The Ohinoyi of Ebiraland, Alhaji (Dr) Ado Ibrahim, has disclosed why he disagrees with Governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi State. In this interview with Daily Trust on Sunday he also spoke on security issues in the country and how President Muhammadu Buhari should handle it. He said former President Goodluck Jonathan did something for his people that they can never forget. The 90-year-old mining engineer also traced the origin of the crisis bedeviling the Ajaokuta Steel Company and spoke on the ongoing efforts to revive it.
- How to make Ajaokuta Steel company work again
- Why Ebira people cannot forget Jonathan
- How Britain frustrated Ajaokuta steel company
Construction work is going on in your palace and it is said to be directed by you. You attained the age of 90 recently and still have a taste for beautiful edifices. How have you managed to keep this taste alive all this long?
It is probably because I am a curious person. I am a mining engineer, and from there we learnt about ‘building your camp for your workers.’ A bit of architecture is there. Structural work is not a difficult thing for a mining engineer to know and apply for his structural works in the field. Basically, these are the experiences I have had in building and structuring in my business and in the palace. Because of curiosity, each time I travelled I would like to see fine places. I did that in Paris and Rome. I have travelled quite far and wide. In my business days I owned a plane and could fly anywhere and make friends. Sometimes I asked for plans of beautiful houses from my friends. When they obliged me, I would come back home and have something to show for my travels all over the world. I tried to utilise my experience and knowledge of structures in places all over the world. It is not easy because it looks a bit individualistic. I would not get anybody to travel with me each time to put down some of these plans. I did it all myself. That makes it dearer to me.
More so, I have utilised my local people in the structural works. No other people were involved. I was living in Lagos before I was put on the throne. Each time I came home I would look for people who had the knowledge of putting mud and mortar together to build a house. That was a very expensive thing to do because without knowledge of what they were to do, you often had mistakes. What I did was to break down what had been wrongly set up; and people were not happy with that. They would say, ‘You are doing what you are doing because you have the money. Don’t make us jealous of you.’ But they were kind to me, they never became jealous of me; rather, they came to help me from time to time. Secondly, I continued when I had the money to work. If I didn’t have money I would not go to the bank to borrow to build a house. These buildings here have taken so many years, and they are still being constructed because I haven’t got all the money to finish them. But that gives me pleasure because my people work with me and earn money from day to day. Whoever works today gets his or her money today, there’s no ‘come back tomorrow.’ This is done through God’s help and support given by my people and the young men who are prepared to work with me. And I am happy. That’s exactly what has happened in the palace. Whether it is a good palace or not, I feel I am contented with what I put up, and people who come mention it to me that they are happy with what I put up.
Okene used to be a hotbed of violence, with frequent reports of gunshot, gang activities and all of that; how were all these overcome?
I think it is by relating with the people. My father used to move round to meet with elderly people. I applied that principle too and it paid off. The governor also moves round to talk to them. It diminishes hostilities.
One thing the Ebira people will not forget can be regarded as one of my best achievements. During the reign of former President Goodluck Jonathan, there was an incident where a soldier was killed in Ebiraland. In fact, there had been killing of soldiers in Ebiraland and other places. The military boys were very angry and were planning to retaliate. They had agreed to attack Ebiraland at night and I was told they were coming. I wished they would kill me in my palace and leave Ebira people alone. Luckily, I had President Goodluck Jonathan’s number, so at night I called him and he asked: “Atta, what’s happening?’ And I said, “I called to say goodbye to you sir.’’ He told me to go and sleep, but I said I could not. He quickly instructed that the military boys should stop. They were already at Osara, matching towards Ebiraland. That was how they stopped. They were actually coming to finish Ebira people. Some of the military boys later came to my palace and we became friends. It was a great thing that Jonathan did for me and Ebiraland. I think that is one thing Ebira people will never forget. Many people could have been killed if the soldiers were allowed to carry out the retaliation.
You are a traditional ruler of great influence and connections, how have you been able to use your position to attract development to Ebiraland?
