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Despite daunting challenges, Nigeria won’t break up – Okunnu

Alhaji Abdullateef Olufemi Okunnu, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), was the federal commissioner of works and housing under the Gowon administration between 1967 and…

Alhaji Abdullateef Olufemi Okunnu, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), was the federal commissioner of works and housing under the Gowon administration between 1967 and 1974. This legal luminary has been in the profession for the past 60 years. Of course, he has done many other things along the way. In this interview he spoke on how he got into the law profession instead of actualising his dream of becoming a professor of history, what he thinks about the future of Nigeria, and other important issues. 


Everyone knows you as a lawyer, but it seems that law was competing with something else when you were young. From your biography, it seems you would have loved to be a professor of history rather than a senior advocate. How did law win over history?

That’s very interesting. My first love was to be a historian, and I am still a historian. But I also wanted to play a part in public life. I developed an interest in politics rather very young. My father bought the newspapers of the day in those days, West African Pilot and Daily Service. So my interest in history conflicted with this type of life I wanted for myself in future – to play a role in public because like I said, young stars like me in those days loved reading the newspapers published in Lagos and followed political trends. 

I used to watch Legislative Council sessions under the Richard Constitution. In the late 1940s I was still transiting from primary school to secondary. The leading figures in those days were the chief secretary to the government, one of the Foot brothers. They were about three or four famous in England then. The one who chose public service became the chief secretary to the government. The then governor was Sir Arthur Richards, the author of the 1946 Constitution. That’s why I finally landed to do law.  

Was it difficult for a young man of your age to go to England to read Law? 

There were three British colonies in Nigeria. The first colony was Lagos, which the British established in 1861. The other two colonies were established on the first day of January 1900 – the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria and the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria. People misunderstand the place of Lagos and Lagos State as it is today.  

I was born in Lagos. And as someone born in Lagos and within the Lagos Colony, I was a British citizen with all the rights to vote and be voted for in England until September 30, 1959.  Those who were born in the Northern or Southern Protectorate were British protected persons, not British citizens. They had to apply for visa to travel to Britain, but I didn’t need to. I could go anywhere. And I did go to many countries in Europe without a visa because I was a British citizen. So going to study in England was like what the westerner used to call going to the mother land.  

Were you treated as a black man or discriminated against? How did you cope? 

Oh yes, I experienced discrimination against blacks a few times. I was looking for a new accommodation; you had seen a notice somewhere which stated that accommodation was available at a place. I would get there and knock, but when the landlady opened the door and saw a black face, she would say there was no accommodation. I experienced that two or three times. It was part of British life in those days. It has gone down considerably now, but in the 1950s when I went, discrimination was still at its height.  

Did you continue your student activism and interest in politics in the United Kingdom?

Well, the student activism really started in Kings College, Lagos in 1948 when Mr Gerald Bunting, a very colourful man, was the principal. He was one of the two greatest principals at Kings College, and I must say in Nigeria.

That led me to England to study Law in February 1956. When I got to London, I joined the Nigerian Union of Great Britain and Ireland (northern and southern Ireland).  I and Bola Ige were joint assistant secretaries of the union.

Mr Akinfesile, who became a minister of communication, was president before me in the mid-1950s. I became the secretary-general of the union in 1958 and president in 1959. The union had 33 branches in the United Kingdom and our office was in the basement of Number 9, Northumberland Avenue. That was the Nigeria House. As critical as we were of the Nigerian government at that time, they allowed us the use of the basement as our office.  I think some of us spent more time politicking than studying.  

Alhaji Abdullateef Olufemi Okunnu


But when you came back to Nigeria in 1960 you didn’t go into politics. You simply went into private law practise first, why? 

Not quite. I came back in September, just before independence. I was part of the body that organised the independence celebration in London. Past officers of the union in London in 1961 gathered together to form the Nigerian Youth Congress. I remember that the congress was quite a thorn in the flesh of the Balewa government. In London we organised demonstrations against the visit of Nigerian leaders in 1958 for another constitutional conference. 

