In this interview with Sunday Sun, King Alfred Papapreye Diete-Spiff, the Amanyanabo of Twon Brass Kingdom speaks on the state of the nation, and why President Goodluck Jonathan should contest the 2011 election Excerpts…
You are a monarch, which presupposes that you are engaged in some form of active service. But how would you describe your life as a retired naval officer and former military governor of Rivers State?
It has been interesting. I retired (from the Navy) 35 years ago. It is like yesterday because I have been very involved in trying to solve some of the problems encountered even while in Government House; the same recurring problems.
For instance, during my first visit to Twon Brass in December 1968, the welcome address was talking about foreshore protection; that the ocean was encroaching and forcing it to denudate the foreshore. I told them then that even if we used all the money in the state budget, it would not solve the problem. As we speak, we still have that problem.
That is about 35 years after you left office
Yes. From 1975 to 2010 is 35 years. But when you consider that I visited Twon Brass in 1968, it is almost 42 years after.
You became military governor of a newly created state then at the age of 24. How did you tackle the challenges of that office, considering that you were very young?
Actually, I had commanded naval ships a few years before I was appointed governor. Naval training is not erratic. So one had leadership qualities imbued in him already and I saw my appointment as being the captain of a ship of state.
Luckily, we had quite a few young graduates who at best could be assistant secretaries and administrative officers. We had to make them acting permanent secretaries.
We also had quite a few seasoned administrators like the (then) Attorney-General, the first SAN (Senior Advocate of Nigeria), Graham-Douglas, his brother, Melford Douglas, who was the Permanent Secretary for Health.
We also had Mr B.G Charles, who was already a Principal Assistant Secretary in a federal ministry before coming to the state, and, of course, Pikibo Daniel-Kalio, who was our permanent secretary in the West until Adebayo released him to become our secretary to government, that is the SSG.
As a young state, the challenges were a matter of how to train and retrain and getting the young graduates to learn faster to be able to accept responsibility.
But some of them thought that as acting permanent secretaries they had all the knowledge and did not want to learn. So things were not done when they were supposed to be done. But I had to come down on them heavily to make them move.
That was what we did and today you have a truly viable civil service. Of course, the soldiers were there and they had taken over virtually all the houses in Port Harcourt, the GRAs and were spread all over the place, enjoying themselves.
So the government could not take control of the houses. But there were other houses of displaced persons and we had to come up with an abandoned property edict to try and manage those houses.
That too was a challenge because when the war ended, the owners came back and wanted to take back their houses whereas they were part of the mob that destroyed Rivers peoples’ houses when the state was created.
How do you reconcile that, when somebody who destroyed your house and you are now living in his house because he burnt down your house, wants you to leave so that you become homeless? How can government now ask you to move out of his house so that he can take it back?
But these houses were predominantly owned by people from a particular section of the country. Was that not discriminatory?
When they came back, they expected the government to throw the Rivers people out and give them back their houses. So we had to put that edict in place to protect the Rivers people from being thrown out in the streets. Even my mother’s house was burnt down.
Looking back and considering the furore the abandoned property issue generated, would you still take such decision if you were governor of the state?
I’m telling you what I did. It is not a matter of if I was governor. Graham-Douglas is a Rivers man. His house was burnt down. My mother’s house in Borokiri was also burnt down by the same people who abandoned their houses and they were not wearing mask.
What was the motive for burning your mother’s house?
Because her son had been made governor; (Yakubu) Gowon’s governor. So the mob came to do that because they felt they were making Biafra great. They brought out my mother’s property and made a bonfire of it before pulling down the house.
The same thing happened to several other Rivers people’s houses. Mind you, these people were not wearing masks. Later some of those whose houses were burnt began to live in the houses of those who burnt theirs.
As a government, am I to throw those people out because the others had come back? So that edict was meant to protect the new occupiers of those houses until we were able to rebuild their houses and rehabilitate them.
But I must say that the abandoned property issue has been settled and I really do not want to talk about it. It’s a sore point and we could just start another snowball. Let sleeping dogs lie.
How did you navigate the transition from being governor of a state to becoming king and paramount ruler of Twon Brass Kingdom?
My father was a prince and my mother a princess. I still remember my mother telling me that I must go to school and me asking her why I should because I felt I was alright. She insisted because, according to her, there is no royal way of learning other than going to school and passing your exams.
Was it that you didn’t like schooling?
It was not that I didn’t want to go to school. But as the last child of my mother’s seven children, I just felt I could do without going to school. One of my fears was that the teachers used cane and the environment was not too comfortable.
It didn’t occur to me then what my mother meant by ‘there was no royal way of learning.’ But later I knew that all she was saying was that being a Prince does not mean you could get everything without working for it.
So I learnt to do things and competed with the ‘ordinary’ children. I like challenges. Even when I play golf, I prefer to play for competition. When I went to North Carolina, I had to write the exams. When I went for training as a mediator, I had to subject myself to the written exams. In anything I do, I try to do it like an ordinary man.
Can you recall some of your childhood pranks?
Well, I went to school very early, say about the age of five. I started school in 1947. I still remember we were using slate and slate pencils. One of the incentives I got from my mother was that I got a new slate pencil every day and I could afford to use it up because I knew I would get a fresh one the next day.
But the other children in class with me didn’t come from my kind of background, so they were being frugal with their pencils. One day one of the children in my class saw my stumpy pencil and said your pencil was short and his was long. And I said, yes, mine may be short but it is stronger.
He argued that his was stronger and I said let us have a pencil fight. So I stuck out my pencil for him to hit it, which he foolishly did and his own splintered. I knew that would happen although I didn’t know what would happen next.