When President Buhari was the head of the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF), I was appointed as Ohinoyi. He said he was going to help me improve the roads and see what could be done about waterworks. He named six items he was prepared to do to welcome my chieftaincy, and I was very happy. He got some letters prepared, and soon, those to do the jobs were about to be mobilised. But unfortunately, some people from Ebiraland got themselves together and petitioned against the projects. They wrote that Buhari had given Ebira to Atta. When those people were coming, they were stopped at Gwagwalada and the projects failed.
They were to come and survey how to improve the roads, waterworks, schools and other social amenities. Those who stood against the projects are still alive. It is a terrible country. I cannot go to him to ask for anything because we missed the opportunity when he voluntarily offered to help me. However, he is still helping me by even granting me appointment to see him, not for anything but on our personal relationship. I’m happy he is doing very well. I really don’t have an influence over him.
What are you doing to resolve the issue of succession of the chief imam of Ebiraland, which is said to be generating tension in the community since the death of the last chief imam last week?
That was the reason for the meeting I held shortly before you came in for this interview. The late imam was over 90 years of age and had been battling with health challenges. He was at a point urinating and passing feaces on his body. They had to be carrying him to the mosque to lead prayers. I told the governor what was happening and said the chief imam was too old to continue to go to mosque to lead prayers. Because of his health problems people would carry him and hold his head to touch the ground. It was no longer prayers. I said we should give him some time to rest and I would pay him N100,000 every month; and the governor agreed. But suddenly, he said he could be going to the mosque. It was a dark part of our civilised age. What could have happened that day would have been very terrible, but thank God it didn’t happen. I spoke to the Sultan because I am the national vice president of Jama’atu Nasril Islam and the national vice president of the Nigeria Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, so I should be in the position to appoint imams and so on; not only because of my offices in the Islamic organisations but because I am a traditional ruler. That seemed not to have gone down well with the new administration here.
The chief imam died four days ago and I am not in a rush to appoint somebody. I still want peace and to do my consultations. It is my right, and if I do it, there is nothing you can do about it. But what I heard was that he was going to appoint somebody the following day.
I told the governor that I was not going to allow that. I called the Sultan two days ago and told him that I would not allow it because he is my son and there must be due respect to tradition and religion. The people came here to tell me that if he was going to kill all of them they were ready to die, but he would not appoint anybody. That was the outcome of our meeting.
Has the governor backed down?
The Sultan has told him to stop that. He has told him that the person I put there all along, that is Naibi, should continue, and at the right time, we will appoint the chief imam. I am looking at the situation more closely in the interest of our people and religion. I want to see what we can do in order not to cause destruction. We don’t want those that would create problems for us in town. We want people who really know what Islam is. We want peace, freedom and development. If anything happens, the governor has to face it. As far as I am concerned, I will not allow it. Some of these people have read Arabic Studies, but there must be a real understanding of the Islamic teaching, beyond speaking Arabic.
What are the governor’s reasons for trying to go into an area you think is your responsibility?
I don’t know. There are so many issues, but only God can solve them. He is my son, so I can’t say much. All I can say is that God will help him to come back. When he comes back as governor he would have learnt more.
Are you praying he comes back for a second term?
Yes, I am praying for that.
When he won his first term you charged him to be a good governor so that the Ebira nation would be proud of him. What is your assessment of him after three years?
Well, he is 44 years now. Have I told you my relationship with him? My father gave him the title of Ohinoyi of Agassa, the supporter of the king, settling problems of marriages and what have you. His father, Bello, is my cousin. The governor has a completely different notion of Ado Ibrahim. He knows nothing about my connection and what I did in the past. I was in court for 19 years, and I am here, exalted by the Supreme Court as the fittest man to rule the Ebira nation. You need to see the Supreme Court judgement. It was fantastic and I’m proud of it. I should print every page and put in my house.
So there is this issue of the boy not knowing what he should do because he has extremely wrong people around him. Bello is a nice young man and highly intelligent; that is why I recommended him at that time. The only person that could have been a better choice at that time but had no financial backing was the late secretary to Atiku. The boy is from Ihima here. People said I was supporting Bello because he is my cousin. Well, partly, that could be one reason. Two, he had money to do it, and that money is what has misled him so far. A good person should always put money aside and put reality in the front. Money should just be a palliative anytime you need it.
For the assessment, I can’t say much, I can only talk about what people are saying and what I read in the papers.
What are the people saying?
