Dr. Mailafia Obadiah, former deputy governor, Central Bank of Nigeria, shares his life experiences in this interview with Tunde Ajaja
Where and when were you born?
I was born in the Sudan United Mission (S. U. M.) town of Randa in Ninzo District of Sanga Local Government of Kaduna State on Monday 24 December 1956, within minutes of 12 noon. The S. U. M. was founded in 1900 by a German missionary, Dr. Karl Kumm and his English wife, Lucy Evangeline Kumm. Randa was the centre of pioneer missionary activity in the entire region. My father was adopted by the white missionaries as a teenager. They trained him to be a cook, teacher and evangelist. My parents got married in the church in Randa in February. Mother was barely 18 while father was well past 40. The day I was born my paternal grandfather Baba Gambo Galadima prophesied that I was going to be more learned than the white man; hence he gave me the name Sarkin Turai (King of Europe).
My ancestral heritage is part of the great Nok civilisation of central Nigeria that predates the Hausa city-states, Ile-Ife and Benin Kingdoms. I am a true-born, proud Nigerian. People are incredulous when I tell them I can trace my bloodline to the tenth generation. I know where the bones of my venerable ancestors lie in rest. I always insist that anybody who cannot trace his ancestry at least to the third generation should not be fully trusted. People who do not know their real fathers can be very vicious and wicked. Some of the so-called movers and shakers in our country today cannot trace their real ancestry in Nigeria. This is why they behave with such extreme ruthlessness and recklessness; alien predators that have no real love for our country because they know it is not theirs.
The year of my birth was a year of many omens: The young Queen Elizabeth II visited Nigeria, a country on the march to independence. Across the world, the United States Supreme Court had outlawed segregation in public buses; the home of the young Martin Luther King Jr. was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama; the first solar radio was invented; the first thermonuclear bomb was detonated; the Hungarian Spring was suppressed by Soviet tanks in Budapest; the Olympic Games began in Melbourne, Australia; Fidel Castro and his comrades landed their Granma boat in the shores of Cuba; the fugitive Nelson Mandela was captured and arraigned for treason; Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev famously denounced Stalin during the 20th meeting of the Soviet Central Committee; the French were defeated in Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam; and the handsome Elvis Presley made his first TV debut. It was the best of times, and some would say, the worst of time, to echo the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens.
How was growing up like and can you place a difference between how things were at that time and what obtains today?
My parents’ missionary calling took them from Randa to Murya, a missionary village outside Lafia, Nasarawa State, when I was barely six months old. My childhood years were, on the whole, very happy ones. My earliest memories date back to the age of three. My late younger brother, Iliya, who later became a certified estate surveyor and died tragically young, was crawling boisterously on the carpet of our modest living room. Daddy gave us some sweets. I remember mother and father looking upon their two bundles of joy with great contentment. These are my very first memories in life.
As missionary children growing up, our lives were filled with joy and peace. Sunday mornings before church service were for Sunday school. My white Sunday school teacher Annie Beaumont was the kindest person I have ever met. She had the spirit of Christ in her — love, charity, patience and humility. She taught us that God loves all children, be they white or black. She was also a fantastic artist. Every Sunday she brought colourful paintings of Jesus and the Apostles, bringing alive the entire New Testament. Apart from my parents and grandparents, she has left the most indelible impact on my soul.
I was lucky to have had such amazing God-fearing parents. My father went to be with the Lord on December 8, 2014 at the ripe old age of one hundred. In his last days he was in and out of a kind of delirium tremens. In one of his moments of lucidity, he started humming a song of joy. He said he had seen something beyond this world that was too beautiful for words to describe. My late father lived the Old Time Religion to his very last breath: kind-hearted, generous to a fault. As Village Head of Murya, when vigilante youths rounded up some rampaging Fulani youths, father pleaded for them to be released.
