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‘The Royals Kept Their Children Away from School So They Won’t Be Flogged... It Was a Costly Mistake’

02 Feb 2013

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“Looking at a king’s mouth,” wrote Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart, “you would think he never sucked at his mother’s breast.” Indeed, up close, royals are just as human as anyone else. Funke Olaode recalls a rather disarming encounter with Obong of Calabar, Edidem Ekpo Okon Abasi Otu V, grand patriarch of Efik Kingdom

Born into royalty…
My Christian name is Emmanuel because I am a Catholic and knight of St. Mulumba. I was born in this town, Calabar, on November 20, 1949 into the royal family of the late Etubom Okon Abasi Otu. My father was a ruler of this community when I was born and was a member of Obong of Calabar Council. My father was a trader who moved from one place to another. I remember the Super Cargo used to come to the riverine area. They were doing fishing and at the same time going to Cameroun to buy drinks and also exchange goods for other materials. They were also going into the forest to buy spices and sell them to the Europeans. My mother was also influential and equally a good trader. In a way, it was a privileged beginning. There is no doubt, the parental influence - not the wealthy aspect of it - groomed and nurtured me. Then, our people preferred to send “slave children” to school to get educated because they would be flogged by the Europeans. But the children from the royal homes were over-protected, kept behind, nurtured, tutored and brought up in a traditional setting that conditioned them into what their guardians wanted them to be.
But unfortunately, the advent of Europeans was an eye opener. It soon emerged that the royals were losing out when the administration, which started then in the Calabar Protectorate, came to being. They realised that they weren’t part and parcel of what was happening. Rather, the very slave children they sent to school were incorporated into the administration and were recognised by the whites. It now dawned on most of them that it was high time they changed the policy. Somebody like me was introduced to western education because my father drummed it into my ear that I had to go to school so I could get involved in what was going on.

Fleeing from school…
Having decided to embrace western education, obviously the stay-at-home policy was over. My father sent me to my mother’s relation in another community, Okon Archibong, who was a farmer. I was completely isolated from luxury of the palace and that was how I began another phase of my life in another setting. I was about 10 years. I spent my youthful age with this man who had to force me to go to school. I started my primary education at Convent School. My ambition was to go and stop there, but my guardian said I had to move forward. Initially, it was very difficult for me to cope having been used to luxury and all that. You know a situation where I had everything at my beck and call but had to wake up in the morning to go to the farm, and sometimes flogged to get set for school. So it wasn’t a conducive atmosphere for my youthful mind. My only route of escape was to run back to the palace which was a trekking distance, about 20 miles. I would just hide and make sure my father did not see me but my guardian would trace me back, flog me in front of my father and take me back. That actually discouraged me from running up and down and to take life as it came. Again, I would ever be grateful to that decision because it actually changed me to become who I am and made me to be focused.

Growing up…
Growing up in my community was interesting. Basic social amenities were absent, although there was electricity which was restricted to government circle in Central Calabar. Our source of electricity was wood lanterns and good lamps. As a matter of fact, we didn’t know that electricity existed as we only heard about it. Also, there was no pipe borne water. But we had very neat flowing stream from the rocks. It was so pure and clean and there was no contamination and, as you can see, this area is above sea level. We still have a few of the streams around today. But my encounter with electricity was amazing. My father used to attend meetings at the palace of Obong of Calabar. And whenever he was going, he would take mostly the male children along with him. Sighting electricity for the time was amazing. The means of transport then was canoe. When I came out from the canoe to the present Marina Resorts, I looked up and down and saw these big, glittering bulbs. Up there was the Europeans’ Quarters and hospital. I was still lost in trance with this sight when my father’s aides came and smacked me that it was time to go.

Queen Elizabeth’s visit was memorable…
I had a lot of childhood memories, but the one that remains with me till today was Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Calabar in 1956 when I was about seven years. Everywhere went agog. There were preparations from every community as everybody wanted to come and display their stuff. Children, women and various communities were all decked in different attires and uniform all for the queen. The next memory that struck me was the Empire Day which everybody looked forward to as Christmas. It was the day all the schools in various communities would converge at a particular place and have our sporting activities. After the merrymaking they would give us gifts. Again, when we were small, we were not allowed to attend the Empire Day because the school management would look for the grown up ones. So it was exciting being among the chosen ones in 1958. So, the very first Empire Day I attended in 1958/59 was significant because the other pupils I met from other areas are still my friends till today.

