Professor Nnaemeka Ikpeze
Professor Nnaemeka Ikpeze was educated at the University of Ibadan, University
and Columbia University,
New York, USA. He is a Professor of Economics
at the University
Nsukka, and the Dean of the School of General Studies. Professor Ikpeze has rendered professional and public service in a variety of capacities:
- Council Member of the Nigerian Economic Society
- Member Board of Economists of the Nigerian Council for Advanced Social
- Consultant to the National Manpower Board on Labour Market data collection
He recently led the Nigeria Study Team on the Political Economy of the
Policy Process, Policy Choice and Implementation, and headed a Central Bank of Nigeria - University of Nigeria
Collaborative Research Team on Investment Opportunities and Potentials for Small and Medium Scale Enterprises in Nigeria.
Nduka Otiono is an award-winning writer, General Secretary, Association
of Nigerian Authors; an associate lecturer, English Department, University of Ibadan;
a journalist and a freelance publisher; and an active member of the National Committee on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural
ON HIS CHILDHOOD AND IDENTITY DEVELOPMENT
Let us take you back. You are the son of Igbo parents from Eastern Nigeria, born in Northern
Nigeria, and educated in Lagos and England where you rounded off your formal education at Oxford. How have these varied cultural and social environments impacted your development as a person?
I feel it would have been more appropriate for those observers of my
become aware of my antecedents, to examine my life among the Yoruba or Hausa for the impact those experiences might
have had on me. Well, my father was a great figure; I looked up to him, and all that. However, I leave it to my
biographers to reflect on the ways our relationship might have molded my character, had an impact on me. I certainly
was born in Zungeru, Niger State…in a railway community, which was what drew people to the town, at the time. I eventually
went with my family to live in Lagos. I was very young then, perhaps, two and a half years old. I hardly remember the time I spent in
coincidence is that Zungeru
also happens to be the birthplace of the great Zik of Africa!
I hold on to that firmly (LAUGHTER). I don’t allow people to forget it.
It’s one of the little things one has. But in Lagos, I became a Yoruba lad, attending primary school at St. Patrick’s, Lagos. The thing I want to point out is that I spoke Yoruba long
before I even spoke Igbo. In Lagos,
I played with Yoruba children, and for a while was not aware of any ethnic or cultural divide. Of course, the Igbo
were viewed with much suspicion, and referred to derogatorily as Kobokobos; in my youth, I did not realize that this term applied to me. I do remember being caned by the
Principal of Grammar School, S. I. Kale, for insisting that I was Igbo. He had assumed not only that I wasn’t Igbo,
but that my name was not Ojukwu, but the Yoruba name, Ojikutu. Later,
the fact that the Igbo were looked upon with some hostility began to affect me in sometimes, amusing, strange ways.
There was an incident, I remember, involving an Igbo family -- that greatly upset me. Our driver advised me to
mind my own business, but I took off down the street, inviting all and sundry, and yelling -- the Kobokobos have started again. (LAUGHTER) Everyone had a good laugh at my expense.
Amusing as this may sound to you, I was re-enacting the prejudices and
assumptions of the day towards Ndi-Igbo.
But this story also illustrates the ability of the Igbo to blend into their environment. After this, my father
decided that I would spend every holiday I had in Nnewi. I started becoming an Igbo; learning the language, speaking the language, learning the tradition,
and getting to know the people I belonged to.
I became very proud to learn who I really was.
The next question we would like to ask you derives from the answer
you have just given us; have you, as a consequence, experienced some conflict in identity arising from this and
various encounters earlier on in childhood, towards the formation of your adult personality?
I have questioned a number of things, but the easiest one… I told you; I was brought
up in Lagos,
however, I picked up very early in life that, for some reason, there’s been a rather difficult relationship between
the Igbo and Yoruba…and I believe that this has reflected on me personally as well. But this might not be the experience
of all Ndi-Igbo in Yorubaland.
I lived a very active social life in Lagos as a young man; yet I was viewed, always,
as an outsider. I found that advantageous, in many ways, because I would be with my Yoruba peers, and I would listen
in on their thoughts aware that they did not realize what I was. I would say then that I had the privilege of peeping
into Yoruba life.
