Former President Olusegun Obasanjo is due for a private visit to the former Aviation Minister, Chief Mbazulike Amechi today December 29th, 2018, which is Ukpor day, to unveil a statue constructed in honour of Amechi by Ukpor Development Union.
Aside the unveiling, Obasanjo will have a private meeting with Amechi and would be received by PDP Vice presidential candidate , HE , Mr Peter Obi.
But this is the latest interview by Amechi by Tony Adibe
Apart from being one of the foremost nationalists who fought for Nigeria’s independence, Chief Mbazulike Amechi, 89, was the first minister of aviation, a sector he revolutionised. In 1961, he accommodated South Africa’s Nelson Mandela in his Ikoyi, Lagos residence when the then apartheid government of that country began a manhunt for the late freedom fighter. In 1962, he was elected a parliamentarian. At 22, he was the youngest member of the Zikist Movement, a radical wing of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC). The movement was later banned by the British colonial government. Amechi was jailed several times, alongside other patriots and nationalists, by the colonial government.
How would you describe your early years?
I was born in this village known as Ukpor in 1929. I grew up here, and when I was of school age, let’s say six or seven years, I started school in the Catholic Primary School in a neigbouring village, about six kilometers from my home. At that tender age we were trekking to the school. Then at Standard One, what we call Elementary One today, the school stopped and there was no facility for going further. But there was a teacher in my village here, one Mr. Okwuma, who was teaching at Ubahekwem, Ihiala. He took me as a servant so that I would continue to go to school. I did my Standards Two and Three, then and came back to Ukpor. Again, I started going to school at St. Mary’s Catholic School, Umuahaba. I trekked seven miles to go to school every morning. Again, that one stopped at Standard Three. Then I went to Ukwa Central School. The only place you could get Standards Five and Six, which was the end of primary education then, was St. Michael’s Catholic School, Ozobulu. I went there and made sure that I reached Standard Six and sat for entrance examination to CKC and Etukokwu College. CKC was owned by the Catholic Church while Etukokwu College was a private school owned by one Etukokwu in Onitsha. I gained admission into the two colleges.
It was an elder brother who took over the responsibility of my education because my father died when I was four years old. So the only father I knew was my elder brother, who was about 14 years older than me. When he found out that he could not pay the cost of CKC, he said that I should go to Etukokwu College. I finished there and did what they called Senior Cambridge Examination in those days.
But in my final year at Etukokwu, I joined the Zikist Movement. I was the youngest member of the Zikist Movement at that time. The way I joined the movement was that I went to draw water at a tap one afternoon and saw a long procession of people following three or four men riding on horseback. I joined them and they ended up at Central Cinema. They said it was Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Imodu, Mrs Fumilayo Ransom-Kuti and others. That was in 1947. We listened to their lectures. And they were speaking English. I am not sure I understood half of what they were saying, but I joined other people in clapping when they spoke big grammar. At the end of the thing they left.
As the crowd dispersed, somebody was distributing small leaflets. He gave me one and I took it. I later found out that it was Zikist Movement. The person who was distributing the leaflets was Ikenna Nzimiro, who later became a professor. He was a student of CKC. He finished and was teaching in one of the colleges in Onitsha. He was the leader and founder of Zikist Movement in Onitsha. After reading the thing I joined the Zikist Movement as early as that.
It is interesting that by the time I got back, I couldn’t find the bucket with which I had gone to draw water at the tap. That bucket got missing till today.
When I finished schooling, I had a brief teaching experience at St Patrick’s College, Asaba. The college was just being founded and the principal was one Rev Father Orok. I think he was an Irish man. But I didn’t stay long there. I left Asaba and ran away.
Why did you leave Asaba?
I left because I escaped drowning at the River Niger on one occasion. I used to go to swim with others, but on this particular occasion, I didn’t know when I drifted into a cyclone, which got hold of me and sank me deep down into the bottom of River Niger. I struggled and struggled and struggled; by then I had gotten inside my system nearly a gallon of water. When the older swimmers saw what was happening, they dived in and got me out of the place. After that experience, I left Asaba and their River Niger and said I was not going there again.
