Chief Edwin Clark was elected as councillor in 1953. He was also a commissioner in the Government of the Midwest, minister under General Yakubu Gowon and senator in the Second Republic. In this interview, the leader of the Ijaw ethnic group, who is still interested in the politics of Nigeria, spoke on his early days in life, education, career etc.
By Kabiru A. Yusuf
How would you describe your life as a young man in the creeks in those days?
I was born on May 25, 1927. My late brother, Professor JP Clark, was born in 1930. I don’t know how our parents did their family planning, but my mother gave birth after three years. We grew up with our grandmother. When she died, we remained with our uncle, Gori, who was a fisherman. I was about 10 years old at that time. My uncle would be away fishing throughout the night, and early in the morning we would go to the waterside to take fish.
One day, one of the fishes, which was alive, fell into the water as I was carrying it. On my way, when my uncle asked what happened, I told him that the fish ran away and he said he would catch it later.
After some time, my father thought we should start a formal school, so he sent us to his mother. Those schools had only one teacher who was teaching us from elementary one to elementary four. One day he called us and said he was having difficulty to pronounce our names. My first name is Kiagbodo, while my brother was Akporode. The other one was called Pepe. He was named after one of the discipline officers who used to come to our area. He said Pepe was not difficult to pronounce, but he was going to give us English names. He called four of us and said that from that day I would be called Edwin Clark, the other one, Godwin Clark, and my other brother, Blessing Clark. The youngest was named Johnson Clark. That was how we got the names.
(I was Nigeria’s permanent representative at the United Nations. My good friend, Alhaji Maitama Sule, took over from me. Then I was a permanent secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs.)
So you went to a formal school and became a teacher?
Yes. We stayed with our grandmother in Urhobo land, but my father wanted us to go to school in an Ijaw community, so he took us to a place called Okereka-Gana-Gana, an island owned by the Niger Company. The school we went to belonged to the Native Authority. It was opened in 1937. Our father took us there and said he didn’t want us to stay with anybody, so we stayed on our own. There was no refrigerator at that time, so we cooked and shared so that no one would cheat another. After eating we would take the pot to the waterside and clean. When we put the pot inside the water a fish would come in and we would go and eat it.
I didn’t know what is called ice-fish. I did not eat it when my cousin brought it to me. Unfortunately, today, because of oil exploration by foreign oil companies, all the fishes have died.
In those days, when we were very young in the creeks along River Niger, we would swim across, even when a ship was coming. We would also paddle canoes. But you cannot do that now because of oil exploration.
There was enough food to eat and water to drink. You didn’t have to buy bottle water, you would just go the waterside and fetch. And it was a very peaceful environment.
When did you become a teacher?
When we were in school, something surprised me when people talked about health education. I didn’t understand what they were talking about. Between 1941 and 45, doctors would come from Ricardo, which was the headquarters of the division. They would come with nurses, drugs, medical facilities and everything to check the temperature and blood pressure of every schoolboy. If you were ill they would take you to a clinic. It was safe. So, health education or free medical services started at that time.
In January 1975 when General Yakubu Gowon was sworn in and he admitted us into his cabinet, Major-General Adekpobe, who was my doctor was introduced. He had joined the army. I went to him and told him that he was my doctor. It was a small world.
Let me further let you know that in 1945, people who passed out of the elementary school at the end of eight years would be given certificates, but in our time, the Western Region introduced common examinations for every school. We were 9 in class, out of which five of us passed. Some schools had 2 and some school 1 all over the Western Region.
My father said I should go to a college in Warri, so I went for interview. Chief Eruku was the provincial education officer. After speaking with me, they said, “Unfortunately, we cannot take you. Do you have a younger brother?” I said yes and they said I should go and teach in a collage because I was already old. They said I should teach at Abracara Government Training College. I went for an interview. After that they said I was okay but I was too young. Going to secondary, I was too old, going to teachers college I was too young. So they gave me a letter to go and teach. That was how I became a pupil teacher in the same school where I passed out. A year after, I went to college. At that time, to get a teacher’s certificate you would do two years, then come out and do two years of teaching. After that, you would do another two years in grade two. But a principal came from England and said that at the end of our first two years we would leave. I went back to our old school and became a headmaster. Within a year they called me back. My senior pupil became my classmate and my classmate became my junior. In 1953 I passed examination for my grade two teacher’s certificate and became a headmaster. As headmaster, I was transferred from one place to another.
At that time, Awolowo had planned to introduce free primary education and our eight years would come down to six years. He introduced another thing called model school. You would stay there for two or three years and pass out. But that didn’t give you a West African School Certificate or anything like that, but you would get another certificate.
