Reminiscences with Prof Okonjo

Tony Adibe interviewed Chukwuka Benjamin Okonjo for the Daily Trust on Sunday 8 July 2018. We give a version of this interview below where we have made some alterations to the text to (hopefully) make the intended meaning clearer:


Reminiscences with Prof Okonjo

Professor Chukwuka Benjamin Okonjo is the father of one time Nigeria's Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. He is the Obi of Ogwashi-Uku in Aniocha South Local Government Area of Delta State. Prof Okonjo joined the United Nations System in 1974 in New York and was posted as the Director of the Regional Institute for Population Studies (RIPS) at the University of Ghana, Legon, Accra. He worked as a Professor of Economics at the University from 1974 to 1985 at the time the country was going through economic and political difficulties. During that time, Prof Okonjo installed the first African Population Information Network ((APIN), popularly known as the Population Information and Documentation System for Africa (POSA), valued at $350,000. Besides being the Pro-Chancellor of the University of Ilorin, Kwara State, he is an adviser to the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN). The 90-year-old economist and mathematician can best be described as "a cat with nine lives" having suffered stroke thrice and is still walking around, which he says "shocks doctors" whenever he goes to Europe for medical check-up. Here he speaks with Daily Trust on Sunday. 

What was growing up like?

My father used to be a teacher working with the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) in Lagos. Though it was a normal thing; I was happy I had a father and mother who liked and did things for me and my younger siblings.

Did they influence your choice of career?

I am a renowned economist; I studied economics for a very long time, as well as mathematics, but I don't know them now. The economics they are studying now ... what I might be thinking about might be slightly different from what they are thinking.

For example, while you have the developed countries; they say we are developing and always tell us to catch up with them. If I'm to catch up, why am I not developed by now? 

My primary problem is how do we make those who are backward and poor catch up more quickly with the richer ones and enjoy the same values which they are enjoying? 

What informed your choice of career?

I don't know. I went to school because my father was a teacher. He told me many things which other people didn't know. So I did those things and he saw to it that I got as much education as possible and it seemed that I did slightly better than other people who were around. He said I should further my education so that I would become a "big man."

Can you recall your experience at the UN?

I was just over 40 years at the time. Every man or woman reaches their peak usually between 40 and 65; that's when you're at your best. After that the downward slope of performance sets in. And then you get to a stage when you keep performing instead of learning and being taught by other people. You get to your peak and then you start descending. And, of course, a lot of people don't know when they should get off; there might be other people performing better than them. And then the people who are in charge are not necessarily the best in that position. So if you know you are diminishing in effort, then you give up and go into retirement. I'm at that stage now.

Specifically, what was your experience at the UN?

I was placed in Ghana - the UN wanted to teach the people how populations grow and migrate. So they persuaded the Ghana government to start an institute or department they called the Regional Institute for Population Studies (RIPS). The Ghana government didn't quite agree. They said they had no money. So the UN said, "OK, we will support you and when the thing grows, as you have more money, you take over." 

Then they called me to come and run the institute and by the time I finished they were no longer in the position they had been. The UN held on to it because they said the thing was so good; it was doing wonderful research. So they made what was to be the Department of Demography or Department of Population Studies of the University of Ghana; but they turned it into a United Nations Organisation (UNO). 

So RIPS is located at the University of Ghana but is not part of it; it is a UNO like the UN itself, FAO, UNEP, UNPN, UNDP, and so on. So it's wholly a UN body; I mean established by statute of the United General Assembly of the UN. In short, RIPS is on the same rank with FAO, UNEP, UNESCO, UNICEF and so on; though on a lower scale. 

Did you have challenges in RIPS?

I did my work rather well. I produced about four times what they thought I would produce and at a higher and more qualified level.

So they were very pleased with my work. They honoured me the way they honour people. When you retire from the UN, if you've done very well, they give you an extra job. I became a big expert chosen to go to the Soviet Union to lecture to them, tell them things; do the big things like sitting in the box next to where the head of the place normally sits. They honoured me that way and they are doing the same to my daughter, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. You know my daughter used to be the woman who ran the World Bank. If it wasn't for the politics, she should have been President of the World Bank.

