Prof. Chinua Achebe
Mrs. Oyibo Odinamadu
Prof. Chinua Achebe
Mrs. Oyibo Odinamadu
About Obi Nwakanma
Nwakanma was educated at the
ON: Can you tell us a something about yourself; give us a broad picture of Oyibo Odinamadu?
OO: My maiden name is Oyiboka Ekwulo Akwuba. I am the second daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Ekemezie Akwuba of Awkuzu in Oyi Local Government Area. I am one of nine children in the family. And I did my early education at Awkuzu…
ON: What does Oyiboka actually mean?
OO: (laughs) My father just appreciated
Mrs. Oyibo Odinamadu
Mrs. Oyibo Odinamadu
I started teaching in 1943 up until 1946, probably 1947. But during the
Christmas holidays of 1946, I met Dr. Nwafor Orizu with my sister. Actually, we were on our way to
ON: From Port-Harcourt?
ON: One month?
OO: Yes. And we stopped at every port. We stopped at Takoradi, at
ON: You saw only sky and water for twenty-eight days!
OO: The sky… and, sometimes, for a day or two, land while we sailed from one West African port to another,
until we got to Dakar. It took us twelve days to the
ON: Your description of
seeing only water and the sky reminds me of Charles Johnson’s experience in the novel, The Middle Passage. The depiction
of the movement of Africans across the sea and into slavery; except that in your particular case, in the 1940s,
you were going for what was then called the “golden fleece.” Did you ever contemplate the conditions of those captive
Africans as you were crossing the
OO: Yes! We thought about it, because we had done some history of Advertise here
Abroad, we wrote letters, and if you received a reply in three months
it was considered fast. Whenever a letter arrived, there was jubilation, and everyone came to hear the news from
home; even if it was very stale news (laughs). Yes, that was how we made it. And when I got to the
ON: So you were quite anxious to go home?
OO: I was very anxious to go home, yes. And it was a big thing, then; everyone wanted to go home. Nowadays, people want to settle down abroad or stay for a long as possible.
ON: A paradox, isn’t it? Give us an idea of what it was like to be in the United States as an African student, in the 1940s and early ‘50s.
OO: We were the next crop of students after Zik, the Nwafor Orizus, Mbadiwes, Nkrumahs, and so on. Nwafor Orizu arranged my scholarship; mine was the next group of scholars after them. Okala was here when we arrived…the late Professor JBC Okala; he had been in the US for quite sometime when we arrived. At Columbia I took some courses with him; it was a very challenging time. Everything was so new and different, but you had to get used to the society, and carry on with your educational program. Some people were very friendly, and treated you with respect; some treated you with distance. Not all black people were friendly…
ON: So you had some resistance even among blacks at the time?
OO: Yes, there was some resistance. But that brought us, the African students rather close together. We certainly felt more affinity with each other.
ON: How many of your Nigerian contemporaries do you remember as students in the US, at the time?
OO: Oh, there were many of us; though, unfortunately some are gone. There was Lebuwa Nwozo, who became a doctor; she’s passed away now. Agnes Ada Obi was Dr. Nwafor Orizu’s niece. There was also Lily Ada Ulasi, who later worked at Daily Times. There was Ada Mere, who was at UNN; Uzoamaka was the first to die, she was diabetic. And then among the men, there was Chukwuemeka Eboh, from Onitsha who later taught at UNN. Okagbue also taught at UNN. Kanu Orizu was Nwafor-Orizu’s brother; he’s also dead; Alec Njaka, dead…there were so many of them. There was Babs Fafunwa, and the late Sam Ojo, Fafunwa’s very good friend. There was MCK Ajuluchukwu…
Life was very
Mrs. Oyibo Odinamadu
Mrs. Oyibo Odinamadu
When I was at graduate school at Columbia University, I worked in the morning, and from 2:30 or 3:00 pm, I went to school. I was able to earn enough money to take care of myself. Eventually, the Nigerian government set up a liaison office in the US, and that was in Washington DC. One European, a Reginald Barrett--very nice man--was the first liaison officer. We later organized the West African Students Union, championed by Taylor Blyden, Edward Blyden’s grandson. He was a student at the time also; at Howard University, I think. We had the Conference at Howard, and had the opportunity to meet Mr. Barret. He helped us, especially, you know, those who owed school fees, and all that.
ON: You studied in the US during the Jim Crow era…
OO: Yes, the era of Jim Crow. In fact, even though I went to school in the North, which was assumed liberal, there were places blacks opted not to travel to. Even Washington DC, at the time, was a no-go area, as well as West Virginia; Virginia down to Maryland, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Texas, Florida and so on…Arkansas...ah! Terrible place! These were notoriously Jim Crow areas. In the bus, you had to ride at the back, on a certain side of the bus, which I refused to do. I told them, no; that place would churn my stomach, and I would get sick. So anytime I came on a bus, I would ride in front, or at least, not below the middle of the bus. And I got into trouble. Oh yes! Because the bus drivers would tell you that you had to go to the back. And I would say, no, I won’t go to the back. After all, I paid the same fare like everyone else, and I had the right to choose where I wanted to sit.
ON: What gave you that courage?
OO: Well, because although I knew they had the segregation laws, I just refused to do it. And most of the time, they’d just leave the whole seat for me. Nobody else would like to sit nearby. It was everywhere. To go to the bathroom, I liked to travel by Greyhound bus. When they made their stops at the depots, and you wanted to go to the bathroom--the ones that you dropped coins into to operate --sometimes, the women cleaners would refuse to let you use it. They’d direct you to an unclean bathroom stall. If you went to the restaurant, they would not serve you; they’d tell you to sit on the side that had dirty, broken chairs. Once, I sat on the good side of one of these restaurants, and a steward came to me, and said: “ma’am, you have to go over to the other side,” and I asked, “Why?” He said, “Because that’s how it is…there’s where you gotta sit.” I told him I wouldn’t go there, that I wanted to stay where I was. And he said, “If you sit here, I won’t serve you.” And I said, “Oh well, that’s your call. But, in my country, we would never think to treat people this way.
