Daily Trust: How was your childhood in the village?
Mr Osita Okechukwu: Most times, we had commonality, we had common friends, we visited one another, we ate together, we went to school together, and we played together. I had an elder sister in Aba. During the holiday, she came to pick me up once in a while. We travelled from Eke, my village, to Aba with her, which is about 200 kilometers. Later in life, she got transferred to Lagos. So, I started going to Lagos to stay with her on holidays.
DT: What do you remember most about this period?
Okechukwu: I entered a train for the first time during the period. That was exactly in 1962. It was a big and memorable experience for me to travel from Enugu to Aba by train. It’s not a long distance, but for me, it was like I was going to England. Normally, you were known to have entered cars or trucks once or twice then, but not train. There was a particular truck known as ‘Austin’ which was my preference against ‘Morris’. I used to go to Nsukka with it. I preferred Austin maybe because my baptismal name is Augustine. So, I would tell my father that I would like to enter ‘Austin’ instead of ‘Morris’. Those were trucks in the 60s. You could imagine the feeling of a child who had travelled in a Volkswagen bus. But suddenly, he had to travel by train. It was an experience travelling by train. I travelled with my sister. At each station, she would buy one or two things. It was very lively. It remains memorable. Even when she died, I took it upon myself that I owed her because she established some memories in me. She was the first person who took me abroad on holiday as well. She was married in Imo State – Mrs Rebecca Ikwuegbu. What keeps her memory in me is that when we went on holiday for the first time in 1962, I went with my cousin who lives in London now. She told us that if you wanted to come back on holidays, you must pass your examination well. So, at every exam, I always remembered that I wanted to go on holiday, I had to study extra hard. So, it became memorable. It was just like the maxim which my father gave me some time ago. I had a nephew who was schooling at St John’s Secondary School, Alor. Whenever he returned from holiday, he wore canvas and stockings with a vest. So, one day, my father bought a pair of shoes for me at Christmas. I said no. I didn’t want the shoe, but canvas. He asked me what I was looking for. I said I wanted canvass. He said: “Ah! You can’t get a canvas until you go to college, have you seen anybody in primary school wearing canvas? So, naively it remained a message to me that I must go to college in order to wear canvas. Little did I know that canvas could be bought without going to college. He said Richard, Boniface and Raymond were all in college. By college, he meant secondary school. He said when I gained admission to college; he would buy canvas shoes for me, that he won’t buy canvas for a boy in primary school. At this point, it stuck in my mind that I must go to college one day, so that I would wear canvas.
DT: Are you applying this on your children?
Okechukwu: To be honest, once in a while, I tell them how we came where we are. I also try to tell them one of my father’s credos. When you became lousy over your studies, my father would say you were not studying for him. (He would say: I might not be there when you become a big man or whatever you want to be. As long as I’m alive, I would always find something to eat with my wife. You are not helping me. I’m helping you). I keep repeating this to my children as well – that they are not helping me. I’m helping them. I’m training them to be good for themselves and not for me. And it happened, when I just finished secondary school, I proceeded to a Teachers Training College under a crash program called Universal Primary Education (UPE) in the 70s. Unluckily, it was the same year that I came out that my father died. So, I didn’t even receive a salary, where I could have said I had the honour of sharing my salary with him. It happened the way he proclaimed it. I keep telling my children that I’m pushing them to study for their personal interests. If there is any way I benefit, then it will be a bonus.
DT: Do you have particular experiences you can share with your young ones?
Okechukwu: There are a lot of experiences. I remember that in those days, there were kinds of certainties in schools, university or college. Let me tell you about my admission and the university experience. One day, I was teaching. Somebody came and said that he saw my name in the Daily Times newspaper, I couldn’t believe it. I rushed to the man from whom I used to buy copies of Daily Times. That was one Friday evening. His wife told me that he had travelled for weekend. He normally locked up copies of the Daily Times in his cupboard. He bought it, filed it and locked it up so that nobody could take it away. I had to wait till Sunday evening for the man to return. You could imagine the suspense. There was no GSM then. Nobody talked to anybody on it. I was teaching at Nsukka. I applied for admission at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. But by the time I got the information, the university had closed for the day. On Saturday, the department was not open. So, I waited until the man came back on Sunday evening.
In fact, as I finished eating in the afternoon, I went to the man’s house. The man was eating. He said I should allow him to eat. I had to wait. As soon as he was ready, he opened his cupboard. He asked my name. I told him. He slipped through. Then, he said congratulations.