When I left, I worked briefly in Ghana before I was able to persuade the UN to bring me back; they wanted to bring me back according to their rules. So since I was in Ghana, I would load a lorry, take a ship from Accra, that's Thelma, come to Nigeria and then unload in Lagos into a car or lorry and then bring my belongings here to Ogwashi-Uku. But I wanted that changed. And they insisted it was done according to their rule. I said your rules would cost you more and would be very uncomfortable for me because Ghana and Nigeria were not too far apart. 

The lorry could take me straight from Ghana to my village. It took about one year to persuade the UN to agree that I was right and what I was saying was sensible. When they finally agreed, I chartered a lorry and it drove straight from Ghana, passing through Benin and Togo to Idiroko and then through Abeokuta and then to here. And since then I've been here. I lectured partly for the University of Nigeria; then I had to resign because I was getting old, but they thought I was still useful. So I became their adviser and I've been advising them since then. 

And then they asked me to be the Pro-Chancellor of the University of Ilorin, Kwara State. As the pro-chancellor, I go there once every four years or four times a year. So I can only advise the man who is running the place; they take me round and I see things. I'm always startled at some of the things I see because I give them advice which they don't quite take.

Can you remember any of such advice?

You are dealing with a problem, trying to solve it; every component is not at the same level, and you have some deficiency which the current government is trying to rectify. And well, I'm a Nigerian too, like you; so why should I say all the uncomfortable things we Nigerians are doing?

What particular lesson did you learn in the University of Nigeria?

I learnt humility - you have to be humble; the teacher can be taught by the students. So while you have the body of knowledge that has already been discovered, any student can tell you something you don't know. So you guard against behaving like an army officer, OK. So that's the problem and that's why for most countries they don't want army officers or army people to run their affairs because they (the army) give orders and you obey.

We could do much better than we're doing now and we can develop much faster, but we must not chop all we produce; if you chop all you produce, there's nothing to move you from where you are now. 

As an expert, what would you say about Nigeria's population?

We're over 350 different ethnic groups; each with its empire and portion of land and then the Europeans came in and seized what territory they could. Nigeria was like a square box until of course, they removed the Germans and shared where the Germans had been ruling - the northern part went to Nigeria and the southern part ruled by the Germans which had been associated with Nigeria went to the Cameroons. You might have like 350 languages in Nigeria out of which nine are the most important. And we're gradually transiting into a European nation-state where your ethnic group does not really matter. 

The mortality and morbidity indices, you know, some are very, very bad. And when you compare them with most countries, you find that we're in real trouble. The only lucky thing is that a lot of things we should be doing in order to develop don't require money; they require change of attitude. 

Each group of people, when they are growing, have problems which they ought to solve. If you don't solve the problem correctly, the trouble will remain; until you find an adequate solution - we're going through that trouble now as a country.

And in 2019, they will judge whether the man who has been running the place is doing precisely what the majority of the people think he ought to be doing. Before no one asked; the man just ruled - he would say, "Do this, do that," and you did it. Sometimes they say he's a terrible man, like Abacha. But if you find out, Abacha was financing blacks in South Africa to fight the whites. But here, people say Abacha was terrible, but the same Abacha would be a wonderful man to the South Africans. Always remember this valuation in judgment.

We now say we want to be democratic like the British. Well, if everyone is going to talk, then you should let everyone talk and we judge you on the criterion whether people can protectively talk and not feel that you will grind them down when they say things you don't like - are you doing that or are you not? That's the question which we will have to decide in 2019.

What do you think is retarding Nigeria's development?

Your laziness; I've been in virtually most countries of the world. And compared with other countries, we are lazy and don't make use of the resources that we have or we make use of them wrongly. And we don't want to listen to people.

If you work with the army, the top man gives the orders. You have no business questioning what he says; you just carry it out. That is why they say democracy is better because everyone keeps speaking their mind. And you don't punish them when they say things you don't like. Then in arriving at a conclusion and what should be done: you see as many values as possible; your decisions can be right or wrong. 

