Govt Planned Marine Base As Modern City


Last week Monday, Chief Dr Elechi Amadi, a literary icon was the geust of The Tide Roundtable, a weekly personality interview programme of the Rivers State Newspaper Corporation. He fielded questions on diverse issues, including his background, Niger Delta struggles, amnesty to militants in Niger Delta, amongst other things.
Here is the excerpts. Read On.
Were you captain in the Army or in the Airforce?
We were here in 3rd Marine Commando. I fought here with Obasanjo, and Adekunle in the Army.
A soldier becoming a literary Icon, let us share your background from your beginning as a child?
Well, I had the normal childhood upbringing. I went to village schools, elementary schools.
People like you are born with pen!
No, I wasn’t. I went to Isiokpo, first of all I went to elementary school in my village Aluu, you know in those days standard six schools were very few. Most schools were half way. When I got to Standard Two the school terminated, I had to go to Igwuruta. I did Three and Four there and then the school terminated at Standard Four I had to go to Isiokpo to do Four and Five, and after that I was lucky to pass to Government College Umuahia where I did my Cambridge School Certificate in those days it was Cambridge School Certificate after that I read for a survey course at the Survey School Oyo. I trained in Land Survey. I packed out of school and went to Calabar to work as a Surveyor Assistant then from there I passed to University College Ibadan where I did my degree in Physics. After that I went back to Land and Survey, Ministry of Survey at Enugu.
After a year or so, I realized that I was more intellectually inclined, I was a good Surveyor, we did the Kaloro Oil Palm Estate in Calabar, 20,000 hectares. We were three surveyors who did the job so I was quite good at my job but I realized that I was more intellectually inclined, I left them to teach and after a year or two teaching, at County High School Ahoada, I left for the Army. I had a Short Service Commission Course, The idea then was to get soldiers who were not just fighting men but who were trained scientifically, so they could appreciate modern weaponry, they can analyse situation easily, you know, education helps. That was why we were recruited to the school at Zaira.
The idea was that the students came in and did their normal secondary school training. We incorporated science, I was teaching them physics and mathematics. During the long vacation, we packed up to the bush to teach them military tactics so at the end of the day, in fact, they made better soldiers than the old system where you just had a little training and some of my students included David Mark the current Senate President.
People like Chris Garuba who used to be governor of Bauchi State, Amadi Ikweche, Tunde Ogbeha all these were my students, you can see that they stand out because they had these special training. After these I thought I have had enough of the Army and my Short Service Commission Course ran out, so I decided to leave and continue my intellectual life but unfortunately as soon as I went on my terminal leave, the war broke out.
So the war caught me here, while I was enjoying my terminal leave from the Army. When the 3rd Marine Commando came here, and naturally, I reported myself, I was in detention but I broke out of the Biafran cell.
If you read my book “Sunset in Biafra”, you get all these details, so I managed to break out from the cell at the Police Station here, the one near the Old Teaching Hospital. We broke out, I met my friends, people like Akinrinade, Col. Ini and of course Adekunle himself, he was my neighbour in Zaria at the military school. So they said Old Boy you are here oh. Thank God, pick up the gun. I said what do you mean? Look, I’m on terminal leave. They said pick up a gun. I told them well, the war is ended, with the capture of Port Harcourt and Bonny and Enugu, the war is ended. The rebels ought to surrender any moment if they have military sense. They don’t have a chance, so at the end I had to rejoin the army, and then I was assigned to 14 Brigade, with the third Marine commando, then we had to fight at the Etche front. After a while, I was withdrawn from the 14 Brigade to the Airport as Airport commandant.
Adekunle felt that the officer there wasn’t doing very well and you know Airport was a vital communication link during the war. That is where we got military supplies including guns and so on. So I was the Airport commandant for a while. I went round the trenches and I found most of them were not being well looked after. In the trenches, not much food, cigarettes and things like that, so I made sure they got all those things, I made sure they were well fed, I got civilians to clear the environs and so on. Then there were aircraft machines to work properly. When I got there and I saw the boys, I said now fire, they couldn’t fire that machine about 15 minutes, they were scrambling around, I said these were not anti-aircraft machines, you should fire under a minute, so I refurbished the machines, and they were able to deliver under a minute of alert with that the Airport became safer and then we were able to receive supplies including bombs and so on.
