Venmak Kurnap Dangin served as a senator between July 1992 and November 1993. The 79-year-old was a seasoned civil servant in the old Benue-Plateau. In this interview, he spoke about his relationship with the late Joseph Gomwalk, why he switched from public to civil service, what Nigeria was in the 1950s, and other national issues.
How would you describe Nigeria at the time you were growing up?
I grew up at a time Nigeria was moving towards independence. In the 1950s I was in primary school. I completed my secondary school in 1961; that was six years in Boys’ Secondary School, Gindiri, for school certificate, two years at the Government College, Keffi, for higher school certificate. After that I went to the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) for a three-year degree in Business Management.
I have passed through many periods: when Nigeria was relatively undeveloped, the period of independence, the military coups, and now, the return to political life.
In the 1950s, things were good. You could travel safely to any part of the country without molestation. And if night met you in any village, you could go to the nearest family and they would give you food and a place to sleep, even without knowing you. There were no tribal or religious inclinations. That was Nigeria then. But with development also came division because regional establishments – East, West, North, and later, the Mid-West – were becoming stronger.
The Mid-West was created deliberately to weaken the western states because Obafemi Awolowo was advocating the creation of more regions. But it became a disadvantage because the friction between the four regions grew, and it culminated in the 1963 census that brought problems.
The first census was rejected, particularly from the South-East. Abubakar Tafawa Balewa cancelled it and ordered a fresh one. When the fresh one took place, there were some grievances, but Balewa said the census must be accepted. This took place when I was in my first year in the university. That was the basis of further frictions that resulted in the 1966 military coup, which some people believed was not balanced in terms of regional existence. The North and West suffered more than the East in terms of military and civilian casualties. And that was the basis of the second coup. The first coup brought General Aguiyi Ironsi while the second one brought General Yakubu Gowon. The military, in their quest to reduce this friction, decided to break up the country into states so that no region would be powerful to hold others at ransom, according to Gowon. It was thought that the arrangement would bring some sort of equality to the political structure in Nigeria.
As we continued under the military regime, more states were created by General Babangida, then Sani Abacha. That is why we have 36 states today.
It was later argued that we should resort to the 24 provinces that were created by the British because it would be less expensive than the 36 states we currently have.
Also, in the last government there were debates to create more states, even when some were unable to pay salaries for months.
Kano was one province, but now we have Jigawa, Sokoto and Zamfara. So the cost elements, in terms of manpower and salaries, were stronger than if we had retained the province. Essentially, looking at it from the hindsight, I think that was the mistake we made, which is bringing us socio-economic stress today.
What informed your decision to read Business Administration in ABU?
For me, the prospect in business was greater than what we had in the civil service. The reason I chose that was because you could easily be on your own if you had the knowledge and are able to get little resources. You know that the Japanese have no resources of any type, except for the small gas or so, but because of manpower they are now the number three economy in the world. They used to be number two before the Chinese displaced them. So if you have the knowledge and manpower you can make yourself rich.
But you later moved to the civil service
I later moved to the civil service because the demand for manpower in the North was so much that if they saw a graduate in business they would persuade him to come to government because people from other regions were running the northern region in terms of manpower. I also did that in consideration that the environment seemed to be changing and making the civil service slightly better.
After your degree you went to Holland for six months, can you share your experience in a foreign country in the 1970s?
I went to Holland as a graduate, mature and already working, so I had a fair knowledge of things happening in the world and my country. We were able to make friends from other countries, but there was temptation. For example, I was approached by some young people to smoke Indian hemp. But I told them I was in a foreign land as an ambassador of Nigeria. I asked, “What if we were caught and my name appeared in Nigerian newspapers, what would people think of me at home?’ So I refused.
You worked in several private and government organisations; how would you compare the way things were done in the past and now, especially as they relate to boosting Nigeria’s economy?
The young people would say our ideas are old fashioned, but looking back at our records you will know that you people have not beaten what we did. We were more balanced than the present generation because if the resources available from the 1970s and now were available to us then, Nigeria would have been something different. In the past, there was commitment, devotion and love for the people. That was the spirit that took us through the period. Today, Nigeria is just staggering along. But it seems to me that the present government has identified our problems and is working to correct them. But as I often tell people, President Buhari is not an angel, so he has his faults and successes. Nobody can take off in four years and be a top sprinter like Usain Bolt, or be like Pele in football. It takes time to build. If those who will take over are prepared to correct what he has done wrong, strengthen what he has done fairly well, continue with what he has done beautifully, in the next three stages of governments in Nigeria, this country will be something.
But the mentality that it is bad if not done by me or my townsmen is not helping us. That is what I see in the present generation. And I hope that people would learn to correct what others have done wrong, not a whole self condemnation. I do not accept that.
You served as an assistant general manager in the New Nigeria Development Company (NNDC), as well as the company’s sole investigator into the problems of its subsidiaries, what would you say led to the decay of that organisation?
