The Amanyanabo of Twon-Brass, Brass Kingdom and Chairman, Bayelsa State Traditional Rulers Council, His Royal Majesty, King Alfred Papapreye Diete-Spiff, SERIYALI II, became the Military Governor of old Rivers State (present day Rivers and Bayelsa States) on May 28 1967 when he was just 24 years old. Till date, citizens of the two states speak glowingly of his achievements even at that tender age. We sat down with him recently for a chat and he took us through his very intriguing life journey. Here are excerpts:
How was life growing up?
I had a wonderful childhood. My father was a postmaster of the then Cameroon which was then part of Nigeria and I got to Buea, Cameroon in 1945 at the age of three and I had a close relationship with the then Provincial Governor of the region, one Brigadier Gibbons because as the Postmaster of the entire Cameroon then, my father was the telephone number one. And I’m the only one usually left at home when everyone would have gone to school or work and even in 1947 when I started nursery school, I would be back home around mid-day. So, when telephone calls came to the house from the Brigadier, I would be the only one around and although they had placed the telephone at a high level, out of my reach, I would usually climb on a chair and get to it to answer the Brigadier. And after a while, he now invited me to come for tea as the young man who kept answering his telephone calls. So, I had the privilege of going to his castle which was built by Kaiser in the early century, before the First World War as a resort and a playground – it was famous for having 72 rooms and gardens and it was full of flowers, butterflies, different kinds of birds, different coloration. I enjoyed running around the garden, collecting butterflies and different types of roses and things. And I was given the liberty to come to the Residency anytime so, in the evenings, around 4 to 4:30pm, I will go there for tea- that was the tea time and I would usually go there. I was a welcomed member of the Residency. That was the sort of lucky life I had as a child. Unfortunately, we go posted from Buea down to Tiko which is by the river and that’s where the boats come to collect the bananas and so on. It is an important Port town in the southwest of Cameroon. Down the river in Tiko, one could go fishing, especially when the tides were coming up and the crabs were also coming up with the tide. Usually we would use the mudskippers to bait the crabs and along the railway line from the beach going down to the jetty where the banana boat will come and take their cargo, were reclaimed area – partly reclaimed. And there were a lot of land crabs and we also found out that there were big turtles, looking like lobsters, they were available for us to harvest. So, we started going to shoot these crabs with our catapults and my father now discovered how good we are with our catapults and decided to buy us air rifles. So, we now started shooting these crabs with air rifles and we then discovered that there were others –eagles, monkeys, iguanas and other things along that peninsular and it was great fun. That was the adventurous life which my father also enjoined, because he also got permission in those days to have elephant rifles and so on which was in those days very restricted. But at his level, he was granted permission to have about four guns in those colonial days. So, by the age of 12, I owned a gun and even though I was in secondary school, I was permitted to take my gun with me to school. I slung it under my bed, but it also meant that I had to carry my bullets and pellets in my pocket all the time so that an unauthorized hand will not use the gun for anything clandestine or awkward. So, that early responsibility of being able to have a gun which is a lethal weapon, being entrusted with that responsibility meant that throughout, I was conscious that certain rights also go with responsibilities and you cannot betray that trust. So, that is the kind of life I started off with. And with the number of guns my father had and so on, I was already attracted towards becoming a soldier. But he had already talked me into going into the marine as a navigator because up the hill, we usually saw the ships coming in into the Victoria Harbour – from the horizon, the mast head appears, then the rest of the ship hull will appear – as if it is coming from behind a screen, very exciting and when it is departing, it disappears behind the horizon again and all that magic of the ships appearing and disappearing at will was so exciting that – when in 1956, those in form 6 were wondering about what subjects to drop and which ones to maintain, I told them clearly that I already knew what I wanted to do – I wanted to be a marine captain. And before long, even my own classmates were calling me SMO- Senior Marine Officer. And although I didn’t like my Geography Master, I knew I had to do Geography because it was essential for marine career.
