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The Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series #31

A Meeting of the Minds
(Chief M.T. MBU in Conversation with Maxim Uzoatu and Paul Odili)

The Chinua Achebe Foundation

About Chief M.T. MBU

MBU, Matthew Tawo

Chinua Achebe

Prof. Chinua Achebe


Chief M. T. Mbu

Chief M. T. Mbu

- Lawyer, Politician, Diplomat, and a permanent fixture in Nigerian political affairs for more than fifty years - is a political giant. Chief Mbu was born on November 20, 1929, in Okundi, Cross River State. He received his early education at Okundi Primary School from 1937 to 1940. He also attended the Kakwagon Seminary School between 1941and 1943 before proceeding to Middle Temple and University College, London, from 1955 to 1959 where he received the LLB and the LLM. Chief Mbu was subsequently called to the Bar, Middle Temple.

Chief M.T. Mbu’s political career began with his membership of Parliament from 1952 to 1955.  He has also served his country in various capacities including Federal Minister of Labour, 1954; High Commissioner to UK, 1955 to 1959; and Representative of Nigeria, Washington DC. 1966. He holds the distinction of being the youngest Nigerian ever to serve in the federal cabinet.

Between 1960 and 1966, Chief Mbu returned to serve again in Parliament. During the latter stint in Parliament, he also doubled as Federal Minister of Defense for Naval Affairs. He was appointed Chairman, Eastern Nigeria Public Service Commission in 1967, and became Member Constituent Assembly, 1977– 78. He was first national vice-chairman, Nigeria People’s Party, 1979 to 1981 before ‘decamping’ to the National Party of Nigeria from 1981 to 1983. On several occasions, Chief Mbu has represented his Nation as an ambassador to foreign countries including a recent appointment as Ambassador to Germany. He has also served as the Pro-Chancellor, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria.  

Ambassador Mbu is married to Katherine Anigbo and blessed with six children. His hobbies include tennis and swimming. Chief Mbu is at the moment leader of the South-South Peoples Assembly, (SSPA); a non-political organization that was created to help promote the interests of the peoples of South-South geo-political zone.

About Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, former senior editor and correspondent at ThisWeek magazine and The Guardian newspapers in Lagos, holds a BA from the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) and an MA from the University of Lagos. A freelance writer, journalist, poet and novelist, he is the author of The Missing Link, a novel about "the last man."

About Paul Odili

Paul Odili is a
Lagos based journalist. He currently works at the Vanguard Newspapers as the Assistant Editor Politics.



UZOATU: Sir, you have been a permanent fixture in the history of Nigeria. Do you feel a sense of frustration that the country has not achieved the progress it ought to have made by now?


Well, I think any of us who

Chief M. T. Mbu

Chief M. T. Mbu

played a role in the First Republic must feel a great sense of disappointment. At Independence, we all dreamt of rapid emancipation as a people, and not just politically. Having achieved independence from Britain, we pushed to becoming economically independent ourselves; for self-sufficiency in our lives. Some of these expectations, sadly, have not yet been realized due to the instability the nation has suffered since 1966. Even so, no one conceived of the idea that we would ever become victims of a military coup. Such horrific events only occurred in Latin America and elsewhere.


But after the coup in Togo in 1963, we began to wonder about Nigeria. There were problems in the Western Region that had led to “Operation Wetie” in 1964, and eventually the coup in 1966. We were shocked that we could be the victims of this sort of political change. I remember my friend, Peter Pan (Peter Enahoro) asking: “After the Nigerian coup, what will happen in Ghana?” This is because, Ghana and Nigeria seemed intent on copying each other. Not long after this, Ghana, of course, had its first coup. Nkrumah was visiting China at the time; he never returned home. The combined expectations of his country and ours at independence never matured.


Chinua Achebe has this, by now, popular theory about leadership being the trouble with Nigeria. Perhaps, we should ask you to address this question, sir, as you are in the leadership cadre.

That can be said without mincing words. Leadership has been our problem. Whether Nigeria has been blessed with the right leadership has been one of the rather inexplicable problems that this nation has faced from its inception. From the days of those who fought for independence--the days of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Awolowo, Sardauna--can it be said that Nigeria has had the right leadership? Can it be said of the revolutionary leadership of Murtala Muhammed that he lasted long enough to prove himself? Whether or not he would have been successful, we can’t now know. Even with Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, it is not certain whether, if he had been given the chance, he would have provided us with the right leadership. There has always been an element of instability in the assessment of the merits or demerits of any particular leadership in Nigeria. So for me, the struggle of getting and finding an effective leadership for Nigeria continues.

Would you say that corruption has always been part of leadership in Nigeria?

No, I would not say so. Because in my day, corruption like it is today never existed. One could single out those who were found to be corrupt, since they were so few! Most of us were not corrupt, and we remained incorruptible, never taking a penny for ourselves. There was transparency, honesty and probity in public office. So, I would not say that corruption has been with us; rather it has become institutionalised by successive military governments. The military brought corruption, promoting it to such a degree that it has become part of Nigerian governance.

