Professor Obaro Ikime is a former president of the Historical Society of Nigeria.
He is a retired priest of the Anglican Church and former member of the University of Ibadan Governing Council. In this interview, the professor emeritus of History speaks on his life experiences and other issues.
How would you describe your childhood?
I was born in 1936. I was lucky that my eldest brother, who was a student at the CMS, Onitsha, was on holidays when they gave birth to me. So, he was able to keep the record. I spent my childhood and primary schooldays with him. So there was no controversy about my time of birth. It was documented.
My mother gave birth to six children – three boys and three girls. Three are still alive while three have gone.
I was born in a village called Alibueze (land is king) in the present Delta State. There was dispute on that land and it turned out to be in our favour. The parent village is Arowa in Rivers State.
Were your parents educated?
No. My dad was a farmer, fisherman and canoe builder, while my mom was also a fisherwoman. In those days, every member of the family participated in farming.
Since your parents were not educated, what was their plan for you?
It was to join them in farming. But in those days, missionaries used to send teachers to churches. I learnt alphabets in church. African churches had schools in the villages. I attended the one in my village for one day. When I got to the school, they were teaching them what I had learnt in the church, so, I stopped going; and my father didn’t insist that I should go back. Left to them, I wouldn’t have had western education. Fortunately, at the age of seven, my eldest brother finished from the CMS, Onitsha and went to Awka, where he did his teachers’ training course. When he came back, he was posted to Oleh, which was the centre of the CMS missionary in Isoko land. He was the one who assisted my career. My brother took me along to his duty post and I did my primary education with him at Oleh. He was posted from there to Burutu in the western Ijaw, Delta State and I went with him to complete my Standard Two and Standard Three.
We got to the school in March and I attempted promotional examination in the following month. The headmaster was excited when he saw my result and promoted me to Standard Three. In December of the same year, my brother was also transferred from the school, which was against the rule. The rule was that you won’t transfer teachers until they spent a minimum of three years in a school. At Oleh, my brother was teaching in the teachers’ training college and I knew he was posted out of the place because as a housemaster, he fought with his boss for cornering some of the foodstuff meant for students. He was posted back to Burutu. When he got there, the headmaster at the Burutu CMS was also selling textbooks and exercise books to parents in very high prices. That also got my brother angry and he told the parents to buy their books in the market since it was cheaper than that of the headmaster. That offended the headmaster and he also arranged for his transfer. My brother protested to the CMS headquarters in Warri, but the manager didn’t listen to his protest, so he resigned. He went to Warri in 1948 and I had to follow him to that place to complete my education. I gained admission to Warri College in that year.
Were all your siblings educated?
No, it was only my brother and I. I think it was luck that made me a boy and he took me along.
Since your parents and siblings were not educated, what inspired you to become a professor?
In Warri, my brother got a teaching appointment in Hussey College, but I went to CMS, which we called Warri College. For some reasons, my school was relocated to Ugheli in 1951. My set only spent first year in Warri before moving to Ugheli.
History was my best subject at Ugheli. The person who taught us History, Mr Ihejirika, was a homemade teacher. That means he got his degree while teaching us. He was extremely good. He taught us very well. I always admired him because he was a profound person. He was an Igbo man. Many times we laughed at his pronunciation with Igbo accent, but he was good at that subject. Since History was my best subject, everybody in my class expected me to perform well. The impact of the teacher on me was great. I didn’t know that he had boasted in the classroom that he was going to produce an A1 in History in my set and the person was going to be me.
During the school certificate examination, when I came out of the hall, I was sad because I knew something had gone wrong. My teacher came into the examination hall before I submitted my answer sheet and asked, “Ikeme, how was it?” I told him it was good. But when the result came out, I had C. I was sad. I knew I had disappointed my teacher because the result was pasted on the board.
Was there any event during your secondary schooldays you cannot forget?