There are a lot of things which people don't see and of course, each group has its own politics; you want to be on top; he wants to be on top. So you find ways to pull your friend down, so that you are on top. And the group, all of us, has to decide who should be there. So if we all participate, fine, but you individually give your decisions when you are better educated. The more you know, the better you can decide. You can't have two thirds of the country being illiterate - the women - and the men being in leadership; it doesn't mean they have all it takes or are better than the women.

Every country is ruled by people who must be first class but they must listen to the people behind them if they are in a democracy. So they can be right or wrong in whatever choice they make. But how people feel can be of very great importance in their giving a judgement. The judgement I will give you will not be the same judgement the president will give you. He might have travelled more than I've done but I've studied the problem of development much more than any other president here. I can say what I like, yet I don't have any power. I can't say do this. I cannot because I don't have the instrumentality of pushing it through. But the president can say do this; it might be wrong or right, but we do it.

Has the country failed in terms of economic development?

I feel you're using words you shouldn't use. You don't know the right way forward. He doesn't; because you're president doesn't mean what you're doing is right. We now feel the effects and we want to enjoy; all of us will die. Tomorrow, the president will die, and you will follow. There's no one who is permanent here. So the president might not always do what he thinks he should do because he knows he will be removed in four years. So he does what will please you and what you think is fine but there might be another solution which takes a much longer time and is better than his present solution. So you must remember that.

So old people like me always laugh and say you are here to enjoy and after a little time you have, let's make it happy. And if we know you will enjoy much better in 10 years time, we have to convince you that what we're saying is right. If you do it today, you might not get the necessary things resolved. For example, my father was as poor as any person here. But here I am sitting on top and that has to do with a little ability.

And I learnt that if you behave in a certain manner, you will be able to move faster. So I don't quite think the way we're going is the way we can go faster and catch up with other people. I've already told you, we're not working hard enough. If you tell him, he comes to work on time; he does everything and I say he's not working hard enough. But if he's in America, they will scream no, no, no at him and say this is laziness. You must do this, you must do that, and he will do it. 

When our people go to America, they behave that way. So why don't they behave that way here in Nigeria? That is what I would say. I've been in the United States. I've been in South Africa. I've been in Britain, Canada. So I know these places and what they can do.

Is there any economic policy which you think can be reviewed?

If you review your policies of development, you can grow faster, but that is not what is happening now, although I'm not a governor. If I'm a governor, I will do something different. I'm not a president. I have no authority. So there are many things we can do better. 

In the first place, if you want to develop, you must work harder than you're working now. 

Was President Muhammadu Buhari right when he said Nigerian youths are lazy?

Please don't ask me a question which will make me fight. I think I told you ... I said they are lazy; they're lazy. There's a lot they can do. In fact, there's something wrong with the brain of all of you. If I say that, they will descend on me and kill me.  

What is the effect of corruption on the development of Nigeria?

Corruption does not help development forward. If you are corrupt you will take public money and do what you like. If you take the money you can celebrate a birthday and spend N2bn dancing and eating; is that right?

At 90 you still speak well and for long, what is the secret?

Oh, incidentally, this is the third stroke I'm having and by all the rules of the game, I should be dead. But I will be leaving for Europe very soon. When they tell them he's had three strokes every doctor is shocked and says three strokes? He ought to be in the ground, buried and not walking around.

How have you impacted on your people?

Firstly, I can take you to a place where water can be obtained. The government at a time wanted to give Ogwashi-Uku water and they assigned N441m. I looked at what they did and smiled. 

Therefore, I set up a project so that 12 towns and villages can have water. The project is there. I can show you. But I don't shout it all over the place. The dam is there. But don't forget, people forget little villages because they don't have anyone to speak for them. If you are a little village and you don't have a big man, an expert who will talk for you then you don't get attention. All these Ph.D. holders are experts who surround the governor but they may not advice him correctly; so that's the problem.

Do you have regrets?

I now realise there are many things I could have done in a slightly different way, but generally as compared with people here, there isn't much to regret. My time is spent trying to bring it to bear on people.


JOC/EFR May 2019

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