“I was influenced by late Obafemi Awolowo when he came to campaign with a helicopter in my hometown. That motivated me to focus on my dream.”
Josfyn Uba and Lawrence Enyoghasu
Air Vice Marshal Anthony Ebehijele Okpere, retired, clocked 75 recently. The former Minister of Aviation and ex-Managing Director, Nigeria Airways took Saturday Sun down memory lane on the influences in his career path. The interview took place at his Lagos residence.
How does it feel to be 75?
First, let me give praise to God for keeping me till date. I just turned 75. For me, it is just a number in mind. I don’t even think that I am 75 in the sense that what a younger person can do I can do it, too. I am as fit as a fiddle. I can still drive from Lagos to my town in Uromi, in Edo State, with my driver sitting by my side. My eyes are very good and I have a lot of energy. It is not by my power but by the grace of God. 75 is just a number.
What influenced your decision to join the military?
To begin with, in a way the uniform fascinated me. I didn’t see my father until towards the end of 1944. Just as I was born, he was conscripted into the army when the Second World War II was going on, there was also the Royal West African Frontier Force. He was a nurse working in a hospital at Enugu from where he was drafted into the army. He was a member of the troop that went to Burma.
I grew up with an uncle until late 1947 when my father came back. The very first thing he did was to remind me that it was time for me to go to school.
I started my primary school at the age of 5 in 1948. The school system was in infants and standards. All through the period, I was seeing my father in a picture with his uniforms and that started to register in my mind. I started contemplating on joining the army. Even in our secondary school, one DIG Akinrowe had great influence on me and was my role model. He left our school and came to Southern Police College and was the best all-round cadet. He came to our school in his uniform to talk to us.
I remember vividly late Brigadier Irhombo also talked to us on making a career in the army aside from what DIG Akinrowe had told us. But even then, it even didn’t occur to me that I could join the army. In 1959, during the campaign of AGN and NCNC, late Chief Obafemi Awolowo campaigned with a helicopter. He flew over our school in Uromi making series of maneuvers, the next thing we saw in the sky was the Action Group sign and the palm tree. A lot of us trooped out to watch this magic in the air. I was personally fascinated by this display. Then, our school Principal, Rev. Father Bayi of blessed memory explained to us that over 20 of such could land on our field.
What was the significance of that never-seen-before display to you?
I told myself that since the aerial display was not a spiritual performance but by a human being, I made a vow that I, too, would like to do same thing, one day. I made myself a promise that not only would I fly over the school, but would like to land in my town’s square in a helicopter. I said it and filed it aside in one corner of my memory. I didn’t think about the Army and Police force. I quickly remembered that such career would not afford me the opportunity to fly.
When we finished our secondary school, I got scholarship to do my high school. By the time I got home, I met my father very joyous, I asked and he told me that I passed exams for two schools. That same week, I left Uromi and came to Lagos in search of a job, and was immediately taken to the Central Bank, which was made possible by late Mr. Ijewere, Director of Banking Operation. I was barely 21 and I attended the interview and was taken. When they calculated all my allowances, it came up to 55 pounds plus. Meanwhile, at Uromi where I was teaching in a model school, I earned only 14 pounds. I declined the job.
Why did you do that?
I was still bent on when to get a career to do what I saw in 1959. By a stroke of luck, in April of that same year, an announcement came that the federal government had signed an agreement with the German government to establish Nigerian Air Force. I asked and was told that soldiers fight on the ground while the air force fight in the air.
I concluded that was an opportunity to actualize my dreams. So, I applied for it in June 1963, we were called for an interview, after everything, we were to leave for Germany. I was already dreaming that I would be going to Germany in no time when some disappointment came.
All of a sudden, we heard over the radio that the team was not balanced, that we must have 50 percent from the South and 50 percent from the North and that we had more Southerners. They needed to drop some of the Southerners to accommodate more Northern cadets. This led to some of us being dropped and taken to Kaduna for our military training.
