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[EXCLUSIVE] I am happy with what I have achieved – Chief Sir Nwabueze Nnamani
Chief Sir Nwabueze Nnamani

[EXCLUSIVE] I am happy with what I have achieved – Chief Sir Nwabueze Nnamani


Following the 70th birthday of Chief Sir Nwabueze Nnamani, a Retired Deputy Comptroller of the Nigerian Customs Service and Former Executive Chairman of Nkanu West Local Government Area, Enugu State, our correspondents had an interview with him, more like hearing his story, his odyssey so far in life. Here are excerpts:

Tell us who Chief Sir Nwabueze Nnamani is.


I was born on 22nd February, 1954 to Late Chief and Mrs. Dennis Okwor Nnamani of Umuatugbuoma, Akegbe Ugwu, Nkanu West LGA. My parents were not so literate but they got by. They were able to see me through school. I attended an Anglican primary school, St. Luke’s Primary School, Ogui. After my standard six in 1966 and I was about to enter secondary school, then the civil war broke out, and the school plan was aborted. I am the only child of my mother, my father had two wives. My mother was the first, and it was due to child issues that my father had to take a second wife to have more children. My mother had other children but they died at early ages.

As war broke out, we found ourselves leaving our village to Agbogugu, Ogbaku, and then Amurri. It was at Amuri that I had my first near-death encounter, it was a trial that I thought would have taken my life. I was at the market with my mother when the Biafran soldiers came, and conscripted us, threw us into the Land Rover, and drove off. I was about 12 or 13 then. My mother sat on the mud floor and begged them not to take her only child. Of course, she was ignored and pushed away. In the forest, I was given a bowl of soup to carry with nothing in between the bowl and my head, then sent to the war front. When we got to the bunker, we would put it down, the soldiers there would get their rations, and then we move to the next bunker. One midnight at 1 A.M., I went to ease myself and felt I could escape, so I ran through the forest. I think I got to Amurri refugee camp at about 3 A.M., or so. You can imagine the state I met my mother. I knew that if I stayed there many days more, my mother would just die. When I came home, there was joy in the camp. Since I ran away, the soldiers could come looking for me, so, my father took a decision and immediately decided we move. By 5 A.M. we left the camp and moved to Ugbawka. No vehicle, no train, so, we had to trek, my father’s bicycle was only used to carry our load, the much we could take. From Ugbawka we went back to our home and met our home and property intact.

It was then I started looking for a job to do so that my family could get by. With my First School Leaving Certificate, I went to the Railway and got employed there as a store clerk.


The war ended, and everywhere was scattered. With the little money I saved, I told my father that I had to go back to school because even at that time, as young as I was, I knew that education would make a big difference in my life. That was how I got back to school, did my secondary at Awkunanaw here (Union Boys) in 1970. The condition then, what we used as tables were blocks. We would arrange four blocks as a table and find old newspapers and spray on them, then two blocks as our seats. That was where I met former Senate President, Sen. Ken Nnamani. He was one of those at the war, he came in as a special student. In 1971 he became the senior perfect, and I was one of the boys serving him.

In 1974 I took my school cert. SSCE, and got Grade One. My father was doing petty trading then, and I didn’t know whether he could train me at the university. I didn’t know the strength of his purse, or what he was going through. But now as a father, I know that every man, every father is always fighting his own battle that no one else may ever know.

My father saw me filling out a form, he asked me what it was, and I told him it was a JAMB form. He said nothing. The next morning by 4 A.M., he woke me up, reminded me that the son of his second wife was due for secondary school, and having seen me through secondary school, it was time for my brother to get the same, and he wouldn’t be able to do that and still see me through to the university. He said in our dialect, ‘Nwabu, zowa onwe gi’ – Nwabu (short form of Nwabueze), take care of yourself. All I could say was, ‘Thank you, sir!’ I left and entered my mother’s room and started crying, and she cried, too.

How did you get into the Nigerian Customs Service?


As God would have it, I saw on papers that the Nigerian Customs Service wanted to employ people, maritime officers. The Customs had two sides, the revenue section and the enforcement section. The latter was for paramilitary, while the former was purely administrative, dealing with exports and import duties, and the other dealt with the enforcement of customs laws. I applied for the revenue side and was surprised when I got an interview slot. I think the bus I boarded then was called Uhuru, it was about N70 to Lagos, but I couldn’t afford it. It was one of my aunts, a nurse, that I cried to, that took her passbook, withdrew the money, and gave it to me. That was how I was able to get to Lagos.

