Chief Samuel Oluyemisi Falae was a federal permanent secretary, former managing director of the Nigerian Merchant Bank before he returned to the civil service as Secretary to the Government of the Federation during the General Ibrahim Babangida regime, and later, minister of finance. He later had a stint in politics and contested for the office of the president twice. In this interview he shared his experiences.
By Kabiru Yusuf
You were born in Akure, but somehow, after primary school you came to Lagos for secondary education; how did that come about?
Indeed, it was interesting how I came to attend Igbobi College in Lagos. Of course the college was very popular in the Western Region in those days because every year it did extremely well in the West African School Certificate. Because of its popularity I was going to take their entrance examination, but one of my elder cousins said I should not waste my money because since 1932 when the college started, it had never admitted any person from Akure, our home town. That challenged me and I decided to take the entrance examination to demonstrate to my cousin that I would do what nobody else had done in Akure up to that point. So, in a very defiant mood, I took the entrance examination. I passed and was admitted.
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After Igbobi, unlike many of your contemporaries, you didn’t seek the golden fleece outside the country, instead you went to the University of Ibadan. Was that a deliberate choice or the lack of opportunity to go abroad?
Again, there is a story behind it. Our focus was on going to the Higher School Certificate (HSC) course, which was just coming into Nigeria. Igbobi College didn’t have an HSC course when I left in 1957, but Kings College had, so I and nine others from Igbobi were selected by the school authority. I took the entrance to Kings College, but unfortunately, the examination leaked and the results were cancelled. The Rev Parker gave me a note to Government College, Ibadan to attend an HSC course. So from HSC we went straight to the university.
Yes, some were going abroad to study; I also wanted to go to read Law and Economics, a special combined course in the Saint Andrew University in Scotland. I got admission but they wanted the Western Regional Government to give some documentation, which I never got. So when the admission to the University College, Ibadan came, I went there, hoping that the document would still come and I would withdraw and go to Scotland, but for a whole term I didn’t get it. Thereafter, I decided to stay in Ibadan to read Economics.
Unlike many young graduates from the South West in that era, you went to the public service rather than the private sector, which was opening up, why did you take such decision?
Yes, that’s true. It was quite deliberate or almost mandatory. I got a federal scholarship as an undergraduate and the federal government said we must work in the public service. I tried to take a job elsewhere, but they wrote me a letter, stating that I must work in the civil service. So I had to give it back and come to Lagos, very reluctantly. But in retrospect I am happy that I came to Lagos because I was able to actualise a lot of my dreams in the federal civil service. By the grace of God, I was one of the youngest federal permanent secretaries ever appointed; I was 38 years old, very unusual.
So in all, I thank God that I accepted the invitation. I liked what I was doing when I went to the federal civil service. I was a quasi academic in the planning ministry. It wasn’t just a routine as planning was essentially looking forward to the future, making projections of the various macroeconomic aggregates and forecasting foreign exchange earnings, surpluses and helping to articulate projects, evaluate projects, both for the federal government and state governments. In fact, that was what gave me a tremendous insight into Nigeria.
When I became a director of economic planning, I had to visit every state to discuss their various projects with them in detail, and at the implementation stage, I had to travel around the country to physically see those projects and write reports on them. That was perhaps the foundation for my political ambition.
Having seen the potentials of Nigeria, I felt that I, with others, could do something to translate it into development, income and opportunities for many. So my going to the civil service was a blessing in disguise.
It seems you retired from the civil service fairly early, why?
In those days, it was government’s policy that if you had done 21 years of service you could retire, but you would not draw pension until you were 45. I became a permanent secretary at 38 on grade level 17, step one. At 39 I was on step two, then steps three, four and five. So I got to the highest point in public service by the time I was 38. There was no revenue to look forward to and my responsibilities were growing as Nigeria was young, so I talked to myself, that with my salary stagnating and responsibilities growing, if I could get another job I would take it. So, when I got the opportunity, I retired.
Were you offered the banking job before you retired and that kind of motivated you?
Yes, when I heard that the managing director of the Nigerian Merchant Bank retired and there was vacancy, I got interested and spoke to my friend and colleague, Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji, who was the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Finance. When I mentioned it to him he was excited. He said that as I knew, the federalgovernment had 60 per cent equity in the bank, United Bank for Africa (UBA) 40 per cent, and that the agreement with UBA was that the federal government would always nominate the managing director and UBA the deputy, therefore, he would tell Shagari that I was interested.