People talk about salaries not being paid. He is not the only person who hasn’t paid salaries. His relationship with Ebira people is a bit dented because he has more relationship with the Igala people, who are leading him in government. And they are the people I am now talking to so that they will have a change of mind and vote him back. Honestly, they have the votes. All I am trying to do is to get them to give him another term, after that if they don’t need to see his face anymore they can seal his fate. Whatever term they want to give, I’m prepared to go to any length. With good terms, they can relate again. I’m really trying to get my people to support his second term, but I know that they don’t want to hear me say that.
Then how is he going to sell?
They are better people who can do it.
The governorship election in the state is November 2, 2019; given the violence in the recent presidential and National Assembly elections, what would be your advice to political gladiators?
The governor did not allow traditional rulers to advise him. I haven’t sat with him to advise him on issues that are required to stabilise the peace of the people. I think I should advise him on policy issues, but he gave more time to those who idolize him. He is enjoying that. That is why I cannot talk about his administration very much; I don’t know how he does it. If people say he didn’t pay salaries, I cannot say why he didn’t do that. As far as I am concerned, he is paying salaries. I cannot comment on whatever they say he is doing. Whatever I want to say is that my human relation with him should not be put to shame. I introduced him and favoured him in place of others. I did my own assessment of him at that time. He is a different thing today, as far as I’m concerned.
How would you assess President Muhammadu Buhari’s fight against corruption?
I didn’t believe that anybody would have the courage to fight corruption, but this is a man who suffered from practices he deemed to be corruptive. He was imprisoned, and during his father’s death, he couldn’t see him. He really suffered a lot when he was incarcerated.
Buhari has done very well so far. He has a very wonderful vice president. Osinbajo is fantastic, humble, intelligent and eloquent. He is Buhari’s younger brother in mind and deeds. I pray that the two of them would go to the top and make Nigeria what it ought to be. They are great people.
What would you say about the security situation in the country?
It is bad. Buhari has done his best in appointing the right people to take care of the wrong things, yet people are crying. It is either they are not doing their jobs or people are crying wolf wrongly. He has fired many people who are not doing their jobs. An example is the Chief Justice of Nigeria who was recently dismissed. And there are many to come. I will tell him not to bother about people’s opinions. He should do what he thinks is right. He has got the mandate to do it. He is not doing anything wrong against anybody because of malice. He has a purpose and should be allowed to do what he has in mind. The whole world is watching him. Let him be fair to himself and people. He should implement what he thinks is good for the welfare of Nigerians.
As someone with the knowledge of industry, what do you think can be done to resolve problems around Ajaokuta?
We have to apply the right atmosphere, which is what the president is trying to do.
Some people believe that it should be concessioned while others want the government to revive it. What option would you advise Nigeria to take?
We are very unfortunate, with regards to the Ajaokuta situation. I have been in Russia three times because of Ajaokuta. When my late brother, Abdulaziz fought for the location of the steel company in Ajaokuta because of the enormity of the raw materials, I assumed there would be no sentiment about getting the expertise to do it. It was a time of war, so we were stuck with getting information about who would come to do it. The British were not very friendly because they had their eyes in war and petroleum, but the Russians were available. That was why we talked to Russia. I was there during the second visit to Russia and I established the first commercial relationship them. I brought in the Lada car to Nigeria.
What people don’t realise is that when the Russians came in here, it took them time to determine whether or not they would really work with the intrigues of the British, who didn’t want to see them in Nigeria. They had to do whatever they could to establish the iron ore project in Ajaokuta. And they succeeded.
What we have in Ajaokuta today have been there for nearly 40 years. We don’t have such types anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, the effort of the British at that time was to corrupt the interest of Nigerian civil servants who were directly involved in promoting this industry. They condemned the possibility of doing the project with Russian technology and denied and stripped them of funding to carry out the job. They wanted the Russians to become disappointed so that they would go away. At a time, General Gowon was very keen at seeing what could be done. Those of us who were in the oil industry at that time (I had a company called NIGUS Petroleum Limited) did some supplies to the Russians for about 12 times. We were owed and didn’t get the money back. The Russians went through a lot of inconveniences because of their commitment to get Ajaokuta started.