One was the encounter I had with my Latin teacher. He was a Calabar man. We were in class one day during the eastern crisis and he stopped teaching and switched to a political story. I didn’t know why I reacted by asking if he had an evidence of the story he was telling us. He was furious and came around with a blackboard ruler, beat me and sent me out of the class. I stood up and moved to the corridor of the class. Fortunately for me, the principal, a white man was passing by and asked what I was doing outside while class was on. I narrated the story to him and he urged me to be calm. He didn’t ask me to return to the class, but he summoned the teacher the following day and told him to expunge politics from his teaching because the student had the right to response to whatever he said in class. He said the teacher shouldn’t have sent me out of the class. He told him to call me back in his next class.
I reacted sharply because of his verbal attack on my brother. I told him never to discuss my family issue in class. At that moment on, I knew I had become his enemy.
Another event I cannot forget was when I had fever. It was after my school house sporting exercise and I sneaked out of class without taking my lunch. I just went to sleep in my hostel. Unfortunately for me, the principal had sent for me more than five times. When I woke up, I went to the class and the principal asked where I was during the last period. I knew I was in trouble because the hostels were out of bounds during the school period. I had no choice than to tell him the truth. I told him that I knew I was going to be involved in so many activities, so I went to sleep because I was felling feverish. He asked if I told my housemaster and I said no. He asked me to see him in his office the following day.
That night, I couldn’t sleep because when the principal asked you to see him in office, it was quarter to dismissal. I started thinking of what to tell my brother. The following day, I went with great fear. On getting to his office, he said, “Ekeme, learn how to observe school rules.” He further told me that I was going to be a school prefect the following day and I was breaking the rules of the school. He said he didn’t know why the teachers insisted he should make me the senior prefect and he had decided that I was going to be the prefect. That morning, he asked me to return to hostel and prepare for assembly so that he would unveil me as the new senior prefect. That was how I became a school prefect.
You attended a unity school, how would you compare what obtained in those days with what we have today?
In those days, government colleges were special. If you didn’t do well you would not blame anybody but yourself. The halls of residence, hall masters, cafeteria and teachers were well arranged. Discipline was the hallmark. The students knew that if the housemasters reported them to the principal, they were gone. Teachers were disciplined and they instilled discipline in the students. We cannot compare it to what we have today.
Would you say there was discipline because many of the management staff were white?
Yes. And we have been missing it since they left Nigeria.
While growing up, did you ever think of becoming a professor?
Not in secondary school. When I got to the university, one thing that kept occurring to me was that all the books we used were written by white men, except the likes of Professor Ajayi, who had done some research works in journals. I, therefore, asked myself when Nigerians would begin to publish their own history.
Since you were born in Warri, how did you become a resident of Ibadan?
The University of Ibadan was the only one at that time. I got a job there and decided to stay in Ibadan, even after retirement.
Why did you choose History to pursue your career?
I was thinking of History or English. But when I made a credit in History, the boy that collected my class note was the only one who made A. And he didn’t attend History classes. He thought he was going to study a science course, but when he couldn’t make it, he came back to arts classes. He sought my support and borrowed my note. That was how I disappointed my teacher, Mr Ihejirika. I went to his house to apologise but he asked his wife to tell me that he didn’t want to see me. He was in his room and his wife went to tell him that I was around, but he said he didn’t want to see me. But I refused to leave. I appealed to his wife to beg him for me. After about an hour, he came out and asked what he should do for me. I apologised to him and begged for forgiveness. He said I had made him a liar and my apology would not solve it, but I had to prove to the world that I knew the subject. He was very hot. I left his house and took it as a challenge. I did an entrance examination to the University of Ibadan and I did well. After that, for those of us who came to the university at that time through entrance examination, we were given another test. I took the examination and did well. To choose our honours class, we needed to do another examination and face an interview. The examination was known as Intermediate Bachelor of Art. I made it again.