I went for the written interview, and I passed. I had another interview and passed. It was time for a 6-month training. I was fending for myself, so, I knew that whatever I made out of the opportunity, success or failure, was for me. I went for the training and came overall third in the country. The person who came first went to Apapa, the second went to Tincan, and I went to the International Airport. At some point, the revenue section and the enforcement section were merged into one.

While working at the Airport, at some point I was sent to Onne, where they deal with oil bunkering-that was where I had my first encounter with death. My colleague and I went to check some oil tankers. The carriers are so big that they cannot bank on the shores, so what is done is what we call midstream discharge.


We often got across on a speedboat, I was focused on doing my job as it should be done, and I didn’t know that I was disliked by some compromised and corrupt persons, having had that reputation. I think they were hiding something on the ship and knew I was going to call it out and they likely planned to drown me. The guy was Spanish, I didn’t know what he did on the boat, but we found ourselves in the water. I held on to something like a ladder. The people on the ship were just watching, no efforts to rescue us was made. My colleague kept on screaming, crying, thinking we wouldn’t survive. Luckily for us, the Naval patrol team saw us and rescued us at the point where our hopes had gotten slim. The duty was aborted. As soon as we got back to the office, my colleague said he wasn’t working with Customs anymore (General Laughter). His people sent him to Poland, and later to the US where became a medical doctor. For me, I had no choice but to stay. I was transferred back to the Airport after that.

We know that you did further your studies, we are curious about how you did it while also working.

While working at the customs, at the airport I met with a white man, Prof. Wagner. He came for a conference in Nigeria. I was trying to search his bag, and I was smiling; he said he hadn’t seen an officer smiling while doing his duty, and that I spoke so well. He asked why I wasn’t in school. I told him that I had plans to go to school, that I was saving to go to the US. He told me that I could come to Liberia, to an American university called Cuttington University, and explained that the fee I would pay in America for one year could see me through my entire stay at the American university in Liberia. He told me that when next he would visit Nigeria, he would get me the school form.

That was how I found myself in Liberia, studying. It was another experience for me. From the money I saved, I was able to pay for three years of a four-year programme in Business Administration. I knew where I was coming from and what I was going for, so I knew the kind of life I would live there. I met several Nigerians there, especially Igbo-speaking. In my fourth year, the tuition was increased. I had to come home to look for ways to raise money to pay for it. The exchange rate also affected it. I couldn’t raise the money completely so, I had to take a loan. My late uncle, Chief Odoh Nsude of the blessed memory, took me to Late Igwe V.V Chukwuegbo, the father of Hon. Ofor Chukwuegbo, who loaned me N1,000 with the instruction that I must pay back. I then sourced money for my flight ticket, and that’s how I was able to graduate with First Class Honours.

They gave me a scholarship to go to the US, I accepted the offer. Before we could finalize everything, war broke out in Liberia. I had to come home, in ’82, to look for a job. I couldn’t find a job readily available. I went for an interview as a trainee accountant. I did so well in the oral and written interviews. One of the organizers of the interview asked if I had someone in the government that could help recommend me for employment, that I did so well and he wouldn’t want me to lose the job. Someone from Cross River asked if I knew Alex Ekwueme, I said no. The firm couldn’t give me a job.

When I left Customs, I left with a study leave without pay, but I didn’t want to get back to Customs. After six months, I couldn’t still get a job so, I had to move back to Customs. They counted all the years I spent studying, that’s why when I retired, I wasn’t up to 60. I thank God that I came out with my life. It was not difficult for me to get on since I had been there before, but one experience I won’t forget was my near-death experience-I was shot at close range.

I was on the road, locked in a traffic jam, I didn’t know it was armed robbers that caused the traffic. I had a fancy bag in between my legs, and all I heard was, ‘That bag, bring that bag!’ The next thing I heard was a loud noise and stars in my eyes, they brought me down and shot me again in my knees. I was taken to a nearby hospital, and when they saw me, they insisted that a police report must be provided first. Someone who had a bullet in his head, and at that time, I didn’t know that. I went to the police station close by. Immediately they saw me, they asked no question, they sent a vehicle to follow, blowing siren, as we drove to Marina, a government hospital. When we got to Marina, one Dr. Martins was just coming to work, he asked for no card, no formality, he simply asked that I should be moved to the theatre. That was how I was saved. When I say I am going to celebrate, you can see that so many things happened to me, but God saved me. I came out of it alive.

