A former Minister of Communications and Works, who was also the governor of Kwara State in 1983, Chief Cornelius Adebayo, in this interview with SUCCESS NWOGU, addresses current national issues and regional integration among others
Why did you join the calls for the restructuring of Nigeria?
The agitation for restructuring is as old as the Nigerian federation. Before independence, there were agitations for a review of the structure we were operating against popular will, into the emerging independent Federal Government.
People wanted their natural identities to be recognised and for regions to be in accord with the will of the people.
In the Northern Region, where we belong, several provinces, made up of different nationalities are often described as tribes. There were agitations from the North-East and the North-Central, also known as Middle Belt. Some political parties were created in pursuit of this serious desire. There was, for example, the United Middle Belt Congress, which allied with the Action Group, the ruling party in the Western Region. There were also the Talaka Parapo, AG Alliance in the Ilorin Emirate and the Igbomina Parapo from my own division of Ilorin Province, agitating alongside the Talaka Parapo for the merger with the Western Region, made up mainly of Yoruba people like us.
There were similar agitations in the East and West. It was the Mid-West Region alone that was created by the Northern People’s Congress/The National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons alliance, which was in control of the Federal Government, out of the Western Region, to weaken the strength of the Action Group, the ruling party in the West. The party was the major political force behind restructuring.
The demand is easy to understand when we realise that the United Kingdom (of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) recognised the distinct nationalities that make up that United Kingdom!
This was part of the demands of the Progressive Agitators, who merged into what became the National Democratic Coalition during the regime of General Sani Abacha. So, the desire has remained unsatisfied.
Some of us went to prison and then into exile in pursuit of this crucial demand by democratic process. The administration of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan supported the 2014 National Conference and came into consensus on this and we are now demanding its implementation through constitutional process.
Is restructuring still necessary in today’s Nigeria?
Yes! It is not just necessary, it is crucial. I give you a practical experience. Somebody like me, people from my own part of Kwara State will have a problem of ever becoming the president of northern Nigeria, not just because we do not have people who are qualified, but because in the unit where we are grouped now, we are in the minority.
So, if they say they zoned the Presidency to the Middle Belt, where we belong now, nobody is going to think of a Yoruba man to be chosen. So, people will like to be where they will be recognised and be what the constitution allows them to be.
You were a prominent member of the Afenifere. What is your reaction to the division in the group?
I am very sad about it. I have been a member of Afenifere since when it was only one body. By then, there was no agitation group like Oodua People Congress. Sometime in the no distance past, we had the Agbekoyas; which is ‘farmers reject oppression’. It was one body throughout the entire Yoruba. That is what Afenifere means.
I think by then, the organisation had a magic wand. It enjoyed such enormous respect and the whole body supported and got its way because those people were well understood. The leaders in the various parts were recognised for their commitment to their people and not just to themselves.
So, the people had that goodwill. By then, it used to be one and I hope it would become one.
Do you think that Yoruba leaders should support a former Governor of Lagos State, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, as the leader of the Yoruba?
Tinubu is not just one of the leaders of Yoruba, he is the leader of the APC; President Muhammadu Buhari recognises him as such. I do not see anything wrong with that if that is the way they organise their party.
And being a Yoruba, I will not be surprised or shocked if he gets support from his own base, which he seems to have had until the coming of this government today.
In relation to the division in Afenifere, do you think the Yoruba people should support Tinubu as the leader of Yoruba?
No! I do not think like that. It is like asking in those days, ‘Do I think Yoruba people should support Pa Obafemi Awolowo? We supported him but Yorubaland has never been without an opposition. For what Tinubu has achieved and for what he has done, I would expect the people to give him respect and support. He was the leader of the party in Lagos State, which enabled the man, who was the governor then, (Mr. Babatunde Fashola) to succeed.
I do not think there should be an election for the leadership of Yoruba. I do not think there ever was. Leadership emerges, especially when you are not talking of the formal setting. Tinubu is given recognition beyond and across the Yoruba land. One of his titles is the Asiwaju of Lagos. He also has another title in Niger State given to him by one of the traditional rulers.
