Reminiscences with Engr. Vincent Maduka

Engr Vincent Maduka was the first Director-General of the Nigerian Television Authority and the consultant that midwifed the Nigerian Communications Commission. He is also a past President of Nigerian Society of Engineers and Nigerian Academy of Engineering. In this interview, Engr Maduka, an Electrical/Electronics engineer, recalls his childhood as a Christian boy attending a Quranic school with his friends and chanting the Arabic alphabet Alif, Ba, Ta, Sa… He also narrates how he and his friends played a fast one on Chief Anthony Enahoro to enable them secure access to study abroad, his entry into broadcast and how he midwifed the creation of the NCC

You are an indigene of Asaba, in Delta State, but you grew up among the Yoruba on Lagos Island. So what was growing up like in such an environment?

I remember growing up to take my turn in a disorderly situation. I used to fetch water for my family. There was no running tap inside the houses. We were lucky in Lagos that we even had running water at certain junctions. So we would go round the street corner to fetch water – and you had to fight for that because somebody always wanted to cheat you of your turn.

Cheating has actually been a long thing with us. We never had an order in which everybody just arrived and stood behind an earlier arrival. Everybody tried to muscle in. Even for small frames like mine, we had to fight for our turn. That should tell you how growing up in that kind of environment toughened me.

It was after I had turned in the water that I would prepare for school. In my school, if your hair wasn’t parted, it was evident you had not combed it and that could be interpreted by the school authorities that you didn’t have your bath that morning before coming to school. Also, the authorities would inspect your nails to see whether they were clean and trimmed properly.

I remember there was always fighting at school or on the way to school, either because of bullies who just wanted to beat you up and humiliate you or you would fight because of what you thought was your right. Disagreements would always degenerate into abuses and then fights. In the Lagos area, if you, as a young person, really wanted to upset another young person, you would abuse their parents and that would really inflame them.

If they were bigger than you, they would do that to make you angry because they knew you would want to fight and they would beat you up. So it was a relatively hostile and pugnacious relationship one had with people when growing up at school. Of course, I had very close friends I missed if they didn’t come to school for whatever reason. I have retained some of my earliest friends from primary school and we still visit each other.

Can you name any of them?

One of them is Ayo Adedipe. He was Ayo Bankole when we were in primary school. He lived in Onikan.

Which school was that?

Lagos Government School. I recall we had our little metal boxes we called the portmanteau, which bore our books and pencils and which would rust, leaving marks on our head as we many times carried them on the head. Then, it was Infant One class, Infant Two, and then Standard One up to Standard Six. It was in Standard One that we started using the dip pen, and it was quite a big deal to show off that you had reached the age of using pen. We almost always had ink spots on our clothes. I don’t think I would deliberately put ink on my clothes in my own primary school days but I know that, generally, this was something that showed that you were no longer a kid like that.

You are a Christian, so how were you mingling with boys of other religions who widely populated the Lagos Island then?

My parents were Roman Catholics, but as you rightly said, there were many Muslims around. But I used to join them to attend Ile Kewu (Quranic school) and recite the Alif, Ba, Ta, Sa and so on.

And your parents weren’t objecting?

Not at all. It wasn’t the kind of religious bigotry we have now. I really sat in Ile Kewu amid a lot of flogging. Of course, the Alfa knew I was an impostor and I wasn’t going to go as far as taking any test. I would just recite, along with other kids, and would also say their prayers with them. Again, there was always the sara (free meal) that people were always offering. It was always more of akara (bean cake) and rice. There was also puff-puff, but that was not so much from the Yoruba indigenes but from either the Brazilian returnees or the slave returnees.

I also recall that there was a drain that went past our house. It was about three feet deep, but as kids we could hide there. The drain was deep and wide and clean. We would play boat- racing in the drain; we made boats with paper and then raced with those boats. We would also cut flat slices of match boxes which floated and we raced with them.

The point I am making about the drain is that it was so clean that we could play there, unlike what we have everywhere now. Faeces were not discharged into the drain, and they were always cleaned by public servants, who were employees of the Lagos Town Council, which later became the Lagos City Council. Their sanitary inspectors, which we call wole-wole in Yoruba, would always inspect houses for cleanliness. They wouldn’t announce their visit and everybody in the house always made sure that broken pots were turned face down so that water didn’t settle in them.

