Call him a playwright, lawyer, author or activist and you will not be wrong. Chief Fred Agbeyegbe, who turns 80 years on Wednesday is many things to many people depending on the angle you are viewing him from. In this engaging interview, he speaks on the state of the nation, his experience in the last eight decades, how to check graft and the way forward for the country.
I thank God for keeping me this long and I owe him all the gratitude.
Activities have been planned for your birthday celebration, what can you say about that?
I was given an award by the National Association of Theatre Practitioners, NANTAP. The award was called the Grand Living Legend of Nigerian theatre. They said they were tired of waiting for people to die before they celebrate them. So, they wanted to change the tide by giving me the award. Some of them have said to me that it is their prophecy that is taking place now that I am going to make 80. Let us celebrate people while they are alive so I am happy to be one of the pioneer celebrities for this new philosophy in Nigeria.
You are a playwright, lawyer, activist and so on. How exactly can we describe you?
I don’t know. So many times people ask me what I do. I, too, am confused as to what to tell them but there are people who know me in certain regards. For example, not so long ago I got into a waiting room where people were arguing about who Fred Agbeyegbe is and I sat down and joined them. They didn’t know me, a lot of people don’t know me but they know my name. In fact when some are talking to people about the Agbeyegbe family, they say they know one of them and they mention my name even in my presence because they don’t know me personally. Some described me as a journalist, some have described me as a civil defence person, some have described me as a lawyer and some as a business man. Whatever they call me, provided they don’t call me a thief there is no problem.
Do you think the judiciary is leaving up to expectations?
When I came back from England 45 years ago, things were not like this. I think that the mistake started from 1999. It is from 1999 that things became even more rotten.
Corruption in Nigeria is not by accident. Even the 1999 constitution that we are operating today is a corrupt document. To start with, it is a lie that Nigerians made a constitution for themselves. It never happened. The contents of that constitution cannot be something that a willing people would impose upon themselves.
Root cause of corruption
Therefore, all attempts at stopping corruption might even be a waste of time until you tackle the root cause of corruption. I am Itsekiri, I have never heard the word ‘corruption’ in my language. Is corruption a Nigerian word? No! Corruption is an English word.
Those things that make it impossible for Nigeria to progress are what I call corruption.
Having said all these, are you trying to say Nigeria was built on falsehood?
I have written poems and several articles on it. One of the books is called Budisco. It was a play that was commissioned by the Nigerian Bar Association when they celebrated 100 years of law practice in Nigeria. I was the one they picked to do something to celebrate that period.
Buhari, Idiagbon and Sowemimo, that is what Budisco means. It also means something vulgar in Yoruba language. Who is the President today? The same Buhari. So what explanations are you looking for? A people get a government that they deserve. Nigerians are getting what they deserve because when it is happening to you, the other person says it is not happening to me, by the time it comes to happen to you, all the people who could have stood behind you will be gone.
n 2011, my movement came out to say Nigeria was a failed state, those who thought they can patch it and repair it, by the time the Americans said 2015 is going to be a terrible year, they started calling them names. Thank God, Jonathan saved all of them. If Jonathan had stood up and said that election was rigged against him this country would have been in flames.
We live under this illusion that we are operating a democracy. And the way this country is organized is that when any issue comes up, Igbo man, Yoruba man, the Ijaw and Itshekiri, and other groups would have different interpretations.
This country is organized such that there will never be consensus. For example , I am an Itsekiri man and my neighbours are Urhobo and Ijaw, but these ethnic groups hardly live in harmony. NADECO fought against the trampling of the right of Nigerians.
So we did not come out in NADECO to show that we are brave, we came out to fight against the military because we felt they forced themselves on us. NADECO can function now because it was put together for a purpose.
How will you rate this administration putting in mind some of the decisions that has been taken so far?
From what I have told you, you don’t expect me to be a pro-Buhari person. But I am neither anti-Buhari. Like I said earlier, he was the people’s choice and they voted for him. Whether I voted for him or not does not stop him from being our President and he also said it that he is the President of everybody and that is how it ought to be.
But I can say that is it too early to judge him, it was the same type of judgement that Jonathan got. From day one, even before he won the last elections, he was told not to contest. Some said they will make the country ungovernable for him. And he dared to contest and he dared to win. And what happened to him, they made the place ungovernable for him and behold it is the same people who came back to judge him on performance after they had told him they will make it impossible for him to govern. That was what they did. So the guy had no opportunity.
I say the same thing about Buhari, give him a chance. I called him a magician and the media also called him a magician. People think he will just come and change things overnight, he is no longer a military man. We cannot achieve change in two months.
He has been criticized for the appointments he has made so far. I laughed because a lot of people do not understand the politics of this country. All the people he has appointed so far are all Northerners from his area of this country, I don’t know if the guy has a choice because psychologically, he cannot feel comfortable with anybody else.
He doesn’t know what people are going to do to him if he comes to Warri to pick me. But I will tell Nigerians to wait, if he then continues in that line of appointment then you can begin to blame him.
Do you think the proposed merging of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, and Independent Corrupt Practices and other relataed Commission, ICPC, will strengthen the fight against corruption?
When I heard that President Buhari is trimming down the number of ministries from 40 to 19, I concluded that the man is truly a magician. The ministries are one of the ways we fritter away this country’s resources.
Why do you need over 40 ministries? Is it that the work load is so much such that a few people cannot do it? Is that what government business is all about? Thank God somebody has come and has seen reasons to reduce them.
Prosecution of governors
The EFCC and ICPC, were they actually meant to work? How many governors have they prosecuted? Is it that there are no more corrupt governors? What has ICPC done? What examples have any of those two entities given to us? This is a situation whereby the institutions are used to serve the whims and caprices of individuals.
What do you then think needs to be done to move this nation forward?
There are many issues that divide us in Nigeria. And it is my hope that those issues will disappear for things to get better.
Our beliefs are not the same in every aspect. Sadly, religion has become a divisive tool.
You remember at a time, I lost a cousin to assassins. He was Captain Jerry Agbeyegbe, how can you convince me that Nigeria is not a place where people are killed any how? You may convince some other people but not me. Also, the one document that is supposed to bring all of us together called the constitution is itself a lie. Any document that tells a lie against itself is forgery. The 1999 constitution is not our constitution. We had no agreement on it.
Having criticised democracy as being practised in Nigeria, what form of government will you recommend to make the country work?
To make democracy work, we need to have a redefinition of the content of that word ‘democracy.’ I recently wrote an article that the Europeans came here last time and certified our last elections saying democracy is now thriving in Nigeria.
Meaning of democracy
What did they know and what did they see? I lived and worked in England for so many years, I know the meaning of democracy as an English word and I know the meaning of democracy as a Nigerian word.
The only thing Nigeria accepts about the word democracy is that the majority must have its way. They don’t even buy the other half of that same statement which says the minority must have its say.
So those things God has given me as of rights as an Itsekiri man in Warri, democracy makes it easy for somebody to come from the desert in Sokoto to teach me how to swim in Warri river where God has put me. The time Mandela started fighting their oppressors and they eventually got to where they got now, did they change the definition of democracy?