Nollywood actor, Chiwetalu Agu, in this interview with ADELANI ADEPEGBA narrates his experience in the custody of the military and the Department of State Services in Abuja after he was arrested for wearing what was described as costume associated with the Indigenous People of Biafra
The past week has been tough for you. Can you tell us what happened?
I finished a movie shoot in Asaba and I decided to go back to my base in Enugu. As I was driving through the most popular junction in Onitsha, Upper Iweka, I decided to stop for somebody to alight and at the same time share loaves of bread to some people. So, I bought loaves of bread and was sharing to passers-by – four persons to a medium-sized loaf and one big loaf for eight persons. At a point, I bought up to over N10,000 worth of bread. I heard gunshots from soldiers from Onitsha barracks. When I turned, I saw people running away and the soldiers coming closer. They said, “Enter the bus.” I asked, “What did I do?’’ I discovered that the soldier (talking to me) was the type that does not understand or speak English, so, I said, “I have to be told what I did.’’ And I refused to follow them (soldiers). I sat on the road and then lay down. (I said,) “If you are here to kill me, go ahead.” They were five soldiers and I’m not a sports person. Eventually, they overpowered me, and took me to Onitsha barracks. One senior officer was looking at me with disdain. I was in a tight corner in their office, being an entertainer, an actor; so, I was at their mercy. It didn’t take time before they brought an SUV and drove me to Enugu, 82 Division of the Nigerian Army; you can imagine the distance. It didn’t take them time before they organised a panel and started asking me questions. The costume I wore was designed red, black and yellow with a rising sun. My belief is that having come to this world, whatever level you are, you struggle to climb the ladder, you rise and rise like the sun. I was an ordinary actor in 1981 in NTA (Nigerian Television Authority); I made reference to the fact that I have risen. Did you see me in Biafra, in IPOB costume, in military fatigue or whatever? They asked me questions for between nine and 10 hours.
Tell us more about your experience. Were you kept in a cell?
There was a man, Yahaya, in the place where I was detained. We were in a dirty room, no bedsheet, only torn mattresses. I don’t know the crime Yahaya committed but he was chained. It was a standard room; I decided to manage it because I didn’t go there to fight. I went there to be listened to, not to heighten the crisis. This government acts too much like a combatant; why should you be a combatant when the person you are dealing with is a civilian and is not armed? The President should jettison his combatant approach and handle issues like a father because if the situation is allowed to linger, the agitation for secession would continue to grow stronger. The Igbo have so much to gift Africa; we don’t have to go abroad to bring many things. We have Dr Innoson (Innocent Chukwuma) making vehicles and many other Igbo inventing great things. Cow business is good but it is not a thing you can use to boast to the international community.
Were you subjected to any form of physical harassment, besides the interrogation?
At the 82 Division in Enugu, the interview held in a big office but at the Department of State Services in Abuja, they were taking me from office to office to answer questions. Despite complaining that I suffered from ulcer and can’t eat any kind of food, the things they were bringing for me (to eat) didn’t help my situation. I was released on Tuesday evening when international voices intervened. People like Chief Mike Ozhekome (SAN), who I respect so much; the executives of the Actors Guild of Nigeria intervened – Steven Egbo and Monalisa Chinda came and the DSS handed me over to them and here we are.
Did you feel threatened during your detention?
They didn’t go to that extent; may be because I comported myself. All in all, it was not bad. Yes, it is not a place I would say I’d go again (laughs). My quarrel with the authorities is this – there are better ways to run this country, not this combatant manner. The President can be a rallying point because we have so much complexity in security. How long should we be insecure? How long should we be seemingly encouraging this thing (insecurity)? When you see the average herdsman going into people’s farms, and he is not held responsible, we are encouraging insecurity. Whether we like it or not, what oil money is doing for us, you cannot underestimate it. We don’t sweat so much to make money. You see the figures mentioned in our budget – trillions; but you don’t see the impact. The people are getting mired in poverty, when will this end? The ethnic groups in the country are so many; try to find a way to bring them together, Mr President.
There was a report that the army and the DSS did not allow either your family members or lawyer to see you, while you were being held. Was it true?
The DSS seized my phone; there was no communication with my family. It was the most painful experience I’ve had in running my family. As a child of God, I was believing that they would do certain things I used to do: Go to spiritual fathers and once they give them (family members) verses from the Bible, that would be enough. There was nothing like fear. God created this world and nothing would happen to His children who follow his word.
Do you regret wearing the costume?
I call it the rising sun; we must rise non-stop. Geography taught us the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. It is not surprising, rising is forever. If you stop rising, you are dead. You came to the world to grow, to fight without caring about the opinion of anybody.
The costume is similar to IPOB flag; are you an IPOB member, do you support them?
It (the costume) has nothing to do with IPOB. You can talk about the similarity of colours but it doesn’t make them the same. In any case, in the North and everywhere, you have people who wear military camouflage; it is not a civilian dress and you allow them to wear it.
But civilians who wear it are usually arrested.
See, if I’m here giving to the poor and you stopped me from doing that, you bundled me into your vehicle, the whole world was seeing me on the road at Upper Iweka; what do you call that? You used force on me. I know when we have a proper civilian dispensation that rubbish cannot stand. People are free to do whatever they like as long as it is within the ambit of the law.
So, do you support IPOB or are you a member of the group?
