‘We would arrive at a shape of democracy that will suit us, we’re still experimenting’
The Amayanabo of Twon-Brass in Bayelsa State, King Alfred Papapreye Diete-Spiff, who, at the age of 25, was appointed the first military governor of old Rivers State, was educated at St. Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, England, in this interview with KELVIN EBIRI and JULIUS OSAHON in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, said through conscientious planning, proper thinking and proper execution, his administration was able to leave inedible mark on the sands of time. Worried by the current state of the Nigerian nation, he canvassed the full implementation of the recommendations of the 2014 national conference, urging old political actors to appreciate that vast majority of Nigerians, who are youths and highly educated, should be given the opportunity to pilot the affairs of the country, among other issues.
What spurred you to join the military?
I STARTED with the Merchant Navy, but before the Navy, I also trained as a meteorologist at the Meteorology School in Oshodi, Lagos, as meteorological observer and worked in Ikeja airport in 1961.I would have loved to train as a pilot to go into commercial flying, but by the time Nigerian Airways Authority was recruiting people in 1956, I was only 14 years old. Coming from the riverine area of Nigeria, I had that strong urge to take on a maritime career and my father encouraged me.
So, even in my first year in school when my seniors were talking about selecting subjects relevant to the career you wanted to pursue, so you don’t drop subjects that are mandatory later in life, I told them not to worry, that I knew exactly what I want to do- to become a maritime captain.After school, I went to Lagos to train as a meteorology officer and I was posted to Ikeja and that was the time they were recruiting officers cadets and I was among the two that were recruited that year and we were seconded to the Nigerian Navy for initial square bashing and cutting of the tail.
I then reminded the Nigerian Navy people that I actually wanted to be in the fighting forces, doing maritime work, because my father was a renowned conservationist and was the one responsible for reducing the population of the elephant when it became too much. So, he had all these big rifles and we were in Cameroun at the time. I used to enjoy squeezing the trigger without the bullet. Even from childhood, I loved guns, the sea and also flying.
So, the only career that would satisfy my yearnings was the Navy, because the Navy has the gun, sea and it also has aircraft. I would have loved to end up as an aviator in the Navy and when we were sent abroad to train, we were also given aptitude test by the Royal Navy and I thought I would end up getting my wings, under water (diving). Of course, you know it is also an interesting career. We used to say then while the astronauts were going to outer space that we were going to inner space.
There again, I trained and had several diving courses, I think three different courses during my summer holidays, because the training itself was so compact and so thorough. You were busy the whole time. But even there, my meteorological training became very handy, because of the ships reports we were supposed to send out at sea, which I collated to see the movement of storms, hurricanes and all these weather phenomena.
Suddenly, they discovered I was a trained frequent weather observer and I became the ship squadron weather officer. While I was doing the training, I was also considered as a serving officer and the Royal Naval people were very surprised how I got so much knowledge about so many things when I was supposed to be under training. So, I was virtually even acting as an instructor to even the people in my class.
Somehow, I had a very interesting training period, which was also like an internship for me. By the time I came back in 1965, I had already gotten to the stage where I was qualified to be in the position of captain of a ship. The Nigerian Navy had just acquired some ships at the time from the Royal Navy and so my classmates and I formed a team to convey these vessels back to Nigeria. These were the two vessels that later came in as NNS Ibadan and NNS Benin.
We were supposed to ferry those vessels and I was supposed to be squadron leader, leading the two vessels back. Unfortunately, the payments were not made to complete the purchase agreement. After two month preparation, they would not let us come back with the vessels and at that time, we had run out of our pay point, because we were no longer in the academy or part of the Royal Navy barracks.
We suddenly found ourselves almost being embarrassed financially and we had already sent our cars and other personal effects back home, only to start leasing cars and trying to survive. I had to show leadership again there to say, look, they cannot afford to embarrass us, because that was the time of the cold war and I didn’t want to lose any of my officer being recruited by the Russians. So, the British understood me and made me the paymaster general of my team of about 12.
I then got the approval for us to be included in the payroll, only to come back and be accused of taking a loan, and I was the one engaging and paying for the rest of my colleagues. So, all that money we collected for two months was sent back to the Nigerian Navy as a loan taken by me and the deduction started as soon as I arrived.
