.How I escaped death five times during Biafra war
By Willy Eya
On January 3, 2017, Prof Anya Okoh Anya, former Chief Executive Officer of the Nigeria Economic Summit and President of the Nigeria Academy of Science shall have completed the Biblical three scores and 20 years. But even as he will be clocking 80, he believes that he has not done anything special to join the privileged group of octogenarians.
At 7, he lost his father who by all standards then was very wealthy and it seemed the world had ended for the family. It was like falling from grace to grass but God had a different plan for him and the family. The experience of that turbulent period is now history, and it is not surprising that for him, he has come thus far by the grace of God.
The man who literally has seen it all both in the academia and public life in this interview, spoke on his journey so far, the state of the nation among others.
Barely two weeks away, you would be 80 years on earth. How do you feel and what does it mean to attain that age?
I live for each day. First of all is that God’s grace has been important in my life, from the beginning until now. This means, God’s grace has been there in my entire career. From the various positions that I have held, there is none that I applied for. I would not say I have never applied but somebody will just come and say, there is a job and we just want you to do it. From my first job immediately after secondary school, the principal just called me and another classmate of mine to go and teach. From then, it’s been like that even when I became the Director General of NLNG. It was a group of the Chief executives who directed me on it. I remember that, on the Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG), you will be expected to be an economist but in my own case, it was not so. This is because at that time, we had worked together and they had seen me at work in the vision 2010. So, it’s been like that, the most important thing is that God has been in charge of my life and I am grateful to him. If you look at me, there are many people who are younger than me but I look stronger than them. I have not done anything special and that is why I say it is the grace of God.
In all of these years you have spent on earth, what are your unique memories?
They are many. My father was a notably wealthy person; he died in the early 40s. Then he had a lorry; you can imagine an Igbo man who had a lorry in 1940 to 1941 how wealthy he was. But suddenly, he died. I was about seven going to eight years then. If you were born and you start struggling, in the struggling, you will learn. But if you were born as you people will say with silver spoon in your mouth and suddenly, the silver spoon is dragged out of your mouth, life is more challenging for that person who started life comfortably and suddenly he is faced with destitution. Where do you begin from? Many people did not survive that but through God’s grace, we were surviving because even going to school became a challenge. My mother took charge of that and the rest is history. But then, it would also not have been possible if I did not get scholarships. From my third year, I got the Calabar County Council’s Scholarship. From that third year in secondary school, I went to the University on the Federal Government scholarship. When I finished in Cambridge, I hear there was a mail for me from Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. Someone met me there and said he had a message for me and I said for me?, he said yes that he has a message for me from Nnamdi Azikiwe. And I said me?, what could the president of Nigeria, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nigeria want with me?. He said he wants me to come to Nsukka when I finish with my PhD, so, when I finished, I went straight to Nsukka.
What is the difference between the lives of your contemporaries and people of today?
First, people now want too many good things and, the system that brought them in, might be taken for granted but if you work hard and begin to do good in what you are doing, success will come naturally. The success will not come because of the method but because of God’s grace. People are dying not realizing that God’s grace is important and the greatest gift for me is contentment. Whatever situation you find yourself, do the best you can and give thanks to God. We have a very simple motto in my family, in all things the best and for God. That has been my guardian and what my children also have imbibed. You see, unless you recognize God’s providence and grace in one’s life , you will then get to a point where your children will make you think you are a little god but the more you know God, the more you become humbled because of what you have seen Him do in other people’s lives. So my Christian belief is important, commitment to the values of Christianity and obedience to God are also important.
You talked about a personal encounter with God, would you like to share it?
It is not the kind of dramatic encounter. Just that, I can remember the passage in Ephesians, it was the JB Philips edition, and you know it is in simple English. It just came out then and with the little money I had, I bought one. I was reading it and got to a passage in Ephesians and it was just as if the Bible opened up and I understood things that I did not understand before. So, I won’t say it is the way people tell you they had this or that experience. No, it was not that kind of dramatic experience and also, it was because I had grown in my Christian faith cumulatively over that period. So, I cannot say it was this or that experience or series of experiences, no. But I also know that God has been faithful because on my 50th birthday, very early in the morning, I went to the church and laid on the altar and looked at my life at that time. When I became professor in 1973, it was eight years after my PhD in 1965 and three of those eight years were in the jungles of Biafra. I was in Biafra then, I worked and served. If you remove three from the eight years, I became a professor five years post doctoral. Only God made that possible and I was not the most brilliant. So, there is a lot to be thankful for.
You already had a PhD before the Biafran war, and you were involved in the war?