The belief was that mosquitoes laid their eggs in pools of water, so you didn’t, as a habit, leave pots, bowls and the likes open. If you did, when the wole-wole man came, you could be in trouble.

The belief at a time, especially in your growing-up era, was that Lagos Island was a breeding ground more for rascals and unserious socialites than for academic achievers, but somehow you emerged from that crowd to excel. How did you break away?

It wasn’t a matter of breaking away. I can’t explain it so easily. I was small physically, but I had a roaster. I would fetch water in the morning and prepare myself for school. Most of the rascality you spoke about was in school, but even in my school, it wasn’t much. It was a very serious school.

Basically, I understand what you are talking about. I remember that when I passed the entrance exam to a secondary school, I didn’t know of anybody else in the length and breadth of that street who in that year gained admission to a secondary school. So you are right. Lagos Island was known for many negative distractions for kids growing up.

There was the egungun (masquerades); I sometimes joined their crowd, only I always kept my distance because if they flogged you and they saw that you were soft, they would attack you more. You had to play tough or else you kept your distance. Then there was the Igunnu (masquerade on stilts) whose kind of shrine was next block from us in Oshodi (the Oshodi-Tapa area on Lagos Island.)

For all my play, I couldn’t go outside the house for more than an hour at any time because I would have to answer various queries about where I had been. I went out and played but I didn’t stay too long because I knew I would be rebuked. ‘Where have you been? Why were you so long’?

In the house, we had a kerosene lamp. Though there were street lights and electricity was on the street, we didn’t have light in our house. So I had the job of lighting the lantern and had to be back before dusk to perform that task. Yes, that was an interesting question, but I really wasn’t one of those boys.

As I said earlier, when I got admission to secondary school, the only boy on the whole street, and to King’s College for that matter, I was practically celebrated. When I entered secondary school in 1949, there were only about seven secondary schools for boys in the whole of Lagos State. We had King’s College, St. Gregory’s College, CMS Grammar School, Eko Boys’ High School, Baptist Academy, and Ahmadiyya College, Agege.

Now, in one street alone, you can have seven secondary schools.

The talk among other secondary school students then was that King’s College students were favoured by the West African Examination Council and were, indeed, put through WASC questions in school before the WASC examinations. WWould you admit this as true?

That is absolutely untrue. Getting into KC itself was tough. The entrance exam into KC that I sat for was taken in the entire country. There was no quota system at that time. Actually, shortly after my time, there was a protest by the then Oba of Lagos that though King’s College was situated in Lagos, their kids were not there. The entrance exam that I sat for, they took only the best 25 in the whole country. There was nothing like expo. The white man’s standards were better than Nigerian standards, and in my time, there were more white teachers than black. Of course, gradually they were replaced. The white Principal was an Oxford graduate.

I did the Higher School Certificate and was preparing to choose a British university. There was the urge to graduate but you couldn’t cheat. The exam we took was an overseas exam of the Cambridge University. We didn’t have WAEC at that time; the papers were not marked here.

King’s College was known more for cricket than football. Did you play cricket yourself?

Yes, I played cricket. Only three secondary schools in Lagos played cricket – King’s, St. Gregory and Igbobi College – but King’s was tough. Sport at KC was fashioned after the British public school. A captain of cricket in my school, Coker, once captained the whole of the Nigerian national cricket team. An athlete, A.K. Amu, went to the Olympic Games as a school boy at King’s. He ran the relay and also held the 400 meters record for Nigeria. Femi Okunnu was at KC and was a member of the most formidable relay team.

At KC, sports was compulsory. Football is a contact game and you needed weight and speed, so I didn’t play football. But I played hockey. Hockey is a non-contact game where you need only a stick, and even your stick must not rise above your shoulder. KC did better in cricket than football because it required a higher technique, and not just muscle. We tended to be young, with small physique at KC because the age thing was taken seriously. Many people would come with falsified age claims but you had to be within a certain age. So you could not be big physically when you came in Cricket was a technical sport. Our sports master for cricket was an Englishman, a retired Captain from the British Army. He was also our cricket captain.

