Ode to Francis Mbakogu, The Foreign Reserve Iconoclast

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Ifeyinwa Mbakogu

Great men have been born at different periods in history. Great men have also been born in countries other than ours with their exploits trickling down to touch those they never imagined or knew existed. But the greatest men are those known to us, who began from humble beginnings, struggled to attain greatness, yet remained untouched by it, by making themselves open to the needs and aspirations of others. One of such great cherished Nigerians was Chief Francis Uzuegbunem Mbakogu. Chief Mbakogu was a First Republic politician and ebullient Junior Minister (Parliamentary Secretary) in the Ministry of Economic Development in the First Republic. Francis Mbakogu was a distinguished political reformer, Economist and a political iconoclast. As a Junior Minister, he brought his deep knowledge of economics to bear in the fulfilment of his public duty. As the Nigerian economy worsens, Mbakogu’s great contributions to the economic development of Nigeria are worth remembering today. Unknown to many Nigerians, Francis Mbakogu or F.U. as was fondly called by his friends and associates was the first Nigeria politician to move the revolutionary motion for the Nigerian Government to have a substantive Foreign Reserve.

Born in 1926 at Amesi in Aguata Local Government Area of Anambra State, Mbakogu died on August 7 1986. Mbakogu might have appeared to some at that time as a young Minister full of dreams. This was probably because he always sought to achieve that which seemed impossible to those aware of his humble beginnings. But then, when one was passionate about something, that passion spurred the affected to achieve positive results against all odds. The young Francis was passionate about his people, the Igbo people in general and the Awka constituency in particular and the need to create opportunities for them to rise above their then unchallenging state of being. That undying passion led him into the world of politics. F. U. was a man driven into politics to prove that change though a difficult and tireless effort was also attainable. Driven by this belief, he plunged into his campaign with the dynamism of one ready to lay down his life for the wellbeing of his people. And he did almost that! During his campaign in 1954, only a year after his wedding, F.U. had a fatal accident at Nkpor, which permanently affected proper use of his left arm. After the accident, he was left to recuperate at the Adazi Hospital for an entire month. This inexplicable absence from the political scene spurred his opponent, an Independent Candidate from Uga to seek to steer the campaign in his favour with the unsavoury tale of F.U. Mbakogu’s death. People had to believe him, until, almost like a dream; F. U. Mbakogu made a surprise appearance on the campaign ground to the admiration of his supporters and the chagrin of his detractors.

Indeed, history was made when in 1954; Chief F. U. Mbakogu was elected to represent Awka South Constituency at the Federal House of Representatives on the platform of the defunct NCNC. He represented the Constituency for ten years, from 1954 to 1964. From 1960 to 1964, he served as a Junior Minister (Parliamentary Secretary) in the Ministry of Economic Development while Hon. Ibrahim Waziri was the Minister of Economic Development. At the end of his tenure, the primaries to elect the N.C.N.C. Party Flag bearers for Awka South Consistency into the house came up in 1965. At the first election at Aguata he won overwhelmingly. However, his opponents deliberately put more voters’ cards into his ballot box to discredit him. The election was repeated. But this time, his opponents were even more adventurous for they poured acid into his ballot box. That was the perfect ploy for they knew he was an honest man. Though young, only thirty-eight years old at the time, Francis Mbakogu had always aspired to play politics the fair way; that is politics as it is played in developed countries. Not the politics of intrigues and bitterness that was threatening to rear its ugly head in the erstwhile sane Nigerian terrain. To buttress this fact, one man openly remarked at a gathering that: “Mbakogu was in the House of Representatives for ten years yet had nothing to show for it. He had neither a house in the urban area nor his village; nothing but indebtedness to those from whom he borrowed money to finance his campaign. Expectedly, after that incident, Francis Mbakogu refused to contest. That marked the end of all political involvements for him. However, it was ironical that those that won the election into the House of Representatives based on the 1965 election had a short period of service before the military takeover in 1966.

As I said earlier, Mbakogu was the first Nigerian politician in the House of Representatives and in Nigeria’s history to move the motion for the urgent need for the Nigerian Government to have a substantive External Reserve. However like all ideas with good intent, this Bill was not passed because the then Secretary of State, a Briton, considered it inconsequential. And why was such a Bill considered inconsequential for the young nation that Nigeria was at the time?. Amazingly, years after his death, a newspaper columnist dug deep into the archives to acclaim F. U. Mbakogu as the foremost brain behind Nigeria’s proud claim to an External Reserve. Nigeria certainly owes a debt of gratitude to Mbakogu for recognising early enough that Nigeria needed to have a Foreign Reserve and for courageously moving the motion to that effect. Sadly, several years after he moved the motion, Nigeria’s leadership is still struggling with several questions for understanding the significance of External Reserves and adopting sound management practices. It is interesting that today debates abound on how to really and truly boost Nigerian’s External Reserve and how to preserve it from spiral inflation especially in this age of recession. While some argue that Nigeria’s Foreign Reserve should be kept in multiple foreign currencies, others advocate for a trade liberalization that would increase the inflow of the much-needed foreign earnings to would see Nigeria on the part of economic recovery. Were Francis Mbakogu alive today he probably would have provided lots of useful insights and explanations on what his dream was all about.

