Prof Iyorwuese Hagher is a former envoy, senator, minister and pro-chancellor of Afe Babalola University. The professor of Theatre and Drama who recently turned 70 bares it all in this interview with RALIAT AHMED-YUSUF
How do you feel turning 70?
I clocked 70 on June 25, 2019. I feel truly fulfilled and blessed to be among the less than eight million Nigerians aged 70 and above. Nigeria ranks 178 in the life expectancy which is at 54 years. To be alive in this country, after 54 years to be 70 years, is to thank God for his mercy that I am strong, healthy and sensible.
Five years ago, during my annual medical check-up, my doctor detected a cancer malignancy. Subsequent investigations confirmed my near death encounter. It took prayers, faith and the love of my family, friends and colleagues for me to achieve total remission and freedom from cancer. I look forward to service to God, country and community. Love is our greatest need. It is to be prized above money, wealth, and power.
What memorable moments do you wish to share?
I have too many memorable moments to enumerate. God has been with me all these years. I have lived for seven decades. I have thoroughly enjoyed my life and helped transform the lives of countless others. I have lived a very rich life attained through a careful balance between work, worship and love. I have been eclectic in the careers that I entered into as a life student, teacher, senator, minister, ambassador, playwright, university administrator, peace builder, leadership consultant, father and husband. I have been successful in all these careers because I was essentially myself. My memorable moments have always been when I chose justice over injustice, integrity over corruption, peace over violence and truthfulness over lies.
I have been tough on myself by taking difficult paths less travelled by others, where I have tried to be different and make a difference. It isn’t easy! I have valued every moment of my life and insist on pursuing excellence and the right thing, no matter the difficulties. At all times, I am prepared to pay whatever price needs to be paid to pursue justice and do the right thing. All ideas cost suffering, pain, poverty, imprisonment or outcast status. All my life, I live each day as my last day and surround my life with love, duty, discipline, focus and empathy. I have arrived here at the age of 70 by doing one thing at a time very well. I always focus on the challenge at hand and overcome it before venturing to other new challenges, which I turn to opportunities.
How would you describe your formative years?
If I can describe my formative years with one word, it would be freedom. I was brought up in Tivland, which the Tiv describe as Tar Tiv or Tiv Country. I was born in a family where love, respect and dignity were the norm. My father, a school headmaster and missionary, exemplified humility, humour, dignity, civility and integrity. It was a missionary outpost, at Tse-gbagir, in the interior of the land with only footpaths to the nearest laterite road at Zaki Biam. It was in the 50’s and founded with just four other Christian families but opened to traditional influences. My father and mother were deeply Christian. I was cloistered in love and also given freedom to think, dream and be adventurous. Most times I was alone and free to go to streams to fish, hunt, mingle with all kinds of friends and eat anything in the adjoining homes, orchards, farms and fields. I belonged to the whole village and everybody brought me up! Nobody bothered me, like we worry and incite children now, and deter them from making their own friends across ethnic lines. The children now lack the opportunity of forming their impressions of natural phenomena and devising their defences against threats from snakes, bees, floods and wild animals. The children of today cannot be trusted to go to an adjoining park and be expected to return safely home alone. Life now, has changed, has been twisted and made complicated and unsafe.
It was fascinating and challenging. I was constantly buffeted by influences of Christianity and politics. My father was my first teacher and he exposed me very early to reading of books. Since I was an only male child, I was driven towards a life apart from my six sisters. I started life as a colonized British subject. Every morning we sang the British Anthem “God Save the Queen” before any school activities! We were unbelievably poor. But we didn’t know it then. We were very happy and never missed delicious meals all day. My mum’s kitchen never closed. Primary school kids adopted by my father away from their parents shared my mum and dad with me. The Dutch Reformed Missionaries of South Africa owned my primary school. My father worked for them as a field worker planting new stations and outreaches. He owned a Raleigh bicycle that was considered in the remote Tiv hinterland as a Rolls Royce.
Looking back with hindsight our existence was merely eking out. No electricity, no tap water. We had no idea that water could be turned on and off from a tap! We played round objects as football with our feet. Our feet carried us everywhere. Shoes were a luxury. Even my father would only wear his shoes on special occasions -Sundays and when the white supervisor came. But we were, amazingly so happy. We lived lives of highly dignified poverty guided by civility, laughter and decency. We told stories after heavy dinners. Food was never a problem till in 1955, when there was grinding famine, which lasted for six months because the previous harvest season; there was an invasion of locusts and quelea birds. The locust and birds couldn’t be controlled, they came in dark clouds and gobbled the entire harvest and moved on. The perplexed farmers believed it was the work of witches.
