Sunday, December 20, 2015 3:20 pm
Segun Gbadegesin is a Professor of Philosophy and was Head of Department of Philosophy and Deen, College of Arts and Sciences, Howard University, Washington DC. He received his B.Sc in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (First Class)from the University of Ife, Nigeria; M.A. and Ph.D in Philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For his 70th birthday ( 20th December), he will present the book he wrote, entitled, All The Way: Serving With Conscience to the public at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos tomorrow, Monday, 21 December. In this interview with Ademola Adegbamigbe (and Idowu Ogunleye who snapped the shots), Gbadegesin reflects on his life and speaks on the state of the nation
Q:Prof., congratulations on your 70th birthday. We want you to reflect on your years so far?
A: I appreciate your coming at this time, I am very grateful for considering me fit to be interviewed on this occasion, and more importantly I would like to thank the leadership of The NEWS and PM NEWS for what you have stood for and for the courage with which you have endeavoured to project the Nigeria of our dream, not the reality that we have now, but what we all think could be, and you have been at the forefront of that, all these years. The sad experiences of incarceration didn’t really discourage you from continuing in the part of probity and in the cause of justice, fairness and democratic norms; so individuals like you and institutions like yours have been inspirational to some of us.
Now, reflection on turning 70. That’s something for which I would have to primarily give glory to God because it is all due to his grace and my understanding of grace as unmerited favour (and mine is unmerited in several respects). I am not a saint, I didn’t take my health seriously but here I am. I didn’t even know that I will be 70. When I turned 60, I told my children ‘well all of you should try and do whatever thing you want to do in my presence because I am not sure whether I will be 70.’
In terms of reflections on the nation, let me take a cue from the title of Chinua Achebe’s controversial book, “There Was A Country”. We really used to have a country. You cannot compare the primary schools of those days with the secondary school of these days. In Primary one, I was already reading yet I didn’t start reading before going to school because my parents were non literates and so it was the hard work of the teachers that helped me such that at the end of my infant one, I was a fairly good reader for my age. Now, I am not sure that the dedication of the teachers in those days is comparable with what you have now. I still have some of my teachers alive and when I reflect back on what they did and the sacrifices they made in making me whom I am, I am always grateful. Teachers were like second parents in those days. You just could not afford to misbehave in their presence. And when you were out of school, you had to behave well because when the teachers got to know that you didn’t behave well out of school, then, of course, you were subjected to serious punishment. Again, parents handled their children well in those days.
The first fifteen years of my life were transformational because every value that I hold dear now, I learnt them in those days. And my bondage to conscience as discussed in the book can be traced to that time. The idea that, “No, you cannot do that. It is not done”, that’s when I got it, whether in the school during devotional services, or during devotional services at home, or in the reaction of elders to infractions.
My father, who was such an influence on me, was a devoted Christian but, more importantly, he was a morally conscious man. So the idea that you go into a position of influence, a position of authority, and you mess up, never crossed anybody’s mind in my household, or the generation of students that I associated with.
Where did the rain start beating us? I think up to 1962, especially in the South West, we still had a very good system of education, politics, even economic system due in large part to the vision of Chief Awolowo and his group. They ensured that human development or the development of the human being was paramount in their thinking and was the driver of whatever they did. That mattered a lot – it mattered a lot that they focused on education; it mattered a lot that they focused on social development. To me, therefore, the foundation of the South West was laid in those years. The unfortunate turn around, the negative transformation, started from the time Awolowo left the Western Region. Yes it was good to have an alliance with others, but they went about it in a way that jeopardized what was already working. The Action Group as a political party was working, everything was moving in the right direction. Then we wanted to have a mainstream approach because we saw others benefitting from the national cake and we were not. But even before independence, the West was doing even much better than other regions and that was because of the vision of Chief Awolowo. And, of course, you know the rest is history. The gamble led to the collapse of the first republic and we have never recovered from that.
Now, why does this matter? It matters because, that was the beginning of abandonment of a true federal structure. When the military came, it reverted to a unitary system that effectively destroyed the federal system. And when in 1979 the civilian government came back, it was never the same again. You may recall that the Shagari administration toyed with the idea of Presidential Liason Officers (PLO) for the states.
It is incredible to me that a country of our structure, nature, will not allow true federalism to work because of the interest of some particular groups. How can right thinking people, with all the economic and political indices that show that it is the best option for this country of diverse peoples rubbish the practice of federalism? It is simply mind boggling for me and unless we get that straight, even with a strong two party system, we will still be wandering in the political jungle. That is why I said we are far from where we ought to be and I don’t think we are making good progress even now towards that end. The structure is the most important thing. If we get the structure right, everything will follow. If we don’t get the structure right, we are just doomed.
It is incredible to me that a country of our structure, nature, will not allow true federalism to work because of the interest of some particular groups. How can right thinking people, with all the economic and political indices that show that it is the best option for this country of diverse peoples rubbish the practice of federalism? It is simply mind boggling for me and unless we get that straight, even with a strong two party system, we will still be wandering in the political jungle.
It has been 70 years of grace personally. But I would love it to be 70 years of progressive development for the country I love so dearly. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. We have taken one step forward, two steps backward these many years. And the potentials for greatness are there for the country if we just do away with our selfish, ethnic, clannish interests—if we allow national interest to supercede.
Q: We want you to talk on the making of this book, how long did it take you to write it?
As I mentioned in the preface, I started thinking about this book more than ten years ago. In June 2005, I was on my way to Nigeria from the US. I boarded Air France from Washington Dulles airport. By the time we got to Paris, the flight to Nigeria had left, so we had to be accommodated overnight in Paris. It was in the hotel room that the thought just occurred to me: why do we as Nigerians especially have to go through this hassle of connecting at European airports? Why can’t I go to Lagos from Washington directly? What’s wrong with our national carrier? How did we get to this sorry state? Somehow I also got to think that, well maybe I should be getting something down, not just on my years of life but on the years of the life of my country, with critical reflections on all the vicissitudes of life that the country had gone through. I proposed in my dream to give it the title “Count Down to 60”. Well, that was too ambitious because that was summer and my 60th birthday was December. So I abandoned that and then started working on it gradually with some modifications. It didn’t actually pick up steam until January this year. So I started this effectively and finished it from January to October this year.
Q: The point basically is that you had the book in your head…
A: It was just a question of getting it down on paper and that was what happened.
Q:Do you still remember the friends of Okeho of your early years?
A: Yes, certainly. I am very fond of Okeho. Interestingly, I just had occasion to chat with Professor Bolaji Aluko and his wife recently when they received their invitation to the book launch and birthday events. To their comment that I was going to celebrate my birthday in the “village”, I quickly corrected them, saying “No, it is not the village; it is “New Nigeria.” “ Okeho, to me is New Nigeria. The innocence of spirit is still there, people still work very hard, even though there are frustrations all over. We have never had pipe borne water in Okeho.