An important anxiety for a lot of people living abroad is the question
of identity. One would be interested in knowing how much of Igbo traditional life you were able to absorb before
traveling to England. How much has this helped you to
stabilize and contain the social changes that you experienced away from home?
I go into that, it just occurred to me that I have talked about the Igbo, about the Yoruba, but have said nothing
about the Hausa. The Hausa, I have always looked upon as an exotic lot. Being young, as I had said, I was born
in Hausa land. I was very curious about that because, I must confess, I looked upon them as a different people…Now
to your question…
How much of traditional life did you absorb?
I recounted the incident with the Kobokobos; how I had to go home to Nnewi for all my holidays… So, I was provided with a system of
traditional values to fall back on. It was actually my father’s eldest sister, Nneoma, a wife of the Odimegwu of Nnewi, in
whose care I was confined to during these holidays.
There were other aunts, two others; but this oldest one was the matriarch of
the family, and so I spent my formative years in the compound of Eze Odimegwu. Luckily,
I was favoured in that family
as a particularly interesting, and welcome in-law; the child of the matriarch’s brother. My aunt’s husband was
a superb individual, a wonderful in-law! He encouraged me to participate in all that happened in that compound…and
it was a huge family, indeed. Of course, as Eze Odimegwu, he
had several wives, and I remember that at every meal, he would not eat until we were all summoned to the supper
table (figuratively speaking) because everyone just sat around. We children would be summoned with a song that
I shall always remember… (He sings) Umuazi bia nu gbaa azi (Children, come and eat) (laughter) Once you heard that –
A clarion call…
you heard that, no matter what you were doing, you had to go to the table. He was quite old, my uncle, and he had his unique ways.
I still remember how he would ask in Igbo (imitating his voice), “Obu onye” (who’s
that)? And I’d answer, “Nnaa o nmu” (Father, it’s me); and he’ll say, “o nwam, obu
onye?”(O my child, which
one?), and I would reply – “It’s Emeka,” and he would ask again: “One Emeka?” (which Emeka
is that?) Then I would have to say my mother’s name. Satisfied, he would breathe deeply: “Omm,” embrace me, then
take some pounded yam, dip it in the bowl of soup, and place it in my outstretched hand (demonstrates). I would
then run off licking the soup off my fingers (LAUGHTER).
That was great fun, particularly for me, because I knew he reserved be the biggest
treat, deliberately stuffed full with meat. I was very popular with the other children for obvious reasons...
And that was the way it went. I felt very special on such occasions,
and especially when everyone came home. It was in that compound that I began to appreciate Igbo tradition; the deference with which everybody
treated the patriarch. You only mention the head of the family in whispers, even when he was far away. Traditionally,
respect for elders in Igbo culture is profound. The head of the family might be wrong, but that did not detract
from his authority… For my uncle to run an entire household, and when I talk of someone marrying many wives …let’s
face it; this is someone who had over thirty wives — a very large family. So if I learnt anything traditional,
it was in that household that I picked it all from.
seem to be describing what Senghor, the poet-president, would describe as “the Kingdom of Childhood.” Was your childhood a happy one?
Well, it all depends on what one means by the term “happiness;” I think
we chase after a notion that is difficult to define; it depends, I think, very much on the individual context.
Personally, I denounced the possibility of becoming happy, a long time ago.
Can you elaborate?
Well…happiness, everybody goes for; yet happiness is the one quality
that seems to be somewhat elusive, ephemeral. One might possess a chieftaincy title, great dignity and all that;
but happiness? Very difficult thing to hang on to…I see the idea of “happiness” mainly as a fraud; in many ways,
it’s very “419.”
So when did you develop this consciousness; certainly not as a child?
Em… I think that
from quite early on, when I was in England, actually. There,
I was strongly reminded of the things I missed about home. But, at the same time, I was so busy living! Though I missed ‘Ofe Okwulu; it just wasn’t part of my life, anymore…and then I was
growing up. So, happiness as a child, ehm …let’s put
it this way…it’s an interesting concept. Everyone looks out for you, and after
you: “Nwa Ojukwu, nwa Ojukwu” (Ojukwu’s child) And so, in a way, as a child, one enjoyed
that. Many of the material things that one required, I didn’t have to go through a lot of hassle to obtain.
