‘I left Shagari’s government with N13, 000 in my bank account’
Before his recent emergence as the President General of Igbo socio-cultural organisation, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief John Nnia Nwodo (Jnr) was a two-time minister, who quit partisan politics some years ago. In this exclusive interview with LAWRENCE NJOKU and SAMSON EZEA at his Enugu residence, Nwodo spoke on his humble beginning, challenges of leading Ohanaeze, the urgent need for restructuring of the country and other topical issues.
Who are you and what was growing up like?
By God’s grace, I will be 65 on December 11 this year. I was born into the family of Chief John Nnia Nwodo (Snr) and Mrs. Josephine Nwodo of Ukehe in Igbo Etiti Council of Enugu State.
My father was a member of the Eastern Nigeria House of Assembly, Parliamentary Secretary for Health and later Commerce and Industry. But what is important is that my pregnancy was conceived at a time my father was running to become a member of the Assembly in 1952. And if the conception, the gene of the conceived embryo is conditioned by the occupational disposition of either of the parents, mine is a typical case of how I turned out to become a politician.
Anyway, he gave me his names, apparently for the simple fact that I looked like him. As I grew up, I found so much similarity between my father and I and I began to wonder how God could create two persons existing contemporaneously, but almost alike.
I could tell what was in my father’s mind before he could open his mouth. Occasions when I visited my elder sister, Mrs. Grace Obayi, her children on hearing my voice downstairs would mistake me for my father and would rush, but when they see me, the expectation would melt away. We looked very similar.
I started school at Patrick’s, Iva Valley Enugu at the age of five in 1957. The school was administered by the Parish Priest then, Fr. Michael Eneje, a closed friend of my parents, who believed he was a disciplinarian and sent my elder brother, Okwesilieze, my late sister, Cecilia, and I there to school, while my elder brother, Joe, went to St. Patrick’s, Coal Camp.
My classmate was Peter Enejere, who was the younger brother of my father’s driver. At that time, public schools were of the highest standards and there was no school for the ministers’ children and another school for the driver’s children.
I am not sure my driver can afford the school my children attend at the moment, which is a retrogression, rather than progress. From Iva Valley, I went to the College of Immaculate Conception (CIC), Enugu, where we were trained by the Marist brothers. I was privileged to be Prefect of every of my class. But I left in class five after the school certificate, which made me to become Assistant Senior Prefect. I was chairman of debating society and I considered myself having great privilege to have gone to CIC.
Far more important was the quality of teaching, which was extremely high. Our laboratories were very well equipped and we didn’t have alternative to practical. I acted in various plays and it increased my oratorical ability, confidence in public speaking.
Gaining admission into the University of Ibadan was not easy at that time. There, I was extremely lucky to be voted in as the president of the students union, the first non-Yoruba to be given that position.
Students there didn’t identify themselves critically on account of where they came from. The spirit of national unity propelled many non-Igbo there to believe that I was worthy of becoming the president of the union and they voted for me.
Expectedly, there were few ethnic issues and attempts to scuttle my election, but I am glad to say they were in a minority.
What were your experiences as first Igbo SUG president at the University of Ibadan?
It was turbulent. I felt the very virile opposition that was characterised by ethnic identity. It looked like some people thought it was wrong for me to come from the East and become SUG president.
There were some Yoruba who didn’t see anything wrong in it and who thought I had the quality to represent them. Before the election, we had Kunle Adepoju, who was murdered by the Police in the course of demonstration against Mrs. Charity Apanpa, the Catering Officer, whom the students accused of dereliction of duty and compromise in the quality of their feeding.
In attempt to suppress students’ agitation, the Police used live ammunition and Kunle died. There was a debate on the day of his mourning. The students wanted to go to his grave in black attire. We didn’t know that some persons had compromised with the Police authorities and didn’t want us to go to the graveyard wearing black.
So, the night before Kunle’s memorial, the student body was in a state of confusion as to whether we could go or not. There was an open meeting and every student was allowed to speak.