Then, by 1957, we now heard that Nigeria now has a Nigerian Navy. So, the love of combining the guns and navigation became so strong and I now had to try to get into the Navy as opposed to the Merchant Navy. But I didn’t quite succeed because I had lived in Cameroon that length of time and everybody even thought that I was a Cameroonian, but I wasn’t. On the other side, the Cameroonians knew that I was a Nigerian and even though they interviewed people for naval training in 1960 and I did well in the interview, they did not take me. They selected Cameroonians instead and said ‘I am a Nigerian.’ And I told them that yes, eventually I want to go back to my country. So, I was caught in between and in betwixt. My sister who qualified as an architect in 1961 from Ahmadu Bello University also came quickly and said, ‘let’s get out of here before you lose at both ends.’ So, I got to Lagos in a hurry in that December 1960 which was the year I wrote my school certificate and now tried to get into Navy, but it was not possible. Each time I went to the naval headquarters, they will not allow me beyond the gates and I did not know anybody. Luckily for me, in 1961, I got into meteorology and I was sent to Oshodi to train in the school of meteorology and later on, worked at Lagos Airport. And luckily, the Inland Waterway was now recruiting cadets, we then went for that interview and I was selected. Luckily again for me, they now sent two of us who were selected, to the Nigerian Navy for initial Squad Bashing. And while I was there, we excelled; although we were put there with ratings – the junior staff – there was no comparison between standard 6 and form 6 boys. So, we really showed them clearly what stuff we were made of. And that impressed the naval authorities and Admiral Wey now approved my transfer from the Merchant Navy training back to the full-fledged fighting Navy. Luckily for me also, those who had gone to Kaduna, the NDA for training were coming back. So, by the time they came back, I was more or less like an instructor, helping them to acclimatize or get accustomed to naval customs. So, my colleagues who had gone to the NDA and passed out as cadets were now virtually under my tutelage and we were about 24. And I became virtually the Senior Cadet and when it was time, they went through a short Naval training for which I was acting like an instructor at that point. So, there was no rivalry or any challenge – they knew clearly who was who. Although I didn’t go to NDA, I had already done the training as rating, went through all the squad bashing – left, right, left and even when President Tubman of Liberia came for OAU (Organization of African Unity) meeting in Lagos on the parade ground, I was used as an usher. I was the one carrying the dais for the reception party for President Tubman who came by sea on his own yacht. So, I was already part of the system by the time my colleagues came from the NDA. And that was how the first batch was dispatched to India, Koshoni and the others and all that, another batch left for Canada – Admiral Fingesi and the rest and I, Elegbede and so on – we all went to Dartmouth, we did three years there for our Naval Officers’ courses and came back and there again too, with my experience as a rating and exposure as a Rivers man, as a natural sailor, I excelled at the Britannia Naval Royal College. During the holidays, I was going to do other courses like diving courses, flying courses and all those things and even got into riding horses- show jumping and so on. And somehow, I got elected into the Rally Society, it was an exalted debating club and I was also appointed the magazine representative of the entire Britannia Royal Naval College which was like a PRO position for the College.
I could have been the overall senior sub-lieutenant. But being from the new Commonwealth – that’s what they called us- they could not see a black man coming to be the number one officer among those in training. But there too, I did well because within the first term, I had already passed all my professional boat handling tests and so on. Then, on board the ship, they soon found out that there was no other diving officer, except me who was still in training as a sea man. So, I became the ipso facto diving officer. So, I was not just being looked upon as a trainee, I was more like an instructor. And then, something funny happened- they were trying to get weather report out at sea –given the latitude, the longitude, the day and so on- and I saw the fleet navigating officer struggling to read the weather and I tapped him on the soldier and I said can I help sir? He said, ‘what is it?’ I said I went to Met School, so I know the Met Code and everything, the wind speed, the direction and all that and suddenly, I became the weatherman on board. So, I was the diving officer, the weatherman and yet, I was supposed to be under training. We had a wonderful time in our second year. Although I was not lucky to be sent to the Far East – the Singapore and all those areas – I did more training at Dartmouth Bay and also we went round the Island of Britain so many times. With my initial diving training, I was able to go into diving management and eventually, I could go to the diving store and sign for a Rolex watch they will give you for diving. It is expensive and it’s okay, until you lose it. But you can sign for it and be using it until when you want to return it to the store. It was a beautiful arrangement and even when there was nearly a war in 1964, when Krushev was sending the missiles to Cuba, we were all put on alert that there was going to be war until that blew over. So, we had that exposure and we also had a lot of experience maintaining ships on the naval dockyard in Dartmouth. So much exposure, both professional and otherwise and I became a member of British Motor club. And towards the end of my stay, I was thinking of driving back home across the Sahara desert, but my Admiral did not quite approve the expedition. So, we now came back. We were supposed to bring back some ships which the Nigerian Navy had bought from the Royal Navy. But here too again, full payment was not made. So, we spent another extra two months in Britain waiting for the ship to be paid for. And by the time we finished, we had run out of our savings and because I was quite familiar with the process there, I had to go tell them that we had lost our pay point in the College because we were no longer in the Academy and here we were, we were not on board the ship. So, how do I pay my officers? We were about nine and I was still the one in charge. By the way, when we arrived in London in 1962, General Aguiyi Ironsi, then a Brigadier, was the Military Attaché. So, I was the one now dealing with him on behalf of my other officers. So, he was somebody I knew. Of course, when he became the Head of State in 1966, he was quite happy to see me as part of the Navy’s team at the Supreme Headquarters. I was the permanent representative of the Navy at the Supreme Headquarters where I met General Gowon and the rest of them. By 1967, when the states were created I was now named as the military governor of Rivers State, that is the old River State that had the current Rivers and Bayelsa States.
