At 75, he feels like a thirty-something year –old. Buoyed by the spirit and the intellect, and a characteristic desire to serve and save the nation, he has spent most of his 75 years on this earth in the service of his beloved nation. Born 27 April 1939, Prince Tony Momoh was a quintessential journalist, Minister of Information and Culture and Chairman of African Conference of Information Ministers from 1988 to 1990. He was also the Chairman of the defunct Congress for Progressive Change (CPC). Momoh is a Lawyer, the author of various publications. As a child, his brilliance was exceptional; and, as an adult his conference seems to border on the supernatural. A loyal friend of the self styled Evil Genius, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, Prince Momoh generously shares in this interview with Adebayo Adejobi, some depths to his convictions, alliance, and love-story with a woman who found him ugly, and with whom the oracle ruled a marriage was doomed to fail.
Though born and bred with a silver spoon, growing up for Prince Tony Momoh was a mixed grill. “When I was five years old, I and one of my brothers went to the palace to pluck coconut fronds to design wrist-watches to wear. When my father came and saw it, he said ‘what do you think you are doing?’ and we replied, ‘we were making wristwatches. He asked, ‘if someone cut off your fingers, would you like it?’ And we said ‘no!’ He then asked if we knew that the fronds we had removed were the fingers of the coconut. We said we were sorry. And he said ‘no!’ That we would be truly sorry and not repeat what we had done when he finished with us. He took us to the outer room, gave us a koboko (local whip) and asked us to give ourselves six strokes each.
“My left handed-brother hit me hard on the buttocks; it was so painful that I cried profusely. One of our father’s servants asked me to retaliate by whipping him. I then said: ‘Let me finish crying first.” When he asked me to retaliate, all I was thinking was the painful part of the body to strike my brother, such that he would feel more pain. So, I hit him five strokes of the cane on his buttocks and sent the sixth lash across his ears and immediately, I saw blood gushing out. In pain, the boy ran and went to his mother. And at that time, our family was arranged into seven compounds, each headed by the senior wives of my father. There were middle wives who lived on their own and then the youngest set of wives who lived with the oldest ones. So, the woman in the other compound with their mates came to my mother’s wing and deposited the child with my mother saying, ‘when he is well bring him back to me.’ My mother went and pacified them. But what registered in my mind is that then, even when two women quarreled, and the other was going out, she would leave her child with the other party she had just quarreled with, saying ‘ this is your child oh’. That was the type of love in my family. Every child was every other woman’s child. We all called them mothers.
Recounting an unforgettable, yet harrowing experience during his early days is the poverty he knew when his father died. “I left school for 45 days as I couldn’t pay school fees of one shilling, three pence. They were indeed gripping moments. And then my mother brought one shilling, being the capital for the Masa (corn cakes) she was producing. I would normally sell them before heading to school. The teacher then pleaded to have me go ahead after missing 45 days, on the grounds that I was no doubt brilliant and always came first. The teacher was so proud of me that he would ask me to teach the class. There was even a time I was called from Standard One to explain a subject to Standard Four students. On some occasions, I would be given a cane to whip everyone in the class. At the stage, I knew that corruption did not start today.
“When time came to flog my fellow pupils and seniors as well, I’ll get proposals like, ‘don’t flog me hard, I’ll give you beans for lunch. ‘Beautiful memories, no doubt.
“I was almost always first in all academic matters. My friends were so sure that they would bet over me saying, ‘it will be Sule who would come first’. It was a great, though a tough thing-going through school after my father’s death,” he revealed.
Life at 75…
“When General Abacha was 50 and was asked how he felt being 50, he said he felt like 80 years old. When I am asked, how I feel, I am embarrassed because feeling belongs in the body. My sensing of my age is 35. I have never believed that I am above 35.”
Pointing at a sizeable water-colour painting of himself at a much younger and energetic age, he declared: “That is the age I see in my mind… We are in this world and not of this world. The day I dropped down on earth, was the day my physical age started counting. So age is relative.