You know, I remember once, when I was at Kings College (and it was quite an accomplishment in those days), my father refused to buy me a new pair of shoes;
canvas shoes that were required. I was so angry I refused to go home on Saturdays, as was the practice. Then one
day, I was in class, and a big car drove into the school compound with everyone wondering who it might be. I was
summoned to the principal’s office, and there was my father. He said: “Boy!” Even when I was a Governor in Enugu, my father always referred to me as “boy…”
he said, “Boy,” and I answered, “Sir?” “Come here,” he said. With great trepidation, I moved forward, thinking
I was surely going to be punished. “Try on these shoes.” (LAUGHTER) I guess he must have felt my absence. I had
even forgotten it was my birthday; instead of the one pair of shoes that had caused the problem, he bought me four,
and suddenly he was the best dad again. This sort of thing often happened.
But I also remember coming back from England, and going up to my father to ask him a
question that had been on my chest for some time. In those days, when you came back from England, you had moved up in the eyes
of society, and you could sit down and chat, man to man, with your father. So I asked, “Papa, are you a wicked man?” He was startled,
and asked bemused, “Son why do you ask me that?” I replied, “Just answer me. Are you a wicked man?” Then he said, “You know,
I am not at all sure what you want me to say...”
So I said, “Let me help you.
Why is it that you never pay our school fees until we are driven away
from school? I remember whenever I was sent to your office to ask for our school fees, rather than listening to
me, you would pull open a drawer in your desk, looking for your cane. You would cane every part of my body, because
I came to ask for school fees; a school you sent me to, and insisted that I attend. Do you remember?” He said,
“Of course, I do.” And I added: “So that’s why I am asking if you are a wicked man?” He thought for a while, and
then said to me, “I wouldn’t say I am wicked, my child. You see, when you were growing up, you had the best of
everything, and my biggest worry was that this young son of mine would grow up thinking that money was very easily
come by. Therefore, I created a situation where I associated money with pain.”
(pause) When I went to ask him my question, I was up in arms, as it were; but his reply made me understand
that his behaviour to me was
something he felt was necessary in order for me to learn a valuable lesson.
From what you have said, it would appear that some degree of material
comfort is a condition for happiness. How do you see that?
I didn’t say so; but if you claim that, fine. If you think further back,
you will recall that I said that the whole idea of happiness is 419. One might think of happiness in a material
sense; certainly some associate happiness with revelry. A plate of rice at Christmas might bring someone starving
some happiness; but this is, in itself, is fleeting. One cannot hang on indefinitely to the feeling that these
incidents bring about. I think that what one should aim for is self-contentment, not necessarily contentment with
even bad situations, but in the fact that one has done one’s best in the best possible way.
REMINISCES ABOUT HIS ENGLISH EDUCATION
What memories of your sojourn in England
will you recall for us?
came from Nigeria where English is spoken as a second language, and I went to school in England with English boys. I remember
an occasion where the teacher asked a question, and the rest of the class didn’t know it. It had to do with the
term, ‘puny.’ He wouldn’t ask me, so I raised my hands, and he asked irritably, “What is it, what is it?” I said
to him: ‘Puny’ is a term used more in Law; you have puny judges, and the meaning is -- lesser judge.” He nearly
fainted, and of course, as always, he gave it to the English boys: “You idiots. (LAUGHTER) Look at him. He came
all the way from Africa, through
the Limpopo River
to teach you your language.” And this I used to enjoy so much.
So I used to do this in the classes where I excelled in the subject. The British
child rarely studied grammar until much later in life; he simply spoke it. Whereas we had to study grammar in our
very early years, in this country; so this is part of what I enjoyed.
My classmates often called me ‘Juke;’ the reason being that the middle
syllable in my name ‘Ojukwu’ was easier for them to pronounce.
The other is the first, Oji. So it was either ‘Juke’ or ‘Oji.’ But one early
morning, on my way to the chapel, one of the boys walked up to me, and called me a monkey--
What a punk!
He said: “Wouldn’t you feel more comfortable on top of a palm tree?” I resented that greatly;
this particular boy would often come up behind me to kick me on the heels. When I stumbled, he’d go: “Oh poor boy;
is it because you can’t wear shoes properly…wouldn’t you prefer to remove them?” And this was the sort of thing
that I went through. At
the chapel, while saying prayers, the other boys mimicked my accent, and everyone would snigger. On another occasion
I picked up my books, and this same boy kicked my heels again, and I fell. My books were scattered everywhere,
and I felt there was nothing for it, but to fight back. But my friends held me back, and the boy stood there laughing. “Poor Oji can’t wear
shoes,” he taunted me. In anger, I broke away, and hit him; so hard, he went flat on his stomach. I don’t think
I have ever hit anyone like that before, because I was scared that I had killed him.