At a very tender age?
Yes. I was 24 years old going on to 25 years. So, I arrived at Port Harcourt; but before then, we had to join in the war effort (the Nigerian civil war) to train the troops in amphibious operations which came in handy – divers, swimmers, snorkelers and all that to ensure that the war was prosecuted as fast as possible. It was supposed to be a police action, not really a war. It was to be a snappy thing. But it seemed the other side (Biafra) had armed themselves well by taking over all the arms belonging to the troops in the East because the Governor of the East was also the Commander –in-Chief of the Armed Forces in the East by the constitution. So, he was not just the governor, he was the commander –in – chief of all the troops based in the East – all that has changed now, but that was how it was. So, under that, he amassed arms to the surprise of everybody. So, the war was inevitable, that war was very necessary to clear the minds of the people who had already made up their minds to secede and had already armed themselves quietly to maintain their position. And they were able to get one or two nations – like France, to support them and they were sending them arms through Ivory Coast. And they were bringing in arms every night throughout the war. Here, again too, we had some very good support from people like President Ahmadu Ahidjo and Paul Biya, both of Cameroon, because it would have been difficult to stop the flights (bringing in arms) if they had granted them the use of Yaounde or Douala Airports as opposed to Ivory Coast where they had to fly some distance. Bakassi was part of the deal to stop them from using Cameroon – is it not better to cut your finger and save the rest of the body? But like I said again, I have had a pleasant life growing up and also very challenging times throughout my life. Nothing comes easy. By the grace of God, I was made Governor and since then, I have being in business and I have been working 25 hours a day to stay afloat.
What are the challenges you faced in establishing and putting the structures in place for a new state at such a young age?
It was quite straightforward. As I said again, before my appointment, I had been involved in the maintenance of vessels at Dartmouth dockyards and also we were involved in the task of training workers- when a new crew is brought to you, you have to train them and make them work as a team. So, I was already used to all that. And as a young Captain of a ship – I took command of the NNS Calabar – how many ships did we have then? Maybe four or five and I was one of the Captains when the coup took place. So, before 1966 January, I was already the Captain of a vessel. Of course, you have older persons – sailors- virtually all of them older than me – other than the recruits that were ordinary seamen who were given to me specially to train from scratch. So, I already had that training experience. So, as soon as I got to Port Harcourt, I knew that I had to start investing in training of personnel and arranging special schools for such purposes. And I also had to create what I called Special Scholarships. So, apart from the standard scholarships, we now had to give scholarships for specialized trainings in areas like flying, diving and even for legal draftsmanship. We had to cover all areas. I had the time as I was stuck in 24 Queens Drive to draw up a cabinet and working out all of the things that we would need to do when I arrived at Port Harcourt. So, as soon as we got to Port Harcourt, we hit the ground running and set up ministries and we had to make do with young graduates who we now called acting permanent secretaries with little or no back up of experience. It was not easy, but we had to impress on everybody that we are pioneers and that we had to be more dedicated than the ordinary people. Incidentally however, of all the 12 new states created at that time, Rivers State had more experienced civil servants than most of the other states, especially those in the North. So, we were even lending some of our own staff to some of the other states. That was the beauty of it, but it was quite challenging. But I keep telling them that they had to accept the opportunity with both hands and face with fortitude. But we made it.
You said the war was necessary. Why?
Not necessary per se, but inevitable. Like you now have all these insurgencies- Boko Haram and this and that. And you send your troops there to go and quell it. And you find out that after some time, they are still trying to subdue the insurrection. So, it was not what started off as a war- it was a police action- let’s go and arrest the rebels, but it turned out that they were not just rebels, they were ready and armed to the teeth and were ready to stand on their own as a different country.
Looking back now, would you say it was a just war?
As I said, it was inevitable. As a sovereign nation, you cannot have a territory and somebody says he is breaking away, you will not allow him to go. You will do your police action and since the police alone could not do it, the military had to join them to contain the situation. Boko Haram is not seceding; they are just trying to be a nuisance. The militants in the Niger Delta are not seceding, they are just asking for resource control. So, these are different things. But definitely in this case, they were going to secede and they actually announced a new nation called Biafra. So, the Nigerian government had no choice. It was either to let them go and take Rivers, the Cross Rivers people and all that with them or to stop them. And we were not ready to leave the rest of the nation. So, it was the duty of the Federal Government to see that the uprising was subdued and it just went on and on, till it was 30 months before it ended. And other nations giving them recognition did not help. And if a nation like France gave them recognition, it meant they were going to give them support by way of arms and personnel. And then, you had the mercenaries, the treasure hunters and other people who also came in.
