•Says he was born into political dynasty
From Fred Itua, Abuja
SENATOR Ndoma Egba is a cerebral politician and has equally achieved enviable feats in other endeavours. He is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). He served as Majority Leader in the 6th and 7th Senate. On Tuesday, March 8, 2016, he will clock 60 years. In this interview with some journalists, Egba opened up on his early life in politics and the role his parents played. He also dwelt on his early plans to go to the Seminary and become a priest and what later followed. Excerpts:
How do you relate with the everyday activity outside of the National Assembly?
First of all, I had a life before the Senate and this year, I will be 38 years at the bar. I was in the Senate for 12 years which means that I have 26 other years to account for and I spent those 26 years actively in court. I was into litigation. I was a court room lawyer. I had a life before the Senate and I knew ab initio that in life, whatever has a beginning has an end and I knew there would be a life after the Senate and fortunately for me, I had an alternative address. If I am not in politics, I am in law. So, I am back to law practice for now, but still actively involved in politics.
It appears you started so early in politics. What was the encouragement?
Well, if you put it another way, I started very early in life and from my part of the world, I was probably the first to graduate at 21 or before 21. To be a lawyer at 22, by 23, I was done with it all and it is God’s grace because in spite of the civil war which we experienced, I never lost one day of schooling and because I had the unique privilege from my part of the world, perhaps among the first if not the first who had an educated father and educated mother who was a teacher at the time, I was exposed to school environment early because I started following my mother to school even before I was eligible.
Now in those days, eligibility was measured by your ability to put your hand over your head. How they came by that method I do not know. But you know that if you are not six years old at least, you will not be able to do that. Even before I started school, I was already familiar with the school environment and by the time I started, I was already familiar with what was being taught. So, for me, life started early and by the time I was 16, I was a regular contributor to the Nigerian Chronicle which was a big newspaper then in my part of the world. So, everything has come early for me. Now, about politics, I grew up in a political environment because as a child growing up, my mother was then the chairman of Ikom County Council. Now we call them local government. She was the first woman in Eastern region to be a chairperson of a County Council. So, I grew up in that environment where politics was being discussed, where politicians were mingling and all of that. So, you can effectively say that I was born into politics more or less. I took the political side from my mother and the legal side from my father. If you wrote politics as boldly as this house, my father never understood.
You may have had your ups and down. Can we know some of the regrets you have ever had in life?
Regrets, I will not call them that. I will rather say disappointments. But whether they turn out to be disappointments eventually, it is a matter of time. I will give you one. As a child growing up, I had hoped to be a Catholic priest, but I never became a Catholic priest. When I went to read law eventually because I was a science student more or less, and I wanted to read medicine initially, it is a very funny story how I ended up not reading medicine. We had gone to Uyo for the entrance to University of Ife now Obafemi Awolowo University and a group of young men, precisely four of us and our friend’s father who was then the principal of the Advanced Teachers College in Uyo, it is now the University of Uyo, took us out and this beer, Gulder had just come out and the four of us drank this new beer called Gulder and we got to the exam hall and we were all sleeping and four of us failed and from that day till today, I have not tasted Gulder and I do not offer people Gulder.
In my final year of the A levels class, I was persuaded to read the arts and guess who persuaded me, Dr. Ogbonaya Onu who himself was an outstanding science student. He was our dormitory prefect and listened to an argument between my friend and I. My friend who just retired as an ambassador, Mark Egbe and in that school environment, siesta time was supposed to be a period of absolute quiet, but Dr. Onu got interested in the argument and so he did not punish us. At the end of the argument, he admonished us, but told me, ‘I think you are pursuing a wrong ambition. I think you should read law and be like your father’. The rest is history. I changed my courses about three, four months to the exam to History, English literature and Economics. So, I eventually ended up reading law which again was an accident but when I read law, I read law to teach law. I wanted to read law up till Ph.D level and become a professor of law and again, I am not that professor of law. When I went into politics, I went into politics to be the governor of my state. Again, that never happened. So, you can summarize my life by saying, I never became what I desired to be, or I never became what I set out to be. I became everything that I didn’t set out to be.
At 27 you were a commissioner. At that young age, how did you cope with the challenges of the office?
