He has two things he could use to turn the table against his interrogators, if he was so disposed. First he is a living legend of journalism, a master of the craft, who could easily draw on his vast experience and authority as a veteran to outwit or browbeat the younger professionals engaging him.
Two, he is a politician, a breed known in Nigeria for the unedifying traits of double-speak, duplicity and being dodgy in such situations, only so to be always politically correct.
But, when Saturday Sun team of FEMI ADEOTI and YINKA OLUDAYISI FABOWALE, kept an interview appointment with former governor of Ogun State and chieftain of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) at his Ikoyi residence in Lagos, early in the week, they found the astute politician and journalist not only forthcoming, but also forthright on the wide range of questions on burning and controversial national issues, they sought his views, including some affecting the APC of which he is a national stalwart.
The ex-governor, who was just settling down to a “breakfast” of toast bread, salmon and beverage at a few minutes to 1pm, when the two journalists were ushered into his lounge, waved off the honour the visitors gave him to finish his meal first, before granting the interview. After taking a bite or two from the plate, the septuagenarian elder statesman, invited the reporters to start firing the salvos directly, apparently provoked by informal exploratory discussion on the subject of the interview, which, he himself had casually initiated by good humouredly asking his visitors: “We should ask you media people to tell us what’s going on in the country?”
The irony in the remark produced a general laughter and some interesting exchanges between the visitors and their host, prompting the latter to suggest the interview be formally commenced in earnest, as the points being raised were better captured, while still hot as a molten lava erupting from a belching volcano. The session thus began, exploring the state of the nation, the challenges facing the APC vis-a-vis its internal crisis and the new threat posed by the resurgence of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the health of President Muhammadu Buhari, effect on governance and attendant public protests with demand for his resignation, the deepening national fissure occasioned by separatist agitations, hate speeches; restructuring and controversial rejection of devolution of power to states by the National Assembly.
He also spoke on the issues of regional integration and APC’s politics in the South West, particularly in Ogun State.
The interview also included reminiscences of his active days as a reporter and how he escaped assassination as a pro-democracy activist and National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) fugitive under the brutal dictatorship of the then maximum ruler, Gen. Sani Abacha, who hounded opposition in order to consolidate and transmute into life president after the military annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, believed won by Bashorun Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola.
On all these, Chief Osoba spoke with rare candour, making no attempt to parry any of the questions from the journalists. For instance, he predicted doom for APC if it failed to ensure internal democracy in picking candidates for election in the build up to 2019. Adherence to the party’s constitutional provision on direct primaries, the APC chieftain, who was part of the drafters, warned, was particularly crucial in the case of the APC, if the “delicate marriage” of the allied parties that merged to form the party was not to disintegrate! “APC must start creating a sense of belonging at all levels”, for it to retain power, Osoba declared.
He also identified the non-implementation of the constitutional provision for a board of trustees and elders caucuses to act as check and balance mechanisms, and arbitrate in strife within the party and governmental structures and leadership, at all levels, as the cause for its continuous and embarrassing floundering.
Also, Chief Osoba blamed the public angst over President Buhari’s ill health to the poor official handling of the issue, wondering why the nature of the illness should be shrouded in mystery. Citing reaction to his own public disclosure of having undergone eye and prostate surgeries recently, he asserted that it was not only hypocritical, but naïve to expect that at 78 years-old, his body, which had been flogged in several decades of journalism practice as well as in public service and politics, would remain the same as when he was much younger.
He slammed the Senate on its rejection of power devolution to states, saying he found it incredible that some past governors in the red chamber were party to the killing of the opportunity that would have helped reduce tension and remove some of the hindrances to Nigeria’s development.
Osoba blamed the escalation of intolerance and hate campaign to failure of leadership, noting that the country could gradually be sliding into the crisis of the 1960s that led to the civil war in which millions of lives and property perished. As one of the reporters who covered the war and the killing of Igbo in the North, which preceded it, the elder statesman urged restraint and mutual engagement of one another in dialogue by the ethnic rationalities.
In a recent address to APC faithful in Ogun State, you warned the party strongly against underestimating the PDP and the Ekiti State governor, Ayodele Fayose and also stressed the need for APC to do all it could to win the forthcoming governorship elections in both Ekiti and Osun states, if it hoped to retain its sway over South-west. You have also been harping on the need for the party to uphold internal democracy, and guard against imposition of candidates. Now, what gave rise to these concerns and what effort have you made to impress these upon your colleagues in the national and south-west leadership caucuses, especially your friend, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu who’s been accused of this practice.
