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The Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series #12

A Meeting of the Minds
(Mr. Gamaliel O. Onosode, OFR, in conversation with Pini Jason)

The Chinua Achebe Foundation

Mr. Gamaliel Oforitsenere Onosode

Gamaliel Onosode

Mr. Gamaliel O. Onosode, OFR

was born in Sapele, Delta State on May 22, 1933. He attended Baptist School, Oginibo, Delta State between 1940 and 1946, and Government College Ughelli between 1947 and 1952. He graduated B.A (Hons) in Classics in 1957 from University College (now University) of Ibadan. Between 1957 and 1960, he worked with the Commonwealth Development Corporation as a Management trainee. An accomplished Management expert, he has held various management positions in reputable organizations like Northern Nigeria investment Ltd, Nigerian Housing Development Society Ltd, Nigeria industrial Development Bank and Financial holdings (Nigeria) Ltd.


After 10 years as Director, Onosode became Chairman/Managing Director of NAL Merchant Bank Plc. He is also chaired many private and public sector businesses, including Dunlop Nigeria Plc, (1984), Cadbury Nigeria Plc, (1977-1993), Presidential commission on Parastatals (1981), Nigeria LNG Working committee on NLNG Ltd, (1985-1990), Niger Delta Environmental Survey (since 1995).


He was Presidential Adviser on Budget Affairs and Director of Budget (1983), and a former Pro-chancellor of University of Uyo. He is an honorary fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters and holds honorary doctorate degrees of The Obafemi Awolowo University (1990), University of Benin (1995), and the Rivers State University of Science and Technology (2003).


A Deacon of the Baptist Church, Onosode also holds an honorary Doctor of Divinity of the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary, Ogbomosho (2002).


Mr. Onosode was recently appointed the Chairman of Vmobile, one of Nigeria’s leading GSM phone providers.


He was interviewed by PINI JASON.



Q. Allow me to say that Gamaliel Onosode exemplifies a life lived in contentment. A young reporter would probably assume that you resided in Victoria Island, Ikoyi or Lekki Peninsular; however, you have made downtown Surulere your home. Where do you derive the moral force to stand always on principle?


A. Thank you. You are very kind in the observation you’ve just made. I must confess

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that my life has been based, and by the grace of God, remains based on the foundation that my parents established for their children -- that is to define our lives in terms of a fervent commitment to Christ and the values associated with such a commitment. I can say that I am truly proud of my siblings; I give thanks to God for that. And happily, these values are universal and eternal in their application. It does not matter whether you accept Christ as the Son of God. Allow me to elaborate on some of these family, social, and ethical themes.


Now, if I become the richest man in the world, and have the largest heart, that does not predispose me to having more than one wife. Biblical law on family life precludes that. Adultery, fornication, polygamy are forbidden, because these are evidence of the fallen humanity.


Biblical law also stipulates that if I were slapped on one cheek, I would, as a matter of considerate thought, turn the other cheek. Although my natural inclination would be to act in retaliation, Christ expects me to exercise strong restraint. In the case where I act revengefully, I would be prolonging and protracting the period over which the antithesis of peace prevails, and this is wrong. So, since there is benediction on those who work for peace, and my Christian commitment does require that I should always work for peace, in my own interest and the interest of those around me, it remains that I should always work towards that end.


Thirdly, in loving one’s neighbour as one’s self, this means that in every situation, one should ask the question: if I were on the other side of this issue, how would I feel; how would I handle the situation? In this way, our behaviour is constructively regulated.


So this is the kind of foundation on which my life is based. And this foundation, as you can see, has very little to do with affluence or the externalities of life. So I can live contentedly in Surulere, and not feel that I am losing out, because I don’t live on Picaddily Street, or Awolowo Road.


Q. Not even for the status symbol?


A. But what is my status? I don’t think in those terms. I am just a human being, redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ. God has placed me, at different times, in different situations in which He expects me to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Every single individual, particularly in adulthood, has the opportunity to exercise leadership; as a matter of fact, so do children. So it is not the cassock that makes the priest, as they say…it is not where I live that is material. It is how I live my life that is the issue. Therefore I have lived along this Ogunlana-Adelabu axis since 1959, apart from a short break of four years when I lived in Victoria Island. I moved from this house to the house in Victoria Island, and back after four years to this same house! You will now realize that I am more of a grass roots person contrary to whatever impression has been created by the media.


Q. You talked about making commitments. Of course, making commitments such as you point out is a conscious effort, and not to be taken lightly...


A. Certainly. I made a conscious commitment quite early in life -- at the age of ten, actually -- to lead my present life. But of course, one has to understand that I was of tender age, still living under the cozy atmosphere of home…


Q. And you attended a Baptist primary school at the time?


A. That’s correct! At such a time, one had not really experienced the full blast of the factors that tend to bring out the worst in people; the natural man is very much contained at that point. In later years, yes -- there were occasions when I behaved contrary to the way that I should have…for which I was truly sorry, and for which God has since forgiven me. But the Bible says, train a child the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it, Proverbs 22 verse 6. That is both an admonition as well as a promise. So, it is by the grace of God, therefore, that I have been true to that commitment. Even so, it is a continuing struggle. I mean, don’t get me wrong; there is no day that the devil does not try to introduce things that seem attractive. I just say, get thee behind me, Satan!




Q. Something else about you impresses itself upon one, and that is the sense of order that clearly surrounds you. I recall when you were chairman of Thisweek magazine, and you would admonish the editorial staff (this journalist included) about an issue everyone in the newspaper business, in this country, takes for granted -- spelling errors. I remember you threatening to call on us if, while you were reading the magazine, you ever discovered the word “privilege” spelt with a ‘dg.’ Nowadays, all that remains is a sense of sloppiness in the way we do things in the country. How do you feel when you see the disintegrating environment around us?


