Posted by News Express | 9 July 2019 | 12,210 times
Prof Chukwuemeka Ike - first Nigerian Registrar of WAEC, an accomplished writer and old boy of the famous Government College, Umuahia - is the traditional ruler of Ndikelionwu in Orumba North Local Government Area of Anambra State. In this interview with EMEKA MAMAH and VINCENT UJUMADU, he calls on Ndigbo to unite and help each other, even as he recalls that Biafra taught us that he have brains, stressing that his concern is not Biafra as presented by MASSOB and IPOB, but re-enacting that spirit of unity and creativity which made Biafra great for Ndigbo to move forward. He also re-lives the events of Expo ’77, why Government College, Umuahia produced popular writers, corruption in Nigeria’s party politics and the message from the Niger Delta militants, among other issues. The interview was edited for clarity and currency.
At the recent meeting of Igbo Elders Forum in Enugu, you spoke about an attempt by the Buhari administration to Islamize Nigeria. What gave you that impression?
Well, I have not used those words myself, but I know from my writing, from my civil war novel, which is a historical novel, that we were in trouble. I also wrote a novel when Nigeria was 40 years old which I called The Search which was aimed to look at Nigeria since independence. It’s like a lost ship that went on a voyage and after long nautical miles something went wrong and all the hopes were in trouble. One of the things I said was that there are people who think they are born to rule; that they come from part of the country that must rule and, if they are not ruling, nothing goes. In fact, in my novel The search, I talked about the military coups. It was like some people would organise themselves and as soon as the group settles down, the chairs are pulled away. There is no doubt that some people in this country feel that they are born to rule Nigeria and that Nigeria must be ruled by them. During the war, the slogan was ‘To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done!’ But the question is to keep Nigeria one for what purpose? So that is the Islamisation. The Hausa/Falani feel that they are the people meant to rule the country all the time. This issue of herdsmen carrying AK47 is not unlikely that it is part of the ambition to overrun Nigeria. So, we the Igbo are concerned about this even though Ndigbo are responsible for part of what is happening to them, and that is why some of them still talk about Biafra. I have given my own ideas of what I would like to see. If we can get ourselves organized and see what we can do to improve ourselves, we many not care so much about what is happening in the rest part of the country. If we are satisfied with the way things are here in Anambra, we may not care much about the bigger Nigeria. It may almost be irrelevant if we get things properly organized here.
Is it not a problem of leadership? Where is Igbo leadership? Can you name one person that can lead?
We are in ‘Igbo Leaders of Thought’ because a number of us come together to exchange views from time to time. But the problem really is, can you get them to stay together and identify their problems and deal with them? That is one problem we have. That is why I said that if we could see ourselves as having a common problem and choose our leadership properly, we can begin to make headway. Some people hold the view that if Igbo and Yoruba can come together, the north will join us to build a strong nation. But Igbo and Yoruba don’t come together. That is the problem the Middle Belt is also having. At a time, they wanted to team up with us, but somehow it didn’t work out. The Yoruba came together at some stage under the late Chief Obafemi Awotowo, but it was not easy for Igbo to do that during the time of Zik. Anyway, let’s not digress because I am not a politician. But my worry really is that it has not been easy for us to stay together. I was at Igalla when the late Chief Christian Onoh came to talk about the creation of Wawa State and some of the things he said about the rest of us were surprising. I sat on the panel for the Anambra State University of Science and Technology (now Enugu State University of Science and Technology) at a time; and I knew what the experience was like. So that is why I say we should concentrate on Anambra State and, if we succeed, it will help to ginger others on the need to be united. We share the same culture and tradition and I don’t see why we cannot join hands to improve our fortunes. So I advocate that we should start developing in smaller scales, our various states and when we see progress here and there, it will be easier to come together. We should not be struggling to kick each other out.
Is there no possibility of assembling Igbo people together to work out ways of developing the area?
Well, I have not thought about it, but I remember that I met Prof Nebo and General Ike Nwachukwu over the issue. But really, I have decided to concentrate on Anambra State because it will be easier for us to begin here in Anambra State than to involve the entire states in Igbo land. And, if we are likely to get a good leader in Anambra State who has large ideas, a proper direction will begin to evolve.
What is the position of Biafra in all these?