The malaise in Nigeria was also in the NNDC. In my point of view, what happened was connected to the commitment of officers who took over. They were not committed to building most of the investments in the industries, textiles, farms further. And because they were not interested, many of the things became useless, and now, they have virtually perished. It is sad. That is why we have a lot of abandoned projects and properties all over the place. The NNDC could have been very strong today.
When the textile mills were dying, didn’t the leaders see what was happening? They could have corrected it. There were instances of smuggling; nobody paid attention to farming, so the cotton was not available. In the textile mills, after machines have worked for so many years, you have to change them so that they keep pace with the latest development in the industry. But nobody was interested. Those were the reasons. Look at the Hamdala Hotel today. This is a government-owned property; they see it every day, yet nobody is doing anything about it.
How can the NNDC be revived?
It can be revived partly through privatisation, and the government should retain a minority share, even if it is 49 per cent so that they can run it on economic basis. If the workers know that their salaries would not come if they do not work properly, then they will work.
You served as a permanent secretary under the late Joseph Gomwalk, what kind of a man was he?
He was one of the earliest graduates from the northern region. He had a very good understanding of the problems of underdevelopment, particularly in the Middle- Belt region. As a graduate, he was broadminded. And once you could prove yourself to be sound and good, he would give you a free hand to work. I once went to Tokyo, Japan with him, and at night he called me to say, “You be my computer; whatever you can sign, sign and I will accept it.’’
With the level of poverty at that time, Plateau had more money than the whole northern region because he was not materialistic. He never enriched himself. Look at the secretariat, any high-rising building there was made possible by him. He built the road from here to Wukari. No country ever has sufficient resources, but the management of the resources counts a lot.
For the road from here to Wukari, he used to say to the contractor, “I have no money, but I will pay you monthly.’ And that was how he built industries and brought development to Plateau State. I think his level of education gave him that advantage. It made him open to suggestions.
He once sent me to Germany to negotiate with a company there. I went there and asked for a draft to read overnight, but they didn’t give me. The following morning we went for discussion. The Nigerian flag and that of Germany were there, so I asked the company why they didn’t give me the agreement to go through. I told them that we would start reading the agreement from page one, even if it would take us one month. And when we went through the first 10 pages, I found out that I couldn’t agree with what they were proposing. So from the conference room I rang the airport. I went to Rome because there was no direct flight on the day I was leaving. From there I went back to Lagos and returned home to tell him what I found; and he said, “Well done.’’ I think his flexibility arose from his mental capacity to analyse and digest as fast as possible and give you the green light.
You attended Gindiri Boys’ Secondary School and proceeded to Government College, Keffi. Can you remember some of your schoolmates that have made landmark achievements in life?
Yes. From Gindiri, the former vice chancellor of the University of Maiduguri was my classmate. In fact, we were sitting on the same desk in school. His name is Professor Gazama. Shekarau Aku, a professor of engineering from the ABU was also my classmate. He is the current chairman of the National Merit Award or something related to that. There is also Ambassador Ezekiel Dimka, who has retired; but he is still alive and living in Jos here. Also, there was Professor Chukwuka Chukwendu. After secondary school, he went to the USA to school. He obtained his PhD and worked in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The former secretary to the Adamawa State government, the late Rahila Gunduri, was also my classmate. These are the ones I can remember at the moment.
Do you meet or keep in touch with them?
Occasionally, we do meet, sometimes on transit. And we do speak on phone also. For my classmates from Keffi, I can remember one Abdulrahman and Dr Titus. We produced many doctors then.
Do you think the face-off among the Senate, Police, the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) and even the Presidency is healthy for democracy?
It is not. This is because I see the present legislators as people who are not concerned about Nigeria. Sometimes, they even behave in a manner that is quite confusing. Based on some of the things we see them investigate, one naturally assumes they are people who want the best for the country. But again, when any of them is involved in a problem, rather than allow such person to clear his name, they will all join to defend his wrongdoing. Directly or indirectly, they are displaying their contempt for Nigerians. For instance, how will they approve the nation’s budget in May? And that of last year in June? Such things often lead to unemployment because contractors will have to lay off their workers since they can’t maintain them due to lack of money, occasioned by the non-approval of the budget. They just prefer to do things at their pace, regardless of the consequences.
Again, some of their constant summoning of government officials is not healthy. In the light of the nation’s current difficulties, they will summon a minister and insist that he must personally appear before them over an issue which any officer in the ministry, or the minister’s secretary can explain or clarify. Again, the way they call ministers and address them, you would think it is one primary school headmaster with his pupils. They take delight in humiliating ministers and government functionaries. That’s what I call display of arrogance. When they summoned the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Raji Fashola, he spoke to them with commanding facts and they couldn’t argue with him. If you remember too, the former Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo Iwella had to explode at a hearing with the Senate. The senators are trying to lord over the country when they are actually supposed to be the people’s servants.
Some people say the public hearings are for the personal interest of the legislators rather than the interest of the nation. What is your take on this?
