How did you begin in life? Did you ever dream of getting close to where you are today?
As soon as I can remember, in primary school, something spectacular was happening. I was leading my class all through primary and secondary schools. These were especially the years before the war. Secondly, I was always the one coordinating things, with my colleagues aggregating around me. Playing so many leadership roles at that period made me really begin to think.
I was going to be playing leadership roles later in life, although I did not know what those roles were going to be. At that age, sometimes I was called out as the good boy, the brilliant one. I remember one particular case in primary school. The teacher called us and gave each person the name of a planet. After many days, he came back and called us to tell the name of the planet that he gave them. Somehow I was the only one who remembered that he gave me Jupiter and I was now given a cane to flog each of them. From then on my nickname became Jupiter.
If anybody calls me Jupiter today, he must have known me from primary school. In secondary school, my name was King Jimmy Pele. I was not such a wonderful footballer, but I had a knack for scoring the difficult goals. When things are not working out well, I was usually the one to score that goal to make the difference, but I was not a wonderful player. I was like a hero. But I was a good goal-keeper. That was the wing I played best. That summarizes that I have grown up not knowing what I will be, just as I don't know what am going to be but knowing that to some extent, I will be expected to make some reasonable contribution, ordering things and leading.
What about schooling?
I started primary school in 1956 at St Michaels' Primary School, Rumuomasi Port Harcourt. From there I crossed over to Orevo Primary School Woji in Port Harcourt. You need to do a class before standard 1 and so I did that at St Michaels' and when I did that I crossed over to Orevo. Then when I got to standard 3, I now went back to St Michaels. I did four and five at St Michaels' before secondary school which I started after standard 5. I didn't do first school leaving certificate. I went straight to secondary school. My secondary school was Okrika Grammar School and was there from 64 to 67. At 67, when the war now interrupted my studies. In 1970 I went to Government Secondary School Owerri. That was where I did my school certificate. In fact, just today I was looking at my school certificate results and made eight As straight (A1s, A2s, with a few A3s.)
You were a science student?
Yeah. As a matter of fact, I was what you can call an all-rounder. I was doing well in both the science and arts subjects. But truly, I knew I had a flair for the arts. (produces the certificate and shows to reporter) After fighting the war and coming back part soldier and part civilian…
You participated as a soldier in the war?
Oh yeah. I was a Biafran soldier.
Can you tell us some of your experiences in the war?
That is a subject for a whole book. Am writing a book on my war experiences. The book has been long in coming. Other of my books I have published, but that one has taken a long time. It has been quite a while, but am taking my time. I have seen most people who wrote books on the war were either old soldiers who came from Nigerian army but the young liberation soldiers, I don't think I have much from them. But if you want me to summarize my experiences, I must say it was a very gruelling time, a period of hardship, pain and misery. At some point, many of us didn't know we would survive. It is God's grace that I survived. I went through very dangerous situations during the war. I went to places that I can't even tell how I was able to survive. It was a very painful period in our history and that is why many of us would not want to see war a second time especially civil war, neither would we wish our children or our children's children to see the kind of things we saw.
Did you carry guns, did you have to shoot anybody?
I was a soldier. Soldiers defend themselves when they are attacked. They have territories to protect. In the process, there are fatalities and there are mortalities. I was shot. I carried a bullet from 1968 to 1970. (shows reporter the scars on right upper arm). This is it. You can see the point of entry and where it came out from. I fought.
How old were you then?
I joined the Biafran Army at the age of 18 in 1968, even though at that time we were all inflating our ages so as to be allowed to fight, especially those of us who were enamoured by the Biafran cause. We wanted to contribute, to be like soldiers. The first time I went, they refused to take me, saying I was still a student. But later on they were picking people who didn't even want to volunteer. They thought the war would end in one year but it lasted three years. Every young man that was able was persuaded and conscripted.
Were there family losses, death maybe to the war?
Luckily we did not lose siblings but we lost relations, we lost friends, we lost uncles. Some of my best friends died during the war. It was a painful period, a period nobody wants a repeat of. But then when we look at it, God knows why he allowed it to happen. May be it was a war to strengthen the unity of the country. Now that I look at it, I think that war strengthened the unity rather than break it. Some people may disagree with me but that is my opinion because, of all that Nigeria did to Igbo people is enough to break the country. The resistance of Igbo was also enough to break it. But after all, we are still one country. One gets the impression that we probably were destined to be one country. I also believe the war prepared us for the events of 1993. I believe if we did not fight that war then, may be we would have fought one in 1993 and may be it would have been more disastrous. For that fact many people remembered the price of Biafra and had a rethink. Shakespeare said 'There's something good in everything bad if only we have the patience to distil it out'. It enabled us test our strength and Nigeria now knows that any constituent group can break free if marginalized, and I'm sure it is one of the things that has helped in the Niger Delta amnesty programme.
The war experience was good. If people did not die it would have been fun, but people died and a lot was lost. When the war ended we started afresh. Everybody was given 20 pounds, no matter how much you had before in your account. People started building from there. When we all wanted to go to school after the war, it was quite a challenge and my father said we should take it turn by turn. I asked him 'Who will wait for the other?' I said everyone should go, that God will help. God did help because I got a scholarship. My younger brother also got a scholarship to go to Italy. Somehow everyone moved on and today we have a family of 12 children from my father and two mothers. It is a polygamy in which everybody went to school. God took care of us from the ashes of war.
Which higher institution did you attend?
I went to University of Ife. I read pharmacy. In those days we took exams to get into universities. So I took for four universities- Ife, Nsukka, Benin and Ibadan. There was no JAMB. I got admitted into the four schools but when I went for interview at Ife, I fell in love with the school because of the architectural designs. I said, 'This is the place'. Secondly, I have an innate love for traveling. When I was in secondary school in Port Harcourt, I would board the train and travel to Markurdi and such places to visit relatives. I never stayed in one place. I think that was also part of the motivations. Ife was a beauty. My mother wanted me to go to Nsukka because there were still hang-overs of the war. In 1972 people were still not too sure if it was safe. I said, whatever, am a soldier, so I no dey fear. Ife was good and that was where I truly received my academic discipline. As I told you, I used to lead my class. I don't know how I do it, but when I got there I got my first true discipline. The first professional test I took, I got zero. It was a pharmacognosy test within two weeks of my coming. Then the results would appear a few hours after it was written. In all my life, I had never gotten anything like an ordinary pass, but to get a zero was a serious threat to me. Even beyond that, I have always been involved in many activities at every given time. At Ife, we did six hours of practical everyday, then four hours of lecture. You must report the practical the next day. The practical course was a different one from the theory. There was no adding up. Then Ife was the leader in West Africa in pharmacy.
I had a very good social life too. I had very interesting experiences too. In my penultimate year, there was a little tragedy. We had a practical pharmacology exam. The rule was that when you are through with your exam you don't leave. The supervisor would go from desk to desk and see what everyone had done.
We had this external examiner from University of London. The Head of Department was not the invigilator but because the examiner came from far, the HOD came into the hall with him. He showed him around and they looked at what we did. We, me and some of my colleagues had finished and he was impressed with our performances. The HOD then took our papers and asked us to go, but remember he was not the invigilator. Unfortunately, he took those papers to his office, forgot them there and traveled after two days. Although our names were on the attendance, the invigilator neither saw us nor our scripts and we got no marks. So he asked us to come for a re-sit. It was one of the greatest shocks of my life. You get a handshake from the HOD and the external examiner and at the end they tell you to re-sit, meaning you failed. It could be traumatic. When we got to the centre, we went to see the HOD.