Many people may have known him as a very sound senior lawyer and devoted Christian of the catholic faith. But not many may know that Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba is a very patient person who has the capacity to endure afflictions and still remain unshaken.
Last year this time, all kinds of tragedies struck him-his home in Calabar was looted by the so-called EndSARS protesters, then he lost his mother, lost his mother-in-law and then the wife passed on. in this interview with OFONIME UMANAH, the former senate leader recalled events of the last one year and spoke on how he was able to cope with the tragic occurrences. He also spoke on the politics of 2023.
It’s more than one year after the EndSARS crisis. Of course you were a victim. How easy was it to recover from, first of all the shock, and then the losses at that time?
Well, ordinarily I would have described the year 2020 as my horribilis annus. That is my horrible year, in Latin. But being a person of faith who is enjoined to give thanks in all situations, I will rather just describe it as a challenging year at the same time, for which I am grateful to God for everything.
I was abroad when EndSARS happened and I think it started on the 20th. Up to the 23rd, it was going well, and by the 23rd up to the 24th, it was hijacked and then I had received information that my house was likely to be attacked and I tried to reach the security agencies, the brigade commander, the commissioner of police, the state director of SSS and the SA security to the governor. I think clearly they were all overwhelmed. Don’t forget that the police was the target of the riot. So, the police was more or less immobilized and even when they started heading towards my house, I was watching the mob move because somebody had the presence of mind to live stream the events. So I was there until they got to my gate, started struggling to force the gate open and they were in my house for like four and half hours, looted everything except the floor. If they could remove the floor, they would have, but the interesting thing is that they came very well prepared and organized. Every tool, every equipment that was needed for the operation, they came with them. They were able to remove the water pump from the borehole, in- submersible pump from the borehole; so they had the tools to do that. They removed the chandeliers and the overhead tanks, three of them, 2500litres each. They drained the water before bringing down the tanks. The generators, they removed the AVRs, the very key components. The vehicles, they removed the key parts before setting them ablaze. So they came organized, very well organized. It was premeditated.
For me, who were the major actors of the EndSARS riot? Of course it was the EndSARS protesters, the police and of course the government, because the protests were initially against the police and the government, but it now became a metaphor or a euphemism for everything that was wrong about governance and about the trajectory the country had taken. So, but the three dramatis personae remain the protesters, the government and the police.
How people like me became victims is what I haven’t been able to fathom till today. I wasn’t in government at the time; the house in question took me 18 years to build- from 1991. Remember that in 1991, we were all in Calabar. I was a young lawyer, just doing my thing and I didn’t move into that house until 2009, that is 18 full years. So it wasn’t a house that was built when I was in the public service or in the public eye, it was a house that my wife and I… yes, we may have been able to finish it earlier, but you know how things develop, sometimes there is a new lead, you abandon the house and since we were not on the street, there was no urgency attached. So, how it became a target remains a matter of interest to me and I truly wish and pray that it is unravelled someday, unravelled so that it can give me a sense of closure; because I will like to know, why me? I will like that question answered. I read the press briefing of the attorney general of the federation, where he said he attributed the destruction of my house to Nnamdi Kanu, I have an open mind about it because those who were around said they saw a number of strange faces around Calabar during that period. You know how Calabar is, everybody knows virtually everybody else. So if you see strange faces you will know, and after the destruction of my house, I am told that about 10 people, strange people, heavily built, went round, inspected the house as if to satisfy themselves that it was mission accomplished. So for me I have an open mind, but I pray to God one day that how I became a victim will be unravelled.
It’s actually shocking, I had thought that by now there would have been a clue as why it happened….
Yeah. I’m totally confounded. First of all, I come from the central senatorial district, I am not from the south. So, you cannot say it’s because of politics. My politics is played largely in the central and now at the national level. Two, as you know, I am not controversial in the conventional sense. I hold very strong views but I am able to justify every view that I have. Three, I have not been in the position where we are plotting anything that I cannot plot in public. So for me, it remains a bit confounding. Yes, one or two persons were arrested and they are standing trial, but of course they will be standing trial for breaking in or for looting, or for some other thing, but are they actually the masterminds? And don’t forget that in Calabar in one day, 166 properties were destroyed in one day- from Tinapa to the international conference centre, to the infectious diseases hospital, to the psychiatric hospital, to Donald Duke’s wife’s facility, to Senator Imoke’s wife’s shop- 166. Why Calabar, why was it so methodical? And I have been told that just a few days before, policemen, especially in the central senatorial district in the Yakurr area, in Ekori and Ugep, were targeted; they were killed. So, are all of these events linked? So certainly, you will find one or two persons who were arrested carrying looted items. But those are not the people, I’m interested in the real masterminds. I will like to know why I became of interest to them.