I later found a job in Benin at one transport company known as Armels Transport, which was owned by some Europeans. Their business was mainly delivery of post office mails for Nigeria. I was employed as what they called road transport clerk.
While in Benin, we founded a branch of the Zikist Movement in 1949, with Mr. David Edebiri, a Benin man, and Chike Ekwu as the secretary. I was the assistant secretary. As a matter of fact, Edebiri and I are the only known Zikists still alive. He was here last year and I was at his place. We have maintained that comradeship since then. I think Edebiri is the third highest chief in the Oba of Benin’s palace.
What was the key objective of the Zikist Movement?
The Zikist Movement was found as a radical wing of the biggest national political party in the country, known as the NCNC. Herbert Macaulay was the president-general of the party while Dr Azikiwe was the secretary-general. But in the course of the 1947 tour, Macaulay had an accident in Kano. He was then over 80 years. They rushed him back to Lagos and he died. When he died, Dr Azikiwe became the national president of the party with Mallam Zaad Zungi from Maiduguri as the secretary-general.
The younger elements in the NCNC thought that the older members were too compromising and slow in their approach to the demand for independence for Nigeria. As the radical wing of the party, the Zikist Movement itched for positive action against the British government in Nigeria. That was why, in 1949, the executive committee of the movement decided that we should involve the people of Nigeria in positive actions in stages: Stage one was to stop paying taxes to the British government while the next stage was to resist arrest by the police. That meant to stop recognising the British police, army and so forth.
We organised a lecture at Thom Hall in Lagos in October 1949. The lecture, which was delivered by Osita Agwunna, was titled, “A Call for Revolution.” After the lecture, the colonial government in Nigeria thought that that was the height of sedition against them. So they arrested members of the Zikist Movement all over the country, including me. After the arrest, we were all clamped into prison. After serving the prison sentence in 1950, the colonial government had banned the movement and proscribed it. They confiscated all our documents and everything pertaining to the movement.
But when we came out of prison, we decided not to succumb. Instead of breaking the law, since the Zikist Movement had been proscribed, we decided to change its name to the NCNC Youth Association. I was elected the secretary-general and Fred Mciwen was elected as chairman.
Victor Olufayemi from Ijebu was elected the assistant
secretary-general while Mr. Fatayo was elected as treasurer, and so on and so forth. In Onitsha we spread again. Then in Enugu we elected Mallam Umaru Altina as the chairman of NCNC Youth Association. In Onitsha, Nzimiro had left. I think he had gone to the university or somewhere, but we had people like J.A. Egwu, Okoye Isiadinso and Iwuobi Enemuo, who later became the Igwe of Neni. We continued to struggle.
In 1952, during the Zik/Eyo Etta crisis, I was arrested in Enugu, along with Mallam Umaru Altina, the chairman of Enugu branch; Earnest Obianwu and Akunne Nwaolurue. I came from Lagos as secretary-general because of the crisis in the Eastern House of Assembly. We were charged to court over the allegation of conducts likely to cause breach of peace and preaching hatred against Her Majesty’s government, and all that. Again, we were sent to prison; but inside Enugu prison, we gave them real trouble. It got to the extent that the British government went to court, asking them to release us. But our lawyer appeared in court and said we should remain in prison since we did not appeal. Amanze Njoku and Kola Balogun were our lawyers.
Mallam Altina, a Hausa man, later became the mayor of Enugu because we believed in one Nigeria. We gave people positions for their worth and merit.
You were already in prison; so how did you give them trouble?
First of all, the day we arrived in prison, the prison authorities told us that they were not briefed that we were coming, so they had no food for us. We didn’t have food that day. The second day, the chief warder and two others brought our breakfast. The breakfast was beans cooked without oil or anything. Even salt was put on one side of the tray. Akunne Nwaolurue, who was a titled man, said, “Look, you don’t give us this kind of food here. We are not criminals; we are political prisoners. You must treat us with respect.’’ The chief warder said, “Whether you are political prisoners or not, I don’t care. I will give you what other prisoners are taking.’’