Did your position as headmaster in a local community make you a big man?
I was very young, so wherever I went they saw me as being quite versatile. I introduced a band and musical instruments. We played and danced from one end of the town to another, educating people. I was attracting boys and didn’t know. I was enjoying it. I also had the opportunity to form football teams, so we played. There was nothing we didn’t do at that time. I was also a politician.
Was it at that stage that you were elected a councillor?
When I was the headmaster of Bamodi Native Authority School, Awolowo recognised the local government system. That was between 1952 and 1955. In 1955 I contested in a local government election. I and my father were councillors in the same local council, as we called it at a time. One day, my father moved a motion and everybody was supporting, but I disagreed. Everybody looked at me. One Mr Patrick, a white man, was present at the council when the issue was discussed and I took a different position against my father. My father shouted, “Don’t come to my house again, you are challenging me in public.” For three months I didn’t see my dad, but later on I came home and he said he had forgotten the incident. He asked why I was keeping away, but I said I had to do my job.
When did you get the opportunity to go to England?
What happened was that I became very political. I was a leader to the people in my community, even as a young headmaster. When I didn’t want to be a headmaster again, I wanted to do community work. The government advertised a position for a community development officer, so I applied and was appointed. I was posted to Ogaciku. That was how I ended my teaching career.
My job was to go from community to community to educate people on how to employ themselves and government would come to help them. If you wanted to be in the market, start the market and government would come to help you. We called it community development work. I was posted to Warri Province, where I was in charge and I educated a lot of people.
I remember that in 1959 or 1960, there was the American Peace Corps, from where young Americans, about 20 of them, were sent to Delta area and were handed over to me. I took them to a community to build a floodwater wall. All the people opposed it at first, but they later agreed. I told them that we had to buy cement before the government would help. And when we started, government came to our aid. That thing we built in the 1960s is still there preventing flood water from entering the community. The Americans were in that community for three weeks.
In 1960, I passed my General Certificate in (GCE) in Legon through a correspondence course. I said I was going abroad to read Law because I used to accompany my grandfather to court. I grew up to seeing eminent lawyers coming to Warri to argue cases, not now that a lawyer doesn’t look like one. That encouraged me, so in September 1961 I left for the United Kingdom. I was a local politician following the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC).
When I was in England we were accommodated in a place called Hans Crescent in Knight Bridge. The people with me were Liberty from Maiduguri, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and Justice Kaltungo of the Supreme Court; Hassan Adamu Wakilin Adamawa; then Abdullahi Ibrahim, former attorney-general. Ibrahim Tahir didn’t stay at Hans Crescent, but he used to visit us.
When I was at the teachers’ college I used to buy Daily Times with my allowance so that fellow students would come and read. I remember that the governor of the Western Region visited our school and we all gathered and he talked to us. I asked why people like Azikiwe and Chief Awowolo didn’t have national honours like OB and NBA but he gave to traditional rulers. I asked if it was because they were politicians. The man wanted to answer but our principal told him not to answer. In the evening, we gathered at the dining hall to eat and the prefect, an ex-service man who went to teach, stood up and addressed the audience. He told me to stand on top of one of the tables and I did so. He said because I had the audacity to ask questions I would be punished by washing all the plates used by students for three days, and I did that Our agric teacher called me to his house and said they had a French palm wine to give me because they were very happy with what I did that afternoon. But I didn’t tell him I was being punished. So I had a political interest.
What happened in England?
There were students from Australia, Canada and all over the Commonwealth and I was their representative. At the end, they voted and made me their president. I represented them in all matters of the British Council. They elected me for a second time. That was how I started politics. I became secretary to Citizens Vanguard and secretary of the Midwest Union, and so on. So I have been in politics for a very long time.
Was there a coup when you came back from England?
No. When I came back in 1965, we were at the Law School for three months. My brother, JP Clark, went to the University of Ibadan and became a clerk. His friend was also familiar with me. They used to visit me and we would discuss. We didn’t know that he was planning a coup.
When I finished from Law School, I went to Warri to practise. There in Warri I was elected the secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association. This was 1966. That has been my life.
When the coup took place, Gowon called a conference to discuss the future of Nigeria. In that conference, a delegation from the Midwest, which you were part of, actually didn’t want a confederation for Nigeria, you wanted Nigeria to remain united; why?