Our view was that the leaders should stay in Lagos or anywhere in Nigeria to draft and agree on their constitution instead of about 100 delegates representing the Northern Peoples Party, The Action Group led by Chief Awolowo, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), led by Zik, Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU), led by my great friend, Aminu Kano, older than me with a distance but a very close friend. I was his lawyer. I was NEPU lawyer. Over 100 of them were in London, and as students, we said they should have stayed in Lagos to save taxpayers’ money.  

Let me add that there was an Anglo-Nigerian defence pact. The document was signed by all our leaders for the establishment of British military in Kano staging point. All of them signed it—Zik, Sardauna and Awolowo. Until recently, I didn’t disclose who told me about the pact, but the person was my good friend, Mallam Aminu Kano. He told me that they signed a secret treaty to station British soldiers in Nigeria; and we didn’t like it at all, so we staged a public demonstration in London. 

I organised, on behalf of the Nigerian Youth Congress in Lagos, another massive demonstration against the Anglo-Nigerian Defence pact until the government revoked it. We didn’t want any British soldier on our soil. You can see what is happening in French-speaking Africa today—French soldiers are all over the place.   

But after all this activism the government collapsed, the military came in and you moved into the establishment as a minister. How did that happen? Why were you made a minister in 1967? 

General Gowon, who was a lieutenant colonel appointed military governors: Hassan Katsina in the North, Fajuyi for the West, Ojukwu in the East and Ejoor in Bendel State. The country was moving into chaos. One of the first steps he took was to appoint an ad-hoc constitutional conference of leaders from various parts of the country; five from each region – 5 delegates, 5 advisers for the four regions and for Lagos town, 2 delegates, 2 advisors.

Dr Teslim Elias was the delegate for the elders; Lateef Jakande was also a delegate. I was one of the two advisors. And we deliberated for a long time as the country was tearing apart. We started sitting in August until October/November 1966.   

I have all the documents, the speeches, records of proceedings taken by stenographers, daily proceedings of that conference with me. I am speaking from the record.  

That is the historian in you.

By the end of 1966 and early 1967, Gowon had to have an intensive consultation, especially with the leadership in the North, on what system of government we should have between federation and confederation. If federation, how many regions or states? 

General Gowon is a very slow moving and very careful man, so it took him that period of time. In the late 1966 and early 1970, I believe that with assurance by Hassan Katsina as a governor, the North agreed to creating states within the Northern Region. It was a demand of southern parties most of the time that the federal system of government does not allow one state to dominate the others, either in size or population.  

Up till now, my preference is the 12-state structure. So, when I was invited to join Gowon’s government, I accepted.  

You were a very young man then.

I was only 34, and I left government at 41 in December 1974. At the new National Executive Council, I was appointed with effect from May 27, 1967, the same day the states were created. And a couple of days later, Ojukwu went to war. As a young Nigerian, I thought I had to serve and ensure that the country remained.   

What was your key contribution as the federal commissioner of works and housing, especially at a time the country was almost collapsing, as you said? 

During the civil war there wasn’t much going on in terms of development. But I met Eko bridge under construction, the contract was awarded by the Balewa government; I did not begin it. I always give that credit to Balewa. People thought I started it, but I met it. But may Allah be praised that I completed the Eko bridge with finance from Germany. I was able to negotiate with the contractor and the German government to continue the bridge from Ijora to Iganmu. 

In terms of highways, I met two North to South routes – Lagos to Ibadan, Ilorin-Jeba, Kontagora to Kaduna, Kaduna-Zaria, Zaria to Kano. The second route was Port Harcourt to Enugu, Otukpo to Makurdi, Makurdi to Kaduna.

There were two more routes: Warri-Benin, and Kotonkarfe, which went to Abuja, and from there to the rest of the North. There were also Calabar, Yola and Maiduguri. I met two major North-South routes and left four. There was a fifth one, which I always want to credit to General Gowon because it was he who was quite keen on it. That is Lagos, Badagry, near Iseyin to Sokoto. There was East-West, from Ilorin to Omuaran, Lokoja and up North. There was one from Kaduna, across Maiduguri. 

There were only 7,000 miles of federal roads in 1967 when I got to the ministry. I left over 20,000 miles of federal roads in December 1974.  