That was when foodstuff like garri were introduced. Eating garri was starving!! Eating rice was also starving because it was not a popular staple. Rice was eaten once a year on Christmas Day. Our daily diet consisted of pounded yams, boiled yams and roasted yams, with rich gravies and then meals made from corn or millet. Soya beans and beniseed were produced for exports. The UAC had stores, and Hausa agents (not really Hausa but Hausa speaking middlemen from across British West Africa). They bought all the soya beans and beniseed. With hindsight now, when I see the variety of food items we turn the soybeans into today; I marvel and conclude that colonialism was bad. Very bad! The British told us that eating soya beans could lead to poisoning the entire body and death would be the result. So the entire nutritious beans were shipped abroad. I am not sure I was weaned on my mother’s milk either. The colonials told us that breast milk was bad for the baby. So they sold cow milk powder and later infant formula. And we sheepishly followed them to needless infant mortality.
Meanwhile, the church regaled us with the story of Lazarus and the rich man and admonished us to accept poverty as our station because to seek to be rich was to miss the Kingdom of Heaven. And we looked over our shoulders and accused fellow sinners who were struggling to escape the poverty trap as hell-bound. Those who owned bicycles where others trekked were surely hell-bound. Later when motorcycles were introduced, the owners had now overtaken bicycle owners in riches and candidatures for the kingdom of hell.
Twice I was fatherless. My father, Tica Daniel Hagher Gbaaiko, a teacher was unjustly thrown into jail for supporting and being an active member of the UMBC party struggle for creation of the Middle Belt State from the large Northern Region. The first time, the Tiv Native Authority Police arrested him, I was in primary two, my father was teaching. The police had barged in while we were receiving lessons and my father was writing on the black board, (anybody remembers blackboard?) They began arresting the pupils for tax evasion; a classical abuse of power. My father questioned their authority to occupy his classroom. They turned on him with truncheons, handcuffed and dragged him out bleeding on his head, for “obstructing the police on lawful duty”. He was away, jailed for six months before acquittal at the Magistrates’ Court in Makurdi. The second time he was arrested again and jailed, he was accused of being part of the UMBC revolts. He was gone for over a year before his acquittal. I saw at first hand the vicissitudes of abuse of power. I saw through my father, the power of purpose. I saw the power of resilience, self-esteem and fighting for a cause; which is not usual today. What people fight for now is their stomachs. They are more mean-spirited than public-spirited. When people fight for causes they hold convictions to resist any injustice that offends their dignity and are prepared to pay whatever the price it takes to refuse to be accomplice to evil. Not so today; except it is to claim territory for our faiths and tribes. The common purpose has been relegated.
What extra-ordinary things formed part of your growing up?
The sheer determination of individuals like my father to give education to the downtrodden and under-privileged was extraordinary. Education then and now was the only way to improve people’s upbringing and to make the circumstance of their upbringing and background uniform. My primary school at Zaki Biam in the 50s and Early 60s could be compared with the best private school anywhere in the world today. We were a boarding community and almost all our teachers were graduates from the United States. We had a school library and many fields and pitches for outside sports. It was surreal. In the middle of nowhere!
I grew up with a philosophy that if anything was worth doing, it is worth doing well. My father made nursery rhymes to differentiate between work and play and rhymes to honour work. I grew surrounded by love and learnt that wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness!
What were your aspiration growing up?
I loved books and wanted to be a writer. Books were magic! When I opened each book I became intimate with a much older and wiser person than me. I was transported to far away lands and mysteries that were too fantastic; like the kwagh-hir tales I heard by the moonlight. I loved reading “Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Fin” by Mark Twain. These characters were my friends. I could visualize them. These books were really very enjoyable, even though they were set in America. They resonated with each sentence. I often locked myself in the school library with a hurricane lamp in the night immersed in these other worlds. Another book I enjoyed reading in the primary school was “She” by Rider Haggard. It was later during my secondary school that I read Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” and Soyinka’s Ngugi and all other African writers. Then I carved my small corner writing my own plays and poems. I have been a writer all my life. It is a hard road unless you are also a marketer or a hustler in a country where reading is the prohibited culture. I could never live on my writings! People fear writers! Writers make people uncomfortable. I was introduced to acting and playwriting during my secondary days. I have never ever left it. Drama is life. Acting is not mere pretending. It is an exercise in being real. It is a therapy, a motivating elixir and a major education for building consciousness for national development. It disturbs the status quo. My aim as playwright is to present inconvenient truths and arrest evasive reality.
