as the will of the people so decide but the trajectory that the president has set is one that has to be sustained for this nation to come out of the rot that we inherited.
There is no viable alternative to reform or to change. Change in the way we do business: in our attitude to public assets or resources; in our ethics and fundamental change in our economy. There is no alternative to that. There is no end to development.
It will be a continuing process. So, if you ask me how long it would take the APC, I would say development is endless but we are determined to create the economic and moral foundation for a new Nigeria; for Nigeria to make the progress and attain the destiny which God has earmarked for her. We are determined to be successful in meeting the yearnings of our people and creating a nation that will be a pride to all Nigerians and black people worldwide.