Chief Eze Duruiheoma (SAN) needs no introduction in the legal profession, as well as politics and public service in Nigeria. He is one prominent Nigerian who remained simple and accessible to all.
In this interview to commemorate his 70th birthday, he spoke on his early life, the Nigerian judiciary and politics. Excerpt:
You were 70 recently, how do you feel?
I feel joyful. I give God the glory that I have benefitted from the biblical injunction of 70 years guaranteed for human beings. I am so glad that I have been able to make it this far in life.
Can you share your childhood with us?
I won’t call myself the reserved type. I was a rascal as a young man, always enjoying jokes, pranks and soiling my cloth. Today, each time I see children coming back from school, I imagine my school days. There was no day I would go to school and came back with my shirts intact on my body. It was either tied round my waist or placed on my head. And talking about playfulness, there is what we call sacred Python (Eke) in my place. It is not harmful, but my people hold it very sacred. One day, I was coming back from school and saw one resting on the road. I just picked some specks and threw at it, not with an intent to kill it. Something happened. The information about what I did got to my father before I got home. My father literally tore me into pieces with his mouth. He was so mad with me that there was nothing he did not do to me except that he didn’t kill me. This story is meant to underscore my playful nature. I was thoroughly an extrovert.
At what point did your education start?
I will say I was very lucky, the school where I had my primary education was not far from our home, it was just a five minutes walk from our house. It was all fun. Going down the memory lane, when I was to start going to school, I wasn’t of school age. So the community found a way of handling children like me, by hiring a local teacher outside the school system. The class we were placed in at that time was called ‘preparatory’. We used to call it preparatory not knowing what it meant, but today, with the benefit of all I have learnt, the correct word preparatory is preparation to entering normal school system. Suddenly our teacher stopped coming to school. After sometime, we had to troop to his house to know why he was not coming to school to teach us. The man told us that the community has stopped paying him. As little kids of five to six years, we continued going to school everyday just to loiter about. So, on one occasion I went to an infant class to watch how they were being taught. Suddenly the teacher posed a question which nobody in the class was able to answer. So myself, not being part of the class raised up my hand from where I stood and the teacher said yes; I answered the question correctly that was how became a regular school pupil in 1957. I progressed well and even had a double promotion. So, I was promoted to Infant 2, from Infant 2 to Primary one – Standard in 1959. But something happened in my local school in 1963, which forced my father to relocate me to a neighbouring community called Ebenator where I completed my Standard Six in 1964.
What influenced your choice of career?
Like they say in Igbo Language – “Okokporo anaghi ama mgbe ogafere ama ndi ogo ya.” It means that if you are a bachelor, you don’t know when you passed in front of the compound of the man whose daughter you will marry. The same thing with chasing a profession. I was a science student in my secondary school which is where people choose their career. After the secondary school, the subject you excelled in will define your career. I registered for Physics, Biology, Chemistry, English, Mathematics. Don’t forget we lost three years to the civil war before we came back to prepare for WAEC. One other thing about me is that I am realist. I don’t tell lies to myself. I know my strength and my weakness. I wasn’t geography, or History, or Literature inclined. These are art subjects, which other subject should I register to make it six, since one is required to pass six subject at least?. In my college days, Igbo was an alternative to additional Mathematics. I registered for Igbo. This decision to register for Igbo did not come until about two months to the exams. This was the first time I went into an exam hall not sure of myself, because apart from speaking Igbo, I knew nothing else about. When the results were released, I scored credit in Igbo Language. So anybody would have expected me to proceed to read any of the science courses. When I left college in 1971, I started work with the defunct African Continental Bank (ACB). If I had entered the university the year I left college or a year after, I would have read Medicine or any of the science courses. But thank God I didn’t, because when I started working, I found the time to read widely. In fact, I became a voracious reader. Along the line, I read a particular book which aroused my interests in law. In 1974, I applied to undertake a course in law at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, (UNN). That is the foray into the law profession.
What was the role of your parents in the fulfilment of your career?