When he told Shagari, the president said I should see him. So I went to see him and he asked if it was true that I wanted to retire and go to the bank? I said yes and he asked why. I told him that he said we should be the bridge between the public service and the private sector. I said that someone like me going from the public service to the private sector would be a very credible bridge. He agreed with me and said he wanted to be sure that I was not being edged out. He said one of his friends who left the regular service to head a parastatal was removed by one of his ministers without consulting him and it was too late when he heard, so he didn’t want that to happen to me. I said it was my decision to go. That was how I got appointed as the managing director of the Nigerian Merchant Bank.
It is curious that you mentioned Alhaji Alhaji because in a recent interview he said something I am sure made you unhappy, from what I saw in the paper. He seemed to have made an uncomplimentary remark about something that was there during your days in the service. Is there any bad blood between the two of you?
We were very good friends. When I came back into the public service after I had been managing director for five years, he was one of those who made it very easy for me. I had no re-entry problem, thanks largely to his being my friend and being there because at some point, the then Head of Service thought he should have been made the secretary to the government. But weeks before he appointed him, Babangida had decided that he was separating the post of Head of Service from that of the secretary to government; I had no hand in it.
So Alhaji was very helpful at the initial stage, and we remained friends throughout. Even when he was the High Commissioner in London, I visited him. So when I saw his remark about me, I was shocked. I was sad because I thought Alhaji would not say anything negative about me if he was not beginning to forget and confuse events of the past because what he said never happened; it could not have happened.
I am happy that General Babangida is still alive. He was astounded when he became aware of what he (Alhaji) said. I have made a statement that what Alhaji Alhaji said was pure fiction—a story without any speck of truth in it. I was never sacked from any position by anybody at any time; either when I was in the civil service, in the banking industry or when I came back into public life as secretary to the government. I resigned voluntarily for a purpose to go into politics. It is in the public record that I resigned. It was carried by the papers, radio, television; the whole country heard about it. I wrote a letter of resignation to the president and he responded and he thanked me for my service and wished me well in my new ventures.
It is surprising that you left the civil service and went to the bank, yet you were recalled at a more senior level as Secretary to the Government of the Federation. Were you surprised? I mean, why did Babangida go outside the civil service to appoint a secretary?
I did not expect the invitation. First, I knew General Babangida from a distance before I retired from the service. We were not close, we were not friends. He sent one of his aides to me, whom I knew well in the bank, to say the president had offered me the post of Secretary to the Government of the Federation. I asked if he was joking and he said he was not.
I told him to thank the president for me, but that the answer was no. I had already said goodnight before leaving the civil service, would I go back and say good evening? Secondly, I liked what I was doing at the bank because I could see the outcome of my efforts. In the civil service you were just part of a number, but in the bank I had a balance sheet. My bank was stagnating on a plateau when I took over. But in the very first year, by the grace of God, I doubled its profits. And every year, I doubled my profit. I was very happy seeing the fruits of my labour. I had the fastest growing bank in my time. It was very rewarding, spiritually and otherwise. So I didn’t want to leave all that. Also, I was free to choose what I did, but as a permanent secretary or secretary to the government you could plan something for the day and a call would come from Dodan Barracks to change your programme completely. And you could be summoned to Dodan Barracks from 10:00am until 8pm. You did not control your own agenda.
But in the bank, I was the chief executive, so I chose what I did and when I would do it. For the first time in my career I was going home for lunch. Of course the downside was that I started putting on weight and my wife started complaining, but seriously, I didn’t want the job at all.
But Babangida was very persistent, so after consultation with some senior friends, they said it was a privilege to be appointed secretary to the government so I could not turn it down. They said, ‘If your intention is to come back to the banking industry after that, you can. Go on secondment; since they have 60 per cent equity in the bank, let them arrange for the bank to second you. You remain the managing director of the bank, so you will be working for free for the government and your bank will pay you, you will not take one kobo from the government.” That was what I did.
As the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, and later, finance minister, you played a very crucial role in shaping the economic direction of the country, especially on the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). Why did we need SAP at that period?
Before I answer that question, I will address the misperception that I was the architect of SAP. I wasn’t. The fact was that there was a national debate on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan, if you remember. Babangida said Nigerians should debate it. They went on and on until, I think in December, 1985, when he made a broadcast and said he had had enough, so Nigeria would not take the loan because of the conditions attached to it. He said Nigeria would introduce her own homegrown adjustment programme, not the one that would be imposed on us by foreigners.
