He is a straight shooter, and minces no words when expressing his views. A first class graduate in Industrial Chemistry, he is brilliant, articulate, and passionate to a point of being misunderstood. For this, many say he is “arrogant” and “pompous”. But his standard response is: “I don’t suffer fools gladly.” Love him, hate him, you can hardly fault his point.
Mr. Festus Odimegwu, former Managing Director/CEO Nigerian Breweries and former Chairman, National Population Commission (NPC), hardly talks to the press, but in this explosive interview, he addresses a wide range of issues such as his retirement from Nigerian Breweries, recent resignation as chairman of NPC, politics, corruption, insecurity, ethnicity, religion and the general state of the nation. Shaka Momodu interviewed him in his palatial residence recently
With the social political situation in the country and elections around the corner, where do you think politicians are taking the country?
Well, I am not a politician and I may not know where the politicians are intending to take this country. But what I know as a Nigerian and a man of over 60 years is that things have gotten worse in my country and the economy has gotten worse. In the past, you had people within the economic space that really added value; before you could say that this man is a rich man. Before in Nigeria, if you saw someone like Sir Odimegwu Ojukwu and they saw that he was a rich man with his Rolls Royce, everyone knew that he was a serious businessman and everyone knew the source of his wealth.
If you went further to check, you would see that he was paying his taxes. When you hear that Odutola was a rich man, all his neighbours knew what he was doing to be termed a rich man. The same went for others like Dantata and so on and so forth. But today, you have charlatans and rent seekers parading the landscape. People who in sane countries should be in prison are the ones mostly parading themselves as rich men. You have somebody today that nobody knows anything about and suddenly, tomorrow he is rich man with ten private jets and everybody will be applauding him. The churches will tell him to pay tithes and use Holy Ghost to bless him. If he is a Muslim they will pray for him ten times a day. The government of the day hobnobs with them. That is why you see corruption has reached an unprecedented level in the history of our country. That is why we have so many young people coming out of university to find that there are no jobs. In the first place, there are so many children that are not even in school. When you have so many illiterates as we do in Nigeria, how can you expect democracy to thrive in a country of so many illiterates? Democracy is about choices and if people don’t go to school they will not be well equipped to make the right choices and their leaders will lead them by the nose to vote by tribalism and religious affiliation, which have nothing to do with democracy and good governance.
The question now is Nigeria really ripe for democracy? Forget the rebasing thing that was done. Economically, things have gotten worse. Many Nigerians will tell you that their lives have not been rebased. If you go to South Africa and then you come to Nigeria, you will know that South Africa is a first world country and Nigeria is a third world country. We have statistical potential but we cannot feel it because of corruption. Politically, when you look around there are many signs that Nigeria is not ripe for democracy. It may not be a nice thing to say, but the signs are there.
People are not able to vote according to their conscience. Some people don’t even have a conscience anymore because they are not educated. The whole idea in the Republic of Plato is that for you to practice the government of the people, for the people and by the people; the people should be educated. Most people should be educated, so they can make good choices. When you look around Nigeria do you see educated people? Most people in Nigeria, even the ones who say they have gone to university, are not as educated compared to when I went to school.
There are people who are supposed to be writers and they can’t even speak English. So it is very difficult to say that Nigeria is ripe for democracy because what we are practicing is certainly not democracy. Look around the world in Egypt where the military have come back, Nigeria should be heading towards that way instead of this caricature these politicians are conducting. It may not be a nice thing to say, but we have to decide what is good for us. What will give Nigerians good living standards and stop the corruption in this country? Is it this mess we are practicing? Someone will come out and say he is going to make the country ungovernable and he actually proceeds to make the country ungovernable by violence everywhere. Then you have the people in government who know the people that are making the country ungovernable and they are not doing anything to them. You have leaders who swear an oath of office and once they enter the office are no longer interested in the oath. Everybody is only interested in their own selfish ends, to steal money thinking money is the ultimate measure of a man but when they get money they will see that they have murdered sleep because when you get money the wrong way, you would have murdered sleep. Some people will go into office hoping to get a second term without doing anything. Socio-politically the country is in a mess.
If you compare Nigeria now to the 60s and 70s, I think Nigeria was better off then. It is very shameful, because if you look at the amount of money that has been made from crude oil and there is still no impact on the country, it is very shameful. We don’t have basic security. We will send our children to school and some people will go and carry them from there. Then you will see some lunatics on television saying to the whole world that they will sell our children. Is this really happening in the 21st century? They are doing this in the name of religion and the people who practice that religion are not calling them to order. In this country, we allow many people to be above the law and that is why this country is the way it is. Nobody should be above the law, even the president should not be above the law. We have serious issues of leadership and we have serious issues of corruption consequently. Many people in the public space are not qualified to be there because many of them are criminals and I mean real and known criminals.
But is it that people who are qualified for office don’t come out to contest?