ON: Did your being an African have anything to do with your defiance? It seems you got away with quite a lot.
OO: (laughs) I should think so. They heard my accent, and knew that I wasn’t American. I’m Igbo you see…talking about defiance... But I suppose that made them leave me alone. If I sounded American, they might have treated me otherwise. It wasn’t too much for them to lynch the person. Those were still the days of automatic lynching.
ON: Did you witness any lynching?
OO: Oh yes! There was a lot of lynching that was going on; any little thing, at all, they’d lynch people. The KKK, the Ku Klux Klan, was very strong and very much in operation. When I was in Clafflin College in South Carolina, we’d be in our hostel, and at night, we’d hear the chanting of the KKK. Sometimes, you’d peep out through the window, and you’d see their burning cross flaming in the night, from their temple. They’d go on through out the night, and we’d say, “Ah, these people are going to lynch somebody tonight!” And in the morning, you heard that they’d abducted two young men…two African-American men, and lynched them. Black people would just get lost like that, and nobody would ask about them, nothing would be done. They would never be seen again. Nobody gave account, and their families would just weep and suffer, and that would be the end of it.
ON: Things have come a long way, then?
OO: Things have changed dramatically, yes; even though there are still vestiges. But there has been some change. There’s the case of a man who had masterminded the lynching of three young men doing voter education and registration in Mississippi, and had bee tried and vindicated in the fifties. He was supposed to be a minister of God, in the church. He had dug a grave, abducted these people, killed them, and pushed them into this mass grave, and then covered it. There was not a whimper in the area where this had happened. The relations of the people killed, protested, but nothing happened, until very recently when the man was brought to justice. He is quite old. He was sentenced to life, and is in prison now.
ON: You returned to Nigeria in 1953…
OO: I returned in ’53, yes; the year I completed my Master’s Degree.
ON: You were the first Igbo female University graduate.
OO: I, in fact, learned that not only am I the first Igbo woman, but the first woman of Eastern Nigerian origin, to have earned a University degree. I was also the first with a graduate degree. When I graduated, I immediately went home; there was no waiting. My parents were at home; my entire family. I hadn’t seen them for years. By then, as I said, people were anxious to go home, then.
ON: How does the Nigeria you returned to from the United States in 1953, compare with the present. What was it that drew you back to Nigeria; did you have any particular expectation?
OO: What drew me back to Nigeria was, firstly, I wanted to go back to see my family. Secondly, I wanted to go home and serve my people. Being one of the first few women to have the opportunity for higher education abroad, I wanted see how I could use what I had gained for my people. I was teaching in the primary school before I left for the United States. I wanted to return home, and do whatever I could to improve the situation there; perhaps, teach at a higher level. In addition, I just needed to be home. There was a certain urge and inclination to be at home, because I was raised in the village (laughs). I like I like village people; I love village life, even though there was no running water, no electricity, at the time. There were no paved roads, just some paths going into the village--there was only one motorable road from Oye-agu junction to Otuocha…
ON: You mentioned the fact that Nigerians who go to Universities abroad right now are not returning home. Nigeria in 1953 was less developed, and offered fewer opportunities; yet you returned home immediately after your studies. What do you think is the problem today?
OO: Well…I don’t think the problem is that our people don’t like home anymore. But the policies and the way the government operates at home is no longer attractive to people. The major thing is that the way the government operates, the tone of the society right now, is not as attractive as it should be.
ON: Can you give me a sense of Nigeria in 1953.
OO: Well, when I returned -- I really retuned home on the first day of January 1954 --
As it turned out, it was one of the best Christmases in my life. I met a number of other Nigerians, and we really enjoyed the ride. Justice Chukwudifu Oputa -- at the time, he was a bright young lawyer -- was coming back from London with his wife; there was Dr. Ademola, the Sierra Leonean brother to the late Justice Adetokumbo Ademola; with his wife, Folarin Coker. He was later a permanent Secretary. There was Omobola Coker; her father was a Reverend, and Maimalari, who was killed during the January 15, 1966 coup…we were all on board. We had a great time. I was then a younger and very agile woman. I liked to play table tennis, and I would beat all of them! (laughs) So when I arrived at the Apapa wharf, and saw all the Awkuzu people and their friends who lived in Lagos, and turned out to meet me, it was incredible! But that was a small matter compared to what awaited me at home in the village.
When I got home…I flew from Lagos to Enugu, and was met by my younger sister who lived there with her husband and family. We then continued home to the village a few days later. We had sent word home that we were on our way; my brother gave us his car, and we went to the market and bought a few things. We left Enugu –it was the old road – we left about three o’clock, thinking we would be arriving about 5:00pm, and I’d just go in and rest. But I couldn’t believe it when we got to the Abagana junction on the road to Otuocha, and the crowd of people there…the crowd…the number of Ijele drums; I’d never seen such a crowd of people in my life! They had come to receive me…their daughter who had gone abroad to study, and returned. I was very surprised, indeed. My father was the kind of person who never wasted time on anything. If he wanted to do something, it was quick, quick, quick, ahead of time, early; I don’t know how he managed to instantly organize such a reception. The church group was there, the village was all there. The Umunna was there, everybody, waiting. My goodness! That was how people received those returning in those days. You had gone for the Golden Fleece, and were back in one piece.