Earnest Obianwu, who later became an Anglican pastor, got up, carried one of the plates and emptied it on the chief warder, soiling his uniform. The chief warder went away angrily. After about an hour, the superintendent of prison, a white man, came with the chief warder and three others. In those days, only white men could occupy such position, the highest a black man could be was chief warder. He came with his swagger stick under his armpit and said, “Good morning gentlemen, I understand there was trouble in the cell this morning; what was it all about?
We got up, stood at attention like well-drilled school children and sang the Zikist anthem: ‘My life has been a joy to me. No matter where I go, I’ve learnt to live in harmony with a kind friend or foe.’ After singing the anthem, we sat down again and didn’t say another word to him.
Earnest Obianwuna went and covered himself with a blanket on a plank that was supposed to be our bed. The superintendent went to him, kicked him and said, “Will you get up there? Earnest got up, stripped himself completely naked, walked towards the superintendent and said, “Will you get out of here now before I tear you into pieces and eat you like a tiger? As he was approaching, the white man shouted, ‘Bloody fool, all of you!’ and quickly walked away. The chief warder and others meekly followed him. On the second day, there was no food for us again. On the third day, there was no food, but about 11am, the chairman of NCNC Youth Association in Onitsha, J.A. Egwu and others visited us. When they came, we were called and we met them at the prison gate. The white man said, “Talk to them for three minutes, and you must speak in English and to my hearing.’’ So, Mr. Egwu said, “Comrades how are you? As their leader, I replied that we were fine but we had not had food for three days. I told him we understood that the government chemist prepared a very potent poison in the governor’s house and handed it over to the superintendent of prison. I added that the prisoners alerted us that there was a plan to poison our food, so we refused to eat anything since then. The white man’s face turned red and he said, “I’m afraid this nonsense has got to stop. Now, will you get back to your cell! I’m sorry gentlemen, this nonsense must stop.’’
I told Egwu, “When you go out, let Nigerians know about this development in case they succeed in killing us. Tell them what happened. So they went out. During the 1pm news in Radio Nigeria, Enugu, Joseph Atuona announced: “Nationalists in prison poisoned.’’ He didn’t even say there was an attempt to poison us. When he read the news, we could hear noisy demonstrations in Enugu over the high walls of the prison. We heard what was going on outside there. It was such a big commotion. They quickly held a meeting and said we must not drink water or eat anything from the prison. Our food and water, and everything had to be brought from the town. And whosoever brought it must eat along with us. That was the law they made.
For the first time, one contractor, B.N. Nwigwe, brought us rice and stew. As we started eating, we found two packets of cigarette carefully wrapped in a big bowl of rice. Mallam Umaru and I were smokers. When he saw this, Mallam Umaru stopped eating, opened one packet and started smoking two sticks of cigarette at the same time. After that, we called the prisoners and said we were going to form the NCNC, prison branch. We held a meeting and resolved that on certain days, no prisoner would go for outside work. We encouraged civil disobedience. So while in prison, we became a threat to the colonial government.
In order to raise money for the new branch of the NCNC, we elected a chairman, one Onitsha man who was a police inspector. He was imprisoned for taking two shillings as bribe. To raise money, we ordered that half of the meat for feeding the prisoners should be turned into suya; the prisoners would go out and sell it to people. That was how we started making money inside the prison for the NCNC. This thing continued for nearly one month in prison. But one day, they came to us and said we were wanted in court. As we were going out, they gave us all the things they took from us on the day of our admission.
When we got to court; it was before the same magistrate who sentenced us to prison, one Magistrate Bethuel. They said he was a South African. I told our lawyer to tell them that we were comfortable in prison and didn’t want to go. So our lawyer, a very elegant man, got up and said he was the lead defence counsel and did not appeal the case, so it was strange that the crown counsel who prosecuted the case would now be a defence counsel asking for the release of the prisoners. “Your Worship, only a higher court can release them; you have convicted them; you cannot order their release,’’ he argued.
They argued on the point of law until the crown counsel told the magistrate, “Your Worship, His Excellency has asked us to tell the court that these people are more dangerous inside prison than outside. We want them out; let them go home. Based on that, we were released and asked to go home. That was how we served out the prison sentence.
