Edwin Clark At 90, I Feel I’m Doing Extra Time

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SATURDAY MEMOIRS

Chief Edwin Clark, an elder statesman and Ijaw leader, is considered one of the luckiest men of his generation: smart, intelligent, and vocal. Born on May 25, 1927, the Kiagbodo native of Delta State started out in life as a teacher in his village and later joined the civil service in Ibadan. He would later obtain a law degree in England and returned to Nigeria as a qualified lawyer in 1965. Chief Clark has been part of Nigeria’s polity for more than five decades. At 90, he remains a relevant voice in the country. In this interview at his Abuja residence, the statesman tells Funke Olaode about what has kept him going

• I Have Seen It All in Life
• I Have Nothing to Fear, Nothing to Lose
… If you are 70 and above, you on the departure lounge

Breaking the jinx

T
urning 90 was a good feeling. Initially, I didn’t plan to celebrate my 90th birthday because I regarded it as one of those ordinary years. But two things made me accept the celebration. Looking at my family tree starting from my great-great-grandfather, Chief Bekederemo Ogehi, who was wealthy – being the first man to buy a ship in Nigeria from John Holt (it was recorded in an archive in Ibadan) died in 1926 at the age of 80. Also, my grandfather, Chief Fuludu Bekederemo, a prominent chief who had been attending chief’s conferences as far back as 1941 in Ibadan, also died in his 80s. My father died in 1963 at 85; and my mother died the same year aged 84. Having thought about this, I considered myself as the luckiest to live up to 90 years in the family. Recently, my friend, mentor and boss, Brig. Gen. Samuel Ogbemudia, former governor of Mid-Western state in whose cabinet I served as a commissioner between 1968 and 1974, died. We were about 17 in that cabinet including the Oba Akenzua. Today, I discover that I am the only surviving cabinet member of that era. I have been asking many times the secret of longevity. Well, I operate an open mind. I don’t bear grudges against anybody as I speak my mind at any time and in speaking the truth, sometimes you offend many people. Again, I live each day praying to God. I eat at any time even up to midnight. And occasionally, I do drink because no doctor had told me not to eat this or not to drink that.

Life as a village boy
I was born on May 25, 1927 in my mother’s village, Erunwarin, now in Ughelli South Local Government of Delta State. My father had always been a businessman and my mother was a trader. My paternal and maternal grandmothers were also traders. My maternal grandfather was a famous chief in the area at that time. I lived with my grandmother in the village. When she died, I went to live with my mother’s elder brother, Okori. He was a fisherman and I used to help. I remember a day he came back very early in the morning and asked me to go to the river to carry the fish he had caught. When I got there I was looking at the fish and didn’t know that one of them was alive. I carried it and it slipped out of my hand and went into the river. I stayed back at the riverside, crying. When my uncle didn’t see me he came over and met me crying. He said I shouldn’t worry that he would catch it for me the following day. Life as a village boy was interesting. There was no electricity and there were no chairs. They built mud stool around the walls they would put mats on it and we would sit.

Western Education at 8
I was about eight years old when my maternal grandmother died in 1935 and my father took us to his hometown in Kiagbodo. Throughout my stay in that village I was not going to school because there was no school around. When we got to Kiagbodo my father decided to send us (my younger brothers and I) to his mother’s place in Efunrunto. My late brother, Godfrey, Ambassador P.A Clark, Professor J. P. Clark and I were all sent to school the same day. Prior to that time, we were bearing our native names. But one day our teacher, one Thompson Okitipi, an Urhobo called us and said he was going to give us English names. He gave me Edwin, he gave my brother who died in 1986, Godfrey; he named my third brother, and Prof. Pepper Clark, Johnson. Mr. Okitipi was the only teacher in the whole school teaching from Elementary One to Four. We were in this school until 1940 when my father came and took us to a newly opened school in Okrika along the River Niger. He said his father (my grandfather) had sent 11 of his children to the same school. We had to go to the school by canoe. We were quite young but my father approached one man called Yepe and said he wanted us to live with him. This man gave us one of his rooms and my father paid. We stayed in this room cooking and looking after ourselves. My father would bring all the foodstuffs. And because the school was not accredited to run Elementary Five and Six, in 1942, my father again took us to another school, Central School in Akogbene where I eventually finished Elementary Six.

