New Telegraph

December 10, 2023

How Ndigbo got it wrong with leadership –Nwala

What was the university experience like when you were studying Philosophy?

Yes, University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) was the first to start teaching Philosophy here in Nigeria. It admitted nine of us in the first set, the second year another set and then the coup and the civil war caught up with us. When Emeka Ojukwu took over and asked nonEasterners to leave, all our teachers in that department were from abroad. When they left, there was no teacher to handle us and we were asked to change to other departments. Some of my colleagues switched over to Political Science, Economics and other courses, but I insisted I wasn’t going anywhere, that Nsukka must graduate me no matter how they want to do it because I’ve spent years. The issue was debated, and luckily, I had the support of some great nationalists like Emmanuel Obiechina and others. So, they went to the Senate of the university and spoke on my behalf and said that this boy is the only evidence we have that we started Philosophy before any other university around us. They said my case is genuine and I need to graduate as scheduled. They said that even if they must send me abroad, I must be graduated. They now wrote to Michigan University in the United States and fortunately, the head of department at Michigan then was also our head of department, who had left Nsukka back to Michigan. The man replied and said they should not worry that he knew me and by their own reckoning, I was already a graduate and that they’d give me lectures. By that time, the Catholic Chaplain, Rev E. J. McMahon said he studied Philosophy of Mathematics, Philosophy of Law and Philosophy of History and said that he could take me on those courses, which were my final year courses. So, the university hired him as a part-time lecturer for me, the only full-time student left in the department. That was how I managed to graduate. There were other obstacles I had but I came out successful. At some point, I was poisoned and I had to stay in a hospital in Port Harcourt and the part-time lecturer was coming there to teach me. In one of our discussions when I was planning my project, he said to me, Tim, you’re fond of relating our discussions in Philosophy to your African experience, you’re fond of giving examples on African culture and so on, why don’t you pick a topic like the thought patterns of the Igbos as your research topic? I quickly grabbed it and began my research. In fact, I submitted my project handwritten because I couldn’t type it. Later, I returned to Nsukka in a month or two before graduation and did every other necessary thing and graduated. That was how I managed to graduate from Nsukka and became the first graduate of Philosophy from any Nigerian university.

For your generation what was UNN like?

One great thing Nsukka did for our generation was to make us great African nationalists. The environment of Nsukka was a sign of nationalism. It was around the Zik of Africa. Everywhere, even our hostels had symbols of nationalism. There was Eni-Njoku Hostel, Okpara Hostel, Akpabio Hostel, Akintola Hostel, Awolowo Hostel, Balewa Hostel, Nkruma Hostel, Eyo-Ittah, Ahmadu Bello Hostel and more of their likes. So, there was that smell of nationalism all over the university. I was an activist at the university. I was in the students’ union government. I was also chairman of Awolowo Hall (Hostel). My academic success made me a household name in the university. They talk about the guy who didn’t go to secondary school but passed his papers within one year and made his A’Level papers and came to the university to become a graduate. When the civil war started, we all became great nationalists. Of course, I graduated in early 1967. By the 5th or 6th of that month, news came that they had started an attack and that was the day of our graduation ceremony. They assembled us at the Margrate Ekpo Hall and gave us mass graduation and everybody left Nsukka that evening. Before the war started, we had taken two exams into Eastern Nigeria Civil Service. The exam involved graduates from all Nigerian universities, including those from abroad. In the end, Nsukka had the first 10 positions. I was the first in that exam and then when the war started, they called those of us who passed to Enugu, when Uche Chukwumerije was the then Director of Information. They interviewed us and recruited us into the Biafran Propaganda Directorate. I and one other person started that Directorate.

What was your war experience like?

One thing that came out of the war was my own worry after we lost. I kept asking myself, why did we lose the war? I kept contemplating on this because we all were great Christians then and we believed that we were fighting a just cause. We believed that we were being maltreated by Nigeria and the world and that the God of the just was with us. And the question kept coming why did we lose the war? That answer came to me when I left for Michigan for my Ph.D.

So, what was the answer you got about why Biafra lost the war?