Yes, I got my PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1965 and I came back August same year, and went straight to Nsukka. You can see the hand of God. I can name five different incidences during the war in which I had no business but to be dead including going to somewhere in the boat with the late Colonel Ogbugo Kalu who was the Commander of Brigade section in Port Harcourt. Where we were going to, we did not know that the Nigerian Troop had infiltrated the area and they started shooting. The boat we were in just went on speeding and then we got out. The second incident took place in Umuahia. In fact, whenever I am going to Umuahia, I still remember the spot. We took cover when the plane was doing the bombing, they were in the plane in the air shooting, where I took cover; the person who took cover with me when I looked up, had been shot. It could have been me, that’s the hand of God. There are so many things one can use to illustrate it.
What are your reflections on the current state of the nation?
I delivered two lectures last year, one was at the University of Lagos, the Eni Njoku Memorial Lecture and the title was ‘Nigeria and the future: the Challenge of National Development and National Integration in the age of change and transformation. Remember it was in August last year and Buhari had just just been sworn in as president. I was saying that development and integration are the challenges before the country. I made my suggestion to him on how to approach it. In October last year, I also gave the Emeka Anyaoku Lecture ‘Nigeria, the Continued Search for Leadership. Leadership is the central issue.
Even though you did not read economics but you are considered an expert in that field having held several positions in that field. What is your take on the almost prostrate state of the nation’s economy?
Human behavior is what determines the nature, type and even the quality of the economy that you have. If you remember that, you then know that as a leader, managing the economy starts from the way you manage the behavior of the citizens. What do I mean by that? You see in 2014, Nigeria was still being touted out internationally as one of the emerging economies to watch. In 2014, I think one of the rating agencies was suggesting that up to $14b investment was heading to Nigeria. In 2016, we cannot even get up to $1b coming into Nigeria. So, why the sudden change? The reason is simple. Once we came with the drama of change and corruption even though nobody can justify corruption, there is no country where there is no corruption. How you manage and tell it becomes important. If you deal with corruption without all the drama, people will know you are doing something about it and will have confidence in you. If you are doing it that way, first is that, the internal people will say, wait let’s see what will happen. They will hold back their money and will not invest and then, the economy starts feeling it. The outsiders now follow the people inside and are not prepared to take a risk because they hear things like my people are all rotten and untrustworthy. If you are an outsider, would you invest your money in such a country? In other words, the way we present our story is important. If you a carry a story in negative terms, it has its consequences and if you carry it in positive terms-yes, there are problems but we are meeting the challenges, it also has consequences. So, the question now is, why the dramatic change in our circumstances in less than two years?. It’s because of the way we tell our stories. The economy responds to signals and something that tells you what is likely to happen. And all these signals are coming from human behaviors particularly from the leadership. Until the story changes to more positive news, I am afraid we are not going anywhere. We talk about exchange rates and inflation, they are only summations of particular types of human behavior. When people withhold what they have, money becomes scarce and everything goes up. So the economy I am afraid will go through more difficult times until we change our stories. And the story is to say look, yes we have made mistakes but this is a country that has great potential and we are going to make sure that we fix the economy and we are going to mobilize everybody. Mobilizing is not about lecturing you. As some Christians will tell you, the best sermon is the one you give with your life, where people see you, they will believe what you are saying because they see it in your life. Our leaders have to tell us a better story than they are telling us. We are watching them, if they say one thing and begin to do another, people will take a cue from that.
There have been lots of ethnic division among the people of Nigeria since the inception of this government. What is your reaction?
I believe is a matter of signals, as I pointed out in the first lecture, the Eni Njoku lecture. When you are working for integration, you first identify the things that people share and the things that make them different. You then try to reach the common ground, then the two will now work together in those things that are common to them and as they do that, confidence returns, trust rebuilt and you start greater cooperation. That is how a nation emerges. The first 32 appointments by Buhari, not one person from the South East was found appointable. So, what signals do you send? The South East is easy to illustrate and the same principle is applicable to people in the North. There are northerners outside this government that are not satisfied with what is happening. They do not think they are having their due. When you say that you have to be dealing with the 97 percent that voted for you, people take note of that. As I said at the national conference, between 2011 and now, there is no part of Nigeria that I have not been to. I was in the presidential and post election violence in 2011. I was one of the four members of that committee that had the privilege to interview Buhari in his house in Kaduna on that occasion and he impressed me with his passion for the country. When we were going out, he told his PA to get my number and for me to give him my number too. But that fervent passion that I saw is not evident in his government. As I said at the conference, there is no part of Nigeria that does not have a problem. None, but there is not part of Nigeria that can solve its problems on its own. We need each other to solve our problems.
Let’s be honest; this country can only be rebuilt by everybody joining in. Three weeks ago, there was a Christian meeting in Ibadan, Yorubas, ordained Ministers were asking God for forgiveness because of what they have done to the Igbo people; they had a vision. They said that the attitude of the people to the Igbo has hindered God’s plan for Nigeria, at the meeting. It was said that until the Igbo have justice that Nigeria was going nowhere. So, there are a lot of things happening at the spiritual level in Nigeria as we speak. (Punchng.com)