IT was her 28th birthday on January 15, 1966, a day that forever changed the political destiny of Nigeria’s young democracy which was six years old at that time.
Mrs. Irene Harriman was a facilitator of sorts of the democracy enterprise, having been a senior verbatim reporter at the National Assembly, a position that gave her front row position in the workings of parliament and the government.
So when months after the soldiers shot themselves to power and killed Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa, a man she worked with and revered for his gentlemanly conduct, she had no hesitance turning down a job offer to work with General Yakubu Gowon, the man who now sat as head of state.
Her rejection of the reassignment by the then head of service, Mr. S.O. Wey was not just because of the killing of Balewa. A couple of the victims of the January 1966 coup were persons she knew and interacted with in parliament and in the Lagos social circuit. Besides Balewa, Chief Francis Okotie-Eboh was another person she had worked with as a secretary. Her husband’s senior brother, Ambassador Leslie Harriman escaped being a victim of the coup by happenstance of leaving Brig. Zakariya Maimalari’s residence for her birthday party in her Bourdillon Street, Ikoyi residence.
Harriman, 80 next Monday, now a little bent down by age, is, however, unbending in the character and graces that stood her out in the Nigerian civil service. Those were the same factors that positioned her as a front row witness to some of the greatest political feats and international accomplishments of the young Nigerian nation.
The recent relays of television images on NTA of Balewa’s motorcade being welcomed to Washington D.C. in 1961 by cheering Americans waving Nigerian and United States flags have inspired emotion among Nigerians.
“I was in that motorcade,” Mrs. Harriman said. Balewa had been invited to the United States by President John Kennedy and became the first and only Nigerian leader to address a joint sitting of the United States Congress. Balewa’s speech, delivered in his sonorous voice which drew US senators and congressmen to their feet was prepared by Harriman during a stopover in London
“When we did the stopover in London, the prime minister sent for me with the queen’s car that was given to him to use and that I should come and take down his speech that he was to read at the Capitol.”
“He called me to his lodging in St James’s Park where he was lodged and provided with a Rolls Royce with the queen’s ensign. When I finished he asked ‘young lady where are you going now,’ and I said ‘I am going to meet my cousin, Bridget Esiri’. He now called his aide-de-camp, he said he should take me to the car that the queen gave him to use and to take me wherever I was going.”
She spoke in a reflection of not just the warmth of the prime minister, but also of the reverence Nigeria once enjoyed in the international arena.
However, Mrs. Harriman’s working relationship with Balewa was ad-hoc as she was not his direct staff. She had been attracted to him during a summit of African countries in Monrovia, Liberia, known as the Monrovia Bloc that presaged the Organisation of African Unity, OAU.
“What brought me to follow the prime minister was that before that trip there was a conference in Monrovia. I and three other male colleagues were the ones who covered the conference and were at that point the only verbatim reporters in Africa. Nigeria supplied the verbatim reporters as nobody else had, at least, south of the Sahara.
“I was the only female on that trip and was wearing green, white green, Itsekiri attire, throughout. I think the delegation headed by the prime minister was so happy and I am sure that may have been a factor why he requested for me.”
Mrs. Harriman’s deployment to the National Assembly where she worked as a verbatim reporter, was an opportunity that brought her into close contact with some of the leading lights of the First Republic who often passed her in the corridors of parliament.
How was the work at that time?
According to her, “It was very interesting! We worked, till 2.00 a.m. and sometimes, 3.00 a.m. we were there battling to get the Hansard ready for the following day. Work was especially tasking in those days; you had to finish your transcripts and hand it over to the editor.
“We prepared the Hansard, and by morning it was ready in the pigeonholes, we read what we did, and we took pride in what we did.”
Who were the legislators that impressed you?
“They were many. Awolowo was one of them. Tafawa Balewa, Enahoro, they were crème-de-la-crème. Maitama Sule, was one of the best. He even said he wanted to meet Hope (Harriman, her husband) and he met him. (Muhammadu) Ribadu was a gentleman, and he was best friends with Okotie-Eboh. When he (Ribadu) died, Okotie-Eboh cried because they were quite close. Maitama Sule was a rascal! Young at heart, always cracking jokes.
“So, we often met along the corridors, the prime minister, and other MPs. Maitama Sule would make sure that he would say something to you to crack a joke, he was a lively person. The others would bow. For instance, if I met the prime minister, he would say in his sonorous voice, ‘hello, young lady!’”
