OGBUESHI UTOMI ONIANWA, an octogenarian in this interview with Inneh Barth, gives an insight into how life was before and after the civil war.
Sir, can you briefly introduce yourself?
My name is Ogbueshi Ubakaeze Utomi Onianwa (Ksc Jp)
You have a long name.
Yes, in the early days your name means something for the entire community. Ubakaeze, maybe my father wanted many children that was why he gave me that name and it truly affected me because I gave birth to seven children.
Can you tell me your age?
I was born May 31, 1938. I am 81 years, 7 months and 15 days old.
How do you know, you were born on that date?
My father was very educated. He was head post master before I was born. So, our birthdays were recorded. And my father used to tell us that we need not to reduce our age anywhere we go because it could be detrimental and good at the same time. You know during their time; the colonial masters were factual with everything they do.
So, how would you describe your growing up experience?
I thank God for my parents. They were very good disciplinarians. My mother was soft and not very educated; however, she obeyed my father completely, that was how I grew up to see them. I know I was born in Enugu and attended St. Barths School. My father came back to Asaba when he retired. I was enrolled again at All Saints School.
From your narration, it seemed you loved education?
I have to love education because I was persuaded to do so “laughter.”
Ok, at that stage, what do you usually do at your leisure time?
My siblings and I were directed on what to do, we don’t have leisure time because after school it is either we go to school lesson or choir practice in the church.
Sir can you remember precisely the age you started school?
Because my father was educated, I started earlier at about 1944 that is about four years or more.
So, after your education what did you do next?
After my secondary education, because I was the ninth child out of 12 children, it was not easy taking care of my brothers at the school at the same time. Many of my senior brothers were on higher institutions so as the ninth child there was a break because after my primary school, I had to wait for about three years before I could attend Secondary School– so after my Secondary School in 1961, I wrote my Senior School Certificate Examination around November/December and after that I left for Lagos in February 1962 and by April 1962, I had gotten a job.
What type of job did you got then?
Very good! When I came to Lagos, I stayed with my brother, late Onuora Onianwa, he was a very good senior brother, he prayed for a good job for me. We wrote so many application letters without addressing them to any company or ministry. When I get to a company, I asked questions then I will put the address on the application letter. But I was very fortunate because I was offered job at Nigerian Railways and at the same time the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.
First, I got a letter from Ministry of Commerce and Industry requesting me to resume work the next Monday, the office was just at the back of our house with a salary package of E12.11.4 pounds but before the next Monday for me to resume – Nigerian Railways called us to come and check for our results luckily, I passed and they recruited 12 of us that passed the interview. And because i passed the mathematics text 1 was deployed to accounting unit. Six of us was deployed to the unit while the remaining 6 were posted to the establishment department. So, when I saw the packages it was E18,11.4 pounds.
So, I did not report at the Ministry of Commerce and Industry at all though my brother wanted me to take up the offer but as a young boy I could not resist the offer at the Nigerian Railways. My brother had argued that as a government employee, I will close early and have life benefits but I chose that of railways. So, after about two weeks working at the Nigeria Railways the management called few of us that we will be working overtime with extra E6 pounds every month, so at the end of the month my salary was about E22pounds almost equivalent with what the graduate received monthly. So, I was very happy.
So, did you serve there till your retirement?
I started very well but along the line my senior brothers in London were mounting pressure on me to come to London to continue but each time I looked at my salary I couldn’t leave my job and they were pressuring me to come to London. The pressure was much on me to come to London, so one weekend I told my brother in Lagos that I was travelling to Asaba to go and see my mother with a friend, because I was the last child of my mother I told her that my brothers are pressuring me to come to London but because of the love I have for you I don’t want to go, “what if you die on my behalf” my mother said I should not mind them that I shouldn’t go that not everyone that goes to London get everything he needs. And with that I was very happy and few days time I went back to Lagos to go and continue with my work.
