The Iyase Chieftancy is one of the oldest and most important titles in Asaba and it is next in rank to the Asagba of Asaba. The holder of the title can be described as a ‘warlord’ or compared to the general in a traditional army. The Iyase in the past led the Asaba people to war. The current Iyase of Asaba, who is a former Secretary to the Defunct Bendel State Government, Chief Isioma Onyeobi, tells OCHEI MATTHEW about his career and how he was shot during the civil war
You celebrated your 86th birthday recently, how are sure of the date as you were born at a time when Nigerians didn’t keep records?
My father went to school so he kept our records and he worked in the Public Works Department in those days, during the colonial administration. He used to tell us our age and buy us gifts on our birthdays. I was born in Asaba on August 7, 1933. I’ve always known my birthday. When I went to register at the Government School, Asaba, my father took me there, around 1939. In those days, your hand had to go over the head and touch your ear before you would be allowed to start school. My hand couldn’t touch my ear so they refused to admit me. So, my father took me home and the following year when I was seven, I went back and got admitted. So, I’ve been celebrating my birthdays for years.
What kind of experience did you have while growing up?
I attended Government School, Asaba from 1940 to 1946 and left when I was in Standard 5 for the Government College Ibadan in 1947 where I obtained the Cambridge Certificate in 1951. I was the Head of Swanston House and college prefect at the Government College, Ibadan. And we were taught to be disciplined. If the school opened at 7 am, you were expected to be there whether it rained or not or you would be flogged.
It was when I grew older that I got to appreciate what we were taught. At that time, we thought our teachers were just being difficult. I never got involved in any illegal activities. So, I learnt a lot. My parents wanted me to go to St. Patrick’s College, Asaba; they didn’t even know where Ibadan was, and they felt they would not be able to see me regularly but my class teacher at the time encouraged them to make the sacrifice.
It took us two days to get to Ibadan from Asaba using Ojukwu Transport Service. It was worthwhile; I got to know people, make friends and I was taught to be independent in life. At GCI, we didn’t have pockets on our school uniforms because the colonial administrators felt that putting hands in our pockets would make you arrogant. So our knickers didn’t have pockets and we didn’t wear shoes. We started wearing shoes when we got to Class 3.
We were taught the value of knowledge because knowledge is power. We were taught the value of humility. So, it was a good experience. I was made a prefect.
Did your parents inspire you to become what you are today?
Yes, no doubt about it. If I didn’t have discipline at home and respect for my parents and constituted authority, I would not have been able to get as far as I have got in life. Without discipline, you cannot achieve much in life. They taught me the value of peace. There is no price too high to pay for peace. So, I never engaged in violence no matter the provocation. I think that has guided me in my life. My exposure at GCI and subsequently, the University College Ibadan (now University of Ibadan), where I read modern history, had a significant influence on my life.
What career did you have in mind at that time?
I didn’t have much choice in the matter because the government used to award scholarships (to students) in those days; it was before Nigeria’s independence. I got the Western Region’s scholarship and I was bound to serve the government of the Western Region after my education at the University College Ibadan. It was like a bond, you had to serve the government.
They posted me immediately to the office of the civil secretary where I started my civil service career. Some of my colleagues said that after serving for about two to three years, they would look for another job, but God was kind to me. I joined the civil service as a senior civil servant in 1959 and before I spent five years, Mid-Western Region was created; that was in August 9, 1963. So we had to leave Ibadan for Benin as foundation members of the state civil service and along the way, I got promoted. I found the job interesting, so I didn’t think of looking for another job because I didn’t want to stress myself looking for another job. I was a member and secretary of a committee headed by Chief Edwin Kiagbodo Clark, the then Commissioner of Finance.
We were taught the value of integrity and honesty and I got promoted along the way until the Nigerian Civil War came. We had to run home, especially those of us who were western Igbo or presently called people of Anioma nation. The war came with a lot of devastation. I was shot here in Asaba, in my father’s house.
What are some of your fondest childhood memories?
I grew up in a traditional society; there was no electricity at that time, so we used to have moonlight plays. After playing by moonlight, in those days when I was small, we used to walk down to the River Niger. In the night, we would swim at the bank of the river. We also had traditional dances; we learnt how to sing. Those things have not left me till today and it has helped me in my position as the Iyase, the traditional prime minister of Asaba.
What would you describe as your happiest moment?