I am outspoken, and I like to treat people right. Many at the Customs found that awkward. They used it against me. I remember a case that I was on, I was the one assessing the port documents. We had a meeting with the Comptroller, and they didn’t do some things right. I spoke highly against extortion. The next morning after that, I got a posting to one hinterland, they said I should go there and speak my grammar. I lost about three promotions, and I got bad postings. But I never allowed it to change me. On June 9, 2010, I retired on merit as a Deputy Comptroller of Customs.

What led to your appointment as a Deputy Comptroller?

For long they couldn’t let me be promoted. I will give you two instances; a friend of mine in Customs came for an assignment in Lagos from Kastina, I decided to host him at my house as a friend. I gave him a nice treat, and he was happy. He kept looking at my house, and how fine it was; he concluded that I was living comfortably. When he became the man in charge of promotion, he denied me the promotion. I tried to find out why, and I discovered that the man felt that I was already comfortable, what do I need a promotion for? You can imagine. Many things happened.

Another instance was when I had a promotion interview, after the interview, one of the men in charge said to me, ‘Oga Nnamani, you are always smiling. Does it mean that all these things they do to you don’t get you?’ He told me that I came first in the interview but when the names were out, my name was not there. I wrote a letter complaining that I was being treated unfairly, being marginalized. The Comptroller didn’t take that lightly. President Obasanjo instructed that all those years of study leave should be waived.

I recall I was working with an Area Comptroller, Comptroller Aneke, Now Igwe Sam Aneke, at Seme. He had something to do in Kaduna, he handed over to me and left. They called me that there was an incident, that some goods were seized and people were detained for not paying customs duty. I was called to Abuja. I went to Abuja, and they cautioned me that I was stubborn. The man asked me to implicate the Comptroller. I told him that I was in charge and that I would take responsibility for whatever happened. I was made to face a panel, but the panel said I didn’t do anything wrong. These are just a few instances.

Let’s talk about you as a family man. As a father and husband, how would you describe yourself and your home?

Some things are innate, I think naturally I am a family man. One, I had to marry early because of the pressure from my mother. I married someone from Amechi, my people wanted me to marry from Awkunanaw. I was fortunate to find someone from Awkunanaw. We are lucky, God gave us five children.

Something happened, my first and second kids are girls, the same as my third child. My father started asking me questions suggesting that maybe I should take a second wife in order to get a male child. I insisted on the fact that if God wanted me to have only daughters, then so be it. My fourth child came out as a boy, and the fifth came as a boy, too. I thanked God. God helped us, we raised them. We saw them through the university. They are all doing well in their fields, some are in the country and some are abroad. I thank God for my children, they try to make up for the brothers and sisters I never had from my mother. They never gave me any cause to worry. You don’t know the joy of having kids that don’t put you in trouble all through school and even now. It makes my retirement sweet.

You were Vice President, Awkunanaw Welfare Association. Tell us about it.

I was to be President of Awkunanaw Welfare Association, Lagos, but I declined because of my work. I told them that I would do the work as the Vice President. As a public servant, I didn’t want that. It was from Lagos that we began to form the global and national Awkunanaw Welfare Association, the first president being Chief Chiji Agbo, of blessed memory and Chief Celestine Nnaji serving as secretary. The idea was to unite the four clans and foster development. Awkunanaw is four clans coming together. When they say Awkunanaw! Osagwede, Osawuwa!!, it means ‘ndi na aso nso madu, a so nso maa’ – people who respect both humans and spirits. We try not to do evil to anybody, but that has been bastardized by the present generation. I finished about two tenures as Vice President, Awkunanaw Welfare Association, Lagos. I was also the Chairman of Akegbe Ugwu indigenes in Lagos for about nine or ten years. I had to beg them to relieve me of the position as I was transferred to Kaduna, I had to beg them on my knees in a general meeting.

So, that was how Sir Chinyeaka Ohaa became the President of Awkunanaw Welfare Association while I served as the Vice President. We worked. Leadership is everything, I don’t think Awkunanaw has been able to get their leadership right, but it is not easy. Chinyeaka being a public servant too, it was not easy for him too, but we were able to sensitize people on the development of the clans.

The problem we are having now is leadership, a succession problem, we need someone capable in all areas; management, administrative, and otherwise. Awkunanaw is not for any charlatan.

So, you believe that sorting the leadership part of Awkunanaw Welfare Association will fix a lot in Awkunanaw?

