Former Minister of Information, Prince Anthony Suleiman Momoh, in this interview with journalists in Abuja to mark his 80th birthday anniversary says the political space needs to be decongested by way of restructuring before Nigeria can grow. He also speaks about his childhood days, large family, career and state of the nation, among others. JONATHAN NDA-ISAIAH was there for LEADERSHIP Friday.
You turned 80 year-old on April 27. What is the secret behind your youthful look?
I agree with you that I don’t look like an 80 year-old man. The journey of my life has been so smooth because I know my limit. I didn’t create the world, God did. So, God who created the world must bear responsibility for what the world is and what the world becomes. The problem with many people is that they carry the load they had no business carrying. I was Editor of Daily Times, I carried the burden of an editor for four years (1976 to 1980). I was Minister of Information, I also carried that burden for four years (1986 to 1990). At the moment, I’m not the Minister of Information, I can only pray for Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who is the Minister of Information. Whatever happens to him as the Minister of Information is his business, it is his load, and he must carry it. I’m not the one that will carry it for him. What many people need to enjoy life is to know their limit. When I’m in the office, I will forget everything about my home and when I’m at home I will forget everything about the office. I don’t carry my office activities home and I don’t think about what is happening in my home when I’m in the office. That is my life!
Let us talk about your family. How did you cope with growing up in such a large family?
I belong in a family which I regard as the biggest family in the world. I’m one of the 157 children of my father. I have 48 mothers. All the wives of my father are regarded as the mothers of all the children. The British said ‘Momoh has a very large family but he doesn’t have family problems’. In my book, ‘Each Man,His Time: The Biography Of An Era’, I explained how the family was organised. The special roles which my father saw that women could perform that no other person can perform. The mother is the leader of all the women in Auchi. She attends to all women who are married to Auchi men and all Auchi women wherever they may be. This is because women understand women problems. The men would however take their cases to my father, the king.
You were born a Muslim but changed to Christianity before you later dumped both religions. What actually happened?
Over time, I grow as a Muslim and as a Christian, and as both. Growing is a progression from one stage to another. When we left school in 1954, we wanted to be teachers because the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo had established a lot of schools. I’m from Auchi in the present-day Edo State but which was part of Western Region. Awolowo introduced free education in 1955. Those of us who were the last set of students to do Standard Six applied to be teachers. We were asked to pay five pounds each as bribe before we could be teachers. Bribery did not start today. I refused to pay the money just for me to be a teacher who would be earning 84 pounds per annum, which is about four pounds in a month. All my brothers and friends paid the five pounds to the council before they could be teachers. Don’t forget, I was born a Muslim. I started observing the Ramadan fast since I was in Primary Two up till when I got to Standard Six and I was saying all the prayers. I was also the best student in the Quranic school. The person who asked us to pay the Five Pounds was a Muslim. I then went to the Anglican and offered to teach in their school but they said I was not a Christian. Truly, I had never gone to a church in my life then. I told them that I would be a Christian. So, I started going to the church and I resigned from being a Muslim. I joined institutions based on those who run it. Later, they said I must be baptised and they said my name is Tony. I told them that Tony is a ‘guy name’. I told them to baptise me with the name Suleiman because that is my name. It is a spiritual thing which I later got to know. We brought our names from above. It is your Identity Card which nobody can duplicate. I told the Anglican clerics that if they were not ready to baptise me as Suleiman, they should forget it. After much struggle, they agreed and baptised me with Suleiman.
Incidentally, many of my friends were going to secondary school. I missed the entrance examination that year. I led them in all subjects when we were in the primary school. I made up my mind that I would not go to secondary school because they would be my senior and I would be fetching water for them. I decided to go to the Provincial Teachers Training School at Abudu and spent two years teaching and earned salaries when my mates were still in secondary school. After that, I went to the Government Teachers Training College in Abraka for another two years making six years. Within the six years, I trained, earned salaries for two years within the period. I did GCE ‘O’ Level and GCE ‘A’ Level.