Looking at the present day Nigeria, would you say it is the same Nigeria you fought to keep as one country?
Well, on integration we have gone a long way. Those who wanted to secede have been allowed to take key positions in the polity and even the leader of Biafra (on his return from exile), was allowed to run for office under a prominent political party that his chose. Let’s forget the past and move forward and try to build the country. We have moved from the parliamentary to the presidential system. But we really need to embrace the presidential system and put in all the necessary paraphernalia to make it succeed. One of the major things I see, for instance, is that we have the military, but there is need for a federal guard, a coast guard, state police and County or local government police. All these are going to be manned by Nigerians, particularly, the State Police – most of the retired commissioners of police and others who come from different states will be given useful jobs and they will start building their own state police. The Coast Guard will take care of all the issues of piracy in our waters and so on while the Nigerian Navy will be concerned with the deep sea; stopping poachers, stopping the harvest of shrimps and fishes and all the natural resources from our continental shelf. So, frankly, the more, the merrier. This thing about people becoming too possessive and thinking that they are holier than the next person is hypocrisy and that is one of the things that are dragging us back. All hands must be on deck, let’s galvanize every part of the community and so on to be fully involved. Let’s train the people well, give them arms and then monitor and check them.
We have gone from 12 states (when you were Governor) to 36 States today. In your view, how well or how far, would you say creation of states has gone to address the fears of the minorities in the country and generally address real or perceived imbalance in Nigeria’s federal system?
It has gone a long way. There is no gainsaying about that whatsoever. In fact, during the last Confab, 50 States were recommended for creation and that would have gone a long way to bring government closer to the people. Proliferation of states is not bad – let’s face it, there are a lot of minorities even, within the minorities now. So, if you look at the list from that 2014 Confab, that list did not have Oloibiri State, it was omitted. Unfortunately, I was out of the country at the time they were discussing issues of the states and nobody brought it up. But Oloibiri need to be a state, the place is now just a shadow of itself. And the only way we can immortalize the memory of the first oil well is to give Oloibiri a state and put it on the map.
This will run contrary to the argument of some Nigerians who have been clamoring for collapse of the states into regions, like we use to have in the 60s as part of restructuring of the country. What is your stand on the calls for restructuring…?
No, no. That’s not it. You cannot make omelet without breaking eggs. The people make up the country and you must give them service. Sycophancy is one of the problems that we have in this country. The Governor will be there and the foot soldiers who worked for them during the campaigns will be there, saying “chief-o-chief”, “Your Excellency,” this and that and they hide a lot of things from the Governor. It was long after I left office that I even discovered that people were ganging up and telling me lies. ‘Oh, they are bulldozing the road to Nembe, they are bulldozing the road to Brass, releasing funds’ and when I say ‘let’s go there to inspect’, they will maneuver me and I didn’t go until after I left office. I said, ‘shuo is this true?’ And these are your close associates – people who you think that butter will not melt in their mouth. They are simply sycophants. Sycophancy should be a course of study in the universities.
The point people were making is that if we had continued with the three regions we had before the first coup; when there was healthy rivalry among the three regions. Some people even hold the view that of we had continued with the three regions, maybe Nigeria would have been a better nation. Do you share that view?