In fact during the whole episode, the governor, Diette Spiff was still in Lagos. He was in Lagos and the situation was that Port Harcourt was unsafe, that there was no real Rivers State government going on. That was the propaganda and Diette-Spiff was then in Lagos so we tried to persuade Adekunle, the “Black Scorpion” you must have heard of him, we told him, “Oga”, look, let the governor come in here, let them start some kind of administration, to boast civilian life and so on and so forth.
He said, not yet, later he said O.K. I want civilian life to return to Port Harcourt so you have Col. Abubakar, you are his second in command, I want life to come back to the city of Port Harcourt, so I went back to the drawing board, I got people like Wobidike Wonodi, Robert Okara, Chief Oriji, a number of dignitaries like that key men in town who I had identified, it was a war situation and if you come to Port Harcourt, you won’t see anybody in the street, you just see bombed houses and so on, you dare not walk in the street, so there was no real civilian life.
I got these men and I called them Controllers, we got for Education, some for Health, another one for Communication, Post Office and so on I got about seven of them. Within a month, we opened some schools, we opened the Holy Rosary Secondary school, Harbour Road school, we opened Mile 1 Market, then we announced that people should move in, and traders should come in we were issuing Passes to traders to get their things without that pass, you will be deemed a looter, we had a strict law on looting, you could be shot at sight. My office was issuing that permit so that people could move in their things and they did. The market started, the schools started, we sent some people to Lagos to get the key to the Post Office so that mails could be delivered and so on and within a month, the town was swinging, so I reported back to Adekunle, I said the town is swinging, he said ok. We can get the governor in, so we invited Diette Spiff.
When Diette Spiff came in, there was a house, I think it was owned by Shell B.P. inside what is now Government House, it is still there that was where Diette Spiff was, then we got a platoon of soldiers to surround the place to make quite sure it was safe, I got Dikibo Daniel Kalio who was the first Secretary to State Government (SSG).
I gave him a room, because civilians were very afraid of the situation, I gave him a room in my house, so I said you are safe here, there is no problem, then Adekunle said that I should hand over the Administration of Port Harcourt within 24 hours, I said yes sir, so I called Daniel Kalio, I said well, the GOC said that I should hand over the administration to you within 24 hours, ah: Daniel Kalio shouted what kind of 24 hours, he came I handed over the first few files of the state to him. I handed over a couple of files dealing with what was the need of the state, those were infact the first Administrative files of the state which I handed over to Dikibo Daniel Kalio.
They carried on. At the end of the war, Diette Spiff said he appreciated what we have done, he said look you have to join my administration, you have been helping us. I said no, no, no. I have to go back and teach, get me a school somewhere let me go and teach, he said, no, no, who will do the job, you know we need administrative officers, and you have shown that you are capable administratively so, come and join. If you don’t then who will do it. I mean everybody can say well sorry I can’t do it.
Then, nobody does the job so with that challenge, I said alright and that was how I joined that administration. I hated civil service work, I just didn’t like it but this came as a challenge after the war I joined the civil service, worked, there up to the Permanent Secretary level, in 1983, I retired then went on to teach in tertiary institution.
Along the line I was called back then I was at College of Education so when Col Ukpo called me and said look I want you to join the administration so he said I should be SSG I said no no no, I beg you, I have had enough of that kind of job, as Permanent Secretary so he later on gave me the post of Commissioner of Education which I accepted and then I did what I could and when Col. Abe changed Ukpo as governor, he took me over to Land I was Commissioner for Land, by the way while I was Commissioner of Education, I set up Bori Polytechnic, I argued that we didn’t have enough middle level manpower and that there was need for us to have a source of that kind of manpower so at that time my colleagues many of them were drawn from RSUST, they argued against it, fearing that it will erode the influence of RSUST I told them it won’t, so I had to submit my memo two times, eventually, they saw my argument and we setup Technical Committee I left the Ministry I went to the Ministry of Lands, one of the jobs I did was to demolish Marine Base. You know Marine Base was a slum. It was like one of the watersides settlement and so the governor felt the place wasn’t looking good and I got the people living in the Marine Base and we dialogued with them. We registered all the Landlords there who had houses whether, they were batchers or whatever. We took everybody’s name and we said look we don’t have money to pay but when we rebuilt the place, you will have the first option, we are going to give you the option to take houses in the place at highly subsidised rates.
