Justice Mary Ukaego Peter-Odili turned 70, yesterday, and retired from the Supreme Court after a long and distinguished legal career. In addition to thanking and praising her devoted husband, Dr Peter Odili, former Governor of Rivers State – as well as the current Governor, Chief Nyesom Wike, and several mentors, professional colleagues, relatives, in-laws and friends in her farewell speech, she made comments that many found inspiring. Slightly edited. Excerpts:
I have broken into the select group of elders of our nation. It, therefore, behoves on me, the duty to speak with the platform open to me today…with the concept of taking the option of “dying on my feet than living on my knees”, a postulation of Emilio Zapata Salazar, the Mexican leader in the Revolution of 1910-1920.
In the spirit of one who has lived through a lot of experiences, good and bad, I will talk to my country men, women and children loud and clear. I lived through the Nigerian Civil war which was precursed by the January 15, 1966 army coup and later the July 1966 pogrom.
In the July incident I saw with my eyes, men running in their underpants with or without singlets from the Ikeja Army Cantonment which presentation made us leave our home at Ikeja GRA as the killings moved from the Igbo soldiers in the barracks to the civilian population of Igbos; and we had to take refuge in a room in Surulere and later in the East where we survived air raids.
I am bringing this period up not to whip up animosities or negative feelings but to call to the mind of all and sundry the emergency situation which now faces our Nation. Some of the actions or speeches that propelled the unfortunate war which took the lives of millions of our people are being re-enacted at this time hence the necessity for this reminder.
I am delving into this area of our national life in the light of the saying that the lessons of the past should not be dispatched to the dustbins of history but utilised positively to navigate the present and future.
I have noted with sadness that some of the good initiatives of the war zone and the potentials of persons old and young of that period have been thrown overboard, hence the misfortunes that beset the nation even at this point in time with the authorities and individuals looking helplessly on.
That is not the way to go as those good creations and capacities ought to have been deployed as happened in other climes to their advancement. A case in point is the skills acquisition programme which helped in the survival of a lot of people including this speaker.
In that regard, I call to mind what I saw when watching television in the 1980s: the efforts of Maryam Abacha as wife of the Chief of Army Staff instituting skills acquisition programmes in army barracks for wives of soldiers. It was Maryam Babangida that orchestrated the programme up to every local government area of the country down to community level.
I bring these efforts up because what seems to be happening in our polity is that in denigrating the spouses of those women, the laudable efforts they had espoused and championed were left unattended and treated as mere NGO affairs or womens’ pet projects, instead of being given full steam by Government at all levels, with success assured.
The millions of idle youths [who have been neglected] are not unrelated to the insecurity on ground today. The urgency of what we are all faced with right now calls for the necessity or immediacy in tackling them. The matter has become a behemoth of sorts that needs no further delay in solving.
That is the reason that I propose that the Head of State should take on the garb of Minister of Youth, Employment and Social Welfare or such related name so that he directs the implementation of what is called for and put in place without middlemen, utilising assistance of adequate and qualified personnel.
Similarly, the governors of the respective states should take over such ministries to stem the current tragic situation. The massive unemployment of tertiary institution graduates is a tip of the iceberg. [In addition] the condition of non-graduates who are numerous in number have made the matter of grave concern.
The situation is not helped by the perennial strikes which leave students roaming for months on end or idling away with their thoughts better imagined. I have brought this up because the solution I proffer was tried out in Rivers State and it worked hence I implore that it be tried once more but this time nationally and with urgency. The Government of Rivers State, under Dr. Peter Odili did it from 2005 to 2007.
Again an area that should be given consideration is the retirement of our uniformed men and women – military, police in their prime with expertise and a high degree of training obtained nationally and internationally. These retired personnel are now too numerous and left to rot at their various homes with their knowledge not utilised; Government can find a use for them to the benefit of all.
I come to another point of anxiety regarding a matter that has been resonating for some time: “Restructuring”, I cannot say much on it as I know little on the subject. But my humble view is that the issue should be given immediate attention lest we ignore the matter at the risk of a lost opportunity to set the ship of state on the right course.
While studying English language, our teachers told us that “a stitch in time saves nine”. In our own locality, the Igbos say: “Anyi chuo ewu oji na ihe”, which translation is: “Let us search for our black goat during the day”. The reason for this adage is that if the goat is not looked for during the day, it blends with the dark at nightfall.
The last area I bring to the front burner is the matter of state of origin of individuals in our country which is gauged from the locality of birth of the parents. That a person was born in a place outside the locality of origin of his parents, grows up in this new location, residing and working there but is still considered a stranger has negative connotations in my humble opinion.
Therefore, I posit that a person’s state can be gauged by the number of years he has lived in a given place. The follow up on this matter of state of origin or residency and the import thereto have thrown up the fact that women have seen themselves taking the short end of the stick on account of marriage outside the state of their birth.
These are matters that need urgent attention in our journey towards true nationhood.