In this interview conducted by Emeka Mamah and Vincent Ujumadu published on Vanguard on November 5, 2016, the late Prof. Chukwuemeka Ike who was also a member of Igbo Leaders of Thought, a think-tank for moving Igbo nation forward, spoke on the need for Igbo nation to reenact the spirit that made Biafra tick during the Civil War:
At the recent meeting of Igbo Elders Forum in Enugu, you spoke about an attempt by the Buhari administration to Islamize Nigeria. What gave you that impression?
Well, I have not used those words myself, but I know from my writing, from my civil war novel, which is a historical novel, that we were in trouble. I also wrote a novel when Nigeria was 40 years old which I called ‘The Search’ which was aimed to look at Nigeria since independence. It’s like a lost ship that went on a voyage and after long nautical miles something went wrong and all the hopes were in trouble.
One of the things I said was that there are people who think they are born to rule; that they come from part of the country that must rule and if they are not ruling, nothing goes.
In fact, in my novel ‘The search’, I talked about the military coups. It was like some people would organize themselves and as soon as the group settles down, the chairs are pulled away. There is no doubt that some people in this country feel that they are born to rule Nigeria and that Nigeria must be ruled by them. During the war, the slogan was ‘To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done!’ But the question is to keep Nigeria one for what purpose?
So that is the Islamization. The Hausa/Fulani feel that they are the people meant to rule the country all the time. This issue of herdsmen carrying AK47 is not unlikely that it is part of the ambition to overrun Nigeria. So, we the Igbo are concerned about this even though Ndigbo are responsible for part of what is happening to them and that is why some of them still talk about Biafra.
I have given my own ideas of what I would like to see. If we can get ourselves organized and see what we can do to improve ourselves, we many not care so much about what is happening in the rest part of the country. If we are satisfied with the way things are here in Anambra, we may not care much about the bigger Nigeria. It may almost be irrelevant if we get things properly organized here. Is it not a problem of leadership? Where is Igbo leadership? Can you name one person that can lead? We are in Igbo Leaders of Thought because a number of us come together to exchange views from time to time. But the problem really is, can you get them to stay together and identify their problems and deal with them? That is one problem we have.
That is why I said that if we could see ourselves as having a common problem and choose our leadership properly, we can begin to make headway. Some people hold the view that if Igbo and Yoruba can come together, the north will join us to build a strong nation. But Igbo and Yoruba don’t come together. That is the problem the Middle Belt is also having. At a time, they wanted to team up with us, but somehow it didn’t work out. The Yorubas came together at some stage under the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, but it was not easy for Igbos to do that during the time of Zik.
What is the position of Biafra in all these?
My concern is not Biafra, but Biafranism. We should try and re-enact those things that made us great in Biafra. There was an article that appeared in News of the World Report in the USA in 1968 titled, ‘Biafra Possibilities’. That was only one year after the civil war started and they had seen what was emerging and they were concerned about it. This Biafranism was what they destroyed after the war because they did not want to see that anything good came out of Biafra. And that is the kind of spirit I really want us to re-enact. If we can do it in Anambra State, in Enugu State, in Abia State, Igboland will become great again. If we do that, we will have a stronger force collectively.
Biafra taught us that we had brains. Not that it brought something new, but it showed that we had all along, failed to realize what we had. If we evolve the spirit of Biafra again, things will change. I always use petrol to illustrate this. Before Biafra, Nigeria had been brainwashed by the Western World that crude oil refining is capital intensive and technologically advanced for the developing nations. They gave us the impression that it was beyond us, and were buying off our crude oil. Then when Biafra lost Port Harcourt, and lost the refinery, we were faced with a challenge. You couldn’t fight the war without petrol.
So, Biafra scientists began to ask, this crude oil refining, what is in it? Is it not boiling the crude oil to a certain temperature and boil that to another higher temperature until petrol emerges? Before long, we had our own refineries and government had to control refining. All that Biafra needed at the end of the war was additives.
