When the door to his living room opens un-announced and a voice asks: “Are you the gentlemen from the former president?” None of the three reporters could have mistaken the voice of Chief Emeka Anyaoku for anyone else’s.
There is something distinctive about the voice of the former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth that makes it recognisable even before seeing the owner of the voice. The texture of the voice comes seemingly stronger and richer as words disperse unhurried from his mouth in an accent that is remarkably British.
Earlier in the day, former President Olusegun Obasanjo had, on behalf of The Guardian team, called Chief Anyaoku about the visit.
And the man who goes by the title Ichie Adazie Obosi had obliged, in fact, he was expecting his visitors right about the time of the appointment. Satisfied that his guests are indeed the people his ex-president friend had spoken about on phone a few hours ago, he beams his signature smile with which he usually draws closer people of all stations, be it iconic figure, such as the late Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa, or his graduate students at the London School of Economics where he briefly taught as distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Global Governance.
“What drink would you like to have, soft or something stronger?” he asks, still smiling. A few seconds later, a maid appears with a bottle of water and three glasses. The water is ice-cold. Too cold to touch. And none of the three guests is able to touch the water until Chief Anyaoku re-enters to usher them into his living room, a tastefully furnished room decorated with wall paintings, carvings of various kinds, African drums and other objet d’art.
There are also memorable photographs hanging on the walls in the guest room, in the living room and the study room, such as the one capturing his meeting with the Queen Elizabeth of England in her private chamber, his family picture with Madiba Mandela, a portrait with President Muhammadu Buhari and the portrait of his wife of 55 years, ’Bunmi.
The most dramatic of them all was the masterpiece photograph taken by the grandmaster of photo journalism, Mr Sunmi Smart-Cole. Mr Smart-Cole caught Anyaoku and his friend, Obasanjo in a dramatic moment of celebration when the General was released from jail in 1998. Anyaoku was one of the influential figures who worked diplomatic channel to get Obasanjo out of prison before the intervention of Deu ex machine that eventually took out the late General Sanni Abacha, who had earlier sentenced Obasanjo to 30 years imprisonment.
On the table – another piece of art – are hard cover books including biography of him by a Canadian author as well as a collection of photographs presented to him by President Buhari. The yellow glow of the light bulb washes over the books like everything else in the living room, giving the room an ambience of a space suffused with gentle golden sun.
Anyaoku himself looks relaxed in his batik buba and sokoto and brown leather slippers. Nothing has yet given away his old age at 84 years, except patches of grey hairs seated on his round skull and the resilient white sprouts around the bridge of his lips.
Hairs on his head seem to have receded, making his forehead seem larger than it is. And there is a small sag of flesh around his neck which disappears when his head tilts backward while making a point. Otherwise, his intellect remains as sharp as a college professor, recalling memories of events that happened in pre-independent Nigeria.
Indeed, many things appear to be going good for Chief Anyaoku, most especially his good health, loving family, and trusted friend like Chief Obasanjo whom he regards as his in-law for marrying a woman from Egba, the native land of OBJ.
What Chief Anyaoku is unhappy about is the standard of Nigerian education which, according to him, has dropped far below the standard in the past. For instance, his father, he says, had what was then called Middle Two, that is two years after the Standard Six which could be likened to Modern School.
Yet the old man had greater competence than graduates of today. “His hand writing and his English in his letters and correspondence that I read, the quality was so high and almost as good as the so called graduates.” Chief Anyaoku therefore wants Nigeria to go back to the basics, and focus greater attention on education.
And he wants the government to start by increasing the pay check of teachers. “The teaching profession should be elevated to a much higher level in the society than it is at the moment. Our teachers should be recognized and rewarded accordingly for the important job they are doing in the society.
So, the teaching profession should be recognized as an important profession and should be rewarded accordingly so that those who teach will be the crop of committed teachers. At the moment, because of the unemployment and so on, people go to teach even when they do not have dedication and commitment to teaching.
Neither do they have the skills.” He also emphasised the need to train and re-train teachers. That was the standard obtainable also during his student days in the University College, Ibadan where he bagged BA in Classics. Anyaoku recalls how the products of UCI was sought after for post graduate courses even by the universities abroad. Those years of Nigerian educational glory has passed, he says.
When he is reminded about the efforts of state governors to establish new universities and create more opportunities for the youths. The retired diplomat cautions the governors about increasing the number of universities, and failing to improve the quality of education in the existing ones.
“The quality of the teachers in the universities has to be higher. I am not sure that the quality of our university teaching staff is as good as it should to be. I am not sure that every professor we have is deserving of that title.” Chief Anyaoku is on record for calling for the restructuring of our governance architecture.
He does not believe education should be the responsibility of the federal government. Rather he believes that as a federation, each federating unit should be allowed to manage education from primary to tertiary level. “I strongly hold the view that the present structure we have of 36 states is not conducive to our development and progress as a country. I think, we should go back to more viable federating units that we had in the years up to, and immediately after our independence.
In those years, that was why it was possible for somebody like Chief Obafemi Awolowo in the Western Region to formulate his policy of free primary education.
“If it was a federal government, it wouldn’t have happened! But he was able to do it because he was able to manage the resources that were generated in the Western Region, essentially from Cocoa production and so on.” The ex-scribe of the Commonwealth is optimistic that Nigeria can be great again if it restructures the governance of the education sector.
He charges the media to help those who are calling for improvement in the quality of education get the attention of the government. “The leadership should be responsible for the formulation of the education policies,” he says.