During the civil war, I was one of the victims. I was shot here in Asaba, in my father’s house. When I was on the verge of recovery, many us from western Igbo were required to appear before a tribunal in Benin where we were accused of being involved in irregular activities. There was a ridiculous allegation that we opened Niger Bridge for Biafran troops to come into western Igbo area and before that was completed, we were put in detention. Some others and I were there for 10 months. Then a judge ruled in our favour and said our detention was illegal so they released us. We were not soldiers, we were civilians. But a day after the judgment, they took us from where we were to Kaduna Prison without a warrant.
We were in Kaduna Prison for 10 weeks, then we were separated and I was one of those sent back to prison. And at that time, we didn’t know our fate because sending us to the North was like sending us to the heart of war. By God’s grace, the war ended in January 1970 but we were not released until March 1970, almost three months after. We were away for about 27 months so travelling from the North to Asaba became an issue. I didn’t know what I would meet on the way. It was a traumatic experience; I wasn’t sure I would get home. Eventually, I got to Onitsha and discovered that Niger Bridge had been broken, so I took a canoe to the Asaba side of the river.
From there, I got a vehicle that took me to my village. When people saw the vehicle in front of our house and then saw me, they gathered there and started shouting ‘Isioma is back’. My father and mother said which Isioma because they didn’t know where I was throughout the 27 months. I can describe the day I returned home as the happiest day of my life because I didn’t know I would ever see my home again and meet my parents alive. They were very happy because they thought I had died.
Asaba was said to have been badly hit by the civil war, can you share your experience?
We don’t like talking about it. You must have had about Asaba massacre when the federal troops came in. But before the federal troops came, Biafra (soldiers) had started moving to the other side of the River Niger. Our people are very friendly people by nature and we don’t like war, particularly modern war, so they thought they should go and welcome the federal troops who had come to liberate them. They took drums and other musical instruments to Ogbe-Osowe, dancing. Luckily for me, I didn’t go there. Even some with drums passed through the front of our house but most of us from my village stayed in our ancestral hall and watched as other people went there.
Later we heard the tragedy that took place; we heard that they were surrounded by the troops, who shot hundreds of them dead. It’s an experience that we have not recovered from till date. Many homes have not recovered from it till date. It is something we do not want to talk about. It is a lesson for the whole country. As somebody who read history, I know war has never solved any problem. So sometimes when some people beat war drums, I just laugh at them and say they have not learnt anything and I pray that history will not repeat itself.
You have witnessed many facets of Nigeria history, from the colonial era to the military era and now the democratic era, as a historian, how has it been?
The road to the future is always under construction. Colonial administration was better at maintaining law and order. Colonel masters are not always interested in the wealth of society. Under a democratic system of government, when you are a prime minister or governor, you must strive to come back. So there is no way you can compare democratic government with the colonial administration. But over the years, we have made some progress; there are difficulties just because of lack of planning. Education is integral to human development but sometimes we have problems of leadership but despite that, I believe we are making progress. We’ve experienced the stress of the society, we have experienced war but I believe that the future is still bright. We are producing a lot of educated people now who are asking those in government questions because you cannot govern people without their consent. Otherwise, when they have the opportunity, they will rise against you. It’s not by bearing arms but they can vote you out.
What advice do you have for those who desire to live long?
Life is in the hands of God, but I will advise them to avoid excesses. I don’t go to places I should not go. They should live a simple life. The central theme of the philosophy of St. Teresa of Avila says: “Let nothing perturb you, nothing frighten you. All things pass. God does not change. Patience achieves everything.”
How did you feel when you became the Iyase of Asaba?
I didn’t anticipate it because I already had a chieftaincy title I was given after I retired from the service. So, in 1991 the position of Iyase was vacant and it was the turn of my quarters – Umuezie – where I come from. A lot of people were interested then, I applied as well. The heads, in their wisdom, chose me as the Iyase of Asaba. It a position I hold with responsibility and to promote peace and unity in Asaba.
What is your favourite food?
Pounded yam with Egusi soup. I am an Igbo man.
How did you meet your wife?
I was married to two women. My first wife died two years ago. We got to know each other when we were in university. When I finished there, we got married. Then I met my second wife who was a popular TV presenter then in Benin and we got married. All of us were living happily until I lost my first wife two years ago.
What attracted you to her?
It was love. My wives are wonderful people.
How do you relax?
I watch television, especially the news. I’m a news addict and I take part in traditional meetings where I see people. I’m a principal actor during our traditional festivals.