Venerable Obaro Ikime is a retired professor of history, a fellow and former president of the Historical Society of Nigeria. The retired priest of the Anglican Communion and former member of the University of Ibadan Governing Council tells ALEXANDER OKERE about his academic and career experiences, including his ordeal with the military
Did you have your date of birth documented, having been born in the 1930s?
I was born in 1936 in a village called Anibeze in Arohwa clan in the Isoko South Local Government Area of Delta. My elder brother, who was then at Dennis Memorial Grammar School, Onitsha, Anambra State, was at home when I was born. He kept a record.
How would you describe your experience as a school boy at the Government College, Ughelli?
It was interesting. In those days, government colleges were well-looked after. We got new school uniforms every year. My happiest day at school came when I was in my final year and I was a school prefect. The principal sent for me at night and told me the teachers had decided that I should be the head of school (head boy). I was not expecting it; it came as a surprise.
What inspired your decision to study history at the University of Ibadan?
It was the only university at that time and our old boys who were there used to visit us at the college to tell us how wonderful the university was. So, our ambition then was to pass the entrance examination for the University College, Ibadan, as it was at that time. At that time, there was no Law at the university and my brother didn’t have the money to send me abroad as a teacher. History was my best subject at school and my history teacher had boasted in the staff room that one of his students would have an A1 in history. But I only made a credit in the common entrance examination and it was the worst day of my life.
When I went to the teacher’s house, he refused to see me. His wife had to beg him before he listened to me. He told me I made him a liar and advised me to show the world that I know history. That was a challenge to me. By the time I graduated from university, he was already an inspector of education. I made a second class (upper division) and went all the way to Benin, Edo State, to tell him that I got a degree in history. He looked at me, smiled and told me to show the world that I know history.
Did you aspire to make a first class?
At first, I thought I would make a first class, though no one had made a first class in history at that time. But I didn’t; no one made a first class in my class.
Were you disappointed?
I was happy with my result because it was enough to entitle me to do research. I didn’t think of any other job than research and, fortunately, the Federal Government awarded me a scholarship. My teacher didn’t congratulate me until I finished my PhD.
What type of parenting did you receive?
My parents were unlettered. My father was a fisherman, farmer and canoe builder. My mother was also a farmer. My father had only one wife. They were strict. My father laid down the rules and was strict in ensuring that no bad report reached him about us. My parents told us what we could do and not do. For instance, they warned us not to disgrace them or the family. We, the children, went to the farm with them before we went to school. My parents’ strictness kept me on track and helped me become who I am today, though I lived with my elder brother from the age of seven and he was stricter. They helped me to be focused.
What are the fond memories of your early years as a lecturer?
Getting the job was a problem to me. At the University College, Ibadan, which I attended in 1956, the Igbo and Yoruba were the majority in the academic realm, so the few of us who weren’t had to be careful. The head of department then advised me and another applicant to apply to other universities as the university could no longer absorb those it trained. So, I applied to the University of Lagos and University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife). I attended an interview at OAU and got a job offer but I didn’t accept it because I was waiting to get a job at my alma mater where I applied to teach. When I went in for the interview in Ibadan, I found that everybody on the panel, except one, was Igbo. There were two of us and one of whom was Igbo.
They asked whether I would accept a fellowship at UI or lectureship at UNILAG or OAU. But I didn’t answer because I saw it as a trap and I knew that the terms of the job would be stated. The vice chancellor was on the panel and he insisted that I must answer the question. But one of the panellists, a white man, supported me. At the end of the interview, I thought I wouldn’t get the job. But when they went to London (because all the interviews were reviewed in London), they were instructed to offer me and the other person the job. So, my early years as young lecturer were exciting. I decided that I would do my best among the other Nigerian lecturers at the university at that time.
Why were you that interested in research?
Many of the books used to teach at that time were written by Europeans. So, I was determined to research and write books like the ones I read as an undergraduate.
Two of your books, ‘Leadership in the 19th Century Africa’ and ‘The Fall of Nigeria,’ published in 1974 and 1977 respectively, centre on governance. Would you say the failure of governance in Nigeria today could be traced to its foundation?
Yes and no. The first book was a collection of writings by various scholars; I merely served as editor. It looked at people like Shaka of Zulu Kingdom, and other African leaders in the 19th century. I will say colonial rule had its problems because the colonial authorities were in Nigeria to promote the interest of their country, not really the interest of Nigerians. Although they gave us training in language and politics, their interest was their own interest. The Sokoto Jihad occurred in the 19th century. When Usmanu Danfodiyo and his men conquered Hausa land and put Fulani emirs, the majority were Hausa but the minority were Fulani. When the Jihad moved to the Middle Belt area, it failed there because the people there lived in small units and could not be conquered; the Jihad only partially succeeded.
When the British came to the Middle Belt, they tried to establish the emirate system which they were accustomed to in the upper North. They had appointed a number of people emirs over certain groups who had different languages but that only partially succeeded. I called it the British Jihad. As we moved into independence, what we had was the North ruled by the Fulani who had not succeeded in conquering the Middle Belt. You will find that the Middle Belt was the home of the Northern Elements Progressive Union which was opposed to the Northern Peoples Congress. But the British were enamoured by the emirate system because it gave them a single ruler and made them easy to control. The inability of the Fulani to conquer the Middle Belt remained a problem.
Do you think Nigeria would have been better without colonial rule?
Yes and no. Most of the countries of the world were under colonial rule at one time or the other. It is not strange that Nigeria was conquered by the British. But the British have left a legacy responsible for part of Nigeria’s problem. They made it possible for northern Nigeria to be larger than other regions of the country, which was not fair. That way northern Nigeria can always win. That inequality has almost resulted in oppression, like the issue of herdsmen in the southern parts.
