Eighty-eight-year-old Mbazulike Amaechi is a First Republic Minister of Aviation and the only surviving member of the pre-independence Zikist Movement. He shares the story of his life with Punch.
When were you born?
I was born on June 16, 1929, in Ukpor, the headquarters of the Nnewi South Local Government Area of Anambra State. I’m the last of my mother’s seven children. She had three boys and four girls. My father was the head of Ozo title in our town and my mother’s father was the first man in Ukpor to take the highest title in the town called Nze-agha. Only four people took the title. I took it in 1962 and I am the fourth to take it.
Share your educational background with us.
My father died when I was four years old. My only surviving elder brother, Ben Amaechi, decided that I should go to a school when I was six years old. I remember my mother resisted the decision. She said going to school and church would mean abandoning the traditional religion of our people. Since Ben was already a Christian, she would not allow me to be a Christian too, fearing that the ‘Ofo’ of our ancestors would be abandoned.
There was a big struggle between Ben and my mother. Eventually, wise counsel prevailed. I assured my mother that even if I went to school and practised Christianity, I would never let our ‘Ofo’ be neglected. I have fulfilled the pledge till today.
I completed primary school education in Ukpor. From there, I went to Ozubulu. When I finished primary school education, there was no secondary school in Nnewi and its environs. The only secondary schools were at Onitsha– the Catholic CKC and the Anglican DMGS. Only the rich could attend the two famous schools in Onitsha. I attended a cheaper secondary school at Onitsha called Etukukwu College. I also obtained BA in Political History from Beverly Hills University.
Tell us your experience during the colonial days.
Life was good in the colonial days. The government was honest, but there were some things I did not like. During my primary school days, we used to go to Nnewi from Ukpor to celebrate Empire Day. It was about seven miles.
During the march, I remember a certain Nigerian teacher taught us one song which later changed my whole life. That experience was one of the factors that brought me into politics. The song was, “We are Africans. We are people without a brain for learning.” The colonial masters put inferiority complex in their minds. But even when they were governing, there was a very high level of honesty among the white rulers. The Nigerians, who served under them, maintained that high level of honesty and morality.
But people like us fought the white men because we did not want our country to be ruled from outside. As a matter of fact, I went into politics at the age of 18. I took an active part in the struggle for Nigeria’s independence.
When did you see a car for the first time and what was your reaction?
Cars were rarely seen in those days, but I saw lorries. At the age of 10 or 11, when I was still in primary school, we used to go to Onitsha by foot. We usually left about 5am and trekked to Onitsha. At about 10am, we would have arrived in the Idemili area. By 11 o’clock, we would have got to Onitsha.
After conducting our assignments around 1pm, we started coming back. We usually got home around 7pm the same day. Only one lorry used to ply Afor Ukpor around 6am to Onitsha and by 5pm, it would return to Ukpor. The first motor vehicle I saw was a pickup van owned by a reverend father who lived at Ihiala.
What were the highlights of your tenure as a First Republic minister of aviation?
When I came into the ministry of aviation, we split the West African Airways Corporation. There was an airways corporation owned by the West African Anglophone countries — Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone. When Nigeria became independent, we decided to dissolve the West Africa Airways and thereafter, we formed Nigeria Airways Corporation.
When we formed that, what we inherited from the West Africa Airways Corporation were only three planes, three piston-engine aircraft. They took three hours to fly from Lagos to Enugu.
My immediate task was to modernise the operations of the airlines. I went into the purchase of aircraft and double-pronged aircraft. I built aviation training school at Zaria where we trained pilots, aircraft engineers and aircraft traffic control officers. The military later took over and I left the ministry. I had been able to increase the fleet of aircraft to 19 planes. Ten of them were intercontinental aircrafts and I was able to build modern hanger for the maintenance and servicing of aircrafts at Ikeja.
I was able to train a fleet of Nigerian pilots. A few years after we left, the Nigerian soldiers that took over the government sold all the planes, embezzled the whole money and dissolved Nigeria airways.
Tell us about your most unforgettable moment.
That was when I gained admission into secondary school. I found it exciting. I wore canvas for the first time. In my first year, I had no shoes. I went to school barefooted. It was in my second year, after I made a good result, my brother saved money to buy me a canvas.
In my adult days, the period I would never forget was in the Zikist Movement. I found the demonstrations and lectures exciting. Another memorable moment was in 1959 when I won election to the parliament. It was memorable because I was 29 years old. At that age, I was appointed as a parliamentary secretary. A year or two after, I was appointed a minister. These were landmarks in my life.
What are your regrets in life?
I don’t think I have any aspect of my life that I regret. There were three occurrences that I would never forget: The day I escaped death by accident, the day assassins came for me and the day I nearly got drowned. When I was working in Benin City as a road transport clerk in a transport company owned by the Europeans, my duty was to go from post office to others to deliver mail bags.
I was sent to Asaba for a particular assignment. I was in a lorry to Asaba. Normally, the lorry would pick passengers along the road. When I arrived in Asaba, I saw a jeep, which caught my attention. I went to the man who was driving it and expressed my admiration for the car. He asked me where I was going and I told him I was heading to Agbor. He asked me to come in and I did. I told the lorry driver to meet me at Agbor Post Office because it was the next place to collect mails. One of the passengers, Mrs. Obianwu, came to the front of the lorry and occupied my seat.
When the jeep dropped me at Agbor, I started waiting for the lorry for hours. After some time, I saw vehicles conveying some wounded and dead people to the Agbor General Hospital. Behold, Mrs. Obianwu was brought to the hospital dead because the lorry had an accident at Issele Asaba. That was how God saved my life.
