Former Organising Secretary of the defunct Action Group, Chief Toye Ogunsuyi, in this interview with JUDE OWUAMANAM, talks about Nigerian politics from the First Republic
You were an active member of the Action Group in the First Republic. Looking at the polity then, was this the foundation you laid for the politics of today?
No, no, not at all. At that time, it was by conviction. We were all Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s followers and the kind of politics we played at that time, perhaps if I should use the word, was politics without bitterness. We were focused on the development of our people and development of the state. The political atmosphere was devoid of rancour. We played politics of inclusion. That was what we were doing. And again, the leadership was not a selfish one. It made sure that everybody was educated. Awo (as the late former Premier of Western Region was fondly called) said the problem of Nigeria is education and he made sure that all policies were geared towards educating Nigerians. What (Mahatma) Gandhi and (Jawaharlal) Nehru of India and others did first at their own time was to start educating everybody. At that time, people were saying that Indian education was not good.
This was what Awolowo did. He made sure that he made it compulsory that everybody must be educated. And to know what is happening in your environment, he introduced radio fusion so that everybody would know what was happening in the villages, in the farm, everywhere. By 5am, you are hearing a sound. People paid a token to listen. If you were eating in a buka (canteen), you were listening to radio; if you were in your house, in your bedroom, in your kitchen, you were listening to radio. He did all that. He would go on the air every morning, address the people, telling them the importance of education and the need to send their children to school. We became well educated. It got to a situation where in every home you go in the Western Region, you must have two or three graduates. People, who were not in school, were mocked by their peers, especially during the vacation, and that spurred the spirit of competition among the youth. All schools went on vacation at a time and it was a pride for everybody in the community to say ‘my child is in so and so grammar school’ or ‘so and so university.’ Education brought a new dimension and horizon to what Awo did in the South-West.
Again, people of those days went into politics not to look for money but for service. They wanted to do something for the nation. Now, the whole thing has turned round. Politics is now a way of making money. People go into politics without a kobo and come out with millions. That patriotism is no longer there. Love for the country is no longer there. When Awo and his contemporaries — (Nigeria’s First President in the First Republic, late) Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and (first Premier of northern Nigeria) Ahmadu Bello — were there, politics was for service. All the developments you see today were their brain child. People came from somewhere and took our palm kernel. Today, they are the number one producers of palm oil. We are now even going to them to buy the oil. So where are we?
Why didn’t the current political elite imbibe such culture, especially those who claim to be Awo, Zik (as Azikiwe was fondly called) or Saudana (as Bello was fondly called) disciples?
The political elite of today are selfish and greedy. They are not interested in the biblical injunction of taking care of your neighbours. They are too parochial in their thinking and understanding. They are not nationalistic or patriotic. During the time of Awo, it was a must for Christians and Muslims to read the Bible or the Qur’an. That was his pattern of training. How can you be a disciple of Zik or Awolowo, when these people lived a life of simplicity, and today, you, as their disciple, live in opulence? Awo was working because he was an economist and made sure he got his children educated.
Today, we have the Cocoa House as a legacy of Awo. All the things Okpara (late former Premier of the Eastern Region, Michael Okpara) did, where are they today? They are all gone. What do we have today? Everything is going backwards. No ‘forward ever’ like First Republic Minister for Trade and Communications and Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on African affairs Ozumba Mbadiwe preached. People like Awolowo left a big legacy – the Pan Africanism – which they preached during the youth movement. They have all gone. Even our youths are fighting among themselves. They have been corrupted. The last election they held in Minna (Nigeria State) was a sham. They just gathered some names and went to Minna to cause trouble. We have to pray to God. Our religious leaders have to wake up from their slumber. I think the only saving grace we will have is in the proposed national conference. Let’s see if it will be the last hope to salvage Nigeria.
In the South-West where you come from, many claim to be Awoists. They do everything in the name of Awo. Are these politicians truly Awoist?
I am still an Awoist. Everything I do and say is as Awoist. But, I must say that there are lots of counterfeit Awoists parading themselves as disciples of Awo today. The saving grace we have is that Awo’s legacy of education is paying off today. People now know their rights. You know these people claiming to be Awoists or Zikists; you know them. Are they really dancing to the tunes? Awo was preaching unity of the Yoruba. Those who are claiming to be Awoists today are they preaching the same unity of the Yoruba race. We have been talking of how to make the nation work and they are forming associations here and there. They are counterfeit Awoists. No matter how the truth is crushed, it will rise again. When the time comes, those who are Awoists will come up. They fight has just begun. The youth movement has begun. The Awoist or Zikist movement has begun and you will see that things will change. Whether we like it or not, we must go back to look at our background and think about what brought us together; whether we will still remain as Nigerians or not. The amalgamation of Nigeria in 1914 has entered into so many people’s heads but they don’t even know where this country is coming from or where it is going to. Nigeria is a nation within a nation. What brought us together has disappeared. Everybody is thinking of me and me, before others.