What fond memories can you recall with nostalgia?
The morning bell announcing primary school morning break! The school went up in spontaneous uproar as we little urchins trooped out to the food arena to buy fried bean cake and millet gruel! Another unforgettable memory was the assembly to announce the end of term vacation. This was the time I looked forward to meeting with my parents after a school term of three months. It was time when I would carry all my earthly belongings on my head in a tiny wooden box and trek home, 27 kilometres, to my parents without being worn out. My mother would spoil me with victuals and my father demanded my report card on arrival. Then I was left alone to explore lost territories.
What was the impact of your early educational setting?
Devastating. The boarding school system plucked young kids and sequestered them from their families and immersed them in a foreign culture. This has led to generations of alienation from our roots and inability to fully integrate! We are the generation Franz Fanon moaned about. From the moment we left home for the boarding school we became little white men and women with black skins and never integrated with our communities. This is the downside. The upper sides of early education, made us to break out of the poverty trap and to confidently face the world as equals of other human beings. Education improves the people’s upbringing and makes the circumstances of their upbringing and background uniform! After six decades I was surprised to find that my age mates, white Canadians, shared the same upbringing as we did under the British Commonwealth, and we took the same Cambridge University matriculation examination to enter university.
What about your passion for education; how long did you stay in the academic environment?
All my life has been to educate and be educated. I am a life student and life teacher. I was born a son to a teacher. By the time I graduated in 1974 and returned to Ahmadu Bello University as Assistant lecturer, fate had thrust on me the profession of teaching like my father. I have always maintained very close contact with the academia. I remember supervising some Ph.D’s and Master’s degree projects when I was minister. When I was in Mexico and Canada as Ambassador, I engaged in cultural diplomacy, which availed me the opportunity to lecture in some universities in those countries. I was foundation Pro-chancellor, Afe Babalola University for nine years and today I am chairman Board of Trustees of Pro-Chancellor’s of Private Universities in Nigeria. I teach, I coach and mentor wherever I can. I refuse to retire from teaching as long as there is an inquisitive mind thirsty for something to be learnt from me. I have resolutely clung to the belief that there are neither superior races nor tribes. We are all created equal. What makes us better and greater is the kind of education we receive. Nigeria cannot be great without designing the educational system to take us to greatness. This is doable. We are investing too much money in ignorance by keeping too many people out of school and out of the type of education to instill patriotism, duty, altruism, and responsibility.
What were the challenges of your career spanning over 40 years?
The challenges were mainly systemic. The Nigeria I was born and grew in was quite different from the one I see today. The moral ecology has degenerated. There is pervasive corruption. It is endemic and we are all affected, infected or a threat. Ethnicity, clannishness, religious faith, and political platforms have all become threatening identities to life and to possibly die or be killed for. I was born a British child, and became a commonwealth citizen. At independence, I was both a nationalist and Pan- Africanist. Today I live a threatened existence. It is a risky thing to be a nationalist in Nigeria today! Terrible fights are going on about which tribe is bigger and better than the other at the centre. We all crawl back to our states to acquire identity and then find out we are clan A or clan B that can barely stand each other. The Nigerian system still has citizens filling official forms in all legal transactions where they must indicate their tribe and state. When shall we make Nigeria our singular identity? The system of values has also changed. Nigeria does not value thinkers. Corruption has corrupted the ivory towers. They totter down the road weighed down by massive corruption with which they infect their students who pass through the walls of the university totally insulated from character and learning.
The last 2019 elections showed the pitiless grip of corruption as politicians wickedly sought to compromise and corrupt a new generation of academics to help them rig elections. And they succeeded! Those who disagreed with them were intimidated, cajoled, or shot! Guardrail corruption seems to dissolve intellection to be irrelevant in nation building! The role of the intellectual is to pursue truth and justice and to insist to do the right thing at all times. The moral ecology is toxic and we look in vain to the academic community for guidance.
What informed your choice of English, Drama and Political Science studies in the University?
