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By NBF News

Although Chief John Odigie Oyegun is not in the news regularly, he is one of Nigeria's respected politicians. He was the governor of Edo State and a principled politician.

Oyegun worked with Nigeria's finest technocrats in the civil service, where he rose to the position of Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Economic and Planning. At the civil service, he learnt everything about governance. And when he became governor, he knew what to do to better the lot of the people.

In this interview, Oyegun told his story, as he has never done before. He talked about his growing up, career, family, love life and others.

Nigerians seem to know more about your political life than other things. Could you tell us about your childhood and upbringing?

I had a wonderful upbringing, with a strict and educated father, even though his formal education was Standard Six. But in truth and honesty, there are a few human beings I have come across that were as exposed and learned as my father. With his Standard Six, he ended up being the Deputy Chief Registrar of the High Court of Western Nigeria. Though he wasn't a lawyer, he did well in that position. And of course, he attended courses abroad. He was the founding registrar of Edo State. He was so experienced that lawyers consulted him. As for my mother, she was meek, humble and gentle, but largely illiterate.

We grew up in a relatively happy polygamous home that valued education. Since we were so many, there was bias towards the male children, in terms of education. When the female children finished their secondary education, they were either sent to train as teachers or learn a trade. My father always insisted that they must go for a profession. However, a lot of them are graduates today because they were also ambitious. We all got on well and still very close today, even though we are from different mothers.

What were your school days like?
I attended Sacred Heart Catholic School in Warri, Holy Cross in Benin City, St. Patrick in Asaba, where I went for Standard Five. At the time, they said some of us should try the entrance examinations. We tried and only three of us passed and were allowed to go to Standard Five. If I had not finished my secondary school, I would not have had Standard Six certificates. Then it would have been a serious trouble. But thank God, we are where we are today. For my university, I went to Ibadan, where I was admitted to read History after my A'levels from the Nigerian College of Art, Science and Technology. That was in 1960. I attended the classes twice or so and got bored because, if I may put it this way, I was naturally a historian. At that age then, I had read everything available because I was a voracious reader.

Even before I entered secondary school, I had read a lot of history and epic books, especially those ones that talked about Trojan wars and others. So, by the time I got to my history class, it sounded as if I had not moved any step further. I had to move from faculty to faculty looking for something else I could do. I finally sat with Prof. Barback, who was in charge of the new Social Sciences Faculty. I asked him if I could change to read Economics. He looked at me through the rim of his glasses and demanded to know who I was. After I had introduced myself, he asked to see my results, to know whether I could cope. He checked both my O and A'levels and said, 'I think you can cope.' That was it and I ended up reading economics. Since I was on scholarship to read history, I had to write the Federal Government to transfer it, which they did. I eventually graduated in 1963 and joined the civil service.

In talking about your childhood, you talked about your parents. Could you tell us what your growing up was like?

It was very adventurous, like any other child. I had a lot of nice experiences. Those were the good old days because my father was a civil servant in Western Nigeria. The popular Urhokpota Hall at King Square in Benin City was the place the white men used to organise dances. My father would ride his bicycle there and asked one of us to watch over his bicycle. Then they had started stealing bicycles. So, we would go and stand there and be watching over his bicycle. But of course, most of the time, we would stay by the window watching what was going on inside the dance hall. Anytime we heard footsteps, we would rush back to take our positions. Such was the experience.

In school, growing up was a different ball game. We used to do nine subjects and I was very bad in Maths and Latin. Algebra was bad news for me then. Though I was small in size, I was not actually the problem. I think it was more of the teachers. They were intimidating, in terms of their presence. The Latin teacher would stand right in front of you and ask questions. God helps you if you get it wrong. You would get a punch in your stomach. There was no room for you to think of any answer. So, my conclusion was always that I am going to be punched. With this lack of concentration, coupled with their method of teaching, I ended up doing badly in Maths and Latin.

Moving from class three to four, you have to drop two subjects. So, I decided, on my own, to study these two subjects well and make sure I passed them. And I did. We were about 90 in class and I used to fluctuate between 30th and 40th position. What happened is that if any mark you get is less than 30, they don't add it to your total. So, instead of nine subjects that others had, you would be dealing with seven.