What shaped your decision at KC to read Engineering at the university?

Two things. One, in secondary school, you are either an Art student or a Science person. I was quite comfortable with both Arts and Science. I could have studied either. Then, there was a scholarship available for anybody studying Science. If you wanted to study Science, you would get a scholarship. If you wanted to study Engineering, not only would you get a scholarship, you would even get a scholarship to go abroad and when you come back, a job would be waiting for you.

Generally, there were more jobs then than graduates. We used to look at the gazette to know where there were job vacancies in government. We had a career master who also advised us.

By early 1950s, Independence was in the air and the Europeans were to be gradually replaced by Nigerians capable of doing their jobs. So those intending to study Engineering knew that by the time they graduated there would be one European leaving and one vacancy in Engineering. I could have studied Civil Engineering, Mechanical Engineering or Electrical Engineering, but of the lot, I found Electrical more exciting because there is more magic to electrical.

In Mechanical Engineering, you can see the moving parts, you can see the machine and so on, but in electrical, you don’t see anything.

But one can see the wire…

Wire is nothing; it is the current that is engineering. Wire is mechanical, anything physical is mechanical, but electrical is the flowing current that you can’t see. So that seemed more fun and exciting to me.

Now, the scholarship thing, there is a story there. By December 1955 when I was going to take the HSC exam, I had applied for admission to some British universities and one of them, Leeds, had given me provisional admission based on my O-level certificate, and if I passed the HSC exam, they would give me a place subject to my Maths results at HSC.

Then I attended an interview for scholarship in 1955 and was given a Western Region government scholarship. When my HSC result was released in March 1956, I passed. Leeds University wrote to me confirming that I had been given admission, starting from October 1956, to study Electrical Engineering.

In April, I got a letter from the Western Region government saying that the scholarship they gave me to study Engineering at Leeds would be tenable only at the College of Science and Technology, Zaria. The authorities in Zaria had written to all the state governments complaining that if all the states’ best students were going abroad to study, who would be studying in Zaria.

About this time, the federal government had set up three colleges of Arts, Science and Technology and that in Zaria was one of them. Now if I had chosen to study Science – Physics/ Chemistry – I would have gone to the one in Ibadan. No government would have given me the scholarship to go abroad for that; the scholarship would have been tenable only at the University College, Ibadan. There was also the College of Arts, Science and Technology at Ibadan, which wasn’t a university. It offered A-level and also Diploma in Accountancy and Pharmacy, which were intermediate professional qualifications.

In 1956, Zaria said it would offer a three-year course in Engineering leading to the award of a London Diploma in Engineering. That wasn’t a full professional qualification. I had an uncle who had been to the Yaba Higher College and studied Engineering but he was never called an Engineer. He was called an Assistant Engineer.

There were four of us who had been given Western Region scholarships to study abroad and now we were being told to go to Zaria. So we all marched to the Western Region Ministry of Home Affairs at Ibadan to protest that we had already got letters from the government to study abroad on its scholarship, and we believed that had been gazetted, which was as good as being a law. Home Affairs was where you lodged your complaints.

While we were pursuing that, I was teaching with my HSC result at St. Gregory’s College. We decided to be sending only two of us, rotating it, to Ibadan to fight our cause. Fortunately for us, there was crisis at a point and the Minister was sacked and the new Minister of Home Affairs, Chief Anthony Enahoro, was an old boy of King’s College. So we decided, ‘Enahoro was a distinguished old boy of King’s College and King’s College bond is very strong, let’s go and talk to him’. So we went to the Minister’s office and said we wanted to see him.

The secretary, a young white lady, looked at us, a couple of young boys and said, ‘For what?’ And we replied, ‘We want to lodge a complaint to the Minister of Home Affairs’. She said, ‘You can’t see him without an appointment’. And we told her, ‘Okay, can you please tell the Minister two King’s College boys want to see him’.

Reluctantly she went in and the man said we should come in. When we got in, we greeted him, ‘Floreat, sir’. Floreat is a Latin word taken out of the motto of King’s College, ‘Floreat Collegium’ which in Latin means, ‘May the college flourish’. So the greeting of KC boys is ‘Floreat’.

