George Onyejiuwa, Owerri.
As governor of Imo state, Dr Ikedi Ohakim in 2009 organized what turned out to be the most celebrated episode of the Ahiajoku lecture series started in 1979 by bringing the legendary Chinua Achebe to deliver that year’s lecture. Almost ten years after, he has been given the task of reviving the lecture series after a ten-year lacuna. The ex-governor talks about plans by the committee set up by the incumbent governor of the state, Chief Emeka Ihedioha, and headed by him to make the 2019 lecture even more memorable. He also disclosed why he has decided to work with the governor.
The last Ahiajoku lecture was organized by your administration almost 10 years ago. Why the lacuna? Why didn’t the administration that came after yours, organize one in eight years?
I have not really thought about that but I think it is a matter of orientation and interest. The Ahiajoku lecture has a lot to do with intellectualism and culture. So, those who are not so orientated may think it is a waste of time and resources. But we do not want to dwell on that because the forthcoming 2019 lecture is billed to recover all lost grounds.
Can you expatiate on that, sir?
For the first time, the interest has transcended the Igbo nation. In a way, the Ahiajoku Lecture series have been elevated to a Pan Eastern Nigerian event. The 2019 lecture is bringing together the people in the former Eastern region who, though may be speaking different tongues, have a common historical experience. Outside the five core Igbo states, the governors of Rivers, Bayelsa, Akwa Ibom and Cross River states have indicated their interest to attend. Even though the former Eastern region was made up of people of diverse culture, the region was one of the fastest growing economies in the whole of Africa by 1966. Today, in spite of finding themselves in different geo political zones and states, it has become imperative for the people of the area to explore opportunities for synergy given the current socio-economic situation in the country. And a platform like the Ahiajoku lecture series offers a good opportunity.
But times have changed; even Ndigbo themselves are looking at various issues differently.
That makes the platform like the Ahiajoku lecture more germane. Today, our people are at a crossroads. While some are talking about Biafra, some are talking about restructuring, yet others are talking about the presidency. I think there is need, more than ever before, to provide platforms to interrogate some of the issues that are agitating the minds of our people. The Ahiajoku lecture series come handy.
But we already have so many platforms to talk. Are we not talking too much?
No. I do not believe we are talking too much. In fact, contrary to your observation, we are not talking enough. Nigerians are not talking to themselves enough. The leaders, the politicians are not engaging the people enough. Outside electioneering campaigns where else do politicians, for example, meet the people? We do not have the culture of town hall meetings in our country. The situation is even worse in Igbo land where our people, for various reasons, find it hard to find time to sit down and listen to each other. The Ahiajoku lecture series is the umbrella intellectual platform for interrogating issues that are germane to the socio-cultural as well as political and economic transformation of Igbo land and, indeed, the former Eastern region as I earlier hinted. As a matter of fact, one of the cardinal objectives of the Ahiajoku Lecture is, and I quote “to define aspects of Igbo culture and relate them to the main corpus of Nigerian cultures as well as to African and world civilization; to create a challenging situation for scholars to undertake relevant research on Igbo culture and to relate the research findings to Igbo world view and total human development”. As far as I am concerned, we are off target on these cardinal objectives, 40 years after the establishment of this platform. But I believe the 2019 Lecture is the opportunity we have to return to track and pursue these objectives with tenacity of purpose.
You seem to attach more importance to the forthcoming lecture than the 2009 event which held under your administration and which was delivered by the legendary Chinua Achebe.
It is not a matter of one being more important than the other. The 2009 Lecture was no doubt epochal especially in terms of the caliber of the fellow that delivered it but this year’s lecture is no less significant. If anything, it is the 40th Anniversary of the lecture series and it is quite significant and remarkable that the fellow that gave the very first lecture in 1979, Professor Michael Echeruo is also to deliver this year’s lecture. Professor Echeruo is an acclaimed world class intellectual and academic and just like in 2010, with Achebe, it was not easy to get him to agree to deliver this year’s lecture. As head of the English department of the University of Ibadan, Professor Echeruo made history as the first African to preside over the affairs of the premier department of English in the University’s system. Let me read to you from a passage in the citation on Professor Echeruo read by Professor Adiele Afigbo at the 1979 lecture. “Michael Echeruo’s national and international standing as a scholar is indeed a source of pride and inspiration to his friends. And the important point is that this international standing derives not just from his ability as a teacher or just from his achievement as an academic statesman concerned with running departments, founding associations of learned men and supporting those founded by others through active and devoted membership. It derives first and foremost from his productivity as a scholar and this productivity has been marked by versatility, rich variety, unfailing originality and incisiveness, as by simplicity of style and cold unwavering logic. Michael Echeruo is the one practitioner of his craft on the African continent that I know of today who is at home in creative writing and literary criticism in African literature, American literature, and English Literature. He is the only one in the continent I know of who has made significant contributions to the study of some of the seminal minds in English and African Literature.”
