Our paths first crossed a few years back when I became the National PRO of the Nigerian Institute of Shipping (courtesy of my LASU MTP course mate and friend; ‘Demola Irinyemi) who was then the Registrar. Since then, Eze (Dr) Blaiko; Lagoessed Israel Nwaiwu has struck me as a man of many parts and rich history. So, accompanied by Dapo Olawunii I caught up with him at his Palace in Okokoms where he presides as the Eze Ndigbo of Iba Local Government Area. He accorded us the honour of an important visitor to the Palace and as tradition demands of him, His Royal Highness, Eze (Dr) Blessed Israel Nwaiwu poured libation to the gods and offered prayers to the Almighty God before the interview commenced. The same was done at the end of the session. He prayed for the continued success of this newspaper, for me and all members of the team.
We know you as a royal highness, but beyond that, let us know your background?
First and foremost, I was not born as a royal highness. I came from a little family called Umuamadi, Umedama- Udeofeme in Ude, and this place belongs to Umuahia North local government in Abia state; that is were I was born. I schooled at a primary school called Saint Johns Anglican school in my village, I went to Aba where I attended a secondary technical school where I did my City and Guild and later I joined the press as a reporter with ‘Eastern Outlook’ at Enugu. Later I was constrained to join the Army during the Nigerian civil war where I left the army as a Lieutenant in the Biafran army engineers; 21 battalion. I fought in many places and I thank God that I came back alive and nothing happened to me than the shell shock that I had. However, the shell shock only comes and goes it only affects my hearing, but I don’t think it is comparable to those who died. When I came to Lagos, I wanted to join the press but I could not; then I went to school in London, I attended London School of Foreign Trade where I studied shipping before I came back to Nigeria. When I came back, I became a shipping manager and that is what I am doing up till now.
You came back from London and just became a shipping person?
No, no, it is not that. When I came back from the war there was no job, I have to join Mainland brothers as a tally clerk and I worked there till I became a supervisor.
That means that you actually started as a tally clerk
Yes, I started as a tally clerk and I stopped as a supervisor before I switched over to clearing and forwarding where I majored and became the first manager in Maiden Maritime at Nnewi building before I went to London to study shipping.
Quite interesting, which year was that?
Around 1978, I have been living all my life in the maritime world.
Shipping in 1978 and shipping in 2009, any difference?
Shipping at that time when we came and that was when Adekunle was in charge of the wharf, we had what is called tally by head, you can clear a cargo and carry it by head, they tally you and then you walk out, stealing in the wharf that time was rare; the wharf that time was a little bit primitive, but it was better than what is happening now, because there are lots of loses, that time what people stole was probably a tin of milk or bread. When I was a cargo watcher, I equally assisted people to bring out tin fish for us to eat bread and that is the level of the stealing but when they employed these school certificate holders as security men, they came back to learn how to steal bags, a whole motor getting lost and things like that. I originated cargo superintendent in the whole Nigeria; cargo superintendent is part of shipping. These days, things are growing and every organization wants to have representatives in the wharf in order to make money. There are too many agencies; everyone collects money and the proper job is not done. But during our time if it is 100 consignments that you have, you bring four for customs examination, provided they match and the numbers are correct; the customs will go and check and see if it is what is in the invoice, that is what matters. From there, they released it. Already you have paid the duty, then the customs officers will give you a release slip which goes to the shipping company to release and the release will now go to NPA, they will now quote it and produce your tally sheet and when they produce your tally sheet after the custom release in the shed, then the other release has come from the shipping company, then they will match it and the three releases will be there, then they will deliver the cargo to the owner. But now there are lots of complications, when you look at what we are doing these days – we computerise this, we do this and that, Yes, it modern, but how far will it go for the safety of Nigeria.
As a Council Member at the Nigerian institute of Shipping, do you also agree that there are too many training in institutions?
No. I am the first person whom the Nigerian Institute of Shipping gave letter to start training shipping students and when we started and I was advocating for it people did not know the meaning. We have lots of manpower, but most of them there are quacks, they don’t know the job. It is not that the training institutions are many, how many trained manpower do we produce? Are they well qualified, are they ready to do the job?
