My Parents Begged Me Not To Marry A White Woman – Prof Joe Irukwu

                                                              Prof. Joe Irukwu

Prof. Joe Irukwu, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and former President-General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, shares his experiences with ’NONYE BEN-NWANKWO

You are a lawyer, chartered insurer, teacher,  author and publisher; which of these professions gives you more joy and satisfaction?

They all give me great joy and a lot of satisfaction.

Why didn’t you stick to one?

I don’t know. It just happened. I was prompted by my passion and interests.  Law was my first profession. When I was in my final year as a law student in England, I developed interest in insurance by going to the library of the Chartered Institute of Insurers. I found out that insurance is not appreciated in Nigeria and in most developing countries in Africa. I also found out that many countries have used insurance to transform their societies. I decided to take an interest in insurance. I had to take the insurance exam and I qualified as a chartered insurer. I came back to Nigeria probably as the first African insurance lawyer. Because the subject was largely misunderstood in Nigeria, I started propagating and teaching it.  I taught in The College of Insurance in Liberia. When it was introduced to Ahmadu Bello University, Zaira and University of Lagos, I started teaching in these institutions. Then I developed an interest in insurance law and I started writing books. It was a passion for me and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I didn’t train to be a teacher or writer, but they are a fallout from the passionate interest I had in the subject.

Were you not discouraged by the fact that insurance is not quite appreciated in the country before going ahead to study it?

You are perfectly right in saying that insurance is not as popular in Nigeria as in most of Africa and the rest of the world. There are several reasons for this unfortunate situation.  Although the insurance concept has been used by many developed and developing nations to revolutionise their social and economic conditions, this is not the case in Nigeria. Despite our large population and other endowments, we still have a poor national insurance culture to the extent that we have the lowest level of insurance awareness and penetration in Africa and indeed the world. I am certainly disappointed that insurance has yet to achieve a decent level of acceptance in my own country. Most of my established colleagues in the insurance profession share this feeling of disappointment. At present only about 10 per cent of our population have any form of insurance, whereas some developed nations have attained a level in the region of 80 to 95 per cent.

What was your experience as a teacher?

I enjoyed it a lot. I had many students who were slightly more mature than the students we have in the regular colleges. The current president of Sierra Leone was my student. He was one of the most brilliant students we had in the College of Insurance in Liberia. He was a first class student. He was an insurance broker. When he decided to run for the presidency, I gave him my blessings. He came here to see me and I encouraged him. I am happy he is one of the best presidents we have on the continent. I still keep in touch with him. He sees me whenever he comes to Nigeria.

How did you rise to the position of a Senior Advocate of Nigeria?

I was called to the English Bar in 1962 and on my return to Nigeria, I was enrolled as a Solicitor and Advocate of the Supreme Court of Nigeria when Justice Adetokunbo Ademola was the Chief Justice of Nigeria. I specialised in insurance law practice and wrote and published some awards winning books on different aspects of insurance law. These books are being used as reference books on this subject in most institutions in Nigeria, Africa and some other parts of the world. For almost three decades, I was a consultant and resource person to the United Nations’ Conference on Trade and Development on insurance related matters. Also, I served other international agencies in these areas.  At home in Nigeria and in other parts of Africa, I lectured on insurance law matters in colleges, universities and insurance institutions. As a lawyer, I appeared in the court as counsel in major insurance law matters. About 20 years ago, I became the first Nigerian professor of insurance. In 2003, I was elevated to the status of a Senior Advocate of Nigeria by the appropriate legal authorities. This is a brief summary of how I rose to the status of a SAN.

How did you feel when you were appointed SAN?

The happiest day of my life was the day I was called to the English Bar in 1962. But the next happiest day was when I became a SAN. This is the highest ambition of a lawyer. Every young man who becomes a soldier aspires to be a general. Everyone who becomes a lawyer wants to become a SAN unless he is going to the judiciary where he wants to become a judge. I was very happy.

Something must have motivated you to become a lawyer. What was it?