That was 40 years ago. Since then, Professor Echeruo has been everything. He is Professor Emeritus of Syracuse University, New York, one of the most prestigious Universities in the United States of America and also Williams Safire Professor of Modern Letters Emeritus. Personally, I am glad that I have another opportunity to midwife the harnessing of this latent intellectual platform through the gestures of the current governor who asked me to chair the planning committee for this year’s lecture. I am quite appreciative of that just as I was also appreciative of the gestures by the Institute of African Studies at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka which in 2017 gave me an award and also invited me to deliver the first lecture in the series of the annual Chinua Achebe International lectures which was started at that conference. The gesture was in recognition of the efforts we made to put life into the Ahiajoku lectures especially by bringing Achebe to give the 2009 lecture. That was the second time Achebe was visiting Nigeria in almost 10 years after the fatal car crash that took him to the United States for treatment. And that visit turned out to be his very last to his fatherland before his death in 2013.
Achebe and Echeruo easily stand out as past lecturers. Which other fellows delivered the lecture in the past?
Unfortunately, I cannot remember all of them but we have had Professor Pius Okigbo, the late eminent Economist, Professor Adiele Afigbo, Professor Anya O. Anya, Professor Donatus Nwoga, Professor Emenanjo, Professor Ben Nwabueze (SAN), Professor Romanus Ogbonnaya Ohuche, Professor Emmanuel Egwu, Professor Cyril Onwumechili and others as lecturers in the past.
What are the other highlights, like those that will be officiating etc.?
The event will be co-chaired by the Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Alfred Achebe (Agbogidi) and former Vice President of Nigeria and former military governor of Lagos state, Ochiagha Ebitu Ukiwe.
Sir, can I digress a little?
Go ahead please.
You spoke about the current governor of your state asking you to chair the planning committee for this year’s Ahiajoku lecture. I am aware that you are also working with the governor in a few other areas. Is it a matter of sacrifice or is there something in it for you?
I believe the entire state will benefit if I make my experience available in any area the current governor of the state considers necessary. You are probably talking about my involvement in the environmental sanitation in the state to which the governor also invited me to make inputs into what he is doing. I have heard people say quite a lot but it is only in our part of the world that it becomes a big deal that a former governor agrees to make himself available for assignments. The major reason why I decided to make myself available is to help our state overcome the problem of loss of institutional memory, which arose from the fact that the state was ran without adequate documentation and due process for eight years. Tell me, where would a new governor start from under such a situation and I happened to be the only person who knew what was where by May 2011. On the other hand, our people should also appreciate Governor Ihedioha for realising that he needed to cover the lacuna created in the institutional memory of the state. I am a documentation person. I may not know or have everything about the state but everything I did during my administration was properly documented. So, the current governor could at least have something to work with, given that there was little or no documentation between May 2011 and May 2019. Apart from documents, I also know people and contacts, including retired top civil servants some of whom I worked with and who are in the position to give useful advice to the new administration which would be of help to the new administration and the state in general.
My decision to undertake assignments on behalf of the current administration and at no financial benefits, whatsoever, is in spite of the fact that I am involved in a lot of things outside the state. Apart from my business, I am involved internationally in climate change and environmental issues. A couple of days ago, I had a meeting with an African president as a resource person for a mega international campaign on climate change in his country. In spite of my tight schedules, I believe I should make out time for my people and regardless of what anybody might say. But above all, I think our people should also appreciate the fact that I decided not to continue playing politics with the current governor and his reciprocation of that gesture creates a basis for further reconciliation among members of the political elite which I think is the ultimate objective of the governor. Since that will be in the utmost interest of the state, I think our people should be appreciative of that rather than engage in speculations over the motive behind the synergy between both of us. Gone should be the days when former governors and the serving governor see themselves as enemies. It has not done our state and indeed any other state in Nigeria any good.
You said the assignments you are undertaking on behalf of the state government are with no financial benefits. You think people will believe you?
Let anybody who has evidence to the contrary come forward with it. I have read where people quote some amounts of money that I have been paid and I just laugh. I only give my advice and go ahead with my own private engagements.