At the end of the sixth year when my colleagues were leaving secondary school, I had Teachers Grade III Certificate, Teachers Grade II Certificate, GCE ‘O’ level and GCE ‘A’ level. They were using my ‘A’ level papers in their own HSC. When we were going to Abraka, the Local Council had to pay for all of us.The officials also demanded a bribe of five pounds and I wondered why everybody was preoccupied with five pounds so that we could get scholarship. The fees in Abraka was five pounds a month but the officials will pay the fees for any student that offered them the five pounds bribe. They will also give such student money for books and pocket money. They will also give the student, transport fare from Auchi to Abraka. All these are for those who paid five pounds to them. While there, they will pay us 14 pounds and 10 a month. I refused to pay the five pounds. So, for two years, I paid five pounds every month from my monthly 14 pounds and 10. But my colleagues, having paid the five pounds, collected 14 pounds, 10 every month while the council paid five pounds for them and bought them books for two years. It is compulsory that we must sign a bond but I said I wont sign bond for the Council. So, I signed the bond for the Anglican Church to teach for them. Because I have ‘A’ level, I got admission to the University of Reading to study Estate Management. The Federal Government said I should be released from bond. I went to the authorities of the Anglican Church and demanded to be released from the bond I signed for them but they refused and insisted that I must work for the four years I signed for them. I pleaded but my pleas fell on deaf ears because the gentleman, a Yoruba man who was the Anglican Education Secretary based in Benin, had a daughter who also went to higher elementary but did first four years and immediately she finished, the man paid for her to go to England to go and do GCE ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels. She did not teach but I, who already had ‘A’ level but just needed to be released from bond was disallowed and he sent his daughter to England. I said that was serious, a height of injustice. I then resigned from teaching and I also resigned from Christianity because I judge institutions by those who run them. That was how I resigned from Islam because of a Muslim and also resigned from Christianity because of a Christian.
How did you venture into journalism?
After my resignation from teaching, I went to Lagos and went in search of a job at the Daily Times. They told me there was no job for me and I decided to approach Alhaji Babatunde Jose and I urged him not to consider my lack of experience but to rather sack me if he consider me not good enough after working there for one month. He asked me where I wanted to start and I said from the beginning. He then appointed me as a sub-editor in training. All I owe professionally in life is to Alhaji Babatunde Jose. Segun Osoba, I and others grew under his tutelage. I later proceeded to the University of Nsukka to read Mass Communication. I was made the Editor of Spear Magazine after my graduation. I was the Assistant Editor of Daily Times before then. I put in for law degree in 1974. I took off time and was called to Bar in 1975. I sat for the exam for the position of Editor of Daily Times in 1976 and I edited the paper for four years (1976 to 1980). I was the first lawyer to be editor of Daily Times. The fact that I was neither a Christian nor Muslim helped me because I don’t have to go to church on Sunday or attend Juma’at on Fridays.
So, what religion do you practice now?
Brother Adeyemi Lawson invited me to a lecture in 1971 at Grail Land in Iju, Lagos. While giving the lecture, he said, “If you read the Bible, do what the Bible says; and if you read the Qur’an, do what the Qur’an says. Don’t ever make a mistake of copying a Pastor or an Imam because in the journey of life, you will bear responsibility alone. There is no group journey to Paradise.” I had a deep thought having left Islam because of a Muslim and also left Christianity because of a Christian. So, I wondered what would have happened to my soul if I had died in that state. That was the day that my life changed. I then accepted Christianity and Islam in my life having realised that God is one. That was how I became a cross bearer in the Grail Movement. A lot of people don’t even know where I belong. In order words, I look up to God Almighty. No one else!
How would you rate the nation’s democracy in the last 20 years, judging by the conduct and outcome of the recently concluded general elections?
The most profitable businesses today are politics and religion. That is why people are telling lies in the name of God. We have chosen politics as a business in Nigeria and politicians are making good money from it. In the past, they were begging retired civil servants to be councilors because they were not meant to collect salaries but now councilors who are school certificate holders will buy a jeep and build a house within 18 months. We need to decongest the political space if we want to grow in Nigeria. Democracy is the luxury of development everywhere in the world. It is only in Nigeria that democracy is a business. In Nigeria, democracy comes before development and Nigeria will never develop like that. We are supposed to grow the system with all the resources we have. Dividends of democracy is not about building social infrastructure, it is freedom. What are we doing with two chambers in the federal parliament? What are we doing with executive governors? What are we doing with 36 states? We had three regions before it became four. The four regions were constitutionally created while the states were created by the military using decrees. That being the case, we can revert to the old system by adopting the six zones as regions. There is no zone in Nigeria that cannot feed the whole of Nigeria. National Assembly makes laws in 93 areas comprising exclusive and concurrent lists. In federations worldwide, we don’t need more than 18. Reduce the lists on the exclusive to 18 and let the rest go to the zones, they know what to do with it. The Senate will become the lawmaking arm of the Federal Government while members of the House of Representatives go back to their zones and become Regional Assemblies. Once that happened, economic deregulation is automatic.