A. It upsets me, I confess! I spent a good part of my life editing other people’s work, editing out ‘d’ from privilege; editing out all kinds of inelegances in the use of the language! So you can imagine the dread in which I hold certain interviews. Some reporter might decide to produce a transcript of what he imagined he heard, but clearly was not intended by me. A lack of pride in work prevents such an interviewer from making sure that at least the words published are faithful, if not exact, to the interview. So, it is again, this question of the pursuit of excellence. Before we began this conversation, I recounted how my teacher felt when I wrongly pronounced s-e-r-v-e? There is no longer that sort of attention to detail...


This, of course, spills into

Gamaliel Onosode at an Urhobo Historical Society Function

Mr. Gamaliel Onosode at an Urhobo Historical Society Function

every aspect of life in this country. Whenever I travel along the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, I never become used to seeing vehicles – Mercedes Benz’s, lorries or Tankers -- driving on the wrong side of the road. This is scandalous, an outrage. On one occasion, I sighted Road Safety Corps officials and flagged down their car. Sir, I pointed out, is it not your duty to ensure that those who use this highway comply with the Highway Code, and drive appropriately? Oh yes, yes… was the reply. But the problem is that many of these drivers don’t understand English! Really, I said. Are you saying there is no other way in which you can get these drivers to obey the rules to drive properly? The reply, again, was that communication was impossible because the vast majority of the drivers do not understand English.


I let them know that I was not impressed with their explanation, but strolled with them to their car where I found it full of people. Who are these people, I asked? Oh, whenever we are on patrol, we are accompanied by police officers drawn from different ethnic groups, they informed me. But I thought you said that a language problem prevented you from proactively dealing with misuse of the highway? How is it that your patrol group is comprised of people who speak at least one of the three major Nigerian languages in the country, and yet you claim you cannot communicate with law-breaking drivers who speak these languages? But, of course, there was no response, as you can imagine.


On another occasion, along that same highway, I parked my car and I observed a vehicle doing the wrong thing, so I flagged down the lorry, and to my surprise, it stopped. I went across to the driver and said -- look here, you’re breaking the law with your terrible, reckless driving. He was surprised at this, and I explained: You were driving on the left side of the road! You are supposed to drive on your right, and overtake on the left. O-oh? He was very contrite, and I advised him to tell his employer to re-educate other drivers on the appropriate driving conduct. Clearly, a great deal of this substandard behaviour exists that we need not tolerate.


Q. This points to a different issue that has come to dog this country – a non-capacity to enforce the rules.


A. Well, I am not so sure about that. I think it is the unwillingness, rather than the lack of capacity to execute the law. The capacity is there, I believe. After all, think of the capacity that is invested in collecting unlawful tolls along our highways! The same capacity could have been better utilized to ensure that those who drive along our highways behave properly.


Q. This unwillingness pervades our society. Why are we so unwilling to do the right thing?


A. That is a very difficult question! We are unwilling, because we see that deviant behaviour pays materially. So there is an incentive for living an undisciplined life. But that is where law enforcement and leading by example should come in. Those two things come hand in hand. At all levels, we must encourage our leaders to guide by example. The second thing is that commitment on their part should involve ensuring that the law enforcement agents do their work. Any perceived failure to perform should be visited with disciplinary action, and this practice must be sustained and not on a selective basis! So if people find that it does not pay to be dishonest, they become cautious about being dishonest. On our highways illegal tolls are collected in broad daylight with no one batting an eye!!!




Q. The civil society has been dis-empowered, disfranchised, and intimidated by the political elite; therefore it cannot accomplish anything. And of course there are the fault lines of ethnicity and religion that make it impossible for the people to form the critical mass to effect change.


A. You use the word, ‘political elite.’ By political elite you mean those who, for the time being, determine the fate of political action. But you will find that society is endowed with people who are better equipped than, perhaps, the vast majority of those who form what you call the political elite. However, they have chosen to be spectators. Even so, I think this is one step in the right direction that we have achieved since 1998-99. One is not likely to find, today, any minister of religion proclaiming from his pulpit, the wisdom of fine Christians staying away from participation in partisan politics. On the contrary, you will find those urging this group to participate, to discharge their civic responsibility, to participate actively, if God is calling them in that direction! This is a great step forward! In other words we are making progress. A time will come when more of the segment of the political elite that is made up of people who share my conviction will form a critical mass – it is happening already -- and they will take over, and transform the tone of society.




Q. Prof Richard Joseph who lectured here and later went to work for the Ford Foundation and Jimmy Carter, and who is a leading expert on Nigeria, once said that Nigeria has not aspired to use the enormous manpower it has, especially those that have acquired experiences in World Bank, IMF, ADB and so on. And I say to myself, that we have people like you here. Dr. Kalu Idika Kalu tried twice to become Minister of Finance, it didn’t work. So is it not a question of the nation


being unable to create the environment that can make it possible for people with the expertise to come and serve her?


A. That is why, if you recall, earlier in this conversation, I couldn’t find myself agreeing with you when you used the expression, “lack of capacity”. I said no, it is not the shortage of the capacity, but rather the unwillingness to utilize the capacity that we have. Today, and this is not a recent phenomenon, we have shunted aside the capacity that is available to us -- within the country and in the Diaspora. In Nigeria, executive capacity has not been utilized to its optimum level. I think I read in some newspaper yesterday, that we have a battalion of inexperienced advisers in the public service, whereas within the civil service we have people, who over the years have been trained and have acquired knowledge and experience that are not being put to use!