The current Emir of Lafia, Alhaji Isa Mustafa Agwai I, was his friend from their youth. Politically, father was an Awoist to his very last day on earth. Mother was the stern disciplinarian. I was a bit rebellious in my youth. Mother was the one that put me on the straight and narrow path. One day, she told me, “My son, you shall be a man of ‘aminchi’ or nothing else, do you hear me?” Now, the Hausa word ‘aminchi’ has no English equivalent. It refers to a combination of qualities in one person: integrity, character, virtue, wisdom and intelligence. The closest exemplars would be Biblical characters such as Joseph and Daniel. My fate was sealed. Mother Dearest is still going on strong at 78.
My grandparents also had a great influence in growing years. My paternal grandfather Baba Gambo was a warrior, trouble-shooter and an officer of the British Colonial Constabulary. His wife, my paternal grandmother, Celia, was a woman of striking Fulani features. Her kindness and gentleness move me to tears even to this day. My maternal grandfather Mallam Anche Ogah Mukama was over six foot tall, with a long, white beard. He reminded me of the Biblical figure of Abraham, with all his wisdom, gravitas and grace. Grandpa remarkably taught himself to read and write English. He actually taught me to read before I entered elementary school. I knew my maternal great grandmother, who passed away only when I was in form three in secondary school. I mention them because they all took such an extraordinary interest in my birth and growing up years.
Nigeria of those days was not as developed as it is today. We had no TV as children, our source of entertainment being radio and the gramophone. But it was a happy, peaceful and law-abiding country. We children grew up in a world of books. The children of the white missionaries were most of the playmates we had. We chased butterflies together, climbed jacaranda trees and frolicked as children are wont to do. They recounted to us stories of where they came from – Liverpool, Cape Town, Bloemfontein, Hanover and Bremen. We lived in a calm and well-ordered world, completely shielded from the noise and doings of an evil and corrupt world. As a school child, I saw Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto, a big man with a scraggly beard and an oversized turban. But I loved the kindly Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa more.
The only dark spot was 1967, when Igbo refugees fled to our home during the terrible pogroms that took place in the North. I remember a family where the mother had a baby on the day they had to flee. Father did all he could to shield a traumatised, frightened people. Until some bloodthirsty hounds came and threatened to kill all of us. It was in the thick of night that they left us, into the primeval savannah jungle. We were never to hear from them again. When I think of it, I still find tears flowing down my cheeks. I have always said it and I will say it again: Nigeria must repent for her sins against Ndigbo. Apart from that dark chapter, I had the happiest childhood anyone could hope for.
Could you take us through your educational journey?
I did my primary school at Gidan Ausa Mission School from 1964 to 1969 in current Obi Local Government of Nasarawa State. My teacher in primary one was the late Mr. Z. D. Samson of blessed memory; a gentleman who was always spotless and immaculately turned out. He was a deeply compassionate and caring teacher. I never remember him ever lifting up the cane against any child, unlike several others in those days. Elementary school in our days was seven years. I skipped the last year, having gained admission to secondary school in my sixth year. I passed the Federal Government colleges common entrance exam, but, unfortunately, the letter landed in the hands of a neighbour who hid it until a year later. I attended Mada Hills Secondary School, Akwanga, in the old Benue-Plateau from 1970 to 1974. It was a rather expensive school. My parents struggled to pay the fees. It was a privilege to attend Mada Hills, one of the better mission schools in the whole of central Nigeria. We had highly dedicated white missionary teachers. They were so selfless. They made us speak and write English the way it should. And they made us to love science.
Above all, they taught us the virtues of character and excellence. In 1972 the then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon and the State Governor Joseph Dechi Gomwalk visited our school. The school authorities selected me, a year 3 student, to serve the high table. The two great men took my hand and counselled me to excel in school and told me I had a great future- an unforgettable experience for an impressionable schoolboy. The only schools in those days that were our rivals in both sports and academics were Gindiri Boys Secondary School and Government College Keffi.
My educational career was full of lucky turns. Before my fourth year, the school calendar was changed throughout the country. The academic year used to start in January, but was later changed to September. I automatically gained almost a whole academic year. I left Mada Hills in June 1974 with the Commissioner of Education’s Award for Academic Distinction. After a mere two weeks’ holiday, I began A’ Levels in Zaria.
