Interview by Hassan Balogun and Kola Folorunso in SUNDAY VANGUARD, APRIL 26, 2009, PAGE 19
Prince Tony Momoh, veteran journalist, legal practitioner, Vanguard columnist and former Minister of Information in the Babangida regime will be 70 years old tomorrow, April 27, 2009. The author of “Letters to my Countrymen” in this interview to mark the occasion talks about his Biography which will be out soon. He shared his experience with Vanguard’s Hassan Balogun and Kola Folorunso in his office.
How do you feel on your 70th birthday and how do you begin to thank God?
The mistake we make as human beings is that we wait for a particular day to thank the Lord when every breathing in and out, every witnessing of sunshine and rain, every daybreak, every nightfall, everyday you wake up, everyday you sleep, should be an occasion for thanking Him. So, it’s so strange that I am even being referred to as 70.
Gen. Sani Abacha was congratulated when he was 50 and he said “50, I feel like 80.” But, the fact is that when people say 50, 60, 70, it does not mean anything to me because the one that ages is the body, the shirt I wear. I, Tony Momoh, I don’t age. Nor do you; nor does any human being. So I don’t feel anything different from, to use the familiar term, when I was much younger nor would I feel any different when I am much older. So I thank the Almighty for and with every breath that flows from me.
As I said, I don’t feel any different and that is why I am not even celebrating it because all these celebrations are rituals.
So, looking back those past years, how was growing up like, your career, etc?
My growing up was like any other normal child’s, ‘rascally’. You know, not rascally to the level of not obeying my parents. But I am a stubborn person when it has to do with principles because I do not compromise my principles. Two incidents happened. When we left primary school, (Chief Obafemi) Awolowo had started building schools to meet the demands of free education in Western Nigeria. The many schools had to be manned, so many teachers were needed. I missed an entrance examination to Edo College and so I had to apply to the Local Council, like many others, to teach.
Someone said I should pay five pounds before I would be employed to teach. I refused. I could not think of a Muslim asking for a bribe! Then, I went to the Anglican Mission and asked to teach. The mission said there was a problem in employing me and I said what problem?
They said, “You know you are a Muslim. We employ teachers who are Christians.”
I said I was going to be a Christian, and they agreed. And you know, because someone asked me to pay five pounds and the person was a Muslim, I took the step that I was no longer going to practise Islam because I said I judge institutions by those who run them.
So, I stopped fasting, stopped Muslim prayers and I started going to church. Then, later they said baptism.
I said, “Yes I will be baptized but my name is Sulaiman.”
They said, “… but you also answer Tony.”
I said, “Tony is a name I adopted. If you want to baptize me, baptize me as Sulaiman or no baptism.”They agreed.
Later I went to do my Higher Elementary teachers course at the Government Teacher Training College,Abraka. The local government council was ready to pay for all the students from our area, but again someone asked that we all pay five pounds each before we would enjoy the council scholarship programme which involved payment of five pounds for each of us every month for two years, buying our books, paying our transport expenses to and from home for the whole period etc.
Again I refused to pay the five pounds and so had to meet all my expenses from the 14 pounds ten shillings monthly salary all of us earned as what they called pivotal teachers. I also bought the 24-setvolume of Everyman’s Encyclopedia which I still have in my library in my office. That was in 1960!
And the next incident?
When we finished the course, I refused to sign a bond with the Council. All other colleagues of mine who paid the five pounds bribe and were financed by the Local Government Council, signed to teach for the Council. I signed the bond to teach for the Anglican Mission because you had to sign the bond to teach for four years before you were cleared to do the finals of the teachers grade two certificate examinations.
Incidentally, by the time I was in Higher Elementary, my contemporaries who went to secondary school were in their fourth year and had two years to go. By the time they left, I had earned the grade three teachers certificate, earned a salary as a teacher for two years before going to teacher training for another two years where I also earned a salary.
So, after two years in the Teacher Training (Lower Elementary), two years of teaching earning a salary, two years in Higher Elementary, that is six years that my colleagues would have spent in secondary school, I had Teachers Grade three certificate, I had Teachers Grade two certificate and GCE O’ and A’ Levels.