He said, ‘Sit down, what is your problem?’ We told him, ‘You know these white men are being clever as usual. They know they will soon be leaving but said we should send our children to Zaria to study where we would not get a B.Sc. Now, all the lecturers teaching them there are B.Sc. holders, so who would be taking over from them?’

Enahoro said, ‘Yes, there is something in that’, and, promising he would take the matter up, he told us to go. And behold, shortly, we got our letters stating we can go to the university abroad. Eventually, I went abroad to study at the University of Leeds.

After school, how did your career take off?

I spent two years in the industry in Britain working with Marconi after I graduated. After I finished my internship at Marconi in 1961, I had to, being a western region scholar, come straight to work for the Western Region and I was employed by the Western Nigeria Television (WNTV), Ibadan, which had been established in 1959.

I worked at the WNTV as an engineer from 1961 to 1977 (16 years.) I was a broadcast engineer. From broadcast engineering, I moved into management. I became a Chief Engineer and, in that position, I was a manager on the WNTV board.

So how did you cross over to the Nigeria Television Authority?

I was Chief Engineer in 1969. In 1973, I became the General Manager of WNTV Ibadan. The GM had retired and the post was advertised internally and externally. I applied and was appointed the General Manager of WNTV/WNBS.

Three years later, after the 1975 coup which brought in Gen. Murtala Muhammed, the federal government took over all the state TV stations in the country. The military regime announced it would be creating more states, from 12 to 19, and on no account would Nigeria have 19 public television stations, that there would be only one. So the process of fusing all the state TV stations began.

In March 77, the NTA Decree was promulgated, dissolving all the existing organizations and collapsing them into the NTA and I was appointed the first Director-General of the new amalgamated TV station. That was how I went from WNTV to NTA.

During your time at both the WNTV and NTA, there were coups and the TV station was always a target for coupists. Could you recall any memorable incident you witnessed?

When the coup of January 1966 happened, I was a studio engineer, a bachelor living at the Agodi Government Quarters, near the Government House. I distinctly heard shooting at night, and when it went on for a long time I told myself these couldn’t be armed robbers. Armed robbery wasn’t even prevalent then.

When I got to work in the morning, the whole place was charged and the story had gone round that soldiers had ousted the politicians and taken over government. That was something we had never experienced. But we celebrated the coup because the crisis in Ibadan had become terrible. The Western Region was really boiling. Supporters of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Chief Samuel Akintola were clashing in serious blood-letting that was called ‘Operation Wetie’.

The thugs of either of the two parties would stop you in your car and ask, ‘Owo ni abi Ope? (Where do you belong, the Hand or the Palm Tree?) The Palm Tree was the symbol of Chief Awolowo’s Action Group, while the Hand was that of Chief Akintola’s Nigerian National Democratic Party. If you gave the wrong answer, they would beat you up, they could pour petrol on your car. It was so bad.

We at WNTV had to remove our logo from our cars because if you ran into the hostile mob, only God would save you. From the point of journalism, we were just like cowards. The script for us was written from the party office and that was what we broadcast. The press release from the party’s headquarters was what we read verbatim and we were not allowed to edit it. If somebody didn’t like you in WNTV, he only needed to whisper to the party people, ‘this one is against the government’, and you would be in trouble.

The situation was very tense. When the coup was announced in the morning, we went on the streets celebrating. It was like a salvation for us.

What were your experiences with the military?

As Director-General of NTA, I had trouble with the military government because they thought we were too independent. Obasanjo once summoned me and was very upset with me. He said we were carrying on as if nobody was in charge, as if we were on our own. He was on the point of sacking me but I explained certain things to him that we were doing. He said, ‘We will see how far you can go but if you try it with the politicians you will be in trouble’. Then, there were already plans by the military to hand over government to civilians. We wanted an independent organization, not a government organ.

And one of the things I told Obasanjo was that if there was no credibility in NTA, people would not believe whatever comes out from the government and that was what we were trying to avoid. Well, when the politicians came, they dissolved the board. They then sent somebody there who was like a super D-G over me and we never got on together. He was Olu Adebanjo, appointed Special Adviser.

