Chief Chukwuemeka Ezeife, a former federal permanent secretary, as well as governor of Anambra State between 1992 and 1993, is the chairman of the Igbo Elders Consultative Forum. In this interview with Daily Trust on Sunday he shared his experiences, including how he prepared himself for the General Certificate of Education (GCE) examinations without attending a secondary school and got admission into the University of Ibadan.
By Kabiru A. Yusuf
Your biography suggests that you didn’t quite attend a secondary school. You taught yourself before taking the GCE examinations, then went to the University of Ibadan. Why did you follow that route?
It was not an option; I didn’t follow that route, I was forced. After primary school, I went to become an apprentice trader. First of all, I sold medicines, then motor spare parts. Halfway, after two years I had started feeling that I should go to school. So I went back to the village to teach, and after teaching for some two years, again, I thought I should go back to school. You see, it was the doing of the Lord. While I was moving around, I met one teacher, I think he was Hausa, and saw a certain result and wondered what it was. He told me it was a correspondence course. I asked what it stood for and he told me about the General Certificate of Education (GCE), explaining that one could do it by taking some correspondence subjects and qualify to take exams, known as ordinary level at that time. That was what happened.
I went to teach in a school in Anambra State and started applying for correspondence courses; and that went very well. I was the headmaster of the school and I taught up to 3 o’clock, then held an extra class by 5 to 6 and went to the bush to prepare for my correspondence courses. I started immediately. I did it for a month; then by Christmas I had to go to Onitsha where my elder brother was and read throughout the period. When my elder brother came back from the village, I had changed so much because I did not sleep due to long and continuous reading.
That was how it happened until I took the first qualifying test in 1959. I took the ordinary level in 1960 and the advanced level in 1961. And I was lucky. By the time I got my result of the advanced level, they had virtually closed admission in the University College, Ibadan (UCI). I had also applied to the University of Nigeria.
Eventually, I was admitted into both schools.
I came to the UCI and found so many people who said they went to higher schools and I felt very inferior that I did not go to a higher school. When the result of the first year exams came out, I went to the bottom of the list to look for my name and started going on because we were up to 300. I was still going on until I reached number 18 where I saw my name. Then I said I was going to beat everybody.
In 1963, I took another exam and beat everybody in the faculty and was given the faculty prize as the best student. I thank God because in many ways it was divine.
You graduated from the University of Ibadan with a degree in Economics, what did you do after that?
After the degree, it was not difficult to get a job. I was employed by the Nigerian Breweries Limited as a marketing person. They trained me in marketing administration and gave us tests. When you are successful you would think you did it for yourself. I had to be tested in marketing with people who were there for it.
One incident happened when someone from a Yoruba town entered our office and was shouting and complaining bitterly. He was very mad at the company. When he finished, I don’t know how God gave me the grace to say, “Sorry please, you don’t know me, but look at how you are talking with anger to me. Please forgive whatever the company did to you, I will repair it.” Interestingly, when I left I made the greatest sale for that day at his shop. So I came out of any test they gave; and I thank God for that. After six months at the Nigerian Breweries I asked myself if I would keep selling beer. I said I must get a master’s degree. That was how I started going back to government. I applied for an administration job and was taken.
So you went to the civil service because of your desire to further your studies?
Yes. When I went to the civil service I heard different kinds of stories, but they didn’t ask me any question. The main question was why I wanted to join the civil service. They advised me to look at what I was being paid and the allowances I was getting. I said I didn’t know, but I wanted to join the service. They said I should come back in one month. Eventually, I was taken to the Federal Ministry of Economic Development in Lagos.
In the 1960s you had the opportunity to go to Harvard. A lot of people heard about Harvard later, but you were amongst the first people to go there, not only to do a master’s degree but a PhD as well; how did that happen?
From the Ministry of Economic Development I was sent for a course at Cambridge Massachusetts, and I worked where they took people from developing countries to train in their country; I was amongst. We were about 30 from different countries.
Was that your first trip outside Nigeria?
No. In those days there were opportunities. The ministry sent me to Japan to do some courses. I was lucky I came top in the class. It lasted only three months. After that, we went there again for about one year. It was not in early 1960s; Japan was 1965 and Cambridge was 1966. I later came back to Harvard in 1969. The thing is that when God planned your life you don’t need to boast that you did it.
My way to Harvard was made easy. Professors from the school were teaching us. They knew everything about us, so when I applied, I was taken. But when I finished my course, there was war in Nigeria, so I could not come back. I rather went to Uganda, Makerere University as a lecturer. That was one of the best parts of my life. The president would invite us to come and discuss economic stuffs.
How long did you stay in Uganda; how was the experience?