Actually, I was exposed to public office as soon as I came back from Youth Service at the age of 23 and if you look at the wall there, (pointing at a picture in his office), you will see me on the second row. I am the third person from the left; that was when former President Shehu Shagari appointed me to the board of Cross River Basin and Rural Development Authority. I was 23 going to 24 and at the same time, the late Dr. Clement Isong who was the then governor of old Cross River State also appointed me as the first old student to become the chairman of the board of governors of Government Secondary School, Ikom. I will explain that in due course because I actually passed through two secondary schools. I was 23 going to 24. So, I had always virtually all my life been in positions of responsibility and that is why I did not have a youth as such because you are 23 and you have been given a federal responsibility, you will have to act according to the demands of the office. So, I never had a youth and that is why I am not the party type because I never had time to attend parties, in any case I am not even that disposed for a simple reason. If I am in a party environment with loud music, people are dancing and drinking, even if I drank water, I will have a hangover for two days. So, it is in my own interest to spare myself the hangover. At the age of 27, it was a very interesting story. Two weeks ago, we buried the governor who appointed me commissioner, Navy Captain Edet Akpan Archibong. He had never met me, never heard of me, and I realised that I had run into him once in a lift in Switzerland. I had an uncle who was a diplomat. He was in the Navy and they were in Switzerland for a programme and he was staying with a friend in the same building my uncle was. So that was the only contact, apart from greeting, we did not speak. We did not have any relationship and I remember, we were appointed in January of 1984, but we were sworn in early February and in between, he had to meet his commissioners. So, he walked into the Executive Council hall; we were all standing, of course, he knew most of them. So, he was shaking their hands and I was standing in between the Commissioner for Health and the gentleman who became Commissioner for Trade and Investment. So, he shook the lady and skipped me and was going to shake the other guy. I grabbed his hands and said why are you not shaking my hand? He looked at me and said don’t tell me you are one of my commissioners? And I said I am unfortunately and he said oh my God, I have appointed a baby. So, the next day in Daily Times, a headline ‘Baby Commissioner’. And how did I cope? We had a group of very young professionals in Calabar then. We are all very big men today; journalists, lawyers and we were all bachelors; so, every evening I had this bungalow with large ground in front. We will assemble there over barbecue and we will be debating the future of Cross River and we asked hypothetical questions. ‘If you were made this, what would be your programme? If you were this, what will you do?’ I remembered one of the last conversations we had before the appointment, I was asked if you were Commissioner for Works, what will you do and we debated my ideas and that became my programme when I ended up as Commissioner for Works a few weeks after the conversation. So, we already had a plan and all of the members of that group became very prominent people in the society. They held high political public offices and they just executed what we were discussing and they all became very big men in the society. We grew up in an environment where young people had dreams, where young people were ambitious. I remember when I was a lawyer, I was quite active in ANA. That is Association of Nigerian Authors when we had a group that sat down every Thursday evening; the group was made up of professors, senior civil servants, lawyers just to read poems. Then we had another group that met once a week just to listen to Congo music. We had another group that met once a week just to play scrabble. That was the environment that defined my youth. So, I was an old man long before I became old.
Is that the reason people always accuse you of being elitist?
I do not know what they mean by elitist. One, if you know me, you will not describe the person who receives that kind of traffic as elitist. But if you say that I do not drink in public or I do not go dancing, you will be right because I have already explained to you why I do not attend parties. I mean, it is like if I have a funeral to attend, I find it more comfortable attending the church service and being at the interment rather than being at the wake.
You became commissioner at an early age and back then, had a lot of Nigerians who became one thing or the other at that an early age. How do you compare that time and how did we arrive at this level where youths are completely shut out from the system? House of Reps. is 30 years, Senate 35 years, governorship is 35 years and the presidency and all that. How did we get here?
Well, if you recall when Dr. Idi Hong was nominated as minister and I made my comment during his confirmation, I spoke against those provisions in the constitution. I clearly spoke against them because if you follow the history of this country, a lot of the persons who defined our recent history were people who were very young. If you take the people that fought the civil war for instance, most of the big names: the T.Y Danjuma, Mohammed Suwa, Murtala Mohammed, they were in their 20s at the time they fought the civil war. If you even take governance, how old was M.I Okpara? How old was Awolowo? How old was Zik? Then if you take my state for instance, Cross River, our first governor, U.J Esuene, was 32 the time he became governor. Paul Omu, who took over from him, was 36. Elegbede, who took over from Paul Omu, was 37. Dan Archibong was 42. Inim Princewill was 39. Clement Ebri was 39. Donald Duke was 37. Ben Ayade is actually the oldest governor we have had. So, I agree that the constitutional provisions that make it impossible for people to express their endowment are not in the best interest. In Britain’s Francis Beckon, they had a prime minister who was 23 or something in history, today you have a member of the House of Commons who is under 18 years. So, people have different gifts and the environment should allow them to express those gifts freely without any limitations. Maybe for judges, there might be need for a certain minimum, but for any other thing, I think people should be allowed to express their gifts.
When you were in the Senate, you were spending almost a hundred million naira on scholarship every year and now that you are not there, is the scholarship scheme still going on?
The scholarship scheme did not start with my coming to the Senate. It actually started in 1980 when I was appointed chairman of the board of governors of Government Secondary School, Ikom. We were paid a sitting allowance which in today’s environment is meagre, but in those days, it was plenty. I think it was N30 per sitting. It was big money in those days and I did not have need for it and I discussed with the principal and we agreed to create a fund from where the school fees of bright and intelligent students would be paid. So, the scholarship has been on since 1980. It became public knowledge when I became more visible and I have said it again and again that the scheme is not a political scheme. It is not tied to my politics. It is tied to my obligation and to my debt to a society that has been very generous to me. When I was to enter secondary school, if your sponsor was caught up in Biafra with a deposit of three pounds, then you will be allowed to start school. The school fee then was 23 pounds per term and because my father was caught up in Biafra, I was technically eligible for this arrangement. So, all we needed for me to enter secondary school was three pounds and between my late uncle and mother, they could not raise the three pounds. Remember this was a woman who had been chairman of a local government and she did not have three pounds and we tried to borrow for a long time and we could not.