Meeting my wife…
For the widely acclaimed communication expert, meeting his wife despite all odds came with great determination and clear understanding of what he wanted from life and marriage. Giving a glimpse into the intuitive love affair, he disclosed: “I saw her on television leading traditional dances. Although I had known her before – because she is also from Auchi but her parents lived in Bariga – I wasn’t interested in her then. On seeing her lead the cultural dance troupe singing and dancing to Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, Ijaw and Edo songs, I told my friend I was going to marry her. And I just went to her and said ‘I want to marry you’. She replied ‘I don’t want to marry you.’ I said why?’ and she replied that I was too ugly. I nicely but angrily, on the inside replied, ‘me ugly? And then I left.
“Continuing the chase, I went as far as monitoring her closely as if she had become my lawfully wedded wife. The ‘chase’ was so intense that she – for over a year – put me on fools’ paradise severally, telling me she would come and never showed up. I went as far as drawing up navigation details as to how she would easily locate my house, but all was to no avail. Unknown to me, her mother’s family had consulted an oracle and their verdict was that the marriage would not last two years. And if it managed to last two years, she would not have more than two children before it collapse.
On a second thought, I said to myself it might have been part of the reasons she was very difficult to get. On seeing her again, I re-emphasized that she would be my wife and have four children; with the first and second being males, the third female and the last a male. As luck and providence would play out, Momoh got a grip of the long sort-after woman of his dream. On sighting her the day she was brought to his house after performing the marriage rites, these were his happy, confident but proud words like that of a prophet: “Fulfillment number one, you are my wife today’; and she burst uncontrollably into tears. My postulations came to fruition. Suleiman, Rasheed, Efua and Ibrahim are the names of my children. All of them were downloaded between 1970 and 1980.
Forty-five years in marriage…
Like every rocky, rough and stormy marital life, the initial stage of the Momoh union was quite fraught with challenges. How did his marriage survived the odd years? “Understanding has made my marriage tick. Marriage is more than a man and a woman coming together. If you want to have sex, you don’t have to marry to do so. There is more than sex and childbirth to marriage. Marriage have to do with a relationship who between two who have discovered themselves compatible, because no human being has it all. There are certain things that draw people together which are more in the soul than in the physical looks. The drawing power which is spiritual was a deciding factor for me while deciding to marry. It wasn’t mental; I understood my wife before I got married. “We no doubt had challenges in the early months of marriage, but we moved on knowing ourselves better. After those initials hiccups, there was no day I either went into blows or lay my hands on my wife. As a matter of fact, my own spiritual recognitions do not accommodate anything outside communication. The key to successful marriage which I have held on to, has been communication.
Faith based on convictions…
When asked if he got a spiritual foresight or inclination into how many kids they were going to have as a couple, and the order in which they’d come, he said: “the fact is that everything has happened in creation and the human spirit knows everything. If you wants to make mistakes think, but if you listen to yourself, what you have not thought of drops in to your mind, mouth it and it will become true.” One would think his pre-disposition as a cross bearer (Grail Message) could have been for this. On the contrary, he revealed: “when I told her this, I was not a cross bearer. But I remembered I had always tried to listen to myself. And when I came to reading the message, I discovered that all the doubts I had ever had were resolved with my reading the Grail Message. My background is Islam. I had to leave Islam when a Muslim asked for a bribe before I would teach. And so, I went to Anglican. They rejected me there also. On asking what informed the grounds for rejection. I was told it was because I was a Muslim. I asked for the conditions on which I will be employed in an Anglican school, I was told I have to be Christian and for that I was employed to teach in Anglican school. Over the years, I got exposed to the Bible and the Church. Later, because of what a Christian did to me, I said I would no longer be a Christian.
“Going down memory lane, when I joined Daily Times in 1962, on Sundays we were always working. So, the question of going to church didn’t arise. The fasting I was doing as a Muslim, I stopped on the ground of disappointment. Same rule applied to my then Christian faith. I resigned to fate and wasn’t practicing Christianity or Islam. Much later, I came across the Grail Message and I discovered I was just undoing myself. Because it was there I discovered that as a human spirit, I have flowing into me, the power of God Almighty which I use and account for. So, whatever I say with my mouth, do with my heart, think with my brain, do with my hands, they are sowings which will bear fruits for me to reap… I, from then onwards, accommodated Christianity and Islam.
