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Tuesday, 21 August 2018


-Surgeon Rear Admiral Ekanem Nesiama (Rtd)

What would you do if you were told your son was missing at school? You probably will hurry out of the office in confusion, rush to the school or wherever to look for your son: But not so easy to do for an only doctor on duty. Moreso when she is in the military.

And that is one of the memories that Rear Admiral Mercy Ekanem Nesiama (Rtd) took away from the Navy when she retired few weeks ago. "Phone calls were coming in a rush, my son was missing, though I panicked inside of me, but I had to ignore the calls, put up a bold front, wait, and attend to my duties."
She shared with us, some of her high and low moments while in the Navy in this lifestyle interview with Paul Ukpabio and Biodun Adeyewa. 

For a woman who rose to the third highest rank in the Nigerian Navy, what was your home like when you were a child?

My father had a disciplined nature. So that aspect of him was impacted in my life early. It is part of what made me jointhe Navy in the first place. I later saw in the Navy, similarities in my father's disciplinary nature. So that was an attraction for me when it was time to consider a career in the Nigerian Navy. My mother too was like that, you know being a teacher, she was strict, which meant education was compulsory in our home.

Who influenced you most?

I think they both influenced us in their peculiar good ways. Perhaps when I was younger, I thought one had moreinfluence over me than the other, but now that I'm older and wiser, I know that they both influenced me in their own good ways. They both contributed to what I am today. For instance, in genes, I see somethings about my father in me. I always want to succeed in whatever I do, and that was very much like my father and mother. My father was a stickler for things being done properly.

Where did you grow up?

grew up in Ibadan though my mother and father are from Cross River state. We are of the Efik tribe, from Odupani local government area. My father worked as a pharmacist at University Hospital Ibadan. That is where I was born. He later moved to Lagos where he worked at Lagos University teaching hospital. He retired as a Chief Pharmacist. He is now late. But my mother is alive. She worked as a teacher with the Lagos state government. There are five of us, four girls and one boy.

Would you say that you were born into a privileged home?

(Laughs) I don't think so. Though people ask me that. I think I come from a middle class family. My father used to beat us (laughs). So do you think that was a privileged background? We lived in Surulere axis of Lagos mainland and I can remember that sometimes my father's car used to refuse to rev up some mornings, when he turned the ignition! And we had to push the car. So do you think that was a privilegebackground? No, I don't think so. Well, we were comfortable in the sense that, we always had food. There was no gari-drinking in my father's house. I went to Holy Child College in Lagos Island. I wanted to be a border, but my father said he had no money to pay for boarding. So I was going with the school bus until when I was in my final year. It was then he accepted for me to be in the boarding house.

Do you recall other early memories?

I was more of a Tomboy and a loner. In those days LUTH rented an apartment for their staff, so we stayed at Surulere. I grew up in the city but we had relatives who came from the village to stay with us. I was about ten then. I used to enjoy learning newer things from those who stayed with us. I like nature. I remember this particular day about 2pm. I can't recall what went to look for in the little bush behind our house. Perhaps it was because I heard that if one sees a rat in the bush, if you set fire to the bush, the rats there will run out. So armed with that knowledge, I set fire to the bush at 2pm when the sun was at its hottest. The fire suddenly lit everywhere around me. It spread so fast that I ran. My dad's screams came from the far distance, adiaha an wod mi o meaning my first daughter has killed me. Meanwhile the wildfire was spreading fast. The whole neighbourhood rushed out with various containers of water. Finally the fire was put out. People knew that my father would beat the hell out of me. So somebody just managed to whisk me out of the house to safety that afternoon. I followed without hesitating. I didn't go back home until after a day or so. But that was the first time someone did something bad in our house and did not get beaten. That incident taught me a lesson. Now I tell people don't set fire to a bush on a hot afternoon.

After Holy Child College in Lagos, where next?

I went to the University of Ilorin where I studied Medicine.

Tell us about your journey to the Navy.

When I finished at the University of Ilorin, I did my house job at Lagos University Teaching Hospital. At that time, we were living quite close to a Naval hospital. Fortunately for me, I was posted to Lagos. I worked at the Naval hospital for the youth service corps programme. Towards the end of my service year, the Navy was recruiting graduates for officers in the direct short service course. People around me suggested that I should apply. I liked their regimented life. I liked the discipline. It wasn't about the uniform. I am from Cross river state, where we are known for neatness. Some actually said then that they joined because of their love for the uniform. But I saw beyond the uniform. I liked the orderliness of the Navy. I applied and was short-listed. I went for the interview in 1985 where we did certificate verification, medical fitness examination before we faced a panel for oral interview. Sooner after, the result was published in the newspapers. My name was on the list. But we were also sent personal letters.

