Athanasius Achonu: I Became a Soldier at the Age of Nine


His signature beard is unmistakable in the crowd; always dressed to the nines in his trademark traditional attire, designed by his Hausa wife. And that comes with other expensive designer accessories that ooze class, style and panache. His style is classy. Senator Athanasius Achonu doesn’t betray any sign of being a power broker. A workaholic whose vision is to attain the right attitude and altitude; the strength of his vision, coupled with the drive to succeed pushed him to contest the senatorial seat in his native Imo State with a view to economically and culturally revolutionise his constituency. He tells Adedayo Adejobi about how he became a soldier at the age of nine, the story behind his signature beard, love for fast cars, luxury designer brands, marriage and fatherhood
As a notable stakeholder in the Peoples Democratic Party, a major issue is the internal wrangling in the party. Will PDP ever get out of this quagmire?
Democracy is at play. PDP is the only democratic party, because it’s not owned by anybody. During any transition, there is always a tussle for power. When the party stabilises, it will run very smoothly. As president, you are the party leader. When you are no longer president, you are a floor member. As chairman, you are the most powerful person in the party; but the moment your tenure expires, you become a floor member. That is why there is tussle for power. The infraction has thrown up many issues that have brought up innovations to make one marvel. For Sheriff, I am surprised; even Makarfi is not the chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party. I have confidence that the right thing would be done.
The party is supposed to be a strong opposition, but it seems to have lost its voice?
PDP is a strong party. APC (All Progressives Congress) is in disarray and not united. Look at what they did to Bola Ahmed Tinubu despite his efforts. He gave them victory and they side-lined him. Within the core North, they are divided. I don’t have any fear at all although they have been rigging elections. Look at what happened in Edo State, Ondo State and even my own election in which I defeated my opponent in his own polling booth; they turned everything around. I brought results from all polling units certified by INEC showing that I won. This is a country where my opponent stopped my election, chartered a tipper loaded with thugs that surrounded a government institution like INEC and harassed people. He even said it publicly. We have him on video with the police commissioner present, with INEC officers threatening to strike again should they not let him know who was going to conduct the election. The police investigated, found him guilty but he hasn’t been prosecuted.
If you are to analyse the current administration’s anti-corruption crusade, what will be your position?
The APC is an ad hoc arrangement where ministers are selected as compensation for those who made getting into power possible. In doing that, the President believes in a particular inner caucus. We waited so long time for that ministerial list and thought Buhari would bring in technocrats. When the list came out, everybody was disappointed. We’ll think by now he would have compensated those people adequately. If he doesn’t do something dramatic for this country, then he would have failed. I have a lot of respect for his wife. She raised the alarm early enough and I am happy his family is intact. I am looking forward to a re-shuffling that would put square pegs in square holes and move this country forward. Nigeria has abundant intelligent people, and I can tell you the Vice President made some intelligent moves.
Why does an Igbo Presidency seem so far-fetched?
It will divide Nigeria completely and explode this place. The Igbo have a right to be President if they want. Nigerian Igbo must be president, if not, there would be no Nigeria and that is the sentiment on the ground. I was a soldier at the age of nine and now I can’t do it anymore. Can’t you see that boys are coming out to be shot and killed? They don’t care; because what are you living for when you do not have any right as a human being? There is no need to live. They don’t know how to keep it until it explodes.
Away from politics, how will you describe your childhood and what shaped you?
Let’s wait till my book comes out. I don’t want to expose it yet.
What is the story behind your signature beard?
I was trapped in Paris. During that time when there was so much snow in Paris and planes were not taking off. I went from London to Milan to look at the company that was building my furniture. When I got there, I was trapped and couldn’t fly back to London from Milan for two days. I had travelled with only one cloth, so I used bed sheet to cover myself while the hotel dry-cleaned the cloth for the next day. As I couldn’t continue, I boarded a train to Paris thinking that I would cross through the English Channel of the underground train where I stopped because everywhere was frozen. So I was stuck. One of my cousins in London then used his car to bring my luggage to Paris. He even had to use ferry to transport his car to Paris.  By the time he got to me, I had started growing bears and he liked it. I also looked into the mirror and I liked it so I just trimmed it. Immediately I got home, my daughter said I shouldn’t shave it because she loved it. I said, okay if my daughter loves it who am I? I have to keep it.  My wife also fell in love with it and I said then it is complete. This means that they wanted me to look like an old man, most especially my wife. I don’t know whether it is because of her Fulani and Islamic background.