When I got to New York, I don’t know how things happened in my life, I happened to have found accommodation in International House in New York. There, I came in contact with so many internationalists. Before you knew it, I became an active member of the International Students Movement to the United Nations (ISMUN) and I was later made the Chief Representative of ISMUN our office was at 345 UN Plaza. It didn’t take time I was elected the chairman of the United Nations Youth Caucus. Before you knew it, I had taken part in the First International Women’s Year Conference in Mexico in 1975. I then became very close to Amb. Salim Ahmed Salim, the Tanzanian Representative to the UN. I was equally close to Amb. Ouattara, the AU representative and I also got involved in the South African Movement. In all these experiences, the assignment I gave myself was to find out why Biafra failed. My observation at the end was that Biafra failed because Ojukwu didn’t understand the dynamics of the world’s struggle. Generally, our people didn’t understand it. Biafra failed for the same reason Kwame Nkrumah failed. It was for the same reason that Muammar Gaddafi failed and it was for the same reason that Saddam Hussein equally failed. It was for the same reason a good number of others failed and are still failing. But who and who understood it and succeeded? Of course, Nelson Mandela did understand it and he succeeded. Fidel Castro succeeded as well. Mandela for instance, understood the dynamics of the world. He knew that the world was divided into two; the East and the West. You either belong here or there. If your enemies belong to one bloc, you move to the other. However, if the two of you belong to one bloc, the forces that control the bloc will try to reconcile both of you and if they can’t, they’ll choose the one that’s more important to them and suppress you. The top communists around then were Igbos and when the Soviet Union indicated interest in supporting Biafra, Ojukwu said no, that he was not a communist. He said he was a democrat, who believed in a free world. To avoid leaving anybody in doubt, have you taken a good look at Biafra’s slogan then, it was ‘To Save Biafra for the Free World is a Task that Must be Done.’ The message was to tell America, Britain and France that we’re part of you and we’re not part of these communists. Yakubu Gowon and co equally adopted theirs as ‘To Save Nigeria for the Free World.’ Now, which one is more important to the West considering their experiences with us and our people? They know us very well. They know we’re not the kind of people that will fit well into their Neocolonialism plans. That was how Biafra failed. For Mandela, he realized the system. He went to China and Russia. What’s the basis of the friendship between Vladimir Putin and South Africa today? It started in that era of their history. It is hard to talk about South Africa’s struggle against apartheid without mentioning the role of the Soviet Union. Remember that Putin was the Foreign Intelligence Officer of the Committee for State Security (CSS) known as Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB). He was among those who had the opportunity to help train the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the paramilitary wing of the African National Congress (ANC) of Mandela. That’s why you see South Africa is a member of the new group with the following countries Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS). Out of the two blocs, Mandela knew who was his friend and friend of his people. In Cuba, Fidel Castro was not a communist when he overthrew Fulgencio Batista. When America tried to swallow him up, he had to run to the USSR, where Nikita Khrushchev was the leader and the rest is history. It’s politics. All those who refused to have permanent friends either with the West or the East always end up badly when they run into trouble. Even today, anybody from this part who depends on the West for his survival is making a mistake because they know us better. Don’t forget that the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was a financial executive in the petroleum industry for the French corporation, Elf Aquitaine, which is now Total. With such a background and the role he played in the oil industry in Nigeria and Africa, is it not wiser that one is supposed to know better who should be his friends and choose wisely? There’s no need for anybody to even think of antagonizing the West, but we should choose our friends wisely.

So, the war experience, what was it like?

Before I go into that, I remember one tough war experience here in my home town where I would have been killed. What saved me was my friend from Asaba who was recruited into the Nigerian Army and was with me at TTC. Everybody had ran away and I told my people that we only needed to hide in a nearby plantation. However, after that, we encountered the soldiers and they said they must evacuate all of us to the Ngor-Okpala area because they had the fear that the Biafran troops may stage a counter-attack. However, after sending the first group out to the market places. The soldiers came and said they were looking for Nwala. There were many male Nwalas around, but everybody knew who they were looking for because almost all our relations that ran from the other side were here then. My mother started crying. They were afraid that I’d be killed. The woman carried me 12 months on her belly and People were mocking her that she wasn’t pregnant until I was born. She breastfed me for three years until women would beat me to leave her alone. We were very close. So, I told her not to cry and that nothing will happen to me. I told her that God did not bring us this far to take us back. I went with the soldiers and one man, Captain Jibowu, was seated like a monarch. He was the commander. Before I could get close, my classmate at the Teachers Training College (TTC), Nwaogwuegbe, called my name and introduced me to the captain who didn’t look friendly. The captain took him one side and whispered to him. He came back and asked me, why didn’t you run away? I replied that ‘when Enugu fell, Aba fell, Port Harcourt fell, Onitsha fell and Owerri fell, I knew we had lost the war. I decided I am going to stay here in my village with whoever is running this place. I didn’t intend to commit suicide because there’ll still be another day.’ He asked if I was assuring him that I didn’t stay back to continue fighting and I said no that I knew the war was over. He discussed with the captain and came back to ask about my home and that was how the soldiers took me back to my house to the shock of everybody around. When my family saw me coming back laughing with my friend and the commander, they were shocked. After that, they took me out. The commander signed and gave my family a pass that no soldier should molest my family as he had ordered us to stay. A few days later, the war ended I returned home.