First of all, I am from Umuma Isiaku town in Ideato South Local Government of Imo State. It is a wonderful community with great people. I count myself lucky to have come from there. My father was a good man, a great man by every account. He was a sage. He didn’t go to school but he pioneered education in my community. My father encouraged his children and other children to go to school. He didn’t go to school, so nobody expected him to be a scientist or a lawyer
even though he was a lawyer in his own local circumstance because he was widely consulted on almost every issue. He was a man whose views were sought on different matters, he was a counsellor and a merchant. He was chairman to my village council too. My father didn’t hold any political offices but he was a patron of those who held political offices. I want to recall that, through my fathers’ instrumentality, I was able the first time took part in an election, I was barely twelve years old. Whether the law in operation in those days enabled a child to cast a vote, I do not know. All I know is that through my father’s influenced, I was taken to cast my vote for his preferred candidate on that day, who later won. He married fives wives and held them together. His children owe him allegiance more, than to their mothers. He made us to love him more than we loved our mothers.
Later in time, I discovered that such was a very strong weapon in family building because it brought the family together. When the children in a polygamous family love their father more than they love their mothers’, their loyalty goes to their father. Such loyalty would translate into a bond between them and their father and unites the children. Thus they see themselves as children of one man and not children of so many women.
So from my father, I learnt that if you want to run a polygamous home, you must be able to control your home. Controlling your home means commanding the respect, the loyalty and love of your children over and above what they owe to their mothers.
Let me tell you a story. In the fifties, Rev Fathers who were invariably whites were adored and feared. There was one parish priest who had some issues with my elder brother who then was a teacher and a radical. My local parish was in Uruala then, not where it is today.
The schools then was of course controlled by the missions, so the two didn’t have a wonderful relationship and my senior brother left to join the army. He became a sworn enemy of the Rev Fathers. When my elder brother wanted to marry, the woman he was to marry happened to come from a devoted Catholic family. So this same Rev Father saw that as an opportunity to get even with him. When that couldn’t work, my father stepped in. One day, my father went to see this priest in his station. On sighting my father and my father being individual to him, he flew into a rage, and in the rage, he slapped my father. My father returned the slap three times before some people separated them. That was my father for you. He was a disciplined person.
I am happy to say that we his children have benefited from his goodwill, because he may have passed some of his DNA to us. In fact, public service appears to be in our nature, wanting to serve the public. This is what we inherited from our father.
Let me give another example of how my father ruled his home. He called his wives together, particularly my mother and the senior wife and said, henceforth, I will be responsible for the payment of the school fees of your children, but any other thing outside this, is your responsibility. My mother bore this difficult imposition with calmness for a long time before my elder brother stepped-in in my standard five.
Now if you sit down to calculate all these, you will discover that what the woman bore in monetary terms was more than what my father bore. This is because school fees was paid once in every term but feeding was a daily thing, clothing a regularly thing in addition to other school requirements.
Let me talk more about my mother. She was a hardworking, caring woman who would go to any length in terms of suffering to provide for her children. My mother who died in 1993, was engaged in fish selling in addition to farming activities like every other rural woman.
Let me give you a little sampler. I was in class four in 1967 when the civil war erupted. Everybody was forced to abandon school. Initially we thought the war would last for about one month but it dragged on.
The question then was what were we to do. It wasn’t a question for us alone but a question for our parents also. So my mother in her wisdom made some money available for me to engage in trading. The story of that endeavour made to realize that I was not cut out for trading.
I want to recall some of the fond memories of my mother which today draws tears from my eyes each time I remember her. You know there was hunger during the war proper but there was more hunger immediately after the war. The hunger of immediately after the war was more telling, because during the war, caritas and other agencies were always on hand to provide some assistance. When they departed at the end of the war, everyone was left to his own fate. So, for us to eat, my mother would wake up early in the morning to go to one of her farm where she planted cassava about six months ago, to see whether these same cassava have developed some tubers. If she found any, she would pluck it, no matter the size. My mother would then proceed to river to process it in order to get rid of the acidic contents of cassava tubers at the early stage of development. This used to take almost a whole day. She would come back very late and hurried to prepare the meal. Don’t forget that all the while, we the children were hungry, waiting for her to come back. She would then serve the meal, sit down and watch us eat first before her, because in her eyes the food was not enough for all of us.