Q. People tend to think that the cause of our national dis-aggregation is because of centrifugal ethnic forces…


A. (Cuts in) Sorry, I must interrupt you! Do you know why I do not accept that? If you constituted my town, Oginibo, which is only a village in Ughelli -- Ughelli is only one of 22 clans in Urhoboland -- if you constituted my village into a state or into a local government area, there will be issues enough to pull it apart! For instance, the sinking of a borehole; people might fight over whether that borehole should be on Onosode Drive or across the street somewhere else! Now, how many times have you caught yourself arguing with yourself? Something in you says turn right, another says, no, turn left; something else says, stand where you are! Now, if you can have that kind of conflict within you as an individual, do you think we will ever arrive at a situation when an ethnic nationality like, perhaps, the Edos meet, and just because they are all Edos, all agree and say, lets turn right! That’s unrealistic!


Q. The assumption there, for some people, is that perhaps, if we had a charismatic leader he or she could weld all of these disparate ethnic groups together.


A. Ah! If you had a charismatic leader, he/she could weld 2000 tribes together! Just as if you had a charismatic leader, he/she could also weld that village quarreling over a borehole together! So the quality of the individual or the individuals who manage our affairs is the real issue! Therefore how do we ensure that over time we produce more of that kind of person? That is why learning how to optimize what we have, the institutions we have, in order to achieve what we do not yet have, should constitute a major concern.


Q. There is an irony that has emerged in the last decade or so, which is, that almost all the nationalists of yesterday are the ethnic champions of today. Did they mislead the country or did they not in the first place, understood the complexities of the country?


A. There is a little book of fiction, The Count of Monte Cristo, that we read at school; there

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is a passage in which the old man, Faria, says:
“You could learn the facts, indeed. But to learn is not to know. To understand the meaning and to use it in guiding your life, that cannot be done in three years or in many years. It is the work of a lifetime, everyday until the sun sets upon my life. I shall still be learning, still drawing nearer to that perfect understanding, which may, perhaps, be granted to us in heaven”

 Paul, in 1 Corinthians chapter 13, says: “Now we know in part, but then we shall know in full.” In other words, why should it surprise you or anyone else that our leaders of yesterday couldn’t possibly have had complete understanding and knowledge of the environment. That is what makes us human. And that is why it is only the genius that sticks to his first thoughts. The generality of human beings have to modify their thoughts as they access more information and develop a better capability of analyzing the information at their disposal in order to come to a conclusion as to how best to respond or react to a given situation.


Now, there used to be a country called USSR. Where is it today? It has broken up because certain things happened, and it became evident that it could not be held together by force. A National conference, Sovereign or otherwise, far from threatening the unity of the country, will provide a firmer basis for a lasting unity. I don’t see why, as a Nigerian, I would prefer to be a citizen of a much smaller country, if I can make what we are now a happier place for all of us. But if we more or less agree that this country can never be a happier place unless we do something more fundamental, why shouldn’t we say so?




Q. There is ‘an alternative Conference’ being planned by people who disagree with the manner in which the ‘government’s conference’ was planned. A ‘proper National Conference,’ in their estimation, has to be ethnic based. Now is such a Conference whose outcome is not likely to be codified into law, not an exercise in futility?


A. You should put that question to the conveners. My view is that God can speak literally through animals and plants - “ a burning bush” - let alone through human beings! So, let all human beings speak! Regardless of whether you are participating in the conference being organized by (PRONACO) as opposed to the Dialogue organized by the presidency, ideas are bound to be brought up. At the end it will be evident which ideas coincide with those of the people.


Q. There are certain public officers who Nigerians felt were of dubious character, but who are still warming up for 2007…


A. (Cuts in). That is to be regretted, unless there is evidence that they have, in the mean time, genuinely repented. The Bible said: let him that stole, steal no more. If you stole yesterday, and you no longer steal, you can make reparations.




Q. If you asked Nigerians to locate the origin of our problems, they are quite likely to mention very many things, the most popular being the military. But often we forget the religious bodies, and whether, indeed, they have been up to par in bringing about positive change in our society.


A. I accept the popular response about the military. Yes. They destroyed discipline, whereas they should have been the purveyors of discipline at its best. Management science is actually an extraction from the way the military organized their affairs traditionally. So it is a terrible shame that the military took over in this country and undermined discipline. The military affected every aspect of our life. The Bible says to pray for the Kings and rulers, and so a military ruler comes to church and you feel it’s your duty to pray for him. However, it is one thing to pray for Kings and Princes so that they may govern well, and another to unwillingly pray for someone in power, in whom there is little or no confidence. And one’s prayers may give the impression that one is in confirmation with whatever such a leader stands for and is doing without that being the case. So the Church itself fell victim to the negative impact of military incursion into political governance.


But having said that, the Church ought to have seen itself as the voice of prophesy, as the instrument that God established as the bulwark of truth, and been more inclined to follow the example of the First Century Church,

which held the view that we must obey God, rather than men. Fear not. This entreaty presents itself several times in the scriptures. A lack of courage has given the Church less impact in the workings of things. Even so, the Lord of the harvest will come in due course, looking beyond all these matters.





Q. A few years ago you resigned from the Board of a bank, because a single individual had assumed both the posts of Chairman and Managing Director. Can you explain why that was so offensive to you?


A. It was offensive to me on the grounds that it was a prescription for indiscipline. Checks and balances are accepted by informed opinion, and these are of great necessity in the conduct of human affairs; there must be checks and balances within any organization. Now, when a consolidation of the type you mention is in patent disregard of the rules and regulations that govern such positioning, then there is reason to argue its inappropriateness. It was a prescription for disaster. And, I might add, the disaster did indeed manifest.


