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What have been your highest and lowest moments?
My lowest moment in recent times has been my prison arrest, trial and the alleged looting of treasury by the past administration, which led to my detention in the EFFC and at Kuje Prison. That has been so remarkable and painful time recently for me. My best moment, the moment of my joy and fulfillment, was December 15, 1993 when RayPower came on air. I thought I crossed the hurdle to do what Nigeria was unprepared to do. But in between, there has been quite a number of high and low moments.
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You were given a chance of living only three years but you are now 70. Will you describe that as a miracle or a divine intervention?
Thirty-five was the benchmark I was given. The very early years, I was sickly. As I was growing up, I do recall sitting by the side of my father in Ibadan every evening while he used to sit on his relaxing chair with his friends, talking about village stories. Then, I was feeling handicapped because I could not talk from the very beginning of my life. Many people assumed that because I couldn’t talk, I could not also hear. I would normally look and watch things as they happened, and I vividly recall when one of my father’s very close friends came to intervene about my schooling. He condemned every effort to invest in me outright because I was very sickly and a handicapped child of a southerner. That was a very tough stage of my life. I felt highly discriminated against and that I would likely be denied the opportunity to live.
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My mother was very helpless. She was an illiterate and I couldn’t talk. Even if I attempted to write anything, she could not read it. It was a lot of God’s intervention after going through treatments at the University College Hospital, Ibadan. By the time I was getting to about 12 and 13 years, I was terribly sick. My parents were taking me from hospital to herbalists, from churches to prayer houses and looking for an opportunity for me to survive. The doctors gave up on me because they couldn’t identify what the perennial ailment was. I left the Loyola College, Ibadan after the school felt I might die on the campus. I went back to Benin and seeing the struggle of my mother and the determination of my father at that time, I almost believed it was best for me to die. I saw the pains and the amount of struggle they were putting in for me to live.
They later took me down to Agenebode around 1965 and 1966 when my father had almost given up that I was not going to survive. I went through the bank of River Niger which was full at that time. We went into a small village called Osunene, having travelled two and a half hours on the River Niger. I was not given any injection but they said I had been poisoned and that the people that committed the atrocity were present. Everyone was asked to swear by the river and a lineage was coincidentally involved in it. There and then, I went into a fit and vomited extensively. That became the beginning of my revival.
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Until I got to Poland for school, after doing the medical examinations, they felt I was not going to live beyond age 35. I collected the results and forwarded them to my father who asked me to have faith in God. He was sure that if I went through all those challenges in my early life, that I would live older than his father who was acknowledged to be the oldest person in Agenebode, having died at the age of 120 in 1956. I kept on. When the 35th year was approaching, because of the fear that had been planted in me, I enjoyed my life maximally. Here I am, 70 years old and all those challenges put behind me. I am strong and healthy and I thank Almighty God and all Nigerians who have supported me to get to this age.
My eldest sister, Mrs. Grace Juliana Agbame (Dokpesi), in the course of my struggles and battles in life made a pledge to God that if I survived all these, they would dedicate me to God’s service. That was how I got into the seminary. My mother had 13 children and I am the only surviving son in the middle. I’m tied by the cord of those ahead and below me. I’m a covenant child.
On October 25, 1986 when you were 35, what went through your mind?
I counted it as the day when I was to see the end of my life but I was very joyous that I crossed the Rubicon. I had been a Chief of Staff, I had a PhD, I had even been a multimillionaire. I was happy in life and I said that all these things were happening for a reason. Possibly that 35 years was why God so ordered my life to be smooth sailing as it was up to that time. The next 35 years have even been more joyous.
Did the 35 years encourage you to be polygamous?