ON: Aside from the novelty, what changed in the ideas and ways of people?
OO: What had changed was the ways of the people who were managing the affairs of government. Mark you--I experienced a great deal of discrimination when I returned. I wanted a job in the ministry of education having qualified in Education. However, I was refused a job. For six months I was just sitting around, walking around with no job.
OO: Why? Because I had an American education. The British authorities would not give me a job, because they claimed that American education was inferior; it was no education. My Master’s degree was equated to the British first degree. I asked, why? The schools I attended in the US, the largest population were the Americans; however, the next largest population of students was British. What were they doing there, I asked, if American education was inferior to British education? While we were in the same classes, and taking the same courses, were they receiving a different kind of education? And when they got to England they were given good jobs. Quinn-Young was the British director of education of the Eastern region, in Enugu then. The man refused to give me a job!
I finally got a job as Assistant Secretary in the Eastern Nigerian Development Corporation. E.O. Eyo of Uyo was chairman of the board, then. They had advertised for a job, and I was employed as Assistant Secretary. I was in that job for three years, and then switched to Education. By then they had raised the question in the Eastern House of Assembly as to why I was not employed in the service. I suffered this discrimination along with Dr. Udokwu, who later founded the Nike Grammar School. He came home with a doctorate degree, but they wouldn’t give him a job…in his own country!!! However, when Nigerians took charge of the government in 1954, things improved so much, and went so well that they began sending people to the US to recruit graduates to come home and help in nation building, and so on. The government had broad and ambitious programs, and they needed people. Some came home, and were immediately recruited. Then all of a sudden, everything changed.
ON: When did things change; can you begin to map the shifts?
OO: Things began to change just before the war. It began with the Federal government that was no longer receptive to everyone. It wasn’t a uniform policy that was being applied in the employment policy; there was increasing discrimination. People returned home, and could no longer find jobs even when the jobs existed. Even people who qualified in Nigeria--because the universities were producing people at Ibadan and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka--employment became difficult and scarce.
ON: So, you returned in 1953, and basically took a job as Assistant Development officer. What did you do as Assistant Secretary, ENDC, and what was the ENDC all about?
OO: The Development Corporation was involved in Agricultural development, small scale, cottage industrial development, and so on. We were developing plantations, palm plantations, cashew plantations, rubber plantations and so forth. The cashew plantations at Oghe and Okigwe, for instance, produced nuts for consumption, as well as certain kinds of oil for use in the production of plastics and things like that. We were going into villages to find areas to set up pioneer oil mills for palm oil production. We coordinated extention services for the ministry of Agriculture; at the time I was basically involved in setting up the structure for the Development Corporation, taking minutes of the board meetings; establishing personnel services, setting up interviews. For instance, you know that I employed Bob Ogbuagu as Public Relations Officer for the ENDC? So that’s what we did in the ENDC.
ON: Give me a sense of what the Civil Service was like in your time.
OO: The civil service was a cohesive body where there was great inter-departmental cooperation. The Eastern Region had a solid civil service. There wasn’t so much animosity and in-fighting; at least, I didn’t observe it. I got on well with my colleagues and we worked well, we cooperated well. Government had a series of development plans: ten years, five years, two years as the case might be. Every department – they were not called ministries then, ministries came later – each department had their own schedule, or program. Revenue was strategically apportioned, based on well-thought out plans: the number of schools to be set up, teachers to be employed, and materials to be procured. It was based on cooperation, for instance, in education, between the voluntary agencies, which were mostly missions and the individuals who set up schools, and the government. Government would give grants in aid, or assistance, and the voluntary agencies would do the rest. The Government established the inspectorate to enforce standards. Things just worked well. Every year, we planned that more children would be able to attend school. The development programs and projects were running, and so much was achieved. At the time, there was no petroleum oil; it was palm produce in the East, groundnuts in the North, and cocoa and rubber in the West.
And enough money was produced to run the budgets, and was saved, as well; it was out of the palm produce – they set up marketing boards for produce – it was out of the palm produce that the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, was built, that the Otu-Onitsha, the Onitsha market – the first modern market complex in West Africa - was built with Five Hundred thousand Pounds; at the time, a big achievement. It was from the produce that the Trans-Amadi industrial estate was built, and so on. So, government had plans and projects, and fully executed them. People were overwhelmingly honest in their jobs, satisfied with what they were being paid. There was not much fraud and embezzlement, making away with government resources for their own pockets. The projects were carried on with the resources available, and so people were happy and did their jobs well. With petroleum oil, came the oil boom or oil doom, as the case may be, and hence the decline of Nigeria.
ON: So you worked with the Eastern regional government all through. When did you leave the civil service?
OO: Ukpabi Asika made me leave the civil service.
ON: Really; when was this?
ON: We’ll come back to this; but from 1954 to 1971, you worked with Azikiwe, under Okpara…
OO: Under Azikiwe, under Okpara…it was Dr. Okpara who was in government when the 1966 crisis happened. Dr. Okpara was the premier, and I later worked with Ojukwu.
ON: And after the war, you worked with Asika?
OO: Yes, after the war I worked with Asika. I had been a classroom teacher at the Women Training College, Enugu. First of all, I worked in the ministry of education, then WTC Enugu from 1960-62. In 1963, I became the principal of the WTC Enugu. I went back to the ministry of Education as Inspector of Education, inspecting schools; primary schools and secondary schools; measuring performance, and what quality of education of education was being received; I evaluated teachers, materials, and so on. I then became Director in charge of examinations and Teachers registration in the ministry of education. I did that until the war in 1967. I was the one who evacuated the materials and all the records of the exams branch, and so on, which we carried to Umuahia. That was where we were told to go. We went to Umuahia, and then returned to Owerri, and down to Ihiala area. When the war ended, we carried the whole thing back to Enugu.
