“Power Rotation in Nigeria Is Lunacy”—THE LAST INTERVIEW OF OJO MADUEKWE BEFORE HIS DEATH
Chief Ojo Maduekwe was a former Nigerian Minister of Transport, Foreign Affairs and Ambassador to Canada. He died in June 2016 and this happens to be the last interview he ever granted before his shocking death. He spoke with IFN TV’s Ndume Green about his life, growing up, public service and his beliefs about Nigeria.
IFN TV: What is your philosophy about life?
Ojo: Life is an opportunity to flourish. And here flourishing is in every aspect of our experience—intellectual, moral, spiritual. God has given us gifts as human beings. There is part of divinity in all of us that should find expression in serving humanity and worshipping God and touching lives and whatever skills God has given us, those skills are not to be dormant, they are to be deployed, use them to make the world a better place. That’s why we are here.
IFN TV: How did you find yourself in politics?
Ojo: It’s a fulfilment of a childhood desire to serve humanity, to walk in the footsteps of my father who was a Presbyterian pastor and combined that with a lot of community work. I didn’t get to like him to be a pastor but he was my hero and my first image of an educated man— a man of letters, a man who could move up there in his own case the pulpit and talk to an important audience was my father. And my love of public speaking which extended to choice of career in law and later on choice of vocation in politics can be said to be traced to that early experience of my hero who was my father being on the pulpit and also being a teacher and organising the community. He was the first President-General of the town union. He created the town union with others for development, for progress. So I come from a family that has always emphasized service to the community. That did not see material accumulation as the purpose of life. We define ourselves in terms of how much we are involved in impacting on the community. And so that was what led me first to law, which I found a little bit too narrow for that purpose and therefore migrated to politics, although the migration lasted much longer than I had planned because one thing led to another and it’s been quite a while I ever found myself in a court room.
IFN TV: Tell us about your background and how that has impacted on your success story.
Ojo: I was born in a place call Asaga, Ohafia. It’s in Abia state the Eastern part of Nigeria. In terms of ethno-linguistic group I am Igbo. And I was born in the village. I am still a village boy in many ways. I love the village. I miss the village. But it was a privileged family because in those days to be a pastor, to be a headmaster was an important thing. My father worked with Scottish missionaries and he left Hope Waddell, one of the oldest institutions in Nigeria. He graduated from there in 1928 with what was then called Cambridge Senior School Certificate which would be like the equivalent of a first degree today in a way. But he combined that with Grade One Teachers Certificate. After that became Headmaster for many years and General Manger of schools and in 1940, having worked as a Headmaster, teacher and General Manager of schools from 1928 when he graduated from Hope Waddell Training Institute. By the way Hope Waddell Training Institute, was the same school that Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe graduated from so Nigeria’s oldest school, my father went to the seminary and another five years, that’s why I said the accumulation of his what he got out of Hope Waddell and five years of seminary is at the very least, it’s the equivalent of today’s first degree or I will even say Master’s degree. So he was ordained in 1945 which was the year of my birth. And normally, this is the pastor’s house in a secluded part of the village. We didn’t live with the rest of the people in the village. So that made the environment look special and the pastor was judged the most important person in the village in the Western sense of who was important in the village. He had education, many people came, lived in his house, and went to school and then became very important people. So our house was, there was a lot of traffic of people coming there to live with us, to be trained by my parents, both men and women passed through our house. My mother worked with Scottish missionaries. She was a matron of the secondary school in the community run by Scottish missionaries and together they did a lot of mentoring. Seeing this big traffic of people passing through our house, going to school by living in our family and then later on they became doctors, became judges, became engineers, it left a very big impact on my mind as to what kind of family I was coming from and what kind of traditions I should continue to sustain.
IFN TV: What is that grand narrative about Nigeria that you think is key in building a strong country across a very multi-ethnic society like Nigeria?
Ojo: What will be missing is the grand narrative of what it means to be a Nigerian. It’s the big story about our destiny, about the opportunity we have to be the big black success story. We talk much about our size but we don’t seize the moment, the opportunity of that size and translate it to acting and thinking big. First of all if I may take the example of soccer, and I find this very instructive, when we are playing soccer, when our team is playing soccer, everybody is excited about being Nigerian. All our differences dissolve. Nobody, it is rare before you see anybody asking, the composition of Green Eagles (Super Eagles), whether it is lopsided. We don’t care whether all of them come from the same local government, so long as they are scoring goals. In a country of 50/50% adherence of the two great Abrahamic Faiths—Islam and Christianity, nobody is interested as to whether all those players, what is the percentage of Muslim, what is the percentage if Christians.
There is this story. You might have heard this story told in a few places, whether it is apocryphal or its real. That there was a particular game, football game that Nigeria was involved in. There was so much excitement and of course as you would expect that to be, especially in an urban area, the audience was mixed: the Yoruba, the Igbos, the Efiks, the Ijaws, Muslims and Christians there. And somewhere along the line in the excitement, this Alhaji said: “Give us goal; give us goal in Jesus name!”. So the Christians who were there said: “Ah! Why are you calling Jesus’ name here? I thought you were a Muslim? And the man said well if Jesus will make us have this goal it doesn’t matter.
So that unity we experience when we are having international competition, the pride we experience. The challenge for leadership is how to translate that pride to our politics, to out our economics, to our science and technology, to building a great society, an opportunity society, a society where things work; a society where the rule of law is not just a verbal mantra but actually something we experience and practice.