No. We need to get states almost to the provincial level. You have how many provinces within the country? Get them to become states. And then, virtually, the governors will be like provincial governors, but we will call them states. Development will go faster than what we have now if you have the seat of government and the people they are governing right there. Think of the amount of money that could be generated by this country with our population of over 200 million. It’s colossal; there are a lot of areas which we have not touched from which we could be getting good solid revenue for the nation. Our oil is being carried by other country’s ships. But these are things which from the time of Magna Carter have been said – Nigerian goods should be carried by Nigerian ships. We should adopt those sort of things. Then, we should now get into more industries, like the steel industry. Without those types of industry, you are just a buyer nation. Instead of getting a factory, you get a factory that will manufacture things that will be used to build other factories. We have a lot of eggheads- think of the number of professors now and the number of professors that we had at the time of the creation of the 12 states and these are solid Professors – they got the stuff, they are well trained, they are exposed. I think we are being too conservative – even now, we are talking of power. Today, we have solar power. With solar power, you can generate power to a certain level. To get the big megawatts, you need so much solar panels and it becomes bogus. So, if you have enough solar panels for generating power, you run a generator which will run a pump and will generate wind to the right speed, like a wind tunnel they used for testing air craft and so on, you now put that wind into a turbine, so instead of waiting for the natural wind, you now create your own artificial wind and put it into the wind turbine. You now have a fuel-less generator. This is not space science. You have a fuel-less generator where the Sun is always shinning. You are now running your generator without putting any fuel, not even water. Just running the generator to receive the wind, put it in the wind tunnel or turbine. And you can have 50 megawatts and they can all be in a modular form- about three or four containers to contain all these. I keep telling people that this can be done. But nobody is listening. I feel so frustrated being a Nigerian, it’s sad. These are basic things that can be done; go to Brass, the ocean there, you will see all the fishes alive, nobody is fishing. But we could now have our own fishing fleet for serious fishing to be done along our continental shelf. All the shrimps are there, all the table fishes are there, even the whales come to fish there, and you hear their vibrating sounds and whatever. I have been saying the same thing over and over. We are flaring gas everyday – wasting money and causing environmental hazards whereas you can just put in place, in system in modular form and the gas will be contained, cracked and you will get cooking gas, LNG, methane and you can even use it for vehicles. These things, I have been saying them for years and it’s just frustrating. Some will hear, but to now get them to implement will be a problem. The bureaucracy is there. I can give you several examples. China, for instance in 1967 started what they called the Household Responsibility Scheme where they made sure that every household in the country cultivated mushroom and within 20 years, they overtook the United States in the production of mushrooms. Malaysia has developed mushrooms for instance, where one mushroom is about the size of three loaves of bread – under climatic conditions- though you have to deploy slight greenhouse technology and all of that. Instead of people having chicken pens and so forth in government house- remember the story of the deputy governor and his chicken- they will now go into mushroom farming. It does not stink. So, we really have a lot of things we are not tapping. And with our population, 200 million, that is manpower that can be used to our advantage. I am just bubbling with ideas, workable things and I am aging, although some people still think I am still 24.
When this government came in to office, there were agitations and rumblings in the Niger Delta and the Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo went round the Niger Delta during which he made some promises on behalf of the federal government. But many Niger Delta leaders are now grumbling that those promises have not been fulfilled. You participated in that process, what is your opinion?
One of the things that you must remember is that government is like a machinery, clockwork, where big wheels turn and the small one spins and if you put an object in one, the whole gamut grind to a halt. So, the bureaucracy has got to be looked into. The civil service – the whole system of selection – how do you select people in these intervention commissions and things? Is it because they are professors, so they know everything? Get people who can deliver, people who have been on ground and know the ground and know the design of the ground – the contour and have a bit of integrity, just a little bit.
What is your candid opinion about the intervention agencies instituted for the Niger Delta – there is the NDDC, Amnesty Programme and of course, the Ministry of Niger Delta- what is your candid opinion about them and their performances so far?
I think they have just been putting the wrong people into the wrong places. Put square pegs in square holes and round pegs in round holes. And they also should now have some exposure and training. All the time, people go into these agencies and they are overwhelmed. The problems are coming out now, you can now say let’s have another body to supervise those people. But Niger Delta has a ministry. What other body do you want? The Ministry has been given the NDDC to supervise; the Amnesty Programme is still with the presidency. The Ministry also has its own budget. So, it is just a matter of putting the right people in the right place to operate these things. If you appoint people who have political ambitions, you cannot stop them. A man goes in there and he is still dreaming of becoming the governor of the state and he knows that he needs a lot of money for his campaign and things. So, instead of putting money were it should be channeled to, he now starts diverting some of it for his own future ambitions. So, a lot of politics come into these intervention commissions. But you see, the traditional rulers, most of them have got to the peak of their careers before they came back home to serve. That class of people should be used more often. Nze Nzeobi (Nze Obi of Egbema Kingdom) for instance, played key role in the establishment of OMPADEC and the NNDC, he did a great job. But today, traditional rulers are not even in the constitution – there is nowhere in the constitution where they defined who is a traditional ruler and that was a big omission. If your son is in school and his name is not in that register, is he in that school? So, the traditional institution has remained a nonentity and nobody wants to adjust the constitution to include us.
So, you want traditional rulers to be recognized in the constitution?
Put a clause in the constitution to say so and so people who wear big ‘agbada’ and so on and so forth are traditional rulers, some of them are hereditary, others are by tradition and their allowances should be put in the constitution or they could act as advisers to their governors and so on.
But there is the provision for five percent of allocations to the local governments to go to traditional rulers?
Yes, in the States, but at the federal level, nothing like that. So, when they come to the protocol – you start with the president, the vice president – where do you put the traditional rulers? So, most times, everybody conveniently forget that we are there. We have become nonentities. Is that not a shame? Just like somebody saying a long prayer and forgetting to say ‘Amen.’ God will not answer the prayer.
Where do you stand on the issue of resource control which the people of Niger Delta have been agitating for?