It would be unfair to make Asiwaju Tinubu a fall back person on this issue. Lagos is one with all its peculiarity, but, that is not to say that internal democracy should be practised at different levels. I have canvassed and will continue to canvass internal democracy, not only internal democracy, but direct primaries.
When I say direct primaries, it means that primary in which you go to the voters, the party members directly at every ward. I have been canvassing this up to the highest level of our party. And as the chairman of the constitution drafting committee, it is in our constitution. First of all, the delegates system of electing/selecting candidates is money -bound. The man who has the wherewithal to buy delegates could easily swing the election, because people now sell their votes.
I am canvassing direct primaries based on my experience. In 1989-1990 when I went into politics, leaders of the progressive in Ogun State who knew me too well, I can name them- Papa Abraham Adesanya, a junior brother to my father- in- law; Papa Sholanke Onasanya; Pa Olanihun Ajayi; Chief Ayo Adebanjo; they told me honestly and frankly that by every standard in terms of relationship with Papa Obafemi Awolowo I was qualified to contest for the governorship of the state, but that they had decided to zone it away from the Egba. I now queried if it was an offence for me to by accident be an Egba person. And against their institutions, I went out to every ward, every corner of Ogun State and because of my effort and my exposure to the ordinary people in virtually every village, by the time we did the primary, which was then open ballot system where you queue behind the picture of the candidate of your choice. I cleared the primary, I cleared the election.
And that’s why each time I won the governorship in Ogun State and at two different times; (so I’m not a two-term, but two times governor- under the military and civilian era), none of my elections were challenged, because it was direct primary. And because I have done the work at all levels, I was able to emerge and that is what I am still preaching. Bola Tinubu himself went through direct primary before he became governor of Lagos State. He and I agree on that. We have discussed it at length.
To give you another example, under military, Chukwuemeka Ezeife was not to become the governor of Anambra, it was one trader who used his money and was making the waves until the military said: ‘Ah! how would they have a federal permanent secretary contesting against a money bag in Anambra? And that was how Ezeife became governor of Anambra, again by direct primary. I am, therefore, one person who is preaching direct primary from experience. And as chairman of the constitution drafting committee of the APC it’s all in our constitution.
Secondly, the state of the APC today is delicate. We went into a marriage, unfortunately because of the health challenges of the president, we have not been able to consolidate the marriage, we are still not totally one. The PDP, if you watch their convention on Saturday in Abuja, they were showing evidence of gaining strength, they are revamping the party, we, therefore, must hand over the party back to the people, the electorate by ensuring that we do direct primaries, first in Anambra, which is the first election we are going to face, then Ekiti and Osun, to, one, show evidence of progressivism that we preach, progressiveness of political thinking, to reenergize our party, and to give hope back to the ordinary people, just as Abiola won election based on the wishes of the ordinary people.
That’s why I’m warning and advising. It is a thing I’ve been preaching among our party leaders that the only way to win an election is not by imposition. Take for example in Ogun State, the endorsement of a particular candidate is dangerous for us. For example, for years the people of Ogun West have been clamouring to have the governorship, which they have not had since the state was created over 40 years ago. To this, I agree and sympathize on moral ground, nobody in Ogun State can deny that Ogun West, (I don’t call it Yewa, they call it Yewa, Yewa is just about half of Ogun West, there are the Aworis, the Egun people, the Anago, which first of all, must find a common ground among themselves, which I have already been preaching to them) deserves a shot at the governorship. But, for them to be governor, they need to now engage this time around Ogun East people. My position is different from those who are saying ‘Yewa. Yewa. Yewa.’ I’m for the idea of Ogun West, not just Yewa, because to say Yewa, you’re already dividing the Ogun West and creating dichotomy. So, those who are criticizing me are not just analytical. For example Ogun West has five local governments, Ijebu Remo has nine local governments. Ijebu Remo is almost double Ogun West in terms of number of local governments. They have to be tactical, in first of all, negotiating intimately with the Ogun East people. The Egba are the ones that cannot under any circumstance claim the slot of governorship this time around in terms of fairness. What I’m telling the Ogun West people is that, first of all, let the Yewa engage the Aworis, the Egun, the Anago first, create unity among themselves, then, in unity, engage the Ogun East people and negotiate. They have to learn from their past experiences. For example when I went frontally in 1990, there’s no village in Ogun West that I did not tour, even though, then they were all united behind Professor Olabintan. But they made a tactical error by deciding that they would pick their deputy from Remo, which is like giving two minorities the ticket, which can never work and that was why they failed.