The boy was taken to our medical center, and as I had learnt to be a
gentleman, I paid him a visit. He seemed happy to see me, so obviously he had begun to think better of the incident. I remember that as soon
as I came into the room to shake his hand, he said, “Oji, I was wrong, and you gave me a walloping.” That ended our warring.
I never heard anything from the authorities even though he stayed in the hospital for about three days. It was much later that
I had to see the headmaster; at the end of the term. He went through all the exercises in my notebooks, gave me
instructions on where to improve, and just as I turned to leave, he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “My boy;
don’t ever hit anyone as hard as that again.”
I just said, “Yes, Sir,” and that was all.
Now you have young children; would you like them to have an educational
experience similar to yours?
I am not a sadist.
But, if they can benefit from my experience, then I would be doing the right
thing in allowing them a similar experience. If what you are saying is, will I let them attend school in England, then I would say, yes; let
them absorb everything of this world that they possibly can. But I insist that they must have a focus; an African
focus, a home focus, a family focus. I will not consider them going abroad if they will only end up looking forward to holidays as a
time of alienation. They
must desire to come home for the experience to be full.
They must want very much for the school term to end, get unto the train or plane,
and back to Nigeria to eat garri. Education actually,
to me, is more a question of sharpening one’s choices and consciousness.
How would you compare the kind of education you received as a child
to the kind of education your children…
(cuts in) What we have in Nigeria can no longer be
referred to as “education;” so what can it be compared to? Nothing, I am afraid. People simply go through school
in Nigeria. There is no disciplining in schools, anymore.
This is a very serious matter.
I remember my Latin master, G. Percy Savage of Kings College; once you forgot a word, or missed any part of the Latin grammar, he would say: “You are not taking
your lesson seriously, and I am now going to take up a strategic position.” As he said that he would be moving
into a position behind you with his cane. It is amazing how quickly you remembered the elusive word. That sort of thing was
Maybe that is the reason they called canes Dr. Do Good.
Can you briefly sketch the changes you have observed, both in the
physical environment and your interaction with people, over the years?
Now, when you talked about whether I would want my children to have the
kind of education I had, I think that in the search for a Western education, I missed out on a very important aspect
of growing up Nigerian; I had no classmates at home. Even though there were people in my class, like Alex Ekwueme, who was my classmate for a time
at Kings College, the fact is -- I didn’t have those
bonds of friendship that would carry me through life. Those who were my classmates are long forgotten in England; so no matter what happens
to me in Nigeria, I am to a large extent, a loner. I make good of my experiences, my knowledge, no doubt about it;
but I am still a loner. If my children are going to live in Nigeria, then they must have Nigerian friends, classmates; a connection in Nigeria.
Even so, what elements of your British education do you think will prove useful to contemporary Nigerian education?
As a nation, we must watch what we teach, and how we teach.
We have debased degrees, enthroned certificates. We have to be made to understand that one’s certificate can only
be worthwhile when it is linked directly to knowledge and what is achieved with it. I have friends today who have
never seen the four walls of a secondary school; yet they add the prefix, ‘Dr,’ to their names. (LAUGHTER)
I feel very sad that such things are encouraged. Years
ago, there was a close friend of mine whose cousin was supposed to be receiving an LLB; I was excited about this, so I did a write up on it in England. Now, I was well known for having studied at Oxford. You can imagine my great disappointment, then, when it turned out that the fellow I had accorded
so much space was taking an honorary degree. I refused to attend the ceremony, and I don’t know if he ever understood
why; but he was quite downcast when I told him that this was one occasion I couldn’t attend. How could I? People
ask me why I couldn’t have indulged him, and I explain that I would be insulting my father’s sacrifices on my behalf,
trivializing his efforts to educate me.
As a matter of fact, people say that I am uncompromising,
because I insist that if I must speak English, then it must be the Queen’s English that I speak. I never, because
I am talking to my steward, speak pidgin English.