We argued and those of us from the Midwest, with many tribes, asked ourselves what we would gain if Nigeria broke up. We agreed that a united Nigeria would be better than a confederation. The West and North almost wanted a breakup or confederation, but we said no. The East didn’t attend, so we couldn’t arrive at a conclusion. Gowon said there would not be any decision except easterners were part of it. It was at that juncture that they were invited to Aburi; but again, nothing happened.
Has your view changed about the need for Nigeria to remain united?
No. I am a believer in a united Nigeria. I have not changed my mind. When both the 1963 and 1966 constitutions were drafted, I had returned from England. The 1966 constitution was done in England, but that of 1963 was done by the Sardauna of Sokoto, Tafawa Balewa, Nmandi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo and other leaders. That constitution recognised a federal system of government that would bring every tribe and community together to believe in one country where everybody would be equal to acquire every position and many other things.
During the Macpherson Constitution in 1953, both Chief Awolowo and the Sardauna of Sokoto were very wealthy through groundnut and cocoa. They were more independent, so they wanted to be on their own. Macpherson was accused of supporting these people through his constitution.
It was in 1953 that Anthony Enaharo moved a motion for independence but the northerners walked out. It was at that juncture that the British government decided to call a conference in Ibadan. That was how we had our independence.
When they went to London, the head of the northern delegation supported more of confederation. Awolowo was for federation and Azikiwe went for unity. But when they agreed, they shook hands. I remember when Sardauna told Dr Azikiwe that we must recognise our differences and live together.
I remember that when oil was discovered in 1956 in Oloife, Tafawa Balewa sent a message of congratulations to the East. It showed that he too recognised a federal system of government. That’s why myself and my friend, Ango Abdullahi, always accused him of not being steady.
When Gowon took over government in 1966 we had soldiers from the North, headed by Murtala Muhammed and Danjuma. They wanted to go home but Gowon said no and told everybody that Nigeria was too vast with so many tribes and divisions and unless we were united there would be no country like this.
In a united Nigeria, where should the resources of a region largely be?
This was enshrined in the constitution of 1963, section 400. It was stated that 50 per cent of the resources in a region should be kept by them, 20 per cent should go to the federal government to maintain its services, and 30 per cent should go to the pool to be shared between the federal government and the three regions. Recently, I wrote an article titled The Three Legged Boards, where I explained that in the federal system, the North, East and West make up what we call One Nigeria. If one of the three legs has a fault there will be no bolts. Today, we have 36-legged bolts. They have changed everything financially and by human appointments. My fight today is for us to go back to the 1963 constitution because of recent developments.
Do you still want the three legs?
No, I want the 36; I am a realist. When we went to the 2014 National Conference, there were people who believed we should use the six geopolitical regions, but I said it was no longer possible as states would want to remain on their own no matter how poor they are.
But you are not happy with the way politics is played in Nigeria; are you seeing anything different?
One of the problems we have is that we think that if we are going to have one country, the resources belong to us all. From 1953 to 1966 when we were part of the West, Awolowo brought a construction company from Israel to construct roads in the West. None of the contractors came from the Midwest. Television was introduced in 1959 and it didn’t come to the region. When Midwest was created in 1963, the West refused to share the assets and liability on ground because we didn’t contribute to the economy of western Nigeria. Up to when I became the commissioner for finance, the West under General Adebayo said we didn’t contribute to the economy of the West. I didn’t believe that should be the way. Every state should be provided for. And he who lays the golden egg should benefit from it first. I don’t have anything against northerners who need oil, but they should have regard for the people who own the place. Today, 99 per cent of oil blocks are owned by northerners, westerners and easterners, South South does not have. There is no equity, justice.
Do you think that for the sake of justice, power should move to the South?
Yes, at this point.
How? Do you see it coming into effect now that parties have chosen different candidates?
I am happy you asked. Let me tell you that even our founding fathers recognised the fact that one big region should not take all the positions. When Tafawa Balewa became prime minister, Nmandi Azikiwe became governor-general. Let me also say that in 1966 when the British army was withdrawing and wanted a Nigerian to take over, they took Ironsi and Mai-malari. Mai-malari was better trained and qualified than Ironsi, therefore they wanted to give it to him, but the minister of defence said it was improper to make him the General Officer Commanding Nigerian Forces. That was how Ironsi got it. They used their senses. But nowadays, during the Buhari government they want to keep everything on one side. They want to colonise everything. It is unfair.
When Obasanjo took over, there was nothing like rotation. But I remember how offices were zoned when I was a prominent member of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). The presidency was zoned to the North, chairmanship to the West, the office of the secretary to the East and the deputy national chairman to the minority in the South. I was the president of the primary, proper primary, not like the one we have now. Shagari held a proper primary after four years. Before Shagari was elected, we went to Kaduna for convention, where it was agreed that after he had done eight years, the presidency should move to the South. It was a warning notice to the West and East that one of them could take over from Shagari. It was unfortunate that coup took place and that could not happen.
