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The Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series #6

A Meeting of the Minds
(Senator Francis Ellah in Conversation with Prof. Ossie Enekwe and Nduka Otiono)

The Chinua Achebe Foundation

Senator Francis Ellah

Chief Francis Ellah Chief Francis Ellahis Eze Nwadei Ogbuehi of Ogba. A graduate of the University of London (University College, Ibadan), and a highly regarded elder statesman with outstanding political credentials, Chief Ellah is a former Second Republic Senator; a former Secretary to the Rivers State Government and Head of Service; and is a current member of the Rivers State Advisory Council. Admired for standing by his principles, Senator Ellah resigned from the Senate over a matter of conflicting interest in 1981. His experiences are chronicled in the critically acclaimed political treatise Nigeria and State Creation.

Chief Ellah has had a successful business career and continues to play an important role in the development of the agricultural, banking and oil sectors of the economy. Chief Ellah has served severally on the boards of universities, banks, and diverse corporations and is the chairman of Ellah Lakes PLC Nigeria.

The consummate gentleman, Chief Ellah is an expert organist and musicologist, an avid golfer and author of several books including Ali-Ogba: A History of Ogba People. Chief Ellah is currently an Ohaneze delegate at the National Reform Conference.


Professor Ossie Enekwe

Professor Ossie Enekwe is a Nigerian poet, fiction writer, and playwright, and a graduate of the University of Nigeria and Columbia University, where he was a fellow in the Writing Division (1972-4). He is currently a professor of theatre at the University of Nigeria and the former Director of the Institute of African Studies at the same university. For over a decade, he has served as Editor of Okike - An African Journal of New Writing. His published work includes Broken Pots (1977), poems, Come Thunder (1984), a novel, Igbo Masks (1987), non-fiction, The Betrayal (1989), a one-act play, and The Last Battle and Other Stories (1996).


Nduka Otiono


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 heritage.






The Committee:  The Government has launched a “war against corruption.” Already, Senate President Adolphus Wabara, Education Minister Professor Osuji, and Inspector General of Police Tafa Balogun, have become casualties of this crusade. Some believe the government should be praised and applauded for this action; others believe the war on corruption is “selective justice.” What are your thoughts on this issue?


Chief Ellah:  The N55 million matter involving former Senate President Wabara and some Senators and Representatives is now in court after they were forced to resign from their political appointments in the National Assembly, though not from the National Assembly itself. We cannot discuss details now as the matter is sub-judice.


I have heard the criticism that the President’s present anti-corruption

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drive is suspect because he had failed to deal with some bigger corrupt practices in the past. All I can say is that any action taken by the President or anyone else to expose and deal with corruption, in any shape or form, is commendable. That the President may have failed to act promptly or positively in the past should not mean that his belated good action should not be praised.


Within two to three months, the Inspector-General of Police has been dismissed and arraigned in court. Two Cabinet Ministers have been removed; a number of Senators and Representatives are in danger of losing their posts and have been summoned to court. We should compare this with the position over the past few decades when some big fish wallowed in filthy affluence acquired from public funds without any checks at all. In the past, such affluence would have been used to subvert and pollute the political and economic air of the country, causing much distress, dismay, disruption and disaster.


Only time will tell whether what is happening now is a passing fad or a genuine revolution that will clean up the country and restore its health. If it is genuine, the nation will rejoice; but if it is hypocritical, then the actors will themselves be exposed, sooner or later. No one can bury the truth permanently.


Tackling Nigeria’s Pathologies


Enekwe: Can you identify Nigeria’s other major problems? What do you think would be innovative solutions to them?


Ellah: Firstly, Professor, with due respect, I would like to highlight these problems individually, so that we can seek their possible solutions. I see that, today, the Nigerian society is marked by insecurity -- moral decadence, political, social, and economic destruction, instability, sporadic ethnic/religious violence, insurgent tribal militias, endless fuel price increases that cause runaway inflation, currency depreciation and nation-wide labour unrest. There are, as well, high bank interest rates which make industrialization and, in particular, job creation impossible. This situation has caused many otherwise decent men and women to go into crime and commit violence.  The high unemployment issue has led to high crime rates, 419, abject poverty, a collapsed educational system and a nation of collapsed values - in almost every facet of national life, education, social, etc, there are problems.


Sadly, through international monitoring, we have been rated the third most corrupt nation in the world. The proliferation of churches to the level of individual proprietorship, is absolutely scandalous, and presents a possible descent into anarchy. Alright…the next step is in pondering how to solve the unfortunate situation we find ourselves in.


Otiono:  In other words we need to be mindful of the often cited adage of knowing when the rain began to beat us… But how did we get to this stage, sir -- when people of your stature have been key players in our society?


Ellah:  It is easier to enumerate problems than to proffer solutions, unfortunately.  Let me acknowledge that the founding members of the PDP are not all together free from blame.  As a member of the Board of Trustees (I resigned from the national Vice Chairmanship position, a post I held for a very short time, before the primaries of 1998/99), my responsibilities are limited to advice and caution. The Board has only advisory and not executive responsibilities, and I continue to advice, with sympathy and understanding.



There is no doubt that the way the country was structured led to the civil war and military administrations. And the unfortunate and misguided belief of soldiers that might is right is antithetical to democratic principles. Such primitive instincts by the soldiers attracted other base instincts such as materialism and corruption, fuelled by the attraction of oil money, and it has been impossible so far to repair that damage. You don’t have a system where people hand over to others as a matter of principle and law; politics and public office have become a free for all.


Those who came into power with the backward attitude of might is right, fostered the belief that it is what you have that matters. In a system where three succeeding heads of state hail from the same geographical area, even village -- M.K.O Abiola,  Shonekan, and then the present one -- then there is cause for worry. So, you cannot say that what we have is a democratic system.