Q. Do you always insist on some level of corporate governance in the companies you associate with?


A. It is on record that under my chairmanship, Cadbury Nigeria Plc, endorsed and applied a code of conduct for its directors, years before this procedure was adopted and enforced by the Nigerian Stock Exchange. It was a voluntary act on our part. This is why I occasionally seem despairing of the situation in our country. But, no! I have great hope in the future of this country. Good laws are the extraction of values that are universal and eternal in their capacity to endure. In other words, if one’s orientation is based on such values, one voluntarily complies with what the law demands. I say this because, as a result of my own orientation, corporate governance has never been a problem for me. I work with the situation corporate governance requires, making even greater demands should the occasion demand it. Thus, I insist that in a boardroom, I represent the interest of the company by promoting and fighting for the interest of the company.


This means that I work to promote the interests of the entire group of shareholders, not solely that of the shareholder, or group of shareholders, who nominated me. In other words the spirit of the finest codified corporate governance is etched in my heart.


Q. With your experience of the possibilities in the private sector, what would you say this means for the country in terms of our ability to lift ourselves out from where we are today?


A. This is a major question. What we need as respectable human beings is very little compared to what people tend to desire. I shall take the two of us as an example; here we are – you, wearing a suit, I, wearing a suit. The shirt you have on, though very trendy, is simply to cover up your body. That’s all! So it is, in my case.  And this is the basic requirement that clothing is meant to meet -- to cover up the body and to keep the body warm or cool, as the case might be. Thus, it matters very little how many pairs of shoes I have in my wardrobe, because as long as I have on a pair of shoes, I am fine. There will be no real difference between me who has only one pair of shoes, and the other guy who has 24 pairs of shoes in his wardrobe.


Now, if the spirit enshrining this ideal is allowed to progress from the micro-situation, such as this example that I have given, to the macro - the larger society - it enthrones a spirit of commitment to rendering service, as opposed to being served. In other words, no matter how high and exalted one might be -- whether as a director, permanent secretary, governor, President or chairman of this and that -- one realizes that one’s position is entrusted to him/her by God. This might be through votes, in an elective office, or by appointment; in order to give one the opportunity to help others meet their particular needs. The quality of lives may be enhanced within the limits permitted in the short run by available resources.


Q. With the pervasive nature of corruption, however, things are not very different in the corporate world than in the public sector. Do you agree?


A. (Cuts in). Quite true…I have always said that!


Q. Nevertheless, you will also agree that in the private sector, there are what we might call “pockets of excellence.” Are there ways in which we may cultivate such vital areas in the public sector?


A. Let’s just examine the private sector for a moment. The private sector, by definition, is made up of discrete units of enterprises. In each discrete unit, you have a fairly compact type of organization where the application of the “stick and carrot” is easier.


In the public sector, we are dealing with, by definition, much larger units-- at least, in terms of human beings that constitute any given level of governance. As the Managing Director of a company, I can, without anybody raising eyebrows, be both accuser and judge. But this type of situation will not work, and should not be tolerated in the public sector. It makes the transplanting of excellence, unit for unit, difficult. In the private sector, the M.D of a company is unlikely to get a telephone call in which he or she is fired! Procedures of hierarchical nature are treated far more democratically, and with more finesse. In government business, however, someone outside the hierarchy of one unit can simply fire an employer in a different unit over the phone! So the degree of discipline built into the public sector is generally weaker than in the private sector. Matters within organizational units in the public sector require a disciplined and well-defined approach than presently exists.


Q. You have talked of the discipline of the individual. I wish to mention the particular case of the Director-General of National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control, NAFDAC who is demonstrating that, in spite of the weaknesses of the public sector, a determined individual can make a difference.


A. Yes! That is absolutely correct! A society is defined by the summation of the character of the individuals who comprise it. And that is why in Political Science, it is said that people get the government they deserve. If at the polls, one votes for idiots, fine. One, in that case, should not complain about the government delivered to him or her, because one ensured its position. If we do not put a leader in power by our votes -- he or she got there in spite of our votes -- we can then resort to the action of the people of the Ukraine. One does not just sit down in one’s house grumbling. No! We should all come out peacefully and say: No! We will not have this perversion of justice. We did not vote this way.




Q. In 1998, you participated in partisan politics by joining the United Nigerian Congress Party, UNCP under Gen Abacha’s Transition Programme. However, many were somewhat disturbed by your involvement. What was the conviction behind this decision?


A. You see the Pharisees had the same view of Jesus Christ. I do not compare myself with Jesus, but am required to try to be like Him. The people of His (Jesus’) time complained: ah, this man eats with sinners and publicans, and He says He is the Son of God? Well, I have always said that most people around me are slightly smarter and cleverer than I am. But at my level of capability and understanding, I do not know how to clean the inside of a house from the outside. The only way I know how to clean up a house is to go right in. Now, when I come out of that house, you might find a great deal of dust on my shoes and the helm of my gown might just be stained. But the house would be cleaner for it. In other words, you cannot effect change by staying out of the workings of things. You can make a contribution towards the actual cleaning or changing of society, only by active involvement.


Q. The UNCP disqualified you at the time on the grounds that you have not made “enormous contributions” to deserve the Presidential ticket. What did that teach you about recruitment of leadership through the Nigerian political process?