I grew up dreaming to be a writer who would live on loyalties and influence the world! This was my dream! I needed a second language to communicate to a larger audience. Growing up in Tivland was to communicate in the Queens English or in the Tiv vernacular. I regret my inability to communicate fluently in Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo. The opportunity to have learnt these languages was not there. But still I will master these languages sooner or later, otherwise it would be an unconscionable self-inflicted disability. These power languages give the power of homogenization that has rendered a majority of Nigeria’s over 300 ethnic groups powerless. In this case of the Fulani, they took over Hausa language made it the language of politics and administration. In this country, English language may be the language of administration, but Hausa is the language of political power. In the past, the Tiv language was the language of military as training songs and marches were Tiv military songs. I hear these songs have gone into extinction.
I have studied and continue to study English, drama, political science and sociology. The subjects are too closely related to relegate one for the other. At the very top of knowledge there are no sharp divisions. There is just philosophy which is the study of foundations. All foundations. I am still studying other subjects like medicine and nutrition. In the last five years. I took cooking and have created many healthy recipes which I am sure one day will become important for health freaks. Knowledge has no age barriers as long as we have some grey matter between our ears. It is fascinating that we don’t need to have certificates to be educated. I have many friends who did not go to formal schooling but were self educated to speak, write and reason better than many newly minted Ph.D’s. These are people on whose shoulders a new generation of thinkers will stand to launch a knowledge-based Nigeria and guarantee the full exploitation of our best assets, our human resources.
You created an interesting blend of the Kwagh-hir theatre. How was that done?
It is not true! I did not create a new blend of theatre. I simply took an old traditional theatre form, that was too important to be allowed to die, and made it to live and thrive. My roots in the Tiv story-tradition have benefitted my playwriting. My plays are structured in form and content on our existential dilemma. How mankind dominates and manipulates his kind for power. My plays are unabashedly political even though they are garnished with humour. The Kwagh-hir was the only entertainment I knew growing up and the Christian morality play concerts. There was neither television nor cinema. My infusion of the Kwagh-hir structure in my plays was to render a voice on the global stage for the Kwagh-hir artiste to address a larger audience challenging our joyless dystopia. My approach is to be different and contrapuntal.
During my tenure as minister of state for Health, I turned to the Kwagh-hir as a desperate measure to educate and rescue the country from the HIV-AIDS scourge when millions of youth were at risk and nothing was working to educate the citizens about the harmful sexual practices that led to death. I worked with the Kwagh-hir artistes to produce “Anakande” that effectively addressed this pandemic when Benue State had the highest prevalence rate in the country. Today my plays utilize the Kwagh-hirisque format for peace building. No other issue occupies my mind as a writer and thinker than to seek to solve the dissolution of our peaceful societies to the violence and mayhem unleashed on the poor voiceless quislings.
Like the Kwagh-hir, my plays present the prevalent prejudices we never admit existed and present in a commonsensical way the rising anger and mumble of our masses! This is all I have sought to do as a writer and Kwagh-hir artiste!
Don’t you think the culture of theatre is dying gradually in the country?
Yes, I think so. It has been very sick for a long time. So sad. And the unfortunate thing is that theatre is the place to have rebuilt a new united Nigeria where diversity is celebrated and prosperity shared! There is no single university department of theatre arts in the country with a modern theatre building, which can be compared with a modern high school theatre building in the UK, US or Canada. Our traditional theatres are dead but the modern ones have not yet been born. Quite a shame to think that it is theatre arts that put Nigeria on the global scale as a giant when Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize over three decades ago in 1986. A country that seeks greatness must encourage the intangibles in national life. The theatre culture is dying and in its dying throes it carries away the dignity and greatness of Nigeria.
You were former senator representing Benue North East, minister and ambassador; which of these positions made real impact in your life and why?
I must be frank that none of these positions impacted my life more than being a professor, academic and public intellectual. I can’t deny that these political appointments helped expand my view of life, my friendships and networks.
What was your experience like in the Senate and being in the executive arm of government as a minister?
I felt that it was an unmerited favour and privilege to serve the country in both capacities. I always knew that the more responsibility God gives the more I needed to give back to the society. I knew I needed to develop a strong character; to be brave and to turn challenges into opportunities, to be kind to those in need, to be honest to all men and women, and to be faithful and diligent to my colleagues. Serving in both the executive and legislative capacity makes one a critical asset and when one serves also in the diplomatic service in addition, then he or she becomes a serious critical national asset. One must be disciplined, mature and responsible at all times. Nigeria has many people like me who are rotting away. They are not celebrated and not recognised and have no voice. Thank God I have refused to rot. I will continue to do history with all other generations and offer new generations glimpses of the past, and visions of a better future. I continue to tell myself that I will midwife Nigeria to greatness, while I live.
