Eze John Nwosu is the traditional ruler of Isiokwu, Ihioma community in the Orlu Local Government Area of Imo State, and a former Resident Electoral Commissioner. He tells GIBSON ACHONU about his career.
Nigeria’s electoral system has been a cause for concern to many Nigerians. What would you say are the fundamental problems?
The problems include illiteracy, clannishness, tribalism, lack of patriotism, pursuit of lucre, the excessive monetary weight of political office, abuse of the voter registration exercise and voting by underage children. Our electoral system is also challenged by dishonesty by most players, compilation of fictitious names of voters, illegal printing of voter cards and result sheets, the display of and use of dangerous weapons and bribery of party agents. People have to be honest in every sense from the leaders to the led.
Were you involved in partisan politics before you became a traditional ruler, considering that you have held different positions as a public officer?
I did not become a politician. The political positions I held were appointive by reason of my education and exposure. Way back in 1963, at the University of Ibadan, I ran for the post of Students’ Union Secretary after the tenure of Mr Jim Nwobodo (a former Governor of old Anambra State) and lost. But Kuti Hall of Residence at UI returned me as the first member of the hall in the students’ parliament. I took up appointments in the education sector after the war, first on secondment to Benue and Plateau states as an education officer and later to Kano State as the principal of Bagauda Government Secondary School. I also served as the principal of Gaya Government Secondary School, Kano. I was the only Igbo man to be so appointed. These gave me political exposure.
When I was de-seconded to Imo State in the early 80’s, I was again appointed secretary of the education board, all politically laced. I worked with politicians. I attended Staff College of Nigeria for a postgraduate diploma in public administration. I earned the best all-round student award in Course Four of that foremost institute. Upon my return to Imo, I was appointed chairman and administrator of old Orlu Municipal, under the government of General Ibrahim Babangida (retd.). At that time, technocrats of the rank of permanent secretaries or deputy permanent secretaries or their equivalent were chosen to lead local governments, preparatory to the return to civilian government. We combined administrative duties with political headship of local or municipal governments. In other words, the position encapsulated both political and administrative functions. That was my first full exposure to political duties and maneuverings. At the end of that tenure, the governors appointed me sole administrator of local governments, after which I was advised to return to my career service or opt for politics. I preferred to remain in the service until I reached retirement age in 1999.
What did you do after your retirement?
Upon retirement, I was appointed as a civil service commissioner for Imo State, representing Orlu zone. I was still a commissioner when the Government of Imo State, under Chief Achike Udenwa, nominated me and I was appointed as a federal resident electoral commissioner – first, for Anambra State and subsequently for Ekiti, Delta and Osun states. What is remarkable about my career, as a resident electoral commissioner, is that none of my election results was ever contested in court and I left all my duty positions without any dent or threat to my personal safety. In fact, I received the NANs Election Observation Award as Best Resident Electoral Commissioner in the South. So, my political participation is, by reason of appointment, education and exposure, not to political party membership.
How old are you now?
I am 81 years of age.
How did you know your age?
I was exceptionally a lucky person. At birth, I was taken to a Catholic hospital at Emekuku, near Owerri. It was founded in 1937, where I was baptised. It was the missionaries that opened up the Catholic Holy Rosary Hospital, Emekuku. Owing to the fact that my parents lost the child before me, my father did not want to take chances. This was why he availed himself of the modern medical facilities available at the missionary hospital at the instance of somebody named Chief Paul Obioha from my village, who was then a dispenser in the native authority administration.
What kind of childhood did you have?
I had a happy childhood, but a rural one. My father was essentially a farmer and a petty dealer in wood. That gave him some enlightenment and he was very desperate about modern things. That accounted for why he insisted on my receiving Western education at all cost. I was privileged because it was not everybody in the village at that time that had that type of disposition. He was very hurt that he could not sign his name any time he attended the Ihioma Town Union meeting, where he represented my village.
You witnessed the Civil War. What do you remember about the experience?