No, no, no, you can’t say that. I came out to contest. Soludo came out to contest in Anambra State and a lot more good people have come out to contest in some other states. So that is not true. But the corrupt people in the system will sabotage those good ones. In the PDP primary elections part of the conditions for contesting for primaries is that you cannot be a criminal but PDP as a party clears criminals to go through the primaries and they go ahead to win elections. Some of us went to PDP headquarters to address this issue and they told us to bring the evidence as if they are not Nigerians. The evidence is in the courts, the evidence is with the security services where they then sit on the information. The party will then tell you we know all that, but we need it officially. How can you bring it officially when someone is sitting on the files? So good people usually come out but they are sabotaged. Professor Charles Soludo, a First Class Economist of international repute went to APGA and they said APGA didn’t clear him. Who is APGA not to clear Professor Soludo? If APGA clears Soludo they are only doing themselves a favour. If they don’t clear him, then it means APGA is nothing because Soludo is Soludo, like Eze Festus Odimegwu is Eze Festus Odimegwu. You can say he has come again saying this and that but we are saying it because we know who we are. A lot of good people came out but were not given the chance to run. The truth and the beauty of all this is that as long as people like us do not come to contribute our integrity and expertise in the public space, it will continue to decay. When I went to Abuja, I went to serve our nation to make sure we have progress as a nation because I am qualified to serve and I can do without a salary. When you see my house, would you say I am a hungry man? I have been living in Ikoyi since 1982. I went to Abuja, I went whole heartedly to help, but what now happened? The public space is filled with people who take rubbish and are rubbish and continue to live in rubbish. Nothing good can come out of such people and that is why this country keeps moving backwards. Unless something happens to give good people the opportunity to help Nigeria, this country will disappear. It is not about me. Having worked with Nigerian Breweries alone, I can live well till I die. So it is not about me. It is that what is happening around us is very painful. Everybody likes to make fun of me that ‘I think I am intelligent.’ But I am intelligent! People should not trample on intelligence and make a mockery of it because we have fools in the public space. Unless you have people like me in leadership positions and in public space, Nigeria will not go anywhere, it will continue to degrade and all of us will continue to suffer for it.
Let’s even look at the press or the media how many of you people are serious? You can do your analysis. There is this (Akin) Osuntokun that I know is very brilliant. How many people that write in public space are like that? Look at when Soludo was writing, El-Rufai the same thing. But these are serious minded people. El-Rufai is brilliant even if I don’t agree with everything he says because he has his political side. But 80 per cent of the time he is a serious guy. People should listen to such people whether they are in government or not. After settling in Abuja, I went to the US to bring business to Nigeria, then I heard of the Nyanya bomb killings, I ran away. I rerouted my flight from London to Abuja, to Lagos and I came here. Since then, I have not gone to Abuja and I may not go again, because I don’t want to go where I am having a normal conversation somewhere and one lunatic will now go and throw a bomb there and kill me. Why should I be in such an environment? Many of the people who have accepted to lead don’t know what leadership is all about. Many of them go there and surround themselves with fools. If you do not know what you are doing but you have men and women of substance that can look at issues critically and deal with issues the way they should be dealt with for the benefit of the country, then Nigeria would move forward. But we have people who have turned the word “political” into something ridiculous. Every nonsense now is termed “politics”. Roosevelt was a politician, did he do stupid things? President Obama is focused and doing what is good for America, he is creating jobs for Americans because he is a brilliant man. In Iran, they just executed a billionaire. There are many billionaires in Nigeria that should be executed. I don’t subscribe to Sharia law because I am not a Muslim. But I like that aspect of Sharia Law, like many people have said online. In Russia, Putin came and put the so-called richest man in prison because no one is above the law in sane countries. In Italy, Berlusconi, the former prime minister was taken to court and sentenced. Nigeria should learn from these things. It is not nice to say things like this, it is difficult for me to say these things but they are necessary. If people like us don’t say these things then who the hell will say it? I keep saying that it is not about me. I have three children, they have all graduated and they all live in America, it is only me here. So anything that happens, I will cross Seme border and I will fly out. It is not about me or my family. But we should not have a country like this with all the resources God has given us: excellent weather, fertile land, we have practically everything perfect for us except useless leaders.
So where do we go from here?
Nigerians should first demand responsibility from their leaders. We should confront the people that want to make the issue of leadership about religion, ethnicity and all other mundane causes. We should confront them because the man suffering in the Maiduguri with all the nonsense going on there, is the same as the man in South-east suffering from kidnappings and all other rubbish and he is the same as the “Alaye” who doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from. The destinies of all poor people are the same regardless of tribe or religion. It is the same as corruption which does not know tribe or religion when there is nothing working in Nigeria. Then you see what the National Assembly legislators are offering themselves as salaries and they don’t even want people to know about it. A senator once asked me to come and talk to his committee and I asked him if he was sure he could take what I would say, and he said okay. I developed a paper about how we can make 80 per cent of federal budget by design for capital expenditure and 20 per cent recurrent. Then I was chairman of the National Population Commission, and I mentioned that people in such position as mine should not be paid. I have earned my retirement benefits and I live in comfort.