I had another near-death experience on November 19, 2002, when some assassins came to my house. They came around 2am. There was staccato of gunshots everywhere. There were about seven police sergeants and two professional assassins. One of them said, “We have come for you and you must die. Say your last prayers and come down quietly, otherwise, we will be forced to destroy your house. We are properly positioned down here. There is no way of escape for you.”
I walked out from my bedroom. My wife asked me where I was going. I said, “Do you want them to come and meet me in my bedroom?”
I walked down to the corridor and prayed. I asked God to show me what to do. And the whispers just came. The voice said that I should walk in front of me and I would see a chair there. It was around 3am. I saw a plastic chair and sat on it.
The criminals broke the doors of the staircase and rushed upstairs. One of them had AK47 and the other police officers had a pump action riffle. They went straight to my bedroom and started hitting the doors. They asked my wife for my whereabouts and threatened to shoot her. I was sitting down, looking at them and they passed behind me, at least four times without seeing me. They went into my bedroom, ransacked the entire area, toilet and study.
In front of me, there was the children room and one of the children, the head of my elder brother’s son, who was 11-year-old, was broken. I just sat down there, looking at them. The operation lasted from 2am to 5.20am. They knocked down everything. They went to the boy’s quarter, thinking that I ran to the place. They shot at every place and the ceiling. It was a great thing God did for me.
How many more years do you still want to live in life?
I want to live up to 128 years.
You were close to the late Nelson Mandela? How did you meet him and what role did you play when he came to Nigeria during the apartheid era?
During the apartheid era, Nelson Mandela was the leader of the African National Congress that fought the white supremacists in South Africa. They wanted to kill him or send him to prison and he was able to escape to Tanzania. But he wasn’t safe there. He found his way to Nigeria.
When he came to Nigeria, he went to Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. Julius Nyerere of Tanzania gave him a letter of introduction to Dr. Azikiwe, who was the governor-general of Nigeria because Nigeria had not become a republic then.
Zik then said to him, “There is only one nationalist who thinks the way you think and I think you will live well with him.” Zik called me and asked me to take Mandela. I took him to my house at 5, Okotie-Eboh Street, Ikoyi, Lagos. He stayed with me for six months. The British government and the South African Government knew that he was with me. There was nothing they could do about it because I was a minister and a parliamentary secretary, I was equally powerful.
I was a radical nationalist. Mandela and I used to travel to my village and my mother used to prepare food for us. But after about six months, he said, “Look, for how long will I continue to run around. I better go back to South Africa, they will either kill me or send me to prison, whichever way they do it, it will give inspiration to other people that are fighting for freedom.”
At this point, we arranged a small send-off for him at Ikeja airport. He boarded an aircraft and returned to South Africa. Three months after he got to South Africa, he was arrested, tried and sentenced to life imprisonment.
What are your thoughts on the state of the nation, agitations for Biafra and call for secession?
I don’t know if I should regret ever fighting for independence and unity of this country. I will never regret because the military spoilt my country. The Nigeria we have today is not the Nigeria we fought for. It is not the Nigeria we sacrificed for; shed our blood and sweat to achieve. This is not a federation. As I always say, Nigeria, since 1966, has been ruled like an illegal organisation with illegalities because no constitution of Nigeria is the constitution of the people of Nigeria. The 1979 Constitution was a product of constitutional conference amended by the military and then by a decree made effective in law.
The 1999 Constitution was also a product of the constitutional conference or constituent assembly. The northern military, who edited it, removed the portion they didn’t like and added the ones that suit them. Then by decree, they made it into laws, therefore, it is not the constitution of the people of Nigeria.
Till now, Nigeria has been ruled on illegalities. The President is illegally occupying the position because he is there, not by the constitution of the people of Nigeria, but by the constitution of the military of the North. If this country will grow and continue to be together, there is a need for total re-negotiation of the bases of the unity. But to continue like this, there will certainly be no peace.
Do you think that President Muhammadu Buhari has handled the Nnamdi Kanu issue as a true federalist and converted democrat?
President Buhari has handled Nnamdi Kanu’s issue with his characteristic deep hatred for Ndigbo. He has personal hatred for Ndigbo. That was why he took over the government in 1983. That hatred for Ndigbo has not been aborted.
Nnamdi Kanu was erratic in many respects but that wasn’t the best way to handle him. The young man was making his demands. He has followers and why not listen to him and enter into a dialogue with him. What crime has Nnamdi Kanu committed to be compared with the crimes of his (Buhari) own brothers, the Fulanis, in Nigeria today?
During the tenures of former presidents – Olusegun Obasanjo, Goodluck Jonathan, and Musa Yar’adua – did you ever hear of Fulani herdsmen killing people? No! It is only in the Buhari era that they kill people. Nobody is being arrested and nobody is questioning them.
This was what happened in Jos. They (herdsmen) would just invade a community at night with sophisticated weapons and wipe out women and children. Today, they will go to Kanu’s place, knock down the wall, loot the king’s palace, kill young men and carry away their dead bodies.
Kanu and his organisation were never violent. If one group says something in Delta State, he would send people to negotiate and dialogue with them. But in Igboland, if anybody says something for good, he must be killed. Only God will fight for us.
What do you think Nigerian leaders should do to transform the country?
To transform Nigeria is as difficult a job as stopping mosquitoes in Nigeria. This is because we don’t know where to start. The society has been so demoralised. People have developed the knowledge of acquiring money without much labour. Stealing in public places, embezzlement and corruption at every level have become the ordinance. Only a leadership by example will help to restore the sanity of the situation.
The present regime cannot do it because they don’t even understand what government is. Look at the NNPC, the 16 positions of management and directors, 12 were allocated to the North, two to the West and two to the Delta people and none to Ndigbo. And you think God will keep quiet. There is God and He is watching us.