I stood up and said we were not just mourning Kunle, but what he represented, and my speech led to unanimous resolution of the matter. Because of my speech, the students identified me, rallied and encouraged me to run for the president of the SUG. That was how it began and I won.
After I won, there were numerous crises because of then head of state, Gen. Yakubu Gowon’s declaration that 1976 handover date was unrealistic. I made sure that the university was reopened through negotiations with the authority and the rest of the Nigerian students in the country.
It was leadership training for me. I was heavily exposed to subtle negotiations with security operatives and even Gowon and his ministers. I learnt how to balance youthful exuberance with national security imperatives.
Could it be that your experiences there prepared you for leadership challenges?
I think it contributed. Let us begin from a traditional setting. If your father is a wine tapper, you will naturally learn how to tap palmwine. If your father is a rainmaker, you will naturally learn how to make rain. If you extrapolate it to modern education, the late Chief Rotimi Williams was the first senior advocate and his sons are senior advocates too.
I grew up as a politician’s son. I served people in my father’s living room. I listened to them when they discussed politics. I watched my father from the sideline delivering political speeches. I looked like him and grew up wanting to be like him.
The natural tendencies of trying to follow my father’s footstep prepared me more for leadership than my experience at Ibadan.
You were appointed into the federal cabinet at a very young age. What was it like?
First of all, I became National Secretary of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) at the formation of the party in 1978. We were about 11 candidates that contested for the position, but after my speech before the election, 10 candidates withdrew and I was returned unopposed.
It appeared that I not only had the consensus of the leadership, but my delivery and the applause resulting from it was a clear mental consensus for me and the others were humble enough to withdraw.
As secretary of NPN, I automatically became a member of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of my party. I was trained to stand up for my conviction and I didn’t have a stage fright.
So, when we went to meetings, when I saw that the views of the young men were not reflected or that certain salient points I considered important for the party that wanted to win were not attended to, I strove to speak.
Chief Adisa Akinloye, our national chairman, kept neglecting me until one day, I said at the meeting, ‘are young men not allowed to speak in this meeting?’ And they said, ‘alright young man, let’s hear what you want to say.’
My speech that day elicited a unanimous applause, so much that I was put into the constitution and manifesto drafting committee of the party. In the constitution drafting committee, Alhaji Shehu Shagari was a member and we developed close interaction working in a committee and we became like son and father. He was very patronising and it was obvious he had seen something in me that he liked.
I was appointed into his campaign committee when he became the presidential candidate and I worked for him, representing the youth at every campaign rally. I was always called upon to speak for the youth and my profile suddenly began to rise and it was difficult to neglect me.
The late Chief K.O. Mbadiwe could not go to a meeting without me. The late Fani Kayode (Snr) loved me. Akinloye appointed me into all kind of committees to work for him. Chief Richard Akinjide loved me so much and I was very happy as a young man to serve in a cabinet in which he was a member.
So, people who should be my fathers served in the cabinet and they still respected my rights to speak. They often recognised my point of view and developed it as a resolution.
I began to develop confidence and tried to make contributions.
Were you married then?
When I became Special Assistant to the President at 28, I was not married. It was obvious to me that you couldn’t be given a sensitive government position if you were single and Shagari said to me, ‘look John, if I called you in the middle of the night to discuss a serious matter, I wouldn’t know who will be sleeping on your bed, listening to our conversation. ‘At your age and position, you should get married.’
My problem, however, was that my immediate elder brother, Okwesilieze, was not married and according to Igbo custom, I must allow him to marry first before I marry.
He was studying as a doctor and was doing postgraduate studies and marriage was not on his card. He was more interested in realising himself, intellectually.
So, I arranged for him to come back one of the holidays and when he came back, in front of my parents, I went to him and knelt down to beg him to allow me to marry. I was very glad he gave me his blessings.
So, I married in 1981, but we didn’t have our first child until two years later. When I had delay in having a child, I went to my brother and begged him to get married, that I did not think God wants to change the pattern of succession in our family.
Why do we continue to recycle leaders in Nigeria, instead of giving youths opportunity in leadership?