To tell me to come and serve Nigeria is an honour and you don’t need a salary for that. When you stop paying people in such positions and you take them on merit, make the legislators part time and pay them some allowances because many of them are already rich from their past dealings both professionally and the ones from a criminal background. You don’t need to pay them salaries. If you do that by design, automatically you will have 80 per cent of the federal budget for capital expenditure. If they are serious in Nigeria that is what they should be discussing at the National Assembly not the trivialities they are discussing there. Then they have some small, small boys there in the House of Representatives summoning people. Summoning who? (Hisses) I say damn you! You cannot summon me. The people you can summon are the criminals. I am not surprised that government officials are now refusing to answer such silly summons unless the president allows it, because it is a caricature of democracy. Any self-respecting person who has honour and integrity should not subject himself to such nonsense. So there are many things that can be done at the executive level. There are so many things that can be done at the legislative level and even the judiciary. You will go to court now and they will give judgement but you cannot see the justice in the judgement. So Nigeria as a state, has failed already. We cannot be saying it may fail. The only thing remaining is for us to carry guns and the way things are going that is coming. God should help the oil to dry up faster, so we can begin to use our brains. Many of the richest men in the world have nothing to do with oil. Look at the Forbes list, how many of them in the top positions made money from oil or stealing money. They are men of ideas used to serving their country and humanity. So things that should be done are very clear and they recommend themselves. Get the criminals and put them in prison. Introduce capital punishment for corruption. Anybody who steals money in a country where pregnant women die should be executed by firing squad. If Americans don’t like it, you will tell them that here, people are animals and you have to treat them like beasts before they wake up. When you do it for 10 years and you begin to shoot billionaires, former presidents, former senators, then everybody will sit up. This a country where a man steals N2 billion, then you take him to court and they pass judgement and give him a fine of N200,000 or N2 million. For a man who stole N2 billion, is it a joke?
But you where close to government during obasanjo’s administration, why didn’t you make your views known?
When I was the MD/CEO of Nigerian breweries the then president Olusegun Obasanjo said he did not want politicians to advise him that he wants practical men who have achieved results to advise him which was a good decision. So he sent Professor Julius Ihonvbere who was his Political Adviser to go and get him the CEO of the most capitalised company on the Nigerian stock market. He didn’t put a name to it. He just said get me whoever is the CEO. Professor Julius Ihonvbere went to the Nigerian Stock Exchange and heard it was Nigerian Breweries and he turned up in my office. Before then, I had never met Obasanjo or done anything with government. He said, ‘The president wants to see you,’ and I said, ‘See me? For what?’ Two days later, I got to Abuja and Julius took me to see the president. When I met the president, he said, ‘Are you the young man that runs the most capitalised company in Nigeria?’ And I said sure and then he said, ‘I like you. Tell me about yourself.’ I asked him, ‘Do you want the long version or the short version?’ Because if you have done many good things in life, you can have a long version and you should not have any apologies for it. I don’t care what others think. The president asked me to give him the long version. So I spent one hour talking to him about myself. Then he said again ‘I like you and I want you to be the person who advises me on everything private sector and before I take any decision on anything private sector, I will call you to ask for your advice.’ I said to him that I don’t think it would be good to do it like that because I am just one person and I don’t know everything. I know many things but I am only in one sector of the economy. It is better I form a CEOs’ Forum and we can meet once quarterly and then, we can advise you. He said that was brilliant and that I was a good man to suggest that. So I formed a CEOs’ Forum and I even put the MD of my competitor in Guinness, Keith Richards there. When we had our first meeting in the villa, Baba even brought it up again that I am even a good man for putting my competitor. That was how I met Obasanjo. Then overtime when other people would tell him only what they thought he wanted to hear, I would tell him what exactly was on my mind even though some of the things I would say were not nice, but he said he liked to hear the truth. So it went from advice on the private sector to a personal friendship. Before I engaged in all these, I agreed with Heineken (majority shareholder in Nigerian Brewries) that I must not benefit personally from it. When you start befitting personally, then there is conflict of interest. Throughout the eight years I advised President Obasanjo, I did not benefit personally from it. There was even a time they said, go here and do this and get this, but I said I don’t want to, as my salary was enough for me. I didn’t have to be rich. I was a salaried man and my salary was enough for me. That is why I think Obasanjo respects me up till today. I never asked him for anything and we gave advice from our areas of expertise. I didn’t give advice on things that can lead to corruption or things that can lead to school children being abducted or things that can divide Nigeria. So I gave him good advise. As Chairman of National Population Commission, when I saw my good advise was not working I walked away. So I have not been close to government or in government to tell them to do the wrong thing.
But in 2006-2007 you were championing the third term project from the private sector perspective?
I like that question and this is the second time I am being asked that question. When I was in the National Population Commission, someone asked me that question and I answered: I was not working with him on any other thing, than organising the private sector so that government policies will impact on the organised private sector positively to create jobs and encourage more foreign and domestic investments in Nigeria. I was at the nub between him and the organised private sector. That was what I advised him on and that was not political. Another thing is that many of the people who worked closely with him, specifically El-Rufai wrote in his book, The Accidental Public Servant, the story of what is called third term; how they started it till and how it fizzled out. In that account, you wouldn’t see my name there because I didn’t work with Baba like that. What happened was that you know when politicians want to run for office or contest in an election, the organised private sector always invests in it one way or another so that when the politicians win they can implement good policies to favour your sector or organisation. This happens everywhere in the world. So when certain things were happening, a businessman pays money to put up an advertisement for them.