A. Again, this is part of a point I made in a recent interview; that when two or three political parties present candidates, drums are beaten and claims are made about an elective democratic arrangement. People then go out to vote. Unfortunately, their choice is limited to the candidates presented by the parties with no assurance that these represent the possible best that society may offer. So quality is already, if you like, constrained. This is why society must insist on the possible best of what we have, and seek to influence matters to that end -- without the use of violence. So over time, hope is kept alive, and there is positive change. Now this change might be imperceptible to begin with, but over time one can say, yes, things are very much improved.




Q. There has been a proliferation of the kind of church that appears to worship other things than God. The gospel that is preached these days is about instant miracles, prosperity and the like.


A. I agree with you. But thank God every one of us has direct access to the Bible and the spirit of God, the Holy Spirit who interprets the scripture for us. I can catch my church doing something or failing to do some thing that is not quite in line with my expectation based on my understanding of the scripture. Thank God we are not going to be judged as a group, but as individuals.


Q. There is an interesting aspect of this problem, which Evangelist Selwyn Hughes pointed out, and that is the conscious effort not to admit sin for what it is, but a resorting to euphemisms; adultery is now referred to as extra-marital affair, fornication is pre-marital sex.  People seem to be in denial of sin.


A. You may recall that in the earlier part of this conversation I referred to adultery and fornication when I was talking about family values. But thank God all is not lost. There are people who will call a spade a spade, and still use the words, adultery and fornication! The denial and euphemisms, I’m afraid, will remain until Jesus returns. This earth will never become heaven until Jesus returns and winds up history. But it is important that we insist on recognizing things for what they are, and in doing so allow our own lives to present this truth. We talked earlier about leadership by example. So whether it is in the church or outside the church, the challenge is the same! And it is no use being a Christian only when you are in a place called “the church.” A Christian must take Christ with him everywhere, and if the market place is where one lives out their normal life, then that is where God demands that one should demonstrate the Christian life!





Q. It is often said that Nigerians are too critical, too pessimistic about their country...


A. But hopefully, a feeling of dissatisfaction with the present will only drive a strong commitment to making tomorrow a better day. Any Nigerian who is really concerned about tomorrow must make certain that he or she is seen to be part of the solution rather than of the problem.


Q. People might say that every succeeding government is worse than its predecessor. But looking back on the last five years - is there evidence that we are moving in the right direction?


A. I cannot, of course, agree with that statement -- that every government has been worse than the preceding one. I can’t accept that. Even with the different military regimes, there have been varying degrees of achievement. General Gowon can certainly boast of certain, concrete, accomplishments. I cannot say that his government was worse than the previous administration! We must understand that Nigeria’s problem is multi-faceted; progress is made in certain respects and, perhaps, not in others. However, God has so well endowed our nation, both in human and material resources that that there is the promise of greater achievement. That is, perhaps, the reason we sometimes make hard statements about the quality of our achievements so far.


Q. Our frustration with our nation is borne out of a consciousness of what should have been?


A. Exactly! But then again, I am not making excuses for failure. If you go along to my old school, you will see buildings that have not received a coat of fresh paint since 1952! That’s abominable, a sad example of the decay in our country! So, whilst we’ve made progress in certain respects, there are other areas where there has been a standstill, and many others where there has been absolute deterioration.


Q. In other words, appreciating the progress we’ve made can also inspire us to go through our challenges?


A. Indeed! We must not make simplistic statements that do not give credit to the achievements that we have recorded over the years, and give the impression that all has been bad in every aspect of our life. That will not be true!


Q. People also talk of a brutalisation of the national psyche. For instance, not that long ago, one would find corpses literally lying on the streets.  I agree that we are making progress materially; however, we still need to build a humane and compassionate society. In what areas do we need to tackle this?


A. Well, that takes us back to, perhaps, where we started. A humane society is made up of individuals possessing a humane orientation. Garbage in, garbage out... In my time, if a father heard that his son cheated on an exam, he would be very angry with his son, and also ashamed of himself. But today, parents even procure impersonators for their children to write examinations for them. Such is the nature of the problem.


I have had the privilege of calling on President Obasanjo a few times. I think he has a plaque in his office, on the wall, if I recall, in which he states his mission as being directed towards changing the mindset of his countrymen and women. So, anything that would help to change that mindset is important. The reason why God ordained the institution of government is that there are certain things that a government can better deal with to safeguard the health of the community. It means that there should be at various points on our highways, and in our communities, public telephone kiosks linked directly to emergency outfits. I have found that in this country, bad as we think things are, if one takes the trouble of bringing a discrete problem to the attention of the relevant authority, they usually do something about it. As recently as this past year, I brought something to the attention of the Lagos State Government, and action was taken immediately. And I might have spent the next three years grumbling!


So, too many Nigerians spend their time grumbling, instead of picking up the phone, or some paper to write a letter to protest a situation. Quite recently I phoned someone in Abuja about a public service problem. Action was taken within 24 hours! So the challenge is for all of us! You don’t exactly encourage those in authority, if all you see are the things not being done right, or are not being done at all. We must give the credit where credit is due!




Q. The Federal Government has obviously become worried about its image abroad. This negative image comes as a result of the activities of 419ers and corruption by high public officers, some of who are being accused and removed from office. Now the Government has put together an image-laundering project called “the Heart of Africa,” bringing together eminent people from the private sector to drive it, and for which money has been provided. But in Public Relations, it is said that -- “you can’t carve a figure or an image out of rotten wood.” In the last four, five years of the crusade against corruption, Nigeria has continued to rate badly in the Transparency International corruption index. What areas would you recommend government to look into that would help promote a positive image?


