Magnus Abe, politician and lawyer, was born just before the Civil war in 1965. The war experience remains indelible in his memory. Strangers in Umunkwo village, somewhere in Igboland took good care of the young Magnus and his family during the war. He remains ever grateful for this. The boy from Eleme moved on after the war to become a success in law and politics. He was a member of the Rivers State House of Assembly, a commissioner, a secretary to the state’s government and Senator of the Federal Republic. This son of an Anglican priest shares the story of his eventful life with Onyebuchi Ezigbo
.My Father Taught Me That ‘I Can Inherit His Friends But I Should Make My Own Enemies’
Growing up during the civil war
I believe that life is a continuous process of learning and improvement. I was born in Eleme which is in Rivers state. I was born just before the Civil war in 1965 and after I was born, my father left for England and when the war started, my mother had to run with five of us to Igboland, somewhere called Umunkwo, which we had to trek to. I still have vivid memories of that experience; we were running with other refugees. My sister was in her teens at that time and she was very fair and very pretty and the story about a fair girl then was premium so we had to be hiding her in a basket and all sorts of things while we ran from the soldiers on both sides and there was no transportation. It was a long hard journey. Strangers in Umunkwo village, somewhere in Igboland welcomed us, they gave us a place to stay and we spent years in that community and I remain forever indebted to them for the protection, love and support that they gave to my family.
In fact, even up till last year, one of them had a severe medical emergency and was still reaching out to us. So, we have maintained that relationship since after the civil war. When my father came back and found us, he took us back to Rivers State. My father was a priest of the Anglican Church. He had six children and he was earning barely N90 a month at that time and with six children but was determined to give us education because he kept promising us that was what he owed us. He said we were here to struggle for ourselves but he would do everything he could so that we can have an education and he did his best.
I am a product of a public school system
I am a product of a public school system because my father didn’t have any money to pay for private tutors or private school and I keep telling people that if our public schools were the way they are now, I will not be speaking the kind of English I can speak today. I probably would have been a tout or a militant because the opportunity of public education, quality education for the children of the poor was something that the leaders of that time understood as a basic foundation for life and the growth of the country so that was one of the things that made me so passionate about education because I know if not for public education, if not for public libraries, I wouldn’t have had any opportunity to be the kind of person that I am today. So that is my story growing up and my father as a priest was transferred from place to place, so we had to keep moving. We moved to Okrika to Calabar then later on he joined politics and we came back to Rivers state.
I have a different world view from a lot of other people
First of all, I find out that I have a different world view from a lot of other people because I was privileged to benefit from the kindness and from systems that worked for everybody. I tell people about the experience I had when I was a student in Saint Patrick’s college Calabar and my father retired from the Anglican Church and moved back to Rivers State so I was left to stay in Calabar on my own. I could remember one instance I fell ill and the school bus in Saint Patrick’s College took me to Saint Margaret’s Hospital, which I think that is what it is called in Calabar and the hospital took care of me. They gave me so much food, the nurses were nice to me and I was so at home in the hospital that when I was discharged and the school bus came back to return me to school, I was hiding in the hospital, I didn’t want to go and they had to be chasing me up and down, I cried they pursued me to go back to school.
These were nurses, these were strangers, these were not Rivers people and I wasn’t a child from South Eastern state as it was called at that time; I was just a Nigerian child and I didn’t have anybody and the system provided for me. Today, the kind of quality healthcare and support that I got as a Rivers child in South Eastern state, today, no child even those from Cross River will get that kind of support from the system. So like I said, I have benefitted so much from strangers, people from different tribes and ethnicity and so I have a wider world view, I know that human beings are basically human beings, they are good and bad people everywhere and you can never find me either in thinking, action or words to be stereotyping people saying ‘oh Igbo people are like this’ because I know that if Igbo people were bad I won’t be alive. ‘Oh Calabar people are like this’ I know that if Calabar people were bad I won’t have been alive.
I have benefitted from kindness from people all over this country
I have benefitted from kindness from people all over this country and that was the kind of place Nigeria was. I remember as a teenager, myself and my elder brother drove round the country. We drove from Port Harcourt to Jos; from Jos we drove to Maiduguri, we spent time in Maiduguri, we went to Lake Chad and we made friends everywhere, we partied everywhere. Nigeria was one family and we never had any iota of fear that we were strangers in any part of Nigeria. We felt totally at home. So, in a lot of ways, that kind of upbringing gave me a very clear idea of the kind of society that Nigeria was and Nigeria can be and Nigeria should be and I think that shaped my gratitude towards human beings everywhere. I accept people for who they are, how they present themselves and when I get to know them better for what they actually represent.
