Joachim Ibeziako Ezeji
To everything in life there is a time and season. Life itself, just like anything else is transient. But for all those who come to life with bold footprints and positive impacts on other lives, nothing could be more preserving. And that is the story of Chief Francis Ellah, a man I had always admired with a lot of respect since I came to appreciate the stuff and resilience he was imbued with.
Chief Francis Ellah had the traditional title of Eze Nwadei Ogbuehi of Ogba. He was graduate of the University of London (University College, Ibadan), and a highly regarded elder statesman with outstanding political credentials.
He was a former Second Republic Senator; a former Secretary to the Rivers State Government and Head of Service; and was a member of the Rivers State Advisory Council during the Peter Odili government. In 1958, just before Nigeria’s independence he was a District Officer in charge of Orlu Division.
Admired for standing by his principles, Senator Ellah resigned from the Senate over a matter of conflicting interest in 1981. His experiences are chronicled in the critically acclaimed political treatise Nigeria and State Creation.
Recalling this incident two decades after, Chief Ellah had said “You know that this was what my unfinished motion in the Senate was based on. I was trying to move a motion at the Senate, at the time, that I thought was highly crucial to the progress of Nigeria - the structure was the problem”.
“…… But I was stopped from giving the speech so I thought I should quit. The parliament is a speaking house; if one cannot speak, there is no freedom of speech! The parliament is a talking house; you should be free to talk. So I said if I wasn’t free to talk, I should be free to write, and I wrote the book, Nigeria and State Creation”.
Against a wave of anti-Igbo sentiment and general renunciation of ‘Igboness’ by his folks in all Igbo speaking communities of Rivers State after the civil war, Chief Ellah stood out and refused to abdicate his ‘Igboness’ despite insults, intimidations and harassment by his people.
Undeterred he remained committed to his ‘Igboness’ and intermingled freely with the Igbo nation in general. In summary, he braved it bluntly refused to neither subdue nor kaput the Igbo identity in him.
He often reminded those who shied away from their Igbo identity that “An Igbo is an Igbo. Darryl Ford or someone else has written extensively about who is an Igbo. If you look at the culture, language, etc, these are some of the things that determine an ethnic group’’. …………’’I am a student of History. I start from the known to the unknown. Being an Igbo, I started with Igbo history, and then studied other ethnic groups’’…….
Recalling his roles during the Biafran-Nigerian civil war, Chief Ellah had said ‘’Well, I didn’t fight in the war, so I cannot claim to have much practical experience of the civil war’’ However it is on record that he was Biafra’s deputy prime minister of trade. Then he had a career in diplomatic service training, which led to his being posted abroad to establish the Biafran Embassy in London.
Chief Ellah later was recalled to Biafra and sent to oversee the Ministry of Transport and Communications. From there he was reassigned as Secretary to the Atrocities Commission etc. After the war, he became the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Information and Local Government Affairs, and was later appointed the Secretary to government and Head of service in Rivers State from where he retired voluntarily in November 1978.
It would be recalled that together with the revered novelist Chinua Achebe, Chief Francis Ellah studied at the University College Ibadan where he studied History while his friend Achebe studied a combination of History and Literature. Other colleagues of his at Ibadan included Sam Nwoye, John Munonye, Ben Nwosu, and James Ezeilo, Christopher Okigbo etc.
In his words about this, he had said “….and speaking for myself, I didn’t know what I wanted to study; I only wanted higher education. When they asked me what I would read, I mentioned the subject I did best in the entrance examination….”
‘’…….People had different opinions on my performance, but Chinua Achebe came in and said he wanted to study Medicine. Somewhere along the line, he changed to English. The world would have lost a great writer, indeed, had he become a Medical officer”.
His successful business career after public service centered on important roles in the development of the agricultural, banking, and oil sectors of the economy. Upon founding the Ellah Lakes Plc, he sat on the boards of universities, banks, and diverse corporations until his sudden death on the 23rd of April 2008 at the age of 80 of what was believed to be natural causes.
Chief Ellah was nominated by the Ohaneze as one of its delegate at the National Reform Conference. The consummate gentleman, Chief Ellah was an expert organist and musicologist, an avid golfer and author of several books including Ali-Ogba: A History of Ogba People.
Chief Francis Ellah was also a strong believer in the Catholic. He was greatly involved at all levels of the Roman Catholic Church affairs. His contributions to the church were equally acknowledged and rewarded by the Roman Catholic authorities even at the highest level. He was President Inter-Diocesan Conference of Papal Knights of Nigeria (Eastern Zone). He was dual patron of the Catholic Diocesan Choir, and the Catholic Diocesan Laity Council, Port Harcourt, as well as being an active member, Parish Council, St. Mary's Catholic Church, Omoku.
His body was interred on Friday 16th May 2008 in his ancient town of Omoku, Rivers State.
May his gentle soul rest in peace!