Are you advocating restructuring based on regional government?
My party, APC, has produced a document on restructuring. A lot of Nigerians don’t know. I donated a lot of my books to the committee that worked on the document. Until we restructure Nigeria by decongesting the political space, Nigeria will not grow. I did not like (President) Buhari and when he made Decree 4 in 1984, I asked journalists to disobey it. I also criticised him when he was quoted to have said that people should not vote for Christians only to discover later through Bishop Mathew Kukah that he did not say so but was only asking people not to vote for ungodly people. I later joined him in 2003.
What is your assessment of the security situation of the country?
We have a police force of less than 500,000 in charge of close to 200 million Nigerians. 65 per cent of Nigerians is rural and are being controlled by the traditional institutions which are not recognised in the constitution. When there is a problem, everybody will go to his village and carry a gun. When we restructure, peace will come very easily.
There is the challenge of insecurity everywhere in the country now. What is the way out?
We should all believe in God. When armed robbers came to my house in Lagos in 1995, they demanded for money. I told them that I don’t have money except books. They pointed a gun at the head of my son and I still insisted that I had no money. One of them initially wanted to slap me but he later changed his mind and shot me in the leg. I said “By the power of God, leave this place.” The four of them opened fire on me and my son. You won’t believe it, I just saw that all the bullets were diverted. The following day, 18 bullets were recovered from the parlour. I attempted to grab one of them in the leg, in the kitchen while they were trying to escape but they shot me on the head and there were six bullets recovered from the spot the following day. He pulled his feet and left the boot in my hand. That is the power of God. Also, when I was 40 years old, armed robbers stopped my car and it occurred to me to fight and I fought and took their sub-machine gun. A light surrounded us and the protection was total.
What is your view on the new national minimum wage of N30,000?
The N30,000 Minimum wage is not a living wage. My prediction is that the N30,000 minimum wage will cause chaos because many state governments that were paying N7, 500 before N18, 000 was introduced could not pay then. A lot of them are currently finding it difficult to pay N18, 000 now. They are already saying they can’t pay and this would lead to strikes. When that happens, the nation is in trouble. What is the percentage of the workers in Nigeria that are entitled to the N30,000 minimum wage? What is the percentage of the public servants compared to the percentage of the entire working population in Nigeria?
There are mixed reactions to the trial of a Chief Justice of Nigeria at the Code of Conduct Tribunal. What is your take?
The CCT has powers to deal with sitting presidents and governors because Part one of the fifth schedule creates the Code of Conduct Bureau and the Code of Conduct Tribunal. Part two deals with those who are subjected to its jurisdiction, which is President, Vice President, CJN, down to councilors. The CCT is a disciplinary body. Walter Onnoghen is a public servant before he became the CJN. His case was directed to the Code of Conduct Bureau, which transferred it to CCT. The argument of some lawyers that he shouldn’t have been taken there is not tenable. They don’t know what they are talking about. I don’t believe that it is a case of witch-hunt. I advised him (Onnoghen) to resign when the case started. That would have saved him from the embarrassment.
What is your take on the National Assembly leadership contest and the roles being played by the political parties in the choice of its presiding officers?
The National Assembly has its own personality that it protects inspite of political party differences. It has always be so since 1999. There has been no effective party supremacy. Party supremacy cannot be effective in the presidential system because it stands alone. It can only succeed if there is cooperation not by imposition. In 1999, Evan Enwerem was not the choice of the senators. They wanted Chuba Okadigbo. So, Enwerem did not last when he emerged. Also in 2015, the party wanted Femi Gbajabiamila but Yakubu Dogara got it. Since 1999, there have always been problems between the legislators and the party candidates. The legislators come together to pursue common interests and party supremacy is obviously not one of them. In the parliamentary system, the party with the majority will dominate leadership positions in the legislators. The prime minister is also a member of the parliament. We have experienced the parliamentary system and we are experiencing the presently experiencing a presidential system of government. Presidential government shared the powers of the people among shared among the legislature, judiciary and the executives. With these powers, they attract other areas to themselves.
Do you see APC surviving beyond 2023?
The survival of the APC depends on the type of people that would win elections after Buhari in 2023. APC is populated by people who are well meaning as well as the greedy ones. If the greedy wins, then there will be trouble, if the well meaning wins, then we thank God.