I joined Army out of youthful exuberance
This interview was granted in August 2016.
–Col Tunde Akogun (Rtd)
The former Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, Hon. Tunde Akogun has really come a long way. He is many things rolled into one; a soldier, a culture administrator and at a later time, a politician. A leftist by his political leaning, Akogun is a disciple of the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. The amiable, soft-spoken politician turned 75 years recently. In this interview with KEMI YESUFU, Akogun, who represented Akoko-Edo Federal Constituency in the lower chamber reminisces his days in the Army through his career in politics.
On a personal note, the former Army instructor who is married to Tumi opened up on his choice of an Opobo, Rivers State lady. He also shared the secret behind their 45-year old marriage. Excerpts:
What are your childhood memories? Are you a city or village boy?
Well, I have so many interesting epoch-making events that rest squarely on my street of remembrance. I will say, I’m a combination of a village and city boy. I was born in Auchi, Edo State. Auchi then, was what you could call a glorified city. My daddy was a court registrar. So I went through places in the old Bendel State like Agenebode and Sabongida Ora. But I was also visiting places like Lagos and Ibadan. Actually, I wrote the entrance examination into Edo College but I was not admitted. I also wrote the entrance examination into Igbobi College, Yaba Lagos and I was admitted. However, my dad felt that I was too young to go to school in Lagos. I gained admission into the secondary school at 12 years. I attended Holy Trinity Secondary School, Sabongida Ora. Thereafter , I attended Abeokuta Grammar School, for my higher school and each time I was on holiday, I visited Lagos. In those days, the number of secondary schools was much lower than we have now. In Lagos for example, there were Kings College, Igbobi College, Reagan Memorial High School and Methodist Girls High School. You practically knew everyone. It was the same thing, when I was at the University of Ibadan (UI); we knew one another. Then, on Sundays, we would join up for the tea-time dance. It would start at about 3pm and end by 7pm. By the time you returned home, your parent or uncle wouldn’t know that you attended a party.
What influenced your choice of the Army as a young graduate. Then, you people had a wide range of choices to make?
I wouldn’t describe it as a choice. Rather, there is a great story behind my joining the Army. I went to Benin for a party when the federal troops were on ground. Some soldiers, who weren’t in uniform came and dragged the girl I was about to dance with. Then, I stood up and told them, they could simply have asked for our permission. But they responded by calling me a bloody civilian. At the end of day, we got into a row and one of them hit me in the hand with a chair and my hand got fractured. Then I told myself, I would join the Army. I thought, rather stupidly, like many people did back then that soldiers were illiterates. I said to myself, that I would join the Army as a graduate and be higher than the illiterates and when I meet those guys that attacked me, I would punish them. Of course, I joined but I never met them. Yes, you could say my joining the Army could be traced to youthful exuberance. I wanted to taste life on the other side and eventually I found out that Army officers, whom people thought were crude and rough were not. In the Nigerian Army, you must be an officer and a gentleman. As an officer, you have to be cultured. Later in my career, when I was appointed Minister of State, Culture and one of your colleagues came to interview me in the office, he asked me about the saying that, military men are officers and gentle men and I answered yes, of course. The lawyers say they are learned gentlemen. We say, we are officers and gentlemen.
How did your transition from a military officer to politician happen?
I left the Army when I was a little above 50 or thereabout. When in 1997, the ban was lifted on political activities, I remembered that my friends in the Army used to remind me of my days as a student union leader. As undergraduates, we belonged to the student wing of the major parties. For instance, I was the Publicity Secretary of the Student Wing of the Action Group. I was an (Obafemi) Awolowo man to the core. My friend, Prof. Itse Sagay was in the University of Ife then. He was the publicity secretary of the NCNC student wing in his school. Then, NCNC merged with UPGA. We now became joint secretaries of UPGA student wing. I have a picture we took together. Each time I show him, he would laugh and laugh. So, my initial plan as a school leaver in 1965 was to contest for a seat in the House of Assembly of the Mid-western region. By January 1966, there was coup. Since I joined politics, I can say it has been fun. There is nothing I have done that I didn’t find fun in it. I ran for Edo State governorship seat and I was almost there before Gen. Sani Abacha died and that political transition programme was cancelled.
Again, when it was time to hand over power by the Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar-led regime, I joined the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to contest for the Senate. But I was asked to step down for someone with the promise that in 2003, I would go to the Senate and I did. When I approached the person with whom I struck a deal when it was time, he pleaded with me that he wanted to go for a second term. I accepted and some people even told me, not to think the House of Representatives was any lower. So, I returned to the House and by God’s grace I became the Majority Leader. I enjoyed working as House Leader. Like I said, everything I do in life, I see it as fun. Yes, I am serious with work, but since I was never forced to do anything, I made sure I enjoyed myself . I worked without airs. If you know me, I don’t like people who work around with airs. I believe in doing my job and as House Leader, I successfully pushed executive bills. Personally , I sponsored 19 bills in my last year. I can say that I contributed to the growth of the legislature in Nigeria and the institution keeps getting better.