Resource control is quite straight forward. In our constitution, we have the federal system and states contribute towards the centre. So, the oil industry should not be separate. The license should be given to the states to benefit directly and contribute to the centre in forms of taxes and so on. That is how they do it in the United States of America.
That was what we had before the first military coup
Cocoa House was built in Ibadan by the Western Region Government as a result of that. So, there is nothing new about it. But the thing is that during our time in office, we had to prosecute this unfortunate war which was inevitable. And so, the firty per cent was reduced to twenty five and then, the next military government came and scrapped it completely. And that was the unitary government that everybody was against, even the military struck because of it. And they now started fiddling with it – one per cent, one and a half per cent, and three per cent, then it became ‘not less than thirteen per cent.’ Well, if it is ‘not less than thirteen per cent’, did it say it must be thirteen per cent? We have been forever on thirteen per cent. That thirteen per cent, does it go to the state government or the impacted communities? If it goes to the state government, was it not the state or the regional government that the then federal government gave derivation money to build Cocoa House? So, when a group of people are now saying it should go to the impacted community, it is not right. It is the oil flare penalties that should go to the impacted communities because they are the ones inhaling the soot. People know the truth, they just decide to maneuver and shroud it. It is straightforward. That’s what usually beats my imagination. People know the truth, but they will be going round and round on it like barber’s chair.
But what would you say to those who keep saying that if you give the Niger Delta States 50 per cent, they will still fritter it and you will not see much change in the region?
Who are those people saying that and who gave them that authority? What part of the law gave them the authority to open their mouths and badmouth the Niger Delta people as if they don’t know the value of money? That’s not right. You should give a man his due and let him manage his life. Has any of our Niger Delta States failed? Are we coming back like prodigal sons to the centre? We know the people who are coming to the centre that they should be bailed out. So, that claim is ridiculous. It doesn’t hold water.
During your time in government, there was the issue involving a journalist, the late Amakiri, who allegedly published an offensive article on your birthday and you allegedly ordered one of your aides to shave off his head, resulting into a war between you and the media then. What really happened?
Amakiri was my son-in-law. He is even married to a Ms. Spiff, but Amakiri had constituted himself into a blackmailer of sorts. Some of these things have not been said and we really will not like to say it glibly. But he was blackmailing one or two of my Commissioners and at most press conferences, especially when I arrived at the airport, he will now be prodding that ‘do you know that this woman who was given a job in Bonny was now the daughter of so and so when I was a school teacher in the 1930S’ and so on. So, he was just like a bull in a China shop, destroying my government, pitching one person against the other and that was something that I know of. But that was not the issue. Amakiri was the man in Rivers State for Observer. Observer belonged to the then Bendel State and there was this unhealthy rivalry between me and my colleague, Ogbemudia of the old Bendel State. So, I believed Observer was out to just pull down all the efforts of the Rivers State when I was Governor. And I will plead with the press, this will be the last time I will answer any question on Amakiri. It is insulting. Any man that asked me this sort of question, I will not bless him. If you go to the Law School, they are teaching about the Amakiri case, the courageous judge went to Okhaloma and got honourary degree for being a very courageous judge. You know as a king, an Amanayabo, I am a dustbin, I have taken it in that stride. So, the press comes up every time to ask the question. Even, the foreign press did the same. I’m told that in Google, after they say all the nice things about me, they will say ‘he shaved somebody’s hair,‘ I have no cause to shave his head. He was my son-in –law. He was married to a Ms Spiff. Why should I shave his head? It all amount to blackmail. There are a lot of things that go on behind closed doors and if you watch Telemundo you will find out.
Though you were quite young when you were governor, people still talk about your achievements as governor of Rivers State. You and the late Melford Okilo, what was the secret?