ON: You kept all the records?
OO: We kept all the records of
Mrs. Oyibo Odinamadu
Mrs. Oyibo Odinamadu
In any case, I cleaned up Queens School and readmitted students. I also supervised the first in-take of students after the war; both the higher and beginner classes. Recently, when I was in hospital in North Carolina -- at the Wake Medical Center -- my blood count continued to drop after I underwent surgery; from 11 points to 9 points. The hospital was worried. I was in the room receiving attention, when a nurse rushed into the room; she had seen my name on the notice board that was hung outside in the ward lobby. She asked me: “Are you Oyibo Odinamadu?” I said “Yes,” and she jumped on me, hugged me, and shouted, “This is my principal! This is my principal! This woman was my principal!!” The nurse was one of the first students that I admitted to Queens School in 1970. She remembered even the question I asked her at the interview (laughs), and that one of her cousins had not gained admission…
ON: It must have made you very happy.
OO: Oh yes (laughs). Everybody then knew at Wake Med that I was their colleague’s principal in high school (points)…she gave me that plant (laughs)! So, that was how we cleaned up Queen School, and started a rigorous discipline; that was how I knew things should be done. But those girls who had grown wild in the war would not tolerate it (chuckles). And their godfathers, the military officers, were lurking in the background. And again, one thing I did was that I wouldn’t allow them observe frivolous holidays. I would tell my students that they must come to school, we were not going to observe so and so holidays. It was the same with George Akabogu. Asika didn’t like this; Akabogu was at the Institute of Administration, Enugu, temporarily running his Government College, Afikpo from there before it was fully re-opened. By the way, George is dead (sighs). Anyway, my insistence on discipline was resisted. But it was the role I played during the war; I really entered the Biafran war with Biafran women, in a big way. You know, I led a delegation to the Queen of England.
ON: You worked with Zik, Okpara, Ojukwu, and Asika. What were these men like; how would you compare them?
OO: Zik was the intellectual, an orator, and full of ideas. He was a theoretician, Zik. He wasn’t much of a practical man. He didn’t get down to brass tacks; in the Eastern House of Assembly, Zik would get up and speak for the entire day and the following day write in newspapers. It was when Dr. Okpara became the premier…Dr. Okpara undertook the economic tour, because my husband was Secretary to the Premier, and they took a world tour to Israel, to Singapore, to many places. It was to Israel that they went, and they were very well received. They came with ideas for projects and appeals for technical and financial assistance. That was when the Hotel Presidential in Enugu and Port-Harcourt were built, and the Nkalagu Cement factory, as well. The roads were built, the water works Enugu was built, and there was water supply everywhere!
Dr. Okpara brought so many projects with his world economic tour. His slogan was to tell the people that we are a nation in a hurry, and that we are a deprived people who wanted to catch up with the most advanced in the world. We needed help in nation-building. And they came, so many Israeli engineers and technical assistants; so many of them doing the job. So, during the time of Dr. Okpara and Dr. Akanu Ibiam, we saw a great deal of innovation. The Calabar cement factory was built at the time, and there was so much improvement in the region; life was progressing. Then the coup happened, and everything broke down, the war started. During the military government, Emeka tried to safe-guard what belonged to the government that he felt certain people were trying to appropriate…
ON: You mean Emeka Ojukwu, of course…
OO: Yes, Emeka Ojukwu. And then it was all about how people felt about the treatment the Igbo were getting; the massacres in the North, the return of the maimed, the headless onye-ije, and so on. People were not happy at all. 30,000 people were killed, and pamphlets were published at the ministry of information – it was my husband as the permanent secretary, and Cyprian Ekwensi as the Director of Information – about the pogrom. The pamphlets narrated everything; how it happened; how the Igbo were killed and massacred, and of course the British government would not listen; they didn’t think 30,000 was anything; there was no genocide as far as they were concerned, and so on. So the Igbo and other Easterners were just coming home from all over Nigeria, and it became a question of what would happen to Ndigbo, how would Ndigbo and other easterners be resettled? The Igbo thought other Nigerians would see what would happen and worry that if a way to settle the issue was not found, Nigeria would collapse. But what they did was to say, good riddance! And vacancies were filled with people other than the Igbo; that was when Nigeria started collapsing. Unqualified and even untrained people were now filling the positions and doing what they knew not to do. That was the beginning of the collapse of the Nigerian government and its public service.
ON: Do you think the war could have been averted? Do you think the war should have been fought?
OO: The war could have been averted if Gowon was more reasonable, but somehow…
ON: Some have also said, perhaps if Ojukwu were more reasonable…
OO: No. People like to think that there was some kind of rivalry between Ojukwu and
It went on and on, and Easterners said: “Well, we might as well leave Nigeria; there is nothing we are gaining from Nigeria.” Ojukwu set up a committee to ask Easterners what they would like to do. Did they want to remain in Nigeria or did they want to carry on with this idea of self-determination and secession? I was in that committee, and Godfrey Ugwu was the permanent secretary and the chairman. We were also the ones who later told Easterners to get ready, and to ask: “Are you ready?” because the die is cast; the come is coming to become, as Mbadiwe would say (laughs).
OO: Were the Eastern minorities involved in this decision? People say you did not involve the other Easterners. In any case, what was the role of the other Easterners at this prep stage of the conflict?
