Born in Kafanchan, Northern Nigeria, Onuorah Nzekwu first trained as a school teacher and taught in schools in Onitsha and City College, Lagos for several years before he joined Nigeria Magazine after a researched article he wrote on his native Onitsha found its way to a top shot at the magazine. Thus began an illustrious writing career that culminated in four novels, a boyhood novella and two historical, non-fiction works. After the Nigeria Civil war, he had the task of setting up News Agency of Nigeria (NANS). Nzekwu recently launched Troubled Dust, his fictive narrative of the troubled events that led to the Nigeria Civil War and the actual war. In this interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU, Nzekwu traces the trajectory of his career, both as a civil servant and a writer and states how troubled he is that Nigeria is regressing in spite of the bitter lessons of a tragic civil war yet to be fully digested. Excerpts:
It’s been 50 years since you set out writing. How would you describe those 50 years?
It’s been 50 years of adventure, of moving from one place to another, and yet another and another. Sometimes, it’s because you want it; other times, it’s because something compelled you to, like going on transfer because your employer wants it because he thinks you’ll give your best from there. Then the Nigeria Civil War came and compelled a lot of people to leave Lagos. Well, it was the war really; it was the circumstances that brought the war that forced us to move from Lagos to the East. Then, it was regarded as transfer from one section of the federation to another section of it, Eastern Nigeria Service.
Then, the war came. We moved from Enugu; first, one wasn’t sure where one was going. When you kind of settled and asked questions, you were told to go where your colleagues have gone; you then went after them. Eventually, we ended up in Umuahia, then in Aba, and at Aba, and the war was getting closer and closer, and you kept finding little enclaves where you managed to survive the war. Then we came back to Enugu, the headquarters. And from Enugu, we moved back to Lagos, to find out how things were shaping. And they told us, ‘you’d better come because your positions are still waiting’.
That was very magnanimous of them. We said, ‘alright; give us a few days to go and bring back what we had’. And what did we have left after the war? (a deep chuckle). So, we came back and I was in the Federal Ministry of Information, Nigeria Magazine Division before I left. When I came back, the posts in the Nigeria Magazine Division were filed. They sent us back to Information Division and our designations were adjusted. I was now Senior Information Officer. From Information Division, Iwas asked to go and start News Agency of Nigeria (NANS). Then they sent me to National Theatre.
The division that had been given that job of starting NANS a year before could not complete the assignment. At the end of one year, they were asked to give a report of what they had achieved. The Permanent Secretary then called me to say they were making ita personal issue and said, ‘you give us a news agency in the remaining six months; one year has already been wasted’. I was stunned by the announcement from the Perm Sec and remained rooted to the spot when I left his presence until a fellow tapped me in the back to ask why I was lost in thought. The kind fellow took me to his office. I explained to him my encounter with the Perm Sec. I explained to him that I had never worked in such environment before. He sat me down and gave me a beer to calm me down.
He told me how at the Federal Executive Council meeting they had been ordered to meet the one and a half years deadline and the Perm Sec is convinced you’re the man who will perform for him. But I protested that I had never worked in a news agency before, so how was I going to do it. He strongly advised me not to reject the offer. He then explained to me some of the things I might need to accomplish what seemed an impossible task for me, including the constitution of the board with the NTA, Radio Nigeria Directors-General and Director of Information on it. He said these were people I could go to in case of any difficulties. He then advised me to pick up the appointment letter from the Perm Sec the next day as instructed.
Well, I picked up me letter the next day and headed for the National Theatre. When I arrived, I gave the letter to man who was there. He was from Radio Nigeria. He brought two files and handed them over to me. He gave me his telephone number to call him if I was in difficulty. I took the files and started pouring over them; it took me two and a half hours. Then I called a messenger and asked him who and who his oga usually dealt with. He said ‘Okpo’, who used to be at Information Division. When he saw me he said, ‘ah,Nzekwu na you?’ I said I was the one. He went and gave me two more files.
So, I applied myself and on October 1, 1978, the News Agency of Nigeria came on stream. I saw the people already employed – journalists, technical people. What remained was for them to get technical training; they had not worked in any news agency before. So, we arranged some, with the active support of the board. Eventually, we missed our deadline by 24 hours. Instead of October 1, our first news cast came on October 2. Once that was done, the rest was a matter of getting to know how other news agencies worked and that enable me know what areas to concentrate on, what areas to pay attention to, what areas to cool off on. So, that was how we started. Eventually, we started doing our jobs. We started going on tours to see what other agencies were doing to improve on what we were doing.