While my colleagues were getting full pay, I was getting serious deduction. And while in that dilemma, I was also made the captain of NNS Calabar, which was an old Second World War vessel. I tried to refurbish it and get it ready and by the time we finished at sea time, it was agreed that the vessel was too old and should be scraped.
I later found myself posted to a second vessel as the second in command. There, I took over command, because I was already a seasoned captain and a manager of men and equipment with a high responsibility by the time the coup took place January 15, 1966. When the War Council was called to assemble to decide whether we will go to war or not, I was part of the Council at age 24. Before that year ended, I was 25 and I was appointed a military governor.
Did your appointment as a military governor surprise you at the time?
No, not really, though it came as a surprise, definitely. There is no gain saying that. I told you my father used to have these big elephant guns. These guns were with him in the Cameroons and he now found that the authorities were trying to confiscate the guns from him. So, he sort of conveyed the guns to me. I went to my head of state to say, I have these guns in the Cameroons and if they can use diplomatic bags to send them to me and give me fresh licence, and they did. I can imagine at that very tense period when officers were not allowed to carry their pistol ashore, they now approved four heavy-duty guns for me and gave me licence.
The first time that crossed my mind was, ‘my goodness, somebody trusts me in this country to allow me have my own personal high calibre guns.’ I felt flattered and satisfied that somebody has a lot of trust in me. In the middle of that, they now announced me as governor. Having been given command that early was already creating some jealousy and Nyako who was my second in command on board the ship, when he heard that I had been made a governor, said ‘oh my God, you better go hide yourself, because people were jealous that you were given a command. What will they say now that you are captain of a whole state?’ We joked about it.
Then I was whisked away from the Navy, but I still did not stay away from the Navy, because the civil war at the time was inevitable. It was imminent, as you could see the cloud gathering and I had to start training our amphibious crew, and who is the one to train them? It was myself, who is the diver and commando.
I took them to Sea School and started training them and training the soldiers on naval warfare and also preparing the necessary equipment for the assault if and when it will come. But it came later as a police action, because Isaac Boro started his revolution in January 1966 and the navy was sent in to block him around Warri. By the time we were in Warri, we heard that he had surrendered in Yenagoa and that one ended.
We then hade to start training people so they could pass Warri road to enter the east and quell the rebellion. It was not that I was a green horn, because I had been exposed. I have seen a lot of weather myself, having been in charge of men and I was a seasoned administrator already before I was made a governor. So, it didn’t come to me really as a surprise.
At 25, how were you able to relate with elder Rivers statesmen that constituted your cabinet still considered one of the best in the history of the state?
In my cabinet, definitely everybody was older than me, but as I said, I have been in command of a ship and on board the ship, you had all the chief petty officers and people who had been in the Navy for 20 years and I had been in the Navy for just five years and I was still their captain and they looked up to me and called me daddy. Actually, out in the sea, the captain has full powers, even that of life and death. If there is a mutiny at sea, you could take action, such as execute people and make a report.
How did you assemble the likes of Chief Harold Dappa Biriye and others into your cabinet?
As soon as the announcement was made, I made contact with Biriye, who was in Lagos, through him, we got Melford Okilo, Graham Douglas, Professor Isaac Tema, Dikibo Daniel Kalio, Dr. Oruwari, Dr. (now Professor) Lawrence Ekpebu, who were big names in the University of Ibadan, Professor Ordu and the first Africa principal of Government College, Umuahia, who trained in Fourah Bay College in those days, Isaac Dagogo Erekosima. People like these were readily available and with the help of Biriye, we were able to summon them and get a formidable team.
Also, the late Ken Saro-Wiwa, who escaped through the creeks and arrived in Lagos, I later made him the administrator of Bonny, which was the only part of the state liberated for sometime. He too had to be brought in as a commissioner. After the liberation, we had Obi Wali, Mofia Tonjo Akobo and Capt. Elechi Amadi, who did not believe in succession and was a loyal federalist. We had quite a good handful of civil servants and even seconded some staffers to the northern states, like Dagogo Jack.