A. I cannot agree with you more when you employ the analogy of carving an image out of a rotten wood. And it is also said that a good wine needs no bush. The truth is that the outside world knows far more about us than we care to admit. The outside world’s knowledge of our affairs is not based on the information we’ve given to them through the kind of initiative you are talking about. It is based on information fed directly to them from us, here. And outsiders are better informed than most Nigerians about what is happening here. I think that rather than spending a lot of money on that sort of propaganda, we could be concentrating our efforts on changing what we are from within.


I mean, how can the ordinary citizen of Surulere say, oh, this government is wonderful with the present situation with electric power? And I am not sure that I have heard any official pronouncement since the first year of this administration, say: sorry, ladies and gentlemen, we have anticipated a certain problem that will take the next seven years to deal with. This is what we are doing to ensure that blank years from now, this problem will be a thing of the past. We don’t have this kind of information. And so we are steeped in frustration. I live in an environment where there are no special privileges. So, I know what the people go through.







Q. Recently you were quoted in a newspaper interview saying: “you cannot achieve perfection, but should aspire to achieve excellence both in quality of thought as well as in the execution of those thoughts…”


A. Really? You mean I can speak so eloquently? (laughter). Well, I shall elaborate somewhat on that. About two years ago, in a face-to-face conversation with His Excellency, the Governor of Lagos state, I told him that affairs should be handled in a manner that will not indicate to someone like me who has lived in Lagos since 1957, that I am a stranger and not a concerned Lagosian. The interest that the Lagos Sate government has in me should go beyond merely collecting taxes from me. It is in this community that I discharge my duties as a citizen and I should enjoy the privileges of citizenship. It was a friendly conversation. I am glad to say that within a year, I was invited to chair a civic event in Surulere sponsored by a legislator in the House of Representatives!


This excited me because, for the first time, I was participating in a quasi-official event, and being treated as a bona fide resident of the area. I don’t care who represents Surulere in the state assembly or local government; he could be Igbo or Hausa. However, whoever it is should promote developments that benefit those of us who live here. Our ethnic origin is not relevant! That was a development, which occurred as a result of information sharing. I made reference earlier to information I sent on the state of the roads around here, and again within a matter of weeks, something was done about it (this catapulted me to fame).

If roads are not built, people blame the government for not building roads. Yet, when roads are, indeed, built, someone erects a gate across them so that ordinary citizens cannot use the streets in broad daylight, therefore compounding traffic problems! I complained to the governor, and true to his word, he ordered all such gates to be opened, at least during the day! This is the sort of thing I am talking about. Where possible, society must work hand in hand with the leadership as partners in progress, sharing our thoughts for the betterment of society.


Q. There are two possible ways to look at the kind of response you received from various governments when you intervened. One is that it takes an Onosode to elicit a prompt response. Someone else would be ignored. Secondly, someone else would have been dismissed as a disgruntled element trying to find fault with the leadership. Because one thing that is prevalent in Nigeria is intolerance of an alternative view.


A. In that case, I can only advise people to become more like Onosode! Surely, the Governor did not listen to me because of the size of my bank account. The governor did not listen to me because I live in the most famous street in Lagos --- Foreshore or Parkview, because I don’t live there. The Governor didn’t listen to me because I ride a Rolls Royce nor because I ride a four-wheel drive. If indeed it takes an Onosode to get views across, why don’t you try to be an Onosode? If you observe something you want handled, go to an Onosode and say look sir we have this problem here. Can you kindly let the Governor know that this is the problem? That is the least you can do. But if you don’t wish to invest in coming to see me so that I can transmit your complaint to the appropriate authority, because I happen to be better informed or happen to have certain access, that is not right. I don’t know how many people use suggestion boxes. The test of the pudding is in the eating. Why not take a piece of paper, write and put it in that box and see if anything will happen?


Q. Now trying to be an Onosode, invariably is to be a contented man. What other desires would you say you crave badly in your life?


A. Badly in my life? (chuckles) It will be having more of what I already have, by the grace of God. There is nothing new that I want that I don’t already have. I have been very fortunate in that; as you probably know, I never applied for any job in my life. The only occasion that I wanted to apply for a job, I was not allowed to drop my application. That job was to be President of Nigeria! That was the only job for which I wanted to apply. I never became a candidate. I was stopped at the Kaduna convention in January 1999. If I have more money -- oh, there are some wonderful things I would do. But I will still be the same person. Right now, as we speak, by the grace of God, I am planning to help build a new church auditorium in my village. But if it is remotely outside the scope of my capability, I won’t think of it. And I won’t feel that I was less than what God has called me to be. But to answer your question; really, there is nothing I am craving or angling for, no. I hope this house continues to stand, and the roof continues to keep out water, that floodwater doesn’t come into the compound, and whenever I go home to Delta state, I still find the house standing there. So there is nothing that I am looking for in life. I just want to remain faithful to my commitment to Christ and the values that my commitment requires of me in responding to the needs of society around me.


Q. What was life like during your days at Government College Ughelli?


A. I was part of a disciplined society! A disciplined community, the task of which was to raise leaders of tomorrow by exposing them to all the elements that constitute the making of the man. Exposure to literature, to books, to learning; the development of values, the recognition of the fact that man is a social animal, and therefore it is not enough for an individual to be completely comfortable in what he or she is doing. One must make sure that what one is involved in does not impact adversely on one’s neighbours. That was what Government College Ughelli stood for -- the pursuit of excellence in all its ramifications.


Q. You will agree that during that period, Government Colleges were the popular destination of serious students. These institutions set the standards. But today, it seems that people run away from these schools. What has changed? How does Government College Ughelli today compare with when you were there as a student?