I had sat for the gruelling entrance examination to the University of Ibadan at the end of my fourth year and managed to pass. I also passed the Federal Government Colleges examination and was admitted for HSC at Federal Government College Sokoto. But I settled for the more attractive School of Basic Studies, Zaria. It was closer home and a leg-up the university. Besides, students were treated as young adults, not school kids encamped in a dormitory. Again, I was lucky. When I was starting SBS in July 1974, the programme was shortened from two years to one as part of the process to accelerate educational growth of the North. We did the same finals with those who spent two years, and surprise, surprise, we, the one-year set, outshone them!
I did my undergraduate studies at Ahmadu Bello University from 1975 to 1978. I did what in those days was the B.Sc. Social Sciences programme modelled after the BA Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford University. I did Economics, Sociology and Politics, majoring in the latter. It was in Zaria that I first beheld my political hero, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who was the Chancellor of the university. He struck me as a man of consummate intelligence, uncommon gravitas and remarkable presence. It was not for nothing that Yakubu Gowon once declared that if any man found the equal of Awolowo, he would like to meet him.
I did national service at Akoko Anglican Grammar School, Ikare, Ondo State during 1978/1979; a life-changing experience for a boy from the ancestral savannah of the Middle Belt who had never crossed the Niger River. It was my first time ever to be on my own and to also live outside the old North. The students nearly rioted at first, on the ostensible grounds that I was a Fulani school dropout who was brought to teach in their school. The Principal, late Chief Omoyajowo, had to plead with them to give me a try before he repatriated me. I became one of the favourite teachers in the entire school. To this day, I feel a deep affinity towards Ikare and Ondo State. After national service, I returned to Zaria to teach. In 1982, I joined the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, as a Research Fellow.
During 1984-86, I went on a French Government Scholarship to France. I spent a year in Vichy studying French Language and Civilisation at the CAVILAM Institute. I later did a Diplôme (Masters) in International Economics and Public Administration at the Institut International d’Administration Publique (IIAP). That institution has been influential in producing some of the top leaders of the Francophone countries. Dialo Telli, first Secretary-General of the OAU as it then was, was an alumnus; so was Paul Biya of Cameroon, Abdou Diouf of Senegal and the even more famous Leopold Sedhar Senghor who also taught there. The IIAP has since been integrated into the École National d’Administration (ENA), the super-elite institution that produces France’s leaders in government, industry and finance. It was there that I honed my skills in economics and public administration. France opened to me her genius in philosophy, mathematics and the life of the mind.
It was my good fortune to have won another scholarship, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Fellowship to Oriel College, Oxford University during 1989-94. My field of study was the economics and politics of international development, with a thesis on EU development cooperation in Africa. It was jointly supervised by the politics and economics departments. I have also been privileged to have attended several management development courses, notably at the IMF/World Bank and at the Econometrics Summer Programme at University of Copenhagen in Denmark. I also have a Certificate in Microfinance Banking from the ILO Institute in Torino, Italy.
Would you say you are from a privileged background?
In financial terms, no. But in spiritual yes. My heritage is a blessed one. My privileged background imposes on me high expectations as well as obligations.
People naturally feel you need to know someone to work in a place like the CBN, was it the same in your case or was it providence?
Well, I did know some people in CBN, but I do not think my appointment at the time was determined solely by those connections. Of course, if you are a light hid in a bushel, no one will ever know about you, so it helped that I had a reputation that preceded me. It’s a pity that our public service is now based on cronyism rather than merit. Strategic institutions such as CBN, NNPC and others should be based on merit rather than whom you know.
One could surmise that you got to that level so early in life. Would you have wished your rise to that level was a bit delayed so that you could still be in service today?
CBN was only a chapter in my professional career. Before then, I was a Fellow of NIPSS, Kuru; taught at Oxford and London, rising to Associate Professor Grade. When I applied to join the African Development Bank, we were the first to be subjected to a competitive test as part of the recruitment process. With all humility, I can reveal that I was top of all the candidates for our cohort. Was I early, was I late to CBN? All I can say is that the Holy Spirit is never too early or too late with regards to where He chooses to place His children.