I started having a liaison office in Kaduna and we also contributed towards the endowment to Ahmadu Bello University. We aligned with our northern brothers, who needed us to assist them with some manpower and cash flow. All that was done and then, I tried to invite them to see what we were doing. We also carried out administrative reforms and got the secretary to Tafawa Balewa’s government and issued far-reaching recommendations. From the five divisions in which the state was created, we increased it to 18. And since we didn’t have many officers and the military had taken over government, I would have loved to see junior officers, like Majors, governing the councils.
So, I got a law in place for sole administrators or sole authorities and introduced the sole administrator concept after the reforms. With proper planning, proper thinking and proper execution, we were able to achieve all we did.This is what happens with proper teaching proper planning.
How did the new states created in 1967 survive? What was the revenue sharing formula then?
The Nigerian constitution at that time said that 50 per cent of the country’s earning should go back to the state from which it was earned. When I became governor, we were entitled to 50 per cent, but because of the war and the expenditure to execute the war, Gen. Yakubu Gowon came up and said he would like to cut it down to 25 per cent. So, instead of 50 per cent, he took 25 per cent for the purpose of prosecuting the war and that is why we are saying that since the war has ended, we should have reverted to 50 per cent.
Instead, subsequent government started tinkering with it till it became three per cent, now 13 per cent and we are saying it should go back to the 25 per cent, but they say no. Structurally and constitutionally, it is wrong. Fiscal federalism should encourage the people from whose source the wealth is coming from. Otherwise, everybody sits down and just waits for money from Abuja.
What do you do for leisure?
I play golf when I can. I also engage youths. I lecture in various fora on youths and youth development. We run a business that provides for educational empowerment. So, one does things to show the youth that with or without government, they can still survive and do well in a country like Nigeria that is heavily endowed with natural resources.
So, the youths, if they now form themselves into cooperatives and do what they need to do, they may earn enough for everybody to be comfortable. If they get to a stage where they can become prime producers, take for instance, they start producing mushroom, a thing that is in great demand all over the world and start exporting it, they will be earning in dollars. That is the way the youth can become confident and produce cash crops, things that are exportable.
But you need to train them to have that initial knowledge. Once they got the knowledge, they are good. Again, how do they have the capital to run some of these things? Gas is been flared.The international oil companies (IOCs) are being penalised and that money collected for degrading the air and causing environmental challenges for the host communities does not belong to the general pool; it belongs to the people impacted; hence the host communities are the ones that should get that money, whether big or small.
So, these are some of the things I discussed on the first occasion of PANDEF’s visit to the President and he sees and sympathises. The money belong to the impacted communities, otherwise, the federal government can be accused of collecting money under false pretext. Let us have that money and give it to the cooperatives in these areas to do all that they need to do. Trained and equipped, they can now fend for themselves. On the other hand, we need to have fuelling industries. Even the gas being flared is wasteful. You can have the converted to cooking gas and other ethane, methane, ethylene, etc that can be used for firing cars instead of petrol. We also need the modular refineries and a modular refinery is not a very big elaborate thing. These are little things these young men can also handle and manage.
Lagos and old Rivers State seem to be growing apart? Is Rivers where it ought to be, compared to Lagos?
No! We are way behind. The former governors of Lagos have a committee where they work together, but here in Rivers, I don’t think there is such a thing. I virtually go when I am invited to one party or another. Maybe the January 1 dinner and even then, when you go for somebody’s dinner and he does not treat you well, will you go again? So, I too shy away. The governor of Bayelsa State is very much in touch with me. He even appointed me as chairman of traditional rulers council and they come up with advice, which we give to him. But in Rivers, I think I am an alien now.
How do you compare being a governor with being a monarch?
There is no comparison. I am there to serve my people and I want to make my own people to be able to stand on their own two feet. As a community leader, I am a leader and not a governor. As a governor, you govern. It is your prerogatives and anybody who doesn’t like your style can go and jump into the lake and that is. If you don’t like the governor’s style, leave the state.
Some have argued that Nigeria developed faster under the military than in democracy? What is the difference between these systems of government?
The military era is that somebody is giving orders and somebody is carrying them out. But in the current dispensation, we have the three arms of the government. We used to have an executive council too and they were the law-making body. So, the governor in council and his executives didn’t go strict military at that time. You now ask yourself, ‘during the military, how military was the military government?’We just had the governor and he surrounded himself with civilians. But now, the law is made by a separate body, which has powers to even impeach the governor or the president. The governor cannot impeach the legislators. This thing call democracy that started in Europe and was brought to us, we need to ask how does it fit our own life style?