So, in quantifiable terms what do you think you lost during that attack?
(Laughs) You can’t put any value, you can’t put any. Let’s even start with the house. I’ve had to do the house from the scratch, part of it if you remember was burnt. So there were integrity issues, structural integrity issues and all of that. It is like building afresh. So doing the house is totally a different cost.
There were items there you can’t place any value. I can start with the one that is public. Amongst my father’s 10 children, I’m the first to be a lawyer and naturally when he passed on, you know he was a lawyer before he became a judge of the high court, before he became a justice of the court of appeal, one of the earliest justices of the court of appeal. So, his robes as a lawyer, his robes as a high court judge, his robes as a justice of the court of appeal were handed over to me as he was buried and the interesting thing is, I had been in Calabar I think two, three weeks before I travelled, before the incident and I was just opening old suit cases and one of them happened to be a suit case containing these robes. So I asked my boy to go and sun them. So the good thing is, maybe God just wanted me to see them for the last time.
I have been a lawyer for 43 years. You can imagine how old my father’s practice books would have been. Naturally of course, I also inherited his practice books, you know, everything was looted completely.
My maternal grandmother, my mother died last year at 92. So let us assume that her mother got married at 16, it could have been earlier, it could have been later, so the drinks that were part of her bride price could have been like 108 years.
And they were in that house.
They were in that house. My grandmother died, I had finished youth corps, I think I was in my first or second year of practice when she died but she was already an old woman, you know, then I used to belong to a book club called folio society. Folio society dealt with out- of- print books. I was introduced to them by Kanu Agabi because Kanu Agabi when I joined his chambers, he had an elaborate library of folio books. So I got interested and over the years, I acquired so many books, out- of -print books from him and they were usually very neatly packaged. If you see a folio book- I don’t have anyone here because they were all in Calabar- just like the Britanica. So, I lost the books. You remember that I wrote a lot, I wrote a lot of newspaper articles and a lot of manuscripts, all gone.
Clearly, they were looking for cash, because I mean, if you saw how they broke into the ceiling, into the wardrobe, I am told that a recent way of hiding money is by putting the money in an overhead tank. So I’m sure that is what they were looking for and they may have gotten frustrated that they didn’t find the money they were looking for. Sometimes our wealth is exaggerated. You just see somebody, he is looking happy, he is looking healthy, you say he must be a millionaire. Well in real life, your wealth could actually be your sense of contentment, and your goodwill.
Okay, when you came back from abroad and then you saw the ruins, what were the first things that occurred to you?
Well, I didn’t go to Calabar immediately. When that invasion was going on, like I told you, I was abroad, and my wife and I, she was here in Abuja, we were watching the invasion together. Incidentally, I had just received my medical report, that day of the invasion, giving me a clean bill of health, because I had had a major surgery and I went for check-up, and my wife and I were like, ‘if this is the price you have to pay for your health, let us take it in good faith’ and she has had this tradition of once in so many years, just giving out every item or furniture in the house. So she had told me at the beginning of 2020 that Victor, in December this year, ‘I want to give out everything in this house, and replace them,’ because for her, it was something spiritual, it represented renewal, that as a human being, as a spiritual being, you needed to renew yourself now and then. So, sometimes you just wake up and she has emptied the house and because she believed in her home so much, she didn’t depend on me to, if I wanted to join her in replacing them, fine, if I didn’t want to, no problem. But she was capable of replacing them. So she had already told me that she was going to give out. So for her, people coming to loot those items were just helping her to send them out. But you know the bigger tragedy was to happen a few weeks later, she died less than three weeks after the looting of the house and we couldn’t even go to Calabar because when she died, the proper thing would have been to take her first to Calabar, have a ceremony in Calabar before heading out to Ikom, since we spent a substantial part of our lives in Calabar, before moving to Abuja. But we couldn’t. So we had to go to Ikom through Enugu. So it was many months later, in fact I was seeing the house only from pictures, like when senior lawyers from Cross River and Akwa Ibom, led by my friend and brother Paul Erokoro went with lawyers from Cross River and Akwa Ibom to see the house, for the first three or four months, I didn’t even see the house. I eventually went there and what struck me was what is it that could make another human being so bitter with a fellow human being to this extent?