Could you tell us how you met your wife?
I met my wife in the village of Kuru, on the outskirts of Jos, on the day a friend was celebrating his birthday. She was 20 and I was 25. Love at first sight.
Do you recall how easy or difficult it was to convince her?
Everything fell into place by divine arrangement.
What have you been up to since you left CBN?
After CBN, I went to Brussels as Chief of Staff of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group, an intergovernmental body that is financed largely by the European Commission. It gave me hands-on experience in international trade negotiations and development financing. I coordinated our €7 billion fund managed by the European Investment Bank (EIB). The latter, people don’t generally realise, is actually bigger than the World Bank in terms of total capitalisation.
A number of people often resort to politics once they retire. Do you have such plans in mind?
I see myself as a technocrat rather than a politician. But I am always reminded by the Aristotelian dictum that man is by nature a political animal. The Greek philosopher went on to observe that the only person who can claim to be uninterested in politics is either a beast or a god. Since I’m neither, nothing can be foreclosed.
Did you influence your children’s careers too?
Besides giving the advice of a loving and devoted father, I never imposed my views on their choice of career.
You were once tipped for Governor of CBN. How did you feel when you heard you were being considered for the job?
How am I supposed to answer this question?
What social and economic blueprint would you draw up if this government approached you for one?
We need a new tradition of leadership. Anyone who wants to see how a New Nigeria can be created should read the magisterial works of the great sage Obafemi Awolowo, the greatest statesman and philosopher-king in our country’s history. My Awoism is not blind hero-worship, however. Awolowo could not transcend the Yoruba ethnic pantheon. He was also rather inflexible and often brutally frank in a manner that made him easily predictable to his enemies. He did not read Hobbes or Machiavelli enough and he often lacked imagination.
I believe with Awolowo that free education should be paramount; link that to literacy; build top-range infrastructure; invest in nuclear energy and provide electricity for all; engage one million youths laying railroads throughout our country over the next decade; pursue mass industrialisation; bring down inflation; lower interest rates and provide credit to SMEs; make our Naira a semi-convertible international trading currency; reduce the operational cost of government; build a world-class civil service; restructure the country on the basis of viable regions; enforce the rule of law; invest in technology, innovation and human capital; giving premium to science and reason in our governance and leadership by patriots who love our country truly.
You have a very good experience and educational knowledge that could be used for the benefit of this country. Will you be willing to serve in government if you were approached to do so?
It would depend on the assignment and the terms and conditions. For me, it’s never ‘a do-or-die’ thing. I am happy to say that my modest talents are in demand in far-off places. If I had set my mind on mere moneymaking, I could have made humongous amounts of it. But I guess I have read too much political theory and moral theology to be contented with the gods of mammon. I have a burden for this country and its long-suffering people. I have a vision of Nigeria as a first-rate technological-industrial democracy. It breaks my heart that we are performing well below our promise and manifest destiny. All my training, education, skills and experiences lead me ineluctably in the direction of public service and statecraft, perhaps far more than I am prepared to own up.
How do you relax?
Life has taught me that the happy life is that which is devoid of evil and ill-will. Happiness consists in living the good life – a life of holiness and devotion to one’s family, neighbours and country. The ancient Greeks called it ‘flourishing’ or Eudaimonia. I know of some wealthy people who robbed this country silly who cannot relax – who are afraid even of their own shadows. As long as we live this life, sorrow and pain is not avoidable. What matters is our inner faith and courage – Martin Luther King Jr. termed it “the courage to love”.
Besides, I have a personal library that rivals that of many of our new universities. When I am not entertaining visitors or chatting with my family, I spend a great deal of my time in my library at home. I relax through long walks, nature, tennis, prayer, the Bible and classical music — Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Handel and the renaissance Italians such as Vivaldi and Albinoni. When Nigeria breaks my heart with its lawlessness, ritual murders and wanton criminality, these composers lift me up on their golden wings into a sphere of purity, harmony and perfection that is outside of this world. – Culled from Punch.