Let’s look at it in a bigger context. People think that we performed magic and did this and that, but no. To me tell you, we only did our duties. The 1963 census put Nigeria’s population at 63 million. The last census put us at a 160 million. Now, from projections, we are about 200 million. So, you can now see that from 1963, the population has grown. So, the people now, we are talking of 200 million as opposed to 63 million then. Now, let’s say all the 63 million people at that time are still alive, they will be that old. But still, the people from 1963, till date will be only 57 years of age. So, the bulk of the number of people between 63 million and 200 million are people within the age bracket of 56 years. So, you have the government of today taking care of people who know their rights. They are more enlightened and are willing to fight for their rights. So, the people we were governing then are not with the same frame of minds as these ones. Those ones were more appreciative. So, I don’t want to speak as if we were magicians, that we did so and so. I will like to feel that way, but it is not correct. There are more challenging things happening daily now which in this modern day and age, with ICT, if you are not really moving fast, and have an open mind – I think that is one of the thing drawing us back now, whether in Bayelsa, Rivers State or in any other state and nationally – you must ask the people on the ground what they want and try to satisfy them. That is the way I see it. You know that in 1963, the people alive then, most of them are gone. So, we are talking of population of younger people with maximum age of 57. So, we are dealing with people who know their rights and are determined to get their rights. And as challenging as it is, there is no reason why anybody should starve in Nigeria. If you turn round, you should eat something. There is enough for everybody, but not enough for one greedy man. I will tell you a story- When Patrice Lumumba got into power, that was in 1956 and he got killed and then all the troubles started in Congo. We now have our troops under the United Nations being sent to the Congo. People like General Obasanjo, Adekunle, Murtala and others went there and served meritoriously. Now, the troops and the people who went there now discovered that the Congolese, just like the Cameroonians do not eat snail, they call it Yamangolo. So, our people who went there started gathering snails and brought back to Nigeria and that was why it was called Congo meat. I’m giving you history. That was why it was called Congo meat. So, by the time the next set of people were going out, they armed themselves with jute bags, so as soon they arrived and even before they were deployed to Kasanga and all those places, they got Congolese children to start helping them to collect snails which they will dry and all that. Snails move more at night. So, the children will go out in the night and the parents will ask them later, ‘we didn’t see you last night?’ They will say I have a contract with Nigerian soldiers and so, the parents were very angry – that thing that we abhor, that yanma-yanma thing is what they are calling Congo meat? So, they went to Parliament and change their name to Zaire. So, Nigerians have been making a lot of things happen. All our losses, all our money being sent to Swiss Banks and so on, is helping to balance the equation and their deficits over there. If we now stop all these capital flights and invest it here, we now start getting our oil refined, instead of it being sent abroad, both in local currency and in dollars, we will be amassing more wealth for the country and everybody will get job and be contented. Will there be any militancy? So, we have a lot of lesson to learn by looking inwards. Here again, we should have people who have exposure and are not vindictive, not people who believe in ‘do me, I do you,’ they should believe in live and let’s live. People just amass wealth for the purpose of going into politics and politics has been monetized to the level that if you don’t have much money and the heart to go and waste it, you cannot go into politics. As soon as you get there, they now start recouping. And it is natural because they now start preparing for the next election. So, even though we can say all these people in intervention committees or commissions are these and that, you will find that they are contributors to the coffers of their parties.
What has been your experience on the throne because things can get really stormy in the Niger Delta at times and what are the differences between being a governor and a traditional ruler?
You are there to take care of the needs of your people. As a governor, you have your budget, you have funds which you can use to run government, but this time, you don’t because there are no investments. Everybody is virtually struggling. The oil companies are there and they have their own contractors. They will not come to pay homage to the king and to the community and you now have the youths, the CDC and all that, being sent to remind them. So, it is an endless struggle of pollution, coming to pay compensation and then also extending the hands of friendship and goodwill to the kingdom. So, that public relations, good neighborliness and so on is done by persuasion. You cannot force them. The law does not provide for that and that is one of the things we are trying to do with the new Petroleum Industry Bill. We are talking of five per cent – five to the traditional rulers without coming to the government. Just like with local governments, we have only eight local governments in Bayelsa State for example and one state has 44 local government areas. So, we have very small share in local government’s remittances. So, you will find that there again too, you must try and get investors to come and this is the reasons you see me in Abuja, trying to make things happen which will now attract investors which will now generate more funds for the people of the kingdom. There is no road to the kingdom yet. I awarded a contract for a road to be built to Brass since 1974, it has not been done till date. But thank God, the road has got to Nembe, so the last leg will go to the coast. So, the challenge is enormous. If not, we would have formed our own fishing fleet and be going everyday – It is just one hour to the fishing ground. But we need to have cold store- one was to be built in Porokiri, one was to be built in Brass, but they have not been built till today. And every government has its own priorities. Take for instance, the present government now in Bayelsa. Even when the Governor just came in and was sworn in right in the middle of COVID-19. So, he and his team have been doing everything to ensure that people are kept alive and their health is taken care of. In addition, he is making sure that people get paid their salaries, even though some people are working from home and even the junior ones are made to stay at home. He is also making sure that pensions are being paid and outstanding gratuities are being paid to the surprise of everybody. So, you find that because of that the disease is not hitting that hard on the people in Bayelsa State. But if he was not paying pensioners and paying salaries and people are starving, we would have had more problems. So, the man wearing the shoes knows where it pinches. So, I cannot sit down and criticize this person and say my government is better than this. No, it is not right and like I said, the people they are ruling are not the same class of people we ruled.
So how do you calm the situation which can sometimes get stormy in Niger Delta?