There are two reasons for it. The first is youths themselves, who want easy life and are not prepared to work hard. Majority of them are not prepared to devote themselves to service; they want to get money easily and quickly.
I left Shagari’s government with N13, 000 in my bank account after being Special Assistant and Minister of Aviation. I was in government to learn and serve.
Even before then, I was a conductor. At the end of the war, my father had no money, as every Igbo man had 20 pounds, following the Gowon government’s decree. But my father, before the war gave the Marist brothers, who were running the CIC 10,000 pounds.
My eldest brother, Joe, was studying in England and had just finished his first degree in Law and decided to undertake a Masters and doctoral programmes. My father thought we would all perish in the war and told the Marist brothers to use the money to train our eldest brother and warned them not to allow him know that it was our father’s money, so that he will not be extravagant.
Because of the foreign exchange restriction, the Marist brothers could only transfer 4000 Pounds to England. They called Joe and told him that the money was a loan from them for his education and he should manage it properly, so that he could train himself with it. They told him that our father could not send him money anymore, because of the war.
Joe used it to rent a flat in England. He repainted the flat and rented it and went to the suburb in East London to hire a place to live. From the proceeds of the rent, he paid his school fees and concluded his studies.
When we came back, my dad was called by the Manager of Barclays Bank in Garden Avenue and told him that he had 6,000 Pounds, which had not been tampered with. So, my father thought very quickly and felt the best thing was to invest in transportation and he bought a Mercedes 911 bus.
My mother prepared a lavish dinner for my father over this and was happy that her children had a possibility of returning to the university. As I listened to their conversation from the balcony where they were chatting that night, my father said to my mum, ‘you know we are going to depend on the drivers, they will give us how much they cared’ and my mother said, ‘no, I will call the parish priest in the morning and he will administer the Bible oath on them’ and my father laughed and said the armed robber in the court swears an oath with the Bible and still continues to tell a lie.
So, I quickly thought I should go back and become a conductor, so that I could set a revenue pattern. So, I went and became a conductor. My mother tried to resist it, but could not. We plied Akwanga-Gboko-Jos-Mubi-Maiduguri and every two weeks, we brought home 500 Pounds.
Joe, who was in England, found out that we were doing well and he went and bought what was then known as home delivery (Volkswagen bus) and I said to my father, ‘let me go and set a revenue pattern with the vehicle.’ I went and started driving the Volks. I used to go out by 6am daily.
Later, my father got an advert for entrance examination to the universities and I came back from a commercial trip from the north and rendered account and was about to leave in the morning when my father took the keys of the bus from me.
He said, ‘look at these adverts, that is where there is real money and not where you are. You have set up the revenue profile, it is time to look after yourself, go and study.’
So, he sent me to my sister and the husband in Enugu and there, I prepared for university entrance examination.
You served both civilian and military governments. Do you think Nigerian leaders have learnt any lesson?
I think this is a very sweeping statement, because so many have learnt. When I listen to people like Col. Abubakar Umar (rtd), who was former military governor of Kaduna State, I still believe that there are leaders with conscience.
He is a man after my heart. His patriotism is unassailable. His courage of conviction is exemplary. His simplicity and disdain for material wealth is worthy of emulation.
These are the kind of icons I think this country should eulogise. We have had a preponderance of military governments in Nigeria. It is interesting that apart from the first constitution that gave birth to the regions and prospered better than the so-called federalism, we have never had a constitution written by the people of Nigeria.
Our constitutions have been written by the military. The people of Nigeria have never negotiated the basics of their existence, apart from the regions, and it is significant that we made progress under a regional government.
There was free education at all levels and you begin to ask yourself, where did we go wrong? The system itself made it impossible for the best of us to come out. When I was growing up, I used to farm with my father. I know the yam species, but my children don’t know these. As a matter of fact, my children are not attracted to go to the village now because they studied in the townships. They developed friends in the townships and there is no industry in the village that propels them to return home.
My father had large acres of farms that made us to be there, but oil economy changed our occupations and the rate of returns in other businesses that we undertook were much faster than that of agriculture.
