An interview with Her Excellency Justina Eze O. Eze by Chukky Ibe
She had lived in three countries, before she even left her home town. The rate of change in her community had been so rapid, new worlds emerged and old ones washed away. Sometimes through prayer, sometimes through marriage, and sometimes through political struggle and war. What can we learn from these changing times, and more so, from the people who lived through them ?
I talked to Ambassador Eze . We talked about her illustrious life and travel through weird and awe-inspiring adventures. We talk about societal change and transformation and her observations of the world she was born into, and the world she lives in today.
We talk about her upbringing, feminism, faith, family, domestic and international diplomacy and espionage and an unexpected Canadian connection.
She is in Enugu and I am in Ottawa. We connect through whataspp. My mother arranged the call.
Thank you mum !
We are both on lock down like the rest of the world.
I grab a tall glass of water, turn on my recorder, message my cousins Whats-app group and tell them how nervous I am to talk to her. They wish me luck !
Our interview, edited for length and clarity, is below.
The world has changed several times since you were born,
Can you tell me about the place you were born, tell me about your first home, what do you remember?
My first home was a village called Nimbo, under Uzunwanyi local government area of now Enugu state. Well, when I was born, it was called Eastern Nigeria, then it became Anambra State, then it became Enugu state. These memories are so precious to me, I had a very wonderful time as I child. I had so many friends, amongst my peers, what I remember most about my peers we had a rotational farming system.
During farm season there were about 10-15 of us, it was a kind of co-operative system. On one Saturday, we could come to my mothers farm and plant cassava corn and vegetable, and another Saturday we will go to another person’s farm and plant as well, and during the period of weeding, we would go round and weed, and rotate from farm to farm.
Those moments showed unity, showed cooperation and confirmed the adage, that many hands can bring food to the mouth. And that is why our great grandfathers had many wives, because of this farming system.
Can you tell me about your father and your mother, what do you remember about them?
Mrs Eze O Eze:
My father was a great merchant in his days. He was one of the first people who served the great Aro masters. You know, people from Arochukwu were considered to be people with wisdom. My father, when they came to my village, my father was one of their house helps, and through them, my father learnt how to trade. And when they had finished staying in that community in Nimbo, they settled my father, and he picked up trading and grew so strong, that it was recorded, that he was the first man from Nsuka region to buy a Lorry !
As far back as 1940-42, before I was born, my father had bought a Lorry through his merchandise and his strength in growing farm and selling of materials like elephant tusk, they wore it on their tusks and hands. That’s what I saw reading on his grave in 1944 when he died.
They wrote it on his grave,
“Matthew Ugwu, A great Merchant, 1944”
She repeats it again,
“Mathew Ugwu, a great merchant. 1944.”
And your mother, I remember her a little, and her infamous beauty spot.
A very strong woman, she was trading on salt, and kerosene, and was trading on palm carnel and palm oil. She was far much higher than her mates. She had a struggling spirit, and a spirit of winning in every field. She was humble, kind, generous and very religious.
I remember when I was about 8 or so there was a mad man, who usually passes through our area in the village, and anytime he would come, he would sit in front of the mango tree in our house, and my mother will send me to him with a plate and some food to give him and water, and after he had eaten he would pray, and pray, and bless my mother.
My older cousins were all male, and they used to live with us, and they would shout one me, why am I going to give a mad man food, and she would say, a mad man is a child of a woman.
She was kind, very kind to missionaries and so on. She would always grow local chicken, and when they make eggs, she would take it to the mission to give to the priests. She was always in the church, very active.
What did she do in the church ?
She was in the disciplinary action committee! Anyone who comes to the church not properly dressed, she makes sure that they are disciplined and also make sure the church is kept clean .
Were they Catholics, or did they convert from another religion.
She came in and became a catholic after she married my father. My father is a catholic too, because the Aro masters were Catholics. My father became a catholic after he met the Aro. Apart from that, they had the traditional worship before the Aro masters came. By the time they had me, they had become total Christians. They had even wedded in the church.
Can you tell me what you were like as a young girl?
I went to St Mary’s catholic church, I schooled in the village. We were more of servants to our teachers, we fetch their water, farmed for them, and there days we went to fetch firewood for their wives and then we went home to do the same for our parents. Our teenage period was full of activity. Working very hard, traveling long distances.
What were you worried about as a teenager, what was on your mind?
As a teenager, I was always in command! And in control of my peers, in everything I was always the organizer, even the cooperative system then, I was the one bringing people together. For anyone who ever comes to find problems with any of our mates, I was the one who would always go to fight !
I remember an incident when a boy….
You know in those years, men don’t talk to us, and we were given such discipline under the priests that if any man should talk to you, you have sinned. Boys go on their own side, and girls go on their own, and a particular boy had come and molested us, so I called my girls and said “today, we are going to deal with that boy” and I remembered all of us gathered together, and we gave him the beating of his life ! and after beating him, he was almost collapsing and we ran to report to our parents, and our parents rushed and revived the boy, and it made plenty big news all over the town, and the boys kept a very big distance from us from that day.