And for the first time I had decided to concentrate on those two subjects, I passed very well and it catapulted me to third position out of 90 students. I got home that day and met my uncle staying with my father. His usual question was: 'Did you pass?' And I said yes. 'What is your position?' And I said third out of 90. With joy, he stormed into his room, came out and gave me one British pound. At that time, I had never handled a British pound before. This was in the 50s. For me, it was a whole lot of experience. They knew I would pass, but it was the first time they considered it abnormal for me to have done so well. That singular act of kindness left an imprint in me that was permanent. It was then I knew that it was good to excel and be on top. From that time, I never looked back.

What pranks did you play as a child?
I don't think I really got involved in pranks. But the only thing is that many fathers do not want their children to play football or get out of the house without their knowledge. And of course, it is boring for a little boy to be alone all the time. We went out to do all manner of things and then got thoroughly trashed. The only thing I could say I really got involved in had to do with religion and those were not pranks. I got seriously religious at a very tender age. My father was not Catholic, but I was, probably, because of my education. I took it so seriously then that I had to go on a retreat. For three days you would be away from home with your mat. Your mother would manage to smuggle out food for you without telling the whole family. Stubbornly at that age, I would carry my mat and disappear, knowing what would be waiting for me when I finally showed up. It was always severed because my father was strict. However, whatever he did never really stopped me. I didn't think one needed to be flogged as much as one was. But there was only once in my life I thought I deserved to be flogged and didn't hold anything against him for that. I think it was just sheer stupidity.

He sent me to the post office to buy stamps and told me the denomination I should buy. I got there and met the postmaster but couldn't get the denomination he asked me to buy. So, the postmaster suggested that I should get the one of one shilling, which was not what I was sent to get. Though it occurred to me that my father wanted to use them for different letters, I was already on my way home. When he saw it, he was livid and I had enough of his anger. Later, I started asking myself how I could have converted five stamps of two pence each into one shilling. I knew I actually deserved the beating.

How did you start your working career?
I finished my secondary school when we were still based in Ibadan. And my father promised to look for a job for me there. But I said no, that I was going to Lagos. After a long thought, he agreed and gave me a note to his friend at Obalende in Lagos. I presented myself to the man but he said there was no room for me. I was immediately faced with a crisis of where to sleep. After wandering around for a very long time, I finally traced an old friend who was staying at Igbosere. Though there was no room available, he allowed me to be sleeping in his sitting room. After several applications here and there, I finally ended up in customs as a manifest clerk. They would bring all kinds of piece of papers, entries from the port and I would be transferring figures. I have never seen such a work in my entire life. The money they were paying was hardly adequate to do anything, but with the very first salary I got, I got a room at Ibidun Street in Surulere. It was in the 50s and Aguda was not in existence then. Thereafter, I bought a mat, which was my bed.

My salary then was about 12 pounds 10. I later bought a stove but the problem was that I didn't know how to cook because we were having a lot of women at home. But I had to give it a trial and cook my favourite ogbono soup. You buy meat and boil it properly. And by the time you put a bit of pepper, tomatoes, a bit of onions and turn it around, you have something you can call soup. Though you are not sure of the consistency, what matter is that you are satisfied and can take you to bed. If you also feel like eating rice, you would use the same soup. At that time, the problem with rice is that you have to pick the stones from it before boiling it severally. And because it was more complicated, I didn't touch rice often. I only concentrated on eba and yam. When you become bored with them, you have to go to buka and eat rice.

After a while, I bought a bed and mattress and life was going on gradually. But later, my uncle said 'no, no, you have to do something technical.' He was working at PMT, now Nitel Training School, Oshodi. I sat for the entrance and passed and I was allocated to the radio transmission. All the time I kept on laughing because I knew this wasn't me and it wasn't my line. I wasn't a technical person. In fact, the first trial came whereby we had to sharpen our pencil with a razor blade. After sharpening my lead pencil, the white men always asked me to repeat it, that it was not good enough. It was not once, twice or three times and I said 'ah, if I can't even get through sharpening a led pencil, how am I going to get through this training. And again, they brought all their complicated measuring equipment for us. I looked up and I said this is not possible.