The first year of serving my bond, I applied for and had admission to read estate management in England. I applied for a federal scholarship which meant that I had to seek release from the bond I signed with the Anglican Mission.
The Anglican education secretary refused to release me from the bond. He said, “After all, you signed to serve for four years. And four years you must serve.”
I said, “But I signed a bond with you to defy the Council. Let me go. After all, we are all Nigerians. I will be more useful to Nigeria if I further my education.”
He said, “A bond is a bond. You must serve your bond. There is time enough to go for further studies after you have served the four years you signed…”
But, you know, the tragedy was that the daughter of the man refusing that I should go for further studies had also just left the teacher training with a grade two certificate, and of course a bond to serve for four years! This man who was telling me about respecting bonds sent his daughter to England for further studies! She didn’t have GCE O’Level, didn’t have GCE ‘A’ Level. “
I could not accommodate such double standards. You know I quit Islam because of what a Muslim did to me. Now, as a Christian, see what a Christian was doing to me. .
I said, “I resign, I am not going to teach again.”
I also resigned from the church, saying, “I judge the institutions by those who run them.”
You can now see that I had been a “bad” Muslim, then a ‘bad’ Christian.
It was in the early 70s that I discovered I was undoing myself by resigning from the Mosque and the Church because of what the adherents of the religions had done to me. But the two men were neither the Qur’an nor the Bible. These are books that tell you how to find the way to God Almighty. You do not look at individuals.
I learned this great lesson when I attended a lecture given by Chief Adeyemi Lawson who was the country leader of the Grail Movement. From then on, I accommodated Christianity and Islam in my life and claim to be both when they are not quarreling and neither when they are. God does not need human armies to fight His Cause. What you sow you must reap.
Nigerians remember the days of “Letters to My Countrymen” which you authored. Can you reflect on this?
‘Letters to My Countrymen’ were only one approach to addressing issues, to reaching out to people. I have always believed that Nigeria does not just have a future, that Nigeria has a mission. People thought I was writing Letters to my Countrymen to promote Babangida. Of course, there was a government. Why should I not promote Babangida and the government? I was part of a team and ought to share in the praise and the blame.
But you can never deny the good things that regime did, like the cancellation of (import) licenses, cancellation of locational approvals before you would set up an industry, privatization and commercialization of companies that government owned or had majority shares in.
You know, when you wanted to import a pin, you would go to the Ministry of Trade to acquire an import licence. Government was involved in running and sustaining institutions worth about N200 billion and had nothing to cheer about in the way they were being managed. Imagine Governmentpaying money to those who wanted to fish, and they would never see any fish. So all these things, all these waste pipes, they were all there. The transition programme of the government was not just political, it was also economic and cultural. So I wrote “Letters to my Countrymen” to illuminate the programme of transition at the level of personal communication with the people. It became the anchor of a book on me, written by a team from the University of Ibadan led by an associate professor in library, archival and IT studies, Dr. Oshiotse Okwilagwe.
So, what is the book Tony Momoh, National Bibliotheraphist and Cultural Engineer all about?
I see the book more as one with me as a peg than one that is a hundred per cent on me.Understandably, there is in there how I was born, where, into what family, growing up, all that. If you read the book, you will find yourself transported to your years of growing up. I did a lot of contribution to it. But, the area of pontifications where they started analyzing the letters and all of that, all my writings since the 70s, waoh… I did not even know that I have done more than 110 professional papers, the books I have written; my vanguard Point of Order column in which I have monitored Nigeria’s practice of democracy every week for 11 years, now published in two volumes, Democracy Watch, A Monitor.s Diary, they listed all the contents. There is a chapter on photography, about three chapters on bibliotherapy which was a word I first encountered when the proposal to do the biography was mooted, two or three chapters on developmental journalism which I am listed as a proponent of.Looking at their work, I see what I have been doing over the years falling in place. Their analysis of the sociological and healing impact of the letters was so penetrating I felt like a very poor and an unenlightened student!