What is your assessment of Nigeria’s almost three year old port concession?
I said something at APM Terminal recently when I took students of Stars Maritime there on port excursion and it nearly caused trouble. When we got there, the man who addressed the students was talking that some people are this and that and I said if I were the President, I would have asked them why are you wasting your time and money in the ports that our four fathers built and have been contributing to, if this people say that they want to develop a port, show them a new place. The port concession would have been better handled if the people who are thinking for Nigeria are realistic and if they had given the terminal operators green fields to develop. If you go to Badagry; after the Badagry beach, the other part of land is equivalent of about 200 berthing space. These people who have money; like AP Moller, let them go and develop the new port and run it for 50 years, let them leave Apapa alone. The paramount need of every ship owner is safety and that safety is in the draught of the sea, if the channel is shallow no Captain or ship owner will want to take a ship there and if the berth is shallow, it limits the number of cargo you are going to carry.
How did you find yourself on the stool as an Eze?
You see, education is not a sin, we came to Lagos, we left our homes and came here and if I may tell you, the population of Igbo’s alone in Lagos is three quarter of the population, and our children who were born here can school in Lagos, from here some travel out of the country, they marry and come back and when they go home to the East, they become strangers. But, we thought it wise a few years ago that we should replicate what our people back home are doing; so that our children can equally take off from there so that what they see here is exactly what is happening at home. For example, the beads that I am wearing is what they wear in the village, every Eze celebrates himself with the type of cloth he wears, I choose to wear white because white is pure and my entire Eze regalia is white. When they started, most of the educated ones did not look at it like anything, but later, I looked at it and said no, this thing looks like what is meant for a particular sub- tribe the Anambra tribe, why don’t the Imo, Abia and everybody come up, though it is a costly thing, but I said I will. When we started, people were happy, since you don’t make money out of it, it is just to continue explaining and expanding tradition because those who are in the village are the custodians of our tradition and when we are here, we are able to show the Yorubas and other tribes that the Igbos are still living. The Yoruba tradition is not very much different from that of Igbos, but what we do Lagos is that instead of using the Ofor which is traditional, we use the Bible.
But, the major interest is to showcase the Igbo culture and this Igbo culture is very rich in the sense that what the Anambra people are doing does not agree with what Umuahia men are doing, but we are all Igbos. In Lagos, everyone is called Igbo,
but when we go home, we know who is who. I accepted to be Eze provided I will be guided by the Holy Bible.
When did you become Eze?
That was in 2004.
How do you combine your duties as an Eze with your other engagements?
Meetings are separated, they don’t clash. Meetings of the Nigerian Institute of Shipping have their dates; the meetings of the Igbo speaking community and Ndi’Ezes have dates too.
As for the Ezeship, I was born an Igbo man, almost all the traditions I learnt from my father and what happened in our village. In the village if you become the spokes man of the Eze, you must always know what is happening. So the two or more roles that I play do not disturb me, there is no clash. Why it does not disturb me is that I pay my loyalty to what we are doing and don’t forget that the Eze- in -council is a board and I am the Public Relations Officer. It is only when they want to have meeting that they ask me to tell the people and whatever they say, I say it as they said it, when it comes to Nigerian Institute of Shipping, I contribute as I know, even if I say something and they do not take it, I don’t bother myself because I know that what I have said is correct. Like now, I said we must go and pursue our Charter; that we have to charter the institute
That is the type of thing that I love; to make a name and not to make money.
Are you saying that they are quacks?
I did not say that they are quacks, but the policy of the country about cargo importation which handed over the responsibility of the Nigerian Customs Service to destination inspection agents is to be blamed for it. When the inspection agents have classified everything what do you expect Nigerians to do; to follow up what has been done. Before, when the work was tedious, it is for you to classify when they query you; you go to ‘Long Room’ and argue it, sometimes you win sometimes you lose, it makes the work very nice. There is nothing in clearing and forwarding than if you have got the entry worked out and cargo is processed, going to the port is “lego by lego”. But now, there is no demarcation between the foreigners and the indigenes, how do you want us to go and compete with Panalpina, or with Alraine; how much money do we have?