During the time of President Jonathan, I came with the decision of the Russians who said they were prepared to come if government would agree to let them carry out the technical and financial audit. They needed information on how to proceed. Jonathan agreed, but nothing happened until when President Buhari came in.
The question of concession is political greed. Let Nigerians learn how to do it with the technology and expertise of the Russians and let it grow. Gradually, the Russians will go away without being advertised and the concession will naturally take place. We are too much in a hurry that we want to concession everything as we did in the case of NEPA, and the concession is not considerate to us at all. It is unfortunate. I am happy that the president has agreed to get it working. He made the statement not too long ago.
The hope is still there that Ajaokuta is coming up. We here are praying because we know what we have gone through over the years. The little time Ajaokuta operated, there were so many lorries carrying workers from place to place. Nearly 30 buses were carrying workers daily and there was employment. Suddenly, it died down and it is still affecting the welfare of Ebira people today. All those people who worked for Ajaokuta are not available. The opportunities they had to develop their partners are not there anymore. What is there now is politicking. What is now available is thuggery, and all forms of evil that government is fed up with and willing to suppress as much as possible. Ajaokuta is a very good answer to our progress; the industrial life of Nigeria.
Ebira people like to see themselves as republicans. Some even claim that every Ebira son can become the Ohinoyi. Having been on the throne for 23 years, have you and your council come up with a system of succession to the throne?
The Supreme Court has already decided that in its judgement. That is why they have confirmed the title of Ohinoyi and Atta on me. The Atta is my father’s ruling title, and he got it from his father. My father was Atta and myself Atta. The succession is already established. I came in as Atta, and I am freely and legally acceptable by my people. It depends on the family and whichever way it wants to go. The decision that I’m Atta is a Supreme Court judgement and nobody in Ebiraland is against it.
Does the judgement mean that only members of the Atta family can ascend the throne?
That is what the judgement stated. The other clans know very well that Atta is the ruling title. The Ohinoyi title was just given out to people of excellence by my father. For instance, as a good farmer, you get the title of Ohinoyi na-aare. Aare means farm. As a good wrestler or boxer you get the title of Ohinoyi Erevo. These were titles given out by my father. It was the military boys around the then military administrator who conducted the selection. They said the title had to be Ohinoyi instead of Atta. When they advertised the position, they could have said Atta, but they convinced him that it should be Ohinoyi. And I said that if that’s the case I would fight it out because my father’s title is not Ohinoyi, it is Atta.’ The court did the right thing and gave its judgement in that regard. The title belongs to the Atta family.
A number of traditional rulers have been elevated from second class status to first class. How have you been working with them?
There’s a lot to do to let the traditional rulers themselves appreciate who they are. Kogi State is a bit new when compared to what has existed in the whole country. They didn’t take time to study what kind of duty should be given to a new ruler. I think I am a bit guilty in that respect because before my father left, every of the five districts in Ebira had a head. In Ihima we had the Obobanyi; in Okene we had the Ozumi, and others like that to head the people in those areas. We had two other additional heads, making it nine altogether. They were the kingmakers. They had the power to appoint anybody, which they did in my case. They were completely shut out of the system. What was established for the Ohinoyi then was Ohinoyi Palace Cabinet, not Ohinoyi with the traditional rulers. He was ruling with a cabinet appointed by politicians. The late Gen. Salihu Ibrahim was the head of Ohinoyi’s palace cabinet. And that was all. Before I was appointed, I tried to look at what my father’s position was and what the present position is. Why were these people removed from being kings? Though they still had their titles and regalia, they were not being paid salaries. They were not officiating. I decided to get 24 of them who were heads of various tribes and I was paying them salaries for four years because they were in trouble. There was a gentleman they called Badams (he is still alive). I would send money to him from Lagos and he would distribute to the traditional rulers because they had no money.
Somehow, when the state was created, I was appointed to create the economic blueprint for it. And I was able to make it clear that development could only take place from the grassroots. I told them the philosophy and how it should be done. They agreed and the chiefs were returned, but the second class chiefs were not returned. The Attah Igala and the Ohinoyi of Ebira would want to reserve the powers to exert on the people. They didn’t want anybody in the first class status. The government then went on to appoint some people who were not traditional rulers as first class chiefs (Ohis).