I want to advise every Awkunanaw person to get involved, you don’t just sit outside and criticize, bring in your wealth of experience. We are in a digital world. I still remember the time I was invited to Awkunanaw Welfare Association, USA. They had a convention and I was invited as the guest speaker. Chinyeaka couldn’t go because he was busy with work. I was retired at the time, so I had to go, and of course, I sponsored myself. In the organization, there are no dues paid. I have to give it to him, at some point, Chinyeaka had to get the money to do some things by himself, he was financing the association to an extent. We must work together not to allow a person to be a sole financier because, whether you like it or not, we are humans, it gives you the feeling that you are in charge and in control. We the Awkunanaw people have moved from being butchers and things like that. We have to move with time. We have to elect leaders who can do us proud at all times and in all situations. We have to follow due process if a leader is to emerge. If we don’t have an election, at least there should be a consensus. During my time with Chinyeaka, there was no election, but there was a consensus for us to lead.

Let’s get to politics. How did you become a caretaker chairman of Nkanu West Council and later executive chairman?

Governor Sullivan Chime appointed me the chairman of the Enugu State Rural Education Board. I finished that tenure, and the new governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi extended it. I became active, especially in our local politics. When I retired and came home, I discovered that most of our boys and girls had derailed. I was in the office of a stakeholder in Nkanu when he said that if trouble arose, they knew where to get thugs. Out of curiosity, I asked him where he normally got the thugs, and he told me it was Akegbe Ugwu, I felt bad, more because that’s my community. I felt challenged. I came home and called our youths together and told them that having served the federal government for 35 years, I would devote my remaining years to serving my community, helping the youths discover their destiny, that I wanted them to become unavailable for thuggery. I also called a meeting of all the traditional rulers in Akegbe Ugwu in my house because of that.

Many other things happened in the state that brought me closer to the then Governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, and we became friends.

When the issue of chairmanship came up, having been retired for about 10 years, I couldn’t have seen myself going for an elective position, I thought I had passed that. Everybody wanted to be the chairman of Nkanu West, every ward wanted to produce the chairman. There was a stakeholders meeting of Nkanu West with the governor and Hon. Iloabuchi Aniagu mounted pressure on me to come. I had a personal engagement but I had to find a way to be present. When the meeting commenced, the governor asked the party chairman how far they had gone, it happened that they hadn’t decided yet. The governor then asked them, pointing at my direction, “You people should help me beg Chief to come and do this work”. The late Dons Udeh was seated beside me in a white Kaftan and red cap so I assumed the governor was referring to him and I turned and said “Congratulations” to him. Incidentally it turned out that I was the one the governor was referring to so, I quickly declined. However, he insisted and asked all the stakeholders to stand up and to beg me to do the work. My people all stood up to ask me to do the job. That’s how it happened. I never planned for it, but I knew I would be able to do it.

One month into my tenure as a caretaker Chairman of Nkanu West, I discovered that Eke Agbani, as old as the market was, had no toilet facility. They passed feces around the field of the primary school there. I said no, I had to build a toilet facility there, dug a borehole to supply water.

I met Nkanu West as a sleeping local government, which was why I built the solar powered monument that read “Here is Agbani, the Capital of Nkanuland”. I had to fix the roundabout, fixed some road issues; I did all that within one month. I later became the elected Chairman of the council. I had to do it trusting God. I vowed to do the right thing, notwithstanding the wishes of some powerful stakeholders who believed they owned Nkanu West. I had to do the right thing, stepped on some powerful toes due to that. They fought me, but God saw me to the end of my tenure, I survived.

I almost regretted being the local government Chairman but the consolation was that the experience I got was something no institution would have taught me; the characters of human beings, even those you thought were close to you, you will see people you took bullets for complaining that your blood has stained their clothes. It was an eye-opener; the heart of men can be evil. Inside us, two wolves fight, one is evil, and the other is good. Whichever that winsout of these two is the one you fed the most.

I did what I could do. I discovered that Nkanu West had no IGR. I remembered that Enugu South and Enugu North made revenues from the markets there, like Ogbete, Kenyatta Market, New Artisan Market, Timber, and others. I wanted to establish a market. Nkanu West was third least local government in terms of allocation in Enugu but with a very high wage bill. After I took over, there was COVID and inflation which affected the allocation of Nkanu West to the extent that when the allocation came, it was over, not enough. People didn’t understand, they attacked me. I had to be on my toes. I had to use my finances at some point to save my face. People didn’t know that. One funny thing in our country is that people value people in retrospect. A frog does not know the value of water until the river dries up.