In 1999, Obasanjo and Olu Falae contested because they wanted equity and justice, having regard to what happened to MKO Abiola at that time. At the end, Atiku Abubakar was very ambitious and wanted to take over from Obasanjo but it didn’t work out. Umaru Yar’adua was brought in, but unfortunately, he died. He was a fantastic man with humility.
In 2011, northerners said it was their turn because Yar’adua did not complete his tenure. Goodluck Jonathan contested but everybody in the North felt it was their time, even the majority.
As Jonathan’s adviser, couldn’t you have told him not to run against the zoning principles?
He had not done his term. Even the American constitution states that if you have done more than two years of the man who died, you cannot contest again. But this man didn’t do that, he only did one constructive year. He was now starting his eight years, not that we were opposing rotation.
What would you do now that the parties have chosen their candidates?
Tinubu’s running mate, Shettima, came to visit me here about two weeks ago to explain that their ticket is not an attempt to Islamise Nigeria. He said he was liberal, adding that Tinubu has a wife who is a pastor in the Redeemed Christian Church of God. He also said that when he was the governor of Borno State, he spent N1billion in building churches. But I said we were talking about inclusiveness and you cannot run a government that is not balanced. If you take proper census it will even be difficult to know the population of Muslims and Christians in the country. So, you cannot ignore one religion. Why would you spend N1bn belonging to Borno people to build churches, thinking that you have regard for Christians? That is a waste of money. He said he would bring Tinubu to continue the discussion.
What I told Omo-Agege, who wants to be the governor of Delta State, is that I have always been in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Although I have retired from active politics, they still have my sympathy.
We agreed that no governor, former governor or minister and so on should vote for a northern presidential candidate. I won’t vote for them. I could have voted for the All Progressives Congress (APC) for supporting our course, but this was again destroyed by a Muslim- Muslim ticket.
So, where do you stand?
I don’t know yet.
Can you tell us more about your brother, JP Clark?
I come from a very large family. My great grandfather was a merchant with the Niger Company in the 19th century. He had his own ship with which he traded in palm oil and palm kernel through the creeks to Lagos, even to Accra. His compound is still standing in my village. It was said that he had a compound as large as that of the Oba of Benin. He had European guest houses.
I can tell you that we hate injustice in our family. In 1923, my great grandfather met Lord Lugard’s representative in Lagos to complain about something. My grandfather had a house in Warri as far back as 1940. My aunty also built a house in Warri in 1925. So, my family is not just me and JP.
JP had always been a radical man, even when he was young. That’s why he was named Pepe, meaning pepper. He was a very strong man who grew up to be very independent. In 1942, we were sent to another school because our school was not promoted to senior level. JP and my two brothers were asked to live but he escaped. Our father put him down, flogged him and told him to go back.
You know he wrote a book, American-American and he was almost banned from going to America. It is our family trade. The only one who is not like us is my immediate brother, Blessing, who is an ambassador, a civil servant to the core.
Tell us about your immediate family; at what point did you get married?
As I told you, my rascality went into my family life. I have seven boys and five girls. After the war I went with my governor to visit Gowon and congratulate him. He said the war was a family affair; hence no victor, no vanquished. He said he knew that my state was invaded, so I should go and help them.
I sent my daughter to a school in Enugu in 1970, where there was no desk or table, so we had to provide. She finished from the school before she went abroad. I think my last daughter is about 44 years.
Surprisingly, you also married at 86 and a lot of people were talking about it, why did you do that?
As a man of the people, I was willing. Both women and men like me and I like them. Yes, it is true; I did it. I like beautiful things created by God, so when I saw a young and pretty medical doctor, I fell for her and we got married. I was not looking for children any longer and she too was not looking for children.
Let me also tell you that I have Muslims in my house. Samaila Clark is one of them. I told seven northern editors who came to interview me during Jonathan’s time that I am part of the North. When I introduced the Muslims in my house to them, they started speaking Hausa. I told Samaila that they were his brothers. I also mentioned that to Shettima.
As commissioner for education, I used to visit the North East when Usman was the military governor there. One commissioner for education introduced a young woman to me as his wife’s friend. I got married to her and this is the product of that union.
Apart from Samaila, I have another person who grew up with me – Alhaji Isah. They all go to Mecca for hajj.
I attend festivals and other events in the North, including the Argungun festival. So I have always been part of that region.