I was selected at the end of a series of examinations and interviews. That was the first step. I always remembered what Mr Ihejirika told me – to prove to the world that I knew History. I usually remembered that I had disappointed my teacher and I had to make it up to him. At that time, Mr Ihejirika had become an inspector of education in Benin, so I travelled to show him my result. But he didn’t say congratulations. He rather told me that I should prove to the world that I knew History. Before my result came out, my principal had travelled to Ibadan and demanded for me to return to the school as History teacher. I was posted to my alma mater. I taught I was going to pick a career of teaching History at that level. But when my degree result came out, my principal invited me to his office and gave me a letter of resignation and said I should sign it. I told him I had the right to take a decision as a teacher and not as his student. He then echoed, “Sign it, you fool!” He said I needed to return to school for my PhD. I signed the letter and returned to Ibadan for my PhD.
Did you get a lecturing job at the premier university through your godfather, as we have it today?
I didn’t have a godfather in the University of Ibadan. Before I finished my PhD, Professor Kenneth Dike, the first indigenous vice chancellor of the school announced that those of us doing the programme may apply for jobs if we so wished.
Interestingly, my friend, who was Igbo didn’t apply because Dike had promised him a slot out of the two available jobs. He fixed a day for interview and those of us who applied attended. When I got there, I saw a fair panel. The following day, I saw Dike and he called me and said the interview was good and I got the job.
Meanwhile, the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, invited me for interview. I went there and they gave me a letter of appointment. So I had two jobs. When it was time to start work in the University of Ibadan, they invited us, including that Igbo man who didn’t apply for another round of interview. He went inside before me, and when it was my turn, I saw the panel and was boiling inside.
Dike and two none historians were at the panel. One of them was a professor of agriculture and the other one was a professor of medicine. They invited our head of department and two other historians, but Professor Ajayi of the Department of History was not there.
My head of department asked which one I would choose if University of Ife offered me a job and Ibadan did the same thing. I refused to answer that question because I knew where he was going. The whole panel fumed at me. Dike then asked: “Where do you think you are? You must answer all the questions. It is mandatory.’’ Then I stood up and told my head of department that he taught me history and to beware of “ifs” because history didn’t have anything to do with “ifs.” It is about events that actually happened. I further said the question he asked was about if, but in the real sense of it, if Ife offered me lectureship and Ibadan offered me fellowship, I would study the two documents and consider the best place I could do my research. I added that the two letters would contain conditions of service. But I didn’t know the condition of service as I stood before them. So I could not answer the question. The white man at the panel said I was right.
Shortly after that, they went for a meeting in London, and when they returned, the white man among the panel called me and said, “Congratulations, you have gotten the job.’’ He told me the panel recommended Afigbo for lectureship and me for fellowship, but the panel went through the report of what happened at the interview and said if it was only one slot they had for lectureship, it should go to Ikime.
Before Dike and his Igbo colleagues announced the outcome of the London meeting, they put heads together and agreed that they had two slots, not one. That was how we were both employed for lectureship. Afigbo who didn’t obtain any form for lectureship got the job. That is for you to know that ethnicity and politics have been in existence in the University of Ibadan since inception.
Cultism is one of the challenges we have in our higher institutions today. Did you experience that during your time?
No, they didn’t disturb us. The only group we had was the Kegites, the palm wine drinkers. Wole Soyinka and co introduced the Pirates, but they didn’t disturb anybody. If you wished you would join, but nobody cared.
How was your social life?
Apart from hanging out with my friends, I was not involved in any other social activity. I was a sportsman. I was a captain of a football club for three years. I was also involved in long and high jumps. I spent my time on sports. Except Christian activities, I didn’t attend any social gathering. I was the editor of the Christian publication.
After your PhD, what was the reaction of Mr Ihejirika?
When I had my PhD, I went to inform him, but he didn’t still congratulate me. He only repeated that I should prove to the world that I knew History. He didn’t congratulate me until the day I went to inform him that I had become a Professor of History.
How did you meet your wife?
