Former National Chairman of the defunct Congress for Progressives Change, Prince Tony Momoh, in this interview with LEKE BAIYEWU, talks about his childhood as an Auchi, Edo State prince; and his career as a teacher and a journalist who rose to become an editor and manager at the Daily Times.
Looking back in retrospect, would you say you are fulfilled in life?
Oh yes! I am fully fulfilled because nothing happens by accident. Everybody should bear responsibility for whatever they do. What you do at any time is a sowing of seeds, which will grow and ripen for your harvest. So, everything happening to you at any time is a harvest of what you did before, which bore fruit that you are reaping.
As the 165th child of King Momoh I of Auchi, Edo State, how would you describe your childhood in the palace?
We grew up in a family of seven compounds and the compounds were headed by women. The most senior wives of our father headed the compounds; the youngest wives lived with them while the middle-level wives lived on their own.
So the wives were graded?
Yes. My mother was one of the youngest ones and she lived in the compound whose male head was Kessington Momoh, who was the most popular politician in the Momoh family and was an Action Group minister who followed (late Chief Obafemi) Awolowo.
All of us in the compound, growing up, knew all the women – about 48 of them – to be our mothers. We couldn’t differentiate between the women. Every woman in my father’s house was a mother to every child in my father’s house. Every six months, they (the wives) took an oath not to do anything to undermine the husband, the children or one another.
Was the oath traditional or with the Bible or the Quran?
It was a traditional oath.
Was that the religion of the family?
No. Between 1921 and 1926, my father, as the district head of Kukuruku Division, spread Islam far and wide. But this oath was administered internally in the palace. We were told and we grew up to believe that if you did anything to undermine your brother, you would drop dead. Doing ‘anything’ include thinking evil of the person, going to another person to prepare anything to undermine someone or even speaking evil of the person. Therefore, that followed us in life. I have never done anything to harm anybody by going to someone to prepare ‘juju’ for me to undermine anybody. Since I started journalism and writing in 1962, I have written thousands of pieces, I have never used a curse word on anybody. Never! I have never been taken up for libel because I undermined anybody. We all grew up to honour women because women, in the knowledge in which I stand now, are spiritually higher than men and they should be respected, honoured and protected.
During the oath-taking period, was there any instance where a member of the family suffered or died for plotting evil against another member of the family?
How would I know? People were dying every day and people were being born every day. At the end of the day, my father had about 48 wives and 257 children between 1903 and 1944. I wouldn’t know if anybody had evil thoughts about anybody and dropped dead. Incidentally, there was a clear case, which would point to the direction of the question you asked. Two of our brothers belonged to different groups, struggling for a political position. And they had people from the family who were supporting them and it, therefore, brought bad blood among them. Whether you believe it or not, there was a way our father was always intervening. If there was anything wrong with the family, he would ask that the family’s posterity be put back on track. Those brothers died one after the other and many of their followers in town died terrible deaths.
Considering the size of your family, how true is it that yours is the biggest family in the world, such that the British colonial masters gave your father a medal to that effect?
Oh yes! They called him ‘Evergreen Momoh’ and they said security report said Momoh had a very large family but did not seem to have family problems. It was the way the family was organised. The spiritual head of the family was Mallam Aliyu, who was born the same mother as my father. The administrative head of the family and the one who kept the family records was Abudah, who was the youngest member of the family and he kept family’s records of deaths and births. The family record started from 1903 and he kept it from that 1903 to beyond 1944 when our father died. Our father died in December 1944.
Being from such a large family, how often did you see your father and were you close to him?
I was born in 1939. The encounter I had with my father between 1939 and 1944 was that those of us who were very young would go to him when he was eating, and when he had washed his hands we would rush to drink the water.
Why did you do that?
Don’t you want to be as big as your father? We would struggle to drink the water he used in washing his hands, not to talk of the food he had not eaten (leftover). Very few children would get to his abode. I had a brother who was about the same age with me and we encountered our father and the lessons we learnt from how he treated us is still with me today.
Was there rivalry among the wives and children as it is commonly found in polygamous families?