How much damage to the development of a vibrant and patriotic leadership cadre for the country has military rule contributed, in your opinion?

A great deal, when you consider that since independence, the military has held power longer than the civilians. Sir Abubakar Balewa was eliminated through a coup; Shagari was overthrown after four years. The present one under President Obasanjo has endured the longest-- for five or six years. For the 45 years of Nigeria’s independence, the military dominated the scene, so there really has been no training ground for succession in the political sense; successive military leadership in the country has created a vacuum as well as a military hierarchy entrenching mediocrity and corruption.

However, the excuse of the military, in taking over government, was that civilians were corrupt…

That is simply not true. A highly respected and dignified man like Sir Tafawa Balewa died a pauper. I

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can tell you this; he had no money, he had no home. Chief Michael Okpara, when he came back from exile, we had to contribute money to build a house for him; he was not corrupt. The men in the military sought reasons to stage coups for their own selfish reasons; theirs were never patriotic acts to be justified in any way!

So, I insist that military leadership, in this country, is the architect of corruption, because even though one may point to one or two Nigerians who were corrupt, they were the ten percenters – in the minority. The military introduced what had previously never been known in the history of Nigeria – situations where contracts that had never been executed were being paid for. Enormous sums of money for contracts would be awarded, despite the fact that the job had not been done. While I was a member of the cabinet, no civilian minister had the temerity, or even ventured close to such corrupt behaviour. And that is why what Obasanjo is trying to do is a bold step, a courageous act in the fight to tackle corruption, and I would like every patriotic Nigerian to support him.

Yet, there are those who think his approach is merely targeted at political opponents?

No, that is not what I think. You know Nigerians have their own version of things; for me, I support what he is doing. I believe that he is a courageous man to have tackled corruption head on, knowing the factors of our political institutions. So, whatever people might think, I feel differently and support him.

There is a great deal of buzz about the South-south producing the president in 2007. Does it have a solid case?  

I believe that it is the desire of every region in Nigeria to produce the president of the nation. I do not think there is anything wrong if the next president comes from the South-south. If it can muster enough support for a candidate, and the country votes for such a person, why not?

But here’s the dilemma…we have a situation where you are the chairman of a group called the Southern Forum while the North has formed its own version. Is it not an indictment, a contradiction that you, once a champion of Nigerian unity, are now polarising the country into North and South?


Not really. In 1914, Sir Frederick Lugard amalgamated the Protectorate of the North and the South. But as you might know from history, the real motivation behind the amalgamation was to enable the British to source, from the South, the money to sustain their administration of the North. This would have been impossible without recourse to money from the colonial office, so the Southern Protectorate of Nigeria was founded, comprising the Western and Eastern Regions, which had resources enough to sustain the Protectorate of the North. The British, thereby, contrived to bring about the marriage between the beautiful damsel from the South, and the handsome husband from the North.


Now I say this, because you implied that a division of the nation, vis a vis North and South, is being caused as a result of talk of a Southern Forum. We have always argued that there has never been a North and South, simplicita. Even with the amalgamation, the Northern Protectorate was comprised of the northern provinces of Nigeria while the Southern Protectorate comprised both the Western Region, as well as the Eastern Region of Nigeria. So you see that there never was any clear cut dichotomy of North and South. What we are trying to do now, under the umbrella of the Southern Forum, is to try for a correction of that anomaly.


I am a disciple of The Right Honourable Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe who pursued relentlessly, till death, the achievement of one Nigeria, one people, one destiny. What we today, in the Southern Forum, are saying is that the imperfections of the past should not be allowed to continue; we should attempt to have an equitable, indivisible, united, one nation, known as Nigeria. These are some of the things we have advocated, or have been canvassing for in the past. Let us have a true federation, a federation of equal status, a federation expressed not just physically, but fiscally.


The issue, at the bottom of all of this, is really one of power…


Power must be seen to

Chief M. T. Mbu

Chief M. T. Mbu

be the property of all the federating units of Nigeria. It should not be a privilege enjoyed only by a portion of the federation. And we argue, among other things, that the following things must be put right. As I have mentioned, a truly physical and fiscal federation must exist. By fiscal, I mean that we must, of necessity, go back, and revisit the 1963 Constitution that clearly spelt out the principle of derivation based on sources of income produced by the states. Under that Constitution, the state of origin retains fifty percent of the resource, and fifty percent is then paid into what is now referred to as the federation account. Secondly, one of the six geo-political zones presently suffers an inequality of states, and that is the Southeast zone. We insist on a constitutional amendment to give the Southeast equality with the others in raising the present number of states in that zone from five to six. This is not asking for too much. Thirdly, we asked that there is equal access to power; this should be the benefit of all the zones.