What role did you play in the formation of the NYSC and national integration?

After the war, there was an announcement for us to come to Enugu. I had to trek to Umuahia with my friend, Prof Okorie and entered a lorry through the old road to Enugu. We got to Enugu at We went to the Rehabilitation Commission and I called the commissioner, Graham and said we are together, let’s go to the University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus (UNEC) to see how we can help to retrieve things over there. He agreed and permitted us. When I got there, there was this friend of mine called Emeka Okpala, he had not graduated then. Together, we all took a list of things and came back to report. But as people were coming back from the countryside to Enugu, I could see dejection. It was as if the world had come to an end. Nobody knew what to do. So, I called some of my friends then who have graduated and I said look, were responsible even as students or graduates during the war of telling our people that Nigeria was evil and that we don’t belong there. I said that now that we’ve lost the war and we’re back to Nigeria, we owe them a duty to help them survive the hostile environment. We agreed and began to give our people a talk. Anybody that came from the countryside to Enugu, Graham will tell them to come and join us. Before you knew it, they gave us Enugu Campus as a base. That was how we formed the East Central State Youth Volunteer Services Corps (YVSC). We were being paid with food. From there, we started giving talks to our people, so that they wouldn’t get lost and to show them that there was still hope. We had an orientation and before you knew it, the thing was formalized and I was made the chairman of the group, with the mandate to cover the entire 34 divisions of the East Central State. Our duty was to follow the three RS (Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation) that Gowon has introduced. It became a mighty programme, but we got to a point where I had to ask myself, how do we handle the third arm of the programme which is Reconciliation? A thought came to me that the war or political struggle was mainly an affair of the elders and that many youths didn’t even understand what caused the rift. Therefore, to get reconciliation right, our duty will be to begin to give youths from different parts of the country a new orientation that will enable them to live together and forget the past. We decided that we were going to send a delegation to Yoruba land and the North. We went around the country, with me as a leader of the delegation, which included one Ukwuije and Dr Ukpabi who used to be Dean of Students Affairs at UNN. We prepared a memo to tell Gowon and co what we had done with the third arm of his programme and asked him to embrace the programme we’ve started. Our own suggestion was that they should use the long vacation period to send students from one part of the country to another part to blend. We worked on a programme that should engage them in something serious during their stay. The aim was to enhance national Integration. My delegation arrived in Lagos on the eve of the independence anniversary in 1970. We were received in Lagos and the next day we decided to deliver the memo through Aminu Kano, who was then one of the Federal Commissioners in Gowon’s regime. When we got there, Aminu Kano was not around because it was the eve of the Independence anniversary, so we delivered the memo through one Habib who was a senior in the office to deliver to Aminu Kano for onward transmission to Gowon. Remember the trip was sponsored by the Rehabilitation Commission of the Ukpabi Asika government. Later Gowon replied and sent £75,000 to Asika’s government in appreciation for the programme. By then, the programme had become popular and I was being interviewed by the BBC and others at that time. It was being beamed all over the place. I remember that period when Ghana announced that during the long vacation, they’d also send their children across their own nation to the countryside to copy what was happening here. It became a forerunner of an attempt to link the countryside and the university over there. Gowon later set up a committee to study the memo. That committee met in 1972 and later Gowon accepted its recommendations. Now, the difference between the committee’s recommendation and what we suggested was that we suggested a long vacation period, while the committee recommended one year of youth service after graduation. It caused a whole lot of anger among students who believed that they had more important places to be like getting gainfully employed because graduates were sought after then. Any family that had a graduate had arrived. Students demonstrated all over and rejected it seeing that one year as a waste of time. Eventually, Gowon’s government suppressed the whole thing and got the programme they called the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) rolling.

What was your relationship with Chinua Achebe and what was the link between it and ADF?

