My relationship with Kaduna Nzeogwu —Ihonde, Gowon’s ex-CPS
Retired career diplomat, consummate administrator, ex-Consular General, Atlanta, Georgia, ex-president, Nigeria-American Chamber of Commerce and presidential spokesperson, Ambassador Moses Ihonde, told a compelling life story to CHIMA NWOKOJI and SEGUN KASALI.
YOU were late Major Kaduna Nzeogwu’s schoolmate during your primary school days.
I attended St. Joseph’s School, Kaduna. While in school, we were given garri and akara (bean cake) for lunch. Nzeogwu was in the school before me. I joined them a few days after. He welcomed me and asked me to follow him. I did. He took my food can. I didn’t understand what he was doing. He took my slate also and kept it somewhere. I didn’t like that either. When school was over, my elder brother came to take me from my class. I told him that ‘that boy took my slate’. He said I should hit his head, which I did and he asked him where my slate was. He instructed me to hit his head again. I did. Of course, I was able to do that because my elder brother was there. He brought the slate, but it later turned out that he was only welcoming me to school, not that he intended to do anything with it. After that, he got his own pack but had a way of sharing it. He taught me how to share the food I brought and I enjoyed that. One day, we had a session for sports and it was wrestling. When we got to the field, Kaduna called me and said he wanted to wrestle with me. I immediately remembered how I had hit him on his head on my brother’s instructions. My teacher called me out. When I got out, I quickly rushed at him and brought him down. I started pounding him before we were separated. From then, we became very close friends. We were friends until we left the school. I didn’t see him again until he was arrested and brought to Lagos as the leader of the coup.
How did you receive the news of his arrest?
When he was arrested, I wished that nothing would happen to him. I don’t know whether I would be right to interpret his moves from my knowledge of him those early days. He was a young and friendly man when I got to know him. He liked to share things with others. The meals I brought and the ones he brought, we shared them with others. That was the memory of his I had. We were reading about him in the newspapers when he was brought to Lagos.
Did your family’s constant movement from Kaduna to Kafanchan and other places create academic instability for you?
When I gained admission into secondary school, it was stable. Yes, we moved from Kaduna to Kafanchan and then from there to Ngwenga Opobo in the South-East. From there, we came to Benin. At that time, I was to sit for common entrance into King’s College when somebody told my father that there was a grammar school in my town and advised that it would be better for me to go there. So, I sat for the examination into The Holy Trinity Grammar School which I passed and was there from 1951 to 1956.
How much of secondary school did you enjoy?
It was a missionary school, so I went to church every Sunday. The academics were good. I was always between the first and third. But at that time, it didn’t mean anything. During the school certificate examination, we were so confident of ourselves. After our Latin papers, I would write ‘Dear Authority.’
It was childishness. We wanted to tell the teachers that we knew it. Latin was a favourite subject. When they gave us any question on the subject, I always put it there that there was always an alternative way of answering any particular question and I would do that in that exam paper. At the end of the day when the result would be out, one would score 96 per cent.
Did this ‘Dear Authority’ writing ever put you in trouble?
Not at all. But I can remember the time I didn’t act wisely in Mathematics. The teacher asked a question and when he gave an answer, it was wrong. I immediately told him that his answer was wrong. The teacher was angry and sent me out of the class. It was when I was outside that I realised that what I did was wrong. I later apologised.
What talents were you exhibiting then?
I think writing then was like a gift or talent. That was something that I cherished and thought I could develop. I tried to write some stories. I have not written much though.
Apart from Nzeogwu, who were your other close friends in school?
My closest friend passed on unfortunately. He was the head of NBC (Nigeria Broadcasting Commission). The attraction to me was that we were the smallest in class. That brought us closer to each other.
Were you two bullied being the youngest in class?
On the contrary, there were some form of respect for us by the older ones because of our brilliance.
Did you have a nickname in school?
No. However, a day before the examination into University of Ibadan, when I wanted to take entrance exams, my father died. I got to the examination hall thinking what life would be without my father. I went to Nigerian College Of Arts in Ibadan.