I was a very famous guy in Warri and she was in Agbor, schooling. We organised a children’s cup competition and I saw her that day. The first thing that struck me was her courage. I told my friend about her. Apparently, he knew her and her family. Somehow, we met and continued our friendship. He uncle was a minister in the old Western Region and he was in Ibadan. So because I was in Ibadan, she came to live with her uncle. He gave her an apartment and got a job for her. The mistake I made was that I wrote a letter to her uncle, stating that I was her boyfriend. Before that time, her uncle had told her that a medical doctor was coming to marry her, but she was very angry. However, she could not talk. The man ejected her from his house and disengaged her from the job she was doing. I arranged for accommodation for her. And she got another job through my friend. When I wanted to travel to the United Kingdom (UK) for a programme, I wrote my brother, stating that I had a girlfriend and wished to formalise our relationship so that I could take her along. He agreed with me and we fixed a date for traditional marriage. I took her to UK when I was going.
How many children do you have?
Three; and they are over 50 now.
As a historian, where and how would you say Africans, especially Nigerians got it wrong?
We began to get it wrong since we refused to employ the best teachers in our schools. In those days, teachers brought out the best in us. They taught us morality and discipline. But we have lost that as a nation. What we have today are teachers who lack discipline. All they are after today is money.
As we went on, we began to lose some of the essence and values of the teaching profession. I served this nation in many ways, but the Federal Government said because we were public servants we would not take a kobo. I served in more than 20 presidential committees, as well as in the state. But we served diligently. We carried out the assignment with utmost diligence; but is that the case today? Our people are prioritising money rather than quality of jobs they do.
Can we blame political class for the challenges we are having today?
Without doubt, I will say yes. Although we have some who are good, many of them are terrible. Those who are good are corrupted by the bad ones among them. Those who are not sufficiently educated are going there to make name, but those who are educated are terrible. We have mixed breed in politics.
And religious organisations have refused to understand. Why is the North predominantly Muslims while the South is mostly Christians? Some interest groups who are Muslims entered the North from the Sahara desert while some European Christians came to the South through the sea. Chance made us Christians in the South and Muslims in the North. The second factor is slave trade.
How can we blame slave trade for our problems?
We need to blame ourselves for ethnic and religious bigotry. We need to understand what happened. Ahmadu Bello found himself benefitting from the British; that is one of the reasons the northern land space is large. They could win elections without a single vote from the South, if not for the provision of two third in our constitution. The British made it possible. Historically, British factors created many of our problems. First of all, they conquered the North and started with jihad, which changed the rulers. All the Hausa rulers were deposed. When they got to the Middle Belt, they discovered that they couldn’t win because the terrain changed. Their horses could not operate in the terrain. That is why jihad could not survive in the Middle Belt, but the people were later conquered for the North.
They appointed emirs where there were none and created emirates, even in the Middle Belt and subjected them to Sokoto.
So the colonial government created a serious problem for Nigeria. In the South, we don’t have unity such as that of the Sokoto Caliphate imposed on the North. Nigerians are not literate in history.
We have a huge number of professors of history; do you still say we are not literate?
Those professors teach history, but I am talking of the impacts of the subject they are teaching on the people. The professors themselves know what I am saying. For instance, I told my students that Yoruba nation does not exist because they are fighting for personal interests. The Ibadan interest is different from that of Egba people. Lagos is different from Ondo. Osun is different from Ekiti while Ijebu is different from Oyo. These are some of the facts teachers of history are not teaching enough. Secondly, it is improper that colonial masters brought us together. They brought so many inequalities. Colonial rule favoured some groups while some were subjected to others.
Was there discrimination in the University of Ibadan during your time?