Otiono: Regarding the north, Abdulsalam Abubakar and Babangida are from the same enclave/state...


Ellah: Obviously, one cannot be faulted in suspecting that this situation is being arranged. For instance, let us examine the issue of Salisu Buhari (first speaker of the House of Representatives in the Fourth republic). How is it possible that within a few months of his dishonourable exit from the House, such a man was granted state pardon? This negative example teaches our youth that there is no deterrence to misconduct, crime, and that nothing counts for justice. When we talk about youth restiveness…look; our highly impressionable youth will regard the Buhari issue and other such issues as something they can get away with.


Enekwe: How then do we solve these recurrent problems?


Ellah: I believe we should examine how the system broke down, and then begin its repair!  When people have been handed over office, they should not hesitate to hand over to others. There must be that kind of practice!!!  Some of the issues we pointed out are quite easy to solve, but we have managed to complicate matters. Sometimes, if there are nine solutions to a matter and one wrong way to go, we choose the wrong way; that is my general impression.






Ellah: Let us take youth restiveness and unemployment for example;

if government wants to solve unemployment, then it should genuinely work towards reviving the agricultural sector in this country. Agricultural development will have a multiplying effect on the whole economy, and thus, enough jobs for every body.


The United States of America is an excellent example of this. For generations, people from all over the world have emigrated there, and the agricultural sector has become one of the greatest suppliers of employment. As standards of living continue to improve, and technological/industrial advances – mechanized agriculture etc – have been applied to the agricultural sector, the farmers have become more efficient, and are able to produce even more crops with fewer people. At this point, the labourers who find that they are in excess of available jobs are able to move on to other sectors of the economy, and this is because agriculture had made the whole country prosperous. Today, 5% of Americans feed the whole country, as well as African nations that are starving. It is said that if necessary, America could feed the entire world.


Nigeria used to be a major exporter of cocoa, palm oil, and groundnuts. We could do so much more in the agricultural sector – first provide food for our people, then major employment. The regular income will create wealth, stabilize families, and aid in reducing youth restiveness.







Enekwe: You mentioned high bank interest rates, which make industrialization and in particular job creation impossible -- as a national problem. What are your thoughts on the Banking Sector Recapitalization policy of the CBN?


Ellah: Professor Soludo [governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria] is obviously an intelligent man. However, his recapitalization policy that calls for about 2000 per cent increase in bank re-capitalization, in one year, worries me. If queried on this matter, Professor Soludo will likely reply that this is the case in Malaysia… but does this mean that it is a valid and logical answer for Nigeria? 


If he can list other countries in the world that successfully increased by that rate within one year, then I stand to be corrected.  That should be the logic of the situation. If one is licensed to operate a bank, and is asked to pay N50 million in order to have that licence, and the next day is asked to bring an additional N25 billion; is this fair or morally justifiable? Of course it is not. So, my question is: Cannot the capital base be increased incrementally; over time? One doesn’t really understand this system at all. It is one thing to be knowledgeable in one particular area, and another to claim knowledge in all areas. I think that this policy will surely disrupt the financial system, and, eventually, the entire economy. All these mergers would have serious impacts on the banking services.





Otiono: This brings us to another crucial issue which has been described by a colleague of ours as the challenge of unleashing a new generation of leadership whose action and behaviour is guided by national or African interest rather than personal aggrandizement. Do you see this possible in the foreseeable future in this country?


Ellah: Yes, if we are able to get people who will adhere to principles.


Otiono: And how do we achieve this?


Ellah: You accomplish this by setting up a democratic system that is guided by the truth. To begin with, take the last election for example. If you had a free and fair election that is properly executed, then the public officers produced in this manner will be mainly reasonable people. I am not saying that the present crop is not reasonable, well…probably a few. Even so, if these reasonable people are in the minority, their voices will be overrun, and the conscientious ones among them won’t even begin to be allowed to make contributions.


You first start from the basics, establish proper electoral procedure -- overhaul INEC, invite foreign observers, and insist on the kind of people who will hand over successfully, and help create a new generation of public officers who observe proper procedure. Not a new generation of people wanting to be at the top without going through the necessary and legal regimen, which has happened in many cases. There are those who say they want power shifted to the youths. For this reason, something called the under-fifties was formed -- after all, the so-called experienced people are on their way out! However, there is absolutely no substitute for experience! In the rural areas/local governments, youth associations have officers, and the local people go to report to them; on a domestic level, wives may report their husbands to them, and they are entitled to discipline the men, even though they may be older than the parents of the youths.




Otiono - One major solution that has been explored in dealing with the Nigerian problem has been the Justice Oputa Panel. It was conceived as a kind of truth and reconciliation committee, and you were the Secretary of the Atrocities Commission. How do you see the need for punishment of crimes committed against individuals and the state as a deterrent to future perpetuation?


Ellah - If you let people get away with murder, then the situation will continue. People who are thus inclined will get rid of their fellow men in order to achieve what they want.


Otiono - And they will not be found out…even if they do, they are let off the hook!!!


Ellah (nodding) - It is terrible, because in the past, to the best of my recollection, these disappearances and murders were almost unheard of ,and I know that what we did in those days, one would never dream of doing now. As a District Officer, I can tell of an instance when I had a problem with my car, on Afikpo road, with my driver. Just the two of us; we locked up the car, and trekked to Afikpo, which was about 34 miles away. We arrived at the town at about 4 a.m., having started around 5 p.m. the previous day in the dark. The next day we sent a driver to fix the car, and he found it unharmed. Today, this would not be possible





Enekwe: What are your thoughts on the recurrent crisis in Anambra State?