What does it feel like being a father and a husband?
Family is everything. My wife has not been here with me for up to three weeks, and this has turned my life upside-down because it has been all work and work. I don’t sleep at nights because I am always on Face-time with her in America. Although it was the climax when my blood pressure rose sharply at the time I was thinking whether or not to go to the United Kingdom. If I don’t see or talk to my kids, I fall sick. Maybe my parents were married forever and the harmony in my family is unbelievable. I think it has to do with the background because my family members were so close.
When you see your kids what do they remind you of your childhood?
It is not the same thing because I grew up with Biafra, with bombs falling all over the place. I grew up trying to design and that was how I became innovative. I can bring solutions to almost every problem. At the age of nine, I designed a bunker that was under a cassava mound a child can stay and breathe. The wife of a native doctor in my village came to our farm and she was hearing voices, she screamed and started running and shouting ‘ghost, ghost!’ We then came out from the ground trying to rush to her that we were the ones but she screamed the more.
You come across as a creative person what caused that?
My ex-wife used to think I was crazy when we were married because every 3am, I would wake up and begin to wonder why people couldn’t see solution to a problem. Instead, they beat around the bush and I got so angry and sometimes would start crying because it looked so stupid. I then wondered if such people were educated. We’ve seen people who lived in England and America shouting Nigeria is not doing well. The moment they get home, they get worse. That is why you have Boko Haram. Can’t you see Islamic states in other places are not condemning Western education? The people are tired of seeing the problem and educated ones are supposed to know better.
Could your restless spirit be what spurred you into politics?
I was wondering why there is kidnapping, Boko Haram and the likes. I decided to explain to my person that there are good people who will come and work and deliver the goods and that if we stop electing criminals every four years, our society will begin to improve. That is why I ran for the Senate.
There has been disquiet among the judges over the proposed appointment of lawyers in the Supreme Court?…
In every society when you have challenges, you begin to look for solution. I am sure this is done so that judges would be able to sit up. There is a lot of corruption in the judiciary and there are credible people there also. That is why you have renowned lawyers that are men of integrity and have proven themselves and the society respects them. There is nothing wrong in appointing them as judges. I don’t think judges should fight it. It would make the judiciary sit up. We want people who can’t be bought in the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. Before, when you see a judge you would tremble. You could not stand anyhow before a judge in the olden days.
You have so much hope in this country even when the odds are against it. Why?
Nigeria is one of the richest countries on earth. There is no mineral resource that we don’t have. It is just for us to come together and change the mediocre leadership and that is all. We have thinking people we can put in the right position.
Is there anything you would like to change about your childhood if you had the chance?
Even if I come to the world 10 times, I would not have had any regret. I believe everything that happened to me is an act of God and it has always moved and made me stronger. Even the things that people felt would drag me down always make me stronger. I want my lovely daughter to grow up to be a very strong personality, to champion the course of people’s freedom of choice and equal opportunities. We have a movement called ‘Freedom Train’.
Where did you get your die-hard spirit from and how did you cope as a child?
I was a rebel but only for good causes. The two fights I ever had in my life in the public were in school. One was with the labour prefect who was – and still is – a very good friend. He beat up a young boy because the boy wasn’t doing his bidding. He was wrong and I fought him and knocked him down. The next time was when a policeman used his baton to beat one boy in Jos. I felt it and thought it was me they hit and I fought the six policemen. I didn’t know what I was doing. In fact, they wanted to dismiss the policemen because they asked how many people beat them and they said it was only me.
You have a penchant for the arts.
When I was in class three, I ran away to become a singer in secondary school. My family came to bring me back. I love music and hope I would be playing and singing with my children. I have my own band with full complement of instruments. On the other side in the parlour, you will see a saxophone, a guitar and a violin.
Which of the instrument do you love most?
I want to play the saxophone; I love it so very much.
So what kind of music do you listen to?
Everything; I listen to good music; once it is good for the soul, it is good for me. But orchestral groups do come and play here for me.