A. If one visited Government College Ughelli today, what one would see are the marks of decay. Decay, not only of bricks and mortar that constitute the physical infrastructure of that otherwise famous institution, but also in the quality of education that could possibly be offered from those physical facilities. Last year (2004), for example, when I was there on Founders Day, 19 January, in my capacity as the President of Government College Ughelli Old Boys Association, Worldwide, the first thing I noticed as I drove in, was an environment that was clearly degraded by white pollution-cellophane packaging thrown all over the place! Now, that is the mark, in my opinion, that the quality of life at this point is a far cry from what it was in my time, that is, in the forties and fifties.


Q. What act of indiscipline could a student commit in your time that would attract serious punishment?


A. Hanging your clothes where they are not meant to dry; stealing anything, no matter how inconsequential the object stolen might be; leaving the school premises without due permission; returning to school with evidence of sexual misconduct during the holidays, (because there was a medical examination of each student at the beginning of each new term); and not being polite to those who have been put in positions of authority. For example, rudeness to a school prefect or a House Prefect, would earn you punishment! So, the school, therefore, in my time, was a well ordered and disciplined community, committed totally to the development of the students who were admitted into the leaders of tomorrow. In other words the teachers were wholly committed to that assignment, and they had no other life than the life of the pupils, the school and their colleagues. And that made all the difference. Being a teacher in the school was their life. It was immaterial whether they taught Geography or History or Mathematics or Latin.


Q. At that time, had it occurred to you that you could be playing a leadership role in this country?


A. You are assuming that I am playing a leadership role!


Q. Yes, you certainly are!


A. Thank you very much. You are very kind. At

Gamaliel Onosode

Mr. Gamaliel O. Onosode, OFR (Right)

that time, yes; because, my teachers and my Principal wouldn’t let me go through a normal day or week without that message coming through in one form or the other. For example, Warri House, one of the Houses in Government College Ughelli, was my House when I was a student. I rose to become a House Prefect, but even before I became a House Prefect, I was given the task of designing the layout of the compound. And that layout has remained unchanged. Before I left the school, I also became a School Prefect in charge of the school library.


There was one occasion when my Principal called me to his office. He was very upset, because when I was being sworn in as a School Prefect, during the morning assembly, I had to recite some words after the Principal. What I had to recite included the word, s-e-r-v-e. Now, you immediately can see the importance. I was being put in a position to, s-e-r-v-e, not to be s-e-r-v-e-d. The reason I had not cared to pronounce that word correctly is the point of the story. When I was reciting that word, I said, saave’ instead of serve “surve.” That was why he was very upset. In other words, he was saying look, you heard me pronounce that word. The least you could have done was to pronounce it the way I did. Because since this is an English word, I am intelligent enough to know he was more likely to know the correct way of pronouncing that word than I could be at that point. So he was very distressed and very annoyed with me that I said ‘saave,’ instead of ‘serve’ -‘surve!’


And that is a simple example. I can give another example at another level of concern for the well being of students. In my final year, in the run up to the school certificate examination, that is to say towards the end of 1951, our English teacher, a Yorkshire man, advised us against attempting objective questions in English, because, according to hum, they showed no mercy. You were either right or wrong. I went to the examination hall, opened the English exam question paper, and I said to myself, but if questions are set, they are meant to be answered! So I included an objective question among the optional questions that I answered. The result was fatal! I missed A in English by just one mark, because I had not recognized sufficiently the difference between s-u-p-e-r-s-e-d-e and a non-existent word, s-u-p-e-r-c-e-d-e! This provoked a blistering attack on me by the Acting Principal when the time came for him to write my school-leaving certificate. He said I should learn to pay more attention to other people’s views.


I thought this was most unfair, that out of a single, admittedly terminal, incident you summed up a person’s character. I thought it was unfair, and I got mine back on him, years after, at the fiftieth anniversary of Government College, when I was then praising the qualities of the teachers. I drew attention to the fact that they too, being human, had their own weaknesses. So, you can see from such incidents that may appear not important, that the school always took the opportunity to build up the student to prepare him to play a leadership role in a future life.




Q. The upbringing of a child was not left solely to schools. What were the influences you received from your family circle?


A. You are absolutely right! I understand from my cursory reading of school methods that the path a child takes in life may begin as early as when that child is three-and half or four years old. This places an awesome responsibility on parents. It means that if a child has been thoroughly spoilt at the time he or she begins school, the school can only attempt to improve something that is already bad, in which the task of the school becomes that much more difficult. So parents do have the first and primary responsibility in every aspect of the development of a human being. This is why the Van Leer Nigeria Educational Trust, of which I have the privilege of being the Chairman, established a project that publishes books that recognize that parents are the first teachers of a child. The family unit, which is the microcosm of society, must be recognized for its primary and significant role in the matter of the development of the character of persons who make up the larger society.


Q. You went on to the University College, Ibadan, which at that time was part of the University of London, and where you studied Classics. The government has, from time to time, complained that we are producing too many people in the arts. Did your study of Classics impart something uniquely important to your life?


A. The truth of the matter is that when I arrived Ibadan in late

September 1952, I could not have studied Engineering or Medicine, because the college, at the time, was not offering the natural sciences. The closest the students of my generation had to the sciences was Nature Study or Hygiene and Physiology! I arrived Ibadan, and was required to choose a combination of subjects in the Art faculty. If permitted, I might have studied mathematics, English or even Geography; I was quite good in all three, at school. But there was that limiting factor.