I was later appointed the principal organising secretary of the NCNC. I moved from Lagos to Enugu in 1955. By then, Zik had become the leader of the government. He later became the premier of the region. The headquarters of the NCNC was de jure in Lagos but de facto in Enugu. I was there from 1955 to 1959 when I won election to the House of Representatives. In Lagos, when we were sworn in as members of the House in January 1960, I was appointed parliamentary secretary to the minister of information, Chief T.O.S Benson. In those days, ministers were appointed from members of the House or Senate. It’s not these days when they can just pick any rabble-rouser in the street as minister. In those days, you had to establish that you had followership and that you were a nationalist.
You are popularly known as The Boy is Good. How did you get the nickname?
During a rally at St. John’s Field, Odakpu, Onitsha, Zik was telling the crowd the story of how he was nearly killed and how Mbazulike Amechi saved him. He said that considering the swiftness with which Mbazulike sprang up and held the man who wanted to kill him, he concluded that the boy was really good. That was how the name came about.
In 1957, when there were a series of conferences on a possible date for independence, there was a meeting of the three main political parties – the NCNC, Action Group and the Northern People’s Congress (NPC). I was a member of the team delegated to the conference. When Zik was about moving into the open gate, something like a big stone landed on his Chevrolet wagon and shattered the glass. So he stopped. As he looked back at what happened, I noticed a young man dressed in a very nice suit. He lifted the lapel of the suit and pulled out a long shinning double-edged dagger and moved towards
Zik’s car. I was agitated and told Fred that it was a case of assassination.. I dashed out from my car, rushed to the man, grabbed him and held him by the hand. We were struggling and the man stabbed me. As I was struggling with the man, the white police officer on the spot looked the other way; he didn’t show any concern. People were running helter-skelter. As I was struggling with the man, I told Zik’s driver to move the car into the premises of the conference; and they closed the gate. I called for the help of Igbo people around and they responded. With the help of policemen there, they grabbed the man and nearly killed him. By then, my dress was already soaked with blood and they took me straight to the general hospital; which was near Broad Street, where an Igbo doctor, Mrs Ofili, stitched me up.
In those days, people knew me more by that name than my real name. That was how it happened.
Going by the attitude of the white policeman at the scene of the incident, would you say it was an assassination attempt?
Yes. Zik later told me that the Director of Medical Services, Dr Manua, the first Nigerian to be eligible to hold that position, called him after the attack and told him how the governor directed him to examine the attacker and write a medical report on him, stating that he was mad. That was an indication that the government sponsored it.
That incident happened in 1957, but I met the attacker again in 1979. I was a member of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), which was holding a National Executive Committee meeting at the Federal Palace Hotel, Lagos. The meeting had not started when somebody tapped me at the back and said, ‘The boy is good.’ I looked at the man but didn’t recognise him.
As the first minister of aviation in Nigeria, what was your experience?
When I was appointed minister and given responsibility for aviation, the principal possession of the ministry was the Nigeria Airways. The Nigeria Airways was formed when the West African Airways Corporation was dissolved at Ghana’s independence. The West African Airways Corporation was owned by the former British government in Ghana, Sierra Leon and Nigeria. So when Ghana became independent and Nigeria also gained independence, they decided to split the corporation. Nigeria inherited three aircraft. And these three aircraft had piston engine. It took about three hours to fly from Lagos to Enugu.
That was all I inherited at the airports in Ikeja, Lagos, Kaduna, Kano and so forth. The Nigerian government had a bilateral agreement with the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) to run London-Lagos with leased aircraft.
When they said that we should own our aircraft, the Council of Ministers approved money and I bought the first three big aircraft for the Nigeria Airways. After that, I terminated the contract with the BOAC. After some time, I set up the Admission Training Centre in Zaria, where we trained pilots, aircraft engineers, cabin crew, ground crew and the whole staff of the airline.
I was also able to open routes in almost the principal capitals of European countries, such as Frankfurt in Germany, Paris and London. The last place we opened was New York. By the time I left the ministry, the fleet of aircraft had risen to 18. Out of the 18, about six or eight of them were big intercontinental jets. I bought the Furker Friendship and the Furker Fellowship for West African routes and long routes in Nigeria – Lagos-Maiduguri, Lagos-Kano.