We dumped agriculture and in the process, abandoned the nearness of our children to the mass areas of poverty that would have challenged them. The average youth in Nigeria at present is looking for status symbol – who rides a better car, lives in a better house, wears the most expensive watch, has the most beautiful house, whose children speak better English, trained abroad.
When we were growing up, Chinua Achebe was an icon because of his literary capacities. He was eulogised. When musicians like Celestine Ukwu and Rex Lawson sang, they were heroes and not necessarily because of their material appurtenances, but because of their natural endowments and capacity to develop them.
When someone made a First Class in the university, it would be obvious that the best had graduated and he or she became a potential suitor. Competence sold you, rather than material appurtenances.
When they give national honours, it does not necessarily reflect those who have distinguished themselves in their various fields of endeavour, but those who have made the most noise.
Many believe the 1914 amalgamation of the northern and southern region as one is Nigeria’s problem. Do you agree?
Certainly, this is history. The colonial masters created us into a country, but I believe our strength is in our size. Nigeria is a giant and has the potential of being the United States of Africa, if it is well governed.
No country has the potential for greatness in Africa than Nigeria, but our problem is leadership.
So, what would be your solution for the leadership problem in Nigeria?
You cannot have proper leadership in a country where every citizen does not have equal rights where accessibility to position is not a matter of merit, but a matter of where you come from. You cannot have greatness in a country where citizenship is a function of where your parents come from.
In our national census, one of the requirements is not your state of origin, but our constitutional requires that there must be federal character in appointments. But it is obeyed more in breach.
Look at the extant situation where the entire security apparatus where certain areas of the country are excluded, including the Igbo. How do you make people feel that they belong to that country and be patriotic? It is impossible!
Could this be responsible for the agitations by some people, including in the Southeast, to secede?
I was born a Nigerian and at some point, we from this part of the country felt that the way we were treated, where our people were murdered in reckless abandons, that we needed to have self-determination, and that was the quest for Biafra.
I was a Biafran soldier and fought during the war. At the end of the war, there was national reconciliation and we decided to come back and try Nigeria again.
I am afraid that the factors that give rise to self-determination are so prevalent now. Perhaps much more prevalent that the strings that hold our national unity are attaining their elastic limits.
We require a drastic effort and a consensus of the entire leadership of Nigeria and the ethnic nationalities to save Nigeria.
You once aspired to be president of Nigeria on the platform of the defunct APP. How do you feel not making it?
I feel like a footballer that lost a match, even though I felt we were cheated out of an agreement that it was the turn of the southeast to produce the president.
I made my speech at Eagle Square in Abuja that my heart beats for Nigeria on the account of the conspiracy that sidelined those of us who were contesting for the office from southeast.
There was a preponderance of offer from the southeast because of the unwritten agreement about leadership. In politics, I learnt something from Mbadiwe, that one must be a good loser.
At what point did you decide to quit partisan politics and why?
There came a time when elections were not a test of popularity in this country. Elections were rigged with impunity and governors were imposed on us without our mandate and they ran the states as if they were military governors. It was either you agreed with them or you were dealt with.
I just felt that there was no point being in politics if it was not a test of my popularity. Subsequently, my brother Okwesilieze, got involved after the disqualification of Joe and began to rise in politics and I felt it was ethically wrong for two of us to be in the public arena, especially he being my elder brother. So, I thought it more honourable to take the back seat.
What pushed you into vying for the president general of Ohanaeze Ndigbo?
That position rotates among states and it was the turn of Enugu to provide president general. I never wanted to be president general of Ohanaeze Ndigbo.
Even before the governor convened the meeting of leaders of thought over the issue, some persons had hinted that since the office was coming to Enugu, I must be the candidate for it. But I told them I was not interested and asked them to look for someone else.
When the governor finally invited us – legislators, former governors, former ministers, former vice chancellors, traditional rulers and women leaders, they took a decision that the thing ought to be zoned and that they would want somebody from Enugu North for the president general. They characterised the kind of person they wanted.