What life lessons have you learnt so far?
I could write a book to answer you but the greatest lesson I learnt is to accept that there is a God who is Lord of all creation and He interferes in the affairs of men. I have learnt not to claim to know more than anybody or to be above or below anybody. All I know is that I am the equal of every human being but just made differently, educated differently and acculturated differently. I have learnt that to attain any political position is to show love, respect and kindness to others. I have learnt that not every body will get another tomorrow for a second chance! I have learnt that love is action and not emotions. I know that anger, resentment and self-pity are wasteful reactions. I know I needed to build inner strength to carry me through other people’s doubts. I now know that everybody is an expert, only on different subjects. I also have learnt that I must in the end have an unwavering sense of who I am to block out what others say or think about me.
Finally, I have learnt that to make progress in life all I need is to focus on the point in front of me and deal with it in order to arrive at my destination. I learnt to be humble and knew that the humble man is self-aware and has overcome pride and hubris. I have learnt that all of us need each other in order to overcome selfishness, pride, greed and self-deception.
Can you give a peep into your family?
A mere peep is confusing. I am married to a great beautiful lady, a lawyer and educationist Nancy Ngiahiin Hagher. We have biological and non-biological children that we love so much. They are all in different careers in Nigeria and scattered around the world. If you met any of our children, you would find a humble, kind, compassionate soul. He or she will be strong-willed, hardworking, reliable and very honest! Dignity is our brand and my family is tightly knit, even though we are very large. I do not differentiate between biological and non-biological offspring. I love them all equally in different ways. They love reading and staying together and affirming and learning from each other.
How was it like working for various presidents of Nigeria throughout your career life?
President Shehu Shagari was president and I a senator. He was a believer in consensus democracy. He respected the party and senators did not receive bribes to take decisions. He respected separation of powers and practised consultation, recognition and respect for all who were part of his system.
As minister under General Sani Abacha, I grew to respect him because he was never tired of listening. He would allow you to exhaust yourself and even when he took the decision that was contrary, you respected it; believing that he probably had a superior or a more acceptable advice. He was a dictator who did not pretend to be something else. He did many good things for Nigeria and I always feel bad when people don’t see anything he did right. I admire his totally self-effacing but focused wife Mariam. It is due to her that we have the National Hospital today.
President Obasanjo is a great Nigerian who loves this country with a passion. I represented him in Mexico. He is a brilliant intellectual who sometimes gives himself the luxury of hubris. He is stubborn and opinionated but a great man and my friend. I represented President Umaru Yar’Adua in Canada. He was the best president Nigeria had. He was very humble, very loyal and fiercely intellectual. He was a stellar human being that believed in, lived in and exuded justice, integrity, peace and faithfulness. His short life as lived is a qualitative example of love and allegiance to the unity of Nigeria. I met President Jonathan and his wife very briefly as High Commissioner. They were both bustling with promise. I did not interact with them that much and was sad they missed great opportunities to unite the country having come from a small South-South community. Jonathan is very young and I believe he has many years to serve this country if he will be humble to find a niche and work very hard to solve problems that are affecting this country like working with the international communities to enforce the ban on the proliferation of small arms traffic in Africa to end banditry. Nigeria’s biggest need is peace, if only he can accept that role for Nigeria and Africa.
How do you relax?
I don’t relax. I don’t drink, smoke, seldom eat-out and I don’t gossip. I work 15 hours everyday, seek God’s presence, recreation/exercise and sleep for seven hours. I spend quiet time with God, praying everyday and exercise in the gym, if this is relaxation then that’s it! I am a writer and I keep writing forever everyday, even if I end up tearing up that which I had written. I have never killed time with playing cards, or poker, or gambling in any form. I don’t play any video games in that category. I seldom watch television. It never has any good news! I don’t watch football except when Nigeria or US teams play. I don’t have any favourite team! Time to me is mankind’s greatest adversary. It is not replenishable even though it is expendable. As I turn 70, I shall choose very carefully how else apart from time with God, writing, reading, exercise and community I will expend the rest of my years. One thing is certain. I will never cease seeking for better ways to Nigeria’s greatness and how the world’s peoples can live peacefully together.
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