As a little child, I liked people a lot. My obsession was to get a job that would make me useful to other people. When I was eight years old, I thought the average policeman was the most powerful person who had the authority that he could use for the benefit of his people. So I wanted to be a policeman. But by the time I turned 12, I had abandoned the idea and decided to be a lawyer. I just liked the profession. One day, we came back from the North on holidays and when we were playing around the court in Aba, I saw a group of lawyers. I liked the way they looked and the authority they seemed to exhibit so I decided to become a lawyer. That was how I got fascinated and I have no regret.

Can you recall the first time you appeared before a judge?

I remember vividly. It wasn’t actually a judge but a chief magistrate. There was a young man I liked very much. He was a brilliant boy. He knew the rule of law was the order of the day. He was the personal assistant to an English friend of mine who was called George Fox. He was the managing director of an insurance company here in Nigeria  in 1963. This young man was charged by the police with stealing postal orders valued at £14. I liked him a lot and I was hired as a counsel to defend him in court at the Igbosere Chief Magistrate’s Court. The late Justice Atake was the Chief Magistrate then. That was my first appearance in a criminal matter as a young lawyer. I defended the boy, but, unfortunately, he was found guilty and he was going to be sentenced. For the first time, I broke down. That was the first major case I had appeared in.  I couldn’t imagine that young boy going to jail. I would never forget that event. I won some civil cases and lost some. But this boy’s case was the first criminal case I handed and I lost it. I remember it vividly because of the impact it had on me.

Why did you have to go to England to qualify as a lawyer? Why not in Nigeria?

Yes. In the 1950’s when I embarked on my mission to study law in England, there was no university or law school that provided legal studies in Nigeria. At that time, there were only three universities in the whole of West Africa, one each in Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra-Leone. As a result, all the Nigerians that wanted to study law between 1950 and 1960 had to do so in the United Kingdom.

Was it the first time you travelled outside Nigeria?

Not really. Before then, I had gone to Ghana and to Sierra Leone. In fact, I was admitted to Fourah Bay College, which was the only university in Sierra Leone and one of the three in West Africa as of that time. But I was admitted to study Economics. But because I had limited resources, I thought that if I studied Economics in Sierra Leone, I would only achieve two things: return with a degree in Economics and possibly, a Sierra Leonean  wife. I have nothing against their women, but I thought that wasn’t my ambition. I wanted to be a lawyer. So I gave up the Fourah Bay College admission and went to England.

How was growing up?

I was born into a modest Christian family during the 1930s and I was the first child of my parents.  Although my parents were from what is now known as Abia State in South-Eastern Nigeria, we grew up in Zonkwa, a small railway town in the present Kaduna State. We had a very simple and happy childhood in an environment in which all Nigerians, from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, lived happily together in peace and harmony.  As there were no elementary, primary or secondary schools in Zonkwa in those days, we had to go to Kafanchan and Jos for our schooling.

How did you survive the Nigerian Civil War?

I have written several articles and books about different aspects of the tragic Nigerian Civil War of 1967 to 1970. Wars are evil and Civil Wars are the most evil of all wars. The Nigerian Civil War was most destructive.  Apart from the human and material losses, it destroyed most of our national values, including our traditional respect for human life. Unfortunately, most of our divisive political hawks do not seem to have learnt any lessons from the Civil War. Some of us, who were direct victims of the Civil War, survived it only by the grace of God.

At what point did you get married?

I returned to Nigeria in 1962 from the UK where I had studied law, insurance and business administration. I got married two years after I returned home to a brilliant and attractive young lady, Eno Maria Etuk, the product of  a respectable Christian family in Akwa Ibom State.  She was working as a distinguished broadcaster in Radio Nigeria.

Most people who travelled abroad in your time came back home with white women as wives. How come you did not follow their example?

My parents pleaded with me not to marry a white woman. They were worried about my marrying a non-Nigerian wife. I promised them that I wasn’t going to do that and luckily, I was able to keep my promise.