Were you worried then?
We were asked to report for training October I, 1963. On our way to Kaduna, we had a problem because we went by train. The train broke down which resulted into our late arrival in the night and a complete stranger who happened to be AVM Bello assisted me. That incident would later bring me very close to him. We did the military training and some us were selected to go to Germany and we left on June 29, 1964. AVM Bello left before us to America. The American government gave us scholarship for cadets. He was among those selected. My set was with Abdulsalami Abubakar on August 29, 1964.
Is it the same Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, former head of state?
Yes, we were 31 on board. Eight of us qualified as pilots. I came back from Germany in June 1967, when the Biafra war was on.
How did you eventually realize your dream of flying a helicopter to your village?
My good friend, AVM Bello turned out to become the Director of Operations and Training at the Air Force headquarters. After a few months in Kaduna, he called to inform me of the government’s willingness to buy old helicopters. He recalled my strong desire during our training and how much I had wished to become a pilot, one day. He told me that if I was still interested, he was in a position to help me realize that dream.
So, he slotted my name in as one of the people. We went to Bristol Helicopters in England. We left in November 1967 and came back in March 1968 and of course, we were deployed to the warfront. I was trained as a helicopter pilot and also flew fixed wings. However, I knew that the pledge I made to myself that would I would fly a helicopter to my village in Uromi seemed to be coming close.
And it came to pass when Prof Ambrose Ali was the governor of defunct Bendel state governor in 1981. AVM Bello was the Chief of Air Staff and the Air Force had an event in Benin where Prof Ali was scheduled as the special guest of honour.
But when we called the government house, we were told that Prof Ali was at Ekpoma, his hometown and we needed him to be at that ceremony. If he didn’t show up, the people will misinterpret it, not knowing that to drive from Ekpoma to Benin was something else.
As I reviewed the case with AVM Bello, I knew I had an ulterior motive as well. He immediately authorized me to fly to Ekpoma and bring Prof Ali. I remember vividly that I took the late Ikpeazu along with me. We flew to Ekpoma and landed somewhere near Prof Ali’s house and met him preparing to drive to Benin.
Cleverly, I told him to take his time while I run some other errands. I broke the law and was prepared to take whatever punishment would come with it.
All these stunts were to fulfill my dream of 1959. I saw that day was my God-given opportunity and must fulfill it. I took Monday Ikpeazu and entered Ekpoma to Uromi in less than five minutes.
You did that without official permission?
Yes, as I told you, I was determined to face the consequences. When I got to my hometown, I made sure that I maneuvered around. While maneuvering in the air, I could see my people happy at the sight of the helicopter. I landed close to my father’s house. When I landed, it was a motivation for a lot of them. For me, it was to fulfill my dream and tell my people that we don’t need to have two heads to do this. What was done, by a white man in 1959 could be also done by their own son, I thought. My father, having sensed that I was the one, instantly, went inside and changed to his native ceremonial attire and sat outside with a sense of pride and honour and was surrounded by many people.
How did your mother take it?
While all these were happening, my mum was inside the house crying and screaming.
Why would she cry?
Naturally, as a mother, she felt that it was too much for me. She was afraid that the bad people could pluck me off from the air. That incident reminded me of when I was travelling to Europe, my parents saw me off and when my mum asked when I would be arriving at my destination, I told her that we would get there in six hours. She wondered why we were in hurry. After all, it took us ten days to cross the River Niger. The same thing happened when I landed, she was of the opinion that I should not have come home with a helicopter. While everybody jubilated, my mum cried, instead.
Having achieved this feat, how did you feel that day?
On that day, having landed the helicopter in my village, I felt I have fulfilled everything I wanted to do as an Air Force officer. I felt fulfilled as a career officer. It was a dream fulfilled and a mission accomplished. With a sense of satisfaction and achievement, I looked at my wristwatch and realized that I had to depart to pick up His Excellency, Prof Ali for Benin City. Meanwhile, I had not told AVM Bello about what I did. When I finally told him, he seriously chided me for doing it without telling him but was also happy for me that I had finally realized my dream. He said that not many people were lucky to get such opportunity.