If the NTA was run with a board, there would be more than one suggestion or contribution. But this was a man who made all the decisions. He was a broadcaster and he had also been a journalist. He saw his role as turning all the government media organs into a party organ. We didn’t agree on that.

Mid-1982, I was summoned and told, ‘Next year is election year and only our friends will go in with us’. I smiled and replied, ‘I am your friend’. But our relations weren’t smooth. In December 31, 1982, they removed me as DG of NTA. I was not sacked from public service, I was just posted to the Ministry of Communication as Technical Adviser to the Minister.

I got on very well with the Minister, Audu Ogbe. He gave me serious assignments. The Minister treated me very well. Well, we had something in common; he also attended King’s College well after me. Then, in January 1984, 365 days after I was removed, there was a coup and the politicians were removed.

General Buhari became the Head of State and he sent for me and took me back to the NTA. So I have a qualification as a two-term D-G. In 1986, I voluntarily retired.

I set up a consultancy in engineering and management. I was self-employed for many years.

How did your journey into telecoms begin?

In 1992, the Minister of Communication at that time, Olawale Ige, sent for me. He was a Director in the Ministry of Communication when I was deployed there. So I had interacted with him, even if remotely. When he became Minister of Communication, I think in 1990 during the Ibrahim Babangida regime, privatization of public enterprises had started. He then sent for me and said they were thinking of deregulating the telecoms industry in Nigeria and he wanted me to be the Chief Executive of the new organization they were going to set up.

NITEL, he explained, would stay but the new organization that was going to be established would regulate telecoms in Nigeria. But I told him I wasn’t going back to government. He said he had already cleared my name with the Head of State and he couldn’t go back to Babangida to say I wasn’t going to do it. He gave me two weeks to think about it but I insisted I was not going back to a salary job.

He then said, okay, he would hire me as a consultant. I would have an office in the Ministry so people who wanted to apply for licence in telecoms would come to me. But, meanwhile, I was to bring in a new law to deregulate telecoms in Nigeria. In the meantime, the office would be giving out interim licences that would be confirmed when the law was passed and in full operation.

I told him that was perfect by me. I began collecting copies of different regulatory statutes. The British had just completed their own but their model was not suitable for Nigeria at all. They had a one-man regulator in the Ministry of Trade. As far as they were concerned, it was a business and, therefore, it should be regulated within the business system. So they merely put somebody in the Ministry of Trade who rolled out the licences for telecoms. That would not suit the Nigerian system.

I also studied the Canadian, American and several other models before I finally settled for the Australian model, which was like a statutory corporation that we have here. In America, the regulator, Federal Communication Commission (FCC) is not even accountable to the President; he is accountable to congress. So it is an isolated system.

Under IBB, we were running a military system and there was only the Executive arm. The model I found suitable was the Australian model in which the regulator of the telecoms was the Executive and not in the legislature, like in America.

So I adopted the Australian model where the Chief Executive of the telecoms regulator is called the Executive Vice-Chairman (EVC). There is a Chairman who is non-executive; that means he is not a member of staff, he is just Chairman of the board. I adopted the Executive Vice-Chairman designation though it was not known in Nigeria. Even in the private sector, I don’t think they have an EVC. A couple of companies had the Executive Chairman but an EVC was an Australian model.

The Minister said to me when I presented my report that in the draft law, the Chief Executive cannot be called an EVC because there was no such terminology in Nigeria; it has to be Director-General. I said, ‘Sir, I had been DG and the salaries, privileges and powers of the DG can’t enough’. You would be a DG and your salary cannot exceed that of a Perm Sec and the DG of the Nigerian Communication Commission would be treated like that.

Who created the name of the Commission?

I did. I had a number of options which I examined. But the word ‘Commission’ was a highly respected body, even in the Nigerian system.

There were a few Commissions. Authorities were operational. Railway was operational, Port Authority was operational, NEPA was operational, but the NCC was not going to have a station of its own. It was not going to have its own licence to operate. It was only going to be a regulator of other operators. It had to be distant from the operators. So it was going to be a Communication Commission.