I had said it somewhere that the people of Niger Delta have a message which no one wants to listen to. They have made us to know that you don’t have to be a super human to refine crude oil. So, they are doing it with what they have and nobody is listening to them. We are talking about spending trillions to produce refined oil, but these chaps are telling us that they can do it and save the country so much money. We have crude oil in Anambra, although I don’t know what they are doing now. But that is one area we can show our capability.
That crude oil is one area, but there are many other areas we can excel. For instance, we can also excel in the manufacture of hardware. I tell you a story of a Professor of Physics, an Igbo chap who is one of the most efficient physicists of his time. We had run from Nsukka to Enugu because of the war. I saw him with a bottle of beer and this is not a kind of man you would associate with drinking beer. I called him and said man what is the matter? He said he had taught all sorts of courses, including nuclear power, but he had never imagined himself being able to launch a rocket. But that day, he launched a four-feet rocket. It was small but something great. Of course, Biafra later went into launching rockets and anti-aircraft. And of course, you know Ogbunigwe was the known war head Biafra produced.
There were many other things. The raffia palm tree is being set ablaze and nobody is doing anything with it, but the war showed us that it was a very precious tree. Parts of it were used for scientific purposes and this tree was virtually everywhere. Our brain showed us a lot of possibilities of what we could do. But as I said the civil war ended.
At the end of the war, I talked with Ukpabi Asika who was the Administrator of East Central State. In fact, he made me chairman of the committee for the reopening of University of Nigeria, Nuskka and I told him he must do something to encourage our people.
When I was appointed chairman of the committee to reopen University of Nigeria, there was a Lt. Col. Who was asked to take us to Nuskka to tell the Army to vacate the campus because the University was used as an Army Brigade. In those days, we had a borehole serving the University and it was destroyed during the war. They brought Army Engineers from Lagos to repair it and after working on it for two weeks, they proclaimed the borehole dead.
We were using tanker to go several miles away to bring water to serve the University, but with the spirit of Biafra, I called Professor Gordian Ezekwe who was a member of my committee and reminded him that he was head of the Research and Production in Biafra and that he must do something to give the University water. Within two weeks, water flowed in the University. He knew that I couldn’t take no for an answer and he took the challenge and found an answer to it. Unfortunately, that spirit of Biafra is gone because, as I said, General Obasanjo ensured that people should believe that nothing good came out of Biafra.
So, we couldn’t talk about manufacturing military hardware. I believe that if we come together and reenact that spirit of Biafra, we will be self-sustaining that we won’t care about what is happening in other parts of Nigeria. That is why I say we should develop the spirit of Biafranism if we must move forward. We need to exploit what God had given to us to solve our problems. When we were young, there were things we used to describe as “Fabrikwe” which were things manufactured in Japan. They were of poor quality at that time, but that was how they started.
Where is Japan today? That is the kind of thing our people have to emulate; that is being innovative and creative. I am happy Governor Willie Obiano has raised an Elder’s council. The first day he called us for a meeting, I raised that issue, that it is necessary that our people should be encouraged to start using our brains. I believe we can do it successfully by bringing our people in the Diaspora. If we do it in all the Igbo-speaking states and succeed, nobody will care whether the president is a Fulani or Hausa because we will be self-sustaining. In fact, other Nigerians will then become afraid to get into our way. Some of the people who served in Biafra are still around and can be useful.
What do you think will be the relevance of these people who are agitating for Biafra?
By doing that kind of thing, you are creating enemies for yourself. People are attacking what they should not be attacking. Biafra was defeated; even though I hear some people say that the UN had agreed that the people can come together to decide what they want to be. But I think that is a diversion for me from what I call the spirit of Biafranism. This spirit is much more important than MASSOB, the IPOB and the new one that came up recently.
If their concern is who will become what, that is not my concern. My concern is to get that spirit that made Biafra thick. Besides, if Biafra survives, there will be more problems. What kind of government will the agitators even form? Will it be modeled after the Ahiara Declaration? There were people like Chinua Achebe who were formulating ideas as we were fighting Nigeria and deciding the kind of government that would be in place after the war. But with the way things were going, some people dismissed it even before the declaration came out. Such people believed that the situation was not ideal for formulating such a policy in time of war.