I also remember what happened during the war. We were in a boys’ company in a secondary school called Madonna High School in Okigwe. Then, the provincial administrator of my zone, Enugu Province, was the late Chief Christian Chukwuma Onoh. He came to Okigwe one day. We went there to listen to him. He said it was as if the war was coming to an end. He said instead of dying of hunger, we should start going home, and we left. Later, I told some of our people that one day, we had to throw away the uniform and moved behind the federal side. From where I come, many towns like mine were on the federal side. So, we left for home.
Let me tell you one thing I never forget about the war. The day it was announced that Haiti recognized Biafra, we all jubilated, but later in life, when I got to university studying Political Science and International Relations in particular, I studied about Haiti, only to discover that Haiti is not a super power as painted then but just a tiny island. That was one of my saddest days in life. I was telling them how we jubilated, thinking that Haiti was one of the super powers. I didn’t know that it was a small country in the western hemisphere with a tiny black population. It pained me because we placed a lot of premium on the recognition but it showed the power of propaganda in a war.
DT: What do you do at leisure?
Okechukwu: I use my leisure time to read newspapers and do newspaper cuttings to take the pages that are of interest to me. Even if I’m in a cafe or a joint, I normally go with my papers. What made me develop interest in journalism is because of the University of Nigeria which we call a comprehensive university. There, the elective courses are as important as the main courses. Most of my elective courses were in Mass Communication. So, I was always studying every course as if I was a Mass Communication student.
DT: Did you prepare to become a politician?
Okechukwu: Yes I did. When I was going to study Political Science, I had a headmaster who was very close to me. He was like an uncle. He asked me why I wanted to study Political Science. I said I wanted to become a politician. He said if you want to become a politician, why not become a lawyer? I said I didn’t want to become a lawyer because I needed to know the real gist and background about politics and not just the periphery. He said Law was not periphery. He said if you lose an election, you could go back to law practice. So, those were some of the issues, and there was Professor Godwin Odenigwe of blessed memory who inspired us. Some of us were fascinated that he read Political Science and that he is a professor of Political Science. He meant a lot to us. We also had prominent lawyers like late Justice Charles Daddy Onyeama and Justice Anthony Aniagolu in my village. We are all from Udi LGA in Enugu State. They told us how Professor Odenigwe helped to restructure the local government system in Nigeria. For us, he linked us to Political Science.
DT: Who are your heroes in politics?
Okechukwu: I will start with the late Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Zik of Africa. I was once a personal assistant at the national headquarters of the Nigerian People’s Party (NPP) when I came out of university in 1983. With him, we toured the whole states along with his huge entourage. Outside the literature I had read about him, he would come back in the night and would deliver some kind of lectures. I cannot forget the chairman of the Conference of Nigerian Political Parties (CNPP), Alhaji Balarabe Musa as well.
There was a time we were going to Lagos, he asked me to prepare the budget. After that, he said the budget was too much. He pruned down the money, and he asked me, what would you do with the extra money? I said you wouldn’t know what would happen when you were on a trip like that. So, I went to the man and I pleaded with him to add the extra amount so that we won’t run out of cash. He said: “Are you working with Balarabe Musa?” I said yes. He said if I didn’t want to lose my job, I should follow what he said. He said he might even call him early in the morning or in the night, and I should not bother myself.
DT: Do you have anything to regret in life?
Okechukwu: Where do I go from here? I don’t know my greatest regret actually because I have always worked on a template. When I read “The Prince”, one of the thesis or classics of Nichole Machiavelli, I found in a chapter where he advised the prince to look towards fortune, in spite of all codes of gaining and sustaining power. He talked about the prince seeking the assistance of God. Then, I said it means we must be religious in our thinking and in our conduct, which has guided me throughout my life. I believe I have to do my best as a human being and leave the rest to God.
DT: What is your hobby?
Okechukwu: Reading newspapers. I don’t play squash. Most of the times, I read newspapers and magazines.
DT: What of your favourite meal?
Okechukwu: My favourite meal is beans. I can eat beans for one month, unchanged.
DT: Why do you like beans?
Okechukwu: I don’t know the reason. Even when I was in secondary school, my refectory was aware that it was my favourite. Even if I came late for dinner or lunch, he would make sure that he reserved beans for me.
that. But I don’t fix parties or gatherings for it.