But my studying the Classics, I think, did contribute significantly to my make up. It imparted something that reinforced the foundation I received from my parents upon which the primary and secondary school that I was fortunate to attend had built on. And what it gave me was the capacity for an incisive and rigorous examination of facts and situations. What is not often appreciated is that when you study Classics, you are not just being equipped to translate from one language to the other. You are exposed to the entire culture of a people as recorded in their literature. So it is not surprising that those who study Classics as a discipline become quite versatile in acquiring different disciplines in which they had no formal training. And I think you can say that perhaps, I am a moderate example of that fact. The only time I ever earned money directly from my study of Latin was the few months in which I taught the subject at the Baptist Girls High School, Agbor. Otherwise after leaving Ibadan, I have never had anything to do directly with the two languages, Latin and Greek that I studied for five years at Ibadan.


Q. Who were your contemporaries at Ibadan?


A. Ambassadors B.A Clark and I .C. Olisaemeka were my contemporaries, my actual classmates. And there were my seniors, esteemed individuals such as Prof. Akin Mabaogunje, Prof Ezeilo and the late Bola Ige who also read Classics. Chief Emeka Anyaoku, Aig Imokhuede, Engineer John Ediale, and a number of others were my juniors in school.


Q. These people you mentioned have, like you, made their mark in society. However, succeeding generations appear to have encountered, along the way, a problem in the transition process. On campuses, we are confronted with violent cults, rampant assassinations, and university teachers going on strike as if they were factory workers; at what point did there become a disconnection?


A. In every situation, the potential for doing good or evil is always

present. It is interesting that globalisation is now trumpeted as some kind of great new idea. But when I was at Government College, some of

our teachers were Igbo, some Yoruba, others Yorkshire and Scots men.

Students came from all parts of the country -- from the North,

the Middle Belt, some were from the South, East, South West; that was our

community. In other words, we globalization was in effect!


Regardless of nationality or the colour of their skin, all these people had objectives that were defined in the way they interacted to emphasize the universality of the values they practiced. The fact that we each lived as human beings made in the image of God meant that we had responsibilities towards one another. But now, at the University of Ibadan when a new Vice Chancellor is about to be appointed, questions are raised about where he comes from; is he from one ethnic nationality or the other? The seeds of disintegration, the seeds that work against cohesion, began to be planted.


Therefore the independence of the University of Ibadan from the

University of London, and the political independence that came to Nigeria, in 1960, were intrinsically good developments that unfortuanately brought with them unanticipated, unexpected results. For instance, I do not see, why the University of Ibadan should feel pressured to have less of an expatriate

        presence than it had in the past. That is not to say, it should not aspire to

the establishment of a greater Nigerian presence, but my point is this; with its cultural and racial diversity, the institution was developing most successfully. However, if we are at a point where we say -- this is a Nigerian institution, therefore, all the teachers, if we can arrange it, must be Nigerians, then we may come to a time when we insist that because a university is located in a particular part of the country, the administration, faculty and other staff should come from that particular area!


Q. Which is where we are today!


A. Which is where we are! And so things begin to fall apart. Now, the challenge we have today is to pull things together again to realize our common destiny. And what we do should promote the well being of all without regard to ethnic origin.


Q. Isn’t it ironic, really, that this seed of, call it academic xenophobia, was sown in the Ivory tower itself?


A. I think you are right. That’s why I used my example. In my time at Ibadan, one of the things that gave me almost immediate prominence was my intervention in the squabble between ethnic groups. The larger politics spilled into the campus. And I, as a freshman was so dismayed, coming from the backwoods from the back of beyond, and I intervened. People said who is this freshman with the audacity to meddle in campus politics? And that was how I found myself involved in campus politics from my first until my final year.


So, yes, it is a fair comment to say that, regrettably, academia did not stand above it all. And if you take other aspects of our national life, where there is genuine concern that we are operating sub-optimally, you will find that the Ivory Tower has not lived above those weaknesses, either. In fact, this was what prompted my disappointed comments in the distinguished alumni lecture that I delivered in 1993 at Ibadan. I decried the fact that the Ivory Tower, which used to be a Light House beaming light and life into the larger society, was, indeed, but clad with mirrors, which simply reflected the weaknesses and the foibles of the larger society. That was 12 years ago when I made that observation at Ibadan.


Q. There is an informal aspect of education. A few years ago when Mr. John Major came here, he revealed that he left formal school at the age of 17.  This means that the man who became the Prime Minister of England did so with his O levels. In this country, there seems to be a scarcity of similar role models, the few that are available seeming to have been drowned by the noise of the “madding crowd.” What are your reflections on this?


A. In school, in my time, whether it was primary or secondary, what one saw and

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heard around, made positive contributions towards lifting the level of awareness of those who passed through those institutions, whether as students or as teachers. And the fundamental value that was imparted was that man, if I may use the scriptural expression, does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. In other words, success in life must not be measured simply by the quantum of material attainment. In fact, being materially successful is not something outside the capability of those who live by those values that make economic development a blessing rather than a curse. In fact it has been found that the less those eternal and universal values permeate the life of citizens, the more likely that they will not achieve their optimum capability in the matter of converting their natural resources, be they human or material, into a higher standard of living for the generality of their people.


The problem we are now faced with is that we must begin to invest as much as we can in disseminating and inculcating those values in the next generation. And the people you regard as role models are likely to be those who may not necessarily be the richest in the land. In fact they are less likely to be, for it would seem that almost, invariably, the villains of yesterday become the saints of today! One, alas, can see the glittering glamour of the positions such people have attained, or the material wealth they have accumulated as a result of attitudes one would not think were consistent with a definition of what should constitute a true role model. That is part of the problem.


On behalf of the foundation, I thank you, sir, for sitting down to this conversation.



PICTURES Courtesy of 4th_annual/onosode.htm

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 #12: Mr. Gamaliel O. Onosode, OFR, in Conversation with Pini Jason