So, in terms of roads, I am proud to have left that length of mileage from what I found. At the time I left, most of the roads had just been reconstructed or rehabilitated, or were under construction. That was under the 1970 to 1974 development plan. At the time the government was formed in 1967, Balewa government’s development plan was still on, but more or less in limbo. But we were able to complete it at the end of 1970.

I initiated the change to right hand traffic in April 2, 1972. We moved it from April 1 to avoid April Fool so that many people who were critical of the government, even in the cabinet, would not ask: ‘What is wrong with that young man? What’s in his head?’  I felt that with Francophone countries on both sides of Nigeria, the rest of Europe and also manufacturers of cars, the rest of Europe, apart from Great Britain on right hand traffic, Nigeria must move with the times. But I had opponents, even in cabinet. Gowon was my great supporter. Anyway, we managed to carry that successfully.

In terms of housing, that was a state matter. I was keen about federal government intervening in housing construction, but Chief Awolowo, the finance minister or federal commissioner called me and asked, “Femi what is your business about housing?” And I thought the old man must be right. It was not a federal matter as it was not on the exclusive legislative list. In all our constitutions from 1954, you won’t find housing or land on the exclusive legislative list. Under our constitution they are state matters.

I was impressed by Harold Macmillan of Great Britain when he was housing minister. He fulfilled his promise of building 300,000 housing units per annum.  So when the chief reminded me that I was a lawyer, not just a radical young man who wanted everything done and quickly, I said he must be right. I withdrew my memo on housing. I still believe so till today. 

But I founded the Federal Mortgage Bank. When I spoke with the present chairman of the bank, he was surprised.   

Why did you leave before 1975 when the Gowon government was overthrown? And why do you think the government was overthrown? 

Our appointment was from May 27, 1967; I have the certificate. First of all, on September 30, 1974, we were all sworn in as federal commissioners, eleven of us, until the South East joined to make it 12. Every state was represented by a commissioner. Incidentally, we were not only ministers with full powers to run our ministries under this system, we were also the legislature. We passed all or most of the decrees through the Federal Executive Council. We were both the legislature and the executive, which was quite a heavy burden.

Gowon had planned the Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) for 1975 or 1976, so he asked all of us to stay till the end of 1974. At the end of 1974, most of us retired. He chose to retain two or three amongst us and the rest retired after an extension from October to December.  Those involved in the FESTAC actively included Chief Anthony Enahoro, the federal commissioner for information and Dr Aripo, external affairs. 

Why was Gowon overthrown?

Well, one can think of many reasons. The officers in the warfront didn’t like their colleagues in state houses, who were addressed as “Your Excellency,” when they were in the warfront fighting. They felt they were bearing the brunt while others were enjoying leadership positions. That was one aspect of the matter. 

Another aspect is that some of those who carried out the action, led by Murtala Mohammed and Colonel Taiwo, resented the participation of some permanent secretaries in the proceedings of the Federal Executive Council. The public called them super permanent secretaries. Some of them were on my age group and personal friends, so I didn’t see any super whatever in them. 

My first permanent secretary, Mr S.O. Williams, a British champion, was a complete gentleman. He participated in long jump in his days when I was still in secondary school. He hated going to Council meetings with me. Like a typical British officer, his role was in the ministry. 

I tried to persuade him to stop addressing me as ‘Sir’, but he refused. I also had to persuade him to attend Council meetings on budget days because, as I told him, he was the one to answer questions, not me. Williams was followed by one of the finest you could find, Gray Olonge, who became Buhari’s secretary to the government. He was older than me but we were age group and friends.

My view about that situation is that after the July coup in 1966, Gowon had no advisers to help or guide him in governance. They were soldiers who held whatever post, but in governance, all of them were green. Some of the so-called super permanent secretaries, notably, Alison Ayida, Phillip Asiedu, Ibrahim Damchida and Ahmed Joda resented them.  

Who were those regarded as ‘insurgents’ in the cabinet?

Well, among those regarded as ‘insurgents’ in the cabinet were the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Wey, a nice and jovial man; in the Air Force, Shittu Alao, who died in a crash; and the person who took over as the Chief of Air Staff, from Benue, I just forgot his name. All of them were green in terms of governance or administration, so Gowon needed the permanent secretaries to help in guiding the administration. And they advised when invited to take part in debates at the cabinet or the Federal Executive Council meetings. Personally, I saw nothing wrong with it; they were age groups and friends. We got on fine. Asiedu is about the only living super permanent secretary now. Ahmed Joda, a nice man, died late last year.