I had to engage some investors. I tried to get people from Nkanu West to invest in the building of the market but no one was willing to invest. I approached many but not even one was willing. I don’t want to mention names. Someone from Anambra came to invest in a plumbing material market. We modernized Eke Agbani. Ozalla Four Corners was to be a hub so that people traveling from other states when they get to Four Corners late, there would be a hotel for them to lodge, relax for the night, and continue their journey the next morning. The design is still there.

I left and everything died, they couldn’t even complete the market and commission it. Maybe some people think it’s a way of getting at me. All I wanted was to establish a strong revenue base for Nkanu West. The one in Agbani was meant to start functioning by the end of 2021. They are still the way I left them, and I left them almost 90% completed. It didn’t cost us kobo, the investors had the money, and it was a private-public partnership, PPP; build, operate, transfer. It should have been generating revenue for Nkanu West by now because COVID and its hard time taught me a lesson that with zero allocation, the local government will close down. It shouldn’t be like that, we shouldn’t rely solely on federal allocation, that was my vision for Nkanu West. They frustrated the project I wanted to build. I wanted to build a local government house in Agbani to house the Chairman, the Deputy, and even the Secretary. If you are elected a chairman, you can move in there with your suitcase, that way you will be at the centre. They agreed to give me a loan on that, to build it, but all didn’t work.

Now that I have left, I can’t start explaining anything to those who fought me while there because they won’t believe me. Some even mock me that my investments got lower after serving as a council chairman instead of increasing as it’s the norm for others. To people it is now a virtue to loot. It was after I left that I sold my hotel and I built this house. I am focused on human capital development. I told my children that all I could afford them was a good education. God saw my heart, and they are all doing well. Nobody had made any unusual demand of me. Most of these projects were unfulfilled and perhaps if I had gotten a second term, I would have completed them.

Speaking about second term, we know the law allows one to go for a second term. We will love to know why you didn’t

People has said several untrue things about this. What happened was that from what I went through in the first tenure, I wasn’t looking forward to a second term. Remember that I didn’t ask for the first one that was given to me, I felt that if I was still wanted, they would tell me to prepare for a second tenure. I didn’t ask. No stakeholder would say I asked about that. I was there to serve, that’s all. People who thought I wanted to go for a second term fought and maligned me, even people from my ward, from Awkunanaw clan.

As someone who has been a council chairman, what reforms would you advise should be introduced in the local government system to help the people at the local government level get a better dividend of democracy?

From my experience, I would say that local government should not be left in the hands of inexperienced people. It’s not a place to send people to go and enrich themselves. Contrary to public opinion, you need mature people there, not young people, because there are issues there that require maturity. One of the issues that confronted me was that of chieftaincy tussle. You will be dealing with elderly people with issues like that, and if they see that you are too young and inexperienced, they won’t have time for you. If you go to the West, you discover that it’s mostly retired professors, retired commissioners, or so, elderly people. In the rural populace, you have more elderly people to deal with, most youths are in the city.

The local government should have some independence. I am happy with the way our present governor, Dr. Peter Mbah is doing things now. He gave them that independence, that leverage, you can see now that they are competing among themselves. Everyone is now doing things, showing what they are doing online, that’s the way it should be. That’s the democratic dividend.

As an elder that has seen much about life and walked on different paths, what is your word for the young ones still trying to break through life and achieve success in their lives?

What I can tell young people is to be patient. If God has done what you have asked for, it increases your faith. If He delays what you are asking for, it increases your patience. If He denies you what you are asking for, then there is a better option for you. Don’t let any defeat reduce you. Move on, you can achieve anything. No achievement can be gotten in a hurry, be patient. It takes time to build bridges. These days, young people are in a hurry to make money, they are in a hurry to assume certain positions. They are even ready to kill, to the extent that even when you achieve those goals, you don’t know what to do with it. You become a disappointment. Learn the ropes.

You know I gave you my life history. My father told me to go fend for myself, I felt a momentary disappointment; I cried. I refused to be stopped by that setback. The little I have achieved; I am happy with it. You can own the whole world, I don’t care. Young people should be content with what they have even while they strive for higher achievements.

You likely still have plans of things you would want to do or achieve, what would you say that your next move will be?

I wouldn’t say I have lost the drive, but I will say at this point I am willing to apply the brakes. I have run a good race, the way God wants it to be, and I thank God for that. Like I said, I will not reject any position given to me, but the one I know I will not do is that at this age I don’t think I would want to near any elective position. At 70, what else will I fight for? I believe that we should give the youth the opportunity to grow. But any administrative or advisory role, to mentor others, to mentor young people, I would not hesitate to take it. Why not? I won’t pursue it, but if given to me, I value such roles.


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