So, when the coup happened on her birthday, it turned into a devastating experience.
“January 15 was my birthday, and we had a party in Ikoyi at Bourdillion. We had the party to the early hours, our contemporaries, professors and such were there. Leslie Harriman was around, came to the House and said he would come back and went visiting his friends including Brig. Maimalari. He left Maimalari’s house to come and join the party, and if I didn’t do that party, he would have stayed back with Maimalari and probably that saved him. He said ‘I would have died.’ The people leaving my party for Surulere, I remember some of them dead drunk and one of them a professor was accosted by the soldiers, and it was just by accident of a senior officer who knew him that he was not killed.”
“The following morning as I drove to enter the parking lot in the National Assembly complex, a soldier shouted, ‘halt, identify yourself,’ I replied, ‘I work here.’ He allowed me to park, got out and walked into the complex, and those who were there earlier told me there was a coup! I said coup ke? So we were all milling around in our offices and rumours were flying around that this, and this died. Then after about an hour, soldiers threw tear gas into the complex. They wanted to empty the place. They were not friendly at all.”
“It scared me so much that when Gowon became the leader, Mr. S. O. Wey who became head of service, called me that I should go and work with Gowon in Dodan Barracks, but I said no, I don’t want to be around soldiers.”
Though following the coup incident she subsequently became friendly with the Gowons, she, however, affirmed that the incident of that day left a scar.
Mrs. Harriman was born Irene Ogedegbe in Yaba, Lagos to an Itsekiri father and mother of mixed Itsekiri and British parentage. Her father was a civil servant in the Colonial Service in Lagos.
She remembered life in Lagos in her growing up years to be full of tranquillity.
“If I say it was good, it was better and use all those adjectives; you might say it is, as usual, senior citizens always say that their time was better. But it was real; it is not fake news. I am not flippant about it; life was idyllic. (Pointing to her daughter, Temi Harriman) she saw a little of it.
“I lived in Yaba and did not live in Lagos Island until I got married. In those days, Yaba was a city, beautiful, full of flowers and we had gardens, orchards. I lived near Sabo; it was a raised bungalow which was the fashion then.”
Though her mother was a product of Methodist Girls High School, the young Miss Ogedegbe went to Queens College which was then located in Onikan, in Lagos Island. At that time it was compulsorily boarding for non-Lagos residents and non-boarding for Lagos residents.
She recollects her engagements in drama as one of the highpoints of her secondary school education, an activity that offered her scholarship to study in England but which her mother flatly rejected.
“I was not just in the Drama Group; I was the drama person! So, every year from Class One, I was Mary, and Miss Davidson (the art teacher) would say go and read, we will audition others for other roles. Then one year, she decided to do Peter Pan, so I was Wendy. She now got me a scholarship to go and study drama, but as soon as I told my mother, she said you are not going anywhere. She said, where are you going to work, actress?”
Following her graduation from Queens College, she went on an expedition to the Niger Delta before joining her contemporaries in the labour market.
“I finished secondary school and went on an expedition to the Delta Creeks, three of us, all girls, but I was chaperoned by an uncle on the trip starting from Lagos through to Burutu. It was an experience, sleeping on top of the boat and stopping at the various Ijaw towns along the coast. Coming back we didn’t go that route; we came back by land.
“In those days, the school year was from January to December, and as we came back from the cruise, my mother realised that we had nothing to do, and asked my sister and I to go and look for work. So, we went out, my sister and I, school leavers, to look for work. I can’t remember now what led us to what used to be the colonial Administrator’s Office in Obalende; we went for the interview.
“When we got there, it was full of school leavers, boys and girls and they announced, those students from Queens College and Kings College come over to this side, so I left my sister and joined those from Queens College and Kings College, and we were asked to go to a room, and there we were informed that we had been engaged, without interview!”
“The other people from other schools were asked to come and do interviews while those of us from Kings and Queens College were engaged without interview as they just gave us letters of appointment!”
Her brief included such clerical duties of preparing cheques especially for widows whose husbands died intestate.
In 1957, a year after she was engaged and as Nigeria prepared for independence, there was the need to train those who would be verbatim reporters, a specialised secretarial cadre. She opted in, and it was that decision that made her one of two first females to be trained as verbatim reporters in Nigeria, nay, South of the Sahara. That training also gave her the opportunity of covering international conferences.