If Awo were to be alive today and as somebody who worked closely with him, what do you think would be his regrets about Nigeria and Nigerian politics?
If Awo were to be alive today, I am sure he will shed tears for this country. We can see that all his philosophies have been destroyed. Is it the education system? As far as I am concerned, if Awo were to be alive today, if he were opportuned to come back, he will cry.
Among the people claiming to be Awoist, is there any you can recognise as the Yoruba leader?
For the time being, we are still scouting for who can be the Yoruba leader. Those who are parading themselves now; today they are in the All Progressives Congress, tomorrow they will be in the African Democratic Congress, and so on. How can you rely on them? A rolling stone, they say, gathers no moss. All these people parading themselves as Awoists are no leaders; they are kangaroo leaders, political jingoists. They are ‘butter-and-bread’ politicians. They say ‘we are for Awo’ and the progressives gathered themselves together to form one party (the Action Group). When they have gathered money, they left AG for the United Party of Nigeria, then to the Alliance for Democracy, the Action Congress, the Action Congress of Nigeria and they are now in the APC. And very soon, you will hear that they are in another party. These are the kind of people who call themselves leaders of Yorubaland. We don’t take them seriously. We don’t seem to have a future for this country, unless we sit down and talk. In the amalgamation, we did not know what we were bargaining for but the white man knew and that is why we are saying that we should define the basis of our staying together.
If you look at the political development in the Western Region, from the AG to the APC, are you saying there is no outstanding person?
Yes they are the same people; the same leaders going up and down. We know them. I was with Awolowo all through when we formed the UPN. And now that he’s dead, those who want to make money are now running up and down. I am bold enough to say (former Lagos State Governor and APC leader) Bola Tinubu came and we said ‘alright, if you want to follow Awo’s pattern, we will follow you.’ I followed him and when I realised that these were political gimmicks, I pulled out. They left and formed the AC to the ACN. Now, they are forming alliance with (retired military Head of State, Gen. Muhammadu) Buhari and others.
Do you think that APC will represent Yoruba interest?
No, it cannot. The Yoruba in the APC are looking for leadership and these people cannot give them that leadership they are craving. They have sold their birthright. When we were in the AD, we were a force to reckon with, even here in Plateau State. I went to Lagos for one of our meetings with 23 councillors from Plateau who won under the AD. Where are they (ex-AD faithful in APC) going now? And I did ask at that meeting, ‘where are we going to.’ I remember Bisi Akande (former Osun State Governor and Interim National Chairman, APC) telling me that we are going nowhere. So, where are they going to now? Some of the councillors are in Jos today holding important offices. Where they think we are going to may be a journey to nowhere.
If you say there is no Yoruba leader now, what of people like Tinubu? Don’t you regard him as a Yoruba leader?
If we follow Yoruba tradition, Tinubu is a non-starter. He is a non-starter. For one reason; if he had gone to all the Yoruba states and sought the unity of the Yoruba, then we can begin to consider him as a leader. But, he is not thinking about that. Rather, he is betraying his own people. Do you know that a Yoruba should have been the Speaker of the House of Representatives but through these Yoruba leaders, they were sold out. The man they put there is now telling them that they are people of no value. The Yoruba are known for their meticulous way of politicking. The last time (Yoruba socio-political group) Afenifere leaders met with President Goodluck Jonathan, they did not make any noise about it. They went and had dialogue with the President on Yoruba interest. No letter was flying.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo can claim to be in the class of late South African President an anti-apartheid hero, Nelson Mandela. Why then would you not recognise him as the Yoruba leader to step into Awo’s shoes?
The problem with Obasanjo is that he is not a politician; he is a soldier. Full stop! His own is ‘there is war here let us go.’ His mannerism is quite different from people like Mandela. He wants power and, therefore, he is writing letters all about, accusing people of the same offences he committed. We know how he wanted to execute his third term agenda until Nigerians said no. They arranged a 20-million-man match just for the agenda, with millions of naira flowing, but it failed. Even his own blood is against him. You heard what Gen. T. Y. Danjuma (retd.) said about Obasanjo’s letter to Jonathan. These are the people we call leaders. He (Danjuma) spoke and (former Head of State) Gen. Yakubu Gowon (retd.) spoke. They said, as a leader, what Obasanjo should have done was to go to the President. I was reading the comments of the London Times on this issue. Nigerians need to be educated. We should not allow the antics of a few individuals to mislead us. We should know what is happening and we rely on journalists to educate us.