Ellah: The Anambra State Crisis is a tragedy; this unfortunate situation has cost the PDP chairman his job -- he resigned on Jan 10, 2005.  Of course, the situation could have easily been resolved had we abided strictly by the rule of law. Normally, the election petition against Governor Ngige should have been disposed off within a few months.  In the old days, such petitions lasted just a few months; even the 12 2/3 issue did not last up to two months.  In field administration, we are asked to retain ballot papers for six months; after that you may destroy them.  This confirms that no case should last beyond six months.  This does not happen today.  As election petitions linger on indefinitely, causing all sorts of confusion, the judiciary contributes its own share of national problems -- justice is delayed, and thereby denied. In the case of Anambra State, Uba and his group should have been prosecuted in a court of competence; we should not have put through all this nonsense.




Otiono - One solution that is being explored now with regard to the feeling of unfairness and marginalization is the eruption of ethnic nationalism as represented by ethno–political groups (or militias) such as OPC, Afenifere, MASSOB, Ohaneze, ACF, Ijaw Youth Congress, MOSOP, and so on. What does this development signify for the future of the country?


Ellah - We have always had these ethnic organizations committed to self-help, because in the absence of social services they serve a very useful purpose; for example, traders associations and the like. I know the Igbo Union played a big part in the formation of NCNC in the old days. I think they must be distinguished from the militias like the OPC and Egbesus, which is not the same as Afenifere and Ohaneze. Why the militias have been allowed to go on, I don’t know, but I think partly because of poor economy and the lack of jobs. Mark you -- they were initially created for political purposes.


People talk about political engineering, etc, creating a youth ministry and officers, but without providing them any real functions or power.  So, once these people come together, they plan how to acquire power, and they hope to do this by organising and funding cults. However, if one makes sure that people who are qualified or are graduates get jobs and are concerned with their professions, then anybody who deviates will be pulled down as a way of ridding destructive roots. Any member of the society with a grievance has recourse to the law, so must observe the rule of law strictly by going to court to seek justice.  However, if such a person takes up arms against the state, then the resources of the state will be employed in dealing with him.


In the not too distant past, the district officer, the president, and then the governor - in that order – assumed the status of chief security officer. If there was trouble within a division, it was dealt with, in that order. The chief security officer would be obliged to loudly recite the riot act with the police standing guard around him. He would then say -- “In the name of our majesty, the Queen, I order you to lay down your arms, otherwise you will be shot.” Consequently, if anyone shoots and kills his neighbour, the person is questioned, after which an enquiry is set up to discover what happened, and to prevent future recurrence.




Enekwe: Is this state of affairs influenced by economic mismanagement of resources of the country? For instance, our oil resources...we all know that apart from oil, Nigeria depends on nothing else. We have not developed any other natural resource, or industry. Don’t you think that this factor is partly responsible for the confusion and restiveness of the nation?


Ellah: Yes, I agree with you entirely. It is the poverty in the midst of plenty. We have oil money, are rich in oil resources; yet, we have people who are desperately poor, who have no jobs. The temptation to take the law into one’s hands is very serious. Let us examine the attempt to address the injustice in the oil policy; I mentioned this before.


Before people can be asked to pay taxes, the government is expected to have taken excellent care of the environment, the infrastructure; roads, etc. However, in this country, the unfortunate practice has been that the government takes the people’s money without developing their environment. This is part of the reason why people are so restive. Initially, this situation did was not aggravated, because the country was in reasonable shape for some years after colonial rule; but as time went on, the ecological conditions and environment deteriorated. Right now, in much of the oil-producing areas, fishermen are no longer able to catch as much fish as in the past, because water pollution has depleted the stores of fish in our waters. Therefore, this profession is no longer what it used to be and is no longer the life source fishermen can depend on. Our youths in the riverine areas see these developments and become very resentful and rebellious.




Otiono - In Rivers State -- your part of the country -- there is uneasiness about the Igbo identity. Eminent citizens of this state like the writer, Elechi Amadi, have made certain controversial statements about where his people belong. How do you see the dialectical relationship among the various Igbo communities in relation to the Igbo identity?


Ellah - We have described this before; I told you an Igbo is an Igbo. Darryl Ford or someone else has written extensively about who is an Igbo. If you look at the culture, language, etc, these are some of the things that determine an ethnic group.


Otiono - I noticed on your bookshelf that you have several books on Igbo studies -- Elizabeth Isichei and so on. At what point did you develop intellectual interest in the Igbo question? 


Ellah - I am a student of History. I start from the known to the unknown. Being an Igbo, I started with Igbo history, and then studied other ethnic groups. The educational system we had initially focused on European Empire history. Now that we don’t have to sit for examinations on that, I decided to venture into my present interest, taking the training I had in the other, and applying to Igbo history and nation…


The Committee: Sir, recently a national daily carried a headline “Ellah gets quit notice.” The article opened with the statement: “The people of Ogba ethnic nationality in Rivers State have given one of their representatives, Senator Francis Ellah, one week to quit the National Political Reform Conference in Abuja or face their wrath.” Chief, what is your reaction?


Ellah:   The truth is that I have received no quit notice from anyone, and I do not see that anyone has any right to fire me any quit notice; I have done nothing wrong!! I am only striving to contribute a little towards the building of a better nation, using the special background and experience which the Almighty GOD gave me through the nation, and thanks to Ohaneze which nominated me to attend the Conference. I believe we have the freedom to exercise such fundamental human rights in our own country!!! Now -- it is important to observe that the opening sentence in the publication asks me to: “Quit the National Political Reform Conference in Abuja or face their wrath.”


In view of the high level of insecurity in Nigeria today, this threat must be taken very seriously. I have no intention of quitting the Conference, but I expect that I will receive adequate protection from the Nigerian Police, and that those who issued the threat will be promptly identified and dealt with according to law.






Otiono - But Chief; do your illustrations not paint a picture of hopelessness?


Ellah - No, no, I don’t think it’s a perpetual hopelessness. I am an optimist, an incorrigible optimist.