The first time I and Chinua met, we had bond in the school system as lecturers. But we got very close when he published his book: “There Was a Country.” That should be around October 2012, some months before his death. The book was being bastardized all over the place and been attacked by some group of people because of what he wrote about the role of a person close to them. He called me and said that I and my colleagues should try and give some thought and attention to that publication, so that people will not mess up what he had in mind. So, when the book came out, he asked us to look into the book to ensure that what he had in mind was not distorted. I took up the challenge, although I told him I had not read the book then and later I was sent two copies and after reading, I told him what I got from the book. I called him the name we usually call him which is ‘Ugonabu.’ I said, Ugonabu, this is what I understood you to be saying. I made it clear to him that he wasn’t saying something new from what he had been saying or different from the Ahiajoku lecture he delivered, titled ‘Nneka.’ I used Okonkwo’s situation in his mother’s place after banishment and the safety he experienced there to explain to him that the message he’s sending is simple. If our people are not wanted outside, we should come back to our motherland and feel at home. We did our best on that and we explained things easily. After that, he called me and encouraged me to keep working hard for our people. He told me to remain a light and I promised never to disappoint him. From that day, anybody who invited him to any programme, he’ll call me to represent him. One night, his son called me that he was in the hospital and that he said he should tell me. Early in the morning, I was called that Ugonabu was dead and that I should inform Ohanaeze, the Federal Government and Peter Obi who was the governor of Anambra State then. That was how I became the chairman of his burial committee. After the whole thing, we went back to the conference and all other things involved and we got out the International Colloquium on the Igbo Question in Nigeria. Then in 2014, I sat down and said to myself that we had to set up an organisation of Igbo Intellectuals. By then, the Jewish example was steering us in the face. The only difference between us and the Jews was that we are still in our ancestral homes, unlike the Jews who didn’t have a home during their ordeals. And for us, if we don’t take time, we’ll become a varnishing nation. We needed to borrow a leaf from the Jews and the intellectuals had to lead it. That was how we got Igbo Intellectuals to form the Alaigbo Development Foundation (ADF) in 2014.

What direction is ADF taking Ndigbo to?

We are at a point of reform and returning ADF to the people. We had a point when we accepted all kinds of characters into ADF. It became like what happened during the socialist movement in Nigeria. This was the confusion some of us had which is why we must reform ADF. But we’re at a point that transformation of ADF to make it a popular people-oriented movement has become imperative. However, we wanted to do the first thing first which is to anchor it in a well-defined, properly understood global setting of the struggle which you know that such a level of reflection is a highly intellectual reflection. We are now at the point where ADF must become the property of the people. We’ve been experiencing some form of struggle that shows the problems we have in ADF. We brought a whole lot in and anybody with an Igbo agenda was brought in without us taking time to select well. We thought we were building them well, but we need to get to the point where theories and practicals meet. We’ve learnt from mistakes of many other movements and we’re positioning ADF to where it should be. We needed to groom people. ADF has shown me some fundamental flaws in our land but we need to sanitize it. It’s a battle we should put behind us in the next one month and we need our younger ones to be part of this move.

In terms of leadership, how did the Igbos got it wrong?

First of all, let’s look at the Igbo political leadership in the time of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. By our culture, we respect charismatic people in our midst. We accept people who are highly gifted as leaders amongst us. However, that gift can only be useful if you apply it for the good of all. It’s not meant for you and your family alone. That’s why our people usually say, ‘Onye nwanneya no na ala eze anaghi aga oku mmuo’ (he whose relation is well to do, doesn’t suffer). We are people who asked before engaging in something. We are people who ask questions about our children even as they are born. We monitor people’s activities from childhood to know the direction to follow. We give orientation to our children and position them from the beginning. We got it wrong when Western social values infiltrated ours. In the days of Azikiwe, even though he had the necessary charisma, he was still dedicated to our traditional values. For example, there was a time when Zik reshuffled his cabinet and removed Michael Okpara from the cabinet. He sent the list to Jerry Okoro of the Outlook to publish it. The information got to Z.C. Obi and other corporate Igbo leaders and they quickly rose and said no, that such a decision was never in the Igbo interest. They first of all went to Jerry and told him that they were aware of what he currently has in his possession and pleaded with him to hold on until they see Zik. That was how they moved to Zik’s house to talk to him and pleaded with him to reconsider his position as such decision can bring disaffection from the Umuahia to the Arochukwu axis down to the Calabar area which will not be good. Zik thanked them but told them how Okpara had been challenging him. They assured him they would speak to Okpara and they equally did and told Okpara how to follow the system properly. They told him that even if he disagrees with what Zik thinks or says, he should not make it an open confrontation. They advised him to always talk about it internally. That was how Okpara’s political career was saved by leaders who were not really in power but were the guides and advisers to those in power. The Igbo society is one run with consensus, not one man’s opinion. We got it wrong when we started allowing Neocolonialism into our system and the white people and our competitors raising leaders in our land. We need to get back to what leadership really means because you can’t lead people you don’t understand.

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