My Role In Radio Biafra – Pete Edochie
In this exclusive interview with Sunday Trust, he speaks on how he met his dear wife, Josephine, his role in Radio Biafra, why the epic film “Things Fall Apart” remains a classic, among other interesting things.
Heres the Excerpts:
You clocked 68 years on March 7, 2015. Can you give us an insight into your background, what growing up was like?
I was born at Makurdi in present Benue State and I was also born at Enugu. It may sound a little confusing but I must clarify. My father worked in the Railways. So he was at Makurdi when my mother was due. So she came down to Enugu here, gave birth to me in 1947, on the 7th of March and then went back with me to Makurdi. How am I sure I was born on the 7th of March, 1947? My mother told me that there were three events that took place that year: Number one: there was an eclipse of the sun. Number two: there was salt scarcity. Then number three” there was the first train derailment at Plateau in Northern Nigeria. All these things happened the same year.
So we moved from Makurdi to several towns in the north when we got to Kano and from Kano, we moved over to Zaria. And I started schooling in Zaria – St. Patrick’s Catholic School in Zaria. As I got older, I moved into the senior segment of the school – St. Theresa’s Catholic School in same Zaria. When I finished primary school, I moved into St. John’s College, Kaduna in 1960. That was the biggest school in the north then; everybody wanted his child to be educated there. Having been to St. John’s College, Kaduna, I left in 1964, joined my father in the Railways, and did a course in Journalism and Television, at the School of Journalism and Television, England.
Then when incivility compelled us to migrate from the north, I stopped in Enugu and then joined the Eastern Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation in February 1967, along with three other people – my wife, Josephine Obiekwe then, Oguguo Okenwa and Veronica Ifulu. And not long after, the Biafra- Nigeria war started and we were compelled again to move to join the Voice of Biafra with my wife. At the end of the war, we came back to Enugu – then it metamorphosed once again into East Central State. Then I belonged to the East Central State Broadcasting Service (ECSBS). Then Anambra came and I became part of Anambra Broadcasting Service or Broadcasting Corporation. Then in 1991, states were created. And I became part of Anambra State Broadcasting Service. I‘ve been part of plenty of metamorphoses.
I trained in the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) in 1980. In 1987, I became the pioneer director of the ABS 3 FM Stereo. I Christened it “Sunrise ‘96” because the sun rises from the east in the morning. At a stage, the Nigerian government under the army became too scary of the word ‘sunrise’. They said it reminded them of Biafra. So, all the emblems that bore the sun and its rays were eliminated from our social life. At one point, I was invited by the then governor, Col. Robert Nnaemeka Akonobi. They were now asking me why I preferred “Sunrise ‘96’’. I said, sir, if you can tell me which other part of the world the sun rises, I will change it. And he said alright, Pete you can continue with that your name “Sunrise ‘96” and it has been there till today.
Well, yes it is a coincidence, alright. She was my contemporary and I fell in love with her and I married her. She used to be one of our best announcers. She is a lawyer today and we are still there. We’ve been married for the past 46 years. And we have everything to be grateful to God.
How was it working with Radio Biafra in the turbulent period of civil war?
It was challenging because we would terminate our transmission at 3.00am and then we would begin to walk home. It was lonely. It was risky, in fact. Again, God helped us. Working in Radio Biafra, The Voice of Biafra was a very big challenge. I had people who inspired me a lot; they are almost all dead now. Ikenna Ndaguba, Tony Ibegbuna was not with us in Voice of Biafra. Earnest Okonkwo, a commentator, Lawrence Emeka, who got his MON before me, and Egbuna Obidike, was controller, The Voice of Biafra. Then we had Eno Iwu, a fantastic broadcaster, and we had a very fine crop of broadcasters then and we transmitted in a couple of languages – we transmitted in Hausa, Yoruba, Tiv and they were all being done by Igbos.
At a point that radio station was a rave of the moment, according to people?
It was because a lot of people listened to us: Okoko Ndem was reading the commentaries and he became a master there. Emmanuel Ogbuagu was doing war reports and each time his signature tune was played, everybody got closer to their radio sets to know how far the Biafran soldiers had gone in chasing back the Nigerian soldiers then. Well, I recall the experience now with a lot of nostalgia. Occasionally, the experiences of Biafra haunts me when I am alone, especially when I remember my colleagues who had since died. That’s life. We must all go some day. We didn’t all come together. We‘ve been going one by one, and a lot of them have gone.