He should learn from me, not the other way round. And those are the little things that make or break my life. I
like being a Nigerian. I like Nigeria because I don’t think it’s a hopeless situation. The problem we have is this tendency to leave
Nigeria’s restoration to one person at the ‘top.” It is a job
for all of us at our various levels. There can be no alternative. As I say, it’s a job for all of us.
Would you comment on the impact of your English education on your
I remember when I first went to Oxford; my dad called me, and said that he wanted me to be a lawyer. But I had already decided that I
wanted to study History. This was, on some level, snobbery on my part, because everyone else wanted to be a doctor,
a lawyer, or an engineer. However, society always has a need for professionals. Someone recently asked me: do you
regret anything? And I said, “Yes, not having become a lawyer.
You say that seriously?
Seriously...I feel that it would have been much better for me, when I
came back in 1952, to have practiced as a lawyer, and gone on to become a Senior Advocate.
ON BECOMING A SOLDIER
You may not have become a soldier...
Perhaps, in the end, that would not have mattered; what matters is the
progress of the nation.
Can you quickly trace a connection between your studies in history,
and your choice of a career?
Not really; I rationalize my choices. When I was in Oxford, I loved anything with an English connection.
Even so, I became a devoted member of the Students’ Union, and pushed my nationalism to the extreme; I joined the
Communist Party. As students, we demonstrated a lot; we decided that it wasn’t a question of coming home with a
profession in order to become a big shot. If you were going to be part of that caucus seeking to effect change,
then you had to dedicate the first five years of your return home to the service of your country. I came back faithful
with that mantra, and decided not to join my father’s business empire. That is actually what led me into the civil
service, and ultimately the military. I joined the Civil Service, moving to the Eastern region with the hope of
serving Nigeria. There, I met a police man who asked if I would choose the police as a career…”
You forged new ground; at the time you chose to join the military
no sane graduate would have done so.
Thank you very much. In the military, I never considered the fact that
I, a graduate, was serving Nigeria in that capacity. This is one of the reasons I never attend the Oxbridge (Cambridge and Oxford alumni) meetings. I refuse being regarded
as a ‘breed,’ even if select. One’s education is something one always has. The value in it is the effect one has
on one’s people.
COMMUNITY SERVICE AND ACTIVISM
You mean knowledge in the service of community?
Yes. Education is not elitism…and yet every group, through education,
may create its own elite. The important thing is whatever elite class there is, it must remain true to its vocation,
not serve selfish interests. It must aspire to true leadership.
Would you blame the racial discrimination you suffered in England on your activism?
Perhaps; however I was no victim…I was never a victim. I always fought
my way back, and that is how I learnt to survive, to grow. What you refer to might even have served as a point
of triumph for me.
Sir, what is your attitude to globalization? Do you agree…
What is globalization?
In a sentence – it is the concept of the world as a global village made possible by ever advancing
information communication technologies…
I asked you that question deliberately, because very often
in Nigeria, we go off on a tangent on the terms we use without making
evident what we understand by them. In fact, I shall use this opportunity, also, to state that once I was told
I was going to be part of the conference to hold a dialogue, I advocated very strongly, from the beginning, that
it should be characterized by one word: Definitions! Terms used in the Dialogue need to be interpreted and defined
so that misconceptions do not arise.
Do you agree that globalization is the final phase of
a neo-colonial plot by well-to-do nations to dominate the economies of the Third
World? There are a growing number of African scholars who hold
such a view…
What we should do is make the term meaningful to us; own
it, and make it our future. Where do we
fit in the global situation? That the world has become smaller does not mean we should abandon diplomacy; however,
it could mean that we don’t appoint too many ambassadors. Do you understand
If the world has become more contained, through globalization,
we should be finding a way to cut down on the time we spend obtaining travel visas…
Are you in any way anxious that you could lose your children to the
West given the difficulties in our home country?
I hope not, because I battle it.
LOVE AND THE PASSION FOR WRITING
At what stage did you develop a passion for writing?
(laughs) My publisher
would disagree very strongly with the idea that I have a passion
for writing. As a matter of fact, he often says that the sad thing about me is that I do not have any passion for writing.” Now, I prefer
to read; my real passion is the English Language. I love and cherish
it, and do any amount of gymnastics with it.
