Elder Nathaniel C.U. Okoro, popularly known as Nat Okoro, is the first indigenous Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer (MD/CEO) of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC).
The 89-year-old man was reluctant about discussing Nigeria’s 60th independence anniversary because according to him, “post-independence Nigeria has been a mess, precipitated by envy, jealousy and agitations by regions to dominate one another. Okoro who will be 90 on February 26, 2021, later gave in to Daily Trust demand.
Where were you at independence in 1960?
I was a traffic officer at NRC.
What was the general feeling like on October 1, 1960?
When you talk about Nigeria, you embarrass me. Which independence are you talking about? Is it pre-independence or post-independence? In pre-independence Nigeria, my best friend was from Ilorin. His name was Laisi Bello. His father was a traditional ruler in Umuahia. The Mayor of Enugu was Umar Altine, a northerner. We didn’t know differences. That was the Nigeria that I knew; not Nigeria of political correctness.
What do you mean by political correctness?
You have to be politically correct to get something. You have to have connection. People like us will never rise in today’s Nigeria. I was the first Nigerian Traffic and Commercial Officer of NRC at Kaduna. The Sardauna of Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello, gave me my first radiogram. Sardauna never slept in Kaduna over the weekend, and he always travelled by train. I planned for most of his trips. I would go and discuss with him. One day he met me at a shop in Kaduna and asked me, “What are you doing here?” I told him I was looking for a radiogram. He told the sales clerk to give it to me and he paid for it. It was during the war that I lost the radiogram.
I also knew the Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, very well. My uncle, Raymond Njoku, was the first Minister of Transport. He took over from Tafawa Balewa. But now Nigeria is empty and that is why we are not moving. God created Nigeria as a pasture. Nigeria is a beautiful valley in the shadow of death and you want me to celebrate it; celebrate what?
What do you think has gone wrong?
Jealousy stepped into Nigerian affairs. Nigeria is suffering from six sins. We have the sin of deception and brinkmanship; entitlement spirit. Where are you coming from? We have the sin of collaboration with evil. The third is the sin of compromise based on presumptions. Some people are willing to trade their fathers and mothers for money.
Another one is the sin of conspiracy; because out of jealousy, you don’t like me, you go and conspire with someone to make sure that you pull me down. Then there is the sin of betrayal and treachery. Until we address them, there is no Nigeria.
Are you saying a particular region became jealous of another?
Absolutely! No Igbo man is afraid of anybody; but they are willing to sell. See Uwalaka (referring to our photographer), if you ask him to sell you, he would sell you because of money. The Yoruba are treacherous. The South South is very conspiratorial. They don’t like the Igbo man, they think Igbo people would dominate them and so they are willing to work with the Hausa. I have written too much about the Igbo. I have written something about the politics of dimwitism. You know a dimwit? I have written the theory of dimwitism based on the politics of desperation.
From your submission, is it a case of northerners fighting southerners?
Not really; but it is within. Have you read Lord Lugard’s Amalgamation Theory? Try and get a copy; that tells you all. One, there is nothing called Nigeria. It never existed. There were two companies that were amalgamated. You don’t amalgamate nations. A nation is made up of one race, one religion, one tradition and one culture. You can never create a nation of two races, two religions; it is impossible. So that is part of our problem.
How did you find yourself at NRC?
I escaped from secondary school and started as staff clerk on level 7 or 8 or so. It wasn’t that I was more brilliant than anybody; I worked hard. The motto of the school I went to is: “Work Hard, Play Hard, Keep Straight”. That is Government Secondary School (GSS), Owerri. The motto is what has been guiding my life. So when I retired from NRC as MD, I didn’t have N5,000 in savings. In fact, I built my house in the village through my wife. She was then a part time distributor with the Flour Mills of Nigeria.
When you ‘escaped’ from secondary school to join NRC, did you go back to complete your studies?
No. Everything I did was in NRC. I went to schools of hard knocks. I told you I hold a number of certificates in railway.
How did you become the first MD of NRC?
I give the credit to General Muhammadu Buhari who was the Head of State then. He was at that time visiting government parastatals with his Deputy, General Babatunde Idiagbon. They went to the Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA) when Bamanga Tukur was its acting General Manager (GM). They came to the NRC and met me acting. They went to other agencies under the Ministry of Transport and met substantive MDs, but the two biggest: NRC and NPA, their GMs were acting. So they must have called the minister to find out what was happening. In the case of Bamanga, they had no problem. He was politically correct. So they promoted him without problem. So when it came to the NRC, six of us who were directors were considered qualified. We were in Malaga, a coastal town in Spain; then London on a Friday when we got information that the Minister of Transportation wanted to see us on Monday by 10:00am.
We thought the meeting was the usual one that directors usually had with the minister. So we travelled back, and on Monday, we went straight to the permanent secretary’s office. The minister informed us that government was anxious to fill the vacant position of GM of NRC, and that the six of us were all qualified. Meanwhile I was the acting MD. My first reaction was to resign. Then another voice told me, “If you do that you have helped them.” Of the six, I was the only one without a degree, but I was the only one who had trained two years in civil engineering, two years in mechanical, three years in operations and one year in management and accounting within the railway system. So my spirit told me I had advantage.
So we were made to sit for an examination. There were 10 questions and we had one hour to answer them. Thank God I am a very fast writer and a very fast thinker. When I saw the questions, I knew all the answers. Within 57 minutes, I finished.
We had a quarterly meeting where my appointment was announced. The minister said, “Gentlemen, I have good news and bad news for all of you. The good news is that one of you has been chosen to become the MD. Council has approved the appointment of one of you as MD/CEO.” Truly it didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t know I was going to be chosen. One, I wasn’t politically correct. Two, I was the least qualified in terms of paper. Everybody was expecting one Babatunde to be appointed. He too was so sure. He made a first class in engineering, but he forgot that he was only focused on civil engineering. So that was how the position was filled. So it was Buhari who made it possible for me to become MD.
With so much emphasis on paper qualification today, what does it portend for us as a nation?
We are not going anywhere. Like I told you, we were two companies that were amalgamated. He (Lord Lugard) gave us 100 years to test. When the time came, the military refused to organise a roundtable. That is why Nigeria is in trouble.
How can we douse this tension and cement the relationship?
You have to deal with the mind-sets of the people first. Our generation is gone, your generation is gone. You now have to think of your children, to get them to know that you are not Igbo, Hausa or Yoruba. You have to be a Nigerian. It is not something that can be done in a day, it would be a collective thing. You start from schools.