Chief Mbazulike Amechi is a nationalist and Minister of Aviation in the First Republic. In this interview with UCHENNA INYA, he speaks on the recent visit of some Igbo leaders to President Muhammadu Buhari, marginalization of the South East, growing tempo of violence in the country and the clamour for a Nigerian president of Igbo extraction, among other issues
You led some Igbo leaders to President Muhammadu Buhari recently. What was the visit all about and what should the people of the South-East expect as the outcome of the visit?
A few days ago, I led a small delegation of selected Igbo leaders to see the President of Nigeria on the growing tempo of violence in Nigeria, especially in the South-East. The President was happy to receive our delegation and our discussions were frank, sincere, and all targeted at finding peace and true reconciliation. We are expecting a positive result and I have come to Ebonyi State to brief Governor Dave Umahi, who is the chairman of South- East Governors Forum, and seek their support in our efforts to find peace. I am deeply worried and pained by the new spate of violence in which some policemen and civilians were said to be killed. I am appealing to all who may be involved in these crimes to please cease fire and give peace a chance whether they are of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) or Movement for the Actualisation of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) or known or unknown or agents or any organ or personality to please stop it now. You can never achieve peace or reconciliation through violence. As the only surviving member of the government of the First Republic, I appeal to all to respect my age and let me help to make peace before returning to my maker. I am trying to bring peace and freedom to Igbo land. Today, in Igbo land, from Abakaliki to Enugu, I know when it used to be 45 minutes’ drive. Today, if you have no escort, it takes you about an hour and half because of checkpoints here and there. In Anambra and Imo, you will like to see what is happening there. People travelling are made to come down, passengers in a bus or lorry; men, women and children. Women who are pregnant, women who carry children at the back, they are made to raise their hands above their heads. This is not a free country. And so, these are the things I want to stop and I want to stop the killings. I have the capability of saying that.
One of the discussions I had with the President was the effect of Nnamdi Kanu’s detention and the whole situation and how it should be handled to reconcile the Igbo side of this country, who were in the leadership of the struggle for independence and creation of the country with the rest of the country. They have been isolated since the war ended, they are not given positions in the country and the economy is being destroyed. The only seaport at Port Harcourt is closed because it is close to Ndigbo. People are suffering, people are in hell now.
After your visit to the President, somebody pointed out that you talked about the Federal Government handing over Nnamdi Kanu to you but you did not expatiate on the germane issues being raised by these nonstate actors headed by Nnamdi Kanu over the marginalization of the South-East and how Ndigbo can dialogue with the Federal Government. What is your reaction to this?
The people who are saying that are putting their horse before the cart that will draw it. Marginalisation had been always there but it is not being discussed and cannot be solved in a violent way. It is when we have this young man out that we will have dialogue. Dialogue is the only thing, it can make people solve their problems and that was how we applied it in our time; you give and you take.
Against the backdrop of your position on dialogue, what is your message to the youths?
My message at the moment, particularly, when Ndigbo are on the receiving end is for them to use the Igbo sense and Igbo mindset because silence is golden. There is one weakness some Igbo people have, what you will do tomorrow you say it today. If you do it tomorrow, it is no longer news, if you don’t do it tomorrow, the shame is yours. So, the best thing is for us to use our senses and work silently well in Igbo land. God has given Igbo land the blessing of men and women who are hardworking, who are self-reliant and education is very high in our place. So, with proper management, with proper discipline, we will come back to the original position of Ndigbo in Nigeria.
A president of South-East extraction has remained elusive. As an elder statesman, what are your position on the 2023 presidency and your recommendations on the character of who should be the next president?
First of all, let me take you back to history. Ndigbo lost a bright chance of producing the president of Nigeria in 1979. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe called me in April 1978 and told me as his field man in his time to go back to Nigeria and tell them that he wanted to come back to politics. I went to Lagos, I contacted Shehu Shagari and asked him how do we work together to get this done? Shagari summoned two other people from the North; Shetima Ali Monguno and Sunday Awoniyi from Kwara State. Then I went with Azubuike Okafor and Dennis Osadebe. We were holding meetings in Lagos at the residence of Shehu Shagari and I was reporting to Zik until we eventually agreed on a platform – National Party of Nigeria (NPN); that Zik will be the presidential candidate, while Shagari will be his running mate. So, I came back and reported to Zik and he said ‘that’s good, you know it is the emirs in the North who determines; are you sure they will not knock it off ? So, I went back to Lagos and told Shagari this is the fear of the old man. He said of course we were in consultation with the emirs. Then the following week, the Sultan of Sokoto sent the Emir of Zaria to Zik at Nsukka that the entire emirs in the North are in support of what the politicians are planning. Again, Zik said ‘what about the soldiers? The soldiers may take up the government again if I run.’ I asked him: ‘Owelle, if they kill you now, did they kill you early?’ I went back to Lagos and told Shagari that this is what Zik is saying about the army. Shagari asked: ‘Does that man really want to be president? Okay, I will get in touch with the army, come back in the evening, we will have dinner.’ That evening, I went back to his house in Victoria Island and Theophilus Danjuma came. Danjuma was the Chief of Army Staff then. So, the three of us had dinner and Shagari told Danjuma about the fear Zik expressed. Danjuma said ‘no, no, no, but this is the real man we want, this the type of person that we want that will bind this country together. I can’t go to Nsukka because if I go back to Nsukka the press will catch me. Alright, go back and tell Zik that I am going to Calabar on Saturday to Army Sports and I will make a speech at the Army Sports and in this speech I will send a message to him.’ On that day, Danjuma went to Calabar and made a speech. He said: ‘I am reassuring the nation that the army is ready to hand over finally to civilian government and return to barracks but they must warn that the person they will handover to must be an elder-binding person in this country, will not be a person who will come and cause trouble again, must be a true father of the nation.’ Suddenly, Jim Nwobodo lost nomination with Onoh in the party and went back to Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP) and told Zik, dump whatever arrangements, come to NPP, NPP is our own party, Igbo party, we will put you in government. Suddenly, Zik changed mind, he changed mind and made announcement that a plan for his birthday in November 1978 in Enugu is cancelled and it was that day he was to be presented to the nation. A motion to be moved by Maitama Sule from Kano to be seconded by Anthony Enahoro from the West, then I will speak last from the East. I went back to him on the 17th of November and asked Zik what happened and he told me ‘Jim came to me that I should go back to my people and I don’t want to go to a party where Adisa Akinloye will be the national chairman and I don’t want to belong to the same party with K.O. Mbadiwe because of what Mbadiwe did to me.’ In my book, in which I wrote the history of Nigeria, you will see where I said ‘Zik made Jim Nwobodo governor and unmade himself president.’ So, that was what happened. In that birthday party that was aborted, Osadebe came, it was aborted and he went to Zik’s house but they did not allow him to see Zik. They told him Zik was sick. He started going back and had accident at night mile corner and got paralyzed till he died. Mojeed Agbaje from Ibadan, a close associate of Adegoke Adelabu came for the party at Enugu and it was aborted. He went to Nsukka to see Zik and he was told that Zik was not feeling fine and he couldn’t see anybody. On his way back he had accident and died, four of them in his car died at Ore and that was how we lost the opportunity of becoming the president and the party went and nominated Shagari. Then on the 13th of January, 1978 at Kwara State Hotel, we were in campaign tour and Shagari was to announce his running mate, so, he called me in the hotel with Akinloye the national chairman and told me that he has selected me to be his running mate. I told him thank you very much. I said as a sincere man, I can see myself for a lower position when Zik is running against me, I can’t run against Zik, I can’t run an election to defeat Zik, Igbo people will not forgive me and my children will not be able to explain it. So, I nominated Alex Ekwueme to be the running mate. That was how we had the opportunity we had. Again, during this Fourth Republic, Ekwueme ran and the same Jim Nwobodo ran to the North again and betrayed Ekwueme at the Jos convention when the Peoples Democratic Party PDP was selecting its presidential candidate; the same Jim Nwobodo.
Ahead of the 2023 presidential election, what do you envisage will play out in the race for the presidential tickets of the major parties?
I think many hawks have grown in other parts of the country and they are people who are not happy to see Ndigbo come back again but there are people, who are having a rethink about things that have been happening all these years and they are looking at how to bind this country together in order to have a true Nigeria, a true federation that everybody will belong and they are prepared to cooperate with Ndigbo. I called a meeting in my house, a joint meeting of PDP and All Progressives Congress (APC). I told APC ‘go to your party, work hard, nominate an Igbo presidential candidate. PDP, go to your party, work hard and make sure that Igbo presidential candidate is nominated. Let them contest, whosoever wins will be an Igbo man.’ But if any of the two parties support a candidate from another place, it will be a big contest and it will be a difficult thing for an Igbo man to win on the platform of any of the small political parties. But the problem is that I don’t think they are applying enough strategy. To get such a position, you have to plan, you have to strategize, you have to organize, you have to move, you have to mobilize and you don’t do it making noise, you do it quietly so that before people know what is happening, you have gone far. So, the best thing is come out with a surprise and that is the best strategy. I am still alive and I am prepared to help them to plan if anybody comes to me.
What was your experience as a Nationalist vis-à-vis politics?
I was one of the nationalists who fought for the independence of this country, a leading member of the Zikist movement. When we were fighting the British government in Nigeria, they sent us to prison. My first experience of prison was at the age of 21. At independence, I won election to parliament and I was appointed the Parliamentary Secretary in 1960. In 1961, I was appointed minister. I was reappointed as minister after the election in 1964. The military took over in 1966. Since then, I went out of partisan politics but the most significant aspect about it, is that of all the ministers of the First Republic in Nigeria, I am the only one alive today. Of all the leading figures in the politics of colonial era, I am the only one alive today and I thank my God for it. But what is happening in Nigeria, I normally say things to correct them.
What is your assessment of governance in Ebonyi State?
In Ebonyi State, I don’t know why they have allowed Nkalagu NIGERCEM to die. Nkalagu industry is the only major industry in Ebonyi State so far and it was the major thing that sustained us during our time. At that time, if you pay N200 or N100, they will deliver a lorry load of cement, 200 bags of cement anywhere in Eastern Nigeria. Today, that place is closed, it must be re-opened. I have seen the wonderful things the governor is doing. I have seen the development here. Yes, but the next phase should be to put an industry here. I am 92/93 and I will live and see these developments.