Unlike the times we live in, Francis Mbakogu went into politics because he considered himself relevant to the social advancement of both his constituency and the wider Nigerian populace. He often said that: When my existence is evaluated, and I have failed to move my constituency from their erstwhile existence to the dynamic challenges of civilisation, then I am nothing but “a failure”…Definitely, a hapless fellow that has made an unforgivable ridicule of the confidence so trustingly reposed in me.” That driving motivation made it possible for Mbakogu to combine the dual roles of teaching and fulfilling his duties at the Federal House. For clarity, when Francis Mbakogu was in office, Nigeria operated the parliamentary system of government. With this system, members of the Federal House of Representatives were not on full time duties as we experience today. Rather, members of the House were expected to leave their normal employment to report for such crucial deliberations as budget sittings where they remained for about six months and without housing provided – they had to search and pay for their own housing. It was only during the independence celebration in October 1960 that members of the House were allocated apartments in Legico Flats. And when Mbakogu became Parliamentary Secretary, he was provided a house in Ikoyi which he vacated after his stint in politics. But even after vacating the Ikoyi residence, the Ministry in charge of assigning housing to public officers, undertook detailed inventory and thereafter sent notices to F.U. asking him to account for about five pieces of cutlery.

Unable to account for the lost cutlery, F.U. was asked to pay the monetary equivalent. This was within an era where both public servants and the relevant facilitating ministries were accountable to the citizenry for safe maintenance and return of housing and other perks of office.

Nevertheless, while at the House of Representatives, Francis Mbakogu’s contributions and eloquence endeared him to a great number of his colleagues. His contributions at discussions always seemed to hit his audiences with the blazing force of a seer. Not surprisingly too, for he appeared fraught with ideas beyond his time, ideas, which at several points, he found difficult to get others to understand and accept.

Before his retirement from active politics in 1965, he was instrumental among other things, to:The establishment of the Water Supply Scheme for Aguata Local Government Area; The construction f the Post Office at Aguata Local Government Area Headquarters; The establishment of Aguata Community Secondary School and the establishment of the Federal Emergency Science School, now the Federal School of Arts and Science, Lagos.

Francis Mbakogu was a man of integrity and exemplary character in both private as well as public life. An ardent campaigner for the development of his community, he was until his death, the Patron of the Lagos Branch of both Amesi Improvement Union and Aguata Progressive Union. He was also a member of the Amesi Social Club. A man who inspired those who had the privilege of making his acquaintance, he led a successful life through hard work, determination and, of course, the active support of his beloved wife. Undeniably, F.U. was a man who willingly answered the call to serve his people and his accomplishments are apparent testimony that he not only possessed an intellect that soared ahead of his time; but he also never made a ridicule of that confidence so trustingly reposed in him. In the year 2006, twenty years after his death, a foundation, leveraging the Great Chief F.U. Mbakogu educational endowment fund was set up in his honour. The foundation currently offersan annual fund to facilitate University education for indigent members of his community

But Francis Mbakogu is most remembered for his fervent love for education. He always maintained to whoever came his way, that “Knowledge is Power.” If his passion for education was close to an addiction then that was one addiction he was happy to live with until his death on the 7th of August 1986. As a young man, Francis Mbakogu encouraged many interested students to embark on Correspondence courses of the Rapid Results College, London. It was always interesting that young boys especially those with their minds set on business were always afraid to visit his residence for fear of being asked unwanted questions about school. He always remained undaunted by their livid looks and went ahead to advise them that even if they aspired to become businessmen, the most successful businessmen are the educated ones for where the educated businessman can confidently walk in for negotiations, the illiterate businessman would feel too inferior to enter. Francis Mbakogu was never known to abandon any intelligent but disadvantaged child introduced to him. As such, his house was always comparable to an off campus hostel, harbouring relatives and non-relatives alike with the set goal of affording others the opportunity of a bright future. Many students of his at the colleges where he taught English Language and English Literature with unrivalled adeptness, have always accosted his wife; Mrs Christiana Mbakogu to do nothing but pay glowing tribute to a man they alleged boosted their prowess at the English language. This they explained was done via, “THE ONE HOUR READING STRATEGY.” Using this strategy, the students were given a literature text to read for one-hour every day and thereafter asked to write a summary of it. At the end of the week, they were again required to give a summary of their entire one-hour readings for the week. That way, his students grew into men with vast vocabulary power and confidence to converse anywhere and anytime in the English language.

On his retirement, to encourage young people to aspire to academic excellence, Francis Mbakogu instituted a monetary price for any Amesi indigene graduating with a Second Class Upper from any Nigerian University. As if to amplify the point that every living being should have an insatiable quest for knowledge, in 1975, Francis Mbakogu enrolled at the University of Lagos for a Bachelor of Law programme.

Although he sustained and clearly enjoyed the first year of the programme, he was forced to withdraw in 1976 due to ill health. In later years, in addition to setting up many young men and women from different parts of the nation in various business activities, his enduring belief: “KNOWLEDGE IS POWER,” led him to encourage many men and women, morally as well as financially, in their pursuit of higher education both within and outside the country. Hence, the name “Onwanaetirioha” became an embodiment of his contributions to the educational, moral and economic well-being of Igbo people.

–Dr. Mbakogu is a Nigerian scholar in Canada and the Chair, International Conference on Women and Children.