He made that broadcast on December 18, 1985 when I was still the managing director of the Nigerian Merchant Bank. I was not appointed secretary to the government until the end of January 1986, six weeks after the government had announced that it had adopted its own home-grown structural adjustment programme. That is the fact. However, as a professional economist and banker, I understood the rationale behind SAP. It was expected to make us self-reliant and less dependent on foreign imports, especially of nonessentials, food, water, alcohol etc.
The government always called upon me to explain the rationale to the public. At the end of the cabinet meeting, I would be the one sitting down there facing the cameras, answering the questions, explaining what we were doing and why we were doing it. So people said that was Mr SAP.
One of the major objectives of SAP was the diversification of the economy, particularly on the export sector and to bring to an end, what I can call the bureaucratic control of the economy. We had parastatals like the Marketing Board, which decided the price to pay to farmers for their groundnut, cotton, cocoa, palm oil. Unfortunately, those on the board destroyed the production of these crops because they did not pay farmers the prices that were remunerative enough to encourage them to continue. For example, at the height of cocoa production in western Nigeria, we were producing 240,000 tonnes per annum, but by 1986/1987 when SAP came, we were producing only 40,000 tonnes, one-sixth of what we used to produce. What happened? The Marketing Board regularly underpaid the farmers. And they built up huge reserves. They were allowed by law to build up reserves by paying less than the market price to farmers, but the objective of building the reserves was to enable the board shore up prices in bad years; which they never did.
Every year they paid, they shortchanged the farmers and built huge reserves. In case of the Western Region, the government reportedly borrowed money from the Marketing Board to finance its various developmental projects. That was good, but the farmer should not be the only person to bear the burden of development; so it was unfair. So, the Structural Adjustment Programme was also expected to eliminate marketing boards because they had failed.
But there is a good part of the programme. In terms of self-reliance, as you said, it encouraged free economy, but the withdrawal of support to education and social welfare—subsidies—if you want to call it that, led to a serious disruption in those areas, especially for a developing country that needed to build up its own social capital. What is your take?
I agree 100 per cent with you. The withdrawal of subsidy, especially from those important areas, was never a critical objective of SAP. Yes, the IMF and World Bank would come to us here and say we must reduce subsidy, and I used to tell them that if the American government withdrew subsidy from the production of food in America, they would hardly be able to feed themselves. By virtue of Public Law 480, the American government subsidises farming to the extent of 40 per cent, so how could you ask us in Nigeria not to subsidise for farmers?
I never agreed that we should remove subsidy. Gradual phasing out, yes, but immediate phase out—not from education, not from health; it could be from things like petroleum. I have always held the view that if we adopt my own pricing mechanism for petrol, you would find out that there’s no subsidy. My pricing proposal is based on the assumption that we would develop the capacity to make our refineries work. Why can’t we manage refineries? People like us run other countries in the world, why can’t we run refineries.
If the refineries work, then I will insist that the price to be paid for petrol should be derived from the production cost of crude oil in Nigeria, plus the manufacturers cost, plus what is called the normal profit in that industry. Those three components will determine the price you pay at the pump. Now, if you do it that way, the price will be far less than what we are paying today. What we are paying today is based on the international price of crude. It is assumed that your crude oil is taken to New York, where they refine it and you ship it back, then you sell it and you say there is subsidy. If your refineries work, subsidy will disappear.
Would you and the leading elites in that period like Alhaji Alhaji accept responsibility for the choices Nigeria made, which have really put us in a very bad shape as an economy, such as the devaluation of the currency?
I am very happy you raised this matter. After three years of the Structural Adjustment Programme, from 1987 to 1990 when I left government, the adjusted value of the naira was N5.50K to the American dollar. The day I left office—August 20, 1990—it was N5.50k, not N55 to the dollar. Unfortunately, mismanagement followed thereafter. I can’t explain or justify what happened. I was even advocating that we should adopt the Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) method of valuing our currency. If we did that, in fact, it would have been better than N5.50k. I was still arguing that when I left office. Six months later, it had gone to N22 and N84 and N100 and N200. Of course I had left office, so I won’t know the details of why things went the way they did.
Yes, as a public officer I will accept responsibility for any mistake I must have made in office, but I don’t think it was a mistake to encourage the Nigerian public to move into an economic arrangement where they could exercise their freedom of choice, where a parastatal like the Marketing Board would not impose prices on them and deny them vital money in one particular year.
