By admin on January, 3 2016
Professor Anya Oko Anya does not belong to those, whose, according to late Chinua Achebe, palm kernels were cracked for them by benevolent spirits. Through dogged enterprise, industry and dint of hard work, he has etched his name among great academics and administrators in Nigeria. A Chartered Biologist, Fellow and past Vice President of the Nigerian Academy of Science, Fellow of the Institute of Biology of the United Kingdom, Fellow of the Linnaean Society of London, Fellow of the Cambridge Philosophical Society and former president, Union of African Biologists.
Professor Anya’s distinctive contribution is in the field of parapsychology, with his research, for many years, relentlessly tackling the problems of parasitism and parasitoses in the tropical environment of Nigeria. Born in Abriba, Anya is the pioneer Director-General, Nigeria Economic Summit Group (NESG). VINCENT KALU had a revelatory conversation with him on his life and career.
How were your early days?
I think this is where God’s grace comes in. I was fortunate and unfortunate: fortunate in the sense that my father had a lorry by 1940. It means that I had a father who was reasonably well-off. He died in 1945. Everything he owned was taken away, and my mother was put through the hard times that a widow is put through in Igboland. His personal dresses including mine were distributed. In other words, from being a favoured child, suddenly, I became a destitute.
If you were poor and you struggled to build yourself, you were more fortunate than a man who was born comfortable and suddenly became a destitute. It was a hard journey and, for that, I appreciate God all times. Even getting educated became a challenge, but each time God stepped in. I got Calabar County Scholarship, which allowed me to finish the fourth and fifth year in Hope Waddell, Calabar, which also allowed me to go to higher school. I got federal scholarship to University College, Ibadan, and another one to Cambridge.
That is why I will always be grateful to Nigeria, because I was given those opportunities. That is also why I will continue to fight for an improved situation in the society so that other young people will have the same opportunities I had not because they came from fathers who were rich (yes, I came from a father who was rich but that wealth vanished overnight), but we should create a society, where young people have the opportunity to be what they can be purely by their own God-given endowment.
I did mention values. Values are important in any society as well as individual’s life. I’m a Presbyterian and the Presbyterian values are what have driven my life. Don’t forget, values of industry, truth, the fear of God, integrity and sincerity are Presbyterian values, and it was as Werber, a German sociologist, who pointed out that those are the values that gave rise to western capitalism. Those are the values that built the American economy we are talking about today
In other words, whatever God gives you is not your own; you are a mere steward to use such gift to improve society and the condition of other people. That is what has guided me all my life. But, there is also the other dimension that I consider myself extremely fortunate person –fortunate not in human terms, but the manner in which God and His hands have been on me. There is nothing I can say I’m outside what God has allowed me to be.
When I look round, especially in my Abiriba community, I know the people who went to Church of Scotland Mission School with me. Many of them were better than me; I know the people who went to Hope Waddell with me; I know the people who went to University of Ibadan with me. I also know what has happened to many of them. In other words, God’s grace even as the Bible says, God chooses who He chooses to uplift and also chooses those He does not uplift. He is sovereign.
I thank Him that He has found me worthy to use me for the various things. But to come to the bottom of it, people do not know how easy it is to have a good life if you are not greedy and if your expectations are rationale.
I retired from the university in 2002 after 37 years of service. To a large extent, I don’t have any external business. As I tell people, I don’t have cement or beer I’m selling yet; God has been kind, because whatever little I get (much of it comes from public service, giving lectures etc), is more than enough to meet my needs and at times, it is enough to share with people, whose needs are greater than mine. What it takes to have a good life is small if you know what your needs are. Your needs are quite different from what your wants are.
What I haven’t done in my life at this point, I’m unlikely to do it with what is left. But, nevertheless, I have found in real times that each day comes with a new challenge and, God willing, you continue having that until the day it pleases Him to call us back.
The fear of God is important. There is also a human dimension, my grand father always told us, “Never have anything to do with a man who has no fear of God or no sense of shame.”
Apart from the fear of God, the other thing that drives me is that I know who I am: Anya Oko Anya. Oko Anya Oko, I am the eleventh in a direct line of first sons. The progenitor in Abiriba of my line is a man called Egburuonu. That is why my last son is called Egburuonu. I didn’t know the significance of that until the late Eze Abam, Okoroafor, came to my house in Nsukka when my little boy, Egburuonu, walked in. He said you are the son of Egburuonu. He then went back to ancient history of Abam when they had a quarrel with Abiriba, and Egburuonu was one of the warriors who led the expedition that decimated and wreacked havoc in Abam, but when it came to peace settlement, it got to a point where Egburuonu took a stand against the Abiriba position and said: “Look, Eze Abam is Amadi (Son of the soil) in his own right, and there are things you don’t ask an Amadi to do. We defeated them, but we are not going to humiliate them”. ‘As a result, the Eze Abam, named his son, named him Egburuonu.’
So, he was telling me the link. We don’t know enough of the history at that time, because it was an oral tradition, but I cannot forget who I am. There are things Anya cannot do.
What has been your challenge in life?