Of course, it wasn’t me, because I don’t have N30 million to give anybody like that because that was what was given but because I was the linkman to the organised private sector, but those who placed it found it convenient to put my picture there. When the controversy was raging and my PR manager Chief Larry Agose who of course knew I had nothing to do with it, asked me to speak out, but I said for what? I know my responsibilities and I don’t want to start calling out people names. I took it as a burden that I had to bear in my position. When the whole issue began to rage more and more, Larry Agose teamed up with Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi, (you can verify with him all these things) and held a meeting in his house with all the editors and some publishers. It was a full house and even professor Wole Soyinka was there. Larry put pressure on me to go to the meeting and address all these media people to tell them that I had nothing to do with this. I eventually agreed to go and when I got there, I saw the two people there who were in the know about the campaign (advertisement). So I spoke in general terms that I do not know anything about this and that the people who actually collected that money are here and if they should open their mouths, I would mention their names. Everybody just shouted, ‘Nooo oh! Please don’t mention their names. Please Eze we know it’s not you! Why we are angry with you is that you are too professional, Eze. You don’t do this and that, that is why we are calling you but we know it is not you.’
You can ask Prof. Soyinka, because he got up because he was offended by everything that was going on. He said, ‘How could you people demonize a man when you know he didn’t do this thing and you are saying it here in the presence of everyone?’ He gave an example of how such a thing had happened to him before. He told me that he was so disappointed that they could do such a thing even after they had done it to him. So the Third Term had nothing to do with me. If there was anything like third term, I couldn’t have been involved in it.
But the perception did hurt, didn’t it?
No, No, No, I have told you that in a country like this, where there are many mad men, where 90 per cent of the people in public space and in the media as well are not qualified. How many of you guys are doing investigative journalism? The papers, which were writing all sorts of things, how many of them took time to go and research, to find out what was the truth. Dele Giwa that wanted to introduce that discipline was killed and every one of you backed out because you wanted the easy way out. So most of the media write rubbish and if you know something is not true, how can I care about it? In fact, at a time, I thought I was very important because every newspaper would carry me on the front page and back page. It didn’t hurt me. It would have hurt, if I had a guilty conscience that I did something wrong but I didn’t do anything wrong, so I didn’t care at all.
People speculated that, that was why you had to leave Nigerian Breweries?
No, I have told you that there were many things people who don’t know what they wrote about. Even after this, I would like you to ask whether I was sacked as chairman of the National Population Commission because I have read it in the papers and such things never happened. On Nigerian Breweries, you know big companies do advanced personnel planning, so in 2005 I went for the personnel planning of Nigerian Breweries as MD/CEO and there I agreed that I would leave in 2006, as I had spent 26 years there. However, I understood that as I was close to the Obasanjo administration, you would share in both his good and bad image. You know Heineken is a multinational and you shouldn’t do anything to tarnish the image of the company. So I had an agreement with Heineken and I was the one that planned it that when Obasanjo goes, I will also go. And it was written in the management development plan for 2005 and we implemented it in December 2006. Besides, do you know my pension conditions? A man who is removed cannot have such pension conditions as I have. You have heard about CEOs who have stolen money or they did something. Have you heard anything about me at Nigerian Breweries? I am proud of the work I did in Nigerian breweries. I put Nigerian Breweries where it is today and every day I see it I am very happy. My conditions of retirement were fantastic. As I am talking to you now, if I want to depart this place in a helicopter, they will land it on my roof, fly me and pay the bills. If I tell you my pension now, probably you will collapse. I know some MDs that have retired and they are suffering. But I had a fantastic career. That was why when I left, I bought two Rolls Royce Phantoms. I bought it to reward myself. After 26 years of hard work, no scandal and I never stole a kobo in my life, I left the company in a very strong position and Heineken treated me so well. I told my wife that after all of my hard work, I am going to reward myself. So I bought the first Rolls Royce Phantom and then I went to Otunba Balogun’s house and I saw that there was one that they called Rolls Royce Phantom Extended. Otunba said this one just came out, that it’s new. So I flew to London, went to the factory and placed an order for it.
What was your experience like moving from the organised private sector to the public sector, that is, the national population commission with all the politcking and bureaucracy?
You see, politics doesn’t have to be stupidity and irresponsibility. In fact politics is the highest form of national service you can enter into where you can serve your fellow countrymen. It should be an honour to serve in a political position but to serve properly not the nonsense we see in Nigeria. In the organised private sector, the underlying objective is the profit motive. To be in the public service and provide citizens with what they need and deserve, you must have God inside you; that is why it is the highest form of service. Many people in our public space now don’t know anything about God. Forget all their hypocrisy about prayers and all that, because you cannot be praying and be stealing. They cannot be praying to God, if they are, they cannot steal the way they are stealing right now. You cannot aspire to see God without aspiring to do good. So when I had the special privilege of being appointed by President Jonathan as Chairman of the National Population Commission, I felt honoured that I was found worthy to serve and I took my oath of office in front of him at the villa seriously. Ninety-nine per cent of people in our public space don’t take their oath of office seriously. So once we left the villa for the next 70 days after, I as a professional and as a consultant, also in my own right, led the development of the strategic architecture to give Nigeria their first ever census. The DG I met there and entire directors of the commission were learning from me because the ‘owners of work’ had come on stage. I am a professional and a brilliant one for that matter. Why can’t I say it, when it is true? When the strategic plan was ready and we went to the villa, I did the presentation myself. Many chairmen would have said, ‘ DG do the presentation.’ But the DG cannot present it to my level of excellence and expertise. When I finished, President Jonathan said he had never seen anything like that. He said, ‘Festus this is wonderful’ and that he was convinced that the National Population Commission would do a good job.