You seem to have withdrawn from active politics since you left office as Minister of Communications and later, Works. What informed your decision?
When I was a minister, as you have just described, I was not an active member of any political party. I was not a member of the ruling party, the PDP, or any of the opposition parties, Action Congress of Nigeria and the All Nigeria Peoples Party. I was one of the pillars in the Middle Belt. I was one of the leaders in the zone. I was the chairman of the political committee of Afenifere at that time. So, I was one of the few people that the President of the country appointed without political consideration.
But you are not in the forefront of political affairs anymore?
Since I came back from exile, what I met was different from what it was when I was in positions of appointment. I want you to put it in some academics. There was in our time shared freedom for the people to choose their party leaders. There was a democratic system of choosing leaders then in the Unity Party of Nigeria, on which I rode to the Senate. I think now, individuals are getting more powerful more than they ever got during Awolowo days. As powerful and loved as Awolowo was, he did not dictate who would be a particular candidate. He ensured that the party had a mechanism for public election of candidates whenever there was a congress. If it had not been so, I would not have held any of the positions I was privileged to hold, either as a senator or a governor.
These days, individuals are more powerful than Awolowo was – in spite of his might.
As a former governor of the old Kwara State, was your administration probed and what was the outcome?
I was governor for only three months and I lived in my personal home, where I still live today. The condition of Government House then is better not discussed. We couldn’t make its renovation our priority. So, I lived in my private house and the only government property found there after the coup was a generator, nothing else! I was out of the country on medical (dental) appointment.
Several new schools were approved by the government we succeeded without a classroom for some. Some of our primary schools in Ilorin had three ‘shifts’. Their classrooms were being shared with ‘new’ secondary schools.
We had to postpone resumption in these new secondary schools for three months. We allocated funds to ensure prompt completion and resumption on schedule.
When I returned from London, the military was surprised. I was asked to confirm that the money in my Barclays Bank Account was all I had. I was warned that I would be in serious trouble if hidden money was found. The statement of my account seemed ridiculous!
I didn’t spend one night in detention. They brought me back to my home in Ilorin and I was assured the military guards around was for my protection. Although I was occasionally called to barracks and interrogated, and once had to be taken to 2 Division Headquarters in Ibadan, but was brought back. I was generally well treated.
How will you react to the current trial of a former Kwara State Governor, Dr. Bukola Saraki, who presently is the Senate President, at the Code of Conduct Tribunal over false asset declaration?
It is a legal matter and not an individual thing. What has to be done has to be done properly and legally too. That is all!
Do you agree with former President Goodluck Jonathan that the arrested key players in his cabinet are political prisoners?
No, I don’t! I do not think anybody has been arrested who had no allegation against him. Some of them are being tried. I do not remember when some political appointees were accused of mismanaging millions and billions of naira as they are being accused now. If there is no accusation against you, nobody will come after you.
How will you then describe the anti-corruption crusade of the Buhari administration? Some people have said the anti-graft war is politically-motivated?
If you count the people who have been arrested and if there is nothing against them, they cannot be imprisoned. When you are arrested and tried and every day we hear or read in the newspapers of somebody saying he will release millions and billions of naira, what does that suggest?
But people are saying there are members of the APC, even some members of his (President) cabinet, who have been accused of corruption or mismanagement, who should be tried or at least quizzed by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission
That is not the way to look at it. If anybody has facts, let him not only give it to the EFCC, let him make it public. People are publishing what they have. Any allegation without any supporting evidence will not stand. People are arrested for what they are accused of having committed. If the allegations are untrue, the person will definitely be set free by the courts.
Among those being tried, how many of them have refused to accept that they are guilty? Are people not accepting to return huge sums of money? Are you not hearing that? Is it wrong to ensure probity and accountability? Should we not worry about the future of Nigeria and the need for public servants to render account of stewardship? If you do not call people to account for their deeds, the nation will continue to be plundered; corruption will continue and get bigger and the suffering of the ordinary man, who does not have access to the wealth of the country, will increase.