That is the point. Honestly, the behaviours of the legislators are very disturbing, especially when you look at the fact that an important thing like the budget was submitted in November last year but it is just being passed in May. That must have hindered many businesses from flourishing. But they are there getting their allowances steadily. One newspaper reported that their monthly salary ranges between N13 million to N14 million, yet someone who is getting N20, 000 monthly and suffering in the sun and the rain cannot be paid because the budget has not been passed.
What is the difference between the Senate of your time and what is obtainable today?
We served during the General Babangida regime, through the transition government of Ernest Shonekan before the late General Sani Abacha came and sacked us. We spent almost two years. The difference between our time and now is that in our time, legislation was fast, debate was healthy and we summoned ministers very rarely. The only minister I remember we summoned was that of petroleum, to explain some things to us. The minister came, explained what we needed to know, and in just few, hours left. We called him because we needed to understand certain aspects of their operation. You know that petroleum has an international dimension.
There are lots of differences between our Senate and the present one. Our monthly salary then was about N15, 000, but now, they are receiving millions of naira. Our other allowance was N10, 000 for one’s office/secretary; that’s all. Our time was more or less experimental. But now, a polished way of humiliating the country through the legislative arm is very prominent. You can see it from how they talk and how they are throwing their weight all around the nation. You will notice that if the police are investigating an issue, the EFCC or DSS could be investigating it, then the Senate too will start investigating the same issue.
Did you ever have physical brawls or cases of mace snatching as it is today?
There was nothing like that in our time. The legislators of our time were more mature than those of today. We reasoned and looked at things with maturity. Our views were constantly on the nation’s economy and what we must quickly do to boost it and improve the lives of the citizens.
You are on a wheelchair. What happened, and how long has it been?
It was actually due to an operation I had on my back, close to the spinal cord. And you know that place is dangerous. First of all, I was having pains in my right leg, but medical checkups on me revealed nothing. But after a detailed investigation in Germany, it was discovered that I had an issue with my back, which was causing me pains in my leg. So I had to undergo an operation. That was what put me on this chair till date. The surgery was in 1994. I was in the Senate at that time. Before the surgery I was very fit and an athlete. I was a sprinter and high jumper. I also threw javelin. In the university I was the ‘minister of sports’ in the student union. But I refused to play football because I was afraid of breaking my legs. In the 1960s, the university didn’t give concession to such injuries. If you were unable to write examinations you would repeat, and I didn’t want that. So, from my 300-level I avoided football.
Was there any connection between your athletic activities and the back pain, which eventually led to the operation?
No; not at all.
What was the most significant position you held in your career?
This is a difficult question. But I can say it was my position as a permanent secretary in the Plateau State Ministry of Commerce and Industry. This is because I saw what I was doing clearly and pursued it with commitment. And I saw the result and its impact.
When you were in active service, northern Nigeria was very united, irrespective of tribe, ethnicity or religion. How do you feel now that there are ethnic and religious divisions in the region?
I think the smaller the units, the more they are prone to divisions. You can see that all over the country now, there are divisions; it is not just in the North. Cattle herders and farmers are fighting, and this will defeat government’s policies on agriculture. This is because a farmer, for instance, borrows money from the bank and invests in farming but loses the crops as a result of clashes. As a result of this, the farmer is thrown into bankruptcy. Again, each state always wants to have a bigger part of the national cake, so are the other units/segments in various states. Why won’t friction develop? If you take notice you would see that the regional thing is gradually coming back. For instance, we are seeing things like the Western Governors Forum, Northern Governors Forum and all that. These groups are coming together under regional guises so that they can have one voice and one economy. Now, a meeting is going on in the South-East so that the Igbo can have a stronger voice in Nigerian affairs. If all these are not checked, we may end up having four countries in the future: East, West, North and South.
2019 is around the corner and the polity is already heating up. What is your advice to politicians and other stakeholders?
If political leaders are concerned about the problem of Nigeria and they want to solve it, then they must not strive to come to power by all means except there is a hidden agenda. I advise all stakeholders to strive to ensure free and fair elections. I still have great respect for the former chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Attahiru Jega. I give him the credit for the political change in Nigeria today. This is because if you look back carefully, you would see that no party bribed him, otherwise they would have come out to challenge him for collecting their money and not doing their bidding. But did you hear anything like that? That, to me, is kudos on his part. When he was leaving the INEC, I personally wrote him a letter and couriered it to his office. I told him that I had never seen him physically except on television, but he was the best political umpire Nigeria ever had. Look at his maturity and calmness as he responded to Godsday Orubebe when he was shouting and trying to disrupt the collation and announcement of the 2015 presidential election? All he told Orubebe was that he was a statesman in his own right and shouldn’t be doing what he was doing. That statement floored Orubebe. Again, you will observe that few people went to court over the 2015 general elections conducted by Jega; that is to show that the elections were largely credible. That is why I am keenly looking at the current INEC boss who has promised to improve on what Jega did. I want this country to become like Namibia where politicians don’t go to court after elections because it is electronic voting, no rigging and everything is transparent. I will say that if the electoral umpire continues on the path of Jega, this country will be great because the elections would produce the true results of the people.