They removed toilet seats, all of the toilet seats, all were removed. All the jacuzzis, only one survived and that was because they didn’t know how to manipulate it out of the door. So, what did they do? They abandoned it after taking it out inside the bathroom and destroyed it, scattered it so that we won’t even use it. I’m Catholic, I have a chapel in each of my homes. I have a chapel in Calabar, they even went into the chapel, took the altar table. I have this big cross and this big statue of the Virgin Mary inside the chapel. They took all. But the surprising thing is, they abandoned the statue of the Virgin Mary by the gate. My wife and I were joking about it, that she (the Virgin Mary) was too hot for them. So when I went there the first time, I was like, what could make a human being this angry, this bitter with another human being? To the best of my knowledge, I don’t remember anything I have done to deserve that level of bitterness. Yes, you could be unhappy with me, you could be dissatisfied but not to that level. But like I said, all of that was overshadowed by the bigger tragedy of the death of my wife, less than three weeks later.
How did you manage her exit at that time?
Well, there have been a build-up. Remember this happened in October. In August, in one week, I buried my mother on Tuesday, buried her mother on Friday of the same week and buried my cousin on Saturday, all of the same week. So, we finished burying my mother on a Tuesday, I rushed to Onitsha for the burial of her mother on Friday, left Onitsha on Friday for the burial of my cousin on Saturday, all in one week. So, we thought after the burial, we are going to have a break, then I had to travel abroad for my check-up. Then this one happened less than three weeks later. It was a very big challenging period but I now see the benefit of faith in God and for me they were a few things that happened that strengthened me. Four days after her burial, it was a very dark night. This compound was like a market throughout that period. So, we were sitting outside, big crowd outside and I was sitting further inside, after the swimming pool, when my friend Thompson Abu, Eugene Abu’s husband, he was sitting by the pool, so he walked to us, he is a very calm person, he wanted to show us something, he said ‘gentlemen, come and see something.’ So we came out and he pointed to the sky and there were two very bright images on the sky, just two, side by side, one was big, the other one was small, but they looked the same and we were all looking, those of us who were Catholics as if in unison, everybody said ‘that’s the blessed Virgin Mary, because clearly it was the blessed Virgin Mary. So I was to see Cardinal Onaikan on that night, to discuss the burial arrangements with him. As you can see, if you see all over the house you see Cardinal’s pictures, come to our offices because we are very close to him, he calls my wife his daughter. So I was to see him that night and when we went there, Thompson said he showed him, because Thompson managed to capture the images on his phone. So he said ‘Your Eminence, please can you make anything out of this? He said ‘well I can’t see clearly but the big one looks like the blessedVirgin Mary. So when Thompson kept pressing what the significance was, you he turns everything to a joke, he said the ‘Virgin Mary visited Victor, did she visit me?’ But I mean I had no doubt because my family, we are devotees of the Virgin Mary and my wife never joked with the Virgin Mary and each time she wants to frighten or discipline the children, she will say ‘I will report you to Mother Mary. So I had no doubt that she was in a better place.
And then I think the day before, because I didn’t break down immediately I got the news, she travelled on Thursday, the news came to me in the wee hours of Friday, it was that same Friday they brought her, flew her body back from Ondo State. I was at the mortuary to identify the body. I couldn’t believe that that was the same person we prayed that morning in the chapel and then I saw her off to the car, but on Sunday, I was in the shower and then I had my first break down because that was the day she was to return. I was like, ‘God, why all of these?’ And I could hear a very clear voice; very, very clear, ‘Victor why are you questioning God, why are you questioning God? Apologise, apologise, don’t you know I’m in a better place? So for me, I think the assurance that she is in a better place. And then even when you are with the children, we have quite a number of children, she was a lover of children. So our houses are always full with them, they are all still here, and you could hear them, when one is doing something wrong, one will shout to her, ‘mummy won’t like that thing you are doing, mummy won’t like that thing; which means she’s still around. But it was tough. For now, I begin to thank God for the life we shared, for the memories, because it is not every marriage that is peaceful. But I had a great, and if you know that there is nothing human that lasts forever, it was bound to come to an end someday by either me going first or she going. So it’s faith; faith that has kept me going.