Otiono - Even President Obasanjo confessed not long ago that there is so much pessimism in the country …


Ellah - No, this should not be the situation if Nigerians have a sense of history. Look at what happened in other countries -- Europe for instance, where there were wars for a long periods; even America was not spared. But good always comes out of evil… I think there is tremendous hope.


Enekwe - The problem is that good ideas are often not heeded; it is not because Nigeria lacks intellectual facility or potential. The problem, in my opinion, is that good ideas are ignored, marginalized. Do you agree with that?


Ellah - Prof, I would say yes and no. When you point out that ideas are marginalized, it might seem as if this is intentional. However, I would like to examine these things sympathetically. I think people who go along with a situation simply for the sake of power are intent on playing a game of diplomacy. Such people do a great deal of harm. When, for example, appointments are made that are not dependent on who the best man for the job is, but on loyalty, there are bound to be problems.


EnekweCan we assume, then, that our politicians are embattled?


Ellah - For instance, when the PDP was initially founded, most members did not know who was who. In a meeting, northerners, people from the middle belt, southerners, had little idea what the background of the next man or woman was; but they respected each other, and got on the best they could, did the best they could. If a political system is in place that has endured over time, it will demonstrate the value of hierarchical leadership. But at this point in our nation’s history, we have not experienced the system long enough for the necessary culture to have evolved. If a candidate for a top position in government is simply after the status the job will afford him, he will disregard the fact that a great deal of effort is required to effectively accomplish a job and attain merit. But when, as we have been unfortunate to experience in this country, a group of people who don’t understand this, they will tear whoever thinks differently to pieces.


Enekwe - That means that those who try to play by the rules are unable to do so, because the contrary is the norm.


Ellah - Yes



Morality, Religious and Traditional Values


Enekwe Your generation is generally seen as more socially and culturally aware of moral values than this generation; why do you think this is so?


EllahThat’s a very interesting point... Of course it is somewhat speculative to say that, I believe; for every generation, there is a golden age.


OtionoBut when we compare what you have had to say about administrations in the past, the kind of news that we hear these days of millions and billions of naira being stolen by public officers was not the order of the day. I think that is one way of examining Professor Enekwe‘s point. Sir - how is it that we degenerated to this point of moral decadence?


EllahFrom my humble experience, Nigerians suffered no lack of traditional values. When my grandfather was alive, I used to watch him discussing with the other elders. He was very respectful of people’s positions and status; people believed the power of so and so, and respected what one idol or the other said. One avoided doing what was morally wrong for fear of becoming ‘tabooed.’ Our traditional values became eroded when the colonialists came and introduced Christianity. In my hometown, I remember that there was a big battle between Christians and the idol worshippers. Christian values had begun to take root, to disrupt the traditional system…and as you know, democracy today is built mainly on Christian philosophy.


Successive military administrations, as everybody complains, disrupted both traditional and Christian values, replacing them with the negative system that might is right. This, of course, led to an acquisitive structure based on the primitive instinct of the survival of the fittest, and a materialist instinct that spurred society’s rapid degeneration. In fact, within our forty-something years of independence, the military has been in place for some thirty of those years. What I can’t understand is that we have not been able to progress, even after the return of a civilian government.


For obvious reasons, the present government is not fully civilian yet. There is a general devaluation of values in the system, I believe; this is my gut reaction to your question. What is happening now is that governments are creating youth ministries everywhere that have offices in local governments and even their own flag. When outfits such as these are created without a defined function, the youth will invent one for themselves; they may decide that demanding money from oil companies by showing certificates is one such function. Because these ministries have no genuine function or assignments, and avenues for employment are not readily available, you can see, now, why I insist that this situation can easily be avoided by the serious development of our agriculture system…


Enekwe - I would like to get back to the question of moral values; in what ways did Christianity undermine it?


Ellah - No, no…what I said is this: that the moral standards of my generation derived from our traditional beliefs. We feared the power of traditional idols, and so one did not steal for fear of being destroyed by this power. Now, with the advent of Christianity, we were warned not to worship idols, and told to obey the Ten Commandments, and the philosophy of the Nigerian government is based on Christian tenets. Even so, the military came with an ideology of might is right, a base instinct that conjured up all other baser instincts like materialism, etc. In the midst of this, the government began forming youth ministry associations without assigning them genuine jobs and functions.


EnekweIn effect, you are saying that Christianity gives people free choice and Will, because one is not threatened with the loss of life when an offence is committed?


Ellah(shaking his head) But you are threatened that you will go to hell!


EnekweHowever, in the traditional society, it’s a matter of life and death if you commit evil. That’s the one that motivates people to be morally….


Ellah - Partly so... But at the same time, government today is based on Christian philosophy. Even so, Christian philosophy says you will be punished in the hereafter, while good government punishes here and now if the judiciary is effective in its work with law enforcement agents. Unfortunately, none of these organs are functioning properly.


Enekwe - What it means is that as a result of military interference, they fail to function properly?


Ellah- Yes, there is another point that I will like to mention; the transfer from colonialism to independence was not completed in the way it should have been.  The moral values we are talking about are transferred from one generation to another; it is not everything that one reads from books that you transfer. However, the transfer from colonialism to independence was broken when the military came into power, even though I might add that what the British left for us, was not as good as it should have been.  They transferred their own system of government and set up this tripod, so to speak. 


The House of Representatives was created with a permanent majority from the North, probably out of sympathy for the Northerners who did not have much Western education at the time. In 1934-1948, only one northerner had passed through the Higher College; a man called Dikko, a veterinary surgeon. And at Ibadan in 1948, there were no northerners, though a few were in Barewa College, Zaria, including (Justice) Bello my good friend. These students had to be taught by assistant lecturers to pass the London Matriculation. 