What was your motivation?
I was influenced by late Obafemi Awolowo when he came to campaign with a helicopter in my hometown. That motivated me to focus on my dream. There are two ways to dream. You might dream that you are riding a Roll Royce and go back to bed to continue or wake up to work and achieve it. In all, it has always been my principle not to forget those who helped me.
What kind of man was your father?
My father was the first to establish a pharmacy shop in my village. He was good at that because he had practical experience having worked with very experienced doctors not only in Enugu but also in Buma. He came back from Burma, had money and started marrying wives. Thank God that he was polygamous because today, I am happy to be in the midst of many brothers and sisters such that I don’t even remember that we are of different mothers. I am the number one of the grandchildren of the Okpere family. My grandfather had 20 wives. My father also married like him. He married and told the wives to look after their children.
What was your experience growing up?
Like I earlier mentioned that I grew up with my maternal uncle. He paid my school fees of one shilling a month until I was in standard six when he said that it was the responsibility of my father or parents. Of course, my father had a lot but it could not be concentrated on me alone and my mother had to take over. My mother sold fried plantain and beans in the village.
Early in the morning during the holidays, I would carry her wares to drop at the market square. It came to a stage when I was advancing in class, my mum wanted me to stop but I resisted because it was where we got the money for my school fees and general upkeep. I remember what she used to give me every time I was going back to school. She would count 14 shillings, a half bag of garri, a packet of St. Louis sugar, a tin of yeast powder, and a bottle of cod liver oil. These items were compulsory for me. She would give me extra money to buy a bar soap.
It was later in school that I found out the usefulness of the cod-liver oil and the yeast. The bottom line was that she didn’t want me to beg for anything or lack anything in school. After the training with the Air Force, I had a lot of money with me. She provided as much as she could and I managed it well, knowing how my poor mother toiled day and night to fend for me.
Would it be safe to say that you were a mummy’s boy?
Not exactly right because I have other siblings. Although, I was close to her but other children also had their affinity with her. I really adored her.
What is your favourite past time?
I have spent half of my time on humanitarian service. The motherless babies home, that’s the Lions Club orphanage where I was made the Chairman of the building committee is the biggest in the country. Our intention is to bring up these kids in a highbrow area, so they can begin to respect values and set high standards for themselves in life. Some of them went to the University from there and graduated.
At 75, what does fulfillment mean to you?
For me, sharing is the best value and it gives me fulfillment. I once reared pigeons in this home but I stopped the day I went to a market and asked for the feed. It was N8,500 and as I was about to pay, I saw a lady with a baby strapped on her back, she was in the shop to beg the shop owner to give her just N300 worth of beans.
I looked at her and the baby, unconsciously, I felt tears rolled down my eyes. I just could not bear it. I told the seller to convert my money, which was meant for the pigeon feeds to provide for her beans. There and then, I vowed not to feed the pigeons again. I felt bitter that over the years, I had been feeding pigeons while humans go hungry. And because I stopped feeding the pigeons, they flew away one after the other.
What has life taught you?
Life has taught me to love more. Empathize and never be hasty to judge others. Life has taught me not to take too many things to heart. I don’t know how to discriminate.
Life has taught me to be good. When I was Managing Director of Nigeria Airways, every morning I went to the office, I always saw an imaginary blackboard in front of me with a big question mark.
The question was always what I was meant to do for the day. One day, in 1986 I met a man and helped him to meet up with his presentation in England, the man came to my office crying that he had lost his return ticket somewhere in Anambra State and he was scheduled to travel that day. I paid for his return ticket and that was all. I would later meet the young man again in Kaduna as a big shot in defunct NITEL. And he was very generous and kind far beyond what I might have done for him. That’s what life is; just being good. All is vanity.
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