The Marketing Board failed to import enough bags from India to enable farmers bag their produce and sell, and for that reason, for two months they could not sell their produce and I suffered. I went home to Akure for my school fees but my father could not give it to me. l had cocoa dried but there was no bag, no thanks to the incompetence of the Marketing Board.
You tried to be president twice. The first time the process was scuttled by General Babangida. Tell us that story. What happened?
Well, I cannot pretend to know what happened. It was a very exciting time. There were 12 aspirants on the platform of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and 13 from the National Republican Convention (NRC), and I was running around the whole country trying to sell myself. I believe the government started to change its mind about leaving office and how to find an excuse was stalling the transition.
They said we were rigging the primaries, which depended on Option A4. At one stage in the SDP, where I belonged, out of 12 people, 11 of us withdrew. One of us, General Shehu Yar’adua, was the only one who contested in 10 states because he was using his position to manipulate the results, so the remaining 11 refused to participate. But the government still said the outcome was rigged. If we didn’t participate and there was still rigging, yet all of us were disqualified, it meant it was he who was rigging. I believe the government was changing its mind, so we were disqualified. Later, after the Abiola episode, I was detained for two years for being part of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), insisting that the democratic choice must be respected, and that if the government didn’t want a particular person to be president, they should disqualify him before election. But once we had elected him, if you disqualified him you were taking on the voters and no longer that candidate. That’s my position.
General Abacha was surprised that I was part of the movement. He considered me a friend and colleague. We worked together, but I sent messages to him that it was not him I was quarrelling with, it was his decision. Unfortunately, he could not quite separate himself from his actions, and so, I was detained for two years. I came out after he died and participated in the 1999 presidential election.
In the South West there seemed to be a controversy on the choice between you and Chief Bola Ige; how did you beat him to the ticket of the Alliance for Democracy (AD)?
I will be circumspect with my choice of words because Chief Bola Ige is no more; if he were alive I would be freer with my comments because if he didn’t like them he could reply. It will be unfair for me to say things about him that he will not be able to respond to.
Now, you remember that Chief Ige did not participate in the transition from 1990 till 1998. He said he had taken the position of “sidon look.” But I was there with Shehu Yar’adua, mobilising the party, running all over the country and building offices. By the time Ige decided to participate in 1998 in the SDP, I was far better known. I had won elections in the North and East. He was not as well known in the party circle as I was. Two, he had no followership, but I had built up mine nationally. I had campaign committees in all the states of Nigeria. I had offices and buses. Secondly, I believe he had done things in his political past that affected the attitude of a number of leaders in the South West. What happened was that Afenifere set up a committee of 23 people to serve as electoral college to choose between me and Chief Ige. What I did was to visit everyone of them to have a one-on-one and try to persuade them that I would be a better candidate for the presidency. Yes, Ige had been in the party for a long time, but for 10 to 15 years the military government had been the political machine of Nigeria, I was in the very centre and core of the government. I was there when most of the important decisions about Nigeria were discussed and decided; therefore, I too had a very relevant and adequate political education. I was not a neophyte in politics.
I also went to those I knew would never vote for me as they were close to Bola Ige. I was able to persuade 14 out of the 23 to vote for me. I went to see one of Chief Ige’s personal friends from Kogi State in his village and told him to keep his friend but make me his presidential candidate because what was important was winning the election. I believed I had a better chance of winning nationally. He agreed with me, so I told him to support me.
Were you surprised you lost to Obasanjo in the 1999 election?
I didn’t lose. In fact, I won the election.
The military felt safer in the hands of a fellow military man as their successor. Yes, I worked with them; they knew what I could do, they knew my integrity, but I was not a soldier. One of them later said ‘you could trust a sergeant more than a graduate’. Before the election, the government was already giving the presidential plane to him to go round Africa. I saw that, it showed their preference, but I won the election.
I was able to serve the point of view that it was time for real change in Nigeria. But when the results came, it was very funny. I will give you an illustration. Imo State had 22 local government areas. The results for the first 18 came out and I won with a ratio of 4 to 1, which was not close. I was sure I had won Imo State, so I went to bed. The result from the remaining four local governments came out when I was asleep and completely overturned the results I had in the 18 local governments. It was very clear that they gave it to Obasanjo, there’s no argument about that.
They thought that was the best thing for them to do. They also thought that as a civilian I would go after them, but I had made it plain that it would be stupid of me to undermine a government I was part of. It would be suicidal.