So, one year after, are you thinking of remarrying?
(Cuts in) No, no, no, no. (cuts in) The issue doesn’t even arise, the issue doesn’t arise. I don’t know about 10, 15 years from now, I don’t know about that. But for now, you will be unkind, you will be uncharitable to any woman you meet now because you will be judging her by your late wife’s standard, and that will be unfair. And then secondly, for me to live with another woman in peace, I have to vacate all our homes. Like I told you, everything about this house, I mean all I remember about this house, she was sitting down with the architect to design it, and the moment we started, she was the one going to buy cement, she was the one going to buy, in spite of her high status and then when we got to the point of furnishing, she was the one who travelled abroad, she was the one who furnished, the same thing with the Calabar house, the same thing with my Ikom house which used to be one small bungalow until I met her. Then when my uncle died, my uncle will send me to school, on her own she started renovating it, today you see the structure, you think it’s a storey building. So for you to feel comfortable with another woman, you really have to move out of these places where her presence is embedded. So for me, it’s not, we still have two, her older daughter is 16, the younger one is 12. So let me see them to certain level with their education, let me devote my time to them and to the church, to God’s work.
You must be a very strong man, I must say.
Yeah! To be able to cope with all of these, I mean, it was just like what happened to Job in the Bible…
(Cuts in) Yeah! But what did they say about Job’s later life? You know that long story about Job. So many chapters, but when it got to his later life, I think it was a sentence or two; Job’s later life became better than the first. But I thank God for the gift of faith.
Let’s round off with politics. 2023 is by the corner, what are we expecting from you?
From me nothing. Absolutely nothing. If you have followed my life very closely, I have never succeeded in anything I set out to do, I have always succeeded in things that I did not set out to do and I will give you a few examples. As a child growing up, the Catholic priesthood was my ambition; I am not that priest today. I read science up to A levels because I wanted to read medicine at a point. As a matter of fact, my first university entrance which was to the then University of Ife, my centre was Adiaha Obong Secondary School in Uyo; it was to read medicine. I didn’t read medicine. When it became obvious that I was going to read law, I read law to teach law, I wanted to read law to PhD level and be a teacher.
Not to practice?
None of those things happened. When I went to politics, I think that was about when I first met you, I was to run for governor. I am not that governor. So everything I have on my own set out to be, I never became. So, God has total control of my life. How I became commissioner is still a miracle, how I went to the senate, the same thing, how I became chairman of NBA in Calabar, how I became president of chamber of commerce in Calabar, chamber of commerce, I did not set out to. The only thing that I set out to be was to be SAN. That was when, after Richard Ebri died, because up to when Richard was practicing, he was far younger than me in age and in the profession. Richard was already applying for SAN and I was not. But when Richard died, it occurred to me that I had to do this for his sake. So it was because of Richard’s sake and it was the judges in the court, open court who started telling me ‘look, why are you not applying for this thing?’ I became chairman of NDDC in a very interesting way. I had carried somebody’s CV, he came to me and said he was interested, a close friend of mine, only for me to deliver the CV and the people were laughing; only for me to hear my name about a year later as chairman of NDDC. I became secretary of the convention, the national convention of APC in 2018. I was in my village preparing for the Cardinal’s visit to dedicate the church my wife and I built, when I got call from the national chairman. So if you look at my life, when I have surrendered to God, He takes total control. So, I can’t tell what is ahead of me in 2023, neither can you tell, because this is the first election we will be going into, that you don’t have clear front runners, in any of the parties. It has never happened before, that you are this close to an election and there is no inclination. So for me, I believe that something momentous will happen in 2023; we will see the hand of God very, very clearly in 2023 and 2023 for me also spiritually will represent that break from 1966.
What do I mean by 1966? Those who have been around the corridors of power have been the graduates of the 1966 coup or their colleagues. If you just look at it, General Gowon, Murtala Mohammed, Obasanjo one, Obasanjo two, I think the only interregnum they would have had would have been Jonathan. Even Yar’Adua, don’t forget that in that class, there was a senior Yar’Adua. So, this is the first time, hopefully that we will just see a complete break from that. So for me, I think the fact that less than two years to presidential election, we are yet to see clear front runners, and the fact that 2023 represents an opportunity for a new start means that God is about to show His hands and He will do so directly.