For us, this was the fight of our life ! We were given such discipline under the priest, and the instruction of our parents. We are thought that you can not know a man until your wedding day. For us to keep our virginity, we had to fight for our lives. And for the priest and for God to see that we run away from sin. The indoctrination was so strong, that even to say good morning to a man is like you are committing a sin. It was as strong as that ?
Would you say this was a positive thing?
It was very positive; it made us live a clean and Godly life. We would pray and pray and pray, and even when our examination was near we would recite the novena, and we will get visions of what would be on the examination the next day, and will all get 100%. We had the utmost faith in God, and nothing could shake our faith !
Not even the civil war?
The civil war came, and I was already in the Lord. And I had faith that I would never be involved in any way and any accident. And that is how it was, when I left my house and went to the market, everything was okay, and I would leave, and news would come to me that there was a bomb in that market five minutes after I left. It always happened when I was not there, Even the soldiers, when they saw me, they would assist me the best they could, they helped me move my goods, and people wondered what it was, I told them, it was just prayer, and faith.
“Even at this moment of this corona, with faith and prayers, and reciting your bible, it will pass… my faith is so strong, there is no child of mine, of grandchildren that this corona virus will touch.”Mrs Eze O. Eze
What did you do in the war to survive, what memories from the war do you have ?
I was working with the then Eastern Nigerian Power generation cooperation, what then they called NEPA when the war came so serious, all of us left Anambra state and we went into the villages to hide. Everyone started struggling to live. And just as my struggling nature, I opened one temporal Bacha where we were staying at Adazi Ani. In the evening I would travel to buy condiments, and rice and do the cooking and take it to the bacha, and people will be rushing there to eat. They would even take the food out of my hand, and in the next day, we will do it all again.
I have never believed in being idle for one day, not even during war. Immediately after the war, I continued with my trading, and the first money I made, I used it and sent out my brother Charles to Canada.
My brother was in the army, he joined the Biafra army. People had lost hope they did not know if he would survive, we did not know where he was for a long time.
I was told he was in a coma for about 2 months, and people had lost hope, they did not know if he will survive. We didn’t know where he was until I got message he was hospitalizedin Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Umuahia.
When I saw him, just lying there in a coma, I called his name. Immediately he heard my voice, I said “Sunday, Sunday” he had opened his eyes. The nurses started shouting !!! “ He has opened his eyes, the nurses started shouting! “ He said “Chinwe, Chinwe” I said yes, its me ! and that is how my brother came back to life.
Because that is where he got his Visa to. Immediately he told me that is where he got his visa to, I collected everything I had, and sold it and bought him his ticket. It was his choice to go to Canada, and that is where he got his visa to go to.
I arrived in Canada in 2011, Uncle Charles picked me up from the airport, took me to his home and took care of me for a year, and still continues to be my kin in this country. I had heard this story before. It was like a myth passed down in my family. But now I heard it from the source.
You meet a dashing engineer, and you get married. Do you remember how he proposed to you ? Can you tell me about your wedding day. Who was there ? Do you remember how you felt ? Anxious, joy? Expectant ?
Ambassador Eze :
I married him during the war, it was the day I was going to see my brother in Queen Elizabeth hospital. I heard someone calling my name, and when I turned round, I saw him.
Before he left for Germany, before the war, I was then in Matam hospital in Afikpo, that was when he saw me and he said he would marry me. And within the period, he got a scholarship to Germany to read engineering and he left. And when he left, he was cut of by the war, so there was no communication.
And when he came back, he never saw me, and I did not know how to trace him. In fact, that day, my brother opened his eyes and said, are you not Eze O Eze.
He decided to go and meet my people at Iheala where I was resident with my. Late Honorable Onu Ugwu, at Iheala, and said he wants to go and bring his people to settle the dowry. He said he has been looking for me everywhere. He went into the warzone in Nsuka to look for me, and he did not know where I was.
What was most memorable about him?
The most memorable days of his life, was when he was made a commissioner of Imo state, by which he become the first commissioner from Afikpo. From there he came into political activities. He lived a life of generosity and I enjoyed his lifestyle of peacefulness, he was not aggressive man, he was just a happy going easy person. I was so lucky I married him. I never fought with him, and we loved ourselves, and I was so excited meeting him after several years. We were dancing pairs, he loved dancing, he was my dancing pair.
I remember being under pressure to deliver a male child. The tradition in in Afikpo land is tied very closely to the male, when you have children and you have all daughters, like I did , it was like every pressure coming upon a husband to take another wife to give him a son. There was so much pressure. The date 2nd April, 1975, I gave birth to my son and that was quite a memorable day.
You emerged from the civil war, as a prominent merchant, how did that come about ?
Through the process, I continued with my trade, I resigned in NEPA, I struggled seriously. Everything that men are doing, that is what I loved to do. I was the first woman that established a block industry in Enugu then, I became a distributor in Naija cement. I then merged into distrusted drinks like premier breweries and golden guinea.