In the 45 years of Nigeria’s independence, the Northern Protectorate has monopolised power for 35 of those years. The Western Region possessed it for nine and half years, while the Eastern Region only had it for six months. The South-south zone of today has not had it for one day. So we insist that under the principles of justice, equity and fair play, and based on these historical antecedents, the next president has to emerge from either the South-south that has never had it, or the Southeast that only sniffed it for six months. To those who say we are dividing the country into North and South, we say no; we are only trying to correct injustices in the system that, if not addressed, will continue to prevail upon us and create permanent imbalance. So that’s where we stand.


We are not against any particular group or zones; but we are saying that all the federating units should feel a sense of belonging, and have access to power like any other unit. After all, we of the southern zone provide 85 - 90 percent of the resources of Nigeria. Since we are providing so much to sustain the entire federation, is it too much to ask that we are also considered when it comes to occupying the apex office of the federation that is the presidency? Yet some people are crying out: No! Why? we ask. When some groups argue that, instead, the presidency must return to them, we have this to say: Return to you as what? Is the presidency property you lent to somebody that you now want back? The presidency belongs to all units of the federation. Those units that have never had the opportunity of leadership have a right to it before you get it yet again!


Even so, the North has argued that top political stakeholders, including you, have agreed that after eight years of power in the south it should go north…


We ask a very simple question concerning this issue: Where is this agreement that is being referred to, and who are the parties to it? In law, an agreement is an understanding recognised and enforced by the law. If there was an agreement, was it verbal, written, and again, who are the concerned parties? There must be two parties to an agreement. One person cannot carry an agreement all by him or herself… two parties, at least, must be involved. The point is -- we have not seen this agreement, therefore, we counter that there has been any such understanding or agreement. In any case, it could not have been conceived on the principles of equity, justice and fair play, because one cannot enter into an agreement denying a section of the nation justice, equity and fair play! Such an agreement is obnoxious, should not, in any way, be recognized, and, therefore, should be jettisoned.


There are those who suggest that the Southern Forum was formed to help President Obasanjo’s failed attempt at getting an unconstitutional Third Term in office.


Nothing could be farther from the truth. Anyone canvassing that viewpoint has gone far from the point! We have been working for the past five years with prominent citizens such as my good friend, the former Chief of General Staff, Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe; my good friend, the first military governor of Rivers State, His Royal Majesty, Alfred Diette-Spiff; a good number of us have been working under the umbrella of COSESS, an acronym for Congress of Southeast and South-south. We have been working to promote understanding between two zones that feel they are experiencing similar problems, and are marginalized in the country. They believe, and can prove, that they produce a great percentage of the resources of the country, but do not benefit from doing so. The best way to promote their welfare is for the Southeast and South-south to have a common understanding of their problems, and work together to bring about the actualisation of their dreams of becoming relevant. Any issue concerning the Southeast and the South-south should be on the front burner of their agenda in dealing with Nigeria.


After canvassing and holding series of meetings in the past five years, we eventually came to the realisation of our dream -- a solidarity agreement between the Southeast and South-south signed in Owerri on the 18th of November 2005. That was a historic achievement. Among the issues agreed on was that the South-south and Southeast would accept one presidential candidate from either of our zones come 2007, after President Obasanjo’s tenure would have ended. That was one of the main achievements of the meeting. The second issue was that we would demand, under the constitutional reform programme, the creation of an additional state for the Southeast zone. Thirdly, we would demand a revisit of the principle of derivation and resource control in the constitution; we specifically referred to the 1963 Republican Constitution that gave the resource supplying zones fifty percent of whatever they supply. We feel that this should be applicable to all the states or regions of Nigeria, and not just the Southeast and South-south. These were the issues canvassed for.


Having achieved this unique understanding, we began to lobby our brothers in the Southwest: Would you support us in our quest for the presidency come 2007? They obliged us, saying: “We have had it; if you two sister zones will provide us with a candidate as well, we will support you.” That led to summit of three zones: Southeast, South-south, and Southwest, that was held in Lagos at the Airport Hotel on the 13th of December 2005. The communiqué from that meeting enunciated all the programmes we agreed upon at the previous summit held in Owerri in November. We remained true to the same, exact issues: true federalism, fiscal federalism, creation of an additional state, derivation, and resource control. Now on the 19th of December, the same year, we had a combined meeting, at Enugu, not only of the political leadership of the three zones, but of all and sundry. Governors of the three zones, traditional rulers and members of traditional society, citizens and cultural society joined us to say that we were all now under the umbrella of the Southern Forum, and demanded, again, the addressing of the issues presented in Owerri, in Lagos, and repeated in Enugu.


So the question is: When did we become part of the apparatus of the Obasanjo agenda that people allege us as canvassing for; something that was established five years ago? The third term agenda…there was no such thing, no talk about it. We were thinking only about ourselves, the Southeast, South-south; the issues that concerned our sister zones. For anyone to say that, all along, this body had been campaigning for a third term agenda, I think they need to have their heads examined.


It is important to point out that the South-south zone is the location where the Niger Delta crisis is presently raging. Hostage taking is a clear and present danger; is a solution in sight?