You still went ahead with it?
As a young man, there was nobody to counsel me and we had been preparing for this examination. My father died on the 5th of May, a day before the examination. When my father was sick, he sent me to Ijebu Ode to meet one of his friends. When I came back, he gave me the list of those who were owing him, but said I shouldn’t go to them. I had a dream and he gave me the time he would die in that dream. When I woke up, I went to him and said ‘you told me this and that’ and he said yes. Not long after, I saw my younger brother coming and I saw death on his face. The boy told me papa has died. I didn’t know what to do, but one of my friends encouraged me to go for the examination. So, I did.
You didn’t pass the exam eventually?
Yes. I sat in the hall and was thinking. It was still like a dream to me. The invigilator said; ‘young man, you are not writing’. When he announced to us that half time was gone, I had not written anything. Of course, I didn’t pass. There was no way I could have passed.
You exhibited some form of activism in school?
I was a quiet activist. When I entered (University of) ibadan, I took interest in politics. I started well and in my first year, I ran for the presidency of the Students Union. It was ambitious. I thought I won the election. But when the votes were counted, I was told I lost by eight votes. But my campaign officer discovered that the votes cast were more than the number of the students in that hostel. So, it was a case of rigging. We protested and the election was cancelled. Instead of declaring me the winner, the school said we had to re-contest. It was in the process my English teacher told me that if I continued, I would fail. There was an essay we used to write which I was an A student, but I got a C this time. On seeing this result, I withdrew from the election.
Was it the warning that jolted you or the low grade?
When I got the mark, I was called to a disciplinary committee to answer queries on why I got a C. They gave me a warning that if I failed, I would be sent out of the university. The only option I had was to face my studies.
How social were you?
At the University of Ibadan, I was in the Dramatic Society and rose to become its president. We took our plays round the country. At that time, Nigeria was a safe place. That was between 1961 and 1964. At that time, social life was good. I stayed in two halls of residence – I was the first chairman of Independence Hall. The warden of the hall invited me to dinner and wanted to win me over. I told him sir, If I were your son, would you want me to betray those who have trust in me? If that is it, I won’t be able to stay.
Did you go to night clubs?
No. There was a time I went with my friend to a place. He said you can sit here and wait. I don’t drink. He got me a soft drink which I was sipping while he went in. He was away for a long time and I didn’t know what he went to do. He spoke some jargon that I didn’t understand and he told me let’s go. It was in the night. After that, the next time, I told him I wasn’t going because I discovered that he went to have fun.
How much did your writing proficiency help your path after school?
After I left the university, I thought I had a flair for writing and I went to teach at Our Lady Of Apostles. I had enough time, so I wrote plays and also directed the plays. One day, some friends of mine visited and told me the Federal Government was advertising for a post. He brought me the form. I signed and they submitted for me. Surprisingly, I was invited for the interview.
What was your experience like during the interview?
When I came to Lagos for the interview, I asked the chairman if I could ask him some questions. He said I should go ahead. I said that I always tried to know the people wherever I went to. I said you all know my name but I don’t know any of you. Would it be out of place to ask that you introduced the board to me? He said no problem. This is that and that is that. And as you know, I am the chairman of the board. The second question is, are you going to take me. In other words, have I performed well? Then they said that was a very difficult question and that I should go out for five minutes. When I got back after the expiration of the five minutes, they told me they would take me.
Was it in the process that you met General Yakubu Gowon?