The second example that made them fail is this. There was Gen. Olurin, who is, perhaps, the best they have produced after Olabintan. Why? In terms of exposure, administrative knowledge, he had governed successfully Oyo and as an administrator in Ekiti. In terms of the ‘Omoluwabi’ philosophy of the Yoruba, Olurin is number one. In his approach to people, my relationship with him when he was governor of Oyo State the concept of Omoluabi is embedded in his character. He was, therefore, quite qualified as a personality, but at that time, the Yewa threw their eggs in one basket, they pinned their hope only on President Obasanjo and Governor Gbenga Daniel. Nobody ever bothered about the progressives of which I am part. They didn’t even engage us. When the youths came to demonstrate in my compound, I said they should go back to their elders. Have they canvassed or lobbied we the progressives in Ogun State? They are going the same route now, throwing all their eggs to some particular individual. And I’m telling them the whole truth, which is very bitter. I believe in Yewa getting the slot. I have been advising Yewa candidates who have been coming to see me to go to the field, sell yourself, go to the Ogun East, go to the villages, Ogun people are very open-minded and objective. If they see merit in you, they would go with you. It didn’t cost me a kobo for the Ijebus to adopt me as much as the rivalry between the Ijebu and Egbas. And although, the elites of the Ijebus where against me, the ordinary Ijebu, after I had gone around the whole place, held a meeting in Ijebu Ode, and waterside secretly, and decided to go with me. By the time the Remo realized that Ijebu had gone with me, they voluntarily, without me spending a kobo, fell in line. And that was how I was able to beat Professor Olabintan.
I am saying the same thing to the Yewa people this time around. They can’t just shout sentiment, ‘It is our turn’ (Yewa lo kan). ‘go and sell yourself to the people. Don’t depend on any individual to deliver you.’ That is my opinion of this idea of ‘Yewa’ both at my state and at national level. If we fail to practise internal democracy, we’re doomed! That was what killed PDP. There were problem in 23 states of PDP in 2015. And Jonathan did not help situation by not throwing his weight into it and be seen to be fair. Take for example, the case where they wanted to pick candidate and they went to hold their selection in Abuja for the governorship of Adamawa! That’s how PDP lost Adamawa State, and that happened in many of the states.
We must learn from the mistakes of others and of the past; I mean APC. I can tell you, when we were drafting the constitution, we weighed all the options, we looked at all the mistakes of all the parties. I have so many examples of the options we looked at, we looked at all the mistakes of all the parties, and put checks and balances in the drafting of the constitution of APC. For example, we knew that the issue of some of the individuals in PDP becoming larger than the party and larger than life was the major problem in PDP. In that constitution we now said there should be a board of trustees to be headed by a chairman. That board of trustees had all the powers to intervene, arbitrate and oversee so many issues that will affect the party. But, we knew we must not create a monster as was the case in PDP. We now said, nobody will be board of trustees chairmanship for more than two years. And that this chairmanship of the board of trustees will be rotated among the six zones. If we have done that, somebody would have been chairman, in two years, his tenure would have being over, we would have had another chairman now. That part of the constitution has not been implemented and it’s a major problem for APC.
APC has no elders, or board of trustees to which references could be made for proper interventions. That has led to the situation where you have the legislative arm being totally on its own. And the executive arm being totally on its own and which has led to each engaging itself. If we have a powerful leader or board of trustees to intervene, a lot of things would have being settled at party level. We also said that there should be party caucus at state level, made up of past governors, past deputy governors, powerful people who have the interest of the state. That has not taken place. We therefore need to go and re-invent and adapt to the constitution of the party, to ensure that we have a strong party structure that is in tune with the wishes and aspirations of the members.
Sir, it’s an open fact that Nigerians are disenchanted with the party to which they had looked up in hope, but seems to have worsened their conditions. It would seem, the party must rescue itself first, to rescue the country.
Right, we have to go back to the constitution and implement the constitution to the letter. When we were holding the merger meeting of all the parties, there was so much trust and fusion. There were over 70 of us who were members of the merger committee, and we had become such a formidable and responsible family members. But as usual, as we progressed, we usually self-destruct by: one, mistrust of each other; suspicion of each other. The first major mistake was to say, ‘Ah, those of us in the merger committee had decided to now emerge as the leaders of the National Working Committee,’ which was not true.
My own committee on the constitution, produced four ministers: Adebayo Shittu in communications, was a member of the committee; the current Attorney-general, Malami, was a member; Senator Chris Ngige was a member; Osagie, I can’t pronounced his surname Eghara was a member; the current chairman of the party, John Odie-Oyegun was a member. Judge the quality of those in the committee by exposure, character .. former Ekiti governor, Niyi Adebayo was a member; same for Bafawara of Sokoto. Would you say that, that committee was not powerful enough? In the case of manifesto committee, Audu Ogbeh, the current Minister of Agriculture was a member. Like the constitution drafting committee, it was loaded with heavyweight Nigerians. The merger committee itself had people like former petroleum minister, Professor Tam David West. it was loaded with past governors, past national chairmen of parties- Tom Ikimi, Audu Ogbeh.