Uganda is a beautiful country. I stayed two years and had the best experience. But the war in Nigeria made it a little bit difficult because they were inviting me to be on television to talk about the war in Nigeria. I was teaching Economics. I enjoyed Uganda. Their English is most interesting.
Were you a bachelor up to that point?
I was a bachelor. I went back to America in 1969 and married an Igbo lady who was doing a course there. I enjoyed my life in Uganda.
You said the war prevented you from coming back to Nigeria, but I assume your sympathy would be with Biafra; is that correct?
Of course. You didn’t ask how ready we were for war.
Did you also contribute to the war effort on the Biafran side; what did you do?
Yes, I did. It was a pitiable situation to remember. We saw pictures of our children dried up. You would see the bones in some of them. With the pictures of those children we had to go begging for money. One day I was begging at one side and my wife was begging at another side, and all of a sudden, someone came and told me that she fainted. I went to see her, and as soon as I saw her on the ground I fainted too. But I didn’t stay too long and we took her. She eventually recovered. It wasn’t easy for any Igbo boy or girl in Europe. You had to go and beg for money to give to people who would transmit it home.
But you were comfortable as you were on a scholarship.
The scholarship was from the Rockefeller Foundation for PhD. It was good; and they gave me allowance. Even when I started having children they increased the allowance. They paid to Harvard for having me, after paying school fees. I stayed there for three happy years. They also made me a teaching fellow. Some good students were made teaching fellows. They helped a person to prepare himself. I had a very great enjoyment at Harvard.
We see the whites as if God gave them every better thing, but God didn’t create a man anywhere inferior to the whites. We didn’t know this until we went there.
After your PhD at Harvard, did you come back home or you stayed there?
I didn’t stay a minute longer in America because I had a daughter who was about three and another one who was about year and half and I didn’t want them to absorb inferiority complex from the television. There was still some discrimination in the US against blacks, so I wanted to go back to where my children could feel comfortable as soon as I finished.
I told Makerere that I was coming back. They admitted me and allowed me to come back. In 1973 I wanted to come back, but I passed through Lagos after I had been given a good position in Makerere. I passed through Lagos and went back to my office and greeted the people. They asked about my class and I said I was going to Uganda to continue my teaching. The next day, somebody called and asked if I could come, saying they wanted to talk to me. I went there and they asked if I would not want to work for them again. I said I was going to Uganda, but without any interview or anything, I was promoted to a high position as a principal officer.
At that time, had the civil war wound started healing for you as an Igbo intellectual coming back to Lagos?
Yes. Lagos was very good. When I came back, after a few months I adjusted fully and was no longer afraid. I was with my friend, Olu Falae. I had a good time staying in Lagos as a civil servant. I was properly guided and promoted. Eventually, I had to transfer from the Ministry of Economic Development to Ministry of Transportation. I had a very good experience there. I was moved up. In those days, if you were really intelligent and well qualified you would enjoy the civil service.
At what point did you become a permanent secretary; how was the experience?
In 1984. First of all, I was the chairman of productivity income. There, we were trying to negotiate something with Russia and the man they brought was too arrogant. I talked to him as an intellectual but he was not able to understand. He went back to Russia and died. I felt guilty because I made him feel inferior to blacks, and probably, that hurt him enough to kill him. The same kind of feeling I got when the World Bank sent a team to Nigeria and they came to my office to propose a theory. I was looking at them, and after they finished, I decided to remove the assumptions and foundation of that theory. At the end of it, everyone of them agreed.
You and Chief Olu Falae were the economic gurus of a military government. In fact, many people would accuse you of bringing the structural adjustment programme to Nigeria, even if you rejected the World Bank’s recommendation. You accepted the removal of fuel subsidy and such policies, especially under the Babangida-led government; how would you react to this?
Yes, Falae, myself, Ayo Oyelu and few more can accept that we caused a problem. But I can tell you that we worked very hard; and the ministers of those days recognised the problems but didn’t know enough.
Were you a super permanent secretary?
Well, we became super permanent secretaries. Let me tell you a story: When Adamu Ciroma was the minister of agriculture, they said I was good, so I was taken from the Cabinet Office to deal with import licences. Problems were on the ground, so I met with the minister who was supervising me. He was the agriculture minister but he was supervising me. He told me the way he wanted it, but I said it would not work. He said whether it would work or not he wanted it that way. I said okay but did exactly what I told him I would do. And my proposal worked very well. He discovered that I did something totally different from what he directed me to do. In the presence of the press he spoke Arabic, which was interpreted in English to mean, “May God never bring me close to this man again.” When the thing worked perfectly and he could breathe again, I told him what I said about him. In those days, ministers enjoyed their offices, but we would boldly tell you what we wanted boldly, and if you refused we would argue until we reached a point. And if you insisted, we would do what we thought would work for the country.