Are you saying Obasanjo can’t be justified in any aspect of those issues he raised in his letter to Jonathan?
Events are unfolding and people are talking; retired generals like him are talking. Let us wait and see where that singular act of his will lead us to.
What is the future of the Yoruba in the present political dispensation?
What is happening now is that the Yoruba will come out of this stronger than ever before, not minding the present divisions. The Afenifere is talking, the Obas (monarchs) are talking and eventually, the Yoruba will come out with an agenda that is not ‘fight-to-die.’ People who are in Tinubu’s group are now realising the mistake they made. They have the money to throw about but people like us don’t have money, but we have ideas. We will continue to talk and people will listen. We will have a leader, but for now, no. Were it not that people like Mrs. HID Awolowo came out and got the Yoruba Unity Forum organised, we will not be talking about holding a national conference.
What is the position of the Yoruba Unity Forum on the political development in the South-West?
The YUF is a force to reckon with now because the elites are now waking up. The Obas and chiefs are now seeing and asking why we are coming together. That is why the YUF liaises with other regions to fashion out the way forward. We are having a handshake across the Niger. We have been meeting with leaders like Edwin Clark, Chief Alex Ekwueme, retired Bishop Bolanle Gbonigi and others. The last meeting we had, few weeks ago, all the Obas from all the regions came together to say they wanted a national conference.
When you talk about national conference, the APC, with which some Yoruba politicians have an alliance, is saying no to it. How do you reconcile these differences?
The people who are rejecting the national conference will one day realise their mistake. As I said, when the truth is crushed, it will rise again. You cannot continue to fool the people all the time. So, leave them for now. In the parable of seed sowing by Jesus Christ, the seeds fell on different types of soil. We can liken the parable to what is happening in Yorubaland now. As the seed is being sown, some are falling on rocky ground, some on thorny ground and some on the fertile. Let all of them continue to grow. As times goes on, the wheat will be separated from the chaff. This is the situation. People will see the truth and that is why I say we will survive.
Looking at what is happening in Peoples Democratic Party today; do you foresee a total eclipse of ruling party in the future?
No. You know why? Those who are ganging up together with the sole aim of ‘finishing’ the PDP will fail. They will fail. It is an association of strange bedfellows. They have nothing to fall back to when their association collapses and you will see them going back to the PDP. In the PDP, they can still get their naira and kobo. We are getting wiser and wiser. Like you said, we lack leadership. A man like Mandela became a lone voice in the wilderness. Can any of these leaders be like Mandela?
People are worried about the 2015 elections because of the emerging trends. Should the President re-contest or not. Obasanjo’s letter and so on.
You also share their worries or are you optimistic that the 2015 will be like other elections?
My projection is this: Obasanjo came up with the letter because he realised that he has become a lone ranger. He has tried so many political games that did not work and I don’t think will ever work. Nothing will happen. We will overcome it. 2015 is everybody’s game. But what I know is that if the national conference holds, we must have a constitution to back it up. When they finish, it will be debated and then a plebiscite. Should we now agree that Nigeria should go this way or that way? If we now agree, we must fashion how to live (together). We cannot afford to have a divided country.
Do you think it is necessary to discuss whether we will stay together or not?
If we don’t discuss it, we are just waiting; if we discuss the issue, it is the main problem. There is no running away from it. I was reading some articles yesterday and my conclusion was that we must discuss the purpose of our coming together. If that thing is not discussed, then there is no need for a conference. We should know, for instance, why Bakassi was given out (ceded to Cameroun). Those who gave Bakassi out are still there and they know why they did that. They should come and explain to us.
You are over 70 and you’ve been active in politics. If you are to assess Nigeria’s political development, will you say we have learnt anything from the past?
The whole black race was looking at us to provide leadership because leaders like Awo, Zik and Saudana provided leadership. They did not have any ulterior motive. When they left, those who took over rendered this country hopeless. If we find any intellectual among us, these money mongers will suppress them. Look at the discrepancies in the economy. Those who want to build Nigeria are just looking and those who want to reap from the present problem are all over the place enjoying themselves. The (university) teachers were on strike for five months and some of the children of the rich were abroad and when they come back, they will come and boss us. That’s only what they want. I think we should go to the bottom; the root of our problem; the amalgamation was a mirage. We have to sit down and talk. And if we don’t, there are dangers ahead.