First of all, the mood with which we went into the assignment and merger was dampened along the line. The result now is that we must first of all go back to the constitution of the party, and do things according to what the constitution says. Another mistake was, along the line, the party was handed over to the governors. I have no objection to governors being leaders of the party. But any governor, who says that ‘I am the alpha and omega,’ should know that he has a tenure. When he comes to the end of his own tenure, another governor would become leader and he too would become ex-this, ex-that. Nothing wrong with that; governors say ‘we are the ones that would be financing the party,’ so, sure, they must have a say. But then, the check on the arbitrariness of a governor in terms of state caucus did not happen. Just like the board of trustees at the national level, or what you would call elders committee that would be advising the president. This country is too big for a few individuals to be Solomon and all -knowing. The president needs it. I’m 78 years, there’s no president in this country that I cannot face and tell him some home truth. Who is that president that I’ve not known when we were all young, to think that in my old age, at 78… what do I want from a president? Do I want an oil bloc? I don’t pray to have an aircraft anymore at this age. The clothes that I will wear till I die, I have more than enough to wear. You saw me having breakfast, just ordinary smooth salmon and toast, with a cup of coffee. That’s all I have for breakfast. My stomach has shrunk to a level that I can’t take too much in, so what else do I need? I should be able to sit down as a member of the national committee, or caucus or board of trustees with the president and say some home truths to the president for the interest of the country.
We are where we are now because many of the levels of checks and balances that we should have put in place are not there. That has led to a situation where a man like Atiku would be openly criticizing the party. It is not healthy for the party. We get to a point where we are arguing about true federalism within the party, it is not healthy. We get to the point where the Senate and the Presidency are arguing between themselves, because the clearing house of party meetings, party caucus, where policies and manifestoes are debated are not happening.
In view of APC’s apparent failure to take the country out of the woods as it promised during campaign, are Nigerians not justified in demonstrating their disappointment, frustration and anger as we have witnessed through public protests in recent times ?
No, you have to weigh the feelings of Nigerians with the situation that we faced, which was not our creation. Nigeria as a country was at the point of total collapse the time APC government came in. The unfortunate thing, I must be honest with myself, is the health challenges the president faced was one of the major factors that tended to have created the problem, and we must admit it, that has affected us. But the president is human, he like everyone does not have a perfect health. Even, my own health has not been perfect; because I went to Abeokuta last week and I announced that I’ve just had a major prostrate operation and I heard people saying ‘Ah! Why should I say it?’ I now asked what was wrong with a 78- year old man having health challenges. And to drive the point home to the ordinary people, I told them that I’ve had my engine re-boiled. The crankshaft has been changed, the piston has been changed, the oil is renewed. And I told them that, what I mean by that, is that I did two operations separately on my two eyes, for cataract, and the result is that, now I don’t use glasses anymore.
So, what is wrong in admitting health challenges? What is wrong in telling the world? Can a car you’ve been using for 20 years be the same as a new car? A body that I have been flogging; I flogged it for journalism, I flogged it for politics, I flogged it for governance. Would the body be the same? It can never be the same. I am even lucky, mine is limited. So, I must say that we’re humans and in the process, errors and mistakes are made and what is left is finding a way of correcting the errors and mistakes we’ve made in the past.
You don’t see this affecting the party’s chances in 2019?
With the PDP and the judgment given by the Supreme Court, we now have a vibrant and serious opposition. That is why we must quickly reunite, we must immediately start in creating a sense of belonging at all levels, from the zone now to the ward, local government, to state constituency to federal constituency to senatorial district to federal level. There’s no hiding. The field is not as free as it used to be for us. The president came in with determination to tackle corruption, we must now extend the corruption beyond just money laundering, looting. Corruption is everywhere, election is corrupted, and I thank the Senate, they passed a draft amendment to the electoral law that has now empowered INEC to go digital, which is very important, because if you look at the judgment given by the Supreme Court in the case of Rivers and Akwa Ibom, ah, I was shocked. Supreme Court said because electronic voting is not entrenched in our electoral law, you can’t rely on that as evidence and gave judgment, based on that legal technicality. The Senate has now entrenched independent candidacy. The choice is now going to be clear in 2019. And as I said it would be tough. If a party messes up, a person who is popular would go and do it independently and win elections. And any party that does not do internal democracy is doomed; not just APC. PDP had suffered it. We must learn from it and not go through the same route.