We also built a hanger for servicing and maintenance of aircraft. We trained a quotable batch of air pilots and airmen. We became the first country that produced black pilots flying these big jets. And we trained them.
Unfortunately, when we left government and the military took over, they started abusing the airline until they ran it into liquidation. The soldiers sold all the aircraft and the hanger – the only hanger in Africa at the time, where big aircraft could be serviced and maintained. The military looted and sold everything and the airline died.
You once accommodated Nelson Mandela of South Africa when the apartheid government was reportedly after his life. How did it happen?
That was in 1961. I was still a parliamentary secretary. When the apartheid government in South Africa and the British Intelligence Service were desperately looking for him, either to kill or imprison him, he ran to Tanzania. They found that he could easily be arrested in Tanzania, so Julius Nyerere got in touch with Zik, who was still the governor-general and asked if he could accommodate a nationalist. That was how he was accommodated in Nigeria.
We escorted him to the airport the day he was going back to South Africa. About a month after he arrived in South Africa, they arrested him and sentenced him to life imprisonment. After spending 27 years in prison, he was released. When he was released, he came to thank Nigeria. He went to Nsukka and spent some time with Zik, who sent for me. I went to Enugu with my wife because he came with his own wife. He told his wife that this was the family that looked after him. When Mandela died, I asked the Nigerian government to sponsor my trip to South Africa, but former President Goodluck Jonathan and the then Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Anyim Pius Anyim refused.
How did you eventually get to South Africa for Mandela’s burial?
Mr. Peter Obi, who was the governor of Anambra State, sponsored my trip to South Africa. I was the one who brought out Nigeria’s presence during Mandela’s funeral ceremony. Goodluck Jonathan went there but nobody took notice of him. He didn’t speak, and he left the same day he arrived. But I was given the opportunity to speak. When I went there, Nigeria’s High Commissioner, one Emeuche, who was incidentally an Igbo man, was very much relived. So he arranged a three-day programme for me.
I went to Mandela’s house in Johannesburg and signed the condolence register. Then they took me to his real village in Soweto and showed me his house with the bullet marks and everything. The house is being preserved as a monument by the government. I took pictures there. Then they took me to Pretoria where he was lying in-state and I saw him. After the burial, the Nigerian High Commission arranged a world press conference for me and I told the world how Mandela stayed with me and all that. So it was my presence that made the world to know that Nigeria played a key role in the life of Mandela.
Many people don’t know that you married a Yoruba woman. How did you meet your late wife, Tayo?
I first of all married the Igbo woman before the second wife. I met her when she was a student in secondary school here. They were very beautiful sisters, and in those days I was a rascally boy. I took one while John Anyaehe took one. John Anyaehe took the elder one called Funke while I took the younger one, Tayo, and she had three sons for me.
How did you meet your Igbo wife?
When I was a parliamentary secretary, she was returning from London after studies. Her elder sister who was working in the Ministry of Information begged me to chair the reception of her sister. That was where they hooked me.
Did she have children for you as well?
Unfortunately, she didn’t have children of her own.
Do you have regrets?
Not that I have regrets, but I feel unhappy that the house I laboured to build, shed my blood and sweat, is now being destroyed by careless rouges. That is Nigeria. The Nigeria I took part in founding is now being broken by careless and avaricious criminals. It pains me, but that doesn’t make me regret taking part in the struggle for Nigeria’s independence. I have no regret at all. Should I not even thank God for keeping me alive? After all, there are many people of my age who may not have the mental alertness to discuss with you as I am doing now. God has blessed me with mental alertness, good health; apart from occasional waist pain and rheumatism.
How do you relax?
I can’t go to the library again. I am computer illiterate, so I cannot do these ones they put in their ears now. I watch ordinary television. I listen to the BBC and other foreign stations. Then occasionally, I reluctantly allow myself to watch the NTA and all these other local stations because they only say what will please the government. I am not interested in them. Outside that, I am a very busy man, meeting with titled men. In the town here, I am a father. Last year, the town union honoured me by erecting my statue. On December 29, which is Ukpor Day, they have invited former President Olusegun Obasanjo to unveil it. And Obasanjo has agreed to come and do it.