My concern is not Biafra, but Biafranism. We should try and re-enact those things that made us great in Biafra. There was an article that appeared in News of the World Report in the USA in 1968 entitled, ‘Biafra Possibilities.’ That was only one year after the civil war started and they had seen what was emerging and they were concerned about it. This Biafranism was what they destroyed after the war because they did not want to see that anything good came out of Biafra. And that is the kind of spirit I really want us to re-enact. If we can do it in Anambra State, in Enugu State, in Abia State, Igboland will become great again. If we do that, we will have a stronger force collectively. Biafra taught us that we had brains. Not that it brought something new, but it showed that we had all along, failed to realise what we had. If we evolve the spirit of Biafra again, things will change. I always use petrol to illustrate this. Before Biafra, Nigeria had been brainwashed by the Western World that crude oil refining is capital intensive and technologically advanced for the developing nations. They gave us the impression that it was beyond us, and were buying off our crude oil. Then when Biafra lost Port Harcourt, and lost the refinery, we were faced with a challenge. You couldn’t fight the war without petrol. So Biafra scientists began to ask, this crude oil refining, what is in it? Is it not boiling the crude oil to a certain temperature and boil that to another higher temperature until petrol emerges? Before long, we had our own refineries and government had to control refining. All that Biafra needed at the end of the war was additives.
I had said it somewhere that the people of Niger Delta have a message which no one wants to listen to. They have made us to know that you don’t have to be a super human to refine crude oil. So they are doing it with what they have and nobody is listening to them. We are talking about spending trillions to produce refined oil, but these chaps are telling us that they can do it and save the country so much money. We have crude oil in Anambra, although I don’t know what they are doing now. But that is one area we can show our capability. That crude oil is one area, but there are many other areas we can excel. For instance, we can also excel in the manufacture of hardware. I tell you a story of a Professor of Physics, an Igbo chap who is one of the most efficient physicists of his time. We had run from Nsukka to Enugu because of the war. I saw him with a bottle of beer and this is not a kind of man you would associate with drinking beer. I called him and said man what is the matter? He said he had taught all sorts of courses, including nuclear power, but he had never imagined himself being able to launch a rocket. But that day, he launched a four-feet rocket. It was small but something great. Of course Biafra later went into launching rockets and anti aircraft. And of course you know Ogbunigwe was the known war head Biafra produced. There were many other things. The raffia palm tree is being set ablaze and nobody is doing anything with it, but the war showed us that it was a very precious tree. Parts of it were used for scientific purposes and this tree was virtually everywhere. Our brain showed us a lot of possibilities of what we could do.
At the end of the war, I talked with Ukpabi Asika who was the Administrator of East Central State. In fact he made me chairman of the committee for the reopening of University of Nigeria, Nuskka and I told him he must do something to encourage our people. When I was appointed chairman of the committee to reopen University of Nigeria, there was a Lt. Col. Who was asked to take us to Nuskka to tell the Army to vacate the campus because the University was used as an Army Brigade. In those days, we had a borehole serving the University and it was destroyed during the war. They brought Army Engineers from Lagos to repair it and after working on it for two weeks, they proclaimed the borehole dead. We were using tanker to go several miles away to bring water to serve the University, but with the spirit of Biafra, I called Professor Gordian Ezekwe who was a member of my committee and reminded him that he was head of the Research and Production in Biafra and that he must do something to give the University water. Within two weeks, water flowed in the University. He knew that I couldn’t take no for an answer and he took the challenge and found an answer to it. Unfortunately, that spirit of Biafra is gone because, as I said, Gen Obasanjo ensured that people should believe that nothing good came out of Biafra. So, we couldn’t talk about manufacturing military hardware. I believe that if we come together and re-enact that spirit of Biafra, we will be self-sustaining that we won’t care about what is happening in other parts of Nigeria. That is why I say we should develop the spirit of Biafranism, if we must move forward. We need to exploit what God has given to us to solve our problems.
When we were young, there were things we used to describe as ‘Fabrikwe’, which were things manufactured in Japan. They were of poor quality at that time, but that was how they started. Where is Japan today? That is the kind of thing our people have to emulate; that is being innovative and creative. I am happy Governor Willie Obiano has raised an Elder’s council. The first day he called us for a meeting, I raised that issue, that it is necessary that our people should be encouraged to start using our brains. I believe we can do it successfully by bringing our people in the Diaspora. If we do it in all the Igbo -speaking states and succeed, nobody will care whether the president is a Fulani or Hausa because we will be self-sustaining. In fact, other Nigerians will then become afraid to get into our way. Some of the people who served in Biafra are still around and can be useful.
