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Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh: Rich Echoes From The Past

By Anote Ajeluorou and Gbenga Salau
17 January 2016   |   3:41 am
AND then the young majors struck. January 15, 1966. Midnight. And a dark veil covered the young political firmament of Africa’s most promising country. Then blood, too, flowed in Kaduna and Lagos, two political epicentres. By the time day broke the young majors realised the futility of their adventure, and the world and the country…
Okotie Eboh

Okotie Eboh

AND then the young majors struck. January 15, 1966. Midnight. And a dark veil covered the young political firmament of Africa’s most promising country. Then blood, too, flowed in Kaduna and Lagos, two political epicentres. By the time day broke the young majors realised the futility of their adventure, and the world and the country woke to a new reality far from what they had imagined. 50 years later, that fatalistic midnight misadventure still stares the country and her hapless citizens in the face.

Now half a century later, the country would seem to have come full circle. At least the events of last Friday, January 15, 2016, at the Nigeria Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) proved instructive. The young majors, led by Major Kaduna Nzeogwu, had told the world that the entire independence political class was corrupt, and they had come as the messiahs to rescue the country from the brink. Corruption has since become the big stick the military wields to oust legitimate civilian governments in Nigeria.

Although the late Chief Festus Samuel Okotie-Eboh was not the leader of government, as Finance Minister he played a prominent role that dwarfed many at the period. With the personal wealth he had acquired before he contested for a seat in Sapele, Mid-West Region and joined government under National Council of Nigerian and the Cameroun (NCNC), he brought panache and dynamism to leadership not known before.

From testimonies given by some of the surviving political actors of the period, the young soldiers who did not understand the intricacies of governance, clearly got it wrong the charges they levelled against Nigeria’s founding fathers. In fact, one of the chief actors of the period, Mr. Dara Mbazuilike Amaechi, a fellow minister in Tafawa Balewa’s government, declared that back then, they were not called politicians, but nationalists, a term that conjures the image of selfless patriots who rendered impersonal service to the fatherland to gain her independence and lead the young country.

From their testimonies, it was clear that rather than the political actors benefiting from the party or government, it was the other way round. Party members were required to pay levies for the running of the party. In the case of NCNC, the party repeatedly went cap-in-hand to Okotie-Eboh, an accomplished businessman exporting goods from Nigeria to Europe and Canada, for finances to run the party’s activities.

Okotie-Eboh’s renowned flamboyance also fuelled allegations of graft against him and his co-travellers in the country’s nascent Parliamentary democracy. An affluent chief from the Itsekiri and Urhobo tribes of the Niger Delta who took pride in showing the rich traditions of his roots, Okotie-Eboh spared nothing to show his colleagues the rare breed that he was in what incomparable elder statesman, Alhaji Maitama Sule described as “his usual flamboyant way – the cap and feather, his long cloth that flowed behind him and attached to a boy some distance away; he was loved by all irrespective of party affiliations. He was hailed by all.

Sule, a close associate of Balewa and an inner caucus of Northern People’s Congress (NPC), which had a political alliance with NCNC to form government, spoke glowingly of the political climate of the period. He described the period as radically different from what obtains in today’s Nigeria, which is like poisoned waters. As keynote speaker, Sule said Okotie-Eboh was a great personality and a unifying factor in the politics of the period

“Festus was the first Minister of Finance, the best finance minister in Africa in those days. He made a thorough job of it. He was a man of the people, a friend of all the people, all the parties. In fact, many didn’t know the party he was. He was a man full of humour. Festus made sure that the two great parties – (NPC) and NCNC – worked together very well. Festus did his job; he would speak for two hours while presenting his budget.

“Those leaders laid the foundation for Nigeria. The reputation of Nigeria was very high in the international community. We held our heads high. Nigeria is a great country with potentials; we need to realise its potentials. Nigeria is destined to lead Africa and the rest of the black race. It is not for nothing that God has brought us together to work together.

“But we need to have leaders like Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello, Aminu Kano, Okotie-Eboh to do that. We need leaders with the fear of god who will not lie. We need leaders not rulers who will not steal and who are not corrupt. Our First Republic was decent”.

IMMORTALISING the legacy of Okotie-Eboh rang loudly from the various presentations made. Chief Brown Mene, a pioneer staff of Nigerian Security printing and Minting Company (NSPMC), called for Okotie-Eboh’s name to be one of the currency notes. He blasted past governments for the obvious omission and called for its immediate correction. Mene had the 50 naira note in mind and wondered what some nameless Nigerians were doing on it when the man who first printed currency in the country is omitted from such honour. Others also called for a befitting monument to be erected in Okotie-Eboh’s name. as first step, proceeds from the book launch and sales would go into setting a Professorial Chair for Banking and Finance in a university.