When our first African vice chancellor, Dike, promoted any Igbo man, he would look for another Yoruba man to promote. I know some people who became professors with two or three articles. They couldn’t have been professors, but because Dike had done that for one of his men who were less to nothing, he would look for one Yoruba man to promote. He was creating a problem for the university. He only balanced the promotion between the Yoruba and the Igbo, but somebody like me who didn’t belong experienced serious discrimination. If I tell you what happened to my appointment, you won’t believe it. But to be fair to Dike, he tried, but after him, it was another story. That was why when the Igbo left in 1966, the Yoruba began to discriminate more.
What is your take on the recent agitation of Ibadan people to produce a vice chancellor as the host town of the University of Ibadan after 77 years of its existence?
It is nonsense. What do you look for in a vice chancellor? Place of origin should be the last thing. A vice chancellor should be able to bring six things to the institution. He should be able to bring research and good administration. He must have gone up to the cadre of head of department, dean of faculty and so on. If he has not been a dean, that means he had not faced students’ challenges. He won’t know how to deal with students. The position of a vice chancellor is beyond where you came from.
When History was removed from Nigeria’s academic curriculum, as the president of the Historical Society of Nigeria, what did you do?
We wrote a letter to the then minister of education, who was a medical doctor. He was my junior in the University of Ibadan. I went to him with six other professors and we told him that History was as important as Engineering. He was upset and walked out on us.
I am not only surprised that History is still missing in our curriculum, I am angry because I have been fighting the battle since the days of Shagari. History is the collection of how people and things came to be. That is why we always try to know why certain events take place. If you don’t know it, you won’t know how to deal with future challenges.
What led to your arrest in the early 1990s?
I was the chairman of the Chapel Committee. The Organisation of Islamic States met in Nigeria in 1990 and issued a communique after their meeting. My error was that I discussed that communique at the chapel in the presence of the whole committee members. I said at the meeting that the communique was the first step towards war. They were planning how they would deep the Quran into the sea, and that was how they were going to organise jihad and spread across the country. I said if that strategy worked, it meant they would wage war against Christians in the South. I said it was dangerous because I was yet to see a country that went to Islamic war and settled it in three or four years. Therefore, I suggested that the Church should organise prayers so that Nigeria would never get involved in a religious war. That was my offence.
I also said few things about the loot by the Babangida government. That was my error. I didn’t know how it was published in the newspapers. The Muslim community in Ibadan, especially the University of Ibadan, took it up. At a point, the vice chancellor called me and suggested I should travel abroad because they were coming for me, but I told him I won’t be able to go with my family and they would pick my wife and torture her. I said I would prefer to stay and face the music.
A few days later, I was praying around 5am when policemen came to my apartment and showed me their arrest paper.
I also had some implicating documents on how the military were looting. But God saved me and they didn’t see the document. But till date, I have not set my eyes on the document again. My wife was upstairs when they took me away. By the time she got downstairs, we had gone. On getting to Eleyele police headquarters, I met a lawyer who offered to represent me. That day, they took me to Lagos for further interrogation. They took me to a detention camp in Ikoyi and showed me a room with two other people. They didn’t allow me have access to a box I took along. The shirt and trousers I had on me were the only dress with me. Anytime I wanted to wash my trousers, I would wear my long shirt. If it was the shirt I wanted to wash, I would wear the trousers. They just kept me there and forgot me. They fed me with bean cake and pap, which they usually soaked together. I spent up to 90 days there. In the room I was kept, I could kill 100 mosquitoes in one night. I slept in the bare floor. The door and windows were permanently shut and mosquitoes kept coming into the room. And there was much heat.
Do you have any regret in life?
God has been kind to me and I am grateful to him. I have no regret at all.
Can you remember your happiest moment in life?
Apart from the detention, I am always happy. But sincerely, the day we did our wedding in the UK and my friends came to celebrate with us was my happiest moment. I can never forget that.
What about the saddest moment?
Yes, when I was doing my thesis in the UK. I went to Liverpool to check John Holt stories in the newspapers. After spending four weeks there to do the paper work, on my way back home, I lost the entire thesis. I guess somebody must have mistakenly taken my research work. Thank God I was married at that time.
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