I was a quiet kid…
I have always been an extremely quiet kid. People would say things like ‘if you look at his face, he looks like a fool but he is filled with intellect within”. I was quiet but I was very inquisitive. I always asked myself “what next” especially in my academic area. You know the type of people we interacted with actually spurred most of us because we aspired to be like them. For instance, we had a oil palm plantation in my area, the first factory to come to this domain brought by the United Africa Company (UAC).  We had whites around us living in their quarters and we looked at the managers as people out of the blues. They had small cars such as Volkswagen and all that. As kids, we would go and touch the cars and in the process desire to drive it one day. It now dawned on us that it went beyond daydreaming; that we had to work hard to attain that feat. Then one teacher challenged me: “how do you think you could drive a car?” I answered him boldly that I would go to school. The man encouraged me that to enjoy such luxury you had to get education. I did.

Childhood pranks…
As a kid, I engaged in one prank or the other which I considered a part of growing up. But something happened in school while teaching was going on. There were two other guys sitting very close to me and I used a robe and tied up our legs. When the teacher asked one of the boys to stand up and he couldn’t, the man came round and saw that we were all tied up. He later found out that I was the one. Of course, the three of us were ushered out and were beaten.

First day at school…
Like I said earlier, I didn’t start school early. And by the time I enrolled at the age of 10, I still had to go through the laid down process of stretching your right hand across your head. If it touched your left ear you would be enrolled, and if it did not, you would have to wait for another year. So I was lucky and was admitted at St. Patrick’s Convent School, a mixed Catholic school. My first day at school was tough because it was my first encounter with English Language and I could neither assimilate what I was being taught nor the strange characters being written on the blackboard. Everything looked so strange but the only joy was that I wore a new uniform. We had very good teachers then. The Reverend Sisters were thorough and patient with us. They knew how to pamper, pet and present what they had. It wasn’t the sort of things they are doing in schools now. We started from A-B-C and gradually we moved higher. It was a delight and pride for my parents the day I was able to put a sentence together. I would boldly walk along the street here speaking English, and the elderly would be looking at me imagining what I was talking about. I finished from that school in primary three because it was a Convent school and the male students were not allowed to go beyond Standard Three. There was a male school situated in another community where I eventually completed my Standard Six in 1963. From there, I took the entrance examinations to St. Patrick’s Catholic School. The missionary established another school, St. Francis at Eket in the present Akwa Ibom State. Then we were in the same region. And after the common entrance, the children were divided and my name appeared on the Eket list as a border. My father said it was far from home and pleaded with the reverend father. But their decision was final. That was how I jettisoned the admission and took another common entrance to West African People’s Institute in Calabar. Hope Waddell had already done its common entrance and WAPI was the only option. Luckily, I passed the examinations and began another sojourn of life in 1964.

I would have been a medical doctor…
I spent my normal my five years at West African People’s Institute and finished in 1968. After that, I was exempted from higher school certificate because the teachers felt I was bright. I took direct examinations into the University of Ibadan to study medicine. Fortunately for me, I passed the examinations and I was offered admission.  Unfortunately, my father passed away when I was in Form One and my uncle was the one handling the affairs of the family. This uncle of mine said he couldn’t afford it; that his on child was going to higher school and I wanted to go to the university directly. That was how that ambition to become a medical doctor was truncated. I was so pained because only two of us were privileged to have that admission. The other guy scaled through because his parents could afford it. He eventually became a medical doctor until he died recently. But rather than allow that circumstances to undermine my goals and aspirations, I looked for a job. I had two employments at the same time, one as assistant technical officer in training in Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN) which later metamorphosed into National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) and now Power Holding Company of Nigeria. The letter of employment came in March, but we were asked to stay at home for the next six months before we resume for training school in Lagos. Within that period, I got another employment in the engineering department of Postal and Telecommunication (P&T). I was employed as assistant technical officer in training. And it was with immediate effect. So I decided to pitch my tent with P&T.

Starting a career in telecoms…
With employment in P&T, the world ahead appeared brighter. So I embraced it and went through the technical course and picked engineering as a career. Though it had its own challenges because I never thought of becoming an engineer. In a way, engineering and medicine are similar because you still had to go through the same subjects - physics, chemistry, mathematics etc. Technically, everything in P&T was imported and there was the impression by the whites that we were not capable of handling it. So we had to prove to them that we could equally do it. I remember when the seat of power was moved from Lagos to Abuja and then military president, Babangida, said he would do the first independence anniversary in FCT in 1991 and it had to be broadcast nationally and internationally. I was in the transmission department of ministry of communication. We realised that there was a station in Suleja, Niger State. Not only that, they had imported crates of technical materials from United States which were abandoned. So, Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) loaned some of us. It was a challenge and we picked it up, went to Suleja, picked all the materials and successfully set up the transmission station in Abuja for 1991 independence anniversary. All in all, joining P&T was the best decision of my life because we were exposed to intensive training both locally and internationally. P&T later metamorphosed into Nigeria Telecommunication (NITEL). Having traversed the length and breadth of NITEL, it was time for me to move on and God provided an opening. There was a contract from Shell Petroleum in Warri and Port Harcourt and the contractors were looking for people to man their communications department. Somebody now recommended me and I was invited to head the operation. That was how I left NITEL to join Telnet Nigeria Limited. From Lagos, I was posted to Warri. I was involved with the company’s communication system, where I had to turn the telecom system all over again, renew it and put it in place with data sciences as a backup. Everything changed in Shell and they were so happy. Shell started picking most of us as direct contract staff. Of course, life changed for me.