Out of the anxiety to protect the north came the suppression of the south, and the British declared it the dominant majority. One has not the time to go into details about what happened, but I know that the 1950 meeting at Ibadan was attended by 18 delegates from the north, west and east, and I think 3 British officials. And the north demanded a majority while the south said there had to be an adjustment with the boundary demarcation between them.  Even so, the north got what they wanted and the south did not; that was the collapse of the republic, and how the north came about possessing a large majority.





Otiono - In your autobiography you are quoted as saying: “… this experience taught me that anyone can surmount any problem in life if he works hard enough. This understanding helps to boost my self-confidence, and is a prerequisite for a successful career in public administration….” Looking back now to that experience and how it shaped your confidence to overcome the challenges of adulthood, can you take a quick look at your experience vis-à-vis your children’s, and how it has affected your political life?


Ellah - Well, to tell you the truth, I do not think my children have gone through the kind of experience that I had. They never had their fees in arrears. They did not have to get into only one higher institution in the country. Just before the Yaba Common entrance examination, I sat in the house for three months without going outside, night and day, just eating and studying. How can my children do that? But because I did not want to end up a clerk, I wanted to go to the higher college as I knew people did not pass easily. Seriously, there were, perhaps, one or two such institutions in the country, at the time. So my children did not have to go through these sorts of challenges. As for their choice of career; by the time they qualified --I have three boys -- two of them are here, and one in Britain who studied Architecture. The first boy read Economics and the last one is a lawyer -- they have no respect for a Civil Service that is already collapsed, where salaries don’t get paid. I could not even persuade them to go into Civil Service; it is no longer what it was in my day. My son, the lawyer, works as the company secretary but he has his own clients, and whatever I give them as emoluments, they laugh at it and put it in their pockets. They have not had the kind of situation that I had. 





EnekweWhat about the quality of education? For instance, you were talking about the ratio of teachers to students during your days, how do you see that now?


EllahWell, I had the opportunity to see new institutions emerge, at Ibadan and Nsukka. I was actually posted to a non-existence College of Science and Technology as a registrar. I went there and started the school from scratch. In Ibadan, we were the pioneer students. In each case, I found that the close relationship with professors, teachers and lecturers presented a very great advantage. Apart from what you read in books, the human contact was fantastic, and helped, too, to make one understand the world in which we live.


Some of the teachers had various ideas, some of which were not religious. I remember one of them who told me about the After Life. He said to me, if you are dead, you are dead; and he did not say any more than that. I was terribly scandalized, but I did not tell him so. The man was an atheist. I went to the chaplain and complained, but he told me not to mind the man; otherwise he was a good man. You are exposed to all manner of things, and that is a reflection of real life. I think that, for me, close contact with all those people made a lot of difference.


Enekwe - In what way did it affect your motivation as a student?


Ellah - Personally speaking, the fact that the teacher knew me and my abilities, and so on, was a great encouragement. It is a different situation today with students whose teachers hardly know them. If you are close to your teacher, even when you omit a paragraph while reading your script, he already knows what your capabilities are. I think this would go a long way in motivating a student, since the latter is aware he or she is working with someone who understands them better. And even when the student slips back, the teacher would let him or her know. That cannot happen nowadays when you have a lecturer teaching hundreds of students at the same time. I think that the student/University faculty ratio is very important.


OtionoA vital point that you made earlier, and which strikes me as someone from a younger generation than yours, is having to order books from London with a loan. My father was able to order clothes, shoes, through the postal system as the West. Now, how do you feel seeing that in the same lifetime, one can no longer order books without their disappearing, and even then, students no longer have privileges to loans? 


EllahHaving access to loans is a slightly different thing from the other things you mentioned. The issue of student access to loans is a failure of administration, I believe. The postal system does not work; the financial system is not working, either. One cannot order books anymore, and even then, it costs a lot of money. We have ministries of communications and finance that are not functioning or as efficient they should be. You might order something in Europe and America, however once in Nigeria, there is a bottle neck, and it might take a year or two for your order to get to you. In my day, a student might get a loan of twenty pounds from the principal, but that was personal; that showed how well disposed the man was to the student...there are still people like that today.


EnekweAre there any other factors in your early education that impacted positively on you and other students; factors that are no longer visible within this context, apart from what you have told us? For instance, I know that while you were growing up there were many bookstores around…


EllahWait a minute, yes and no. I don’t think reading has developed much in Nigeria. What I know is that this culture had not been well established in the past, and has evolved not much more, today. I did not begin reading in primary school as such. I lived for a time with an Archbishop named Father Greats, and then I discovered that I had to sit down and study, otherwise, my position in class did not go beyond eighth or thereabout. It was only at the secondary school level that I developed a competitive spirit, especially living with the Archbishop I mentioned earlier. Students always struggled to be in the lead in class, and so on, and our teachers saw that education was something very important and wonderful.

J.A Levin was the first Principal of Sacred Heart College in Calabar. He taught us in level three at Holy Family. The faculty of the time was very thorough and tough too. If you did not do your work, they made you do it. In the dormitory, there were specific times for reading or for other activities. We admired some of the priests, say a fellow like Father Cookery, who had three doctorates. We admired his method of lecturing, and when he left, we students thought we should also aim at such things. Really, the teachers were very thorough.


I think such standards were the same in schools like DMGS (Dennis Memorial Grammar School, Onitsha); then government colleges had education officers. If you put in six years, you had a good advantage over others, so we had to struggle harder to catch up. When we all got to that place, it was a level field, as nobody had any special advantage over the other. There was the Great Mission School, Calabar, CKC (Christ the King College, Onitsha) and Government College, Umuahia. In Lagos, we had St. Gregory and of course Kings College.


OtionoWhat do you think of the disappearance of such quality schools, especially as someone who has been involved in the administrative process in this country?