So, it is not just a biography that says he was born on so and so day, he went to so and so school, he was married and so on. No. It is more than that. I am quite sure that early next month by second week of May, it would be out. Also in the book, a lot of people said that I am an enigma, that nobody can please me. They say are you a Muslim, a Christian or an animist. In fact, Gbolabo Ogunsanwo, when I was a minister, because I did not swear on the Qur’an or the Bible, wrote that I was neither here nor there, neither a Muslim nor a Christian.
When I was being sworn in for the second time after the cabinet reshuffle and the Ministry of Information and Culture was broken into Ministry of Information and Ministry of Culture, someone said you must swear on ofe of the the two this time—the Qur’an or the Bible.
Then the President (IBB) said I should be left to affirm rather than be asked to choose one of the Holy Books. He said, “There are two groups of people — those who believe and those who do not.”
I said, “There is a third group sir, those who over-believe. I belong in the third group.”
In other words, I said I believe in the Qur’an and Bible as sources of a message from God to man. I believe in the Most High. But, I believe that the church and the mosque are routes to God Almighty, not the destinations we have made them.”
There is the Biography and the two volumes of Democracy Watch. What of the fourth book you say would be presented?
That is Tony Momoh: Spiritual Essays. There are 16 chapters in the book. I published therein some of the papers or lectures I have given in which I reflect the spiritual dimension. I have done this for the last 30 years, and the essays include Aliens on Earth. I wonder how many of us remember that we are aliens on this earth. There is also one on Our Earth and The Earth. I wonder how many of us know that it is not this earth that is the reference point in the creation story. I also wonder if we know that women are spiritually higher than men! So, when they say they are fighting for equality with men, they betray ignorance of their high status in creation.
What is your take on the global economic meltdown?
The economic breakdown (or meltdown) is a spiritual phenomenon. You see, everything that happens materially has happened spiritually. This is the dimension I am trying to focus in my book – Spiritual Essays. This meltdown thing is no more and no less than a reaping of the seeds we sow politically, economically and socially. Capitalism is anchored on competition and not on cooperation. Nature is undermined where competition drives your perception of growth in any field. The United States of America is the driver behind the wheel of global competition and when there is any problem there, the whole world will catch cold.
Until the United States restores some order in the management of its affairs through a model that does not continue to perpetuate a winner takes all regime, we will be moving from one failed attempt to another to resolve the problems of the world whether they are economic or political.
We in Nigeria do not seem to know how serious the meltdown is. When other people are working, Nigeria is asleep. Imagine the classic case of a governor. The National Economic Council was meeting and the unfortunate death of the Governor was announced.
Instead of doing what other civilized countries of the world do, stand up for a one-minute silence and continue with your work, they all rose and said they were suspending meetings for one month – in memory of the governor who had died. And the whole world was reeling from the collapse of world economy!
Twenty four hours or ten minutes delay is too much. So, we have not been attending to issues the way we should and instead of getting hold of ourselves and addressing the fundamentals, and profoundly too, we are writing a letter to the RMFAC to do something about it, when as a matter of fact, there is nothing about it they can do as such. Instead of using this opportunity to really re-structure Nigeria profoundly, we are not doing anything.
If a councilor should earn N2,000 sitting allowance, sitting not more than six times in a year, what happens? So, when you discover that, in a year, you cannot take home more than N20,000 you will not sell your father’s house. You will not go and kill because you want to be a councilor. Eight thousand so-called .lawmakers in the local councils countrywide earn about N316 billion in allowances per annum.
What about the Executives, National and State Assemblies and other public officers! With judicial workers, they number about 17,500. Together, they take home about half of our national and state budget in salaries and remunerations.
What are we doing? Americans we took the presidential system from, American lawmakers are not eating America up to endanger their future. If we are a serious people that want to recover from the economic malaise confronting the world today, we ought to ensure that we re-structure the country, decongest the political space.
All these things about salary review, salary reduction, it does not work because the salary people are earning is not what they depend on. You see, someone said it costs us almost N200 million a year to sustain a senator. But officially, what they have there is about N54 million. Where does the rest come from?