Boko Haram terrorists juxtaposed side-by-side faith…
For a concerned elder statesman, keeping mute over sensitive issues of national interest would be suicidal. Instead, he raises a strong voice in advocacy by asking questions which beg for answers: “Where in the Holy Quran do they say you should snatch girls, kill people, and destroy churches and schools? The Quran says go and seek knowledge wherever you can find it; so how can anybody says that knowledge is evil. The same Quran says go and seek knowledge and even refers to the writings of David, Moses, and so on and so forth, and refers to the process that Allah has brought to mankind, with a view to teaching mankind. Their teaching is not in the Quran.
Position on the wave of terrorism…
“Communication is the solution. Where you communicate, there can never be insecurity. Insecurity arises from breakdown of communication and then the perception of those who feel denied and deprived. And therefore, fold their hands and say ‘I leave everything to God.’ Or agitate through writing or even go kidnapping people; or armed robbery, causing revolutions. These are results of breakdown in communication or inadequate communication or mis-communication. So, where there is adequate communication, I can assure you there’s no trouble; you know what to do, how to do it and then you do it. For instance, there was a long campaign before we took to right-hand drive. I was part of the campaign. On the 2nd of April 1970, we moved to right-hand drive. So, today, we know where to go, but when you drive against traffic, there’s serious confusion. So, the networking established in a system must b obeyed, otherwise people who disobey it cause problems. And the perception of those who are affected results in either nonchalance or agitation which may end in war. So, that’s why I will support the national conference. We must talk instead of war and war.”
The Tony Momoh-Babangida ties…
According to Momoh, the relationship he enjoys with the former military president Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida is somewhat telepathic. While in office as a minister, he speaks of his un-severed ties and relationship with IBB. “Though we don’t see and I don’t visit him, I can assure you that I feel his presence and he feels mine. There has never been any break in the bond of friendship. “On the flipside, he however has remained loyal to an arch-enemy of IBB, General Muhammadu Buhari – especially from the days of the ANPP to CPC and now the APC. What does he owe to the strange alliance? “I was donated by my community to work with Buhari. I was a foundation member of PDP and I worked with Dr Alex Ekwueme as his media director in 1999 till 2003.
“When I discovered that there was so much intellectual inactivity in the PDP, as I believed in an idea-driven polity and system, I decided to quit. Afterwards, I was seconded to work with Buhari although I had been very critical of him and had written against him and his decree 4 of 1984. I had written against him; so I took the bull by the horn to understudy and understand him. I went to see him in Abuja with George Izobo, the former President of Nigerian Union of Journalists, and Richard Anyamale of the Guardian, both of whom were not Buhari people. We met at his service apartment of two rooms and a sitting room which he hired for a week. With lots of his people in the sitting room and the other room, we went into his bedroom to conduct the interview for five hours, asking 49 questions.
“The first shocker was that he had no house in Abuja or a foreign account. The only houses he has are in Daura and Kaduna. Unlike others who have properties outside Nigeria. I was shocked to the bone at all these revelations. Here is a man who was in charge of supply and transport in the army; he was Petroleum Minister for three years and supervised the building of two refineries, pipeline and silos; governor of six north-east states, Head of state and in charge of Petroleum Trust Fund. He destroyed Maitasine, the Muslim sect in Kano and displayed his body to the public and drove the Chadians from Nigerian borders and occupied their territory during the time of Shagari. With a corruption-free clean slate, I thought this was the man to work with. This is the type of man Nigeria needs to clear our indiscipline, corruption and fraud, that is why I worked with him.”
He finds it curious that people really don’t understand his relationship with IBB. “I laugh when people talk of Babangida. Babangida is an understanding person. He called me the philosopher of the cabinet. He no doubt lost his beauty as a bride because of the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election; and I predicted it. Go and look at what people were saying about him before 1993. Was it not Babangida who returned the passport seized from Awolowo? He introduced all the banks; he cancelled locational approvals and licensing where people were making billions of naira by just carrying suitcase. In fact, Babangida did so much, and I can assure you about 45 ministers worked with Babangida, and none of us have ever been called to account for anything, especially with Decree 45 which holds you accountable even after leaving public office. Myself and Olikoye were regarded as the poorest minister in the Babangida regime. I was on N16, 000 per annum with N250 non-accountatable allowance a month. That was the only money I touched when I was in government. The salary was though later increased to N27, 000 per annum. I was earning more in Daily Times than when in government, as my allowances were more than salary in government, but I agreed to take what government was offering. The laws were very strict. His opening the system made way for abuses; and Babangida is associated with that because he opened up the system. But I tell you that Babangida’s problem arose more on the grounds of annulment, as the Press opened up on him. I foretold the consequences of the June 12 annulment in a book I authored titled, Experiment with Disintegration.