When was the most difficult time as House Leader? Could it have been that defining moment when President Obasanjo wanted a third term?
Well, that was during my first term in the House. President Olusegun Obasanjo was my boss in the Army as G.O.C of the 3rd Marine Commando in Port-Harcourt. It was while there that I met my wife. That military camaraderie still existed between us. As a democrat, I didn’t think it was ideal to unconstitutionally, make constitutional, a third term in office. Yes, it was a difficult period for me. In one breath, I thought that maybe if we gave him a third term, he would consolidate on some things he had achieved.
But on a second thought, we couldn’t predict if he would decide to sit -tight. When everything played out, I didn’t know if I was happy or sad, I just took things the way they turned out.
You said that the legislature has improved but many Nigerians don’t share that opinion. They believe that lawmakers are unnecessarily flamboyant and self-centred.
We must take into consideration the environment the Nigerian legislator finds him or herself. I don’t think that legislators are flamboyant. I remember that as House Leader, I could arrive in the office and someone from Borno State could be waiting to see me and after the meeting, he would still ask for money to return home. Even when I asked such people why they didn’t go to the member representing their constituency, they would say, ‘no, leader, I want something from you. In any case, the fellow I came to see was not around’. Sincerely speaking, we sit on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and by Friday, you should be in your constituency for all these things, you need funding. Legislators need official cars. I remember when we were in the university. We used to criticise those who owned many cars. We felt that as socialists, it was the old men we dubbed capitalists that indulged in wasteful spending by owning two to three cars. We couldn’t understand why anyone would have more than one TV set in his house. But when people grew older, and began to raise families and had homes and businesses to run, they do some of the things they hitherto, criticised others for. So these things people criticise lawmakers for are things they need. That a lawmaker is given an official car is like a basic necessity and not something to show off with. In terms of protocol, a member of the National Assembly comes before a minister. Yet a minister has a full team; he has votes, cars and other things that befits his status. I don’t think it’s fair for lawmakers to look like beggars.
Why have you been quiet on national issues. What is your assessment of the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration in the last one year. You worked with him as Head of State when he earned a reputation as a tough, no-nonsense leader. Do you think he is living up to that billing currently?
I was appointed minister of State, Culture during his stint as Head of State. I also worked with him as my G.O.C; so I know him very well. He doesn’t take nonsense. He likes to do things right. He doesn’t like showing off. He’s always been like that. They say the leopard doesn’t change its spots, isn’t it? Even if things are not looking good now and people are complaining because they have the right to, I can tell you whatever the president is doing is from his belief that it is the best for Nigeria. The president means well for Nigeria. It may be tough for the president now because in democracy, he has to be flexible. But I have no doubt that he means very well for Nigeria.
During your birthday celebration,you mentioned that you greatly admire Pa Obafemi Awolowo and Nelson Mandela. Why your admiration for the duo?
I will trace that to the freedom I enjoyed from my youth days. My daddy was in NCNC even though he was a court registrar and I used to make fun of him. But I could understand because though Zik wasn’t exactly like Patrick Obiahiagbon, whenever he made speeches, you could harvest ten new vocabularies. I used to tell my daddy that it was because Dr. Azikiwe used big vocabularies, that he supported him.As for me, I liked Awolowo. I was attracted to Awolowo because he provided free medical service for people under 18. He provided free education in the Western region. Although my daddy was capable of taking care of my school fees, there were parents then who couldn’t afford it. So Awo’s welfare policies endeared him to me. When he was in prison, my dress until he was released were like prison clothes. I used to call that attire, ‘with Awo in Jail”. Yes he had other respectable contemporaries like Zik and the Sardauna of Sokoto. But I had to choose one and I chose Awolowo and till date, I don’t regret it.
You have been married for 45 years. What is the secret behind your blissful marriage and what led you to a far place like Opobo, Rivers State to pick a wife?
First, I would like to give God the praise for how blessed my marriage has been. When you have been married for 45 years and still very much happy, you should know that God is the only one who could have made such a great thing happen. On a personal level, I have always believed that whatever is worth doing, is worth doing well. I met my wife when I was getting close to 30 years. She celebrated 21 and I don’t think she hit 22 when we got married and she later had our first child, Tokunbo. When I met my wife, I saw in her, virtually everything I desired in a life partner. She is beautiful and well-endowed. She is still beautiful even till today, but the beauty I saw in her was more about her character. I always tell people that maybe if I had married any of my girlfriends then, I wouldn’t have turned out this way. Maybe I would be dead by now.
They loved me so much that they wouldn’t say that what I am enjoying isn’t good for me. But she isn’t like that. At first, I didn’t like her disagreeing with certain things I wanted to do. I am Christian, but when I was younger, I would tune into VOA, the BBC once I wake up and when the day broke, I would go straight for the newspapers. And my wife would tell me, ‘why not read the Bible first and listen to God’? I would tell her God can talk to anyone He wishes to talk to at anytime. But she would tell me that I had to listen to hear God. Today, I am glad the important advice, she gave me. I can say I am happy God blessed me with a wife like her. And she comes from a very good family.