We have to tackle it. We are pretending that there are no problems in the Niger Delta. The problem of youth restiveness stems from the economic plight of the whole Niger Delta area, not just of the youths. That economic plight is extremely harsh for all inhabitants of the area, including the youth who have no employment; we’re talking about those who have gotten an education and rightfully expect to have gainful employment, yet cannot find jobs. They have been persuaded to take up arms against constituted authority, which is the wrong thing to do. My answer to the problem of the Niger Delta is that government must accept to remedy the situation, to address these problems. It should empower the NDDC or improve on it in such a way that sufficient content is addressed to relieve the problem of youth restiveness. Confucius, the Chinese Aristotle, said: “Taking the bull by the horns always yields results, though it might be the bull that gets the result.”

The term ‘resource control’ has come into vogue as a mechanism for the survival and sustained development of the Niger Delta. What do you understand by this term? Do you think it will achieve its stated objective, if implemented?

Here in Nigeria, we tend to employ terms that misconstrue the actual meaning of what we aim

to say. And we love to spout high-sounding grammar regardless of whether it serves our intentions or not. Resource control simply means that if a product is sourced from a particular area, the people from that area want to be trusted with managing that product for the federal family of
Nigeria, and also be allowed to keep a portion of it, if they can explain why they need it. That portion, I believe, will make for ecological repair -- there is a great deal of degradation around the areas that I am speaking of that need urgent attention. And because of a lack of repair, a sad lack of maintenance, there is massive despoliation due to the ravages of the oil exploration process. If help is not rendered today, the future will be in ruins, as these resources may have become depleted.

We need to pay immediate attention to the people whose home has been devastated. How can we ignore the fact that they live amidst all the despoliation, that nothing, indeed, is being done to protect them? That is why the people of oil producing areas, having looked at the situation, say: allow us to control the resources we produce; allow us to manage what our land supplies. We are not asking to take all the proceeds from the resources…no. The second thing is this. We say -- let us, like any other area that produces minerals, have control of the rent of our land, because it is ours. But, no…the federal government wants it all. One other thing; every state in the country produces one mineral or the other; the question then is, why do we focus only on two; oil and gas. What about the resources the rest of the country produces? But some people see this as too much complaining on our side. “Why do we not relocate these complainers somewhere else, some have suggested; there is enough land in the upper country? Of course, we are reminded, by this utterance, of Adolphus Hitler’s heinous intentions in Germany and elsewhere – that is to wipe out the Jews! So is genocide the right action against the people of the Niger Delta, simply because we demand our rights?

You have been known to advocate 60% derivation for the Niger Delta; how did you arrive at this figure?

When you are presenting a case as a lawyer, you seek the maximum claim in court. If the South-South has made a claim, and has pleaded with their compatriots, at a conference, to give them what they are asking, is it not up to the country to consider the claim after examining all the factors placed before it? The reply should not be a negative: ‘oh move them out of the area; exterminate them, or do something bad to them. That is simply not the answer. The answer should be – these people have made a demand; is it reasonable or unreasonable? Whatever the case, the issue begs serious debate. But let us look at it another way- why should we have two different laws concerning resource production in Nigeria? One law gives the owners of the land where minerals are found, renting rights; yet when it comes to gas and petroleum, it’s clearly a very different law that governs. In the second case, everything belongs to the federal government. Now, is that right? There should be one law governing all resources!

When one reflects upon the various controversies over oil and gas; the resource control agitation, the decay in the society due to the discovery of this resource; does it not seem that oil is more of a curse than a blessing?

I would say that oil has been a mixed blessing, because we have abandoned other economic pursuits; our farm lands have been left to rot away, left to lie fallow in disuse. Yet, properly managed, what a wonderful resource God has endowed us with! If our resources were properly managed, why would our young people want to leave Nigeria for strange lands, hunted, locked up, dehumanized; perhaps, even killed for being black? It is all because our country’s economy is not working. If we had a buoyant economy, and there were jobs, our young people would not want to leave Nigeria to go anywhere, I can tell you that. So, much as oil resource has been a blessing, it has the potential of becoming, unfortunately, a dreadful commodity.


You attended a recent Ohanaeze Ndigbo function. What informs the solidarity with this group, at a time, especially, that it is threatened by internal dissension?


Ohanaeze and the South-South Peoples Assembly have been working together to promote understanding between the Southeast and South-South. When I heard of the international press conference by Ohanaeze, and I was invited as a guest of honour, I gladly accepted, and took part in the deliberations that followed. Ohanaeze has been doing its best as the apex body of Ndigbo, and I think whatever their problems may be, it would be a wonderful thing if the leadership of Ohanaeze and all those who believe in the good and welfare of the Igboman do all that is possible to lessen misunderstanding. The Igbo are easily one of the most gifted people, and not just in the country; they are the most dynamic in all of their endeavours, and they should not be seen to be wanting in finding accommodation for a compromise of their differences. It should be the opposite given that they have very knowledgeable, highly educated and dynamic people. Why should they be found wanting in finding a compromise to their differences? That is my challenge to Ohanaeze.