So, I applied for Nigerian College of Art Science and Technology, where Obafemi Awolowo University is sited. After the entrance, I was admitted. But my father was very upset because he felt that I had left a free course that would have led me to an intermediate manpower and headed for a senior service that has a bright future. He was right, but I was not a technical person. When I told him about my admission, he said I should go there and prove my utmost sense of responsibility. Then I took my stove, radio and some other things and sold them. I was able to make enough money to pay for my first term at the Nigerian College. That now convinced my father that I was serious. Thereafter, he became supportive and even wanted me to go to the University of Hull to read Law because he wanted somebody to inherit his wig. I had a cousin in Hull, Justice Aliu, now retired, who sent me the form and I applied. As the process of admission was going on, I got a federal scholarship to University of Ibadan. At the end of the day, he allowed me to go to Ibadan because the temptation was too much. He didn't have to pay fees and all that. In fact, it was a great time.

When I looked at what is going on today, I feel bad. At the Nigerian College, I was having a full room to myself. We had tea time. Your clothes were watched by the school authorities and all that. The same thing also happened at Ibadan, whereby you would go to the bursary and get your allowances. You would buy radio, the latest records and the rest of them. Life was so interesting. God helps them if they serve you bad food. So, when I see what is happening today, I feel terribly bad. I know we can't return to such life again because the country cannot afford it. But things can be made better instead of rallies they have as classes today.

At what time did you become the permanent secretary?

It was when these people were still in charge. When I was newly appointed and was to attend the monthly meeting with them, there was a real trepidation. When you are sitting with people who virtually employed you and on equal terms, there is no greater lesson in life about humility. To me, that was the ultimate blessing. Here were the people who raised me and now I was sitting with them on equal terms. It was intimidating, partially terrifying and humbly experience. It taught me also, outside what my uncle did, a lot of lessons about life, that you should never look down on anybody. You have to stretch a helping hand to those who deserve it and when they don't, try and make corrections.

How would you describe your experience as governor of Edo State?

It was an important landmark, but if I had to mention the turning point in my life; it was the one pound my uncle gave me when I was in class three. It was a remarkable event I can never forget. Being governor was a triumph of planning over jingoism basically. It was a great victory that even my best of friends said they didn't think I could make it. That was based on the fact that I had lived most of my life outside Benin City. I was born in Warri and started my primary school there. When I came to Benin, I only had two years of my primary school there. Thereafter, we were transferred to Asaba and then Ibadan, after which I went to Lagos. I spent the rest of my 19 years in the Federal Civil Service. I retired very early in life due to circumstances. After that, I came back home and two years later I was governor of the state, which was a great achievement.

My opponents, of course, were resident in Benin and they were part of the local power structure, as it related to the influence that pervaded every aspect of the society. I entered into the race and examined the geography and ethnography of Edo State. I knew what they wanted because I visited every single ward in the old Bendel, Edo and Delta. And when it became Edo State, with the split, I repeated the same thing. Of course, I didn't have the kind of money to be buying rice, groundnut oil and all that. But it was more important for me to empathise with the people to make them feel you are one of them and accept you as somebody they can trust. So, that basically was what had swung the election to my favour. And it was the most popular victory. It was even wider than the actual margin in number, because there was a lot of faking of figures. I noticed these and I remember telling Anenih that I was not going to accept it. He looked at me and said, you mean you want to petition against yourself.

He said I had won and should forget about the falsification. We had a very good laugh because it was such a clear simple case.

The reality of the matter is that I enjoyed the campaigning more than the actual period I spent in governance. There was really nothing like sitting with the people, listening and observing them in their own environment. That is if you have that genuine feeling to improve their lots. It would affect you, just like the experience I had when the state was still Bendel. I think it happened at Chief Clark's village, Kiagbodo. Then we had to go by boat, unlike now that you can drive there. It was a place I had never been to in my life. They have this tradition of wedging kola. They presented to us and we did the same thing. It was quite a large number. What touched me most was one lady, fairly advanced, who was approaching the bowl of kola nut to make her support. She had round her waist what women keep their money. It was so dramatic. She untied it and brought out about N10 or so. She said, 'this is my contribution because I like you and what you are doing.' I almost had tears in my eyes. That was somebody who had never met me before and never met me again.