EllahMy view about education is that there was no good reason for the take over of the mission schools. Those schools should have been left with the proprietors.


Otiono - So you consider the take over of schools a grave mistake?


Ellah – Yes, it was a tragedy. The teachers were devoted and dedicated; they were not in the service to make money. And once you took over these schools, such people could no longer work there anymore -- like the priest I mentioned. We lost all that advantage, so -- from the point of moral justification, the government should not take over property like that; government should not monopolize education. The search for truth should not be monopolised in any way. In other countries, people are allowed to establish any number of schools.


Tragically, having taken over these schools, the government went on to establish a number of schools, but has been unable to maintain a standard. The dedicated teachers are gone, and those presently teaching are rarely paid, thus presenting them with little incentive in their chosen profession. These teachers share a large number of students without the proper resources.


Enekwe - I would like to go back to the question of our reading culture. From what you have said, even when you were in the university, the habit of reading had not fully developed. What effects do you think this has had on the country?


Ellah - It is retrogressive. We can’t have enough vision of what is going on elsewhere. Some of our people have a very poor sense of history. We have forgotten what we’ve gone through two years ago. We don’t read widely. In our time, we read mainly to pass exams. When we encountered somebody reading a novel, we asked him in Igbo dialect what was wrong. In our opinion, he was wasting his time. But I think things are changing now; in fact, you -- Professor Enekwe -- are in a better position to educate me on the situation. Do students nowadays read widely? It seems they spend more time watching T.V.; or am I wrong?


OtionoNow, just to extend that a little bit, because it is very important -- the kind of education people possess, and how it influences their adult life. Looking around your office here, one finds a rich collection of books; how do you see this love of knowledge in relation to the people you have encountered in the political terrain, and how has this affected the quality of policies that have been made over time?               


Ellah - I must say quite honestly that in many of the people that you meet nowadays, it does not appear that the reading habit has been very much cultivated. Professor Enekwe can tell me whether there has been an improvement. When I was in secondary school, we had a library, and you were made to read a book every month; however, upon entrance into higher education, people seem not to spend much time over recreational reading. Only school subjects, it seems, are being studied. I lost lots of my books in Enugu during the war, because I was in London, and my family just managed to leave the house with suitcases to get on the train to Aba. I lost everything. So the love of reading is a culture, and just as the political culture, that has not developed significantly.


Otiono - This must have contributed to the failure to develop the political culture and policy formulation…







Otiono - I am aware you set up a Biafran office in London during the war, and were also running the Biafran Students’ Union. What were your personal experiences of the war especially in relation to your contemporaries?


Ellah - Well, I didn’t fight in the war, so I cannot claim to have much practical experience of the civil war; however, I was only a deputy prime minister of trade. Since I had a career in diplomatic service training, it was decided that I would be posted abroad to establish the Biafran Embassy in London. I mildly suggested that Ambassadors, Eastern Ambassadors, who have been removed from service should be sent, instead, so I could be deputy permanent secretary, but I was told -- no, no, no, they are not diplomats; they unfortunately know nothing about ongoing developments; only officers were being sent there.


I was actually ordered to take up the responsibility, and was told that I had to obey. And so I went and set up the embassy, which I tried to run as a proper diplomatic mission. I sent a dispatch at the end of every month to the home foreign ministry, giving updates of the position underground, and making recommendations as to what actions might be taken. I remember that the last dispatch I wrote was just before Kampala. After that I was recalled, and I obeyed the order, wrote my Will, dropped it with my family in London, and came back home. Some friends said I should not, but I followed my conscience, and came back to Biafra.


When I came back to Biafra, I was sent to the Ministry of Transport and Communications. From there I was reassigned as Secretary to the Atrocities Commission, and we had a good record which I doubt can ever be rivalled; that is if it can still be traced. I wrote something on the war effort, which I thought should be published; but the manuscripts were removed by an acting SP (Superintendent of Police) called Mr. Orudoye: he signed for it, but I have not been able to recover it till today.


Otiono - Seriously?




Otiono - Can you give us an idea of the contents? Just a summary; an insight…


EllahMy dear friend, this is agonizing…


OtionoCan you remember the title?


Ellah - This is the year 2005, and I wrote this around April 1970. It is very difficult for anyone to remember a painful thing like that. I think my work dealt mainly with the diplomatic aspects of the war, and I cannot discuss diplomatic issues without considering other factors. It was simply a public servant’s approach to writing. But I think it must have been of material interest, because the federal government at that time thought it fit to be confiscated. Even so, I could never write the same thing again, because the circumstances, the circumstances have changed; it is not easy, not easy.


Otiono - In hindsight would you…


EllahSorry, I think you are asking about the title, I think the title was something like AGAINST FEARFUL ODDS.


EnekweWith the advantage of hindsight, would you consider the Biafran experience necessary; I mean, was Biafra a necessary historical development?


Ellah - I think the circumstances that led to Biafra are very unique; I remember that when I heard news of the secession on the radio I almost broke down…the causes were quite traumatic. I think once secession had been declared, the efforts made to fight the war were staggering. We were highly impressed by the solidarity shown by the Eastern Region. Then we had a cause we were fighting for. I think that around March 1968 when we were in a position to achieve a confederation we should have accepted the chance or opportunity. When we were insisting that Biafran sovereignty was not negotiable as the government thought at the time, we ought to have considered the tragedy of the situation because this country would have been much better if we had a confederation of four to six states other than what we have now.


Enekwe - The impression that was given then was that it was the federal government that reneged on the peace agreement or the ABURI agreement. Did the Federal Government renege on the agreement; in effect, leading to the continuation of the war?


Ellah - Partly so; but around the time of the Kampala talks, there were definite signs that a confederation could be achieved. The Biafran side was adamant on the fact of sovereignty being non-negotiable.