There and then, what I would have done, if I were him, was to approve what I had given him. But like most public officers, he set up a committee and a committee is a recipe for not getting things done. He gave the committee the mandate to do the analysis and come back to him in four weeks. After eight weeks, this committee was still talking nonsense. I recall I did 172 presentations at various levels during its sitting. Someone would say, ‘Ah chairman this presentation is too low for you’, and I would tell them that I am not bigger than my job. No matter the sub, sub, sub, sub-committee you people create including the one inside the gutter, I will go there to do a presentation, so they don’t see the wrong thing and make the wrong recommendations to the president. I did many presentations clarifying and teaching to ensure that when he (Jonathan) got the presentation, he was going to get something in tandem with what we presented to him. People tried to alter and spoil it but I refused for it to be spoilt. After all the presentations, when the vice-president (Namadi Sambo) now summarised the thing, he didn’t summarise what was presented, as personal interests hijacked his attention: Some people from the private sector hijacked part of it; people from the north hijacked a part of it; people from the south brought religion and other things into it. As such, he (Sambo) went to write something that had nothing to do with giving Nigeria a correct population figure. So when it came to that level, I refused to sign the recommendations. I don’t sign nonsense and I will never sign such a thing. The VP now sent people to my office to come and find out from me why I didn’t want to sign. The people came, but I told them that there was no reason, that I just would not sign. The VP now wrote me a letter that I should give him a formal reason why I would not sign. Then I issued him a memo giving him the reasons why I would not sign and I attached almost all the presentations I did, and that what he put in the report had nothing to do with achieving the objectives set out and I don’t do nonsense. In that memo, I wrote to him, I asked that I hope politicians are not in Abuja to short change Nigerians, that I will never be party to such things. So I issued him the memo and I expected him to reply me but he didn’t. What I heard was the Secretary to the Government of the Federation calling me to say, ‘Ah that memo was strong’, and I said, ‘Yes, this issue is a serious issue; please ask him to reply me.’ That was how the whole thing died.
Meanwhile, I continued to pursue the president, impressing on him that we should implement the original plan that was presented to him. The day I did this presentation, I went with eight memos to the president so that if he says this is good, let him sign off on the memos to enable use commence implementation. But he said, ‘Ah Festus, you are really acting like a businessman. Here we don’t sign memos like that, but let’s see.’ Till today, nothing came out of it. The money we said we would raise, Ngozi (Okonjo-Iweala) told me, ‘Eze this N600 billion I don’t know where it will come from.’ Then I said to her that you don’t have to bring it, I can raise it. ‘You just do XYZ and I will raise it.’ She gave me appointments and I went twice, but I didn’t see Ngozi. And by our plan, we needed four years of preparation before we could conduct a proper census for Nigeria. You have to do a digital imaging of Nigeria and produce the frames for 200,000 localities in Nigeria that are digitally clear. You have to go into all these 200,000 localities and number all the houses inside them and produce a zip code for the country. You have to go inside every building and identify the households inside the residential buildings and produce a household register. You have to hire up two million enumerators and train them on how to use the biometric machines to go and do biometric census of Nigerians. Then you have to get the companies that will give us these biometric machines to come and configure it to fit our environment. So if you go to Ijaw area and it falls inside water, it will still work or if you go to Maiduguri and the temperature is 50 degrees centigrade, it will still work. We were working round the clock every day. We gave the president a booklet and showed him how the preparations will progress week by week for the four years and we asked him to support us to start. I wrote him a memo of six pages, but his Chief of Staff said I should reduce it to one page and I reduced it to one and gave him. Yet nothing happened. Absolutely nothing came out of it, even after one year and four months!
I used to tell them at the commission that I was going to do a census that will accept itself. Not for anybody to accept it, because the acceptance of a census figures is part of the politics. I am not doing the census for people who have political agendas to come and agree with. I wanted the census to start from 2017 upwards because I didn’t want it to be attached to 2015 politics. I was in Abuja for a year and four months and I didn’t even step foot inside my house in Lagos, I didn’t go to my palace in the south east and I didn’t travel out of Nigeria. I was there in Abuja working. When people wanted to steal there, I blocked it. When my permanent secretary stole N470 million, I threw him out. I put a second one, he messed up and I threw him out too and I put a third one. At some point, they said that I couldn’t sack permanent secretaries, but I said I have already sacked him. When all these things continued to happen, I began to realise that nobody seemed serious about this, and I am leaving because at my age and level of proficiency and professionalism, I don’t do nonsense.