ON: Well, I should say that some of them were members of the committees. Ojukwu had his cabinet; those were the people who were taking the decisions of government. We only implemented directives. For instance, Philip Alale, who was executed with Ifeajuna was a member of the committee. He had returned home from Ghana to join the war. In fact some of the pep songs that we were singing at the time, he taught us, and so many others. We didn’t know, at the time, that the minorities were not with us, or were not interested, until after the war had actually started. People had already left Enugu, which had already being evacuated, and we started hearing that Calabar was no longer interested in Biafra, that Rivers people were not; that the Ikwere-Etche people were saying they were not Ndigbo, and that Port-Harcourt was no longer Igbo land. They claimed that Willinks had made Port-Harcourt Igbo land – places like Opobo, and all those areas, Igbo. So, that was it. It was later that we heard from people like Francis Ellah that they were promised heaven and earth not to support Biafra, that Nigeria would do this and that for them. And when it all eventually fell down flat on the ground, nothing at all was ever done for them. All the development programs initiated from the East; there is no doubt that they were better off in the East, than what they received, in the end, from Nigeria.
OO: You were very much involved with Nigerian women organizations. How do you see the role of Nigerian women today?
ON: The Nigerian women organization that I was involved in was non-political. I was involved in the Nigerian Cultural and Philanthropic organization, and elected the first president. And it was the Nigerian Cultural and Philanthropic organization – the first non-political, non-religious, non-profit making organization of women in Eastern Nigerian at the time – that comprised those instrumental in setting up the National Council of Women Societies (NCWS). We joined with other Nigerian women organizations in other parts of Nigeria to set up the NCWS, with its headquarters in Lagos. I was also the president of NCWS when it was set up in Enugu and, of course, attending its meetings. But the main policy of the National Council was that of a non-governmental organization, non-political, non-religious, non-profit making; we just dealt with issues of women and children – their fundamental human rights – and saw to it that women began to appreciate or understand what was meant by human rights. We invited lawyers to explain to us the legal rights of women even in marriage; in anything, at all.
So, that’s how we started, and we respected its policies so much that we didn’t bring in partisan politics into the National Council of Women Societies. So people from all walks of life, those of us who were civil servants and who were in politics; all came in and we discussed, and we talked, and found ways of public advocacy on women’s issues. We addressed groups, and held rallies and so on. And things went on in this vein for me until I finally retired, and went into partisan politics on the platform of the UPN. During the committee of friends organizing of political parties in 1978, I called a meeting of the National Council, and told them it was now time for politics. Those who were in politics in the past might like to go back into it, I suggested, and I desired to participate in politics, now that I was no longer in the civil service. I then organized a League of Women Voters whose aim was to bring all women together, no matter what shade or colour of political opinion, in order to push the interest of women and children, which we interpreted as inter-related.
We came into this League and began to discuss how women in political parties could press for the interests of women to be addressed; the matters and issues in favour of women and children. We no longer wanted segregation or discrimination against these two groups, but to push for laws and legislations that suited them – education, better conditions in employment – whether private or in the government. We felt very strongly, that these issues of women must of necessity be pursued in all parties that women found themselves in. This was agreed upon, and the League of Women Voters in Enugu was formed. Following our decision, I took our agenda to Lagos to introduce it to the other women groups. Then the women in the west just took over! The first day our ideas were put on the table, they grabbed our ideas, elected themselves into offices, without further attempt to fully understand the issues at stake or even to bring me and others from other parts of the country to continue with the program. These women latched onto the program, and ran with it! (laughs) And I feel that the whole situation was entirely mismanaged...
When Obasanjo proscribed the committees at the time of the formation of political parties, the League of Women Voters was also proscribed. However, since the league of women voters was conceived as a kind of platform for all women to discuss their political interests, we were not really pursuing being registered as a political party. That was that. I went into the UPN; women in the NPP and the NPN were completely lorded over by the men who were their masters in those parties. There was an argument that I must join the NPP or NPN and not a party of my own choice. I said, why? One is free to join whatever party they desire, and I want a chance at my own choice. Why try to coral me? People said that I would be taking the National Council into any political party I joined, and I replied that I did not see the situation that way at all.
Anyway, that was how plans to discourage me and get me out of the UPN began; to the point that when we came to Enugu for a campaign, Jim Nwobodo sent a pick-up van full of thugs who just hauled stones at us. Because of that, the National Council of Women’s Societies became highly politicized, and I refused to attend any more of their meetings; even when they invited me to accept their certificate of life-membership. I said to them to keep their certificate. I was the one who set up life membership in the NCWS in the Eastern region. I was president Eastern region, Eastern Nigeria, Anambra state, though I’m no longer interested. I was meant to understand that, even at the national level, people were conducting political campaigns within the NCWS. And so the National Council became politicized. It is no longer a non-political and non-profit, and non-religious…they do all sorts of things there now.
ON: So it was from your organization that the National Council began, and it veered into something else?
ON: Who were your colleagues with whom you started?
OO: We began the National Council in Lagos because, really, by then everything was headquartered in Lagos. Our first president in the National Council was Dr. Bimbola Awoliyi who came from Lagos to inaugurate the Eastern Council of the NCWS in 1958. After her death came many others: Lady Abayomi, Mrs. Pratt, and the rest. This was in Lagos. In Eastern Nigeria, it was me, Mrs. Uzoma, Mrs.Onii Eluwah -- B.O.N Eluwah’s wife; Dr. Mary Umolu -- she’s a US citizen who was married to John Umolu, though they later separated. She’s returned to the US, and is now a professor at Medgar Evers University in New York. There was also Eme Nwakanma-Okoro. Mrs. Margaret Ekpo was our patron, as well as Mrs. Mokelu and the wives of the premiers – Mrs. Azikiwe, Mrs. Adanma Okpara, and Lady Ibiam; they were all made patrons.
ON: I would like to go back to the activities of you and other women in Biafra. It seems to me that it was a very active time for women, as well; in military conflicts, women were often victims. What lessons might we draw from the experience of the women during Biafra?