Re-awakening my childhood
ambition…
Going into engineering was accidental because lack of funds prevented me from realizing my childhood ambition of becoming a medical doctor. The truth is that I still had my ambition of becoming a graduate. Again, I said whatever happens, my younger ones must not suffer. And I promised myself I would survive. What I have learnt about life is that in a community where you have visitors or strangers coming in, if you tie your life with positive minded people, you would see a different result. I was more friendly to the Igbo boys. And these were ambitious and focused young men. I remember if students complained that mathematics was hard, these Igbo boys would wave them off, sit you down and teach you. My ambition was tied up to them and they had people on ground pushing them. Before you knew it most of them were gaining admission into universities, colleges of education, polytechnics and all that. And they were instrumental to my direct admission to study medicine at Ibadan. And since my uncle failed to pay, these boys encouraged me that no matter what happened, I had go to school. So I never lost focus. I was not overwhelmed by my high-flying job. As soon as I had the privilege again, I enrolled for electrical/electronic engineering as a part-time student at University of Benin. I was travelling from Warri to Benin. It was so easy because I had been exposed to the technical aspect on the job. I eventually became a university graduate at the age of 41 in 1990. Honestly, it was fulfilling because as a technical officer, it has limitations because one cannot attain certain level. As soon as I presented my certificate to the management, I was promoted and my life changed. And even when the Telnet contract expired, I was invited by another company, Macnair Nigeria Company, an engineering company. I was promoted as a manager to the divisional manager. So to succeed, never allow your circumstances to knock you out. In my case, I combined school with work and still played my role as a family man. My wife was working in Lagos. I was shuttling Warri, Lagos, Benin and Calabar simultaneously. But God crowned my effort at the end of the day.

Quitting corporate world for
the throne…
I retired as an engineer recently when the calling from the community became imminent. I have been dodging after my father’s death. We had one of his uncles in place as head. When this uncle passed on, there was this clarion call for me to come back home. I said I had to face my career and they appointed another person. When that one passed on it now dawned on me that I could not dodge forever.  And if you look at the setting, you cannot become an Obong (which is one out of the heads) if you are not head of a community. Here, we rotate it. Eventually, I became an Obong in 2008. And both my traditional and church coronation was my best moment. Looking at life, the turbulence and all that happened and having to sit on my father’s throne is the greatest achievement.

Getting personal…
I started being conscious of myself as an adult in secondary school. In those days as kids, we could have our bath in the open or even in the stream and even run around without pants in the rain. But by the time we got into secondary school, we mixed with senior ones who were always writing love letters and all that. But I wasn’t really involved with love letters until towards the end of my secondary school. That’s because I was a focused young man. When I was about getting out of P&T technical training school, I had someone and it was so serious and we had even decided to get married. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. I came down to my community and met my wife, Ansa, whom I had known as a kid. Then, she was in Form Four and I just approached her and said: “My friend, let’s start our lives together after your secondary school.” She accepted. My wife comes from a disciplined family and they are even close to my mother. We got married officially in 1983. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner because she has been my soulmate and I have no regrets. The marriage is blessed with seven children of four girls and three boys. And to fulfill my ambition, two of them are now studying medicine.

Wealth not a measure of fulfillment…
It is not how much you have or amount of your wealth, but individual fulfillment is what matters. I am a happy man because I am happy with myself. I am a fulfilled man and I don’t have any regrets. As an individual, you look at your life from a religious perspective, your place in your community, how you have fulfilled your family obligations and your contribution to the nation. Events would always happen and the way you get out of them will determine how heroic you become. In my case, my life is pre-determined by God.  I have no other person, He is my God and for taking me this far I am grateful.

Tags: Nigeria, Featured, Politics, Obong of Calabar, Edidem Ekpo Okon Abasi Otu V, Efik Kingdom

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