I remember a lot. The Biafran war broke out exactly two years after I left the University of Ibadan. I watched all the developments before, during and after the war. It was an experience I would not wish for my enemy. This was because it thoroughly fragmented my world vision and career expectation. I saw the suffering and I worked with foreign and local volunteers and became the director of a refugee centre and, later on, Director of Caritas International Relief and Food Distribution Centre then at the heart of Biafra, at Ihioma.
Did you fight during the war?
I did not fight as a gun-carrying participant. As I said, I had just left the university and I was found to be more useful in other areas of the war other than carrying a gun. I was a member of leaders of thought, stakeholders’ meetings, and provincial caucuses, because of my exposure as an early graduate in the old Orlu division.
When you look back, today, what was the most painful part of the war?
The most painful part of the war was the friends and former colleagues shooting to kill one another and, sometimes, exchanging banter at the war front as colleagues and friends. I was in constant touch during the war with a bosom friend, Prof Peter Bodunrin, who later became the first chancellor of Ekiti State University, recruited from the University of Ibadan, where he was the deputy vice chancellor.
You were a teacher. Was it your desire to become one?
I became a teacher because, as soon as I passed Standard Six and placed second, I was automatically appointed a pupil teacher, a missionary reward for being bright at Akata in present-day Oru East Local Government Area of Imo state. It is important to note that I was only 13. The Marist Brothers spotted me and shared everybody’s belief that I was not cut out for teaching, that I was teaching pupils older than myself. The next year, encouraged by such great minds as the late Sir Paulinus Odidika, (Iduu Ikemba I of Ihiala), who said I should not tread the difficult path to education which he trod, and backed by an uncle, the late Chief Laz Obioha (a former traditional prime minister of Ihioma), then an education assistant in Orlu county council, I took an entrance exam into the Christ the King College, Onitsha, and Bishop Shanahan College, Orlu. I was admitted to both institutions. My father preferred me to go to BSC, Orlu, at the instance of the late Prof F.C. Obioha. That changed my career vision. But upon graduation with a degree in English, secondary schools were desperately in need of English Language teachers and the only secondary schools in Ihioma had no Nigerian graduate teacher. The then Catholic Bishop of Owerri, Bishop J.B. Whelan, who was working with community leaders, told me to accept a professional teaching appointment as an English Language teacher.
How did you become a traditional ruler?
Of all things, I never dreamt of being a traditional ruler. I have served my community as the president-general through an electoral process. However, when autonomous communities were being reviewed, I was in faraway Asaba, Delta State, when a delegation of my community people, comprising all shades of opinion and persuasion, came to inform me that I was going to be their traditional ruler. I protested stoutly but they told me that if the community fell into chaos, that I would take responsibility. I promised all forms of support to whoever was elected because I looked forward to a quiet retirement. They told me they would do their best. They subsequently returned two weeks later to inform me that 97 per cent of the electors voted for me in absentia and others withdrew when they heard my name. The only person who did not withdraw voted for himself. My family resisted it, knowing the hazards of the office. My wife, children and immediate family were uncomfortable, but have had to accept the community wish. But the rest of the community assured them of their total support and they have been true to their words. The throne has not been challenged or harassed.
What have the challenges of being a traditional ruler been?
There are many. I have not been able to meet all the needs of every member or group in the community. Feuding groups are not easily persuaded to accept judgments made against them. Acquisition of land for community development has not been easy at all. We have had to raise money to buy land for community projects. Hopes of quick development get dim by the day and expectations keep rising by the day too. Unlike when I was free to express my views, I can no longer give my opinion on issues in the state as one is quickly reminded to discuss the same with the governor first. Travelling abroad has become infrequent. Several opportunities for personal improvement are lost.
Do you think you would have been fulfilled if you had not become a traditional ruler?
Actually, before becoming a traditional ruler, I had reached the apex of my calling in life and there was nothing more left to achieve than to help others improve themselves, which is the opportunity the stool gives me.
Reports of insecurity and kidnapping have been on the increase. How scared are you about being a target for kidnappers as many traditional rulers have been kidnapped in the country?
He that is down fears no fall. I have no reason to fear. I am not a rich man and I am not struggling for any public office. In fact, I have no kidnap value. So, the fear of being kidnapped has never crossed my mind.