OO: Women back then were somewhat unsophisticated in political matters. And this was because the men did not give them much support. Wives were rarely allowed to go into politics, and in the parties, a man was usually the chairman of the party while his wife became the chairman of the women’s wing (laughs). So, we had to be content with the women’s wing. The UPN was the only party that did not have a women’s wing. Awolowo adamantly refused the idea that women should be relegated to the background, declaring: “No women’s wing…everybody is a member of the party; women should be in the mainstream of the party. There should be no women’s wing or anything of that notion.” Anyone, regardless of gender, who wished to stand for election into any position, had the right to. And that is how I became the first national vice-president of the UPN. Other women held high positions as well. And not only was I the National Vice-president of the party, I was also Deputy Gubernatorial candidate for the UPN in Anambra state. Mrs. Awolowo demonstrated great interest in the party, but she wasn’t a regular as such. Sometimes she’d attend the meetings. And she was never made to run any women’s wing of the party. Yes. In the NPP, someone like Justina Eze won the elections in the Nsukka area; she might even have ended up a senator…I don’t remember now. Now, thankfully, women are showing much more interest in politics.
ON: Tell us what motivated your interest in politics, especially with the UPN.
OO: In the first instance, I was no longer in the civil service, and I have always been interested in the welfare of the people. I have always been very interested in the human rights of women and children, and wanted a platform where I could not only push that, but see to it that more attention was given to women, especially girls going to school. I was also concerned that women who were working had better working conditions. You see, I had experienced quite a lot of discrimination in the civil service. For instance, when I was going to get married, there was a rule governing the establishment division in the premier’s office that any woman who wanted to get married had to resign her employment. I didn’t see any sense in that. And I asked if women were not allowed to get married or what? In the end, I had to resign my appointment, which was immensely frustrating for me.
OO: I had to resign my appointment before I got married. And the person who saw to that was N. U. Akpan; he was the Permanent Secretary, then. I resigned, and got married, and after a while, they re-engaged me again on a month to month basis, and eventually once more harmonized my service. But that was not the last frustrating incident. When I was going to have a baby, I was told that women who were going to have babies had to resign. As always, I wanted to know why, for these rules really made no sense to me. “The General Orders is clear on this issue; you have the six weeks before you have a child, and then six weeks after…plus your earned leave.” But why shouldn’t I take my earned leave? They said, no, I had to resign. Can you imagine that? What does having a child in the civil service stop a woman from doing? But I had to resign. You know eventually, when I asked some other women what they felt about the situation, it turned out that I was the only one who had to resign to get married, who had to resign to have my baby (laughs). Eventually, I don’t know what part my husband played, whether he pressurized them, or not; but all I know is that at some point, I received a letter resolving the situation.
And then Asika came in, and said that for the part I played in Biafra, I wasn’t suitable to continue as a teacher; to direct children, and so on. His argument was that I had taken part in readying Easterners for secession, that during the war I organized the women; we raised money, cooked for the soldiers, for refugees, collected money and bought blankets and sweaters for soldiers. And that I led a delegation to England to ask the Queen of England to stop the war; to stop supplying Nigerians with arms. In England, of course, they snubbed us; the Queen and her Prime minister, Harold Wilson. Anyway, I was no longer suitable to be a teacher, he said. My reply was that, oh yes, I had to go to England. The women of Biafra decided, and informed the government of their decision, and it was sanctioned. We went to England, met some friends of Biafra in Switzerland, and so on; what was wrong in that? Afterall, we were women concerned about our families, our husbands and sons and relations; why would we not go to the person supporting and financing the war, and ask that the war should stop?
These were things for which Asika said I was no longer qualified to be a teacher; to work in the ministry of education and educate children. He sent me on a one-year indefinite leave. I had been sent to revive Queens School, Enugu in 1970 and this happened in 1971. Asika reposted me to the ministry of internal affairs; the Community Development department, but I refused the assignment. There was this massive promotion exercise and all the top positions that I might have assumed should I have gone, were all filled up. This was done because I was senior to all who were there at the time, and I would have upstaged them. In any case, I had served fifteen years. At the time, if one had either reached the age of 45, or served fifteen years, he or she could voluntarily retire from the civil service. So I elected to retire voluntarily.
ON: I asked earlier about the men you worked with. What was Ojukwu like as an administrator; how do you rate Ukpabi Asika?
OO: Well, Ojukwu loved Ndigbo, and loved Biafra. And he was very clear about what he wanted for Biafra. He was clear about the fact that the treatment the Easterners received in Nigeria was immensely wrong, and that something should have been done about it. But nobody was listening. As an administrator he was good. I think he was trying to carry out what he felt the people wanted, what was good for the people. But Ojukwu was misled in certain ways by his advisers. Some of his advisers were not as good and as honest as they should have been. They misappropriated money; all the money that was being raised and handed over to them did not come to Biafra, or was even employed for Biafra. For instance, Akanu Ibiam worked like a jackass to collect money from the World Council of Churches and other such organizations, and he’d come and hand over that money to people like Mojekwu and others. But the money never all arrived where it should have. That really hurt him very much.
Even here in the US, people who collected money in the name of Biafra…my brother, Dr. Akwuba, for instance, I asked him about it. He said that, at that time, he had donated a car and there was much fighting over this car; Mbadiwe and others fought about who would drive the car, and eventually he took back his car, because they couldn’t reach an agreement. So sad…The man I mentioned earlier that I had met in Zurich, Switzerland, one Dr. Ndukwe, simply pocketed whatever was collected. He spoke their language. So, Ojukwu… you see people thought that towards the end, that he should maybe have accepted the confederation rather than insist on secession. And Sir Louis (Mbanefo) worked hard on the secession move, and then to get the terms for confederation in 1968. In the last minute, the Biafran delegation left before the people who were resolving the issue could come up with a resolution. So we lost all that, and anyone in that position…I don’t frankly know whether he should be blamed for not taking the counsel of his advisers.
