Chief Mbazulike Amaechi, popularly known as ‘The Boy is Good,’ is the only surviving minister of the First Republic.
He was born in Ukpor in present day Nnewi South Local Government Area of Anambra State on June 16, 1929.
As a young boy, Amaechi developed interest in the struggle for Nigeria’s independence.
In this interview, he spoke on his education, Nigeria’s independence, among other things.
Was there anything special about your birth?
I am not aware of any event that characterised my birth, but I know that there was an incident that influenced my father to name me Mbazulike.
There was a traditional matter in the town that was his right. He was the rightful kingmaker, but someone else challenged him in court.
Shortly after the judgement of the case in Nnewi in 1928, decided in favour of my father, I was born, so he gave me the name, which means, “We have conquered you everywhere, both at home and in court.’’
That’s the only thing I can remember; otherwise I grew up like any other child in the village.
I travelled extensively to get education because, at that time, the school in my village here did not get beyond Standard One; that is today’s Elementary One.
I was taken to Obahu-Ekwem in Ihiala, where I served under a teacher to do my Standard Two. I also did my Standard Three there.
I was in Standard Four when Central School, Ukpor was opened and I came back. That was around 1939.
Every day, I trekked about five kilometres on barefoot, going and coming back from school.
At Standard Four, it ended and I was transferred to Ozubolo to do my Standard Five.
I trekked about eight kilometres every day to do my standards five and six.
After Standard Six at Ozubolo, I went to Etukogwu College in Onitsha.
We suffered in those days. When I was in primary school, we used to trek from Ukpor to Onitsha on barefoot every day.
It was only in my second year in secondary school that I wore shoes for the first time in my life.
That was how hard life was in those days, but we managed it to get through.
How many of you were in the family and how many went to school?
Incidentally, my uncle, Mr Gabriel Amaechi, was the first person to learn how to read and write in the whole of my village.
He was also the first to be converted to Christianity. That was the level we were.
By the time I was born and started schooling, he was already a teacher somewhere in Orlu, presently Imo State. He started teaching in the 1920s.
He encouraged me to go to school; that’s why the family has the first batch of children that went to school in my village.
Which university did you attend?
The Zikist Movement did not allow us to go to any formal university. We did most of our studies privately.
First, I studied with Wuzihall Correspondence College in London and did my first degree with the University of Beverly Hills, London.
In our days, there was no university in Nigeria; people went to England for their university education or did correspondence studies.
We were deeply involved in the struggle for the independence of Nigeria.
As youths, we were deeply involved in the struggle in the Zikist Movement.
I learnt that some people took an oath not to marry until Nigeria got independence and not to plead for leniency in court for whatever charge against you in the course of the struggle; why the oath?
That’s correct. Any member of the Zikist Movement who was not married swore an oath not to marry until Nigeria got independence.
That was because we expected that the struggle could escalate into warfare.
So we did not want to marry and be probably killed in the war, leaving young widows and children.
That was the main reason we took that oath.
As we fought the British government in Nigeria, we were arrested many times, tortured and taken to prisons.
We also made it a policy not to plead for leniency in any court, no matter what we were charged for.
We took an oath not to apologise for anything we did in the course of the struggle.
Moreover, we told the courts that we did not recognise them.
As far as we were concerned, they were puppets of the British Empire.
That was why all the Zikists in various prisons did not plead for leniency.
If you read my book you would see the section that deals with forgotten heroes of Nigeria’s independence.
You would see the harsh words they told judges trying them; people like Mokwugo Okoye, Ogedende Macaulay, Raji Abdallah and many others.
What gave you the courage to risk your lives to that level?
We were inspired by people like Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe and his lectures and write-ups in his chains of newspapers.
We were also determined to drive away the foreigners and let Nigerians rule the country.
We were prepared to offer our lives, unlike present politicians who are mercenaries and only interested in what they can steal from the government.
They don’t care about the welfare of the people.
In our time, we were there for what we could give to the country.
What role did you play in the trade union?
In those days, if you were to earn a living, you were either employed in a private organisation, got involved in trade unionism or went into a private business.
I served as a trade union leader, secretary in Amels Transport Union.
I was also the assistant secretary of the Nigeria Federation of Labour.
Did your trade union activism influence your involvement in politics?
Going into politics was as a result of our actions to get independence for the country.
By our actions, the British government succumbed and left Nigeria.
So the people of Nigeria decided to elect those of us who fought for the independence of the country.
That was why I was elected as a member of parliament at the age of 29.
At age 30, I was appointed a parliamentary secretary, and minister at the age of 31.
We continued in government until the unpatriotic action of the military in 1966.
They struck and took over the government of the country. During that period, some people were killed, including the powerful Sardauna of Sokoto.
Because there were more Igbo names among the officers that organised the coup, Northerners thought it was an Igbo affair.
So they pounced on the Igbo in the North and killed many, including General Aguiyi Ironusi, the head of the army, who also was the head of the government.
Yakubu Gowon, who was a Lieutenant Colonel at the time, took over, and Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, who was a Colonel, said he would not be answerable to his junior.
And Gowon told him to go to Lagos and take over command if he could. He did not go because he would be killed.
The struggle for seniority between Gowon and Ojukwu led to the civil war and the subsequent killing of the Igbo in the North. The war lasted for three years.
The 1966 coup plotters said your government was corrupt and that’s why they took over; what was the true position?
If the government was corrupt as they alleged, it might be some individuals.
I challenge them to show any evidence of wealth by Tafawa Belewa, Dr Azikiwe, Awolowo and others.
Zik was the premier of the Eastern Region for six years and the governor-general and president of Nigeria; I challenge anybody to show me where he had a single building in Lagos or Enugu in those years.
I also challenge anyone to show where Dr Michael Okpara had a single plot of land in Enugu or his hometown.