However, there were things that gingered the people’s spirit during the war, like the war songs and the Radio Biafra propaganda championed by Okokon Ndem. In fact, every field had a contribution to make during the war, including musicians. Nobody or group was superior to the other. What we need now is to encourage our people to select a leader that can give them what they want. If we can do that, we can transform Igbo land and I assure you, other people will want to come and join us to see what they can get from us.
That is why I say that I don’t want to be caught up with IPOB or MASSOB. Come to even think of it, who are the people in MASSOB? Do they even have any ideology? They tell themselves lets’ go on and by so doing, they give publicity to themselves. Maybe they are happy they are keeping the name Biafra alive after Nigeria abolished the Bight of Biafra which was even there before Nigeria’s Independence. For that hatred for Biafra, Nigeria decided to abolish the Bight of Biafra.
Who really can be described as a hero? That somebody is a Head of State does not make him a hero. In fact, in one of my novels, I said that if I have power, political parties should not exist for 30 years because all they are doing is pursuit of power. They are not seriously interested in ideology. If we ban political parties, we can talk about rotation. What Nigerians should be doing is that when it is their turn, they should bring somebody. We don’t need to hold national election, the result of it most of us know how it is arrived at and we spend millions in addition.
People should meet in their areas and select somebody when it is their turn. Political parties as they exist here make no meaning. The system we are running is so corrupt that somebody has virtually nothing, gets elected or appointed into a public office and within four years, he builds mansions in many places. Nigeria is still recovering money looted by a former Head of state and this was somebody who never even attended a university. The question is, how did he make this money? It was not like somebody like Okotiebo, who was very rich before he became a minister. I believe that with time, we will begin to see people who possess the qualities of leaders who can help our people to create wealth. That will go a long way to change the manner of our people.
Obasanjo has been mentioned in many places during this interaction. How do you rate him as a leader? Can he be described as a hero?
Obasanjo ruled this country for 11years and he is in a different class if you want to compare him with people like Sani Abacha and other people. Whenever it comes to the issue of heroes, I have to do some more thinking. It should be left for Nigerians to define who should be called heroes. Well, somebody can be fantastic and within a few months of his leadership, you could see the direction he is going. That somebody should be called a hero because he served as a head of state, certainly I cannot accept it.
You wrote many books. What influenced your writing?
I will start from secondary school. I went to a good school which is Government College Umuahia which encouraged us. We had such caliber of people, like Prof. Biobaku who was my teacher. He got B.A from London and came to teach us. In fact, he marked my essay and gave me 27/30. He was somebody that encouraged me and I owe a lot to him.
After my graduation, I got in contact with him and he changed my career. The kind of knowledge the teachers impacted on us made Umuahia to be noted for creative writing. It was so much work that the students didn’t know much about social life. So, a social night was organized for us at the Women Training College (WTC), Umuahia on a Saturday night. Biobaku taught us how to comport ourselves. On the Monday morning when we came to the class, we were asked to write a poem on the outing and what one of us wrote surprised us as he used beautiful language to capture all the events of the night. That made me to develop interest in writing.
Chinua Achebe was my senior at Umuahia and he too influenced my writing. In fact, I never thought of writing novels until Chinua Achebe published his Things Fall Apart in 1958.Chinua Achebe and myself were close friends and we thought about writing together. That was how it started. Later I saw I could use fiction to write. I didn’t know I would be lucky with writing. I continued and, glory be to God, I celebrated 50 years of writing in October last year (2015).
Umuahia produced a lot of writers – myself, Chinua Achebe, CyprainEkwensi, Gabriel Okara, Ken SaroWiwa etc.
Which was your first novel?
“Toads for Super”
What is your attitude towards wealth?
In an interview I granted two years ago, I said I would rather have 20 novels against my name, than have 20m pounds in my account. I like money, but money cannot be my target in life. Money is helpful, but for me, there are things that are more enduring than money. In August this year, I got a call from the Federal University in Yola that I would be honored with a Doctorate Degree. I don’t know anybody there and if it were something to be bought with money, there is no way I could get it.