One day, a thought came to me to seek transfer to Zaria so that my brothers in London will not have access to reach me again. So, I requested for transfer. I called it lousiness because I didn’t know what I was doing. But the management was looking for people that will go to Zaria office, my request was immediately granted and I moved to Zaria. All was fine in Zaria but after a year or so, the problem between the North and South East started. God saved me when they came to the compound I was staying.
When we started hearing about the crisis, I went to bank and withdrew all my money, I normally hide it under my foot and wear my socks. We were home one day and we started hearing people chanting ‘Araba Araba’ that is a war song. When they were approaching, I ran into my toilet, I had a dog but unfortunately, or will I say fortunately, I didn’t know my dog was inside my room and I locked it and ran into the toilet outside, where I stretched my self flat on the ground. I suppose my dog would have attracted some attention if it followed me to my hideout. They set my compound ablaze and left, when they had gone, I came out and jumped into an uncompleted building nearby where I prayed to God to save my life, this incident happened around 11am.
I hid in the bush till about 6am the next day. Then I saw someone crawling towards my direction, at a closer look I discovered he was my colleague living close to my house and that was how we stayed in the bush till the second day at about 8am while we were still in hiding we saw a woman trying to look round probably she must have heard our voices and when she saw us she offered to go and buy bread for us but we declined and immediately she left we moved out and luckily we heard the Nigerian soldiers announcing their presence that people who are hiding should come out and we waited before we came out after three days in the bush without food.
The soldiers assembled us at railway station and we identified ourselves we were camped there and they served us tea. I took the next available train and joined my brothers in Enugu, so I was in Enugu until the civil broke out. We moved back to Asaba and three days after we came back my father was killed by the soldiers and we ran to the neighbouring village of Ibusa and stayed in the bush. We had to endure hunger for days without bathing. Occasionally, we will go to the stream to bath and wash our clothe because we fled with only one clothe.
Sir, now that you mentioned civil war, how would you describe the experience?
If you have seen war, you will continue to pray not to experience it again – hunger, no change of clothe for weeks, when you get to the stream you will pull off shirt and wash it then when it dries out you wear it.
Why were you not enlisted into the army to fight in the war?
When we came back from Ibusa, the army were camping in our house “pointing at a building”, and I was staying close. I had a sister nurse who happened to be bringing food and she was giving me food. One day, one captain Mathias saw me and called me with army “tune”, and I went to him. He asked me why I was there and I told him we came out from hiding because we were told the war was over. He asked where I was before the war began and I told him I was working. He asked me to show him my palms and I did, he touched it and press it likewise my foot, thereafter, he asked where my house was and I showed him. He followed me to our house where he saw pictures of my father taking salute as the, then, chairman of the council in Asaba. After that he took me to his office and asked me if I can work as an army officer, I said no, I didn’t want to be a soldier because being in the army will always remind me of my father’s death. He asked me what I want to do and I told him I would want to go back to Lagos, he gave me a pass and put me on army vehicle going to Lagos. That was how I returned to Lagos after the war.
So how did you settle back again in Lagos?
I had a brother then Mr. Usonia, he was a big shot in NTC, Ibadan and he immediately he heard I have returned to Lagos he came from Ibadan to pick me and gave me a job in NTC and I was there a year and three months again; they were paying very good salary but I found it difficult to work with my brother because I was living with him. I was posted to recording department where we record the number of cigarettes produced and we ran shifts. We had a clock and we were expected to be taking the readings. One day I was at the duty post and I fell at sleep and my brother travelled and I didn’t know he has come and was at the office, unfortunately, he came to my office and saw that I was sleeping he called my boss one Mr. Obaze, he asked him to collect the clock while I was sleeping. That led to my two weeks suspension, while on suspension, one day I saw Daily Times Newspaper publication advertising for Junior Manager with School Certificate and I lied to my brother that I want to go to Lagos for weekend and I went for the Daily Times interview and luckily I was employed, so I stayed in Lagos for one week before returning to Ibadan. I went to meet my brother at his study room to show him my letter of appointment at Daily Times and he asked me whether I preferred to work in Daily Times and I said yes, he wanted me to be with him so that I can prepare for further study but I never wanted to live with him because he was strict. Daily Times also trained me at Ibadan where I lived at the boy’s quarters in my brother’s house for three months while the training lasted. Then on my return to Lagos, the head office of Daily Times after the three months training I was posted to Orun, now Akwa Ibom State, that was only time I regretted leaving Ibadan but because as a Manager, I make so many friends both boys and girls – though the salary was small but I just have to leave Ibadan from there I was transferred to Aba where I got married.
