March 7, 2016

How Ogbonnaya Onu derailed my medical career — Ndoma-Egba

How Ogbonnaya Onu derailed my medical career   — Ndoma-Egba


The immediate past Leader of the Senate, Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba, SAN, in this interview ahead of his 60th birthday tomorrow, speaks of his life experiences.

By Johnbosco Agbakwuru

How do you cope with the everyday activities outside  with the National Assembly?

First of all, I had a life before the Senate and this year, I will be 38 years at the bar and I was in the senate for 12 years which means that I have 26 other years to account for and I spent those 26 years actively in court.

I was into litigation, I was a courtroom lawyer. I had a life before the Senate and I knew ab initio that in life whatever has a beginning has an end and I knew there would be life after the Senate and fortunately for me, I had an alternative address. If I am not in politics I am in law. So, I am back to law practise for now but still actively involved in politics.

It appears you started so early in politics. What was the encouragement?

Well if you put it another way, I started very early in life and from my part of the world, I was probably the first to graduate at 21 or before 21, to be a lawyer at 22, by 23, I was done with it all and it is God’s grace because in spite of the civil war which we experienced, I never lost one day of schooling and because I had the unique privilege from my part of the world perhaps amongst the first if not the first who had an educated father and educated mother who was a teacher at the time, I was exposed to school environment early because I started following my mother to school even before I was eligible.



Now in those days eligibility was measured by your ability to put your hand over your head. How they came by that method I don’t know but you know that if you are not six years old at least you won’t be able to do that. Even before I started school, I was already familiar with the school environment and by the time I started, I was already familiar with what was being taught. So, for me, life started early and by the time I was 16 I was a regular contributor to the  Nigerian Chronicle which was the big newspaper then in my part of the world.

So, everything has come early for me. Now, about politics, I grew up in a political environment because as a child growing up my mother was the chairman of Ikom county council, now we call them local government. She was the first woman in Eastern Region to be a chairperson of a county council. So I grew up in that environment where politics was discussed, where politicians were mingling and all that.

Political side and legal side

So, you can effectively say that I was born into politics more or less. I took the political side from my mother and the legal side from my father.

You may have had your ups and down, can we know some of the regrets you have ever had in life?

Regrets, I won’t call them regrets, I will rather say disappointments but whether they turn out to be disappointments eventually, it is a matter of time. I will give you one; as a child growing up, I had hoped to be a Catholic Priest but I never became a Catholic Priest. When I went to read law eventually because I was a science student more or less, and I wanted to read medicine initially, it is a very funny story how I ended up not reading medicine. We had gone to Uyo for the entrance to University of Ife now Obafemi Awolowo University, a group of young men; four of us and our friend’s father was then the principal of the Advanced Teachers College in Uyo, took us out, and this beer, Gulder had just come out and the four of us drank this new beer called Gulder and we got to the exam hall and we were all sleeping and four of us failed and from that day till today, I have not tasted Gulder and I don’t offer people Gulder!

Outstanding science student

In my final year of the A levels class, I was persuaded to read the arts, and guess who persuaded me; Dr. Ogbonaya Onu who himself was an outstanding science student. He was our dormitory prefect and listened to an argument between my friend and I, my friend who just retired as an ambassador, Ambassador Mark Egbe.

In the school environment siesta time was supposed to be a period of absolute quietness, but Dr. Onu got interested in the argument and so he didn’t punish us. At the end of the argument he admonished us but told me, I think you are pursuing a wrong ambition, I think you should read law and be like your father and the rest is history.

I changed my courses about three, four months to the exam to History, English Literature and Economics. So I eventually ended up reading law which again was an accident but when I read law, I read law to teach law I wanted to read law up till PhD level and become a professor of law and again, I am not that professor of law.

When I went into politics, I went into politics to be the governor of my state, again, that never happened. So you can summarize my life by saying, I never became what I desired to be, or I never became what I set out to be, I became everything that I didn’t set out to be.

At 27 you were a commissioner, at that young age how did you cope with the challenges of the office?

Actually I was exposed to public office as soon as I came back from Youth service at the age of 23 President Shehu Shagari appointed me to the board of Cross River Basin and Rural Development Authority. I was 23 going to 24 and at the same time, late Dr. Clement Isong who was the then governor of old Cross River State also appointed me as the first old student to become the chairman of the board of governors of Government Secondary School, Ikom.

I will explain that in due course because I actually passed through two secondary schools. I was 23 going to 24. So, I had always virtually all my life been in positions of responsibility and that is why I didn’t have a youth.

Meeting with his commissioners

Two weeks ago we buried the governor who appointed me commissioner, Navy Captain Edet Archibong. He had never met me, never heard of me, and I realised that I had run into him once in a lift in Switzerland.

I had an uncle who was a diplomat, he was in the navy and they were in Switzerland for a programme and he was staying with a friend in the same building my uncle was, so that was the only contact, apart from greeting we didn’t speak, we didn’t have any relationship and I remember, we were appointed in January of 1984 but we were sworn in early February and in between he had to meet his commissioners.

So he walked into the Executive Council hall we were all standing, of course he knew most of them, so he was shaking their hands and I was standing in between the commissioner for health and the gentleman who became commissioner for trade and investment.