We loved ourselves. For instance, I have never fought in my life. I have never exchanged blows with anybody in my life, apart from the case of one of our brothers who was always beating up people. And he would beat up anybody who touched me. We were in the same class and his name was Abdul. One day, he wanted to pounce on me and that day was the first day I remember I fought. And I beat him to coma.
What fond memories do you have of your mother?
My mother had four children for my father. I am number 165 of my father’s children. My mother was one of the brightest among my father’s wives. I didn’t know but many of the women later told me that my mother was the one decorating the palace. My mother was doing masa (corn cake) and I was selling it before I went to school. People would wait for her corn cake to get done before they took their pap in the morning and I would be the one to supply. But some people (customers) would tell me when I got to them, ‘Ah! Somebody brought it this morning and it was from your mother but I discovered that it was not as good as your mother’s own.’ Some people were using my mother’s name to promote their corn cake.
The great sacrifice my mother made after my father died while I was in school was that we had to pay the school fees of one shilling and three pence. The person, who was to pay our fees, the Otaru of Auchi, had gone to a meeting in Ibadan and he was away for a long time.
So who paid the fees?
Nobody would pay the fee. Did you know that I was out of school for 45 days? So, they (the school) put “left” beside my name. In other words, I was expelled. Later, my mother gave me one shilling, which was the capital for her corn cake business. My uncle added three pence and I went back to school. If I had not gone back to school, the story would have been different today because I was leading in every subject in every exam throughout my career. If it was not Abdul Momoh, it would be Sule Momoh (who would lead) in the exam in Government School, Auchi. I returned to school because of my record that, ‘Such a clever boy, how could he leave school?’ So, the headmaster agreed that I should come back and I came back to school. Three days after, we sat for examination. I came third and I wept. That was the first time I would not come first or second throughout my career in primary school.
Did your mother’s business survive after using the capital to pay your school fees?
Of course, it did. I wouldn’t know how she was able to continue with her business. Of course, my mother had three boys and a girl. The girl died. I am the second child. My (elder) brother was the first Christian in the family.
How and why did he convert to Christianity?
When the Anglican Church came to Auchi, they said they wanted land in Auchi; that my father had Islamised the whole place because he didn’t like Christians. So, he gave them a choice (piece of) land where they are till today in Auchi. Later they said, ‘You gave us land but none of your children is in our school. Prove that you love us by giving us your child.’ So, he gave my elder brother to them and he became the first Christian. He was Aliyu Momoh but his name became Michael Momoh. The second person was me and the third was my younger brother – the first PhD holder in my family – Professor C. S. Momoh, who was Dean, Faculty of Art in University of Lagos.
Can you describe your days as a teacher and principal in the Western Region?
I attended Government School Auchi and St. Paul’s Anglican School, Okpe in Akoko-Edo. When I went to Okpe in 1954 was the final year of those who were in Standard Six. They sat for examination with those who were in Standard Five so they could move into the new six-year tenure for primary school under Awolowo’s free education programme in the Western Region.
Those of us who were in Standard 6 sat for examination with those in Standard 5 in 1954. By 1955, under the free education programme by Awolowo, they wanted a lot of teachers.
There is a story to tell about my life spiritually as a result of my becoming a teacher. I led every class every year but I missed the entrance examination to secondary school because I rode bicycle to where I would take the examination and I discovered the examination had been taken the previous day. I was now supposed to go to secondary school the following year. But in my own pride I said no; I would not allow those I was leading in class to be ahead of me in secondary school.
So what did you do?
I decided to teach. I went to an Anglican school in Okpe where they offered (Christian) Religious Knowledge.
But you were a Muslim…
Yes, and I had never touched a Bible in my life. When I was in Government School Auchi, they were giving us Islamic lessons and we were all reading the Quran. I didn’t want to touch the Bible. The Bible to me – this is very serious and it is still happening today due to disorientation – was an evil book. Oh yes! We were thought that after Prophet Muhammad and Islam came, anybody who is living must be a Muslim; otherwise you’re going to hell. I later read the Quran to discover that there was no such thing but that was what we were taught.