ON: But the question of what has become of Nigeria must certainly bother you at this stage of your life
OO: A lot.
ON: In what ways?
OO: One could say that Nigeria has just gone to the dogs. Military intervention…I blame the military for all the ills of Nigeria. If there had not been that coup d'etat which forced a break, I don’t think that Nigeria would have degenerated so much. The military came in with their dictatorial methods, their brutish methods. They came in with their kill-and-go impulses, without much of any training – most of them. They were not disciplined, and certainly not a nationalist army. They came in acting like government resources were actually war booty; that everyone could take as much as he wanted. They were not polite, did not know anything about government, they just came and thought that everything was to be taken by brute force, as in the field. It was when they came in that all this money started to flow about in Nigeria. Those who had never had much access to money, didn’t know how to manage it, saw this, and went mad. They became common thieves by just grabbing the resources and wealth of the people. In Igbo we call it “nkita tala okpukpu anya wa la nya n’olu” – the dog that ate the bone in its care. No morality.
ON: When you see all these ex-military rulers and those who collaborated with them talking about nationhood, about governance, what is your reaction to them?
OO: They are not good people. They are not honest people. They are unpatriotic. They don’t love the country. They do not love their people. They are products of group psychosis. They see how things are going well in other countries; yet, they don’t want the same for Nigeria.
ON: What do you think about Obasanjo’s government, his economic policies since he came in 1998; especially given the context within which it is said he negotiated our debt relief?
OO: But does he really have any policies? Look, Obasanjo is just as bad as the worst of them. The fact is that he is negotiating with thieves, with terrorists, with people who destroyed the country, stole billions and billions. How can you negotiate with such people?
ON: But what are his alternatives?
OO: His alternatives are to demand an account from those who had ruined the country. Tell them to return all they’ve stolen, and the people will be behind him. Right now, the people are not with him, because they don’t understand what he is doing. It appears he’s one with the Abacha family - bring out so much and keep the rest. Why should they keep anything? Or this Chris Uba; why should he have supported Chris Uba’s activities in Anambra, be linked in anyway to the man responsible for the incredible destruction that occurred in that state? I mean Nigeria is completely broken, and that is quite sad. Of course, Nigeria did not begin to crack today. It started earlier, even with Obasanjo’s first administration, when he finished up the tenure of Murtala Muhammed. People thought he was honest, because he had said he wouldn’t stay one day longer. He held elections, and handed power. But even then, Awo would tell you, that Obasanjo called him and told him not to contest the election.
ON: He told Awolowo not to contest the election?
OO: Chief Awolowo told us that
Mrs. Oyibo Odinamadu
Mrs. Oyibo Odinamadu
ON: Why did the PPA fail? Here seemed a chance in 1983 to create a progressive alliance and a progressive government. What happened? You were involved in those negotiations...
OO: I was, indeed. I was involved in getting in papa Awo to attend the meeting, and for Zik to attend the meeting, as well as Waziri Ibrahim…Aminu Kano was still alive at the time. It was Jim Nwobodo who said that Zik had no powers when he was Governor-General, and even when he was president; that this time he was going to get power and all that. And I said, if you give Zik all the power that fills this world, he’s not going to do anything. He wouldn’t want to stand and fight. I said to them, what you’re leading Nigeria into now is what you’d all regret. Leave Zik alone. Let Awo lead the government, because the people are ready to follow him. But Jim Nwobodo refused.
ON: Does it seem peculiar to you that most Igbo people did not understand Awolowo…
OO: Well, they had some grouse against him. He was the Federal Commissioner of Finance in Gowon’s government, and was instrumental in the Twenty pounds policy, and all that. But I had this to say: you people are not living on twenty pounds. Look ahead, you know, forget. Ndi Igbo si rapu mfe fele efe, k’anyi sobe nwem n’ewe ife (The Igbo say, leave what is past to the past, and follow what is new and profitable). Let’s look forward, in the politics of Nigeria, in the condition of Ndigbo and Southern solidarity, and what the Northerners are doing to us. If we don’t pass this bridge now, we’re all going to drown in this water.
ON: And you were confident that Awolowo was the one to accomplish this?
OO: I believed that he was the only one who could do it at the material time. He had the program, he had the temerity, he had the strength, and Zik would not be able to do it. He was not only too old, he had gone too soft. Apart from making speeches and so on, Zik was no longer prepared to do any work, or make any sacrifices. Every time, he would just walk away and deny the great things he had done. Once, at the Nnamdi Azkiwe University, somebody in fact stood up to say that Zik in the later stages did not rise up to the strength he had shown in the anti-colonial struggle, to give Ndigbo a direction especially after the war, and that he had disappointed the Igbo. His wife was there, and got up to defend Zik; but, I told her: “You’d better leave this thing alone (laughs); yes, that Ndigbo knew Zik long before she knew him.
ON: From what you know about Obafemi Awolowo, what would he do today, were he to be present?
OO: About what is going on?
Mrs. Oyibo Odinamadu
Mrs. Oyibo Odinamadu
ON: So, your experiences as a public servant and politician finally came together; what, at this stage, are your greatest regrets about Nigeria?