Everything about freedom, give it to the Igbo people. Don’t put them in bondage; you have no right to put them in bondage. We all came to fight for project Nigeria like the late Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo and Tafawa Balewa, but if you don’t want the country to be one entity, allow the people to go their (separate) ways.
Why did you wear the attire despite knowing the security situation in Anambra State?
I am an entertainer; I like flamboyance and variety. When I came out in that costume, I saw that it offended no one. Why are you imputing meaning that has nothing to do with this? You caused all these problems by waking up a dead lion. You gave it the interpretation that snowballed into a crisis. Has anyone disturbed anybody for wearing babaringa or ishiagu? I don’t see any problems here.
What are the things you think the Presidnt, Major General Muhammadu Buhari is not doing right?
Have you heard about quota system? Is quota system good that someone from the South with a high score would not gain university admission while a candidate from the North with a lower score would gain admission ahead of me? It is an unfair system, inequitable, unpardonable. Let everybody progress at their intelligence quotient (pace); this treatment can make some people run mad. The attack by gunmen in the South-East is very simple to solve. It is because you are encouraging them that it is still subsisting. Let’s stop all acts of injustice and inequity. Do you know how many Nigerians have left the country with their ingenuity because the country was made inconvenient for them? Uncountable. If gunmen and other criminals are supposed to be dealt with, why have you allowed Boko Haram to operate freely for many years? Do you know how much is spent by the government? Nothing (is being spent) on personnel and on my progress or yours.
It is all going into arms being deployed against fellow Nigerians. Is it right in the eyes of God?
Do you believe the killings in the South-East are being perpetrated by IPOB as stated by the police?
Did they do any investigation or was it guesswork? Who has ever placed its research or investigation (report) on the table to prove it is IPOB? Which IPOB members have they brought to prove their claims? All these are conjectures they want people to believe. If it is them (IPOB), arrest them and give them lawful punishments. No criminals should be left unpunished whether from the North, South, East or West. These things were triggered, people were pushed. So, whether it is unknown gunmen or ‘ungun known men,’ trace their involvement in any crime, then deal with it. But don’t be partial; the parameters you used in the North should also be used in the South, East, West. So, people would begin to see you as being human, fair and just.
Some Igbo leaders cited various projects being executed in the South-East as evidence that the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), has done well for the Igbo. In your opinion, has the President been fair to Ndigbo?
Can you trace the background of those saying that? You’ll find out that they are Igbo in the APC (All Progressives Congress) must always be seen to eulogise Buhari. I would want a Buhari who is fair to all. You can’t see me in politics. If Igbo people, especially those in the APC, can say, “Let’s rise and tell our papa (the President) the blunt truth,” I would support that. I want peace for all; I want peace in the South and for other places. They (Igbo leaders) speak on where Buhari is doing well and kept quiet on the areas where he is not doing well. This is not helping the situation.
What are your thoughts on the agitation for an Igbo man to be President in 2023?
I won’t like that issue to be treated in isolation. People surrounding the Igbo race have made things so complex that I, as an Igbo man, wouldn’t like to contest for the presidency because they have laid landmines on the path. What’s the essence of Igbo presidency when somebody in Sokoto or Kaduna would be telling you (the President) what to do? The ingredient to make leadership work has been destroyed. So, whatever you see there, you take. But I tell you, people who have something good to offer would not like to go there.
How do we address the problem?
It goes back to what I said earlier. The President should be all-embracing; play the role of a father, not a combatant. The solution may not come if whoever is going there (to the presidency) is having a doubtful mind. Will these people accept me? Will they say I have budgeted so much for Enugu or Imo or less for Sokoto? He must have a free hand to run the affairs of the country.
Is the agitation for Biafra the way out for the Igbo?
Agitation for Biafra is coming because we are denying the Igbo everything due to them. If you want the Igbo man to run the affairs of the country, do not impose your ideas on him; do not intimidate him. Buhari came in 2015; have you ever seen anyone dictating to him? He does whatever he likes. I don’t fail to recall when 83 persons were killed in Benue State, Governor Ortom ran to President Buhari to complain. The President was supposed to attend the burial. Nobody is saying he should bring the dead back to life or help to bury the corpses. After that, an attempt was made on Ortom’s life. As long as equity is not placed on the table, all you do is nothing. Equity must come in and the Federal Government must operate in equity and fairness.
We have various Biafra agitators in the South-East like MASSOB, IPOB and other lesser known ones. Which group do you support?
Is any of them not violent? Is any of them democratic? Anywhere in the country – Sokoto, Akwa Ibom, Enugu – where there is no civil liberty, don’t expect Chiwetalu to be involved. There must be respect for human lives, whatever names we answer. Let your practice spell out what your intention is.
Against the backdrop of your encounter with the military and the DSS, will you wear your costume again?
In the spirit of reconciliation, they took the costume and I agreed to relinquish it. I keep emphasising that it is not IPOB flag but rising sun, I supported them taking it. So, don’t see me as someone with grudges or someone who would go back to my former positions. I’m ready for peace and I pray all Igbo and our Niger Delta brothers would be ready for peace.
So, in other words, you won’t make another rising sun costume?
Since they took it, it means their mind was made up for peace but if I gave it to them and still went back to the trenches, am I not deceiving myself? Won’t that deceit put me in trouble in the short run? I told my people that I would like to confine this to the archives but it is better for me to be seen to be giving this up because it would be a sign that we want to make peace.