Anyway, I got to Okpe to discover that there was no single Muslim. That was the first shock I had. So, because I must teach Religious Knowledge, I started reading the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. All those Bible stories that people knew; I didn’t know any of them. My brother who my father had ‘donated’ to the Anglican Church was trained as a teacher and went to Owo for his teacher training. I was with him in Okpe but I didn’t go to church throughout. He was going to church on Sundays; I was not going to church because I wanted to continue reading my Quran and I wanted to run away from Okpe to Auchi.
When we did mock examination, I beat everybody in Religious Knowledge and the headmaster had to give all students in Standard Six, six strokes of the cane each. He said, ‘Look at this man, who is a Muslim, beating you in Religious Knowledge.’ At the end, I came back to Auchi in 1954. We all wanted to teach in Etsako Local Government and someone said we should pay £5 and all my colleagues borrowed the money and paid. But I said I wouldn’t pay. I was shocked because the person who was asking us to pay £5 was a Muslim. I said, ‘A Muslim? Islam? Asking for a bribe? I won’t pay it.’ So, I went to the Christian Missionary School. They were all looking for teachers to populate all the schools that Awolowo built. But they (CMS) said there was a problem; that I was a Muslim and they were Christians. So, something whirled up in me; I was really angry. I said I would go to church. I had never gone to church. Then, they employed me as a teacher when I started going to church.
Was that how you stopped being a Muslim?
Yes. Because of the anger and the disappointment, I said I was no longer a Muslim because I judge institutions by those who run them.
I abandoned Islam in 1955 and started going to church. I taught in their school and they wanted me to be baptised. I agreed. By then, all of us used to answer ‘guy names’ (nicknames). My nickname was Tony; my real name was Suleiman.
I took Tony from Tony Enahoro of the Western Region and Tony Oseni, who was the first Auchi man to become a graduate; and there was Tony Hayden, who was the Prime Minister of Britain then. That was how I took Tony as my name. So, when they wanted to baptise me, they said I must take a Christian name. They asked why I didn’t choose Anthony which I was already called. I said it was Tony and not Anthony, which was my ‘guy name.’ I insisted that if they must baptise me, it must be with the name I came with, which was Suleiman otherwise there would be no baptism.
And did they?
Yes. They baptised me with Suleiman.
I went for Grade III teacher training, came back and started teaching as a headmaster because the headmaster didn’t show up for health reasons. I was the headmaster for two years. Within the two years, I went for teacher’s training. I came back, taught for two years and went back for teacher training in Higher Elementary at the Teacher Training College in Abraka for two years. Within the six years, I earned salary for two years and also earned salary while in Abraka for two years. Totally, I had Teacher Grade III and Grade II. While I was teaching for two years, I read for GCE and had GCE O’Level, which is equivalent of School Certificate and I had GCE Advanced Level while I was in Abraka. I achieved all in six years. Those my colleagues who went to secondary school and were now going for HSE were now using my notes.
In 1962, I left Abraka and I was teaching in Anglican Modern School in Auchi. And with all my certificates, I applied to read Estate Management. When we were leaving Abraka, they said we (students) had to sign bonds for four years and I said I would not. When we got to Abraka, the council was to sponsor us and it sponsored those who paid £5. Then, we were paid £14.10. But the council said people from my area should pay £5, which was easy to pay when you earned £14.10 every month. But I said I wouldn’t pay it. All my colleagues from my area paid the £5 but I said I wouldn’t pay it because it was a bribe. At the end, they said we should sign bond and I said I would not sign the bond because they did not sponsor me. At the end, those who paid the £5 per month for two years got books; they got transport fare from Auchi to Abraka and they got pocket money, aside from the £14.10. I didn’t get any of those (benefits) because I didn’t pay the £5.
I signed a bond with Anglican church, so I went to teach in Anglican school in 1962. I applied to study Estate Management in Reading University in England but I had to be released from the bond. I applied to be released from the bond. The Anglican education secretary, a Christian in Benin, said because I signed a bond for four years I had to serve the four years. They didn’t pay me a kobo. I was so embarrassed. But the man’s daughter who did four years straight and had Higher Elementary, and who didn’t have Higher Level or Advanced Level, signed a bond and he sent her to England to further her studies without serving the bond. I was so angry. I said, ‘This is injustice.’ I know there is one sin the Almighty Allah will never forgive; that is injustice. Because of that, I said I was not teaching again. I resigned from teaching and I resigned from the church because I judge institutions by those who run them. In 1955, I resigned from Islam because I was asked to give a bribe. In 1962, I resigned from Christianity and the church and I went to Daily Times.