What was your thought when history was initially removed from the Nigerian school curriculum?
I thought it was unwise. I was the President of the Nigerian Historical Society at a time and we protested against the decision to abolish history as a subject. I led a delegation to the then minister of education, who felt history was not relevant to development. But I reminded him that he had written a book about the history of his people and encourage them to be engaged in self-development and that got him angry. He packed his books and walked out of the meeting. We met with a former President, the late Shehu Shagari, and he promised to look into it.
When Dr Goodluck Jonathan was the President, I was part of the delegation that met him and explained the importance of history in development. No country ignores its history except at its own peril. History is the memory of human growth. If it is forgotten, we cease in that measure to be human. Without history, we have no knowledge of who we were or how we came to be, like victims of collective amnesia groping in the dark for identity. It is the events recorded in history that has generated all the emotions, values, ideas that make life meaningful. History gives you something to live for and fight for. But the perspective of the government was that one cannot use history to produce things like vehicles, electricity and other material things. But it is not material things that give a nation its status; it is ideas and how people relate with their country. We tried all we could until the present government returned history to schools.
Many may wonder what implication the absence of history as a subject would have on young Nigerian in the present and the future. What is your take on that?
It will mean that they don’t know their country. Nigeria is multi-ethnic. History teaches how different people lived in the past, how they are inter-related, how they related with foreigners and got independence. These stages of development are what we call history. Colonialism adversely affected Nigeria’s pace of development. The pact initiated by the colonialist deceived us into thinking that we were united when we have different languages. Everybody didn’t see themselves as Yoruba, Ijaw, Igbo, Hausa or Fulani. So, when you try to combine all these tribes as one entity, you create problems. There are pockets of ethnic groups that have not benefitted from government as their neighbours have. Now, people talk about Yoruba nation, Ijaw nation, Igbo nation.
You retired at 54, was that not too early?
I was retired in 1990 and I was not yet 70. I was the chairman of a committee at the Chapel of Resurrection, a protestant church, and I read a communiqué to the chapel. My crime was that I said we should beware lest we get into a religious war. I warned that other countries were been engaged in religious wars and for Nigeria not to be engaged in one, the chapel should from that day begin to pray. Religious wars have a way of not ending quickly because religion has its impact on people. The communiqué envisaged dipping the Quran into the ocean in Lagos. I saw this as a dangerous thing and spoke about Nigeria getting into religious wars if we didn’t watch it. So, I urged the chapel to begin to pray. Some people were not too happy when they got to learn about what I read. The Federal Government kept me in military detention for 96 days because of the communiqué I read. I wore the same clothes for 96 days and slept on the bare floor; I was lucky that I wasn’t killed. I was set free eventually.
Did your chapel members intervene?
Even some of my chapel members rose against me. Fortunately, some of them were brought to make statements against me but they didn’t expect to meet me physically. When I was brought to face them, they denied all they said in their statements. I was later set free.
What were the conditions under which you were released?
I can’t tell you the conditions. But when I came out, the government was not comfortable having me in the university system. So, they directed that I should be retired. The senate protested in vain, so I had to leave before my time in 1990. That also affected what I got as pension.
You were said to have got your PhD at 29 and become a professor at 37? Was that enough to make up for your inability to make a distinction in history in your O level examination?
That consolation came with my PhD because I reached the highest qualification for historians. That desire to make a distinction that I couldn’t make at secondary school became a drive for me throughout my carrier. However, I was expecting to become a professor early because as a lecturer, you set targets for yourself, write books and work to achieve the highest qualification in your field. When I told my secondary school teacher that I had become a professor, he laughed for the first time and shook my hands and told me I had proved him right.
What did you do during your first year in retirement?
I didn’t do much because of the circumstance that led to my retirement. I just rested. It was difficult to get another job and that was why I couldn’t secure a job as a lecturer. I worked for a publishing company as an editorial consultant for a while. After that, I was ordained a priest by the Anglican Diocese of Ibadan and worked there for some years. I left when I clocked 70, which was the retirement age.
Did you meet your wife while at the university?
When I was a student, I spent my vacation in Warri, and I played football. It was there that I met my wife. We courted for as long as six years because I returned to the university and couldn’t marry her as a student as I couldn’t have supported her financially. I married her as a postgraduate student at 26 and she was 20. She was a beautiful woman. We had a Delta Students Union and she was a member of that union. But what really got me attracted was that I realised that though she was young, she was bold; no one could brush her aside with questions. We just discovered that we were compatible. When she left school she came to Ibadan for my sake but stayed with her uncle. But I made the mistake of telling the uncle that she was my girlfriend and that she used to visit me on Sundays. I thought it was right to tell him but it turned out to be an offence in his view.
What did he say?
He told me he had higher plans for her, that he had a medical doctor who was ready to marry her and would not have anything to do with me. He threw her out of her house and I didn’t like that. So, she stayed with a friend’s girlfriend at that time. The uncle also got her sacked from her job because of me. But I later found her a job through my former teacher.
At 83, how do you keep fit?
I used to play football and cricket but I can no longer do that. I have been having a problem with walking for 10 years. Right now, I’m almost homebound. I was a badminton champion at the University of Ibadan. People knew me more as a sportsman than an academic. I relax by reading. I still do research at 83 and I am about to write the history of my people, the Isoko people.
Do you have any regrets?
The only regret I have is that I disappointed my teacher at secondary school. I have enjoyed my life, I will say, despite the detention.