So we need that grand narrative about Nigeria—that our Nigerianness is bigger than our Igbonness and yorubaness, or Hausaness or Ijawnness and all that. Yes, God has blessed us with both a micro identity called Igbo or Yoruba or Hausa and a mega or mental identity called Nigeria. And there is no reason why we can’t enjoy the two identities anymore that, I am wearing suit now. It’s part of my heritage to wear this suit. If I want to wear Agbada it’s also part of my heritage. Or if just want to wear shorts, just put on a T-shirt, why not? So we wear our cultural identity in terms of language, in terms of folklore, in terms of history, we wear them, we enjoy them, they are important, they enrich our lives. But that enrichment will definitely be reinforced and expanded if the wider identify of our Nigerianness is allowed to be expressed. And it shouldn’t be one at the expense of the other.
I believe that in as much as our founding fathers did a great job. First to get the colonial rule thing over, I regret that their best effort; because they made a lot of efforts. Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, you go back and read many of his writings, starting from obviously what was a work of genus, “A Resurgent Africa” which he wrote in the 30s; and by the way you know he started from Ghana. Obafemi Awolowo’s many interventions. Or indeed, Ahmadu Bello too in his own way from the regional platform of Northern Nigeria. But all these efforts didn’t quite amount to a Mahatma Ghandi breathing on to India to give it a soul, to give it a spirit, to give it a reason for being that could animate the India identity, animate the Indian Zeitgeist which now Nehru took over and the rest is history.
IFN TV: Don’t you think we should blame these Nigerian leaders that you have mentioned for the current ethnic polarisation of the country?
Ojo: It’s too late to blame the three great leaders for that because as I said they did their best and maybe our circumstances in Nigeria will be different from that of India. But common, India is more diverse than Nigeria and India has also gone through its own sectarian conflicts and so on and so forth. But you know the military kept away and I think that’s the point of departure, the military kept away from interfering in the fight among the politicians or the clashes between religious groups. It meant a lot of lives went down with those conflicts; but the military kept away. And the fact that the military kept away meant that the conflict was not exacerbated. And so the politicians were able to resolve the issues by themselves.
IFN TV: Do you then rather think the military is responsible for the current challenges of the Nigeria?
Ojo:I give you an example. No matter what was wrong with Nigeria in 1965, 64- 65, especially after the election, the electoral conflicts and meltdown and the killings in Western Nigeria that followed that electoral conflicts, of course the declaration of the state of emergency and all that followed, India went through all that. But because the military did not intervene, the politicians found a resolution. Because politicians have a way of, if you want to suggest they move to the abyss, they also have a skill in walking back from the abyss because they are not suicidal, they want the game to continue somehow. So; but when the military struck in 66, ostensibly to put things right, they created a much bigger mess than what they set out to do and the Pandora box was unleashed. And the trauma of the intervention of the military was of course what led to the civil war, which created even a bigger trauma. That four years of conflict has still left us with a lot of scars, some wounds which have not yet healed. And we often underestimate what those wounds are or what those scars are on both sides of the conflict. There is need for a more honest engagement in which various groups and parties to the conflict should act less as more sinned against than sinning. There is need to realise that this is a beautiful country, it’s a great country, mistakes have been made in the past and that no single group in Nigeria has a veto power on the federation. No single group can lord it over other groups.
And so to that extent we can say a lot of prayer have been made; even through state creation. Because there is an argument as to whether many of the states are viable. But the whole idea about, say the big ethnic group of which I belong to one of them, dominating everybody else, that’s no longer the issue.
IFN TV: So what do you now think is the biggest challenge confronting Nigeria’s unity as a nation?
Ojo:The issue now is commitment to the Nigerian dream, commitment to, that the notion of people thinking that they are Igbo or Yoruba or Ijaw first before they are Nigerian, it shouldn’t be seen in that context and there should be no competition raised between my ethnicity and my Nigerianness. The bigger includes the lesser; Nigeria should not be a subject of differed loyalty or conditional loyalty. Nigeria is ok if it’s good to my tribe or ethnic group, Nigeria is ok if my man is the president…alright, what I call “ethnic presidency” which I used a strong word in those days to describe it. It just didn’t make sense to look at Nigeria in terms of the colour of the cap of the man in Aso Villa, because you will be dealing with 310 presidencies. Because if the man in the villa is only my president; or enjoys my loyalty as president because it comes from my ethnic group. God has created all ethnic group, or if we agree that God is our creator then all men and women are equal. So who said your ethnic group is bigger than my own? I mean is more important than my own? Just because of size, opportunity or whatever?
So if you get it because the ethnic group you come from, so I’m waiting for my own turn. By the time you do turn by turn, 310 ethnic groups, that’s lunacy if that is the thinking. What we should be doing is to say, whoever is the best man or best woman, while also addressing the issue of zones, the issue of participation by every group; because I see the issue of zones as a form of affirmative action thing, inclusiveness is also important. But there are talented people from every ethnic group in Nigeria, there are talented people from all the zones in Nigeria. So in short, what we need, if I may go back to the whole Greek classical notion of philosopher kings, the challenge Nigeria has is that we have so many kings who are not philosophers and so many philosophers who are not kings. I’ve been in the trench of politics for over 30 years now. And I’m sick and tired of being lectured to by armchair theoreticians as to how I should organise myself, let them come into the trench if they think what they are saying makes sense, let them go and stand for election, win or lose and stare the cause and try again. I’m not saying everybody has to be a politician. But I find the arrogance of our critic a little bit quite deservingly dismay. I listen to them, some of them think I am one of them because I also do criticise and I used to be a columnist too. But I say common, this thing is more complicated than you the commentators think.
IFN TV: Been a great pleasure talking to you Chief
Ojo: Thanks for coming Green