At that point, I didn’t know I was going to be the person. When Nsukka withdrew to consider who to nominate, to my utter surprise, the traditional rulers, with one voice, nominated me. The legislators at Abuja and Enugu nominated me. The Nsukka General Assembly, which is the cultural Assembly for my senatorial zone, nominated me.
There upon, I knelt down and begged them to leave me. I told them I was a single parent, as my wife died three years ago, that I found out that since my wife died, my children see me as their father and mother.
I thought that I needed time with my children now that their mother is not there. So, I pleaded with them to excuse me. I had promised my wife on her dying bed that I would not be in politics anymore and would devote time for our children.
I thought that being president general of Ohanaeze will be going to politics, but they told me it was the voice of the people and that I had no right to say no. They literarily ordered me to kneel down for prayers and without even my consent, they went and presented my name and Enugu people unanimously endorsed me and even volunteered to sponsor my campaigns.
So, I accept that I am victim of conspiracy of my people and that is why in my inaugural speech, I said I am ready to serve, ready to die. I didn’t want to come this way, but the collective will of the people, my wide acceptance in Igbo land, is providential.
So, I am a sacrificial lamb of the Igbo race and so long as I serve, I am prepared to do whatever they asked me to do, if it is good and in their best interest.
What do you envisage would be your challenges in office?
First of all, I am an old man. At 64, my physical ability and strength is limited. I have inherited an organisation that has been jaundiced for a long time. I inherited no car, no driver, not even an office space, but thanks to Rochas Foundation, they are building one.
I use my private office and my study room here as office. I don’t have a personal aide. I inherited a bank account of N15, 000. I am a Bishop without a cathedral or an Imam without a mosque.
I am propelled by sheer goodwill and determination to rebuild a broken house. That is my greatest challenge. I want to come out of it rebuilding an Ohanaeze that is accepted and endowed with resources.
Right now I can see a lot of goodwill building up and I intend to tap into it and give Ohanaeze a structure that my successors will forever be grateful for.
Do you still believe that Ndigbo can produce the president of Nigeria soon?
It is a topic of no consequence to me. It is not an issue for me. It is not important who is president of Nigeria; it is important how Nigeria is run.
A Sokoto man made me presidential adviser and minister of Aviation. I am not sure that if an Igbo man were President, he would do that to me. Leadership is not necessarily a function of where you come from. Dr. Goodluck Jonathan was President, but second Niger Bridge was not built. He answers Azikiwe.
The point is that the structure of Nigeria is faulty. If we have fiscal independence, as we had in the First Republic, you wouldn’t be bothered who is the President of Nigeria.
The action will be in the local place. We will be producing here and will be quite happy to pay the Federal Government for whatever services they rendered, because the basic economics is here. There will be a struggle of who will be the best here. The country needs to be restructured urgently.
Are the Igbo not the architects of their problems in Nigeria?
Forget about these exaggerations, I have never seen a more united people than Igbo people. If you go to any city in this country outside Igboland, wherever the Igbo live, they have a town union, they meet every month. If one of them dies, they stop all that they are doing and go and bury the person. What greater unity is more than this?
I am married to an Anambra woman. Anambra people are fantastic businessmen, endowed with capacity to turn nothing into something. When an Anambra man develops a new business, the next thing he does is to bring his brother and teach him that business. It doesn’t matter if they do not agree at home.
It is because we are so enterprising and we have business rivals here and there that people misunderstand it to be disunity. There is unity in diversity. I have seen through this president general of Ohanaeze that wherever I go, Igbos treat me like their father. The anxiety to solidarise with me is humbling.
Recently, I was in Ekiti, because every all Igbo men in Yoruba land met there for their annual reunion. When I ran a check, in Ado-Ekiti, there is only one man from my town, but the place was agog because of my presence.
So, how can anybody say we don’t love ourselves?
You have said much about the killings of members of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), but it seems the government and security agents are unrelenting. What next?
I am already in the public domain on this. You know there is something in the mindset. Some people regard Igbo as a defeated people who must be handled anyhow. Leading personalities in this country have been referring to an unwritten agreement to keep the Igbo down on account of their loss in the war against Nigeria. And I keep asking when this will end.