You can buy the houses at very cheap rate and they were very much in agreement, some of them who were good had contract to build the place, we demolished the place and then first of all we did the roads and drainages, put on electricity then we started building. I got a field engineer to stay on site to supervise every processes when you pour concrete the engineer will come and check, and so on.
Eventually, we built up Marine Base, and the original owners were back. I think is still there in spite of the ravages of years, that place you can see that, it is a well planned and so on.
Is it difficult if you don’t have the talent particularly somebody who read Physics?
No there is noting strange. You have doctors, medical doctors writing. A lot of medical doctors have published novels. In fact what you do professionally has nothing to do with your writing productivity if you have the talent to write. When once you are that gifted and you have a bit of the language because writing is language also acquire some language skills and fortunately for me I attended a very good school, Government College Umuahia, we were very well taught, my English teacher was Mr P.J. Justin, in the United Kingdom (UK) he had a first degree in Cambridge, so he was very good.
The time I left Umuahia I was very good in English. I had A1 in English in Cambridge School Certificate, so I was very good. When I read what I wrote then there is very little difference. Because at the university I didn’t add to my knowledge of English.
So what I am saying is that if you are gifted then when the inspiration comes you find you can write, provided you have acquired some language skills, is just natural. Cyprian Ekwensi was a Pharmacist, but he was one of the most prolific writers, we heard he has produced so many books.
Knowing the level of piracy, how much money have you made from the sales of your book?
These days, you make very little if any. But in those days, my books were fortunately for me published abroad by Heinemann based in London. They published my first novel The Concubine and they were very good and I had an agreement with them and they paid me royalties depending on the number of copies they sold.
That was when I earned some money from my books and they were honest and you know, money had value. I was earning Pounds Sterling which they banked for me abroad. So it was something good until much later when they folded up and then we now had Heinemann Nigeria and the pirates started and my earnings fell
I’m not deriding Heinemann Nigeria, they were good but then the pirates had moved in. So for every copy of my book sold, the pirates sold ten and these pirates don’t pay any tax, they don’t pay you any royalties, you don’t even know where they are, they just print your book and sell and for a popular novel like The Concubine everywhere you have it you couldn’t get the original copy from the market.
So they crowded Heinemann out of the market. I had very little royalties right now throughout last year what did I have, may be N10, N15,000, or may be N20,000, but if without the pirates I should be a rich man.
Because if you take a school certificate year, and The Concubine, you know, it has been on the WAEC list for years, now let’s take a typical school certificate year, you have at least half a million students, right now if they sell half a million copies that is five hundred thousand copies and you get a royalty of even N10, you have Five Million Naira, straight away. If I earned that one every year, I would be a millionaire but nothing you find that even in a school certificate year, by the time Heinemann will print, say fifty thousand copies, the pirates have printed three hundred thousand and they flooded the market already. That is the problem when once you write a book that is popular and is used in schools, piracy will immediately move in, they have a way of finding out which books are selling.
In my case, they pirated my play Isiburu. They pirated Pepper Soup and of course The Concubine is the main victim of this piracy. That is the problem we have in Nigeria.
But does it discourage you from writing?
No, No. I stopped thinking about money. Because there was nothing anybody could do, so I just wrote for the joy of it. The fact that people enjoy what I was writing.
How many books have you written so far?
I have written twelve books and from what people say The Concubine appears the most popular.
There is this popular saying that in Nigeria we have an Ogbuefi of a Nigerian literature. Others argue that we don’t have an Ogbuefi, we have an Asiwaju, do we have an Amanyanabo or Nyenweli of literature?
Well if you think of prominence, as such, our Nobel laureate takes that place, because it is something that is world wide, the highest literary prize so if you have some body who have got that award, then naturally he stands out as the Asiwaju or the Ogbuefi, whatever, you know, so we are proud of Soyinka and we regard him as a leader in literature. Then of course coming immediately after that you have people like Achebe, but in literature you know people write differently so really comparison is very difficult. For instance Soyinka basically is a playwright so he is basically a playwright.
Achebe is basically a novelist. I’m a novelist so you have all these genres and is difficult to compare two authors.
To be continued