After your career in the civil service you also went into politics; as an intellectual, I wonder what motivated you into that?
Well, I don’t know what to say. I was a permanent secretary at that time and I saw politicians and what they were doing. I am from Anambra State, so I decided to make more sacrifices as governor. I prayed to God, saying if my ambition to become the governor of Anambra State was for my personal interest he should make it impossible, but if it would improve the welfare of the people, he should please make it easy. God did not make it easy o, but he made it possible. We had a rough time during our campaign. Thirteen people from my party, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) who were going for governorship at one time were sleeping in the house of Arthur Nzeribe, who wanted to be the decision maker. He took us to his palatial house. We were enjoying the food we could not afford.
Even as a former permanent secretary?
Oh yes; of course a former permanent secretary did not have money. There was no money. Arthur Nzeribe gave us a very good reception and a paper to sign, that whoever was brought out amongst us, others should support him. We went to our rooms, slept and woke up in the morning and he asked for our signatures on the paper. Everybody signed, except me.
I decided to come out for governorship and didn’t want anybody to choose for me.
So you didn’t accept Nzeribe as a godfather?
No. And he said I would be a governor over his dead body. My party chairman in my local government came back from one event and was very furious, saying I spoilt everything and I should go back and beg him. I looked at him and said I would not go back to beg him. God knows what he wanted to use me for. So he kept quiet.
I came to Lagos and met Nzeribe in a hotel compound, bought tea for him and told him that I would become the governor of Anambra State and he would not die. I told him that he would come to the governor’s lodge for lunch. He said everybody accepted that I was the most qualified, but asked if I thought I would win over thousands of Anglicans while I was a member of the Sibentian Army, a tiny church in my village. I laughed and said I understood him.
When you became governor, how did you cope with people like Nzeribe?
Nzeribe was fantastic. When my elder brother died, he brought a big truck with drinks and food and served the people by himself. We were friends.
From what I read, you had a big plan for Anambra people but you did not bring them to life; what happened?
That is not true. It is a matter of what people thought should be done. I did the things I wanted to do. I changed maternity leave. I decided that a baby must suck its mother’s breast up to six months, and that was done. I decided that both the polytechnic in Anambra and the Nnamdi Azikiwe University should have some permanence and shouldn’t be state-owned, so they became federal institutions. I lobbied Babangida and they did it. On ordinary budget, people started making noise about whether I had done anything. I got all the big spokesmen and sent them to see what other governors in the South East were doing, so that they would come back and help me. When the people came back, they clapped for me because in every area, I had done more than every state in the South East. By the way, remember that I was the only SDP governor in the South East, the rest were from the National Republican Convention (NRC). But they were doing well.
During the burial of my elder brother, all the governors agreed to do something for the South East.
How would you compare your tenure with that of Mr Peter Obi, who is now touted as the star of Anambra?
I worked for 1 year and some months. I called people who gave me plans for agriculture and industry but I did not implement most of the advancements. I built more roads than many other governors. I did a lot of things and saved more money than he did. I was famous for saving money. I left a lot of money – N400million of those days. Peter saved N75billion, and that was a decade after me.
Peter Obi is better than me in one aspect – he is more economical, and when he made a statement he lived by it. Public money was used for public welfare.
When I was governor, there were people who carried my bags, but many years after I left office, I saw Peter at the Enugu airport and he was carrying his bag. That was unusual. He was the only governor I saw carrying his bag. He was very economical and did not use public money for his personal welfare.
From what you have said, it seems the hope of Igbo presidency is invested in Peter Obi; am I right?
I will say that God has taken over the events of Nigerian politics after that big money affair, where the highest bidders got the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) tickets.
I think we are entering a new Nigeria, where men without conscience, who have been messing with God’s great designs for Nigeria, are being pushed aside.
Peter is not for Igbo; he doesn’t care whether you are Fulani, Yoruba or whatever, what he knows is his economic and development principles and how to lead Nigeria to answer what God wants it to answer, be a superpower and raise the respect and dignity of all blacks on earth. That is what I see as God’s purpose for Nigeria.
Peter is not coming for the Igbo nation, you know we don’t ask for favours from the government; what we want is a level playing ground. Look at your village and you will see Igbo people there; and they are doing well. Our people are everywhere in Nigeria. With our faith we have voted for one Nigeria.
Peter is more favourable to the poor. He will make the Fulani happy and loved in Nigeria. He will make the Yoruba and all groups in Nigeria happy because they will find a transformed and great country.
He was the vice presidential candidate of the PDP in 2019, so it doesn’t look as if he is different from other politicians; what do you think?