What is the main problem with the South-east, in your view?

In the game of politics, you only engage in exclusion when you fail to fight for your rights. Politics is not a charity, my good friend; if you fight for what is your right, and you cannot protect it, it will be taken from you. That is politics. I have argued against this notion of marginalization; I believe that a group is marginalized, but only because it is not active enough. Our marginalized groups are not organised enough; if we were, and spoke with one voice, we would not be ignored. Whoever is against us will have to take notice of us. But if we are not organised, we are a house divided against itself; with constant infighting…why then should the rest of the country bother about us?  If the South-south wants to produce the president, it must keep its house in order, work together, and win friends. The same thing is true of our South-east brothers. They want the president, it is not a church matter; they should go into the field, and talk to the people. Of course, God will listen to anybody that prays to Him. But in politics, you fight.

What is your expectation of the South-South/Middle-Belt accord?

In politics, what can one hope for? We hope it works out -- that is the best thing. We are all talking, believing that the other man’s intention is as noble as our own.

Are your opinions a result of your experience, at the youthful age of 23, when you rose to national prominence on a platform that is now regarded as Igbo?  

Very possibly...I was not promoted politically, because I was from a group considered to be in the minority; however, the majority accepted and recognised my personal qualities, and used me for the promotion of not only minority groups, but the development of the former Eastern Nigeria to serve the entire Nigeria. So I would advocate that concept of promoting nationhood through individuals.

At the time, the “marginalization” was not yet a part of our political lexicon…

It was not promoted, and we were not conscious of it. I grew up with Yoruba and Hausa friends, and we were not conscious of belonging to any particular ethnic or minority group. Later, however, this idea became promoted; unfortunately, by the Action Group of Nigeria (AG). This party developed the consciousness of exclusivity with the promotion of ethnic lineage in their political philosophy, and it caught up with the rest of Nigeria. We must now try to eschew this delineation of Nigeria by diverse nationalities.

What if, in the end, the South-south leaders are unable to achieve their objective to produce Nigeria’s next president, what do you think will happen, Sir?

Nothing. We need a good government; that’s the important thing. I was asked the question: can the South-south account for the 13% derivation it has been receiving? My reply was: fine; if the country wishes to appoint an ombudsman for the people of Niger Delta, the same ombudsman should be appointed to look into the 87% the rest of the country is taking. The government is so keen to know what has been done with the 13% quota; but what has been done with the other 87%? Why is that question not being asked? I would love to have a large company of auditors appraise the 13% as well as the 87%, and produce a report for the nation. Then, we shall see who has managed what amount better. I am not defending the South-south governors; but I am saying that there should be accountability not just for the 13%, but also for the 87%.

Nigeria has an especially unique challenge in nation building because of her diversity. What would you espouse as a constructive recipe?

Simple. What did George Washington, Abraham Lincoln do? These were men of vision. They were

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not busy fortifying just themselves and their cohorts, they were building a nation for generations unborn; that is why the United States of America is so great. If we have in
Nigeria visionaries as our leaders, who think of tomorrow and are able to envision the big picture, Nigeria will be a great nation. America is as ethnically diverse as we are -- at their own independence, the states that came together to form the union were independent sovereign states. But they agreed to come together to form a confederation, which later metamorphosed into a federal system. America had its own troubles; it was not easy at the beginning. A civil war was fought, just as in our case. But the men who fought the civil war were men of great minds. For example, the chief of staff at the end of the civil war in the United States was from the south, he fought against the federal forces yet he was recognized, and made the head of the army. That is the mark of greatness. If we can find, in this nation, men who dream in such ways, who believe in the greatness of the nation, this nation will become great. Nigeria, indeed, has everything it needs to be great.

You pointed to the effect of crude oil production on Nigeria...

(interrupts) The advent of crude oil changed most people’s work ethics, and this has become the bane of Nigeria. Now, we have the “short-cut” syndrome -- Why should I suffer? This person I know was poor yesterday; today, he is rich. So, people will cheat even their own brother. These are social problems that we caused ourselves. At independence, Nigerians employed certain moral standards; people worked hard and were rewarded for their efforts; they were rewarded and climbed to the top, where they were treated with the respect and admiration reserved for those who had worked for it. So, what went wrong? Why did we lose it? The military intervention, in 1966, upset the pineapple cart. We hope, with time, the pineapples will be put back in the barrow; otherwise, it seems to me that both pineapples and cart are gone!

So, how can the virtues of hard work and honesty return to our society?

Examples are better than precepts. We have to go back to the dependable and important source, and that is leadership. We need an effective and morally conscious leadership as well as effective law enforcement. If I am caught cheating, if I am caught committing a crime, forget my lineage, forget my connections, I should be punished according to the law. In other words, let there be equity in the meting out of the law, punishments and rights. Equality law does not discriminate, it protects. As long as we have that, there will be nothing wrong with the country; look at the quality of people we have. We know all this, so why do we not practice it?  