Another election is coming and you are an elder now in the South West, would you take part in settling the gathering storm?
I retired from partisan politics.
But given your deep insight into what is going on, as well as your experience, don’t you see a problem coming to the South West in terms of the choice of the next presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC)?
The APC is not the only party in the country.
But it is the ruling party and it looks like the presidential ticket is going to the South, probably the South West; are you not bothered that something may go wrong?
Only one aspirant has told me that he wants to be president. In any case, the South West cannot choose a president for Nigerians. You can narrow the choice, but ultimately, all of us together must elect a president.
What do you think are the chances of Bola Tinubu?
My assessment is that I don’t know what the attitude would be in the East or North, but here, I would say it is a 50:50 chance because everybody has a past.
Who has the other 50?
Nigerians – the candidate 50 per cent and voters 50 per cent.
You have been very critical of the structure of Nigeria, what ideally do you want to see?
My view is that a parliamentary form of government is better because it is far cheaper to run. If you want to be president of Nigeria under that system, all you need to do is to win the election to the National Assembly in your home constituency, and if your party has the majority in the Assembly and you happen to be the leader of the party you will become president. You don’t have to go and look for N50billion to buy voters. Secondly, it is collegiate, that’s the very natural. The president or prime minister is a member of the House of Representatives, from where he chooses all his ministers, who are his colleagues. We call him first among equals. The advantage of that is that on a daily basis, the legislators can interact with him, exchange views and develop positions with him.
In the present system, the man is sitting somewhere, and maybe for three months you don’t even know where he is. The kind of continuing dialogue we need to resolve the problems of Nigeria is not encouraged under this system.
Also, given the very heterogeneous nature of our country, you need a system that forces the ruler to seek the support of others. Once we elect a president he can virtually do what he likes, but if a prime minister does not do something members of the House support, they can vote him out of office. So he is forced, by the very nature of his election, to seek consensus. To me, these are very powerful reasons we should go for the parliamentary system. It engenders a learning process for young parliamentarians who can eventually become ministers. There’s training embedded in it.
In the present system you can just come from nowhere with plenty of money in your pocket to seek political position. For example, one young man came to my house five years ago and said he wanted to be my governor. He didn’t see me, so he left a note, stating that I should call him. Presumably, he expected that I should be happy that he wanted to be my governor. That boy had never done anything in his life, but because he had money in his pocket, he thought he could buy the governorship. These are the abuses that have culminated into what we are battling with today.
You were a prominent member of the 2014 conference under Jonathan, so Nigerians sat down to review the structure of the country, yet they still came back with the position to continue the presidential system. Are you still not satisfied?
In some of the discussions and unofficial consultations we had most nights during the conference, I asked one of my friends from the North and elsewhere, who were opposing the parliamentary system of government, why they were doing so and they said the Yoruba people, through Obasanjo, had used the presidential system to their advantage, so they must use it for the same number of years, after which they would agree to do the most sensible thing, which is parliamentary government. Most Nigerians support parliamentary government but they have this kind of political consideration.
Finally, despite all the problems we have, are you optimistic about the future of Nigeria?
I am a chronic optimist. I am encouraged by what I know about Nigeria – its resources, inanimate and human resources, and what I have known throughout my career about the yearnings of most Nigerians, regardless of where they come from. They basically want the same things. But you see, partisan politics and ethnicity have poisoned the environment.
When we were at the national conference, we had what we called bridge meetings at nights. To my surprise and joy, most of us agreed with the same thing; that was why we were able to get many things through that conference. For these reasons, I am optimistic that Nigeria as a country would survive and develop. And we will have peace because there are so many factors that push and mandate success in Nigeria.
We have made a terrible mistake in choosing leaders, but if we get it right and get a man who will listen to others, who knows that he is not the only one in Nigeria, and that people from other parts of the country have as much right as him to be where he is, that’s all we need. People should feel that they are recognised as legitimate citizens of Nigeria, entitled to all the good things of the country.
In the UK, who cares where the prime minister comes from? Gordon Brown, a Scottish man, was prime minister and it didn’t matter.
Similarly, if the government does what it is supposed to do, I don’t think Nigerians would bother where the president comes from. Everybody is entitled to government’s attention.
I believe we have enough people who can govern this country properly and enjoy the support of most Nigerians. That is the hope we have; and we have the resource base. I pray that God would enable us pick leaders at all the levels of government that would make the welfare of the ordinary person their primary business.