Enekwe - You have made an important point about the political structure of the country. You said it would have been better off with a confederation of states -- about six states. What do you think about the current six geopolitical structure and agitations of ethnic minorities?


EllahI observed in my book, Nigeria and State Creation that the maximum legitimate states of this country should be about eighteen, and the minimum, anything between four and thirteen. This should address the inequality created by the system handed over to us by the British that permitted the North to have a standing or permanent majority in the parliament. Once that is achieved, I don’t think we would get into trouble anymore.


But rather than think in terms of zones, I much prefer the geographic term, regions. At present, zones are simply for sharing posts and so on. If they were to operate autonomously with their own governors, then we must retain thirty-six groups -- which might mean providing another term for it -- but which could be a big improvement that saves significantly on the expenditure already made on the existing states. The present system is expensive, and with 36 states, there’s certainly need for worry.


Now, some people talk about America having 50 states; therefore 36 for Nigeria is okay. But that’s absurd, because Texas alone is almost as large as Nigeria. The creation of states must not involve creating postage stamp sized entities; it must be based on history and a background of development, so that people can effectively stay together. No ethnic group in any of the entities should be greater than all the others put together; I think that this is what happened in the First Republic, and which caused much trouble in Nigeria. Once you bear that in mind, there ought to be limitations in the combinations that are adopted, in order to have well balanced structures. This is not accomplished by simply creating innumerable states in the hopes that this will solve our problems.


Enekwe - Were those with experience in administration not closely contacted and encouraged to contribute ideas when these matters were being discussed?


Ellah Could you please specify what matters, in particular, professor?


Enekwe - For instance, in the creation of states...


Ellah - You know that this situation is what my unfinished motion in the Senate was based on. I was trying to move a motion at the Senate, at the time, that I thought was highly crucial to the progress of Nigeria -- the structure was the problem. But I was stopped from giving the speech...


OtionoSir, just to sharpen your reflections on this issue, would you also like to comment on how this led to your principled resignation from the Senate, which is perhaps the only such example we know of in this country?


Ellah - Well, that is why I had the motion written out; actually delivered in the course of the debate. However, the way it was handled by the senate president… Well I don’t want to comment on his efficiency.


OtionoPlease remind us who the Senate president was at the time?


Ellah - Joseph Wayas.


Otiono - This was in Nineteen Eighty…


Ellah1981; November, 1981…so I thought I should quit. The parliament is a speaking house; if one cannot speak, there is no freedom of speech! The parliament is a talking house; you should be free to talk. So I said if I wasn’t free to talk, I should be free to write, and I wrote the book, Nigeria and State Creation. But did it change anything? Did it? And I am not sure how widely read it was, but in the book, I addressed this problem we are talking about today. I said that the creation of states should be left to the demand of the people; especially when this demand has a possibility of growing indefinitely.


Enekwe - Of course...


Ellah - And even if we have a thousand states, people will still demand more states. That is the basis of Nigeria and State Creation. In the book, I considered all the criteria for state creation; for instance – the state of Rhode Island in the United States is as small as a local Government here, while the state of Texas is as large, or, perhaps, larger than Nigeria; so the creation of states is hardly a case of just dividing the place like a crafts man; there must be the history of the place and other considerations to be taken into account!!!


EnekweSo this relates to what you were saying about our reading culture. I mean…the fact is that you have already written about these issues even if it appears nobody has paid attention. Was the book ever reviewed? 


EllahI think so. In fact, Professor Chinua Achebe and I attended the launch ceremony in Lagos, and the attendance was poor.  Then there were one or two reviews of the book. Apart from that, the media did not pay much attention to what we are talking about.


OtionoWell, Chinua Achebe wrote the Foreword?


EllahYes he did…


Enekwe - And I know also that you are one of the patrons of Okike Journal which Chinua Achebe founded.


EllahHmn? Is that so?


Enekwe – (amused) Sir; we are aware of that!


Ellah (chuckles)


Enekwe - Sometimes I wonder… How did you meet Chinua Achebe; at Ibadan?


Ellah - Yes, we were classmates.


Otiono - What is your relationship with Chinua Achebe?


Ellah - We were very close. As I told you earlier, Ibadan was a small community in our time; the total number of students was about 270. And speaking for myself, I didn’t know what I wanted to study; I only wanted higher education. When they asked me what I would read, I mentioned the subject I did best in the entrance examination. People had different opinions on my performance, but Chinua Achebe came in and said he wanted to study Medicine. Some where along the line, he changed to English. The world would have lost a great writer, indeed, had he become a Medical officer. 


OtionoAt the time, did you share a similar interest in literature?


Ellah - By the way, I used to write in the Herald and The Bug. I remember one of my earliest writings was called From Dawn to Dusk. There were other writers like Mabel Imokhuede - Mabel Segun now, etc; however, I did not survive, I did not write a lot.


Otiono - What did you finally study?


EllahI read History.


EnekweAnd Chinua Achebe read History also?


EllahYes, a combination of History and Literature.


EnekweBeyond that, what other relationship did you have with Chinua Achebe?


Ellah - When you leave a place like Ibadan and you come out into real life, you don’t meet your formal colleagues too often.  How many of us of that generation came from the East and how many were Igbos?  You can imagine those of us like Chinua Achebe, Sam Nwoye, John Munonye, Ben Nwosu, and James Ezeilo... When Chinua was Director of External Broadcasting at NBC, we didn’t see much of him, but when he came to the East and began lecturing at Nsukka, we saw often.  When I quit the Senate, he was among the few who showed interest when I told him I was writing about the experience.  I showed him my writing from time to time and he made his contributions.  He was very touched by what was going on, and he showed much concern.  I had developed interest too in his writing, and I tried to study them; that’s the best I could do.