You lived at Ibadan, Lagos and Ilorin, can you speak Yoruba?

I speak Yoruba very well. Mi o le pa owe sha o (laughs). However, my father who spent more of his life here in the western part of Nigeria, couldn't even speak more than e lo ni osan re, meaning, how much do you sell your oranges? My siblings and I speak Yoruba language.

At what point did marriage set in?

That was 3 or 4 years after I got into the Navy?

Is it like the uniform also toughens a lady in the military?

Yes, the uniform creates a difference to a normal person's personality. It's true the uniform makes us tough. Our training makes us tough. But it does not make us tough at home to our husbands. They didn't teach us that. I cannot remember seeing something like that in the syllabus. We were taught to lead, but we were also taught to respect our spouse. The men are not taught to beat their wives and women in the Navy are not taught to disrespect their husbands. Whatever a woman who is in uniform is, the uniform just gives her courage that is all. Well I do not think there is anything to worry about as regards a civilian marrying a female soldier. But if you try to beat a woman who is in the military, she will definitely stand up to you.

Initially when you joined the military, was there any incident that scared you or made you think of leaving, especially since you were already a professionalmedical doctor?

The decision to join the Navy was solely mine. My parents had done their part by giving me education. It is not like today that we help our children look for jobs.When my set got there, we found two set of intakes. We were the direct short service commission. We were graduates, some of us were master degree holders. There were also the regular combatants who were younger, and were school certificate holders. But because we met them there, they became our seniors. We had to respect them. At the initial stages, I didn't understand why the little boys should be talking to me the way they were talking. Again because they were our seniors since we met them there, they could send us on all sorts of errands. At that time I had done about 7 years study to become a medical doctor plus youth service. So as our seniors, they could call you at anytime for work. It was a challenge to me. I didn't understand that the military is that tough. Surprisingly, the authorities allowed all that to happen. It was a way of toughening us. You know civilians are used to arguing. If a civilian is told to come, he asks why he is supposed to come. But in the military, it is not like that. You obey. What counts in the military is the rank on the shoulder. So the younger boys were sending us errands up and down.

Why didn't you dump the Navy at that point?

I couldn't go back home.


If I had gone back home, my father would have asked me if they were other people still there. If I answer yes, then he would have asked me if the people that remained there have two heads. I knew I would have to go and contend with my father at home because he would have insisted that i go back to complete it. However, the instructors were okay but the only problem was the younger regular combatants who disturbed the hell out of our lives. They could call us out at 2am to start jumping on the parade ground. I used to be careful, deliberately staying out of trouble because punishments there were severe.

Now that you are retired, will you miss the Navy?

I will (she replies soberly).

What will you miss most?

I will miss the military life, the comradeship we had, there was never a dull moment. There was usually a feeling of adrenalin pumping through the body. We may just be trying to relax when next we could be told that the chief of naval staff would be on a visit the next morning. All of a sudden, there would be too many things to do, we had to write our briefs, practice them and so on. We may never go back home that night. Meanwhile, we were just trying to relax! Also at other times, I may just be getting home and then a call comes in that Ishould report back to the office. That could be as a result of an administrative duty. But as a doctor, that is a normal life for me. Though as I grew in rank, I did more of administrative duties. Normally, doctors are on call. You can be at work at 2am! I like that life. A civilian may say that he or she needs a day off. But in the military, it doesn't work that way. You are on duty 24 hours of the day.

How did you cope as a career woman in the military with a family?

I tried as much as possible not to allow my work affect my home. Unfortunately it clashed in certain areas, for instance when you are posted outside your usual home. At such times, you had no choice but to leave the children behind. But like I used to advice people, if you work in a male dominated environment, you have to leave your domestic problems at home. That is because you will want to be promoted when the men are being promoted. You cannot be promoted when every month you find a way of asking for permission to stay at home to take care of children. In my case, it worked out well for me.

You rose to the top of your military career...

No, not to the top, there were three more to climb before I retired (laughs). There is Vice Admiral and then Admiral and then the Admiral of the Fleet.

But to you, was retiring as a Rear Admiral an achievement?

Yes, it was a great achievement for me. I have to thank the presidency and my bosses for giving me an opportunity to serve at that level.