The attitude of the mind is important. I won’t say I had challenges. Or, the things that outsiders see as challenges have not been challenges because God has always made a way. Being close to God is the first formula for anything that you are to do or be in life.
What has been your greatest, happiest moment or highest point?
I don’t know what I can say is the greatest moment. I think greater moments are still coming. The day I got the Calabar County Scholarship, which meant that I then knew that I could finish school each term from the first day to the end, I would not be sent out for school fees. That was an important point. The day that my principal called me and said he was sending me to Qua Iboe Mission Secondary School, Etinan, in present Akwa Ibom State, on my first job, I didn’t know where Etinan was. I didn’t know such a school existed. When I arrived, there was also an important defining line, because I met challenges there and made new friends. The former Secretary to Federal Government, Ufot Ekaete, and the former Chairman of UAC, Bassey Ndiome, were my students, and we became very good friends. I would not have come across such decent people if I had not been thrown into that “bush”.
Ibadan was a challenge, because I graduated with good grades that the external examiner recommended that I should go to Cambridge; this was also a great moment. I went to University of Cambridge based on my performance at degree exam, and one Professor at the college sent for me and I told him what I had in mind. He said, ‘Have you heard about the Institute, which is the best centre in the world for parasitological research?” He asked me to apply adding that I should tell those in-charge that he had asked me to do so.
There are so many things one can remember as great moments whether in the university or public service. I became the founding Director General of the Nigerian Economic Summit. People don’t know that I’m not an economist; I’m a biologist –but it is also God’s grace that helps me hold my own among the economists.
The economists don’t want to hear this when I say that the best economist is the housewife, because all those fine principles and jargons in economics are what she practices.
Economics is common sense dressed up in philosophical terms, that is if you have good sense guided by the wisdom of God.
When you said you taught Ekaete, I was surprised considering your stature. You look younger than him?
I tell them the secret is the Lord’s Prayer – “Give us this day, our daily bread”. I live for each day; I have no worries about tomorrow because tomorrow has already been taken care of by the God I worship. That is what He told me, He is faithful. The other thing, of course, is that, if you take interest in other people and you help them, you will get not only the satisfaction that comes from that but you would also have God rewarding you –and God has rewarded me in many ways.
What is your lowest moment? A day that when you remember you wish has never existed?
There is no such day. The reason is simple. There are even the most challenging periods that taught me lessons, but, at the end, it became clear that God wanted to teach me those lessons in order to make me a better person. The most critical one was when, suddenly, at Nsukka I had a letter from the Vice Chancellor on embezzlements, fraud, etc. What was it all about? I went to Federal Ministry of Agriculture and got money to run a workshop in an important area that was relevant to agriculture.
Suddenly, I got this letter, and it didn’t make sense, and I prayed to God saying, ‘I don’t know where this thing is coming from, but you say you will fight the fight of the righteous.’
Even the Federal Ministry of Agriculture wrote a letter that we have a successful workshop, accounts have been rendered, and we were satisfied with it. The Vice Chancellor set up a Committee, and he went on. One of the most distinguished was the chairman and, at the end, they cooked up stories. It was never decisive because there was no basis.
It was only when the visitation panel came and the Vice Chancellor was not satisfied that his plans didn’t stick. By the time the panel concluded, the white paper that came out of that visitation directed that a letter of apology should be written to me. Late Prof Chimere Ikoku did that. As Vice Chancellor, he wrote a letter of apology on behalf of the university for false accusation. It is difficult for people to understand the kind of anguish you can go through when there is false accusation; when you know there is no basis for it all.
You keep on asking yourself if there was a mistake you made, because there could be an honest mistake and, since we are not infallible, can this mistake under such circumstances be blown out of proportion and it becomes something else? Thank God, there was no mistake, for, if there had been– for example, I had not written the report, giving the account and Federal Ministry of Agriculture was satisfied, the fact that you have not done –that could have become something else.
It also defined my life, and that is why I don’t just judge people too easily. When I see somebody being accused, my tendency is to put myself in that position by asking, if things are not coming out? So, I suspend judgment.
When you look back, are there things that you had done and given another opportunity you could do better?
I’m satisfied with my life. I don’t think there is anything I would have done differently. As I look back, every inch of my life has been mapped out by God and circumstances that led to my doing certain things were mapped out by God, and I learnt lessons from them.
For example: In 1970s, after the civil war, the then Administrator of East Central State, Ukpabi Asika, wanted me to be a commissioner in the state. I finally said, ‘No’. My reason was very simple. I was in the civil war for three years, and if I got into government, perhaps it would take another three years before I could return to the university –it would be late (Asika until he died used to make a joke of what I said that I was too young to learn how to sell beer or cement). I knew my entire life was built on the basis that I would teach in the university and retire there. If after six years of being out of university it was unlikely that I would be the kind of professor I wanted to be, a research leader. Not that I would not have liked to serve under Asika, but, at that particular point, it was likely to set me off course.