Otiono - Christopher Okigbo was in Ibadan, as well; what you’re your memories of him?


 EllahYes, Chris

Sir Francis Ellah with Gershion GUYIT and Nicolas Patakias

Mr. Gershon GUYIT, Ambassador of Nigeria in Hungary, Sir Francis J. ELLAH, Senator and Chairman of Ellah Lakes PLC Nigeria, and Nicolas Patakias from the CDE. Courtesy

was a very sociable type.  And Chinua was quite reticent, but Chris talked all the time, telling everyone he met what he thought of the person (laughs). Chris read Classics but nobody knew that his poems meant anything.  We read them and then he published a few of them, and they turned out to be monumental works.  The last time I saw Chris was when I came back from London, and he regaled us with detailed account of his exploits.  At one time when he was Librarian at UNN (University of Nigeria), and I had just started work with the Foreign service in 1962, I built a home near Enugu campus, and was within 300 yards to Chris Okigbo’s home on the campus. This brought us closer together.  Then of course, I met his older brother, Pius.


Enekwe – What about Wole Soyinka?


Ellah - We shook hands from time to time.


Enekwe – What other poet and writer did you meet then; what about Okara?


Ellah - He was in my Ministry. After the war, I was Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Information and Local Government Affairs (in Rivers State), and he was already there. When I became the Secretary to government and Head of service, we brought him as Commissioner of Information, but he did not stay long.


Otiono - How were you able to be this close to all these writers and did not desire to become one?  We know that John Munonye wrote The Only Son at your place. What were your attempts at writing?


Ellah - I was serving as District Officer in charge of Orlu Division, in 1958 when John Munonye, my friend and an education officer then, came on leave to visit me.  He was considering whether he was interested in writing; we wondered that our classmate, Achebe, wrote Things Fall Apart and is known all round the world, and so we said -- why don’t we write, as well?  Was he the only one with an alpha in English at Ibadan? We then decided that we were going to write like Achebe, and produce our own Things Fall Apart.


So I told John I would allocate a Guest house to him so we could work together and meet every evening.  We met the first night and he selected the title, “The Only Son.” I chose some title that I cannot now remember.  So, the two of us began to write feverishly. About two weeks after, I saw that my files at the office were suffering. At the time, in the administrative service -- with all the eagle eyes expatriates -- about fifty indigenous workers were chucked out or not confirmed. Those who were confirmed had to sit tight or be shown the way out.  I told John that I didn’t want to lose my job; that this writing business…I no longer thought I was gifted for it. I then brought out my manuscript of about a hundred pages or so, and tore it up. John almost wept. But he said he would go on writing, though he was unhappy with what I did. I offered him my home to stay as long as he wished, and promised to visit him from time to time.  That was my last attempt at writing.  I later recounted this story to Chinua Achebe, and he laughed his head off.


Otiono -   At what point did you decide to go into active politics?


Ellah - I never got into active politics, as such.  I retired from the public service voluntarily in November 1978, and civilian rule was just around the corner. People actually thought that I had retired in order to go into politics and run for a post; but I had retired in order to follow my investments and make greater headway with business. But then it turned out that I had to run for the Senate.  When I eventually quit as a senator, I said I would never again go anywhere near politics. But that was until about December 1992, and then Sanni Abacha rang me up saying that I was in the Transition Council.  I said -- “What is that?” He explained that it was a council preparing for the hand over to a civilian regime. I told him I would think about it. By 9.00 pm, he rang me again, and though I told my wife I was going to reject it, she persuaded me to serve.


Otiono – Did you think it was an illegality as the court declared, and was that why you didn’t want to go back?


Ellah -It was strange to me.  In any case, the annulment was without our knowledge. We had no idea what was happening, even though we were

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on the cabinet.
  The next thing was to hear on the radio that an annulment of the June 12 election had taken place -- that was bad enough in my view. I thought of the reluctance with which I went to serve on the council then wondered again how it was that I found myself in politics afterwards. But this was because Alex Ekwueme and Bola Ige -- another of our illustrious classmates -- came to me and said: “You are like us, and since we are not in the Five Government created parties (Bola Ige described it as five fingers of a leprous hand), we should get together.” I said I thought it excellent that we should be discussing the affairs of Nigeria, so we formed the Institute of Civil Society in Lagos…in my office.


This Institute enlightened us as to the fact that Abacha was actually planning his self succession, and we thought this was a bit too much. So we turned out the G-34 protest.  It was the G-34 that became the PDP (Peoples Democratic Party). That’s how I found myself involved again in politics without my planning it.  I found that after the initial arrangement that we made at the party, I became appointed the National Vice Chairman, South-South, and I launched all the branches from Edo to Calabar.  There were so many uncertainties and even rumours about the Presidency being zoned to the South-South; yet the constitution was not even out, and we did not know what to expect. 


However, I found that all people were saying was that they wanted to be President of Nigeria. I finally decided that I was no longer in the mood to play a supporting role to such people.  As a matter of fact, I realized that my name should have been among the candidates. That gave me the opportunity of actually resigning from the post of National Vice Chairman as one was not allowed to combine posts. So I finally resigned. 


I think that this is what saved me because may be I would have been assassinated before now. You can see, what happened to my two successors.  It’s a very frightening and sad situation. I thank God that I resigned.  I am only a member of the Party’s Board of Trustees today, which is a purely advisory body.  We don’t take executive decisions; it gives you an opportunity to see what is going on.


Enekwe and Otiono: Thank you very much, sir, for sitting down to talk to us.


Ellah: Thank you; it was a great pleasure.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the interview are not necessarily those of the Chinua Achebe Foundation. The Chinua Achebe Foundation, an intellectual and cultural organization, believes in the right of every Nigerian to express their opinion.

Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series: Senator Francis Ellah in Conversation with Prof. Ossie Enekwe and Nduka Otiono