Energy crisis in the country is perennial...

Nature has endowed us with a great deal; few nations in the world are richer than Nigeria. So, why do we suffer shortage of power? It is because we flare our gas reserves, wasting it, and this is a significant source of energy. Even without any other source of energy, gas alone can provide us with adequate energy. But we really, foolishly, waste this resource in this country, and then begin to cry out that we are suffering. If we travel across to Togo or Benin -- countries tinier than many of our local governments -- they have dependable electricity supply, there is regular water supply. Something is deeply, deeply wrong with Nigeria.


But why can’t the regime fix something as basic as electricity, despite the huge sums of money released by President Obasanjo to NEPA or PHCN as it is known now? There is even talk of a further increase of tariffs, but no particular improvement. Where do we go from here?


You have asked a very, very important question in this interview. Only some days ago, by accident, I was watching a South African programme on Channel 53, and whom did I see on this programme being interviewed for one hour? Our own Honourable Minister of Finance Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. One of the questions discussed was the problem of Nigeria and its inadequacy of power supply. She explained that the government has just contracted to build seven new plants, which when they are completed and come on stream, the problem of power inadequacy in Nigeria should be consigned to the past; will be a thing of the past. Why don’t we know that in the country? It was just by accident that I got to watch that interview. Why, I ask the question, are government officials of President Obasanjo selling his programmes short?

Government is talking about privatisation of NEPA. Is that a solution?

(Chuckles) Are we assured of light supply 24 hours a day, if we privatise? In our time, we thought that public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy -- like the petroleum, petroleum chemical, power sectors -- that no one individual had the kind of money needed to efficiently provide this service to the public. If government had made a success of these public institutions, then planned to divest from some and place them in private ownership, it would have been welcomed by all and sundry. But I think that we are trying to shift the burden here – we tend to say, government has failed; let us pass the buck on to privatization. And I dare say that privatisation is a wonderful concept, because control then moves to the citizenry. However, in our situation who really benefits -- the ordinary citizen or, as always, the privileged few?

A number of important questions need to be asked. These privileged few - how did they get their money, and at what price are they receiving our public investments? For instance, why must we privatise a successful company like the nitrogenous fertiliser plant when it is the only that we have? We say this is a country that is blessed with agricultural resources, and we need to support it with subsidies. And our nitrogenous fertiliser is one of the best in the world. For our population, Nigeria actually needs 15 or 16 such plants to support agricultural growth, yet, we have only one, and they want to privatise it! Let me tell you why! Gas, the main source of energy supply is in abundance, the quality of what we produce is one of the best in the world. We managed to produce one 10-20% of installed capacity, yet we abandoned the project, claiming we could not maintain it; it should be privatised. Oh, Gracious Lord, are we really a serious people? Tell me -- are we really a serious people?

A major dimension of President Obasanjo’s reforms is revamping the agricultural sector…

He has always believed in it. He is himself a farmer. One of the greatest legacies he can leave behind is the development of agriculture, food production; cassava for instance. Nigerians should look into this, and plan because the future cannot depend on gas and petroleum.

Various governments in the past introduced policies to ensure adequate food supply to no avail; rather our national food imports continue to mount. How can this be turned around?

Look, we have food everywhere. What government needs to do is provide transportation infrastructure. In my own part of the world, which is northern Cross River, we have nothing but food. However, there are no roads to transport the food out of the area. Provide that area with good roads and adequate means of transportation, and it will supply enough food to feed not only Nigeria, but the whole of West Africa! That area is truly a bread basket. However, do we encourage farmers? Do we know what their problems are? Is there enough storage for the excess food that is produced? I ask again, are we serious in this country? Because, something appears to be wrong with us...and that ‘something’ still eludes us. The answer will be addressed one day, hopefully, when we have the right leadership.

Do you think the recently concluded consolidation exercise in Nigerian banks will be good for business?


I think so, because all along the question has been that our banks are not sufficiently buoyant to help the development of our industry. But now, they have sufficient capital to give for long-term investment.

Let us turn to ethnic rivalry, which has become such an ingrained part of our social structure that the call for a unified Nigeria is seemingly ignored. Will the time come for our exclusive interests to give way to a pan-Nigeria impulse?

We are all born into ethnic groups; even when one is born in the urban centre there is still the ethnic community with which one is inevitably linked. But the Nigerian reality is that we are either from very large or, perhaps, smaller ethnic groupings. Is the time ripe for Nigerians to express themselves less in terms of their ethnicity? I think that is a concept every progressive Nigerian would like to see develop. The question is how the various groups may work together to promote a welfare state. It is only in the promotion of the welfare state that we can begin to think less of our ethnic connections.

But what do you make of the theory that manipulation of ethnic sentiments is a tool in the hands of the elite?