I’m a Catholic and I will tell you that one of the greatest errors of my life is polygamy. It was not something that I desired; it was a situation that developed in which I had no alternative. A lot of people feel it was wealth that distorted my behaviour. But the truth of the matter is that there were internal family challenges that led to it. I was married to a Polish woman and I wanted to remain with the Polish woman and I still desire it in my old age. She left Nigeria on reasons that she was the only child of her parents and needed to be with her parents. I went to Poland 16 times to beg her to return. My mother was also anxious that I have children; that I don’t need to enter aeroplane to go and see them. Those were the internal factors that later on affected my life.
You are a Marine Engineer, business mogul and media entrepreneur. Don’t you think the Nigerian economy should be better than it is today? Why is it difficult to bring the changes?
The fact is that the then Military Head of State and Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Gen. Olusegun Aremu Obasanjo, had moved through parts of Europe in search of ideas that could help transform and expand marine business in Nigeria before our paths crossed in Poland. Obasanjo is a non-discriminatory leader who wooed me back from Poland in 1977 to come and serve my fatherland.
As a consultant to the Polish government on matters relating to Maritime Transportation and Economic Science, I joined the Polish team to hold talks with General Obasanjo when he paid a state visit to Poland in 1977. Chief Obasanjo was surprised that he found himself negotiating with a Polish team which had a black man as a member, who also served as the interpreter.
When I came back to Nigeria in December 1976, he was very enthusiastic about building ship yards in Nigeria. He wanted ship yard in Burutu, ship yard in Lagos and one other ship yard in Port Harcourt. He had three ship yards in mind. So, it was a great privilege, a great honour and a great opportunity to come in. Even when I thought it was very difficult for me, the same Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, who got me into the Federal Civil Service, got me posted to the Federal Ministry of Transport under Dr. Chukwuemeka Ezeife before the Nigerian Ports Authority started claiming ownership that they sent me out to Poland on scholarship.
He will attest to the fact that I came filled with patriotism and hope that Nigeria will become that prosperous land flowing with milk. When I came back to Nigeria on a visit in 1975, Nigeria was at the same level of development with Poland, Singapore and Taiwan. The ports that I visited during the course of my maritime training, it was always a beauty coming into the Lagos Port. True, we had congestion in 1975 and the country was undergoing rapid development but the First, Second and Third National Development Plans were of men who had visions and meant well for Nigeria. After those, we derailed. There was no basis for measuring the standard of men and quality of people that took over leadership of Nigeria with what we have now.
I had files of civil servants and ministers who served this country between 1951 and 1975. They got burnt in my house. If you see the brilliance, patriotism and commitment of those people, you will want to serve this country forever. Unfortunately, the federal character clause that came in brought a lot of inexperienced people and mediocre. Excellence was sacrificed. There was no basis anymore for taking people except sentiment. In the Ministry of Transport, the Nigerian Ports Authority wanted to build an ocean terminal in Lagos towards Badagry, and for political reasons, it was decided that we should go to Onne. For political reasons, we decided to build a port in Warri. Obafemi Awolowo promised a port in Warri to satisfy the Itsekiri people. Shehu Shagari came in 1979 and said we should build a port in Sapele for the Urhobo people. There was no economic reason.
The ocean terminal in Lagos was projected ahead of when larger vessels would be coming in was abandoned. Rivers State made it possible for Shehu Shagari to win the 1979 election with the last votes that came in. In order to appreciate them, we shelved the idea of the ocean terminal. This is haunting us today. The ports in the Republic of Benin and Togo are better than ours because they are at the deep end of the sea. The basis of decision making became emotional. Today, they are building naval base in Kano. That is how we lost a lot of the visions that were expected.
How can we address the setbacks?
It boils down to leadership and followership. I believe that we need to restructure this country effectively. Whether you like or hate the word “restructure”, it is just the foundation and the first thing we must do in moving ahead. We need a leader who believes in restructuring and moving Nigeria from an oil-based economy to a diversified economy. We need a leader who believes in productivity. The same people who closed down steel companies are the same people today running around and borrowing money to build railway lines. Shagari saw this problem way back and went ahead with the development of the Ajaokuta Steel Mill, the Delta Steel mill and the Katsina Steel Mill. By the time Ajaokuta was to start production, the 1983 coup took place. The then Minister of Steel, Alhaji Mamman Makele was described as corrupt and a thief. So, he ran for his life to the UK where he died.