If we want to use the American system, we must make allowance for state police, local governments police and county police. At that level, it is absolutely imperative. If it is not there, then it is like frying egg in cold oil.
Schism between the politicians caused military intervention. Considering the prevailing political tension in Nigeria, has the political class learnt from the past?
No! What lesson is there for them to learn? This thing evolves. Like manure, it is self-generating. Democracy is growing, mounding itself and generating itself and taking shape and it will cake out. When you bake a cake, it will come out exactly the way the container used in baking it is shaped. We would arrive at a shape of democracy that will suit us. We are still in experimental and developing stage. The thing is that there are some basic principles and guidelines that must be followed.
Sometimes in the past, we all came together for a common purpose, brought our wealth and then big brother takes everything. At a point, we had to reorganise and restrategise and he says no, keep quiet. Then you find a situation where things begin to deteriorate and some said we are not doing any more, we want to go our separate ways. If everybody gets disgruntled to that level then, they use the army to put them back in shape. This was what was happening when the coup took place.
The military were being used to carry out the wishes of the federal government to quell anybody who agitated. In the process, they said to hell, why should they be using us. We are also Nigerians and we are free thinking people. So, instead of going out to do the biddings, they revolted against the people giving them unlawful orders, and that was the coup of 1966 and everybody celebrated it.
When people found out that why they killed the people from certain areas and didn’t touch their own people, there was a counter-coup and this led to the infighting within the military, because of personal ambition. It got to a stage when men of goodwill said, ‘let’s hand over to the civilians.’
So, the civilians took over with the American mode of democracy, whereby the winner takes it all.
Nigeria is ranked high in the world poverty index. What really happened to this once prosperous country?
In 1963, the population was about 63 million. 1963 to 2018 is 55. Within 55 years, the population of Nigeria has grown to about 200 million. You know the difference between 200 million and 63 million is 167 million people. Is it the same people Abubakar Balewa was governing? We now have 200 million mouths to feed, so we must increase the volume of production. The Nigeria of today is not the same thing as when we were in government. It is a long way apart. People are more enlightened and even policing has become complicated. We must get to the stage where we do things the modern way and find solutions that are sustainable, that will survive the test of time.
So, it is not just wishing and hoping that things would go away, people should look at the problem, appraise it, look at what resources we have for solving it and apply it genuinely and hope it can provide the necessary panacea and cure. Otherwise, things would be deteriorating to the stage where central axis cannot hold.
You were a delegate to the 2014 national conference. Do you think its recommendations, if implemented, could resolve some nagging inherent contradictions of the Nigerian state?
Of course! The people who were at the conference included past Presidents of the senate, past this and past that. It was a cross section of the whole community of the country. I mean people who were in positions of authority and now regretting that they didn’t do some of the things they should have done, because of the sycophants.Nigeria is full of sycophants. Sycophancy is one of the gigantic drawbacks of Nigeria. So, people who are in positions, most times, get carried away, because they are beating drums for them. The moment they leave power, they become irrelevant and the sycophants switch over to the next people in power and before they realise who these characters are, they are out. Sycophancy is worse than corruption.
What is the way forward for the country and its leaders?
No set of persons is endowed with knowledge exclusively. We should realise that the population has grown at least three to four times what it was before. What was 63 million is now 200 million and these are people who have gone to school. These days, children go to school at the age of two. So, you have people who are enlightened. The government should be a listening one, as nearly all the people are now learned and know exactly what they want and you cannot pull the wool over their eyes.
When you are doing something and they complain, listen to them, their pains. The more people get involved in governance, the better, particularly the young people. The young people cannot just sit down for people to drop dead or step aside for them; they must run and run faster than the old ones.
We must realise that the young people must be engaged and given opportunity to shine and show what stuff they are made of. Let us start grooming them. We really must be very clear about one thing- the young people are the future. Sooner or later, they would have to take over, but they cannot just sit down and ask the old to go and rest; they should give young people opportunity. We should be manufacturing our own cars by now. The fishes are in the ocean awaiting harvest. Foreigners are the ones taking away our shrimps and fishes, while our Navy is busy chasing the boys in the creeks. We must begin to get serious in this country.
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