Furthermore, because of my father’s policy which placed the responsibility of providing our school uniform on my mother, sometime in 1960 when we were been prepared for the independence day parade, part of the requirements was that every school child was to wear white shirt and white knickers. So when I came home and told my father of the requirement, he told me go and tell my mother. When I told my mother she told me she didn’t have such money for the uniform. The thought of having to be the only pupil not to take part in that important first Independence day Parade made me to fall sick dramatically. Truly, I was very sick. My mother came to where I was lying, knelt down, called me by all the pet names and asked “Is there anything I can do so that you won’t die? Do you know what came out my mouth? White and white. She went and bought the white materials gave it to her brother who was a tailor to sew it, lo and behold, the
uniform was ready when it mattered most. There are other persons who played good parental roles in my life, like my elder brother whom I mentioned earlier. He was my father’s first son.
We weren’t close at all in age. In fact, his first son is almost my age mate. He lifted the burden of my education from my mothers’ shoulders and he single handedly bore the cost of my education. This man did everything possible to get me started in life. I remain ever grateful to him. In my life, l have being so lucky to come across people who will help me, people who will come to my rescue when it matters the most.
So this is the luck I have that I will always thank God for. And with such a wonderful gift, I have been able to get to where I am today.
Can you recall any challenging legal matter you done so far?
So many of them. You know, in this profession if you are to stand for a man charged with murder or a man who, your defence of him fails will be condemned to death, you will realize that you have a heavy burden on your shoulders. I have found myself in such situations severally.
If you make a mistake and the man dies, you face the burden of guilty conscience. That is on the criminal side. On the civil side, if you didn’t get the desired judgment in the first court, you are encouraged to go to the upper court. If you don’t get same judgment in the upper court, you can pursue it up to the Supreme Court. If you eventually get justice there, you feel on top of the world.
I went to the law school in 1979 and did my youth service in 1981. After a stint as a lecturer at the Imo State University (IMSU), I went into law practice. I have been in full practice since then except for the few times I was away to serve the nation in other capacities.
Apart from law, do you think you would have excelled in other profession?
I won’t say that I am cut out for everything. In 1975, when I enrolled to read law, I was not even sure that I was reading the right course even after my first year because of the society’s perception of lawyers then. Again, I didn’t know anything about law. I had not entered a court a room before and I have no generation of lawyers. So I went as far as requesting the law faculty authorities to transfer me to Mass Communication. Reluctantly, they did that because after my first year, I had a very high cumulative. However, I still found myself attending law I still found myself attending law lectures until one day while inside the library, I looked down and saw my younger sister walked past. I chased after her to know why she was around. I went to your faculty, they said you are no longer there she said. It was then it dawned on me that as far as the university was concerned, I was no longer a law student. So as far as I am concerned, it was a leap in the dark. Thank God it turned out good. Anyway, I could have been a writer, a lecturer or something else.
At what point did you get into politics and what was the attraction?
I have described myself as a very lucky person. Nobody who knows me well will believe I will last more than one day in politics because I am too simple a person to get involved in politics. I hate some of these things for which we politicians are known – lying, violence, deceit etc. What happened was that when Ideato South Local Government was created in 1991, my people approached me as the first lawyer from my community, to show interest in politics. By the way I had sympathy at that time for NRC. This is normal because as a human being you must have sympathy for either party A or party B. the party’s local government structure (NRC) needed a caretaker chairman before they were able to hold an election. I didn’t know who submitted my name.
That was how I became chairman of NRC in Ideato South. While I was battling with the election, the local government election proper came up. My people approached me to contest. Initially, I said no but they were unrelenting. They even threatened to kill me and kill themselves if I refuse the offer. After sometime, I decided to give it a thought.