Alhaji Abdullateef Olufemi Okunnu


What about the allegation of corruption in the Gowon government? 

Well, corruption is corruption in any system you find things not going well. Before the overthrow, the only member of the Federal Executive Council who was accused of corruption was J S Tarka. And there was investigation, which I think found that there were some elements of corruption. He was my very good friend. Tarka resigned at the invitation of Gowon. Apart from that, none of us was accused of corruption. Awolowo retired after the civil war, even Aminu Kano. 

After the July coup, I left in December. The new chief of staff wrote to state that we should declare assets, including my wife, who incidentally was a senior civil servant. I filled the form and submitted, but in their search, the government didn’t find a pin that didn’t belong to me. For Asiedu, one of the things they found against him was his father’s property in Asaba. The team that investigated him said his father’s property, with proper documents, belonged to him. Most of us knew that the new government did not find anything, apart from that little incident, and maybe one or two governors who were found wanting in some respects. The new administration failed to establish any high scale or even medium scale corruption in the Gowon government.

Let me quickly add that when General Gowon was in London as a student in exile, I used to go to London once or twice yearly and we used to meet. We travelled by tube as we didn’t have any car. I remember an occasion when we both met at the House of Commons because one of those committees invited him; I was also invited. We took the tube to his house.

Is it fair to say that it was when you left government that you made a lot of money as a lawyer? 

No, not a lot of money; Chief Awolowo and I did not occupy government quarters when we were in government. He lived in his own house at Apapa while I lived in mine, which I moved into when I married in 1964 at Yaba. Although I was a federal commissioner, I didn’t ask for anything from the ministry. I paid for electrical and water problems from my pocket. 

Did you find law more lucrative than government appointment? 

Of course I was able to build a house. I returned in September 1960 and moved to my own house, which cost me £5,000, a storey-building, with a bungalow for my mother at Yaba. So what did I need government service for? I had some plots, which I declared to the Murtala-Obasanjo government, but I didn’t develop them until much later. Victoria Island was allocated to me; in fact the government of Shamsi Lawal, who was governor after the coup under Murtala-Obasanjo. We knew ourselves very well in Lagos where he grew up. I did not develop part of my plot here until after I left government, and it was with a bank loan, First Bank. I had another plot in Ikeja, with a UBA loan.

Why didn’t you go into fulltime politics after you left? I think you were a deputy legal advisor to the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), but you never really went into elective politics, why? 

That was because I found politics to be full of corruption.  At that time, politics was full of corrupt practises. And it is worst today. However, there are some genuine and good politicians Nigerians can be proud of, but they are not many. I found politics as a place where people make money for themselves and render little service to the community. That’s not part of my training, that’s not why I organised demonstrations against governments in England and back home in Nigeria. 

Do you mind giving examples of some of these good politicians you think we should all be proud of?

It would not be proper to mention names, but there are still some who are good politicians. I witnessed the swearing in of Charles Soludo; he is a good material. I heard his speech in full and hope he fulfils his promises. There are good people in all parts of the country.

Your daughter, Khadijat recently declared to run for the position of president, an action that surprised many people. Was it something you encouraged? 

No, she is not prepared for that sort of position.  

Why didn’t you discourage her?

You let children do what they want to do and learn, when they make mistakes, maybe they would correct it. Don’t teleguide them.   

Your wife was quite active in politics many years ago; she was the deputy governor of Lagos State at one time. She was also the chairperson of the interim committee of the National Republican Convention (NRC), were you uncomfortable with those roles she was playing? 

I don’t believe in discrimination.  God created man and woman for his purpose; and in the Quran you will find that Allah says, “community of pious men and women, idol-worshipping men and women’, so it is man and woman. She is a human being and I am a human being. She had very good background. Her father was a product of Kings College in 1924, along with one of my uncles.

She joined the civil service. At first she was a lecturer in a college of education, and when the college was merged with the University of Lagos, she later on joined the civil service in Lagos State before moving to the federal service, where she was in the Cabinet Office for quite some time. She is still very active, especially about the place of Muslim women in the society.   