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For that reason, Ajaokuta that required only N500 million ($500 million) as at that time was abandoned. All the steel required for our rail lines which had been planned to connect every village in Nigeria and was to cost N30 billion were to come to Ajaokuta. Shagari at the Federal Executive Council had said we should fund it from the treasury and not borrowing. We were almost finished with Ajaokuta Steel Mill. We would have created employment and generated opportunities for Nigerians. No country will come to develop Nigeria; Nigerians must develop their beloved country.
The country today is divided along ethnic lines. What do you think is responsible for the divisions?
Bad leadership. Completely bad leadership. When these issues come on, people run away from the reality. It is not the Fulani man that is bad. Shehu Shagari was a Fulani man who served Nigeria very meritoriously and conscientiously. We have had military heads of state that are northerners but they were visionary and ready to accommodate others. They pulled together the best brains that were available and brought about development. I remember my uncle, Chief John Amodu who was a Mayor in Port Harcourt but from Agenebode. In Lagos and Enugu, northerners contested and won elections. People were living freely in Kano. Growing up, the whole idea was that it is going to be a country flowing with milk and honey. But all of a sudden, things changed. When you have religious extremists, people that exploit the very thin lines of unity, then you will find yourself here.
I believe that there are still Nigerians who believe in one united Nigeria. Those Nigerians must come out. Most of these younger generation, people that are clamouring for the disintegration of this country, I sympathize with them. But I feel very strongly that they are in that position because of the injustices that are going on in the country.
There are two different laws operating in different parts of the country. In the Electoral Act in 2015, what was not permissible in the South was allowed in the North. People were able to vote manually in the North. Borno State, in which there was a bomb blast that morning, returned 1.7 million votes while Lagos that is densely populated could hardly get one million votes. You created 44 local government areas in one state but it’s the federating units that fund that. A lot of the states are not economically viable, they cannot sustain themselves. For how long can we sustain the unsustainable states? They need to merge together.
In simple terms, in the northern states, the job that was done by a permanent secretary is now being done by 19 persons most inefficiently and ineffectively. The same with the Eastern region. It has not helped our development. We must sit down and discuss. If we must move ahead, we must reduce our administrative and consumption cost. We must give attention to development. Over 70 per cent of the money we have in our budget is for recurrent expenditure. We must reverse that to move forward.
You are a member of the PDP BOT and you are canvassing for Northern presidential candidate. Is it a matter of who wins or doing the right thing?
In 1998 when the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was being setup, we had Nigerians who went through the trauma of military dictatorship and elder statesmen who believed in Nigeria. Some of them were sentenced to ridiculous number of years in prison by those who are occupying the same positions today. I was arrested and tried. My offence was just that I held a political office and yet they are holding political offices today and they are not tried.
The constitution of the PDP states clearly that there shall be rotation and zoning of both party and political offices. I have remained very consistent in my argument. In 1998, after the meeting of the G34, it was Alhaji Isa Lawal Kaita who moved that Chief Alex Ekwueme should become the next president. Alex Ekwueme said that G34 was still a group and not a political party and that when we transformed into a political party, we can canvass whether he should be or not be the president.
When the party came in, they decided that because of the injustice that has been done to the South West, the zone should be given the opportunity to produce the president. That was in Jos and AIT transmitted it live even into the United States for the first time. President Bill Clinton called Obasanjo to congratulate. Obasanjo was surprised at the call and Clinton told him that he was watching the news even through a Nigerian channel, AIT.
Zoning was also recommended in the draft constitutional conference report a former Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha signed in 1995. Each geopolitical zone was to have a term of five years so that in 30 years, we would have ended as one united Nigeriaand then start exploring merit. After deciding on the four-year rotation when Obasanjo came in, there was an expanded party caucus where it was canvassed that the military had done a lot of damage and that the PDP programme cannot be attained within those years. They said it should be extended because the constitution has provided for two terms of eight years.