I am a Chartered Mediator. I am a fellow of the Institute. It is a live-and- let’s-live-situation. You are looking at the next person and put yourself in his shoes and see what you can do better than him. You are watching a football match and you say look at that man, he missed the penalty. You think you can do better. Put yourself in their shoes and see if you can do better. You have to be sympathetic to others and let all of us move together. Live and let’s live, not me alone taking everything and then begin to hand out things as if you are a Father Christmas. The truth is that Nigeria is a wonderful country and the amount of losses from wastage we are incurring are gains for others to succeed. So, that’s why a lot of nations still loves us. They fear us or denigrate us, but they are still coming. Somebody even said that if Nigeria did not exist in real life, an author would have created it in a book.
You retired from the Navy at 33. Why that early?
When the coup took place, we were all retired compulsorily. In fact, I was given my retirement letter on my birthday on the 30th of July. So, I went back, got a collection of drinks in a hamper and took it to my old man then, Chief Amange and said ‘daddy, another pensioner in the family’, so he embraced me and prayed for me. But it was painful.
You are known for your romance with golf. How did this romance start?
Golf is one of those sports which is easy for people like naval officers or people on board a ship to play because the golf bag can be packed there quietly and it will not scream, it doesn’t need any maintenance, like fencing also. You can have your fencing things and so on. You can even go on a bus, bicycle with it and you can do your fencing. We encourage that in the Navy. And I have always wanted to play golf when I was in the Academy. While we were in Cameroon growing up, there was a golf course and you see this pebble like thing flying over the golf course and if you tried to cross the golf course, it could hit you. It hit one or two kids and we were advised not to pass through the golf course which was also with the race track. Our Reverend Fathers in our school also used to go play golf and they made us pick the balls for them and also gave us the chance to hit the ball. So, I had always wanted to play golf. But throughout my naval career, when I was a cadet at the academy, I was busy. Then, you now go on board the ship, then if your ship is at sea, it might be in the dockyard and there too, you are busy. So, I bought books on ‘know the game of golf’, ‘teach yourself golf’ and all that and when I started reading them, they sounded like Greek because all the terminologies used in golf is very peculiar and unique to golf. So, until I became the Governor and we now refurbished the golf course which had been taken over by the troops from the other side, thinking that paratroopers are going to drop on the golf course, so they now went to plant things there and it was overgrown. But I did not start playing golf until 1971 after my budget. I now took up golf. I was also doing some flying in Kirikiri, the Lagos Flying Club. And I discovered that within the Government’s House, the lawns there were quite big and I didn’t even need to go to the course, I could practiced right there. So, I built golf holes- one at this end and one at the other end. In the morning, as soon as there was light, around 6.30, I now go and play golf. And I soon became very good at pitching and putting and by 1973, I have got to Olympic golfer standard, I was handicap three. So, as a young Naval Commander – ones hands were steadier than now, one can play a very good standard of golf. It is quite challenging also because while shooting a gun, you point at the target, but this time, you have a crooked club, you are playing in this direction and pointing in that direction and so, it was more challenging. And it is so challenging and addictive that Winston Churchill said the game of golf must have been invented by Lucifer himself to torture the souls of men with crooked clubs ill fitted for the job. That was Winston Churchill’s definition of golf. But the good thing is that you might play well today, tomorrow, the thing divorces you. You are hitting the ball, it is either you are over hitting or you are too anxious, you are looking at the ball, but you are hitting the ground. But it was a good thing to build skills for self-discipline and for challenges- under pressure, how would you behave? Your thinking also – when you see problems, you now envisage them and reduces them to the size of the golf club and just whack it. So, for self-development, it is very useful. We do encourage military officers and everybody to play golf, even the younger ones. As you can see, Tiger Woods did well, his son is coming up now. I taught my son how to play golf at the age of three and he became a professional also, although he died in 2014. But he was not encouraged because by the time he got to the Olympic standard, he was still a teenager, they will not allow him to play in the Club, they frustrated him. But luckily, he still managed to go to the university to read computer science before coming out to become a professional. So, it is something which we should encourage in a big way. We should have golf courses in every local government in Nigeria.
So, how often do you play these days?
Once or twice a month. We used to play it daily or even twice a day, but there is no time. This time, we use golf buggy and all that
When last did you sail a ship?
It’s like riding a bicycle, when last did you ride a bicycle? Does that mean you have forgotten it? So, if it is to drive a ship, I can still navigate, there is nothing to it. Flying or sailing, it is still navigation. Up there, there is no shadow ground for you to go aground. But down here, you need to know the chart and make sure that you stay on course, otherwise, go aground. But going through the Creeks and so on, I haven’t been able to do that for some time, but the skill is still there.