But she felt touched to part with such hard-earned money. The people were so generous that at the end of the campaign, I had more money than I took around. We all went home and ate pounded yam, even though it was midnight. Again, God was on my side because of our great experience that day. At midnight, we were in the open sea coming from a town on our way home and our boat suddenly missed the convoy of boats for our campaign. The engine was humming and we couldn't hear anything. As if something had spoken to me, I suddenly told the driver to hold on and put off the engine. To our surprise, we didn't hear the other boats. We had to turn back and started shouting and hailing. The biggest problem was that our boat was not even having a single light. But luckily, somebody heard us. With the effort to speed up and join them, we hit a branch. I didn't know I was injured until we got to Warri. We still went to Benin that night. So, the providence of God was so clear. Only He knows where we would have headed that night. When I eventually became governor, it was just like an anti climax.

What was your major achievement in power?
We did quite a lot of physical things. But for me, it was education and the tentative steps we had taken to liberalise the health service and make it freely available. When the people elect you to manage their common affair, the first thing you must do is to seek the shortest way to reach every family. And for me, education was that avenue. Once education is free, access is liberalised. From my inaugural address, education was made free. The problem is that a lot of people do not do the arithmetic before they say it is impossible. The period I was governor-elect, I had access to the civil service of the state. In my transition office, I called the relevant permanent secretaries and the vice chancellor of the university. I asked them to give me what the students pay as fees in school, excluding accommodation. At the end I was able to figure it out that free education was possible, which I believed the state deserved. And it worked out.

With the emphasis on education, I made it clear to the civil service personnel that I would not release funds for salaries until the teachers had been paid. So, the very first warrant I signed every month had to do with teachers' salary. What I kept hearing before was that the money was being delayed and people were putting it in bank to make profit. I made it clear that if anybody delayed teachers' salary, the person won't get his or her own until they were paid. With this, things got on very well.

In the health sector, we also tried by abolishing consultation fees in the hospitals. The conclusion was that every sick Edo person must see a doctor. That gave the people hope. Even if you couldn't afford the prescription or the follow-up treatment you must know what was wrong with you. So, for a doctor to say you had to pay for this and that was virtually wiped out. Again, we also went into other areas of development by embarking on the completion of some of the abandoned projects. The state House of Assembly, which was burnt was completed, the Oba Market, the Cultural Centre and others. We also took a decision on the new stadium, which was to be on Auchi Road. At the time I came in, it was supposed to be sited at Etete, Sapele Road. I thought that was wrong. You don't expect the people who live in other parts to virtually go through the city before going to the stadium. That was how we decided that it should be sited where the people are.

How did you cope with the popularity associated with the office of governor?

One thing in my life I have never done is to change my lifestyle because of my position I happened to be in. I had been a very powerful permanent secretary, but I didn't let it get into my head. Even in that position, there were lessons to be learnt. I learnt a lot about that aspect of the society. It taught me that a friend you have at any stage in your life, quite a sizable proportion are your friends because of what you are at that material time. As a permanent secretary, I moved from one ministry to another and one of the things I noticed was that friendship changed as you moved from ministry to ministry. The card you get at Christmas also changed. So, it dawned on me that things about life are ephemeral because one day, you would leave that office. So, when I became a governor, it did not mean anything to me. I used to drive myself in and around Benin as a governor. And when I stopped being governor, I didn't want the trappings of police escort and all that. I knew I was important but I don't need to throw it at anybody. That was how I ruled out the idea of going about with multitude of people. So, popularity or stardom was never an issue.

What are your regrets about your aborted tenure?
I have heard people said that they don't have regrets but how I wished mine was the same. I was quite upset not because I had ceased to be governor but for the abortion of what I had expected to do for the people. To make matter worst, it was truncated in an unjust circumstance. It was a development I did not like at all. It finally convinced me that the military had been a major part of the Nigerian problem. That of course, informed my active participation in the NADECO struggle. When we started it at Gen. Adeyinka Adebayo's house in Ikeja, it was purely for the military to quit. We had not known then what the attitude of Abiola would be. So, June 12 was not initially tied to it. Later, Abiola came around and said he accepted what we were doing and would want to be a part of the process of ejecting the military from ever intervening again in the Nigerian politics. That was how June 12 became part of the struggle and Abiola became the arrow head.