I’ll take a pause here to tell you a quick story. It was never Just Granny. It was always Granny Maltina. Because anytime the grandchildren visited her, she always had a bottle of cold Maltina ready to go. It all makes sense now. She distrusted soft drinks. It all makes sense now.
I had a warehouse, my life was so busy. I don’t have time to waste, if I delivered a baby, in the next couple of weeks I am back at work. I believed in hard work, and through hard work, you can make people excel.
Distribution, warehousing, children, there was so much going on, how did you get your start in politics ?
It was Igwe Ukuta, Igwe Ezea, Frank Oloto secretary of NPP that approached me around 1977-78 they had told me. “You have made money, come and get yourself a name. You have to join politics. Come and get yourself a name. “ And I said, what name again, I already have a name .
I was the first Igbo woman elected to the House of representatives. The first in the history of Igbo ! People have a way of rewriting history. We were the first people struggling for female participation.Mrs Eze O.Eze
When they came to me, I was then building a hotel of 4 duplexes, I was very rich as young woman. That is how they lured me into politics. It was a game of a number and strength, you help people, visit them when they are having issues, be kind to people, and this what I always did. And form my childhood, they all remembered me, and they all followed me, and that’s how I became involved in politics.
I became involved with the Nigerian peoples party – NPP. I saw the first outing of my political life. It was full of excitement, the honor, as I went out on campaign in Uzunwanyi, people were hailing my father , they were so attached to my father’s name. They remembered and revered me as his daughter.
“We have never in Nigeria had an opportunity to give to the Nigerian citizens what is in us.”Mrs Eze O. Eze
He was so nice to people, he made a lot of friends during his life time, he died pre-maturely, people were so happy seeing me make it. Giving them, as my father did. There were those that opposed me, they thought how can such a young woman be this loved by the people, making such a name, what can we do to stop her. But the people who were my admirers continued to push me, even wanted me to be a governor.
And I was elected, and in 1979.
I was the first Igbo woman elected to the House of representatives. The first in the history of Igbo ! People have a way of rewriting history. We were the first people struggling for female participation.
Many people have many problems with Nigeria, but I think Nigeria has been a series of accommodations. And despite everything, we have held. How do you understand Nigeria and its accommodations ?
Ambassador Eze :
The accommodating nature of Nigeria was so wonderful, we were living for one another. That is why Zik of Africa and Awo accepted the decision to merge into one country, they thought it could work. But representation has not been shared equally amongst all regions.
After amalgamation 2/3s of nigera has agreed that we have to go back together to assess our living together, because a lot of things have gone wrong. Igbos are so marginalized that we are the only zone with Five states, we have 6 regions, given us marginalization. Kano alone, Kano as a state, have more local government areas than the south east of Nigeria.
There has to be fairness. No Igbo has emerged as a real contender for the presidency of the country. But despite this, Igbos own half of the properties in Abuja, they own half of the houses in Lagos, no matter where you leave us, we will survive. And we will over-achieve. We have never in Nigeria had an opportunity to give to the Nigerian citizens what is in us.
I remember visiting you at Guinea Bissau while you were on a mission for President Olusegun Obasanjo . You end up playing a critical role in his government, and become an ambassador. Tell me about that experience ?
Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau, it was a good and successful outing.
As an ambassador I did my best. I managed to stop the escalation of several major conflicts that would have consumed the whole of west-Africa. The war between Guinea Bisau, Senegal and Gambia was an example. There was a massive disagreement of who owned the Oil well in Guinea- Bissau that was discovered to have commercial quantity. The Senegalese and the Gambians teamed up to share the oil resources, so I wrote to the president, and he sent a fact finding mission, and we called all parties to the table, and came up with an arrangement. A catastrophic event was avoided.
There was another war brewing this time, in the House of Representatives as law-makers were working to impeach Mr President. I was called back to coordinate the presidential liaison office with the House of Representatives. He said we were once one of them, so let us get this men to stop this impeachment. And by the grace of God, he said he saw what I did in Guinea Bissau, and God still helped me, that under 5 weeks of working in the National Assembly, I withdrew all the legislators from the entire Igbo race, and they all went and had a peaceful discussion with Mr President, and that was the death of the impeachment of Mr President.
There was another escalation, this time from a hostile Muammar al-Gaddafi, looking to spread his influence across the African Region. And I was also assigned by Mr President to this important issue.
Granny, you have an ocean of children, and grandchildren spread all over Nigeria, and all over the world. I imagine this is quite different from the world you were born into.
How have you adapted to this world, in your heart, how do you feel ? Do you think it has been fair, or you have found a way to accommodate it?
I am glorifying the almighty God to see my children, and my grandchildren are seeing what other parts of the world are. I know you all are learning from what you have seen in the other parts of the world, and you will be bringing it back to Nigeria to come and help build this place up.
I miss all of you, and I know if you were here, you will all be around spending time with me. And that is my legacy, and I know that when I am leaving, my grandchildren will arrive from where ever they are. Many people who did not know will know that God has blessed me.