Peter is totally different. You see, when you are in politics you mix with everybody, but if you are now picked, it shows who you are. Peter is not like other politicians, he is better than me. I think God has taken over to do what he has planned for Nigerians, whether you are Igbo or Yoruba. I think a new Nigeria is manifesting after all. Enough of deceit, cheating and comprehensive corruption.
But on the social media there is a lot of desire for Igbo presidency, don’t you think that is simply playing out?
Let me start by saying the Igbo are voting for one Nigeria with our faith. Look at this compound, of course, it was given to me by the government, but there is no Ghana-must-go bag I will use to pack this and go back to my village. That is the same thing anywhere you go in Nigeria. More than 65 per cent of vehicles belong to Igbo people, so why shouldn’t we be part of politics in Nigeria? No Igbo man wants to leave where he is. We are brought up by a principle, which states that where you live will develop you. So all of us, except thieves who like money more than the truth, make everywhere we go in Nigeria our home, and it is not by pretense. Whatever you don’t have in your house there, you turn it into an opportunity where you are living. I am a typical Igbo man, so the way I feel for you is the way I feel for everybody.
So you have a passionate belief that there’s the need for the Igbo to become the next president?
Why not? You just listened to me. The Igbo are the people who make Nigeria to look national because everywhere you go you will see them.
The North has monopolised executive power at the national level; that is the presidency. The Yoruba, through Obasanjo, spent years as a military head of state, then eight years as a democratically elected president. Osinbajo is also spending years as vice president. Are we slaves? Even slaves won’t take that.
We are practising democracy like America, so such a position is not given but contested.
Yes, it is not given, but if you despise some groups, is it going to be credible? We think we deserve to not be slaves in our country but have equal rights with everybody. If we are asking for presidency it is because we deserve it like every other group. If you remember, our man, General Ironsi, in a bid to remove him from office, was tied to a car until he died. That is what we have seen here.
We want a change that will be good for every Nigerian.
Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), has created a theatre of violence in the South East, yet elders like you are calling for his release, is that proper?
Nnamdi Kanu does not inspire any violence. He is not a terrorist; he is just saying the Igbo should not be slaves in Nigeria. He is making contributions to the Igbo situation because President Buhari seems to be making efforts to push the people out of Nigeria. Young men are only reacting to what the president is doing – our exclusion, intimidation and others. Do you know that not even one Igbo man is in the National Security Council? Our boys are not getting jobs. They go into secondary schools with an average of 300 plus, but your people in Katsina will go with an average of 4 plus, and when they come out of the school you get them employed and our people will be relegated. He has not done anything illegal. He is only asking questions. Kanu has not offended any law in Nigeria.
Why should that call for violence?
It is important to explain that Hausa and Fulani northerners live peacefully with us in the East. When I was governor, during every event, the Hausa community would come, but eventually, other nationalities who became thieves were brought into Nigeria. The people we call herdsmen are not really herders. Fulani leaders from the South East came here and one of them cried, showing me pictures of his children who were killed. He spoke Igbo. These are the people with whom we are one.
Won’t you defend yourself if you were being killed? What is happening in the South East is reactionary. It is like what is happening in the North East with bandits.
Nnamdi Kanu brought a peaceful movement and eventually made other people realise that we have something to say. I was unable to stay and talk to him. We planned a meeting but the Nigerian army kicked and he escaped. Now, we are begging Buhari to release him and ask us for an undertaking that he will not turn violent. We are suffering. Do you know what is happening in the East? What law has he broken? If we are to get away from any problem, the truth must be told.
You are now 80? ?
I am 84.
What do you do to keep going
God is in charge. He is in heaven and knows what you want. I think part of my appearance is because I don’t keep anything. I think I have a clean heart.
Also, I eat fruits and do exercises. I read books, make friends and move around. Family life is very good. I married three wives, but two of them were married by my wife, who just died. We had three children, all girls, and this woman called me one night and said she wanted me to have a son. I said I didn’t mind, but one day I said if she wanted me to have a son I would marry five women at the same time so that all of them would get pregnant. She said no, but after three months she came back and said I could go ahead and marry five wives. I went and married two at the same time. Two of them had boys.
God has been very kind to me in every direction. My wife who died was really an angel; she was supporting me in everything. The other two were also good to me. I thank God that they tried to feed me. The other one was sick and I did not know. I am praying God to make her well. So I have enjoyed my life. I don’t have any reason to complain.
I have never lived in the East for a long time, except when I was young. I have lived in Lagos and Abuja, but I go to the East, like when I went to bury my wife. I think I go to the East almost every month, but sometimes I stay two weeks and come back here. The East is frightening; the youths are doing things that are not in our culture. Any Igbo man who cuts somebody’s head is not a true son or daughter.