So the boy screamed as if something had hit him on the head. Our teacher came only to find out that it was just our slate pencils that had a combat and he was told not to disturb the class.
Between being governor and traditional ruler, which do you consider more enjoyable?
There is no enjoyment in this thing. Like one of the acting governors said then, we used to suffer in Government House because when you asked for water they gave you champagne.
Frankly, there is no enjoyment per se. This was a great responsibility. You are there to take care of the welfare of the people. For instance, if you are the captain of a ship with about 20 officers and sailors, you are responsible for their welfare.
Now, if you have to look after a state of a million people, it is a greater responsibility. You must see yourself as being responsible for the chiefs, the elders, women and children all the way down to the truck pusher.
There is really no comparison between being governor and traditional ruler. As governor you are taking care of a population of about three million but as traditional ruler, you take care of a population of about 300,000. Being a traditional ruler is less tedious.
Being a journalist, I find an incident that occurred during your period as Rivers governor quite curious. This had to do with a purported order to shave the hair of a journalist who allegedly reported something you found displeasing. What actually happened?
You are talking about the journalist Amachree. You see all these were just distractions. Journalists like to write what they like to write, and some of these things are inciting and instigating.
What actually happened was that he was invited to Government House. Unfortunately, it was my birthday and I was playing golf. So when he came, the guards said, “so na you write this yeye report?” and they got him shaved.
So you were not the one who ordered that his hair be shaved?
Amachree is married to a Spiff. He is my son-in-law, so why would I brutalize him?
What was your reaction when you learnt that your guards had detained him?
As soon as I came he was released and he went back to Benin, where he worked for The Observer. But from then The Observer started attacking my government. They said it was my ADC who gave the order to keep him in the guard house. So the soldiers on duty dealt with him. But what we did when the paper kept attacking us was to maintain a dignified silence.
You are in America primarily for the Isaac Boro Day organized by the Ijaw in the Diaspora to celebrate a man regarded as a hero…
(Cuts in) I had promised the organizers that I would be here because I’m a member of the Boro Foundation. I try as much as possible to keep a date with them every year. I’m happy that I could make it; as you realized I came in a day late.
But it is good I was able to listen to some of the discussions as well as offered some words of advice. It is a worthwhile thing and the Ijaw National Alliance of the Americas should also exchange visits with the home front and go on fact-finding tour back home.
But some people say Boro has not been properly immortalized by the government. Do you agree?
There is an Isaac Boro Park in Port Harcourt. I think we should have more of such structures named after him. For instance, in the Niger Delta University, we could have a Boro hostel or other endowments in his name. We also have to take care of his former colleagues like (Sam) Owonaro and his (Boro’s) children. Without doubt, he is not just an Ijaw hero. Boro should become a national hero.
Apparently, the issue of immortalizing him has been politicized over the years because some people in government feel the circumstances surrounding his death were controversial…
I don’t agree. What makes it controversial? He was a soldier in the Nigerian Army and he died as a soldier and was buried with military honour.
So why has the government not given him his proper due?
Canonization of saints or a Reverend Father, for instance, is not a one day thing. Presentations would have to be made to the Holy See before they get beatified and later canonized. In the same vein, if the people of Bayelsa, which is his home state, now recognize and honour him, the next stage would be to make recommendation to the federal government to also honour him. Rivers State, which used to be Rivers and Bayelsa, had named a park after him. So it is a matter of somebody initiating it now for the Bayelsa government to do same.
Those in the Diaspora after meetings like this could go on a courtesy visit to the governor to initiate such things. After this stage, they can then take it to the President to say Boro should be recognized as a national hero. After all, he did not fight for the Niger Delta alone. If that is acceptable, the government can then name a street in Abuja, for instance, after him.
Do you support the clamour for constitutionally defined role for traditional rulers in Nigeria?
I support it totally. Left to me, Nigeria should be practising the parliamentary system of government, which we started off with at independence. The House of Lords was the house for the traditional rulers. But in the American system, which we later adopted, the Senate takes over that function. But there is no reason we cannot have an expanded Senate where we can have traditional rulers from each state serving.
So instead of three senators from each state you can have four, of which the fourth should be the traditional ruler. This however requires constitutional amendment and we have made presentations to the National Assembly. At the moment, there is provision for traditional rulers to serve in the National Council of State.
What is your take on the state of the nation with regards to the heat over the 2011 presidential election?
As a nation, we are slowly getting to the stage where the best person should be considered for holding the highest position in government, that is, the presidency. Under the present arrangement, the President and his Vice are on the same ticket. Following the sad demise of President Umaru Yar’Adua, Dr Goodluck Jonathan is now carrying on their agenda because this is a joint ticket. It is like passing on the baton to carry on with the good work Yar’Adua started. So Jonathan should be allowed to finish that mandate.
Are you of the opinion that Jonathan contest for the presidency in 2011?
This depends on him and his party. Becoming a flag bearer of his party is not an automatic thing. But the incumbent president is entitled to go for the primaries and if the convention endorses him in preference to other aspirants, then he should run. Then it would not matter whether some people feel short-changed or not. You recall when Obasanjo was going for a second term, it was just Obasanjo, Obasanjo and Obasanjo (at the PDP convention). He had to compete against other aspirants even though he was the incumbent President.
But some people, including former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, have said Nigeria would break up if Jonathan contests
Break into what? Into oil producing or non-oil producing states?
That is their opinion. I don’t think we should bellyache over that. Does it change the fact that Jonathan is eligible, suitable or willing?
If traditional rulers were to meet the President at this time, what advice would you give to him?
We want good governance, and he is doing a good job. He should not jettison the Yar’Adua agenda.