Was she the first Ameera of the Federation of Muslim Women Association in Nigeria (FOMWAN)?

She was one of the founders the FOMWAN, and she is working there till tomorrow.  

Did you not feel threatened when she became prominent as deputy governor and chairman of a political party?

No; I gave her the fullest support, just as she supported me when I was in government.  

Was it an arranged marriage between you and her? 

No; I worked hard a little bit. We knew ourselves and the families interconnected. And Lagos was a small place for me to trek from my father’s house at Idumota to Ikoyi; there was no problem. It was very easy to trek from Lagos to Mushin. I did it as young men of our age. 

Of course the families were well known. My wife’s immediate elder sister married my classmate, AK Amu, the famous sprinter. Amu and I were classmates at the Kings College. So I knew the family house. We started courting when she was a student in Ibadan. Chief Akpata, my twin brother from student days was the assistant registrar in Ibadan, so I used to commute from Lagos to Ibadan during our courtship. So we had to go through the process of customary law, visiting and so on. That was normal, and we are happy as we are. 

You are 89 now and still active. I have been here in your study and office and lawyers are coming in and going out. Do you feel the necessity to continue working? 

It is part of me; it is a pleasure to do the work. I have been involved in writing a few things, apart from my autobiography. I am concerned about the way Nigeria is being propelled. I wrote a small pamphlet about restructuring, and as I said to you earlier, if politicians will not go back to a 12-state structure, it if must be 36, for goodness sake, let it remain as it is. There shouldn’t be more states because most of them are not viable. Governors spend most of the year in Abuja lining up for money. Can you imagine the Sardauna of Sokoto going to Lagos to beg for money from Balewa or Zik? 

Some people call you “the federalist;” what does that mean? 

I spent about six months in Abuja when Obasanjo was in power. You remember the conference he set up? I was the leader of the Lagos State delegation in 2005. We spent a lot of time and prepared a report, which I thought was better in the circumstances. It was the best we could get. We covered all the little grey areas successfully. We did not carry the legislature along.  In 2014, when the governor of Lagos State said I should lead the delegation again during the Jonathan’s conference, I said I wasn’t going anywhere. I told him that I knew he was the governor and as part of Lagos State I should normally obey my governor, but this time, no. But we agreed on a formula. I remained the head of the delegation and his attorney- general was doing the day-to-day work in Abuja and reporting to me here. 

To me, the recommendations we made in 2005 were even better than what many members of the public are crying for, that is, many members of the opposition party. I have the documents for 2005 and 2014. 2005 was better than 2014. 

Tinkering with the constitution every day is not good for the stability of our country. And to my mind, the error started to surface in 1979. 

I was one of the 50 Nigerians, or 49, because Chief Awolowo declined, who drafted the 79 Constitution. But some of the things we recommended, like revenue allocation, wwere ignored. The Constituent Assembly, which followed in 1979 and headed by Justice F. R Williams, didn’t recommend what appeared in the constitution later. The provision which the military put in the 1975 constitution was that the decision on revenue allocation should be at the discretion of the National Assembly. 

There was a formula for 50, 20, 30 for agricultural commodities – Kano pyramid, cotton, tin in Jos, cocoa in the West, timber in the Midwest, palm oil. Nigeria was the largest producer of palm oil, even palm kernel. We were number one in one and number three in the other in the world. What has happened to them? Is it because we now have petroleum? Are we going to drink the petroleum? So, we have sacrificed agriculture for oil or petroleum, which we now mostly rely on. These are some of the problems in the polity.  

Are you optimistic about the future of Nigeria?

Nigeria will survive. We have gone through these situations too often. We thought Nigeria would break up in the 1960s before the coup; then we had the coup and the country didn’t break up. We also thought Nigeria would break up after the Shagari government fell in the hands of General Muhammadu Buhari, but it survived. Abacha also came with his dictatorial instinct and wanted to be president for life. What about the issue of Abiola’s mandate and the crisis it created? My good friend, Obasanjo, who says he is a democrat, fought for third term, but thank God that he failed and Nigeria survived. So, even in this situation, Nigeria will still survive. 

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