OO: (Pauses) My greatest regret about Nigeria is that the military ever came into the governance of Nigeria. Secondly, that even the military was not honest with Nigerians and with themselves, and this is what ruined everything. Thirdly, the rulers of Nigeria have made themselves puppets of foreign governments. I don’t believe they are acting in their right minds; that what is happening in Nigeria is actually what they want for Nigeria. I don’t believe that. And then let’s talk of the wasted generations. Wole Soyinka talked about a wasted generation. But I tell you --there is not only one, but several wasted generations in Nigeria who have now turned armed robbers, thieves and drug couriers. Young men and women with good training are graduating from schools with no jobs, no opportunities to translate ideas into work, for self-determination, and self improvement.
Governments fail, because they are unable to provide jobs. Even American governments have failed, because they were unable to create jobs. Even with the Bush government, despite talk about so many thousands of jobs here and there, the people still say it’s not enough; that they are exporting some of their jobs overseas!
But it does not seem to bother Nigerian governments that there are no jobs, no opportunities for employment or for self-improvement for young people coming out of Universities, not to talk about secondary schools. There are so many universities now, and yet they say Obasanjo is involved in building a private university! Building a university for what; who is going to attend that University, and when they are trained, after graduation, what are they going to do for Nigeria and for themselves? That’s why most people leave the country and stay away. Our people come to the US and stay, working at jobs that are not exactly, or even below what they were trained for and hoped to do. But they are making a living.
ON: So, what is to be done? What can we do as a people to reverse the condition?
OO: My own suggestion is that the military – serving military, retired military – and its cohorts should never govern Nigeria again! They should all leave Nigerian government alone.
ON: How is this enforced?
OO: By not supporting them. When they go into what they call elections – which are really no elections…they don’t hold elections in Nigeria; what they do is intimidate people, buy people up, distribute money and rig elections, and they pronounce whatever result they like. In the 1999 elections, my son was one of the returning officers in a polling station. He said he was there, and just about the time the polling station was closing, and they were carrying the polling box to go and count, Jim Nwobodo showed up with his thugs. Some were dressed like soldiers, with boxes of ballots that were already stuffed. They took away the ones at the polling station, and sent everyone running. Were the votes ever counted? We were just told a number and had to be content with that. So what we have in Nigeria is no government; it’s no democracy where there is no election. My son-in-law was just telling you the story of a fellow who used a jeep to carry around naira notes. Our naira is now more useless than the leaves falling off the tree outside. And when you give an elderly woman a bundle of N50, 000, would she be thinking about democracy? I don’t know where we are going to start or stop. I understand that Babangida is getting ready to contest elections. He has no business coming out ever again to govern Nigeria. What for? Perhaps, because he really sees Nigeria as a Banana Republic? I don’t know. Whoever put Nigeria in this position should…really, I don’t know what America can do about it. But it has been gaining from it.
ON: Must we depend on America to do it?
OO: Well, since they are the ones telling Obasanjo and the others what to do, they should call them to order.
ON: You’ve had quite distinguished private and public lives; how much support would you say your husband gave you in your professional and political career, and what kind of person was he?
OO: He was a very nice man,
very, very gentle. Very supportive, very accommodating;
BNW Advocates' Island
BNW Advocates' Island
My husband was a very “clean-cut man,” as Mrs. Mary Harden Umolu would testify. He was not chauvinistic at all, and appreciated that I should be my own person, and that I had a life, and had been involved in voluntary activities even before we met and married. I had been a founding-member and Secretary of the Eastern Nigeria Women’s Amateur Athletic Association (WAAA); and of the Eastern Nigeria Festival of the Arts. When the members of the Committee of Friends, which became the UPN came to ask me to join them, I hesitated because of Chief Awolowo’s reputation among Ndi Igbo. But it was my husband who said that it would be a very good opportunity, because Awolowo was the only one who could give the Northern Oligarchy a good fight for the presidential election for Nigeria. He also said that Ndi Igbo would be foolish not to support Chief Awolowo because, in politics, there is no permanent friend or permanent enemy. He was very right. Unfortunately, I lost him after the first Elections in 1979. May his dear soul rest in perfect peace!
ON: If you had the opportunities to be president of Nigeria, what would be topmost on your agenda?
OO: (laughs heartily). One thing I would immediately do is introduce a bill in parliament making sure that anyone who had ruled under the military would be barred from public office. And the police would be properly trained and funded. I remember reading that Tafa Balogun demanded that if he was going to be tried for any kind of financial impropriety, it had to be by a special tribunal, and not a court. Who is he to say which court will try him? For a whole Inspector-General to come out in public with that kind of behaviour, and to say how and where he’s going to be tried is very unbecoming. How can you have a country running well, with guarantees for the security of lives and property, maintaining rule of law, when the police force is corrupt to the marrow? I mean, even if we sweep them out, and begin again, we’re only going to recruit from the same pool of people.
If the police, and the judiciary – the judiciary is as corrupt as its master – you have one or two who are not corrupt, but justice in Nigeria can be bought. Members of the judiciary are not impartial or independent. Maybe we should be thinking of following the situation in the US where judges stand for elections. That, of course, has its own advantages and disadvantages; but I believe that appointing the judiciary makes it possible for its members to sell their conscience. So yes; I will embark on the reform of the judiciary and law enforcement and rule out all military participation, whatsoever, in the equation of the governance of Nigeria. And to return to the parliamentary system. This presidential system is too expensive, too corrupt, while the parliamentary system is more compact, and more manageable. The presidential system in this country, gives too much power to the individual at the top, always a dangerous thing. And this has become too expensive, in more ways than one, for a corrupt place like Nigeria.
ON: Thank you very much, Mrs. Odinamadu.
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.
Founder and Chairman, Board of Directors of the Chinua Achebe Foundation
Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series: Mrs. Oyibo Odinamadu in Conversation with Obi Nwakanma