So, I think we are not serious. This oil will dry up one day. In fact, President Obama with his policies will ensure that, in the next ten years, America does not depend on imported oil, if it will even need oil to drive its economy. And the whole world is looking for alternative sources of energy that would not need our oil. Very soon, solar energy, the inexhaustible source of energy will be accessed so ordinarily we would wonder why we did not hit on the way to do so earlier. Oil was the gift of the 20th century; inexhaustible supply of energy is the gift of the 21st century and beyond.
…And how are we doing politically?
The fact is that in Nigeria, we are doing business with politics. The political arena is a business forum and Nigerians are ruthless businessmen. They would kill to make profit. Until we make politics a service, in other words, until we decongest the political space, we are not ready for anything. It is all business as usual. But, I know that in the time we are in, there is going to be a total clean up, everything must become new. And the thing becoming new is not man making things new. This country will be a world power in the next 25 years and that world power is going to be anchored on spiritual recognitions.
So, when people say Nigeria will be among the 20 developing countries by year 2020, and everybody says how it is going to happen, it is simply because we are looking at things materially. The materials we are working with now, crude, greedy, selfish leadership, all these will change because the cleansing of this earth is going to be total. It is not what man can fathom as a mere creature.
Dora Akunyili has come up with the re-branding Nigeria project. What is your view on this?
What Akunyili is doing now I for one know that you cannot re-brand rotten eggs. But Akunyili is not doing it for today’s Nigeria. She is doing it for today’s and tomorrow’s Nigeria. So if you have “Nigeria: Good People, Great Nation”, then it is obvious that if the people are already good and the people have to march to greatness, or if the people are not good, ensure that they are good so that we have a great nation.
Nigerians should see themselves as the moderators of that power which must emerge. So, it may well be that as people believe, Nigeria may fail. If it fails, it is a tragedy. But it is not ordained to fail. In history, God has never failed. When God gives a mission, it must be fulfilled. If you refuse to do your part, others will be incarnated to do it.
Akunyili’s project will work if the Federal Government carries it as their programme and not abandon it to the minister. This is because the minister can only speak. There is no way she can have the resources or have access to the resources that would make the thing work.
So, this re-branding thing is both a promise and a hope because if you have made the promise, then ensure that the activities and institutions are in place to make that promise bear fruit so that we would keep hope alive.
So, how can we make Nigeria work?
You can make Nigerians to work in the area of employment and in the construction industry, in hospitals, etc. Look at Lagos, Lagos is working, the governor is working and all those who are hesitating to pay tax are even rushing to pay tax. This is because they see what the money is being used for. Now, in Nigeria today, there is little or nothing to show that work is going on at the federal level. I don’t know if others see it. I have not seen it.
For instance, what has happened in two years of the Yar’Adua administration? What is the Seven-point Agenda about? If you want to roll out the drums to celebrate two years of Yar’Adua in October, what will you see? Obviously, not many Nigerians have seen anything. For instance, I use three drums of diesel for one and a half weeks in my office. A great deal of time, you can listen to noise from the generators. I have no light, many people do not have.
The draft of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill is still with the National Assembly. Why is it taking so long?
It is a question of time before that bill comes because about 13 countries had FOI laws in the early 90s but as at now, more than 70 countries and a lot of others are planning to have them.. What I am saying is that whether FOI Act is there or not, we as journalists have the opportunity to do what we want to do.
This is because of Chapter 2 of the Constitution which outlines what all officeholders must do. These include political, social, economic, education, environmental, cultural functions and and so on. Section14 of the Constitution says sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria and from the constitution, government derives all its powers. It means that the constitution is a documentation of delegated powers.
The people are the boss. The National Assembly is not the boss. The people there in the National Assembly are frightened that if they give power to the journalists by passing the FOI bill, what happens?
The truth is that they are not giving power to the journalists nor are they reducing power from journalists. Journalists can expose anybody. That is why I wrote “Taming the Monarchs”, a lecture I gave at the Bar Association Forum in 2008. The monarchs are those who think they are protected by the immunity clause in the Constitution and so cannot be touched. Yes, the courts cannot touch them, but the media can, and must.