So, how has life been afterwards?
I think I am one of the most contented human beings. I am grateful to God. Life has been kind to me. Though there have been some difficulties, at every stage God provides an answer. In many aspects of my life, I had gone through trying times. And without really lifting a finger, the answer came. I can only be grateful to God.

Have you ever had close shave with death?
Of course, I have had quite a few accidents from which I miraculously came out. I had skidded on the road. If anything was close to a miracle, it was. The car skidded off and went through the gate of a building on the side of the road. It went through the gate and reversed, facing the road. It was very close to the wall of the building. I came out unhurt. The other one that happened was when I was travelling from Ibadan to Lagos. Then one was a lot younger, so I was really harsh on the pedal. The car sped off the road and landed into the bush. Luckily, it missed every single tree. When I had overcome the shock, I started the car again. After struggling inside the bush, the car made its way to the road again and I faced Lagos. I was shaking all over and I didn't even realise that I shouldn't have been driving. I didn't also realise that I was dragging a lot of vegetation all the way to Lagos. When I finally got into my compound and parked the car, I was all nerves. It was when I came out of the car that I saw the vegetation on my car.

The only one I didn't really make noise about was the one that happened in the run-up to the governorship election. It was a clear act of God that saved me. I am sure they were political thugs because they were masked. They followed me as I was going to visit the party chairman. And the road was a dead end. His house was about the third to the last. So, as I turned to the road, I noticed this car following me. Since I was free-minded, I continued. What would have happened then was that I would have turned to enter the man's house and while waiting for them to open the gate, they would have struck. So, with a great speed, they overtook me. Immediately, I told my driver to stop that there was trouble. The four doors of the car burst open and all the stalwarts came out with guns. I told my driver to put the car in reverse and that if he moved, he must not stop even if he had to kill somebody. We allowed them to move some yards away from their vehicle before telling my driver to hit reverse. At that moment, they started firing. Before they could run back to their car and come after us, we were able to turn and speed off. At that time, campaign was still on. If I had gone to the police and made noise about it, they would say he just wanted sympathy. So, I just quietly knelt down and thank God. It was the closest I have ever had.

Tell us about your family.
Well, God has blessed me abundantly with good and intelligent children. You know in Africa, we don't count children. Virtually everyone is a graduate now. I think I have only one who would be graduating next year. My eldest son is well over 40 and he is based in the US. Others are in different countries. I just thank God for their lives.

How did you meet your wife?
We were in the same ministry in Lagos. Remember, I told you about my redeployment to the Ministry of Planning. I did not only meet the very best hands in the country there, I also met my wife. Somehow one thing led to another. We were nice free young men then and wanted to paint the whole place red. But suddenly, you would run into a lady who is different. And your career as freelancing young man is abruptly terminated. It was very wonderful.

What attracted you to her?
She is beautiful, humble and respectable. You know there are some people who command respect and when you look at them, you would say yes, this is not one of those frivolous and enjoy-yourself type of girls in the society. Even though I set out to enjoy my life as much as I can but when you hit gold, you would want to keep it. So, when I met her, my career as a freelancer didn't go any further.

What could possibly weigh you down and make you cry?

Suffering and betrayal. I can't bear people suffering. When I see people suffering and I am unable to do something about it or feel that the society ought to have been able to do something about it, then it affects me very negatively. On a personal basis, I hate betrayal. Don't give me your word unless you mean it. And don't stab me in the back. Some of the people that have injured me most are the people who have been closest to me. For me, betrayal is one of the things that depressed me. But when it happened, you look at it and say that is life. And you move on.

What is your philosophy of life?
Be yourself. Don't try to be what you are not. Do the things that bring you happiness. And spread happiness as much as you can. I hate dull environment and sadness. If I am in a group, I am happier when everybody is laughing. That is why I joke a lot. Basically, do good things of life.