I reverend my parents
Everybody who knows me very well knows that I reverend my parents. My dad as I told you was an Anglican priest and later went into politics. He was a member of the National Council of Nigeria and later became a member of the Rivers state House of Assembly represented the Kana constituency that same constituency, which I later grow up to also represent as the minority leader of the state House of Assembly. But substantially, a lot of things that I hold dear to my heart are things that my father taught me by constant repetition and by constant examples and I try to share a lot of principles, which with he brought me up amongst the younger people around me.
Like I always say to everybody in Rivers state; my father taught me that ‘I can inherit his friends but I should make my own enemies’ and I try to share that with my children and with everybody because the kind of politics that we have today not just in Rivers state but in Nigeria is such that if I have an issue with somebody, anybody who is my friend can’t be a friend to the other person who is my enemy, which is not how I was brought up. My mother also taught me to accept my situation in life. My mother was a petty trader and a petty farmer who was very content and she had a very strong opinion of who she was and who she felt we could be and has never allowed us in any way to be defined by what we have or what we didn’t have.
Even in my old age now, I am not afraid to learn new things
The best version of Magnus Abe would be the one that is buried; so, until that day, you can no longer breath and move you have the obligation to your God to not only maximise your talent but to constantly and consistently improve them. Even in my old age now, I am not afraid to learn new things. The other day I went to learn lawn tennis and then my son was saying ‘ah, daddy people are going to laugh at you’ and I said ‘they are welcome to laugh still I start playing better than them’. So at every given point in time I am free to learn new things, free of the challenge that a lot of people face; of constantly worrying about what people will think of you, that has never been a part of my life and in a lot of ways that has given me the courage to try thing that others would be afraid of and I owe that to my parents.
The best gift I ever received as a child
A book called ‘Island in the Midst’ that was given to me by my father when I was about seven years old. That book introduced me to the love of reading. By the time I was 10 or 11, I had read all the books in the children section of the public library in Calabar and it was all because of that one book I was given so that book introduced me to the love of reading and if anything shaped my life, it is was because of my devotion to reading which politics has now taken from me.
I got married rather late
I got married rather late. I think I got married about 15 or 16 years ago, about the 1st of November and I was thirty something by the time I got married, which is not early by African standard and I thank God I didn’t get married earlier because I probably would have married somebody else because of when I got married, I married my own wife.
The story of how I met my wife
It is a story which I don’t know if I should tell and I don’t know if my wife would be happy that I am telling the story. Bit funny enough, somebody actually brought up the idea of me meeting my wife. The person was a politician and he came to see me and he said he has seen a girl that in fact he was full of hyperboles and all that, saying this is a girl that can be anything and he went on and on so I got curious and I asked him to set up a meeting. Of course my wife didn’t like the idea of being introduced to someone he didn’t know so she kept douching at that time but later on as faith would have it, I finally found her and that was it, we just took off from there.
My most difficult situation
I have been through a lot of challenges in life but you know I see every challenge as an opportunity or a lesson. I don’t see anything as the most difficult thing that can happen to me. I accept life as it is. There are things that I can control and there are things that I can’t control. The things that I can’t control I accept them but the things I can control I do my best to try to control them, but the most important thing is to make the best use of the fact that you are actually alive and to thank God for the fact that you are healthy. So, for everyday that you are alive and healthy, every other thing is a walk in the park. Some of the things that one will ordinary consider as difficult or challenge are actually things that at the end of the day help to improve you in many ways. Like they say, ’whatever doesn’t kill you makes you a better person’, so the most difficult thing would be the one that takes your life, every other thing is an opportunity you can benefit from no matter how bad it is.
Make the best use of the day you have because today is given to you without the promise of tomorrow
Like I said, there are so many things my father taught me and there was something my father used to constantly tell me and he would make me repeat it. It is: ‘yesterday you dream and tomorrow is only a vision but today well-lived makes every dream a dream of happiness and every vision a vision of hope; so look he therefore onto this day’. So I grew up repeating that. I actually thought it was my father that taught us that thing and said it. When I got to the university and I shared that with my friends and all of us kept repeating it, we always attributed that quote to my father until when we started working and a friend of mine called me from the USA saying ‘do you remember that thing your father used to say, it wasn’t your father that said it. He got it from the Sacristy’, so it is actually something that is in the Sacristy and what it means is that you make the best use of the day you have because today is given to you without the promise of tomorrow; Whatever choice I make, whatever decision I take today is the one that at the time I am taking it, I am convinced that is the best thing for me to do. So after doing it, whatever is the outcome there is no room for me to regret it.