Oh, was that how your journey to Daily Times started?
One thing is, in 1971 or 72, I had attended a lecture given by Adeyemi Lawson at the Grail Land, Iju. He was speaking about how there was no group journey to paradise. And that you should read the Bible because the truth in the Bible is for you to live – live the truth in the Bible. You should read the Quran because the truth in the Quran is for you to live – live the truth in the Quran. Don’t do what the pastor said or the Muslim said because you are on your own. That one shook and shattered me. I said (to myself), ‘I resigned from Islam because of what the Muslim did. I also resigned from Christianity because of what a Christian did. And here is Adeyemi Lawson telling me ‘I am on my own.’ In other words, don’t do what others tell you, do what the book says. That changed my whole perception of life. I said what if I had died before then. Would I have told God what a Christian did to me was why I didn’t follow the Bible; or a Muslim did something and that was why I didn’t follow the Quran?
But the beauty was that when I said I was no longer a Muslim, I started reading the Bible and found Christ and discovered that all I was taught in Quran school – about killing Christians even when they have not committed an offence – was not true. There is only one God that the Christians and the Muslims have and must serve. I went back to (Islamic) fasting in 1975 and up till now. I am a Muslim and a Christian when they are not quarrelling because they have made Islam and Christianity political parties, instead of the religions that they are which should lead us to paradise.
Was that why you didn’t swear by either the Quran or the Bible when you were being sworn in as a minister in 1986?
When I was being sworn in as Minister of Information and Culture, I said I wouldn’t swear by the Bible or the Quran and I said, ‘So help me God’. When I stepped out, journalists asked me, ‘They said you are an atheist.’ I said I was not an atheist. They asked why I did not swear by the Bible or the Quran but only said ‘So help me God.’ I said, ‘I am a Christian and a Muslim when they are not quarrelling, and neither when they are.’
How did you become a journalist and work in the Daily Times?
After my resignation (at the Anglican school), I went to Lagos and applied for jobs, including a job in Daily Times.
Did you ever have the dream of becoming a journalist as a child?
I liked journalism. When I applied to the Daily Times, (Dele) Giwa, who was secretary to Alhaji Babatunde Jose liked me because I was coming there to know the situation (with my application). I went there one day and he said, ‘They have written to you; haven’t you got your letter?’ I said no. I said, ‘What did they write there? No job?’ He told me to talk to Alhaji (Jose). I waited and when Alhaji came out, I said, ‘Sir, I came to find out about my application for a job.’ He asked, ‘Haven’t you got a reply?’ I said no. He said they had written to me telling me there was no job. I said, ‘Sir, please, let there be a job.’ He asked me what I was doing before and I told him I was a teacher. He said, ‘Go back and teach. When there is an opportunity, you will come.’ I insisted I wasn’t going back and I pleaded with him. I said, ‘Sir, I know your headache.’ He said, ‘My headache?’ I said, ‘Yes sir.’ He asked me what it was and I said, ‘I have no experience and that is why you won’t give me a job.’ He said yes. I said, ‘But you are known all over the world today; someone must have given you an opportunity.’ He was to tell the story much later that what I did to him was what he did to Zik (Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe) when Zik gave him a job in Pilot. I said, ‘Just give me six months. Don’t pay me. If I don’t impress you, sack me.’ Then, he employed me. He asked where I wanted to start, I said, ‘Train me. I want to start from the beginning.’ So, he employed me as a trainee sub-editor and that was where we started until I wanted to further my education.
How were you able to operate under a military government?
The editorial policy was there; it did not change. And we operated that way. You won’t believe it: Daily Times was owned by the government that time but there was no interference in our operations. On one or two occasions when there were issues, I would just take responsibility; I would not expose the reporter to anything.