So he shook the lady and skipped me and was going to shake the other guy, so I grabbed his hands and said why are you not shaking my hand? So he looked at me and said don’t tell me you are one of my commissioners? And I said I am unfortunately and he said oh my God I have appointed a baby. So the next day in Daily Times a headline ‘Baby Commissioner’.

And how did I cope? We had a group of very young professionals in Calabar then, we are all very big men today; journalists, lawyers and we were all bachelors so every evening I had this bungalow with large ground in front, we will assemble there over barbecue and we will be debating the future of Cross River and we asked hypothetical questions; if you were made this what would be your programme, if you were this what will you do? I remembered one of the last conversations we had before the appointment I was asked if you were commissioner for works what will you do and we debated my ideas and that became my programme when I ended up as commissioner for works a few weeks after the conversation.

So, we already had a plan and all of the members of that group became very prominent people in the society, they held high political public offices and they just executed what we were discussing and they all became very big men in the society. So we grew up in an environment where young people had dreams, where young people were ambitious.

I remember even as a lawyer I was quite active in ANA; Association of Nigerian Authors when we had a group that was made up of professors, senior civil servants, lawyers just to read poems. Then we had another group that met once a week just to listen to Congo music, we had another group that met once a week just to play scrabble.

Fighting the civil war

That was the environment that defined my youth, so I was an old man long before I became old.

Is that why people accuse you of being elitist?

I don’t know what they mean by elitist, one if you know me, you will not describe the person who receives that kind of traffic as elitist but if you say that I don’t drink in public or I don’t go dancing you will be right because I have already explained to you why I don’t attend parties.

Given the opportunities you had as a young man, do you think such opportunites are still available to the younger generation? 

If you take the people that fought the civil war for instance, most of the big names such as Danjuma, Mohammed Suwa, Murtala Mohammed they were in their 20s at the time they fought the civil war. If you even take governance, how old was M.I    Okpara, how old was Awolowo, how old was Zik? Then if you take my state for instance, Cross River, our first governor U.J Esuene the old state was 32 the time he became governor, Paul Omu who took over from him was 36, Elegbede who took over from Paul Omu was 37, Dan Archibong was 42, Inim Princewill was 39, clement Ebri was 39, Donald Duke was 37. So in the history of Cross River State Ben Ayade is actually the oldest governor we have had. So I agree that the constitutional provisions that make it impossible for people to express their endowment are not in the best interest.

Maybe for judges, there might be need for a certain minimum but for any other thing I think people should be allowed to express their gifts.

What is your perception of the rate of turnover of legislators in the National Assembly?

Now if you take the executives, if you are elected president today you won’t be lost because you have a very elaborate bureaucracy to guide and help you.

If you go to the judiciary apart from the bureaucracy you have what they call the hierarchy of courts, one court decides , if you are not satisfied you go to the next court and by the time you get to the final court a precedent is established but beyond that, the judiciary heads all over the world one of the most sophisticated archival system and that is why if you are looking for a judgment in a land case between your community and the next community that was given in 1890 something, they can find the judgement, the archival system is very sophisticated.

You also have an elaborate bureaucracy so there is certainty just like you have in the executive. Now if you take the legislature you have a bureaucracy that sets the institution but what makes that institution is the aggregate of the members of the institution and each of those members has its own small bureaucracy around him, the records are personal to him or her, the knowledge is personal to him or her, the contacts are personal to him or her.

Small bureaucracy

So the day you are leaving you leave with everything so the average legislator is like either a snail or a tortoise, he carries his house with him.

What is your assessment of the way the present National Assembly attended to the screening of ministers and the budget as compared to the practise in the past?

Let me say that for the screening of ministers for as long as the constitutional provision is the way it is, it cannot get any better. Until the president is required to disclose upfront how he intends to deploy the ministers he is proposing, you can only ask them general questions. So if we want any improvement in the screening process, then we have to take a second look at the constitution, make provisions for the president to disclose ab initio how he intends to deploy his ministers so that people can now ask them questions that are specific to the area that they are going to be deployed to. Now for the budget, I think it was only in 2013 or 2014 that we passed the budget in February or so, now we have the Fiscal Responsibility Act that envisages that the budget will be operational at the commencement of each financial year.

If you check the provisions of the act it tells you when certain steps should be taken, when the call circulars are issued, when the frame works are sent to the National Assembly and all of that and they are expected to be done latest by September. But those provisions of the law have never been observed. You get the budget proposals usually November, December and there are always issues in the budget.

I think my solution is that the executives should first and foremost respond to the obligations in the fiscal responsibility and other budget related legislations to make sure that the time frame in those legislations are respected.

You will be 60 by Tuesday but you look younger than your age will you like to be up to 100 years?

You see it is God that gives life. My driver is a Muslim and he has been driving me for 27 years and when I lost my partner many years ago he told me by way of consolation that the day you are born God also puts your expiry date or your exit date that same moment and that not even a senior lawyer like me can get an adjournment. So I believe that my expiry date is already put down so what I wish or desire makes no difference, God has already determined it and to Him be the glory.

What will be your suggestions to the parties the way to go?

Let me say this, the way the parties are structured the governors are very powerful and they have appropriated the ownership of the parties and because the governors all want to end up in the Senate it is going to be a frightening spectra because in another three, four terms, every senator would have been a former governor. So for me the prognosis is not good at all and it is time for the political parties to begin to redesign their internal processes to make sure that the governors remain important but do not appropriate ownership of the party.