Would you briefly sketch what you consider the highlights of your life since your arrival from exile?
There’s only one thing, which is at the pinnacle of all
-- marriage to Bianca.
That’s very interesting; love...
You re-discovered love?
Not only that, I learnt, also, that it can be re-capitalised
Well, you talked about your great uncle, the Chief, having had so many wives; how come Eze Ndigbo, Dim, has only one wife?
I keep asking myself that (LAUGHTER).
Have you been conquered domestically?
Oh, that! I tell people I am a four-star general, and
she’s a Field Marshal LAUGHTER). And I say it with pride; now isn’t that a sign of conquest?
How did it feel to do battle in bringing Bianca to your house?
There were reports that you had to contend with her father before marrying her?
My father-in-law is a great man, and I can assure you,
no matter what anybody thinks, when the history of this part of Nigeria is written, his name will be fore grounded. He is very
much respected by people.
Sometimes, he is misunderstood, and,
in fact, that is what happens to all of us. But I am proud of him, that the Onoh family complements my own.
You have mentioned the importance of the woman in your life, and we would like to dive off this
and on to the question of progress in Africa,
and the role of women on the continent. Our development has been markedly sluggish because of the tendency to neglect
human capital, especially with regard to the input of women; do you agree? If you do, can
you suggest strategies to ensure rapid development of women’s potential through education, science and technology?
We often take the world as a homogeneous whole; however, we are diverse peoples, and our lives and
concerns must, and will, differ. For instance, are the difficulties women are facing in Africa, the same for those in Europe? I
ask this question only, because I find that we tend to take situations that are entirely discernible elsewhere,
and immediately draw parallels with the situation here. In Africa, I should think, we have very different problems. However, I do agree that women have a highly significant
role to play in the progress of the continent. Right now, I have, as you know, a problem in the APGA (All Peoples Grand Alliance)…it would be preferable, I think, if women acted the role of chairperson…
It is my opinion that we are better off with nneanyi (mothers) who are not so hasty with judgment,
and offer incisive solutions. They are, on the whole, much more desirable than nnanyi (fathers) who often leave the business of administration to go after personal interests. So I just throw that
need to do more for themselves,
however; because no matter how much I may claim to understand them, women understand themselves better. They, only,
can make the propositions that will work for them…
Now, as a male, men are part of my political theorem. But both women and men
must be included in any dialogue concerning our development. I say this very strongly; both genders must be accommodated,
and no one dismissed. I don’t know if anyone
of you men cares to remember, but there were girls who beat you in class; oh, yes at one time or the other. So
let them come out in force, and declare their willingness to fight and join the struggle. It is not an easy thing
to do, and this, I hold against Nigerian women; they seem to take the easiest way out. As soon as they come together,
they begin to look for male patrons to validate their female concerns! But this is not necessary, because they should fight their way out…not always rely on handouts by men.
THE ELDER STATESMAN
Recently you turned 71 (and that’s more than a coming of age even by biblical standards); you’ve
experienced a great deal, been through the Nigeria/Biafra war, now Nigeria is deeply mired in troubled times. What does attaining
70 and becoming an elder statesman in a country like Nigeria mean to you, especially when the general life expectancy is much shorter than that?
There is nothing I love more than being a Nigerian elder, because it means I can say anything I
like to anybody at anytime. There is nothing freer than that. At this point, I can comment on Nigeria,
and people will listen. At 70, I might not even be there at the next election, so you can’t talk about ambition.
I like white hair too. There is a respect Nigerians give to old age, so let’s put it simply: being 70 confers upon
one a unique freedom, and it is my wish to use that freedom. I have no reason to lie to Nigerians about any situation…
Finally, sir, at 71, you are still very much involved in active politics, when will Chief Emeka
Odumegwu Ojukwu retire from politics?
Correction number one, I am not a Chief; it rhymes with
I’m sorry, sir, His Excellency, Dim--
Actually, I’ve been thinking about this. When will I
retire from active politics? When I’m 101?
When one starts getting tired, one should retire (LAUGHTER).
Well, thank you very much for taking out time to receive
us, and providing very forthright and insightful answers to our questions.
You are welcome. You got me rather cheaply, because Chinua Achebe is championing
this project. I shall always be readily involved in anything he’s doing.