So I went on NTA and I told Nigerians, as long as I am here, only two things would happen. Either we give Nigerians a proper census or I would not be here. I didn’t go there for the salary but they paid me N913,000 per month. When I carried my commissioner to clubs, I would pay N3 million at the club. Seven of them, I gave money. I lived in the Transcorp Hilton Hotel for one year and I spent N97 million there. The president refunded me N20 million when I applied to him. As a matter of fact, that was where we developed the plan with all these commissioners, because after 7 pm there is no light at NPC. There was even no headquarters. Nothing was working there. The commission was deliberately killed, so it will not fulfil its constitutional obligations. But I came and I ran the place with my money from the Transcorp Hilton Hotel. All the commissioners supported what we did. All without exception because I showed them Nigeria is not divided between the north and south, east and west and we are in it together. But we didn’t get the support we should have gotten from the president himself, because I reported to him, and he was not forth coming on what he should do for us to progress.
So there were no projects and we were not doing training.
And you know there are certain things public servants use to get small benefits. When they were not getting these benefits because nothing was happening and when I also blocked the stealing, because they told me in meetings that chairman you are rich you don’t need the money, while we are not rich, I told them my integrity had nothing to do with the money. I told them I am not rich and I am probably poorer than all of them because they have been stealing money since. I said, ‘It is not about money, we are here to serve. Don’t ever tell me that you want to steal money, it will never happen.’ So,when the DG stole that money, he shared part of it with some of them, and when I discovered this, I queried him and started disciplining him, they said, ‘If I should query him, that it will affect the rest of them.’ I said I will discipline him and if it affects you, then you are in for it. So they came to the decision that this man would put us in trouble and then they ganged up against me. They started telling all sorts of lies. They went to the former chairman and that one started running his mouth without knowing what he was saying, without even knowing how he was implicating himself in the nonsense that he was saying. Then, I went on NTA and I explained everything.
At that point, I was fed up because why this was happening was because the president was not supporting us to do what we should do. In the process, when all these fraudulent people were shouting, Governor Kwankwaso started running his mouth from Kano that I, Festus Odimegwu, His Royal Majesty, that I am drunk. He made a joke of a serious matter, as the biggest beneficiary of the fraud that is the demographic data in Nigeria. At that point, I thought to myself that all this was rubbish and I told the SGF that I would leave. He tried to convince me for up to three hour not to go, but I had made up my mind that I was going. Mr. S.N Okeke, the former Chairman of the Police Service Commission, called the Igbo professionals in Lagos and they came to his house to talk to me, I went for the meeting. I told them, that this had nothing to do with the Igbos.
If we have good demographic data in Nigeria, Nigeria as a whole would progress. If the politicians don’t want it, then why should I bother? Let them remain in the rot that they are in. Without good demographic data you can’t plan anything. You can’t even solve security problems. Every problem you have in Nigeria today is based on not having any census figures. Nigeria has not done any census before. It is in writing also. Professors have written it in books. I gave it to journalists in Abuja. The former chairman himself said so and everybody knows it. I didn’t only say it, but I was willing to do something about it. Before, they just compiled the figures at the national, state and local government level. That is why they can’t go to the local level of these 200,000 units. You cannot even do elections without figures at the localities. So even the figures that are used to churning out for the so-called democratic elections, are fraudulent figures. That’s why you go and people don’t see their names. It is because the figures cannot be validated. And people will get up and say, we have had a free and fair election. How can you have a free and fair election when you don’t know the demographic data of your country? How can you ensure productivity of economic allocation of resources? How can Ngozi coordinate the economy when she doesn’t know the demographic data? How can you build airports when you don’t know the population centres? Nothing in a country is possible without the demographic data. And I made it clear in the presentation. So I made it clear that it had nothing to do with the Igbos. I told them, ‘I, Festus Odimegwu, I am gone because I don’t do rubbish.’
However, the SGF told me that I should not go and that he was going to arrange a meeting with the president. I told him that I was not interested and I travelled. While I was in Manhattan, New York, I resigned. I can show you the email that I sent on October 17 at 8 am from Manhattan.