It was after the civil war when Okpara was in exile that I, Walter and others raised money to complete the house his wife was building in his hometown.
That was the first time Okpara owned a house in his village.
Look at what is happening now – criminals have gone into the government.
Nowadays, you would own buildings in Asokoro and billions of naira outside the country if you were a minister for three months.
As a governor of a state you will keep stealing public money. It was the military government that introduced corruption and looting in government.
And out of the military government that ruled the country for 38 years, only two were from Southern Nigeria, the other 36 years were from the North.
Can anybody show corruption in our government?
I increased the Nigeria Air fleet from three to 18 planes, including intercontinental jets.
I bought these planes and I did not have one naira. I did not have anything; but if it were now, any of them that bought 18 aircraft would own three or four of them.
In our time, who was talking about primitive accumulation of wealth? Only the mad ones could talk about corruption in our time.
You spoke greatly about Zik, Awo and others, what do you think were special about them?
They were all honest people who gave their best for the country.
We may have had political and ideological difference, but we were united in building a strong and united country, where Nigerians must be free and governed according to the rule of law.
We fought for it and maintained it until the madmen in the military took over government and continued until they brought the country to where it is now.
It is believed that you hid Nelson Mandela for six months in your house; is that true?
I never hid Mandela; rather, I hosted him in my house for six months. Mandela was being pursued by the South African Intelligence Service.
They wanted to kill or send him to prison because he was leading the African National Congress (ANC), the radical political organisation that was fighting for freedom and democracy for the country.
From South Africa, he moved to Tanzania and found himself in Nigeria because Zik was there in 1962 when he was the Governor-General of Nigeria.
Zik said the only person that had the same radical thinking like Mandela was Mbazulike (The Boy is Good).
He called me and told me that there was this nationalist from South Africa who was running away from the South African Intelligence Service and he wanted me to protect him by bringing him to my house.
He came and lived with me at No 5, Okotie Ebo Street, Ikoyi, Lagos.
We were moving around the city, so I was not hiding him.
The British government, which was running the affairs of South Africa, knew that he was with me.
They saw us going out together to dance at Empire Hotel at night. As young men we normally went out to dance at night.
They could not arrest him. Nobody dared to do that. I was powerful, both in government and politics.
So it was never a question of hiding him in my house.
And the South African government was not represented in Nigeria because we did not recognise the apartheid government.
Every month when I travelled to my hometown, Ukpor, I went with Mandela. My mother was still alive, so he used to come to see her.
He liked one of our native delicacies, abacha so much that each time we came home, my mother must make sure she prepared it for him.
And if we were going back to Lagos, she must make sure we had enough.
Having stayed with him for six months, how would you rate him?
Mandela was a thorough nationalist and a highly disciplined man. Riches had no meaning to him. He was interested in the struggle to liberate his people.
He was prepared to die in the struggle.
You took an oath not to marry until Nigeria got independence; how did you meet your wife?
I kept to the oath of the Zikist Movement. That was why I had my wedding in December 1960.
My wife just came back from England in 1960, where she went for studies, and we did our traditional wedding at her hometown, Umuoji, in June of the same year.
What is your advice to the politicians in the country?
For the country to succeed, the people must meet and draw up a constitution for its good governance.
What we have now is not a constitution of the people of Nigeria.
It was imposed on Nigerians by the military.
The country is bleeding with rot and corruption.
Right now, Nigeria is headed by a terrible dictatorship, somebody who just grabbed the country and is holding it hostage, surrounding himself with security chiefs and refusing that the country should decide on how to move forward.
If they continue to refuse to let the people of Nigeria meet and agree on the type of constitution they want, the country will collapse one day. It might not be today, but it will certainly come.
There must be a total change of orientation in the public life of the country. People who are in public life now are there to loot.
Do you believe in one Nigeria?
What did I fight for; a divided Nigeria? I fought for one united Nigeria. You should be able to answer that question.
What is your position on a president of Igbo extraction?
I am not talking about a president of Igbo extraction but one from the South-East. All the zones have tasted it, only the South East is left.
So why not give the zone a chance.
Why is the South-East being treated as a slave in the country?
I am totally in support of a Nigeria where everybody will be a partner, not a master-slave relationship.
How did you come by the name, ‘The Boy is Good?’
It was a nickname attached to me. I was not ugly in my youth, but what popularised it was the incident of 1947 when Zik was attacked by assassins in Lagos.
They pounced on him and everybody ran away, but I had to come out from my car to challenge them.
We were going for the last series of negotiations and meetings for the independence of Nigeria at the Government House, the residence of the British governor.
The Sardauna of Sokoto and his entourage came and drove inside the compound, followed by Awolowo and his entourage.
Zik and his entourage were the last. As we were about to enter the compound, a heavy stone landed on the rear glass of Zik’s vehicle. He was riding a Chevrolet wagon.
The stone scattered the glass and his driver stopped and was looking for what happened. Then I saw one person from the crowd who was well dressed as he lifted his coat and pulled out a sharp knife, ready to stab Zik in.
I rushed out from my car in the front and grabbed the man. The British police officer who was there was watching without any action because he knew the plan.
I held the man and shouted to Zik’s driver to drive the car inside because they wanted to kill his master. He drove inside.
As I held the man, he stabbed me three times in the chest and blood started gushing out.
I still held the man and shouted if there were no Igbo men there. One Inspector Chukwuma from Ezeikeowere sprang from nowhere and used his baton and hit the man on the head and shattered it.
His knife dropped. The white police officer was just watching.
They took me to a Lagos hospital for treatment.
So during one of Zik’s rallies in Onitsha, he told the people the story of how I saved his life, saying “the boy is really good.’’
From there, the name sprang up and continued till today. People know me with it more than my real name.