What was their reaction when you brought home a non-Igbo wife?

That was the problem. When I came back, they were not keen on my marrying a non-Igbo. I reminded them that I promised them I wasn’t going to marry a white woman and I kept the promise. But I told them that if I found any woman anywhere in Nigeria, I was going to marry her. So, I met my wife when I returned to Nigeria. I knew the family very well before I travelled. It made it a lot easier for me. I don’t think my parents were very enthusiastic about it at that time, but they had to get used to it.

Can you tell us how you met your wife?

I met my wife at a reception given in my honour in October 1962, at Ikoyi by my Uncle Dr. O.K. Ogan, who was then the chief gynaecologist at the Island Maternity Hospital in Lagos.  Like I said, I had known my wife’s family in my younger days. Her brother, Dr. Ebong Etuk, was a great friend of mine and her mother, a great lady, was a mother to all of us when she was the boss of the Government Catering Guest Houses in Eastern Nigeria.  Until we saw each other for the first time in October 1962, she was the only member of the Etuk family that I had not met. So, when my uncle introduced her to me as the daughter of the highly respected Mrs. Grace Etuk, it just clicked.  About two years later, we got married.  The marriage produced five brilliant and successful children: Agu, Ikechi, Chizor, Chioma and Ola. We thank God that these children have become useful adults and good citizens projecting our country’s image in a positive way as they carry out their work in their respective disciplines in Nigeria and abroad. Agu, our first son, was recently reported by the world media as having been voted, in a contest sponsored by the Lord Mayor of London, Mr. Boris Johnson, as the most inspirational black person in the United Kingdom.

How did you end up as president-general of Ohanaeze Ndigbo?    

I accepted the Ohanaeze leadership position because of my belief that it would provide an excellent opportunity for me to work with other ethnic and national leaders in the promotion of national unity and a better understanding of Ndigbo in the Nigerian context, which was disrupted by the Civil War. I assumed, perhaps rightly, that the goodwill arising from my national exposure and contacts would help in building bridges of understanding between Ndigbo and other Nigerians. Despite the many challenges we encountered, I believe that this primary objective was largely achieved during our tenure. It was certainly a useful learning experience, which gave me an opportunity to understand our people and the challenges of nation building in a multi-ethnic and multi religious African nation.  Some of these experiences were later documented in my book, Nations and Ethnic Organisations, published in 2006.

Some people assume that the Igbo are not politically organised. As a leader of the Igbo, what do you say to that?

Those who say this are right because of certain inherent attitude exhibited by the Igbo, especially after the Civil War. Before the Civil War, Igbo people were united and less quarrelsome among themselves. But after the war, our values, like the value systems of other Nigerians, changed drastically. Nowadays, the only thing that matters to us would appear to be things like money and wealth. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to matter to us how that wealth is acquired. This wasn’t so before, at least, not to the extent that it is now. Before, the Igbo used to say that Eziokwu bu ndu meaning, truth is life. Now, nobody cares about truth or a good name. All that matters is wealth, irrespective of how it is acquired.

Do the Igbo have any hope in 2015?

I don’t know. But the way I see things, the kind of disunity and individual ambition that I see nowadays makes it difficult for me to be positive in my thinking. My study of Africa leaves me in no doubt that the most hard-working, the most creative race on the continent is the Igbo. In 1975, I was in Tanzania and I spoke with a highly respected African leader, Julius Nyerere, and his brother Joseph. We were in one group. Everyone of us in the group came from different parts of Africa. We were firmly of the view that the most enterprising of Africans were the Igbo. Unfortunately, that thing which is our strength is also our greatest weakness. Every Igbo man believes in himself. Every Igbo man is a king and leader. I experienced this when I was leading our people. It is unfortunate because it makes it difficult for us to have a rallying point.

During your leadership of Ohanaeze, some people were not happy with your style. What did you do wrong?