Because at that point, I had realised that doing a credible census was impossible. When their political objectives were no longer in convergence with my professional objectives, I left. I left quietly and I didn’t have to say anything about it. A man who has appointed you to office has done you a favour. Moreover, the president cannot sack me because it is in the constitution. You need two thirds of the Senate to remove me, but why would you want to stay when the man who appointed you is no longer comfortable with you? I also left because looking at his body language, I knew it was no longer politically comfortable for him and you know he comes under a lot of political pressure. But I am happy he validated my leaving, because people told me you cannot resign from government, that if he gets angry, you are dead man. So I am happy he accepted. And I left of my own volition and it was also politically convenient for him to let me go. So I was not sacked. But for you to do a proper census in Nigeria, you have to do that thing that I had planned and it was no longer possible. So whatever the team after me is doing, I wish them well. People think the census is about getting advantage. Look at the north that is supposed to be getting the advantage. Is the north better than the south? Is it not sheer foolishness for anybody from the north to think they have advantage in the current Nigeria, when all this mess (the insurgency) his happening in the north. Every sensible person in the north should support that Nigeria should be modernised and we should have data to plan Nigeria very well, so that Nigeria as a whole will move forward together in progress. No north, no south! Do you think if Sir Ahmadu Bello wakes up today, he will be proud of the north we have today? The way they are going, they northerners are going to destroy themselves by themselves. It has nothing to do with Jonathan because people say, ‘Oh, Jonathan didn’t do this or that.’ What will he do? If you want to go and kill your wife and children in your house what will the local government chairman do about it? What can Jonathan really do when people want to destroy their place, so that you can say he is incompetent? Okay, say he is incompetent but you have destroyed your place. 2015 will come and maybe Nigerians will find him to be a better choice than anybody you put and they will still vote for him. So is destroying the north to discredit the president an intelligent thing to do? The northern political elite should sit up. I know that Nigeria has changed, nobody again can say he has the right to rule and for other people to be ruled. We patriotic Nigerians from the north, south, east and west should sit up also and tell such people to shut up! It is people playing politics with such things that will lead to Nigeria’s dismemberment.
Look at the National Conference when you look at some of the issues they are discussing there, are you not ashamed that you are a Nigerian? You will see a Lamido Adamawa somewhere saying that if Nigeria goes, he has connection to people in Cameroun. How can a leader in such a position say such a thing? You see Nyako, one of the beneficiaries of the corrupt system we have in Nigeria, even trying to talk recklessly. The total leadership of Nigeria from the past, are they not failures as a group of people with the type of Nigeria we have? It is not a personal issue with anybody. The total past leadership of Nigeria is a failure. If you look at it, Nigeria has no great natural problems. All our problems are man made. Leadership is everything.
How do you rate the parties currently?
If we must change the practice of this caricature we call democracy, there is a lot of weight in the political parties. Let us start with PDP that has been in power all this while, maybe tomorrow APC will take it. If the PDP reforms itself and begins to insist that they can only put good political leaders as local government chairmen, as councillors, as governors, as presidents, ministers, 80 per cent of the problem would be solved. Anybody that is proposed for office, they should do a proper security check on that person. If the man has ever stolen one kobo of public funds in his life, they should drop him. If they do that alone to select who becomes the president, but see the caricature in Nigeria. They go and appoint the party chairman and put the chairman in their pocket so the man would not do the right job. If he wants to do the right job, they will go and bring a file and say you are thief then remove him. Because of that you won’t see good people as chairmen of PDP. If they make me chairman of PDP, for instance, you have solved all the problems in Nigeria because I would ensure that no known criminal will occupy a political position, not one and there is no amount of bribe. Even no known criminal or incompetent person will occupy a political position. When you do that alone by selecting properly selected and elected CV-based public servants, Nigeria will be elevated. It is only in Nigeria that fools just come from anywhere and occupy political positions. In the private sector, we would do interviews and check your CV. We would have to find you worthy of that position before we now start giving you a lifelong training that goes into developing you as a leader. That is what the primaries are supposed to be doing in the parties but the party system has been corrupted such that the parties now maintains an obnoxious circle of criminals in governance. If they continue to do this, there will definitely be a revolution in Nigeria. What happened in Libya and Egypt can happen here. All this stupidity of people saying they will make the country ungovernable and the president is still looking at them treating them with kid gloves, when people say enough is enough, then we are all going to be in trouble.
I have also read the comments of APC and of all the talents they have, they went to bring expired people. Why must we be recycling expired leaders. Why can’t we get something fresh minds even from APC so we can look at issues in a fresh way? Our problems are not as big as they appear. We just need an incorruptible leadership and everything will immediately turn around. And for those of you in the media, Nigeria is your country also. You don’t just go and start writing to support an organisation just to collect money. Or when somebody steals money in office and the person gives you half of it, then you will say you are the PR person and you start defending him or when you hear criminal things about the person you won’t report it in your paper. But because Odimegwu doesn’t give you money, even when I make innocent statements, you will go and turn it upside down. When you do such things, the country will collapse on your head as well. All of us should join hands to make sure that the nonsense that Nigeria has become is resolved peacefully. 2015 and beyond is very important by putting qualified non-criminals in political position.
You studied industrial chemistry and made a first class, tell us how it felt
I am happy you raised this question, from the point of view that in Nigeria we always like to celebrate mediocrity and foolishness. Many of the so-called leaders and political office holders never went to school. They cannot ordinarily add value to anything but they are experts in benefiting from the collapsed, corrupt system in Nigeria. They have no conscience so even if the money comes from hell fire, they will take it. So it is high time we begin to celebrate excellence in learning and scholarship. I made a first class on merit and it is something I will always remember with pride. I didn’t only make first class, I was the best graduating student. If you do not celebrate such things, is it foolishness, you are going to celebrate? Or people stealing money and claiming that they are rich that you will celebrate? The day that Nigeria wants to come out of this mess, is it not such people that we should put in leadership positions? If you are truly intelligent, you cannot be corrupt because corruption is a form of unintelligence. Corruption means that you want something but you cannot think of the right way to get it and that is why people steal. People like us that are really intelligent and brilliant and have the three dimensions of intelligence – cognitive intelligence, conative intelligence and formative intelligence – cannot steal. We are not poor, because we know how to make legitimate money. The day Nigerians want the problems in the country to be solved, they should go and beg people like us to take political office; people that will go and make a difference and people who know what they say is exactly what they do. Our country will become a good country, and when it becomes a good country, everybody will benefit. This current state of celebrating foolishness and poverty of ideas must stop. When someone does not go to school, he is for all intents and purpose, a beast and an animal. Education as you know, is a socialisation process that changes the animal in man to man in man. So if you are not educated, you an illiterate, you are for all intents and purpose a beast. In philosophy, being a man has a definition. It means an able bodied animal with a mind of human being and soul. Many Nigerians have no ethical background and they have sold their souls for a pot of porridge and they have ceased to be human beings, because they don’t have souls anymore. They are no longer connected to the light that made them human.
