*Monarchs should be made to cater for their communities
BY BASHIR ADEFAKA
IGWE Ezeoba Alex Nwokedi, OON, the Uthokpo Na Eze Achalla and immediate past chairman, Anambra State Council of Traditional Rulers, was press secretary to the Head of State during the military regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo. He also served in the same capacity with Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). The 78-year old distinguished journalist- turned monarch speaks to Vanguard on his experience as Chief Olusegun Obasanjo’s Press Secretary. Excerpts:
As Nigeria moves toward the April 2011 elections, to what extent would you say the traditional institution, in which you are a major figure, has worked in ensuring successful and better Nigeria through the electioneering process?
Our best and sincere contribution toward achieving successful and better Nigeria with the coming elections is by community awareness on the need to ensure peace, security and progress. I have read in newspapers people talking about constitutional roles for traditional rulers in the new Constitution. I’m telling you frankly that traditional rulers should be confined to their respective communities for peace and security and to take care of their communities.
If it is enshrined in the Constitution that traditional rulers should be responsible for peace, security and progress in their communities, it will be a very good development.
But if you start thinking of having House of Lords, it is not desirable. All these things have been abolished all over the world. So how can you, in the context of Nigeria, start talking about national this, national that, which eventually will be abolished? You wrote about it in your editorials and I agree with you. We, as traditional rulers, have a lot to do in our various communities and we should be confined there to take care of our communities. Okay?
Come to think of it, what is that constitutional role that they are talking about? To me, constitutional role means that it should be put in the Constitution what our duty should be. Is that not constitutional role? And I said our duty, first and foremost, is that we should be made to take care of our communities.
Specifically, what has been your role toward the success of this election process in your own Achalla community?
During the voters’ registration exercise, I made sure that my people participated entirely in the exercise because, in the sensitisation that I did, I told them the first step to achieve free and fair election was to have successful voters’ registration. And they all took to my word and got registered. And when the INEC people arrived for the registration and they had no light to work, I immediately mobilised the people and they got generators to power their machines and that itself was a big support for the exercise. You see what I mean by saying traditional rulers should take care of their communities?
During the administration of Governor Mbadinuju of Anambra State and Chief Olusegun Obasanjo as President, you were installed Chairman, Anambra State Council of Traditional Rulers. How did you emerge and how does your former boss, Obasanjo, relate with you now as a foremost traditional ruler in the country?
What I can tell you is that I emerged Chairman Anambra State Council of Traditional Rulers through the normal process. President Obasanjo at that time used to give me my due respect as traditional ruler and he still does as former President. As President at that time, whenever he came to Anambra State, he used to visit me. He even came once in a helicopter to visit me at Achalla. He gave me my due respect when he was President of Nigeria and he still respects me as such.
And when he was being given the chieftaincy title by the entire traditional rulers in Anambra State under my leadership, I had the honour of installing him with the title just the way he had the honour of conferring on me the national honour of the Officer of the Order of the Niger, OON. He was given various titles of Prince of Uthokpo, Orji which is known as Iroko in Yoruba language, and he was installed as one who instilled unity in the country.
How did Uthokpo, which is your Kingship title, come to being?
By ancestral background we are from Igala. Uthokpo was the first son of the King of Igala. He was an elephant hunter and that was what he did that took him to Achalla. When he got to Achalla, he moved about six kilometres toward Awka and then established another town called Isu. Where he was buried an Iroko tree was planted there. But I showed you where he was buried when you came to Achalla. A tree was planted there and it’s still there up till today.
A lot of credit has been given to your eldest brother, Justice Paul Nwokedi for the creation of Akwa North Local Government. The council is said to have suffered lack of development over the years. How is the new administration doing now, in your own assessment as the paramount ruler of the Kingdom?
The administration there now is doing very well. We thank God we have a good and performing chairman in the person of Chike. The roads are now tarred. You’ve been to the Local Government and you saw the development going on there. When the whole thing is fully organised, as I am aware, they are going to build a big market that will be an improvement on the agricultural market in Achalla.
That market is going to be the only agricultural market in the whole of Anambra State. The Onitsha market is more or less a spare parts market; similarly Nnewi and Awka markets. It’s only at Achalla that you will have the kind of agricultural market because my people are farmers: we have rice, we have yam, we have cassava, we have beans and so on and so forth.
So that market you saw when you came is the market in the whole of Anambra State where agricultural products are sold in abundance. And during market day the whole community is crowded because people come from all parts of Igbo Land to buy agricultural products. And I must tell you that any market that sells agricultural products will always flourish.
That is what I tell my people that as long as they keep on producing these agricultural products, their market will always flourish. And that is why Nigeria, as a system, must look at the agricultural sector as an area that needs to be taken more seriously.