The ethnic groups were around long before the notion of elitism came about; I do not think that our ethnic groups are any result of manipulation by anyone. And what I am saying is that the idea of a great nation arises out of a combination of factors, none of which are enabled by an insistence on a diversity of small groups.

Just like ethnic rivalry was used as a tool by certain elements, religion has been employed as a platform for protecting and projecting a given interest…

(interrupts) I do not really think that positing ethnic interests has been, at any time, a platform of relevance. What I know is that one prominent political leader used it effectively, and others have copied his actions; however, I do not see its relevance in building a great nation. If we continue in that way, Nigeria can never be a great nation; this is what I want to say. And I want to be understood as dissenting very vigourously on the idea that ethnic affiliation is the answer to a great Nigeria, because it only leads to more divisions. And if we reduce progressive nation building to one of ethnic competition, then there is a vacuum in the national leadership.

The issue of sharia continues to be a controversial one. Has the Obasanjo regime addressed the matter adequately?


We create problems for ourselves. The constitution is very clear on this. Nigeria is a secular state. There is constitutional freedom of worship according to individual belief. If only politicians would allow individuals to choose their own religion as the constitution provides, there would be no problem. Once we try to promote one religion over the other, we are asking for trouble. We will not have a secular state, but a theocratic state.


I would like to sway the conversation in the direction of “godfatherism.” Less than the constitutionally stipulated two-thirds of assembly members removed Governor Ladoja of Oyo State, and the Federal Government promoted it as it had done in Anambra State. Is democracy not threatened?


Let us be very clear here…. We have a written constitution. It is only the rule of law that can make democracy work. If the governor or any elected officer has acted in breach of the law, let the due process follow. Whether the issue of this particular governor was followed according to the law is what the people doubt. Justice must not only be done, but must be seen to have been done.


Still on the Oyo State matter; could you please give a specific answer in regard to whether or not the constitution was breached?


We have a written constitution. There should be no problem about that. Proper judicial interpretation of the constitution should be allowed. It doesn’t require a lawyer to answer that.

Let us examine the educational system, which we all are in agreement is in shambles. The public schools were the training ground for most Nigerians; however, with the decline of standards in public schools, the elite and rich are now turning to the more expensive private schools. How can public schools be revived?

This situation was caused by us, it was not imposed on us; we have a way of inflicting unnecessary pain on ourselves. In the past, our educational system was one of the best in the world. Look at the early schools -- Yaba College, for instance. If today, you meet any surviving graduate of old Yaba, he is a first class all rounder. Or should we talk about the old Ibadan, UNN, Zaria graduate? Those who graduated from these schools emerged the best in institutions all over the world. So what went wrong? With crude oil discovery and exploration, we abandoned so many great things, especially our aim for high standards. Our teachers, especially in the primary and secondary school levels, became part-time contractors. Outside the shores of our country, the world no longer accepts our own standards- even nearby Ghana. Nigerian qualifications mean nothing; Nigerian applicants are subjected to qualifying exams to test whether their diplomas are of any value.

You have discussed the declining standards of education in Nigeria… You are highly educated, so it must hurt that education has literally collapsed in the country…what, in your opinion, is the solution to this problem?

It is really unfortunate, because one of the greatest things that Nigeria had was her standard of education. The graduates from Nigerian schools that went abroad excelled in some of the best institutions of the West; Oxford. Cambridge. Harvard. Today it’s the opposite. The Nigerian graduates are made to take supplementary exams. That is a shame. The standard was very high in the past, and the Commonwealth acknowledged it, so did the world at large. Something has gone seriously wrong. Our teachers should choose either to be ambassadors of education, or accept to be traders like everybody else. When I was the Pro-Chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, I stamped out cultism by exposing the nefarious activities of the students who had been caught. I made sure parents were invited to come and listen to their son or daughter confess what they were caught doing.         


You earlier mentioned Finance Minister Okonjo-Iweala; certainly, a highly accomplished woman. Women appear to be the mainstay of the Obasanjo regime…


I think that these eminent ladies, namely, Professor Dora Akunyili, Dr Iweala, Mrs Oby Ezekwesili and others have done the Nigerian woman proud. They can hold their own and can do what any man can do, if not better. (Claps.) It’s a big plus for the women. President Obasanjo must be commended for finding such high calibre of women to come to the service of the nation.           


Let us take you down memory lane: You preached alongside Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe for the unity of Nigeria. How would you describe Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe?

Zik, as a leader, believed in a united, one Nigeria, as well as in pan-Africanism. He saw the black man as belonging to a community of human beings, and Africa, as a viable member of the world community. Nigeria, with its promise of leadership in natural and human resources, had a role to play in the comity of nations. Zik saw Nigeria as one nation, one people with one destiny, and that was the motto of his political party, the NCNC.

And Obafemi Awolowo?

I think of Awolowo as a very prominent Nigerian who believed in his people (the Yoruba nation) first, and Nigeria as a nation, second. There is no doubt about it. He never pretended that he was not from a very pronounced ethnic lineage, and he accepted, quite joyfully, his position as leader of the Yoruba nation.