What do you think will be the relevance of these people who are agitating for Biafra?
By doing that kind of thing, you are creating enemies for yourself. People are attacking what they should not be attacking. Biafra was defeated; even though I hear some people say that the UN had agreed that the people can come together to decide what they want to be. But I think that is a diversion for me from what I call the spirit of Biafranism. This spirit is much more important than MASSOB, the IPOB and the new one that came up recently. If their concern is who will become what, that is not my concern. My concern is to get that spirit that made Biafra tick.Besides, if Biafra survives, there will be more problems. What kind of government will the agitators even form? Will it be modelled after the Ahiara Declaration? There were people like Chinua Achebe who were formulating ideas as we were fighting Nigeria and deciding the kind of government that would be in place after the war. But with the way things were going, some people dismissed it even before the declaration came out. Such people believed that the situation was not ideal for formulating such a policy in time of war. However, there were things that gingered the people’s spirit during the war, like the war songs and the Radio Biafra propaganda championed by Okokon Ndem. In fact, every field had a contribution to make during the war, including musicians. Nobody or group was superior to the other. What we need now is to encourage our people to select a leader that can give them what they want. If we can do that, we can transform Igbo land and, I assure you, other people will want to come and join us to see what they can get from us. That is why I say that I don’t want to be caught up with IPOB or MASSOB. Come to even think of it, who are the people in MASSOB? Do they even have any ideology? They tell themselves lets’ go on and by so doing, they give publicity to themselves. Maybe they are happy they are keeping the name Biafra alive after Nigeria abolished the Bight of Biafra which was even there before Nigeria’s Independence. For that hatred for Biafra, Nigeria decided to abolish the Bight of Biafra.
Who really can be described as a hero?
That somebody is a head of state does not make him a hero. In fact in one of my novels, I said that if I have power, political parties should not exist for 30 years because all they are doing is pursuit of power. They are not seriously interested in ideology. If we ban political parties, we can talk about rotation. What Nigerians should be doing is that when it is their turn, they should bring somebody. We don’t need to hold national election, the result of it most of us know how it is arrived at and we spend millions in addition. People should meet in their areas and select somebody when it is their turn. Political parties as they exist here make no meaning. The system we are running is so corrupt that somebody has virtually nothing, gets elected or appointed into a public office and within four years, he builds mansions in many places. Nigeria is still recovering money looted by a former head of state and this was somebody who never even attended a university. The question is, how did he make this money? It was not like somebody like Okotie-ebo (Minister of Finance in the First Republic), who was very rich before he became a minister. I believe that with time, we will begin to see people who possess the qualities of leaders who can help our people to create wealth. That will go a long way to change the manner of our people.
What kind of impact do you think the Igbo leaders of thought will really make?
The ‘Igbo Leaders of Thought’ is made up of people from states in Igbo land and when we go there, nobody pays us transport allowance. So, we are not going there for what we will get. So you can see that the impact is limited at the moment. Maybe, over the years, it may be possible to expand it by involving more people. At the moment, we do not want to involve the governors because they are politicians. Maybe they could function in advisory capacity when necessary. The kind of goals they have may not fit into the activities of Leaders of Thought.
What is the difference between Igbo Leaders of Thought and Ohaneze Ndigbo?
Ohaneze is almost an institution that involves the entire Igbo people. Ohaneze speaks the minds of Ndigbo, even though I don’t know what the situation is now concerning its leadership.
Tell us your experience when you were part of the administration at the University of Nigeria?