Can you recall any turning point in your career?

I enjoyed the job from day one! After the training, I was posted. I didn't think twice about the posting because I was trained to know that a 'posting' is 'an order.' I picked my uniform, wore it and off I went! I will actually encourage more women to join. The Navy was great fun.

There is an adage that says what a man can do a woman can do same, did that occur to you while you were in the Navy?

I did not want to work hard like the men, what I did was to work hard like I normally do. But maybe sometimes Iwent the extra mile to prove a point. And the point I was trying to prove was to make a way for the younger female that were coming behind me. I had seen in many areas that women were sidelined maybe because of the thought that if a woman is put in a particular position, it is an established fact that she would likely be doing this and that. I knew I had been given opportunity that was hitherto reserved for the men. So for it to be a continuous thing, I had to ensure that I didn't fail. So apart from being my true self that does not allow for failure, I also had to work to help some female colleagues coming up. I was the 2nd Rear Admiral female in the Nigerian Navy and also the 1st female Rear Admiral in Medical. So now that I have reached that position and done well, there is now a likelihood that another female can get there, especially since I have commanded the flagship hospital in Medical service, in Ojo, next time, a female can be considered based on merit alongside a man.

Do you advice young ladies to join the Navy?

It depends on the person like I've told you, there are challenges too. First you have to find out if your husband wants you to be in the system? That is because you can be told to report in Port Harcourt within 24 hours. You can suddenly be told that you are going to Somalia. Initially when I joined, we women were not posted far from our base. But as more women joined, that became a thing of the past. In some cases, even in two years, you may not live together with your husband because of postings. Then another challenge is that as a female in the Navy, you just have to work hard. There is no room for feminity! I remember once that was on duty as a doctor. At such times I usually arranged someone to pick my child at school and take to my mother's place. So on that day, they waited for the 3 year old boy but they couldn't see him. My mom called to ask if I had gone to pick the child. I replied that I didn't since I was on duty. My child was missing but I was the only doctor on duty! Well, some young female could have left the place to go and look for their son. But not so in the military. Not so in medicine practice and not even so with my up-bringing. As a doctor on duty, you can't run out to go in search of your son! I had to wait, make special arrangement with a colleague, wait till the colleague arrived, before I could leave.

How are you going to spend your retirement because we can see that you do not look tired?

I am definitely not tired. First and foremost, I have not had leave for years, and that was because, it got to a situation whereby if one asked for leave it could only have meant that one was irresponsible. It wasn't that one was indispensable but because when I looked at the work load in front of me then, I couldn't ask for a proper leave but maybe a few days off. It's just like the Chief of Naval Staff saying that he wants to go on leave (laughs). It doesn't happen. He may go on a few days off, but not easy to get a leave.

How about medical education, did you get any improvement while in the Navy?

Of course I did. I joined as a medical officer with first degree, but while in service, I went for my residency, I did anastasia, I also went on to study critical care, all sponsored by the Navy.

How fashionable can a top Naval officer be when most of the time you were in uniform?

Surprisingly, I love bright colours. I had enough time to wear mufti after work hours. If I had to go to my work place after work hours on my volition, I wore mufti. Mind you, (laughs) we were not sleeping in our uniforms. Sometimes when we attended conferences, we could wear mufti. That way I easily blended with other doctors at conferences since in our profession, we are usually updating ourselves with current knowledge and trends. So we meet from time to time. The Navy is regimented no doubt, but we had time to be ourselves and live normal everyday life, it was never a prison.

Can you compare life when you were growing up and life now?

I feel sorry for the children of today. When I was a child, I could move around alone. At the age of 8, I moved around freely. Even if one got lost, someone will help trace my home. And if you were naughty outside your home, an adult could pull your ear to warn you not to behave like that in future. 

When started school in Lagos, my father took me to school in a bus, showed me the route and where I was to alight. After a while, did the journey by myself. The buses and conductors got used to me to the extent that, it was the conductors that will carry me at the bus stop and put me in the bus. The public bus will even stop in front of our house to drop me without any special arrangement with my parents. But now it is different, there is kidnapping, ritual killings and so on. I feel sorry for the youths and the heavy pornographic images everywhere now. It is also so difficult to find honest people now.

What do you do at your spare moments?

I get a novel and read. In between that I read my medical books. Surprisingly for my age, I have development a new hobby which is watching action movies, where the actor does not die (laughs). I really don't know where that has come from. I also enjoy parties when I have the time to do so.

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