What then is your advice to President Buhari on the nation’s economy?
Many people are suffering because of spiral inflation and gross poverty in the land. Some people have even called on Buhari to change members of his economic team, who they believe may not be performing well.
Buhari is called upon to bring in fresh blood that will rejuvenate the economy. What is your opinion?
Those are sensible and healthy piece of advice. People making such suggestions are not out of place. If people do not get what they expect, they may ask for a better team. I know that people are asking for a change and the change they have seen. It is not about overlooking people in the past who stole our national wealth in our own presence and many of them have become millionaires and billionaires and now, people are accusing him (Buhari) of doing what he is doing. If some of the money the EFCC is recovering was judiciously used for the growth of the country, things will not be as they are today.
He should get wiser and bring in more knowledgeable people in areas where the current ones are not competent enough; there is always a change of cabinet in government. I do not know how many times there were changes in the years that I served. Some were moved from one ministry to the other or some people removed and thanked for their services and others were used to replace them because they were seen to have the confidence and the ability to do it. Some people even served more than two governments, yet they will be given opportunities if they have the ability to do it.
I think this government cannot be different if it is determined to move Nigeria forward; it is in its second year.
I think this government is listening! People say where there is no result, let us have somebody else. People are suffering a lot. I hope he (Buhari) is listening. I support those who say where there is no result; let us have some fresh hands to be part of the process. There are people who have vibrant ideas. Some of them should be invited and called into the government to inject their ideas.
But a leader cannot just rush things, if he changes without having better hands, then the aims would not be achieved. But he should do the necessary things.
What is your opinion about the internal crisis rocking the All Progressives Congress?
There was probably a bigger crisis in the Peoples Democratic Party. What they are doing is normal. Sometimes, it is a healthy sign that there is hope for a party if everyone wants to be in the forefront of the party so that they can benefit when the time comes. But it will not be decent if selfish desires are pursued to the detriment of the overall benefit of the party. That will not be in the interest of the party.
People have advised President Buhari no to allow any friction between him and Tinubu. According to them such a face-off might be injurious to the nation. What is your view?
We cannot avoid having differences of ideas, opinions or approach to issues or governance. In any party, any member may have his own different view. But differences within party membership are not strange. The APC is a coalition of independently existing parties, before they coalesced into one. So, it is not strange that there are differences in opinion and approach. What they (Buhari and Tinubu) should try to do now is to harmonise their positions and do what is best for Nigeria.
A Munich Court in 2007 found Siemens AG guilty of allegedly giving you, Bello Mohammed, Tajudeen Olanrewaju and Alhaji Elewi a bribe of $17m. The late President Umaru Yar’Adua ordered the prosecution of the indicted persons. Were you prosecuted then?
It is generally known that corruption was not winked at during President Olusegun Obasanjo administration. Ministers were not only removed or changed, some were even prosecuted.
My service as Minister of Communications was short but memorable.
Nigeria became the world’s fastest growing network. We were privileged to offer leadership in the region and in Africa. We were highly respected at the International Telegraph Union.
As a minister, I was not sacked but promoted. I was moved from a relatively small Ministry of Communications to a much bigger Ministry of Works. Then, every ministry and parastatal related to transportation was brought under me – Works, Transport and Aviation, Railways and Waterways! Three ministers of state reported to me.
When there was a vacancy at Ministry of Housing before an appointment was made to replace Dr. Olusegun Mimiko, I was asked to supervise the ministry.
Was that the way corrupt ministers were treated under President Obasanjo?
If an allegation was made, just an allegation, are you going to be prosecuted on the basis of that if you do not investigate the allegation? What you do first is to investigate it. The best person to talk to is the (former) Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu. He is still alive and I hope, available. He will respond whether there was an investigation and what were the agency’s findings.