I Believe in Destiny
Being surrounded by industrious, entrepreneurs and noble personalities no doubt shaped my life. Again, I believe in destiny. My great-grandfather, Chief Bekederemo Ogehi, was a warrant chief. He was a wealthy man and used to carry passengers and goods from Warri to Lagos in his ship. And my father was the bursar collecting the fares. His compound was one of the biggest in those days. I learnt he married about a 100 wives at various times and had so many children. My great-grandfather was a man who hated injustice, oppression, and marginalisation. He could go to any length to defend his people. There was one paramount man, Don Uman, an Itsekiri man and British agent who was oppressing people. A native court was established comprising mainly Itsekiri people as court members. My great-grandfather went to Lagos to see Lord Luggard, the then Governor-General of Nigeria.
When he got to Lagos he was told that Lord Luggard had travelled and one Colonel Moore House, a Whiteman was acting in his absence. Ironically, this man was also close to Uman. But Col. Moore assured my father that he would attend to his case. Delegates were sent to Warri to investigate this matter and found out that my great-grandfather was right. The Native Court was reorganised and people from various ethnic groups were appointed as members of the court. My father himself was a courageous and straightforward man. I must have inherited the gene from them to be the voice of my people.

I Wanted to be a Noble Man
I started school very late and that in a way affected my dream of attending Government College Ughelli. When I was growing up I didn’t have any profession in mind. My only childhood inspiration was to work harder and be a noble man like generations before me. When the ambition of going to Government College was truncated due to my age, I pitched my tent with Government Teachers Training College, Abraka. When I finished I was posted to Local Authority School, Ofoni as headmaster because I was a certified teacher (Grade ll). Interestingly, when I arrived at the school they (the authority) posted three teachers to that school to assist me and found out that two of the teachers taught me at elementary school in Okitipi in 1938. One of them was E.G. Orubebe, father of former Minister, Godday Orubebe. I became a boss to my old teachers. I called them one day and said ‘you were my teachers and I see you as father figures. You run the school and I will teach.’ They cooperated with me before I was transferred to a bigger school. From there I was transferred to a modern school as headmaster. I quit teaching in 1957 to become a community development officer, a civil servant in Ibadan. While working as a civil servant I enrolled for General Certification for Education (GCE) and Advanced Level and passed.

How I Became a Lawyer
In 1961, I decided to quit the civil service to pursue a degree in law. The decision was borne out of my early experience. My grandfather and my father as businessmen always had one case or the other and we used to go to High Court in Warri. I always admired lawyers because they dressed well. The likes of Ayoola, FRA Williams, and Kayode Eso used to come to Warri. There were other lawyers like Chike Idigbe, Okorodudu, and Mbanefo, who later became Supreme Court judges. These lawyers dressed very well and I admired them. One day, my grandfather’s lawyer had a very big argument in court with Chike Idigbe as the opponent. Immediately they finished the case, he (Idigbe) came out and held his client’s hand and two of them were laughing. My grandfather was like these people have connived and right there my grandfather said I must go and study law. Again, I was an argumentator at Teachers College to the extent that every evening my fellow students would converge on my dormitory to read. I was the only one buying newspapers, following up on the state of the nation.
There was a time a Military Governor of Western Nigeria visited our school. After the governor’s address, our principal, a Whiteman asked us if we had any question and I raised my hand and said, ‘Your Excellency, why is it that the people who are given the Queen’s honour such as OBE, MBE seem to be those who are very close to the government while others like Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe and Herbert Macaulay are not honoured?’ He was about to answer when the principal stopped him. In the evening of the same day when we went for dinner at the assembly hall, the senior prefect asked me to stand on top of the table and said I embarrassed the college by asking such a question – the punishment was that I would wash plates for three days. After eating I packed all the plates and washed them. But one of my teachers, Izekwe, invited me to his house, gave me palm wine and saluted my courage and boldness. He said one day, I would become somebody in this country. Later, I travelled to England and enrolled at Holborn College of Law where I met and made friends with the likes of Justice Jinadu. We were taking London University degree. I finished my degree in 1965 after taking bar examinations in both England and Nigeria. When I returned from England in 1965 I went to the Law School at Igbosere, Lagos for three months. I started practising as a lawyer in Delta and became the first secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association, Warri Branch, where we had big lawyers who later became judges.