Even if you make Jesus Christ the leader of the Igbo today, some people will not appreciate him. But they will appreciate it when you are gone. Now that I am gone, they come back to me to say they didn’t understand this was what I was doing. But my greatest problem, and that is the greatest problem I have had all over Nigeria, is that if you are in a group of people that are looking for how to extort a nation, to make money or steal money, and you say they shouldn’t steal, you will become their enemy. Unfortunately, I was brought up to believe in selfless service. I was not a poor person when I went to lead Ohanaeze. In fact, instead of getting money from Ohanaeze, I was putting my money into it. When I discovered that we didn’t have a suitable venue for our meetings in the whole of Enugu that could accommodate about 1,500 people at once, I decided to go round and raise money among Igbo leaders who I thought would afford it. I tried to do this for a long while. After a year, I found out that I couldn’t raise the money. So I had to use my own money to build a hall which takes 1,500 people. I knew that if I had tried to raise money to build the hall, I would never have built it because our people no longer give generously these days. The day I dedicated that hall was the day I resigned my leadership of Ohanaeze. You cannot be popular with everybody.

Why did you resign as leader of Ohanaeze Ndigbo?

I had finished what I came to do in Ohanaeze. I had succeeded in building all the things I wanted to build. I don’t like controversies and I don’t like to waste my time. One of my heroes was Dr. Akanu Ibiam. I met him when I was a teenager. He was a medical practitioner. I got to know him and I thought he was a wonderful person. When he died and we went for his funeral, I told his family that I would toe his line if I became the president of Ohanaeze. He was the first president-general of Ohanaeze after the Civil War.

Does it mean that you knew you were going to become the President of Ohanaeze?

I didn’t ask anybody to make me the president of Ohanaeze. In fact, my children didn’t like the idea. They said to me that I am known as a national leader and an international figure, how then would I descend to become the leader of an ethnic group. They told me that I know that the Igbo people don’t believe that anybody is king. They asked me to leave the ethnic group alone and concentrate on my profession and academic works and the other things I was doing. I argued with them. I told them that after the Civil War, the Igbo who used to be on top in Nigeria, went down and that they were not getting a fair deal because of the division among them and lack of selfless leadership. I thought that since I was relatively well-known in Nigeria, successful professionally, fairly comfortable and not greedy, I could use the opportunity to give Nigerians a better image of the Igbo man and build bridges of understanding among the Igbo people. So, when some groups of successful young Igbo men based in Lagos started camping in my house and pleading with me to come and become the president of Ohanaeze, I refused at first. But they harassed me and persisted. Some of them were very stubborn people. One of them asked me that if I refused this and went ahead to work for the international community, what would I tell our people? Eventually, I was convinced that it was better for me to accept than to reject it. Surprisingly, three of us contested the position. On the day of election, the others withdrew from the race. They said I was the better person to lead them. It was a very emotional experience for me. Naturally, there are some people that will not like you. Those who detest me said that I was an establishment person and not a fighter. They said I was more of a gentleman and that they didn’t need a gentleman to lead them. They wanted somebody who was aggressive. But what you might consider my weakness might be my strength and it was proved right. When we were dealing with national issues, I found out that people preferred people who are not aggressive.

Why are you not involved in partisan politics?

I think the first duty that every human being owes himself is to understand himself. When I came back to Nigeria in 1962, my political idol was Dr. Micheal Okpara because of what he was doing in Eastern Nigeria. I liked him a lot. He tried very hard to persuade me to join partisan politics, but I refused his offer. I didn’t want to do something that I cannot justify. I said to him that if he wants to get into politics in Nigeria, he has to be prepared to tell lies and make promises you have no intention of keeping. At that time, politics in Nigeria was even cleaner and tidier than it is today. Because I couldn’t tell lies and couldn’t misrepresent situations and because I thought it was ungentlemanly to make promises that you had no intention of keeping, I decided that my personality wasn’t suitable for politics. And as politics got worse, I became even more certain in my belief that I shouldn’t be a politician. You don’t need to be a politician to serve humanity. I believe I have done quite well.
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