Yes. I was posted to the Federal Ministry of Information. There was a time the director of the ministry called me and said that Chief Adebo, who was the Permanent Representative of Nigeria in New York, had asked for an information officer and that he also needed to send people to New York, United Nations, Washington D.C, London, Japan and so on and he was offering me the ones I would like to take. I said can you give me a day to think about it. He said okay, come back tomorrow. So, I called my friend, Isidore Okpewho, a widely known author. He said that every Nigerian goes to London and Paris is not too far from us. So, New York is the ultimate. Go to New York. It was not my idea. So, I said he should send me to New York where I began to work with Chief Adebo. When he was leaving, his deputy, Joe Iyalla, told me that I was wasting away in Information and should consider getting a transfer to the Foreign Service. I did that and moved to Foreign Affairs. Before I could resume, General Gowon wanted a graduate to take over the job of a Press Secretary. He had changed one Abdulaziz Garuba. Suddenly, I got a letter that I was being posted. Of course, I had no choice than to go there. I got there in 1971. In 1972, Chief Adebo came to place a courtesy call on Gowon. When he saw Gowon, he said congratulations, I heard Ihonde is now your Press Secretary. He said he worked with me and that I was an indefatigable young man, the best officer he had worked with. Gowon said: ‘who is Ihonde and where is he? So, he sent for me. When I got there, he said why have you been hiding? I said I have not been hiding and as a matter of fact, I reported here last year. He said I should sit down and take over as the Press Secretary, even while the other man was still there.
Interesting experience you had with him?
Shortly after, there was an event which I covered in the evening and I had to take it to Morning Post. AK was the editor. Because it came from the State House, he wanted to give it prominence. So, he edited it and gave it an headline, but the headline did not tell the stories, though it could excite you to want to read it. The ADC to Gowon saw it and was annoyed. He said they should go and arrest the boy and lock him up. I said who are you locking up? He said can’t you see that headline? I said what is with the headline? I said I am the one to say anything over this. He said who are you and I told him I am Ihonde. He still told them to get the boy. I said okay, I would go to the head of state and I went to meet him. I said I am sorry, I don’t know how you operate here. Your ADC wants to have an editor locked up. I analysed it to him. I said I am your Press Secretary, allow me to investigate it because I am yet to see the papers. He said okay, are you a lawyer? I said I am not a lawyer, but he still said I should go ahead and investigate. I called AK and told him this is it and when you come, just come to see me. When he came around, I said I understood the circumstances and you don’t have any case with me. I subsequently wrote a brief report, analysed what happened and I took it to the head of state. I told him that never again should any editor be arrested for anything he had written, but he should hold me responsible. That period was an interesting one.
Having worked with him, how would you describe his personality?
When I got there, I didn’t think he accepted me wholeheartedly, but over time, we got close to each other. He was a good man in the sense that he was incorruptible. In all the period with him, he did not handle money. To that extent, Gowon would be reluctant to punish anyone if he did not have convincing evidence that you had done wrong. So, for me, it was easy to work with him.
Did you dream of your wife before you met with her?
I was in school and I prayed to God to show me my wife. I saw her in my dream. She happened to be the daughter of my housemaster in secondary school. That was how I met her.
What are those vices she wanted you put a stop to?
I don’t think there is any vice now. There was a time when my eyes did not stabilise (Laughs). So, you understand. But the moment I encountered Christ, my life changed.
Is it true you lost N19.7 million to your housemaid?
It wasn’t true. My son had a business in Nigeria and they were warned because some banks were closing down and they feared that their money could be trapped. Their company in the United States had suffered such. So, I said don’t put your money in your office because it could be stolen. I have a secured place here. Let me keep this for you. Unfortunately, we had employed a cook who we found out to be a high-time robber. I was travelling out and so my wife. But the fellow was just being interviewed and he was not really supposed to be here. But, he went to stay in the boys quarters. Apparently, he had a link with the rest of the maids and stayed in. They entered the house because somehow, the maid got access to the keys, so they gained access to the home and emptied the safe where the money was kept.
Were they caught?
We caught the fellow and he pleaded, but I had to report to the police and he was arrested. He kept the money in the bank. I told the police. They went to the bank and it was acknowledged by the bank that he brought the money. It would have been easy if it were a country where things worked well. Somehow, they allowed the boy to withdraw the money overtime. So, the case is in court.
What brings you in good mood, sir?
I can’t really say because I have never been in a bad mood
What are you good at?
I have the gift of prophecy.