In 1978, I had the privilege to chair the Committee on Academic Freedom set up by the Federal Government. After the Ali-Must-Go incident, the Federal Government set up three committees. One of them was Committee on Academic Freedom. As a result of that, when, in 1978, there was a crisis in University of Jos. I was called to send my CV, and I didn’t know why I should send my CV.
I flew from Enugu to Lagos. It was a time the flight from Enugu to Lagos on Nigeria Airways was about N5. I bought my ticket and on arrival I was told that it had been decided that I should go to University of Jos as the Vice Chancellor. I told them, ‘No’ and recounted to them the history of the visitation.
University of Jos was founded as University College of the University of Ibadan. Ayodele, a Yoruba man, went there and didn’t find peace. Then Onuaguluchi, an Igbo man, came and he didn’t find peace, and now they wanted me to succeed Onuaguluchi after he had been removed. He was my senior at Nsukka. Again, he is Igbo like me; therefore, the prejudices that attended his tenure were likely to be transferred to me. So, I told them that I wasn’t interested in having enemies assigned for me in advance; that I like to make my own enemies so that I know where the enmity began. Also, I like to choose my friends. So, the answer was, ‘No’, and I didn’t go to Jos. Indeed, Emovon, who finally became the VC, was on my recommendation.
In 1983, former President Shehu Shagari, (I think he is a man that this country at some stage may reach an evaluation that he might have been the best president for us than what he is been made at) after the election, wanted to be left alone to select his cabinet, which should comprise a good dose of technocrats.
Apart from Anyaoku and Ralph Uwechue, I was on that list. Indeed, I was even cleared by the NPN caucus. Despite the fact that when the late Shehu Musa and late Pius Okigbo independently approached me on it, I agreed and gave conditions. First, I was not going to join the party, but I would serve and secondly I was not going to resign from the university, because, at that time, they had said that any university teacher given political appointment must resign. I said I wouldn’t do such. Again, I told them I would serve for three years, and when you are going back for election, I would go back to the university. Shagari accepted these terms, and I was to become a minister.
Then, I had emissaries that, if I did not ‘play ball’, clearance in the Senate might be problematic. That didn’t make sense to me, so I just went back to Shehu Musa and said: ‘Remove my name from the list for personal reasons’. It was years later that I told Okigbo why I did that, and he said I should have told him, for the president would have made an example of those behind that. I said, ‘No’, that was not the point. If the president made an example of those who came on behalf of the Senate on this matter, do you expect that each time I got to them with a proposal that they would look at it favourably?
Why am I saying this? What we are seeing now has been on for a long time. It didn’t start today. The reason I’m telling you this story is that, at every point, the high point, to be commissioner, Vice Chancellor or minister, everybody would have craved for, and I would also have been pleased to, but each time God gave me the opportunity to choose or not to choose before my contemporaries, and each time God led me to say, ‘No’.
At the end of the day, when I look back, I become happier, because any of those opportunities, if I had jumped on them, perhaps I woudn’t be here talking to you. I would have been part of history. I say this, because young people need each time to consult God for plans concerning their lives.
I’m not interested in any of those things that people regard as important positions, but, at the same time, I have chaired committees where Vice Chancellors were members; I have chaired committees where ministers were members. Am I higher or lower than them? Only God prepares the path for each of us and, at the end, it is also what you leave behind in terms of example, a life of service.
In the olden days, parents usually found wives for their sons. How did you meet your wife?
(Laughs) I met this delightful young girl in Calabar. It was a chance meeting.
Is she from Calabar?
This is the story. People get surprised on that. She is called Inyang, which is a name in Cross River and Akwa Ibom and also in my place. When I met her first, I assumed she was an Efik girl. I chased her thinking I was chasing an Efik girl. Finally, we started getting serious, and I discovered that she was brought up in Calabar, went to Duke Town Primary School and also Duke Town Secondary School and so speaks Efik perfectly.
But, she was the daughter of an Abiriba businessman. The rest is history.
Even when we were at Nsukka, the South Eastern State usually sent her notices for their Parapo meetings. Even now also, some people still make the mistake, but she is a full blooded Abiriba woman brought up in Calabar. Her father was the first president of Abiribia Communal Improvement Union (ACIU), was an established institution and integrated in the Calabar society.
Why did you prefer academic to business? Abiriba people are more identified with commerce
People misunderstood Abiriba. The original thing that Abiriba people did was Ikpu Uzu (technology). Abiriba people were original technologists. In other words, it is also the commerce we are talking about. Abiriba is an achievement-oriented society. In the process, some of the people applied it to trade, and so on, and were very successful; and it started looking as if that is what Abiriba people did more.
The ethos is competition within the age grade: Whatever you are doing do it very well. I told you about my family background. My father really loved education that he sent all his brothers to school, even though they all ran out except one. When he died, therefore, that was the challenge my mother had. How could the son of a man who was devoted to education afford not to be educated? And she made all kinds of sacrifices for that thing to happen and God’s intervention also made sure that her dream came true.
Trade was not an option. Again, because of the son of who I was, it was not easy for anybody to come expecting to pick the son of David Oko Anya as apprentice trader. So, I went for education.
Source: Sun Newspaper