Initially, Nuskka had problems; serious problems. Many people were not happy that Zik brought American education to Nigeria. It started with its own degrees when others were awarding foreign degrees. There were jokes about Nsukka degrees then. We had difficulties getting students and we had to organize secondary school students to talk to them and encourage them to come to UNN. We published newsletters which we also sent to the schools from time to time. I visited Government College Umuahia deliberately to talk to the students. I was the college prefect during my time there and the idea was to assure them that I would not deceive them if Nsukka was not good. Nsukka was very unpopular and the University was offering courses the students had never heard about. We also organized careers exhibition and brought in employers to address the students in UNN. There was a white man at the Nigeria Tobacco Company who called me by the side and said, if you were in my shoes, will you be employing these students? They believed the degrees were useless. So, I decided to employ Nduka Eya and B.I.C Ijioma, who were graduates of the university. When I went to WAEC as Registrar, I wanted to take Nduka Eya, but his wife did not like their moving to Ghana with me. Eya was among the first set of graduates. But look at Nsukka today.
If Ohaneze Ndigbo is effective, would there have been any need for Igbo Leaders of Thought?
Igbo Leaders of Thought is more selective. Not everybody joins it. You join when you are invited. Theoretically, they should be better equipped to do the job. They don’t have the reach Ohaneze has, but quite frankly it is in a position to encourage our people to pay more attention to their states.
You were the Registrar of WAEC when there was this Expo 77. What happened?
Yes, there was a leakage of the examination that year. There had been one before I came in, I think in the 60s. A Ghanaian was the Registrar at the time. I was the first Nigerian Registrar of WAEC. I gave a press conference that annoyed the chairman of the committee set up by the federal government to look into the leakage. But what gave me joy was that government set up the panel and no official of WAEC was linked with the leakage. What happened was that a policeman from the Special Branch who was detailed to guard the papers fell sick and went to a herbalist. The herbalist asked him where he was working and he said WAEC and the herbalist shouted aah, you are in money. You are guarding question papers. With that encouragement, the man would go to the strong room, steal one question paper and went and sold. He was eventually caught and what gave me joy was that no WAEC official was involved. It showed that all my staff were people of high integrity. The other one happened at the Nigerian Minting and Printing Company in Lagos which, though had very effective security, some of the workers there memorized WAEC questions sent there for printing, then came out and wrote the questions. When I was asked to give a guarantee that there won’t be further leakage, I said they should invite the Commissioner of Police to guarantee that his men sent to guard the question papers would no longer steal them. But we evolved a strategy that enabled us to minimize the effect of the leakage. So we had adopted a measure whereby if any question paper leaked, we cancelled it outright and set another one. From that experience, I keep saying that corruption is our common way of life. WAEC had been disturbed by miracle centres. Surprisingly, some parents aide their children to cheat in examinations. These days we hear the kind of things that did not happen during our days in the university. We hear lecturers these days ask students to go and pay for rooms in hotels and wait for them to come and meet them just to pass them in the examination. It is really unimaginable.
Do you think it was lack of confidence in WAEC after the EXPO 77 that made government to establish NECO?
Prof Babs Fafunwa who was with us at Nsukka embarked on a massive campaign against WAEC. Zik brought him to Nsukka when he returned to Nigeria from USA. When I was Registrar of WAEC, he was at Nsukka. He gave examples that there were many examination boards in England and wanted Nigeria to break the monopoly of WAEC. I said he should have told the whole story. It is true that there were many Examination boards in England, but our system was different from theirs. That was also how JAMB came. They wanted a quota system and they felt that the only way to achieve it was to set up another body. It was Prof. Bamiro who argued that Northern students were unfairly treated. How can we discriminate in WAEC? The next thing we heard was that government had set up JAMB without even waiting for an interim report and Obasanjo announced that it was with immediate effect. They later amended it when they discovered that it was impossible to implement it immediately and it was shifted to one year later. That’s how these things started. The impression they gave was that WAEC was favouring southern students.
You left WAEC under controversial circumstances. What actually happened?
This thing happened a long time ago and I am surprised that you know it. Actually, I gathered that when the WAEC leakage happened in 1977, government set up a panel. All kinds of allegations were made, including the allegations that WAEC was favouring some schools. Nobody in WAEC, not even the Registrar, knows what any student would score until the results are collated. The papers are marked in batches and printed school by school. Nobody has the capacity to change anything but the chairman of the panel believed that the result of his child’s school was cancelled because he went to a poor school. The result was that Ike must be punished. There was also the allegation that when I was appointed WAEC Registrar, that I did not report to Lagos; that I went to Accra straight. They thought they would catch me but from all the reports, they could not catch me. Anyway, I was travelling to Senegal and they wanted me back in Lagos immediately. In fact, they wanted to send a special plane for me to return immediately. I said there was no need for that because I was already returning to Lagos. At the Airport, somebody gave me a photocopy of the decision they had already taken and the next thing was that Obasanjo wanted me to name any other job I wanted apart from Registrar of WAEC. I was asked to report to the chairman of the Public Service Commission who said man you are lucky, just name anything big and it will be yours. I told him plainly that I did not want anybody to give me any job. Anyway, after so many intrigues, I offered to retire voluntarily. Sometime later, Obasanjo invited me to join Otta Farms, but I could not. Sometime later, I was invited to be among 15 Nigerians for a special assignment and I also declined.