And, of course, Ahmadu Bello?

Ahmadu Bello was proud to be descended from the great Uthman dan Fodio. He was from a family of empire builders, and he saw the north as part of that empire. He proudly represented the north; it was one, under one empire, and under his leadership.

Can you recall any memorable encounters with these leaders?

Oh, yes! I had a great deal of contact with them as a young minister. There was one particular occasion when I had Zik, Awolowo and Shehu Shagari all under my roof.  All the main political parties at the time were being hosted by me in my house in Ikoyi, and Awolowo said: "This house should be converted to a national shrine, a relic of antiquity for the history of Nigeria, for this is the only house in Nigeria that has housed all three political leaders.

At the time, we were looking for solutions to various crises. The AG and the NCNC were in talks; we became amalgamated with Aminu Kano under a progressive grand alliance, then tried to fuse with the AG as well. The NPC under the Sarduana had split up; Awolowo had also split with his deputy, Chief Adegoke Akintola. The question now arose concerning the platform on which we should represent the grand alliance of Nigeria, and in trying to realise that alignment, I brought all the leaders under my roof to find a solution. The meeting took place before the first coup. Sadly, we did not succeed.

What, in your view, is the difference between present day politicians and those of the first generation?

There is a world of difference. The old politicians were focused in their desire for Nigerian independence. And they were imbued with the love for the nation, they wanted a great Nigeria; there was patriotic zeal in the blood of all of us. But since the various interregnums of military regimes, the zeal is no longer there. I think the best way to recapture what we once had is to revisit our political views and philosophy, and discover once and for all that it is in the good politics of Nigeria to reproduce true patriotism and nationalism. And this is where I believe Zik’s commitment lay-- he was a committed nationalist. Awolowo, in a way, was trying to promote nationalism, but from the point of the Western Region. In his own way, as well, Sardauna was an empire builder; he believed in the building of an empire, and was thus quite committed. But, if you were to ask me the political views of the new leaders, I truly cannot say what they are.

In what ways do you feel you made an impact on the present generation?

Well...I am a politician of early recognition- as a young man of 23, I was a cabinet minister, and at

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26 I was made High Commissioner to
London. If I have been selected at such a youthful age, and up until now I am still prevailed upon to perform one public act or the other, it simply shows that I have remained without blemish, and that is nice. So, if a young man with ambition and vision comes into the fold, he should be recognized. If he comes on board, and avoids being stained, that is very important; certainly the sky is the limit- that is the point. And I am saying that there is nowhere in the world where people have served, and their record is clean, and they have not been called upon, from time to time, to render service. I give one example of an honorable man of integrity and competence -- Justice Chukwudifu Oputa. He is a brilliant man; any great nation of competence and resource would immediately prevail on the services of a man like that. That is the sort of example I want to present to the younger generation of leaders as a model.

In your time, young people were able to achieve high positions in government. This is not the case, today; why, in your opinion, do you think this is so?

I have always said that it is not by exceptional qualification that some of us were recognised and given the opportunity to serve our beloved nation. Firstly, at the time, we were not that many with political ambition and qualification. Today, however, a great many youngsters possess exceptional qualifications, and the competition, I would say, is definitely much harder than it was. We came as pioneers. We came as young followers of Zik, some as followers of Awo, some as followers of the Sardauna; that was the age when leadership was, without doubt, prominent, and very powerful. The followers were zealots. And in the process of our discipleship, some of us were recognised and used by the leaders. That is what I would say -- there was nothing extraordinary that we possessed.

On a personal note, where is Dr M.T. Mbu going with the Nigerian project?


All I am doing is continuing, as long as God permits me, to be around to speak, and do what I believe is right, as I did when my good friend, Professor Chinua Achebe, came to me as chairman of the public service of the then Eastern Region of Nigeria for advice following the civil war… and I said to him: “Chinua, you are not a civil servant; I suggest you change your career from civil service to that of a university don. I have read your Things Fall Apart. What a fine piece of work it is, so go and teach our young men and women how to write such a fine prose.” And that is how our Chinua Achebe became a university professor…and so you see, I played a part in the magic that became his career. With humility, he has continued to redefine and attain boundless levels of excellence in the academic world… He makes us all very proud!

Finally, do you still envision hope for Nigeria?

The disparate nations that make up Nigeria have been together for over 45 years. I think it is about time we began to tolerate each other if we must build a strong nation, no matter how diversified we might feel we are. There has to be understanding, justice, equity, fairness; once we achieve that, we will be well on our way. We have some of the best talents available to the human race -- we need to discover and use them to make this nation grow. I do not give up hope about Nigeria, rather I have great hope that those qualities that elude us today will certainly emerge in no distant future. There is no other way out until the right leadership is enthroned.

Thank you, Chief Mbu for sitting down for this conversation.

You are welcome

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: Chief M.T. MBU in Conversation with Maxim Uzoatu and Paul Odili