Where did your tours take you?
The first tour I did was in Ethiopia; they had their news agency well established in Ethiopia. My going there was tied to a meeting of news agencies in Africa. All the others had set up; we were the youngest. There, you met other people; you ask questions and they asked questions, too, about what you doing were back home. They brought papers from their agencies to distribute. By the time I got back, I had a collection of papers talking about the various news agencies belonging to African countries. So, with those papers and the experiences our editorial staff had gathered going to work in those news agencies as part of their training, it was easy for us to do, to make progress.
Luckily for me, all the boys I had – those I recruited and those recruited for me – were cooperative; we all worked hand in hand. That was how we started.
So, from the fear that you were being thrown into the unknown, you realised you were actually in a familiar terrain…
What would you say was the most significant points of your career at NANS?
There were challenges every day because when a problem develops, or even a suggestion comes, we noticed that we did not have communications link between here and there and there; that we needed to establish some kind of things. And when the links got there, we needed men to man those links. You needed technical crew, you needed journalists. The first link that we established was between Lagos and kaduna. Kaduna because we didn’t have enough staff; we didn’t want to over-work the system we’re establishing. We needed to have one wire link between Lagos and Kaduna. Gradually, we had three other links – Lagos/Ibadan, Lagos/Enugu – these were regional capitals, and Lagos/Benin City. The editors that were employed came from these regions.
So, we trained the Benin man for Benin; we trained an Ibo man for Enugu; we trained a Yoruba man for Ibadan, and the chap who was in Kaduna was Hausa. They had the additional task of just getting news and giving the news out to papers in their regions, but also looking for able hands, because very soon, it will become necessary for them to travel around. And when they’re not around, who mans the office for them? That was how we started growing. Then we had an engineer who was sent to us from NITEL. He helped us design our network. Occasionally, we held meetings to look at our designs. We expected editorial and administration to make their inputs. It wasn’t a matter of you concentrating only on your department; no, the departments were interlocked. Apart from knowing your own unit, you needed to know what obtains in the other units so you can organise your unit in such a way that you can interact harmoniously.
What is it necessary to have a place like NANS when other newspapers, radio and TV have their own journalists doing the same work?
The radio hasits editorial staff,its news covering unit. Now, they work with their eye on things that radio stations are interested in. The TV work concentrating on the things their audience are interested in. Now, the news agency is a wire service, which attracts news from other agencies, foreign and local sources. When we first started, we weren’t giving news to media houses.When we started developing and making progress – remember I told you that on the board of News Agency of Nigeria, we had D-Gs of Radio Nigeria and NTA, the Director of Information and one or two journalists from the newspaper houses – these members of NANS board were interested in their own establishments getting whatever news NANS had to give them.
They knew that their own men were on the field, but that their scope was limited. Whatever they got from the news agency, they added up to make fuller what their own people had assembled for the day. So, it was a matter of you widening your scope and getting news from far and near as much as possible. Each of those organisations had their own networks, but the news agency widened the scope of their news area.
And then NANS new complex was named after you to honour you. How did that feel when you heardit?
They didn’t contact me when they did that; I didn’t know anything about it until I got a note from the Managing Director inviting me to the opening of the complex. I was looking at it when I got the invitation because I was aware that a lot of work had been going on in that vicinity. All the news agency buildings were prefabricated, and that was how it was from the day I set it up to the day I left. No doubt, there was one or two touches, but then many years after, the current MD started doing things to the complex. And we were proud; I was particularly proud that it’s now becoming a solid establishment, more solid than whatever I left there.
Now, coming to be told the complex is named after me took me by surprise because I wasn’t the first person who started a new thing. Other people started other new things and it worked under their watch, but they weren’t named after them (laughs). In all things, they say, give thanks to the Almighty! That was how I saw it.
You started writing 50 years ago, including the iconic childhood novel, Eze Goes to School. Could you tell us a bit about the experience?
Eze Goes to School was not my first published work. My first published work is a full length novel, Wand of Nobel Wood. Thereafter, the second full length novel was published a year after. Wand of Nobel Wood was published in 1961 and the second was published in 1962; that was Blade Among the Boys. It was afterBlade Among the Boys was published that Eze Goes to School was published. Eze Goes to School was written before those two, but was published after them. Why? Because wherever the manuscript went - then publishers were abroad not in Nigeria – wherever the manuscript went, the man to whom you sent it rejected it. ‘Eze’ and ‘fufu’ were not for children in England; English pupils wouldn’t read that sort of thing. So, ‘write about Jack and Jill’, something they will understand.