Was it after your retirement from WAEC that you went to teach in the University?
It was after my retirement from WAEC that I went into teaching. I was the Registrar at the University of Nigeria before going to WAEC. After my retirement, I was invited by the University of Jos as a visiting Professor. Because of the level I had attained, I could not be invited to come and become just a lecturer. I was first invited by a University in the USA and in fact I was inclined to go, but I chose Jos.
Obasanjo has been mentioned in many places during this interaction. How do you rate him as a leader? Can he be described as a hero?
Obasanjo ruled this country for 11years and he is in a different class if you want to compare him with people like Sani Abacha and other people. Whenever it comes to the issue of heroes, I have to do some more thinking. It should be left for Nigerians to define who should be called heroes. Well, somebody can be fantastic and within a few months of his leadership, you could see the direction he is going. That somebody should be called a hero because he served as a head of state, certainly I cannot accept it.
You wrote many books. What influenced your writing?
I will start from secondary school. I went to a good school, which is Government College Umuahia which encouraged us.
We had such calibre of people, like Prof Biobaku who was my teacher. He got BA from London and came to teach us. In fact, he marked my essay and gave me 27/30. He was somebody that encouraged me and I owe a lot to him. After my graduation, I got in contact with him and he changed my career. The kind of knowledge the teachers impacted on us made Umuahia to be noted for creative writing. It was so much work that the students didn’t know much about social life. So, a social night was organized for us at the Women Training College (WTC), Umuahia, on a Saturday night. Biobaku taught us how to comport ourselves. On the Monday morning when we came to the class, we were asked to write a poem on the outing and what one of us wrote surprised us as he used beautiful language to capture all the events of the night. That made me to develop interest in writing. Chinua Achebe was my senior at Umuahia and he too influenced my writing. In fact, I never thought of writing novels until Chinua Achebe published his Things Fall Apart in 1958.Chinua Achebe and myself were close friends and we thought about writing together. That was how it started. Later I saw I could use fiction to write. I didn’t know I would be lucky with writing. I continued and, glory be to God, I celebrated 50 years of writing in October last year. Umuahia produced a lot of writers- myself, Chinua Achebe, Cyprain Ekwensi, Gabriel Okara, Ken Saro-Wiwa, etc.
Which was your first novel?
Toads for Super
What is your attitude towards wealth?
In an interview I granted two years ago, I said I would rather have 20 novels against my name, than have 20 million pounds in my account. I like money, but money cannot be my target in life. Money is helpful, but for me, there are things that are more enduring than money. In August this year, I got a call from the Federal University in Yola that I would be honoured with a Doctorate Degree. I don’t know anybody there and if it were something to be bought with money, there is no way I could get it.
How long did it take you to build this house?
I was a young graduate and my father surprised me one day. He bought some bags of cement and said I should build a house. It was a challenge. I finished the house before my wedding in December 1959. This office we are using now was my father’s bedroom. In this community we don’t have a central palace for the traditional ruler and so when you are made the traditional ruler, you use your house as the palace. I started building the other house after I had retired from WAEC.
Is the traditional institution hereditary in Ndikelionwu?
Yes. We are different from many communities. In a number of communities, they tell you that two or three families that came first will be producing the Eze. Here, only the Ike dynasty produces the Eze. There was a move by some people to make it rotational but that has not gone beyond some people’s imagination.
What is your advice to Ndigbo?
We need to help ourselves. We need to use our God-given brains much more than we are doing. That is the only way to transform our society. This country is blessed and we can make ourselves more progressive than we are today.
•EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was first published in the Saturday Vanguard of November 5, 2016 under a different headline but is being repeated in view of contemporary developments in Nigeria.
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