Still on Radio Biafra. Were there things you did that time but looking back now, you may find regrettable? I ask this question because some people had the notion that Radio Biafra misled the public.(Long pause) I don’t know what you mean by Radio Biafra misled the public. The war was forced on us and we had to survive. I ran away from the north; I was born and bred there. I had no reason to run except that I wanted to protect my life. Our people were being hunted down and killed like rats in the north in 1966. First of all, there was a coup on January 15, 1966. The most prominent name in that coup was Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu. He came from Okpanam, now in Delta State. A lot of prominent Nigerians were killed in that coup. In Eastern Nigeria, Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna was detailed to kill Dr. M.I.Okpara, then Premier of Eastern region. At about that time, Archbishop Macharious from Cyprus was visiting M.I. Okpara. It was a very tough assignment for Ifeajuna. At the end of the day, Okpara survived and other premiers were killed in the north, in the west, in what was then the Midwest, where Okotie Eboh was. Because of that it was termed an ‘Igbo coup’, because the most prominent name in the coup was Chukwuma Nzeogwu.
Specifically, people talked about propaganda – they said there was too much propaganda by Radio Biafra which eventually made people see things from the perspective of the radio station and thereby prolonging the war?
I don’t know how old you were then but I guess this question of yours is based on crass ignorance. Whatever we transmitted then, was the actual state of affairs. We gave unadulterated report of what happened at the war front. And if you wanted to know anything about the situation of the war, you had to tune to Voice of Biafra. We did not mislead anybody and that was why when the war ended, the then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon said there was no victor, there was no vanquished; which was very magnanimous of him actually.
I can recall very vividly that when Gowon took over after his coup on 29th July, 1966, in his very first broadcast, he said: “The basis for unity does not exist in Nigeria.” So probably, that became a very prophetic statement considering what is happening in Nigeria now. He probably may not recall that but I still remember the statement vividly. And when the war started, there was this conference that was held in Aburi, Ghana where the then Biafran Head of State, Chukwuemeka Ojukwu said: “Instead of all of us to co-exist within a politically suffocating atmosphere, why don’t we pull slightly apart so we can breathe more conveniently?” Ojukwu was advocating confederation. Gowon agreed and we thought there was going to be peace but the BBC gave Ojukwu’s comment a very dangerous interpretation. BBC said Gowon was bamboozled by Ojukwu with his Oxford University knowledge. So Nigerians were compelled to renege on those decisions. It was a very sad thing but is all in the past now.
So if you were not a broadcaster and actor, what would you have been?
I would have been a journalist. I would have been a very big journalist. My knowledge of journalism determines my reaction with people. We have managed to get the Freedom of Information Bill (FoI). A lot of journalists think it’s a license to libel others; that’s not what it should be. Everybody is entitled to protection of his or her identity, and if you libel anybody, the person has the right to go to court.
The film that brought you to national prominence was the adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” Now, is there anything you can still tell the public about that classic film?
Well, let me say that the finest brains in the movie industry then were assembled to do that film and it won an international award. Chinua Achebe – God rest his soul – said that the best interpretation of the character in Obi Okonkwo was done by Peter Edochie. A lot of people had done that beat under different titles but Achebe said Pete Edochie gave it the best interpretation. And until he died, he was calling me Okonkwo, Ebubedike. He was very fond of me. He thought I did my best. The film received very favourable reviews and I was very happy about it.
The producer, Adiele Onyedibia was an incredible human being. How he managed to assemble all of us, drilled us all through production was a miracle. Actors, ordinarily, are hot heads but most of us were involved in broadcasting so it was easy for us to operate under given laws. And we tried as much as possible, not to create chaos while we were on set. We were all advanced in our various offices. In fact, we were all managers on grade level 14. So it was a collection of very senior people from the television stations and others from the academia, like Professor Kalu Uka, retired from University of Calabar; he was at University of Nigeria at the time. Two of the greatest broadcasters this country had produced – Ralph Okpara (he’s dead now), John Ekwere, who engaged me in broadcasting, and he was an inextinguishable source of inspiration to me. He took part in that production because he said “I trained Pete, if Pete had accepted to play the part of
Okonkwo, then put my name. I will play alongside Pete.” Ralph Okpara said the same thing. But I thank God that I also had something to offer to those who played alongside me. And I don’t think I disappointed them.
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