This experience further strengthened my belief that whatever will be, will be. Whatever God has destined for you, nobody can stop it.
While it lasted, I did my best in terms of performance to justify a confidence which my people reposed in me. That was how I entered into politics. And, like they say, when you enter into politics, it becomes difficult to leave it. The first decision I took was to relocate to Owerri. That was a political decision because if I had remained in Orlu, I wouldn’t had been exposed politically as I am today. You can’t stay in Owerri and refuse to play politics. They will bring it to your door step. Ever since then, here I am, stock.
How would you sum up your tenure as chairman of the National Population Commission?
I went, saw, conquered and came back. One similar thing about these commissions is that they have their respective mandates. NPC, like INEC, has its mandate. It has one major mandate well known to people even though it has other mandates but unlike INEC which has a regular mandate, that of NPC is not regular. By 2014 when I assumed office, I was promised that there will be census. So everybody was working hard with the hope that in due course, the powers that be will release funds. They kept reassuring us but all of a sudden, it all evaporated.
All we were relying on was mere guess work. One thing the then president Dr. Goodluck Jonathan should have done which he didn’t do was to make a proclamation on the census. That would have made all the difference. In 2015, a change in leadership occurred. That was a setback. How will the new administration see the need for a census. Again, initially, we got reassured that there will be census all to no avail till I left office.
But, if you ask me I will rate my tenure high not by way of self praise. Everybody will remember that when I came in, the place was in crisis arising from lack of confidence. There are thirty-seven (37) commissioners in the National Population Commission. These are well educated, well exposed eminent men and women who demand, of course, to be carried along in the running of the place. That alone is a problem. I was able to impress it on them that each day we avoid back biting and infighting, we get nearer to conducting a census because if all that people read in the press about of us is infighting, they will say “These people who cannot organize themselves well, how can they organize a successful census.
Having served as Chairman Imo state PDP, what was your achievement?
That period was a very sad period because, few months after I became the Chairman, elections were held and PDP lost Power in the State. It was an agonising moment.
I now say to myself having to manage a party that lost power, because one thing about losing power is that you loose confidence. People were trooping out of the party. We managed to get on until 2014 when I left for national assignment. The leader is blamed for everything that goes wrong and I took same in my strides. The saddest thing that happened was that PDP started the journey with majority in the House of Assembly. But the day they were to choose their principal officers, about five members jumped to another party thereby taking away PDP’s majority. I they had remained in PDP and played sound politics, Okorocha wouldn’t have taken Imolites for a ride for eight (8) years.
What is your philosophy of life?
Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you period. Talking about regrets, I have none. I don’t remember anything I have done that is outrageous or shameful except for some little mistakes here and there as a human being.
What are your happiest moment?
My happiest moments are when I am with my grandchildren struggling over little things and them climbing on me. Some of my friends call me ‘Eze D’, so my children and grandchildren also call me ‘Eze D’. When they want to go further, they call me by my title name Gburugburu. My happiest moments are also when I am with my people and we sit down to drink palm wine. Whenever I go to my village, before thirty minutes, there will be more than fifty people waiting to see me, I look forward to retiring one day and going to my village to continue life with my people.
What is your message for Nigeria?
I told you of how I took part in the Independence Day Parade in 1960.
I did not only see the civil war but took part in it. In fact, I was at the war front when my father died in 1969. The war destroyed all the industries in the then Eastern Region. So any young man who needed a job then, the place to go was Lagos. In 1972, I landed a job in Lagos. Nigeria was so well organized then. Some of us who went to University in the Seventies owe the country a lot of gratitude because at that time, you didn’t need to be the son of a rich man to go to University.
Somewhere along the line, things changed. Everybody blames the leadership but have we all played our parts as patriotic citizens?. We must rise up to fix the problems of this country before it is turns to something else. Look at the problem of insecurity. People have come up with the idea of community policing and regional security outfits. I think something radically different is the answer to the problem of Insecurity. If we are able to do the needful as a people and put God first, we will go far.
•John Agbakwuru conducted this interview as part of the 70th birthday celebration package