So, 12 publishers saw Eze goes to School; 11 rejected it. It was the 12th that said ‘all right’, because he had intention to come here (to Nigeria), that was African University Press. That was how Eze Goes to School came to be published because European looked at it and said ‘no, this is not for our environment; this is not for own children’ and rejected it. They weren’t thinking of African children. But this particular man (I think he may have come here before) talked to schools, went back to England, got the manuscript, read it and decided to publish it. But he wasn’t going to publish it for England or English audience or children, but for the new market he wanted to establish in Africa. So, that’s how Eze Goes to School came.
But after Eze Goes to School, I did another full length novel, Highlife for Lizards. Those were the three full length novels I had published; the current one is Troubled Dust just launched into the market. There are other books, but they deal with Onitsha history and culture; that is my place. they are The Chima Dynasty of Onitsha (1998) and Faith of Our Fathers (2002).
You were inside Biafra throughout the war. How did you translate that into fictive experience?
Well, that’s the story in the book…
Interesting, but why did you decide to publish now over 40 years after the war?
People have written about the war. A lot of those who wrote wrote from the military point of view. Now, a few civilians have written; I wrote a long time ago. Circumstances have not favoured me to publish earlier. There were a couple of times I thought it was time for me to publish. But either I didn’t have the resources to accomplish the task or the circumstances were not quite right. I started thinking of publishing some three or four years back, but sometimes you have money; other times, you didn’t have backup. But last year, I thought, well, ‘you better publish or you forget about writing and publishing’! (chuckles)
So, I went to work, looking through the manuscript, doing the final corrections. And then God sent me a backer…
Some might still ask why now? Don’t you think Troubled Dust might arouse negative emotions regarding the war?
No! Like I said before, I thought of publishing it before but things weren’t quite right. But this time, I had assistance, and the moment I went to press the situation in the country began to kind of call up things in the book, and at a point, it occurred to me that putting out this book now will be like sounding a warning to our people, ‘look, the path we’re treading, we treaded it before; don’t go any further because it didn’t lead us anywhere’. My people say that a child, who’d never seen war does not know that war is deadly. If you don’t want to die, don’t disturb war; don’t toy with war.
So, it’s kind of saying, ‘you’ve gone this path before, take it easy and pull back from wherever you’ve reached now because it’s not going to help us’. This is one country made up of different ethnic groups, different interests; if God didn’t want you all to live together, he wouldn’t have brought you together. But if you decide that you’re going to challenge Him, whatever you get is what you deserve.
Nigerians are not very good at listening to advice, especially at the leadership level. What are the chances they will listen to your advice?
I do not think everybody who picks up this book or reads it will take the lessons it contains. Some will take the lessons; others will simply say, ‘what does he know; what has he done?’
But then the circumstances back then in 1966 and now are not quite the same, or are they?
The circumstances that are not the same could be quite true. Obasanjo no longer heads the Commando unit; so, he will not be involved in war now as a soldier. All the men who fought in the war are no more; those of them who are still alive will not be interested in going to fight again. It’s a new crop, a new breed of people that will be involved now. It’s a natural thing. But the cause of the one that we had, those causes are still there.
All right, take one single example. When killings started in 1966 or 1965, it started in the North and it was Southerners that were being attacked. It was essentially Easterners, Igbos. Now, this one has started. What is happening? It’s the Igbos up North that are being attacked. In the process of killing the Igbos, you kill people who are not Igbos. Some of them tend to react more quickly than the Igbos will react.
You see the similarity between then and now?Boko Haram as they call them; who is Boko Haram destroying? Most of the victims are Igbos or people from the East. Yet, they are not Moslems; they are victims. So, you find that things are happening now that are similar to things that happened then. And if care is not taken and things degenerate, you might have exactly the same kind of result like then. This is one area. The Nigerian dust, the dust in Nigerian territory is disturbed, is troubled; and dust is the land. So, if the land is disturbed, what do we get?
Odumegwu Ojukwu, the man at the centre of that storm in the past just passed on and he will be buried in a matter of weeks. Could you reflect on the man a bit?
(after a long and meditative silence) What do you want me to say? When you read the book you will see what you need to see...