Again, the elder statesmen agreed that Obasanjo will do eight years with a proviso that after him, a northerner will also do eight years. I travelled round the country to lobby for a South-South president. Obasanjo agreed and said that Dr. Peter Odili had done very well and that if we go into the convention, he will win overwhelmingly but that the party already had an agreement with the North and begged him to allow the North produce the President. That was how Umaru Musa Yar’Adua became the President. Yar’Adua did only two and a half years and died. I argued that the North should be allowed to finish up their remaining four years.
I suggested to Jonathan to allow a Northerner become President and that he can still be the vice president or go on vacation and prepare himself to become the President after the end of the term. Some people especially from the South-South, disagreed on the basis that one cannot be so close to power and relinquish it. Jonathan did another four years and we came to 2015. By then, the PDP had been 16 years in power with 14 years of the South and two years of the North. That is the situation up till today. In 2015 when we fielded Jonathan, the North was clamouring that the South has done 14 years and should allow them to do their four years. That is what plunged the country into this crisis. I am PDP and I am being guided by the constitution of the party which in its preamble said that the unity, stability and growth of this country, we must rotate such that every part of this country (will be carried along).
What of the eight years of the APC?
The APC on their own also chose to adopt zoning but first started with a northern candidate, knowing full well the sentiments of the North to stand against a southerner. At the end of that election, my position has been that Jonathan did not lose that election. But in any case, he didn’t contest it even when there was ample evidence to that effect. He has become a statesman but that has not solved the problem of Nigeria. APC has its own rules and constitution. In my own party, I cannot win election because there is so much injustice and unfairness while we are not guided by certain rules and regulations.
Let us be fair to ourselves and remain one as this party started. In doing so, please let us choose a candidate from the North. In 2019 we field a northern candidate as recommended by the Ike Ekweremadu’s report, but we were out- maneuvered by the other party. I don’t believe Atiku Abubakar lost that election, but INEC had said so. I am criticising APC for failure, for making Nigeria the world poverty capital and for the level of unemployment. These are not PDP policies. I cannot be dragged into APC policies. It is because the APC policy that has failed to recognise the federal character that has brought us to the condition we are today – everyone is suspicious of one another. We have a security council made up of people from one side of the country and speaking one language.
I want a Nigeria that recognises our diversity and one that will bring back the principles of PDP, and the person for that is from the North. We the southerners had power and monopolised it. That was what gave birth to APC. Otherwise we would have not been in this mess.
What has accounted for your latest position on Asiwaju Bola Tinubu? You also eulogised Bola Tinubu a few days ago on AIT? Where do you stand?
Bola Ahmed Tinubu and I were close friends right from the time he was working with Mobil and before becoming a governor. As young men, we ate and drank together. He became governor and God blessed him. Does that remove the fact that we are close friends? Should I because he belongs to another party say he is my enemy? He is the godfather of my second to last daughter. If there is an interview, would I say I don’t know him? He is a kind man and a philanthropist. He is supportive of the ordinary person that is available. I praise him and wish him the very best in whatever he puts his hands on. It has nothing to do with politics but about the good relationship we share.
There are rumours that former President Goodluck Jonathan is hobnobbing with the APC. Should he defect to APC?
He has not told me that. Goodluck Jonathan is a statesman. He sacrificed his ambition and did not fight after the 2015 elections because he wants a united Nigeria. Don’t forget that the person that is now mentioned globally is Olusegun Obasanjo. He is ageing but Jonathan is a younger person and he is able to represent Nigeria, attract friends and investments into Nigeria. That role falls on his shoulders very well and I encourage him to keep that position and be Nigeria’s number one image maker. He is well-suited for that and I wish him the best of luck in achieving that. He is an adult and he takes his own decisions. He is able to assess the circumstances. But I don’t believe he will go to APC.
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