Agriculture has a lot of opportunities for national economic growth and if government invests seriously in it, it will help in creating employment for the jobless and actualise lasting solution to the problems of hunger and poverty that we have faced over the years as a nation.
During my two-day visit to your palace, I noticed you took a walk round the town abandoning your security and the people were saluting you. Why did you take such a risk at a time kidnapping is rife in this part of the country at the time?
The way the children and the people generally were shouting Igwe! and all that is a show of the good result a leader will have when he is close to his people and does not isolate himself from them. That is the only thing a leader can do to have safety in this country.
For example, the school in front of my palace and others, whenever they need my help they come to me and I help them. If what they need requires Local Government or State Government’s attention, I ensure it gets there and that the government did what they needed for them.
I am very happy that you came to Achalla and I am very happy that you saw how the people, the children were playing with me, coming to me morning and evening. That is what I am in my community and that is why I am safe among my people.
Can one be right to now say that kidnapping has abated in the East?
First and foremost, I must say kidnapping used to be a strange thing in our area in the East. People that involved themselves in the act, like I used to say, are people having no jobs and no means of living. I have always said they should be made to get involved in doing something.
In Achalla for example, my people have no time for such an evil act. They go early in the morning to farm, come back in the evening, enjoy themselves. And what they need is electricity. I thank God Almighty that we now have electricity in the community.
Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was your boss during his time as Head of State of Nigeria between 1976 and 1979. Could you share with us your experience as Press Secretary working with him?
Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was my boss and he is still my boss. And let me tell you that he was a very listening boss. The Obasanjo that I used to know and I still know is one that would always like you to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. He might however not like it at first when you are tell him that truth but he likes no more or less than being told the truth.
Are you trying to say it took him much effort to accept the truth?
At a time, when he was in office as Head of State in those days and I was his Press Secretary, when I was talking to him, he would ask me to leave his office. Later he would call me. He used to call me Ogbuefi. He would say, “Ogbuefi, you know, you might be right on that thing you said. Let us meet tomorrow morning and discuss it.”
At times he would call me around 3am to discuss what I earlier told him. Being the boss, it was left for me to know how to marshal that issue and represent it to him again in a way that it would be very well acceptable to him.
But to be frank with you, General Obasanjo was a very listening boss. And one fact about him is that, he used to read all memoranda sent to him. If you like, write a 22-page or 25-page memorandum, he would read all, underline them and make remarks.
So Obasanjo is not a man to be taken lightly. If you are dealing with him, you have to be very well guarded because he’s very thorough! He’s exceptionally thorough. Say anything you like, he would not mind. The only thing you say or do, which could aggravate his anger is for you to say or do anything which threatens the unity of Nigeria.
I remember when he banned a magazine published then by now late Chris Okoye. That magazine sometime published a very seditious feature so much that when I read it, I called Chris and said, “even as a person, I can tell you the magazine feature, which you published, is not good. The contents are very bad.”
Then the Head of State called me and said, “have you read what Chris Okoye wrote in his magazine?” I said I had read it. He said, “what do you think?” I said, “well, take him to court.” And he said, “you have no solution yet for it and so, you should go.”
Was he expecting you to advise him to shut down the magazine?
Well, I don’t know. But you just listen. He just told me, “go, you have no solution to the matter.” Then after about 45 minutes, he invited me again to his office. He said, “Ogbuefi, have you thought of what we should do to Chris about this publication?” I said, “excuse me, Your Excellency I still stand by what I said earlier that he should be taken to court.” He again said I hadn’t got solution and so, that I should leave his office. And I left his office.
But, at that stage, he should have been able to proffer the solution that would suit him more. Did he give any?
I think that magazine was New Breed. After I left his office, about 30 minutes later, he called me and said, “Ogbuefi, I have banned New Breed magazine.”
And as a journalist, though in government, what was your feeling and reaction to that action?
Honestly speaking, my feet quaked when he said that. I was very sad and he saw it in my face that I wasn’t happy with that action. I immediately left his office, took a car and went straight to Daily Times to see Stanley Macebuh, who was my very good friend.
On getting to Daily Times, I saw Chris Okoye. I greeted him he didn’t respond. After sometime he said if he had a dagger he would have daggered me…
Thinking that you were instrumental to his plight?
Yes. I then went upstairs where the editorial was. There, I saw Macebuh and told him the whole story. Everything; about how I tried to stop the ban and how my boss refused. I told him because he (Macebuh) was my very good friend and confidant. Then he said he was coming to see the Head of State and I said, “don’t do that now. Let the issue cool down a little.” So I left Daily Times and went back to my office and we continued work as usual. That’s a way to tell you that Obasanjo would not tolerate anything that would break down the unity of Nigeria.
Also, he would never be tired of working and in those days he used to come to the office 7 o’clock in the morning and if you came at 7.30am you had to apologize for allowing him to come before you even though you were very early.