“On the release of the book, my younger brother Prof C. S. Momoh told my wife I would be arrested because of the book. As Minister of Information, I told them when I was approached that they can’t risk making me Minister of Information. Dr. Tunji Olagunju was the Special Assistant; he said ‘we can risk it, as we have read everything you ever wrote’. I then gave my condition saying, ‘If I become the Minister of Information, tell me what to do and how not to do it, and that is what happened.’ I no doubt respect Babangida. He may have his faults like other Nigerians have their faults, but he is a good man.”
Tenure as Minister…
Like every human, Momoh has his fair share of life’s failings and fulfillments. He recounts: “I had challenges and I confronted them, because I don’t regard issues confronting me as problems. I see them as challenges. Because the energy you use in analyzing problems is the same you use in resolving issues. So, I always cut the line. It was a very fulfilling time for me. When I came to the ministry, I discovered that the visiting time for the minister was thrice a week. I met everyone every day, whilst I also visited all the states of the federation, parastatals, ministries and traditional rulers three times in three years.”
My sense of style and Personae…
Speaking on his simple sense of style and personae, he explains that “the most attractive thing you can think of is simplicity.” “An 80 year-old French astrologer was asked what pushes his stamina to work for 18 hours a day, and he replied saying, I have no ambition. I look at the telescope. I look at worlds and millions of light-years away and I tell myself there must be a brain behind it. So, here I am, a little ant, what would I want to achieve that I’ll be so swollen, as to compare in any imaginable way, with the brain behind all these? Armed with this knowledge, you’ll discover that you are a grain of sand in the whole world of beaches. Through that recognition, I have become simple and grateful to God for that opportunity. And the simplicity is evident in what I wear, what I do and what I eat. I am predictable. “People who know me will tell you that I cannot ask or take a bribe because my short life span on earth is not for money-making. I know it is for service, and I strive to render service to God almighty and humanity.
My birthday gift to Nigeria …
“To save Nigeria, Let’s talk… That little publication is my birthday gift to Nigeria. I want to be remembered as one who helped sustain the dream that Nigeria has a future and a mission. To that end, I want to be part of its fulfillment. I see Nigeria as a world power within the next 25 years. There is not one Nigerian today who is not worried at the amount of money we spend in maintaining the Legislature and Executive. The country is severely stressed because the structures to make it function are faulty. Something has to be done. And those who say we must retmain where we are must be ignorant of the fact that the only permanent thing in life of man and institution is change. Where there are problems, stakeholders must meet to discuss. They may argue and quarrel and hit their fists on the table, but no one goes beyond the armoury of democracy; words in a dictionary.
“It is when the weapon of argument is short-changed, abused and undermined that other ways to right wrongs are thought of, and wrought on the system. But there is more than a physical dimension to Nigeria as a physical entity. Its people have a spiritual role to help grow the earth through imbibing and infusing recognitions downloaded from above. Before the Americans chose the road they took in late 18th century, they argued, discussed and voted. The document they produced had been amended a of couple times because of exigencies. We in Nigeria are overcrowding the democracy highway we are walking, and the way is developing bumps, manholes and craters, with these problems yelling for attention. So, we must talk. My little recommendations are my naïve appreciation of the problems laced with simple solutions I know can work magic. My suggestion is that we restructure Nigeria so that we can have a truly federal arrangement, where the federating units are viable and cost-effective. I plead with my heart that we save Nigeria by looking its problem in the face, dispassionately, and solving them so that we can say though tribe and tongue may differ in the Nigerian arrangement, in brotherhood we stand. The change can be effected constitutionally if we have the political will to do so.
(Published in Thisday of Saturday May 10, 2014)