Some other countries have since borrowed from our model. Ghana came after ours and borrowed our law. South Africa also used our model.

What you just narrated happened in the early 1990s, so why did it take so long for mobile telephony to happen – in 2001?

Ige had warned me that he was willing to accept my recommendations but he was sure that the military cabinet led by Babangida would not accept it and the Head of State would go by what the cabinet decided unless he had a special interest.

The Minister submitted my report to IBB. But it didn’t get to the cabinet. One day, IBB saw him and said, ‘I gave you an assignment to set up this and to do that, but you have not done it. This man, what is your problem?’ Ige told him he had submitted the report to him and it was left to him to approve it or do whatever he wanted. Babangida then assured him he would sign it. I don’t know how the report got signed, but all the recommendations were accepted.

After that, I became a consultant to many people who wanted a licence. At the same time I stayed on the board of the new NCC, not as a staffer but as a consultant. I had no voting power at all. I stayed on the board for one year as adviser and took part in the recruitment of the earliest staff members. I was the one that brought the first EVC. The idea was to go into the industry and bring somebody who had a business sense rather than a public servant. I was not going to use somebody from P&T or from NITEL. And Shell had the largest telecoms network, apart from NITEL. Shell’s system was far more sophisticated than NITEL’s but their network was in the oil area providing data and for communicating with one another between the oil fields and their Lagos headquarters, and between Lagos and abroad where they had fields.

I went there and requested that they release their Chief Engineer (Telecoms) for us to start kick-start the NCC, and they did. That was Iro Mantu. It took a long time to stabilise because it was a new technology. The NCC spent time debating whether to use the GSM or CDMA system. The CDMA is totally digital and more efficient than the GSM. America was promoting the CDMA with Japan, Korea and South-East Asia generally.

The Europeans were researching an improvement on the analogue to match the American system, which was better than the analogue but not as good as the GSM nor the CDMA.

It was clear that the countries around us – Cameroun, Togo, Dahomey and Benin Republic – were all going for the GSM. Again, we were very close to Britain, which was also going GSM. So we decided it would be better to adopt the GSM.

Everything was initially muddled up. Government, under General Abubakar Abdusalam, had given friends many licenses. I think the number reached 20. But when Obasanjo became President in 1999, he cancelled many licences – from oil to telecoms to mining. Most of them had been awarded by Abubakar’s hot, high-pressured government.

It was in the process of reviewing them that we said, ‘Look, limit the number to about three or four’. Obasanjo told the NCC to auction the licences transparently the way the British had just done under Margaret Thatcher. The people who supervised the auctioning of frequencies for mobile telephony in Britain were the ones that did the one in Nigeria, according to what I was told. The general story then was that Obasanjo said, ‘They did an auction in Britain, they made millions of dollars. Do the same here, auction the frequencies and the highest bidders can have them’. That was how we came about a very efficient auction system that took off very strongly.

You’ve been talking hard stuff. Didn’t you have a romantic love life as a youth?

I was very shy as a young man. I didn’t talk to ladies easily. I didn’t have what you call a regular girlfriend. In our time, we weren’t jumping into bed with girls easily. When I finished my HSC, one of my classmates got married when I didn’t even know how to greet a girl, let alone marry.

I tried it once. I used to write letters to a girl at Queen’s College. Unfortunately, their Principal saw the letter and the girl got into trouble. I never wrote another one again all my life.

What is your brief thought about the state of the nation?

The nation has reached rock-bottom in many areas. The moral tone of Nigerians has been dropping and dropping. I won’t say this administration brought it to this lowest because by and large it has upheld transparency more than anybody else. They may not get a pass mark but they are doing better than their predecessors.

In my view, Olusegun Obasanjo started the swing towards modern nationhood and economy. I am not saying Obasanjo is a saint. You don’t need a saint to run the country. We have just got a saint now, but where are we? Running a country is like parenting. For me, Nigeria is not ready for democracy; it’s just that we don’t know a better option.
Nigeria is not ripe for democracy.

By Temitayo Odunlami & Abdullateef Aliyu, Lagos and first Published by Daily Trust


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