I have no room for regret
I have no room to regret any decision I have taken. I am very proud of the things I have done and if I were to be transported back and repeat my decisions as at the time I took them, I am sure I would have probably done the same thing because those were the things I thought were right for me to do at that time and looking back, a lot of those decisions got me to where I am right now. Like I always tell the story of when I was to be made chairman of my local government and I turned it down because the law provided a certain age and I wasn’t up that age and people wanted me to go and change my age and do an affidavit but I refused. Now, the person who went ahead and got that job went in a different trajectory but because I didn’t become a chairman at that time I went on to become a member of the House of Assembly, I became a commissioner, I became secretary to government, I became a Senator. So, if I had tried to take another decision at that time and I had become a chairman because I must be chairman, probably that would have been the end of my career. I am always very proud of the decisions I have taken in life and I will continue to live that way, confident that whatever decision you took in good faith would bring its own reward.
I love to impact ideas and my own version of how we can create a better society
Everyday offers a unique opportunity for me to do the things I love most to play, to teach because I love to impact ideas and my own version of how we can create a better society. I love to do that with people at every given point in time, which is something I do at every given opportunity of the week. Everyday should be an indelible day; I woke up this morning, I played tennis with my son, which is an indelible day for me and him. So the little things we do count as much as the big ones; that is my way of life.
My biggest fears
Every human being has hopes, aspirations and desires. My biggest hope is that we should be able to build a country here that works for everybody equal and that will convince the rest of the world that black people can actually do things and do it right and do it better. My biggest fear and what will be my greatest disappointment would be to die without being sure that the vision of a society built and run by black people that would be respect for what it is able to accomplish for its own people would be realised. If I were to leave this world without seeing that, I would be disappointed.
Life has taught me that human beings basically are the same
Well, life has taught me that human beings basically are the same. There is no perfect person. There are lots of times people act out of selfish so what they say is directly related to what their expectations may be and if those expectations change, their positions may also change. So managing people will require that understand that you come to appreciate that nobody is perfect including yourself and all the other limitations you see in other people are also in you in one way or the other and the same understanding and compassion you show to yourself when you fall short, you should also extend that to other people as they fall short because inevitably, everybody is falling short in some way or the other.
That I think is the most important lesson I have learnt. I tell my children everyday ‘don’t think I am some kind of super hero’. I struggle and I expect you people to also struggle but I want you to understand that nobody is perfect and human beings invariably will be humans in all the failings and shortcomings that come with humanity and ultimately our mortality.
You have a responsibility to try and struggle, never give up
I believe that once you are here and you are drawing breath, you are already here and that your presence here is an engagement between you and your God that gave you breath. It is not between you and your father, not between you and your mother, it is not between you and any other person; it is between you and God. You have a responsibility to try and struggle, never give up, use the best of the opportunity that you have been given. Part of what I see today in a lot of people not just young people in this country is that there are two things I see in people; firstly, the entitlement mentality where people think everybody owes them anything and secondly, a victim mentality. A lot of Nigerians today feel they are victims of the fact that they were born here so there is nothing they can do. I was talking with some leaders last night and I said listen, these are the things we can do to move our party forward and move our country forward and all of them said but you are not the leader, it is the leader but they have forgotten that everybody is a leader.
So people are beginning to develop a victim mentality, making themselves out that they are helpless, that there is nothing they can do because some other person has to do it. That is not how life works. I keep saying to people, you have an obligation to create the world you want to see. You have a duty to live the life you want to live. So for anybody to sit down and feel either a sense of entitlement or you feel that you are a victim of your circumstance, then you are to blame for your life, you give up and then you imagine that it is the governor, the president or the local government chairman that should do this for you and haven’t done it, therefore there is nothing you can do. I don’t think that is the spirit that builds great society. That is the advice I would like to give to everybody; not just the young or old but every human being. You are here now; do your best, struggle as long as you can and be confident that the best life that you can build for yourself is the one that you will have. I was talking to someone the other day; you talk of Beyonce, you talk of Mike Tyson these people are the great grand-children of slaves. Their great grand fathers were in the hole of a ship. Everyone was dying around them, they struggled and refused to die but if they had given up and died there, there would be no Beyonce. So no matter how bad the life is, it still has purpose, you still have something you can contribute, you still have value you can add and you know the struggle to do your best no matter what it is and delivering that value to humanity is what makes you.
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