My Losses in Life
At this stage of one’s life, obviously, many things would always crop up but I realise that I have taken life very easy and take each day as it comes. My grandfather once told me that ‘live your life as it pleases you because no human being can change the course of your destiny except God.’ When you have this at the back of your mind you live your life and don’t care about what people might think. Nevertheless, I have had my low moments. I have suffered personal losses and the most recent one was the death of my grandson, Obaro Okorodudu. He studied Medicine in University of Chicago and was very close to me. He went to London with me on one occasion and later went for his final year. I was in London when they phoned me that he died after graduating. He was never ill. I had a daughter who was ill. I was in London when they told me; I asked her to meet me in London and she came with her daughter. She stayed with me and the following day she left for the hospital. I was to come back to Nigeria within the next few days. I went to see her to wish her soonest recovery. I flew back to Nigeria and it wasn’t up to three weeks when they phoned me that she was dead. I am now looking after the daughter in England who is now 10. These are some of the setbacks in my life and I have accepted it as the will of God.

I Love the Way I’ve Lived My Life
Looking back, were there things I would have done differently? No. I don’t think so because I have always been living a straightforward life. I am the eldest son of my father and I have become the leader of the Bekederemo family tree. We are very many and we all went to school. I remember after primary education I wanted to go Government College Ughelli as far back as 1945. When I went for an interview I was told that I was too old and was advised me to go to Government Teachers Training College, Abraka. When I got there they said I was too young. I was unperturbed as I enrolled and finished my teacher training programme and went to become pupils’ teacher in the primary school where I finished in 1945. My brothers had the opportunity to go to Government College Ughelli. One became a civil servant, later permanent secretary and Minister of Foreign Affairs. The other one became the first professor of English in Nigeria. Looking back, if I had gone to Government College then would it have changed my destiny? Perhaps not.

A Politician Though a Civil Servant
I have been a politician before I went to England. Even though I was a civil servant, I was playing politics behind the scene as a member of NCNC. I also belonged to Zik’s Vanguard at that time. In those days during campaigns, we would trek 12 miles to listen to Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe and we would trek back. We were not thinking of money but sense of nationalism. When I got to London I was the secretary of Zik’s Vanguard with people like Moses Egbarin. I was also the secretary of Mid-West Student’s Union in England. And under the West African Students Union, there was a time I led a demonstration against Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana when we felt he was maltreating some of his ministers. I even took a photograph with Jomo Kenyatta when he left prison. I was a supporter of Labour Party in England. When I came back to Nigeria I held various positions like commissioner, minister and was elected a senator under National Party of Nigeria in 1979.

I Have Seen It All
God will decide when to slow down because power and seasons belong to him. At 90, I can say that all my life’s aspirations have been fulfilled. I feel fulfilled. What am I looking for? I will be ungrateful to God if I feel I have anything left undone. I have got everything I should have in life. I have children and a loving family. I have seen it all and if death comes tomorrow who am I to be afraid of death? I have said long ago that if you are 70 and above, you on the departure lounge waiting for your boarding pass. Now I am 90 I feel I am doing extra time.

QUOTE: At 90, I can say that all my life’s aspirations have been fulfilled. I feel fulfilled. What am I looking for? I will be ungrateful to God if I feel I have anything left undone. I have got everything I should have in life. I have children and a loving family. I have seen it all and if death comes tomorrow who am I to be afraid of death? I have said long ago that if you are 70 and above, you on the departure lounge waiting for your boarding pass. Now I am 90 I feel I am doing extra time