ON the courtyard of Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIAA) was a festive, carnival atmosphere. Men and women dressed in yellow and white attires typical of dance groups from the Niger Delta formed a semi-circle facing the main hall for the Colloquium on Chief F.S. Okotie-Eboh: His Politics and Times and a book titled Chief F.S. Okotie-Eboh: In Time and Space. The drums, the agogos and assortment of other local musical instruments pelted a steady rhythm of music in consonance with soothing songs. Men and women trooped into the venue donning various colourful traditional attires of the Niger Delta.

Soon, too, ‘Okotie-Eboh’ walked regally into the courtyard! Equally colourfully dressed with a plum of feathers in his cap, he had a long yard of cloth trailing behind him reminiscent of the late flamboyance of the late Okotie-Eboh the world had gathered to celebrate 50 years after he was assassinated by the murderous majors of the Nigerian army.

And for about four hours that the colloquium and book presentation marking the 50th memorial of Chief Festus Samuel Okotie-Eboh lasted, guests were held spellbound. This was because each speaker gave new revelations and perspectives to the person of Okotie-Eboh and the government of the First Republic in their presentations.

The hall was filled to capacity with a long list of prominent Nigerians who gave insight to the magic of a man who was adored by all, while he lived. Their presence also buttressed the fact that although Okotie-Eboh’s legacy is colossal, the man has not been fully given the recognition he deserves from the Nigerian state. But his associates ensured that his legacies live on in the mind and memory of the Nigerian people, whom he served meritoriously.

The colloquium, with ‘Chief F. S. Okotie-Eboh, his Politics and his Times’ as theme, had Ambassador Yusuf Maitama Sule giving the keynote address. Other sub-topics included ‘Chief F. S. Okotie-Eboh’s Politics in the First Republic’ which was delivered by Dara Mbazulike Amaechi; ‘The Ministry of Finance, Its Connectivity to the Ministry of Industry/Industrial Growth in the First Republic’ which Alhaji Ahmed Joda presented; ‘The Role of Ministers and Permanent Secretaries under the First Republic had Chief Philip Asiodu as the speaker; ‘Chief F. S. Okotie-Eboh on National Stability and Inter/Intra-party Politics was presented by Senator Ben Obi while Chief Brown Mene spoke on ‘Chief F. S. Okotie-Eboh and the Build up of Financial Institutions in Nigeria/ Global Financial Relations’.

EACH of the speakers dissected Okotie-Eboh from three perspectives – his personality, which was about the way he interacted with people, his sense of judgment of persons and issues; his work, which was on his activities in private practice, where he had set up manufacturing companies and schools before coming into public space to serve as Parliamentarian and minister and then his speeches, which were his thoughts, aspirations and vision that were not just about himself but also about how to move Nigeria forward.

The presentations restore the stature of Okotie-Eboh many did not know and who many misconstrue other than he was. The colloquium further highlighted the importance of teaching history to the country’s young people for them to have a sense of where they come from.

Joda noted that though Herbert Macaulay, Azikiwe, Balewa, Ahmadu Bello and Awolowo were the founding fathers of Nigeria, there were many others who laboured far into the night to strategize for the content and substance of the desired outcomes of a great country. And he unequivocally said Okotie-Eboh was part of that think-tank, stating, ‘the story of Nigeria’s struggle for political and economic independence cannot be complete without recognising and acknowledging the heroic and significant roles played by many other stalwarts. The personality we are celebrating here tonight, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh stands out.”

According to Joda, Okotie-Eboh was significant in many respects, as the first Nigerian Minister of Finance, “he steered the country’s economy at its birth through an era of fast and most rapid economic growth, development and progress yet to be equaled.

“Chief Okotie-Eboh, without doubt a political giant among giants of the First Republic, was, perhaps, the closest and one of the most influential in the government of Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa”.

In his paper, Asiodu gave a narrative of the interaction between the Civil Service and the politicians in government. While using the relationship between the Ministers and the Permanent Secretaries as yardstick, he noted that the relations were usually cordial and mutually respectful even where the minister was much older than the permanent secretary.

The Civil Service, according to him, was modeled after the Indian and British example of non-partisanship, objectivity and professionalism and merit. The former super Permanent Secretary said the ministers and leading politicians of the First Republic came from a background of successful careers in the professions of law, medicine, teaching and business.

According to him, the main role of the higher civil service, which he described as the most senior crop of administrative and professional officers, was to advise the ministers on matters of policy and functions allocated to the ministries. He said once policy was decided upon by the ministers, collectively in cabinet or individually where the minster was competent to do so, it was the duty of the civil service to ensure that such policy was faithfully carried out as efficiently as was possible given the resources available and the prevailing circumstances.

Asiodu stated, “Work on policy formulation might include gathering the necessary data, carrying out extensive inter-ministerial consultations, occasionally consulting external interests and at the end of the process, the Permanent Secretary would marshal all the information available and indicate the possible options and consequences of pursuing alternative courses of action.”