What will you say is your greatest strength and perhaps biggest weakness?
My greatest strength which I thank God for, and I thank myself also is the ability to say exactly what I want to say. I have that as a trait because I am a good man. I have not stolen before, so nobody is holding any secrets about me. I can say what I want to say at anytime. No one can buy that confidence. It gives you peace of mind, happiness. When I go to bed, I sleep like a baby. I tell you, it is the biggest gift of all, the freedom to be yourself and to be comfortable with yourself. There are many people you see around Nigeria who float around life, but they are hypocrites. Their blood pressure is high and they have lost their sense of self. They may steal all the money in the world but inside they are absolutely nothing. If you look into their heart of hearts, they know themselves, that they are nothing. That is why when you see some of them, they look like shadows of human beings. When you are good and you do the right things you will have a strong anchor of virtuous foundation and the conviction of courage to express exactly what you want to say, which is the biggest gift a human being can get. In philosophy, they will say you have become an autonomous man. An autonomous man is the best approximation to expressing the God in you, because God is not selfish and He doesn’t have anything to do with the material world. He is virtuous and good and for you to approximate that, it’s an evolution of development. That is what I think is my greatest strength and it makes me happy.
I don’t have a weakness because when you come to a rotten country like this that is in darkness and you quench the light you have because people say you are arrogant, you are this or you that, who are the people? Is it people who don’t know what they are saying or people who didn’t go to school? As I have just told you, I do not listen to such people. If you go and quench the lights of people like us, Nigeria will go into perpetual darkness. It is like coming tomorrow and saying Professor Wole Soyinka should not express himself. If you don’t listen to people like us, Professor Wole Soyinka, Eze Festus Odimegwu His Royal Majesty, Prof. Charles Soludo, is it God that will come and talk to you? Don’t you know God talks through people like us who are good people? People can say something is a weakness because they want to cow others, so everybody will begin to say darkness is light and light is darkness. My grandfather told me by the time he was a hundred and ten years in 1969, three months before he died that when you go anywhere and people are honouring you and praising you, that you should be humble in such an environment. But when you go anywhere and useless human beings are beginning to say what is good is bad, then you should climb to the top of a tree with a trumpet and begin to blow that good things that you are doing. We need many more Nigerians that will stand up and condemn the bad situation in the country if we are going to turn around as a country.
We don’t need everybody to turn around and to angle for selfish things we hope to get. If you benefit the whole world and suffer the loss of your soul then you are destined for hell. So people can say we don’t know what we are saying, that we are arrogant. But people like Professor Chinua Achebe, Professor Wole Soyinka, the Eze Festus Odimegwus of this world, the Professor Soludos of this world, the El Rufais of this world, that is when he is not talking northern politics, people should listen to them. All of us cannot become deaf and dumb because we want something.If you want something and Nigeria collapses on us, everybody will be dead. But if we save Nigeria even if we have nothing, we can have the peace of walking around.
What would you say is your biggest regret in life?
You asked about weaknesses and I said I have no weakness. How can you then be asking me about my biggest regret? Look at my environment, does it look like an environment of regret. This is not an environment of regret. I was born in a special way. My grandfather came and blessed me. I went to school and was coming tops in class. Then, Nigeria was still good where such things were celebrated unlike now where people will go and make a joke of such things. I came out and I got job in Nigerian Breweries and I excelled even among white people in a multinational company. Through my work in Nigerian Breweries, Nigerians knew me, including you. I retired and went into politics and met a bunch of useless people there and decided I wasn’t doing it again. I came out and went back to private sector. I was called again to serve and I went to serve and I found again that they still are not serious people. I came out again and went back to the private sector. What is there to regret? I have three children that have graduated and they live in America. I have a good wife that gives me peace. I have a good home. I am a good person in my community. Eighty per cent of everything they’ve got in that community, I brought for them. All my friends trust me because what I say is what I do. So there is no regret because many people are praying to be me.
What motivates you?
What motivates me is the idea to do good and be part of a solution, to confront a situation that is considered difficult and deal with it. I like to do what ordinary people consider impossible because I am not ordinary. I don’t see myself as ordinary. I like to be in a situation where I am part of bringing progress. I want to be part of the people that will make Nigeria to be respected in the comity of nations. I like to exercise the image of God in me and let it shine through without hypocrisy.