In fact, I am using this medium to ask the Minister of Transport, Mr. Chibuike Amaechi, who is building railway lines in almost every part of the country, why the original railway line here in Enugu to Jos is completely out of his development plan. What have we done?
The mindset here is that these people must not be enabled. That is why when you come here, the Police checkpoints are like we are under siege and that is why our children cannot even gather to talk about self-determination, which they have the rights under the constitution.
They are not even arrested and ask questions; they are confronted with live ammunition and murdered as if it were an ‘animal farm.’ If I were an Igbo youth, treated like this by security forces and Nigeria was my wife being raped by 10 men, I will relax as if nothing was happening. The oppressive forces of the government have destroyed the patriotism of the Igbo.
How can a court give two rulings asking for Nnamdi Kanu to be released and nobody cares in a democracy?
I listened to Prof Itse Sagay, who now speaks for government on corruption, and he has never for one day said something about Kanu’s illegal detention. Professor of Law, where is your law?
It is not good for the Igbo. You can only espouse that legal finesse when it concerns the Igbo and you expect me to be patriotic?
I don’t agree with everything about Kanu or his methods, but I cannot fault his rights to freedom of expression, self-determination and freedom of association. These are undeniable rights and that is why it is called fundamental human rights.
It is the principle upon which a state is built and as a father, I have to speak up for him. The way we are treated in this country is worse than the way a slave is treated.
What is your reaction to the recent judgment on the killing of six Igbo sons and daughters in Abuja, tagged Apo Six?
As a lawyer, I feel sad to criticise a judge and with utmost respect, I appeal to the Attorney General of the Federation to go on appeal over that judgment. Justice must not only be done, but also seen to be done.
I cannot imagine that there is an operation, be it in a checkpoint or a raid. The operation has a squad with a commander and the commander has just finished interacting with one of the deceased in a bar, in which he was reported to have made some sexual advances to one of the girls in the bar who was a girl friend to one of the deceased.
And having been rebuffed, he comes out to the checkpoint to wait for them and when they arrived, they were gunned down and killed. The policemen, under the commander’s control, confessed that they shot on the orders of their commander and the judge said: “I convict them because of the admission that they killed, but I disregard the part of their admission that says we shot on the orders of our commander.”
What did the Police authorities do to find out whether these boys acted on their own or whether they acted on instruction?
One of the officers is at large up till today. The circumstantial evidence that gave much weight to those confessions should have allowed all those involved to be convicted.
It is interesting to note that all those convicted are Christians, while those who have been let off the hook are Muslims and their geographical area very clear. Law is an instrument of harmony when law is pure, just in its interpretation. It builds confidence in the governed. When used as an instrument to segregate and are allocated according to where you come from, it raises jurisprudential problem and the confidence of the people in the law is eroded.
How do you spend your leisure time?
Right now, I hardly have time to spend. Being president of Ohanaeze is a very involving job. As a matter of fact, I look for extra 24 hours in a day to see if I can meet my obligations.
My phones ring without stopping. I am called by Igbo and non-Igbo even till late in the night, telling me their expectations of what I can do for them, some of which are beyond my reach.
The people abroad are more intellectual, more inquisitive and demanding of answers and because of time difference, I get phone calls from America very early. The demise of my wife created a vacuum in my life. I expected that I would die before her. Every single asset I have, I left the papers with my wife. I am still trying to recover some of my leases that I gave her, because each time I enter her room to search, I am in a pool of tears.
In one of those cases, I discovered love letters we used to write to each other in the first year of our marriage. I sent my daughter to go and search and in the process, she discovered more love letters and she came to me and said, ‘Daddy, I know you will like this.’
I feel too old to remarry and I feel my children need me. Some of them are too young to be visited with cross loyalty and I just want them to know that I am there for them. I am all they have got and I want to devote my time to them.
I have an army of friends who come from time to time to keep me company. I belong to a number of voluntary organisations, especially within the Catholic Church.