How did you meet your wife?
We met during the war in Asaba here, she was attending Teachers Training College somewhere around Benin City then, she always goes to farm with the mother and they normally pass near our house, that was how I saw her and when I invited her everybody in my house loved her because as a student she was so humble and was always accompanying her mother to the farm.
So, when you invited her did you proposed to her immediately?
No, the only thing was that I invited her and she came and met my sister, and she and my sister started talking, so thereafter, I went back to Aba. I later sent money to my mother and the bride price was paid in my absence. After that she was sent to meet me in Aba, that was how we began to live as husband and wife, and when I was transferred to Sapele we both moved to there.
How many years have you been in that marriage?
We have been married for 47 years now.
So, what are some of the things that attracted you to her?
She’s very meek, very supportive and I don’t think any other woman could have married me – I can say it even when I am dying. Those qualities are still there till today. Whatever I said is a law at home. She pushed me to the point I am today.
At what point did you retire from active service?
As we are working in Daily Times, the Concord Newspaper came up and most of my colleagues moved to Concord and until later Guardian came up and one of my bosses who joined them sent me a letter that I should come and I went there and there he interviewed me and he offered me a job and sent me to Enugu for training with a better package. After the training, I was asked to remain in Enugu office as a supervisor in The Guardian, after two years in Enugu I was posted to Kaduna where I handled all the Northern States I was doing well travelling here and there and I thank God I never had any accident or robbery attack, God was with me.
So, when did you finally retire?
1992, when President Ibrahim Babangida proscribed The Guardian Newspaper, though I was among the people that were asked to wait but before then I have been posted to Benin. I created Benin Unit covering Asaba before the paper was proscribed while we were waiting my wife moved back to Asaba and started teaching, so when the military junta lifted the ban on the Guardian Newspaper, I was asked to come to Lagos Officer, at that point I decided to quit. But before then I have set up structure to start selling Newspapers in Asaba and the sale of Newspapers as a vendor in Asaba helped me greatly to the extent that I was able to send my children to the university.
Are you still selling newspapers?
Yes, the people call me chief executive of newspapers.
Sir, you have seen it all looking at Nigeria now and before now, how would you describe Nigeria, has anything changed?
I feel sorry for present generation and I pray that God will help you people out – before the war and after the war we enjoyed Nigeria, but what is happening now I blame it on the politicians – if you want to build a country as a politician whether in opposition or in leadership you combine efforts to ensure that the country gets to the next level.
Is there any hope for the country?
Yes, there is always hope as long as God is on the throne there is hope.
You look very fresh and agile what is the secret?
God (laughter), my children take care of me. I call myself a poor man that lacks nothing.
What kind of food do you love eating?
I love eating yam. My children use to laugh at me that if you want to give daddy a complete diet, give him fried yam in the morning, cooked yam in the afternoon and porridge yam in the evening.
So, sir, what else do you love doing now?
I don’t do anything now, but the joy of selling newspapers and I don’t read other paper other than Bible and newspapers and chatting with people.
Sir, looking at you I know you love women when you were young and women loved you, do you still have that feeling?
I wouldn’t want to do it any longer and I don’t have that feelings any more.
Daddy, so how do you relax generally?
By God’s grace I travelled to America, London and here I enjoy going to family meetings to see my age mates where we discuss at that level.
So generally, to live long, what does it takes?
It takes only God because whatever you do, you are directed by God.
So finally, do you have any regret in life?
Regrets! no minus the war period, God has been faithful to me, no regret at all.
So, you don’t look back and say oh I regretted not going to London when my brothers wanted me to come over?
But this is the London I travel to anytime I want, I travel to America, Israel anytime, laughter…
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