“I was one of the first two black women trained in the secretarial cadre; the other was Mrs. Mosun Adesanya, she is a lawyer now.
Among the persons she worked with at that time were Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh and Chief Michael Ani, then a permanent secretary who subsequently superintended the election process that birthed the Second Republic as chairman of the Federal Electoral Commission, FEDECO.
Irene Ogedegbe as she was known subsequently married Hope Harriman, the second Estate Surveyor to have qualified in Nigeria, philanthropist, and businessman.
I asked her. How did you meet him?
“Hope Harriman, I knew and saw first maybe when I was about 12 years old. He and his elder brother, Leslie Harriman were coming in and out of our Yaba house visiting my senior brother. I remember because it was just before entering Queens College. His elder brother was an extrovert, but he was initially an introvert though he later became a super extrovert.
“He would come quietly without talking much and say ‘is your brother in?’ If I said no, he would turn round and go. But his brother would come in and shout ‘mama, mama, we are hungry.’ Mama would call us and say go and fry dodo for them. Okigbo, (Pius Okigbo) would go on the floor; he was another character! Funny and lively!”
Mr Harriman, apparently had set his eyes on her as she recalled a memorable event just before the young Harriman set out for further studies in England.
“I was in Class Four in Onikan, summer time, and he (Hope) was standing in front of Queens College with his camera. I was 16, still in school, he now came to school with camera, and as soon as he saw me, he took his camera and with all the girls looking, he wanted to start snapping. I got home and told my brother, ‘’go and warn your friend not to waylay me in front of the school and embarrass me.”
“He wanted to take my picture because he was going abroad. That was the contact I had with him, and he left, and my sister travelled to London at one point to study. Hope Harriman knew that my sister was there, went to her hostel, collected all my photos and started writing me letters, telegrams. I never replied him once! “I know you are a big girl now and all that,” she quoted him as saying in his telegrams and letters.
Now about 21, having worked for five years, her position in the civil service had enabled her to buy a car from Leventis in Ebute Metta. She was sold the car by Prince Sijuwade who later became the Ooni of Ife. She was living life as it were to the fullest and had a driver until a young lawyer and family friend, GOK Ajayi upbraided her for being lazy and offered to teach her to drive.
“When he (Hope) was arriving in Nigeria he sent a message to me saying ‘I hear you are a big girl now and that you have a car and nobody is going to meet me at Ikeja airport’ and that I should give him a lift.”
She had tried to fend him off, but Hope had been warming his way through friends and family to the bemusement of Irene.
“In short I was finally compelled to go. When I got to the airport, Justice Mason Begho was there to meet his nephew, (Hope Harriman) later we also realised that one white man also with a car from the Western Region Corporation was also there because he had been given an offer to work with the corporation.
“He knew that the man was going to be there, but he pretended as if he was stranded. So, I was waiting then I turned and saw Uncle Mason, and he asked me who was I meeting this early morning? I was dazed as I didn’t know what to tell him since Hope Harriman was not my boyfriend. Then I muttered Hope Harriman, and he said, I am meeting him too!”
“Then when Hope came out, and we were now three with cars waiting to fetch him, then he said who will I go with now? He then said he would go with the lady, that is me!
“He rode in my car, and then I told him off, I said don’t try it again, you lied to me, and he said that if he had not told me that I would not have come to the airport. I replied him, why should I come to the airport? What have I got to do with you, and that was how we started in September 1960.”
Being a senior civil servant, Miss Ogedegbe had the invitations to many pre Independence activities, and she took him along, and they subsequently became an item.
Mrs. Irene and Hope Harriman had four children, Hon Temi Harriman, Mr. Tuoyo Harriman, Mrs. Ete Ayida and Mr. Bawo Harriman.
Despite her front row position in many of Nigeria’s historical moments, she said one of her proudest moments was when she arrived London airport about ten years ago and welcomed reverently by some Nigerians.
“At the airport in London some people came to shake my hands, ‘I hear you are Temi’s mother,” to congratulate me because they said, that girl, they know the family she comes from. They said we hear you are Temi’s mother, that she could stand against the third term money,” she said in acknowledgement of her daughter’s principled opposition to third term constitution amendment and the money that came with it.
“It is lack of shame that makes the human being to do what is not right,” she rounded off.