By Mercy Hill
On this edition of Inspirational Personalities, we are recalling one of the inspiring stories of a man who has defied many obstacles, conquered many challenges and emerged victorious from many battles of life. He is a man who rose from seeming nothingness to greatness.
To put it in perspective, consider a poor but brilliant young man who could not enter the university at first attempt due to lack of funds, graduated from the university few days before the Nigerian civil war, trekked a thousand miles during the war in search of safety, found shelter in abandoned prison’s toilet, but finally rose to the top of his career.
He is today a senior citizen, a global figure and a fulfilled family man. I present to you the founder of Otu Suwakwa Igbo, Prof.Pita Ejiofor…
CAN YOU PLEASE INTRODUCE YOURSELF SIR?
I am Professor Pita Ejiofor, an emeritus professor of Nnamdi Azikwe University Awka. I hail from Obeledu in Anaocha local government area of Anambra state and I am a retired public servant and a senior citizen.
EARLY CHILDHOOD AND EDUCATION?
I was born into a catholic family of eight, the sixth child in the family. I was born and bred in Obeledu, where I lived until I went to college. I started primary school in Obeledu, then proceeded to St. Paul Catholic Secondary School in Obeledu, after which I went for a year teacher’s training service at Nimo.
I further went for a higher elementary course now known as TC2 for four years to qualify me to teach in higher classes in primary schools. At the end of the course, I was posted back to my alma mater primary school. From there, I thought in different schools in Agulu.
While I worked as a teacher, I did private studies for my GCE so as to enable me further my education. And when I later took the exams, I cleared my papers. I also sat for the GCE advanced level and also came out in flying colors. With that, I was qualified for admission into the University.
I got admitted into the prestigious University of Nigeria, Nsukka, however, due to lack of funds, I could not proceed with my tertiary education that year.
You remember I mentioned my parents had eight children and for anyone who has a family, you would understand that training eight children was not an easy task. Of course, I was working but I could not save enough to see me through school. So, that year passed and I missed the admission, but I kept the letter of admission.
I GAINED ADMISSION AGAIN
You know that JAMB had not been introduced as at then. Once you had your Secondary level Certificates, you could apply to any university of your choice. So, the following year, I applied again to University of Nigeria Nsukka and got admitted again. That was in the year 1964. By now, I was able to save up some funds from my teaching jobs and I invested them into my university education.
I also applied for scholarship from the Federal government which was granted when I was already in the university. The bachelor’s degree program then was for a three-year duration, because mine was a direct entry. Finally, I graduated in 1967, shortly before the war.
That’s why most of us who graduated in that year refer to ourselves as “Circle 67”. Our convocation ceremony was slated for July 1st, 1967. We had filled all the forms and were waiting in joyful expectation for the D-day to dawn.
Then on June 30, around 6:30pm, words got to us that the graduation ceremony had been rescheduled for that day. The graduation ceremony lasted for just fifteen minutes because of a security report that there was going to be an attack. So, authorities had to discharge everyone so we could leave Nsukka that night.
MY EXPERIENCE OF THE CIVIL WAR
The rumored attack for July 1 was not executed. However, on July 6th, 1967, the war fully began. My story of the war is quite interesting I must say. hmmmmm. I recall that both undergraduates and graduates wanted to join the Biafran Army and the recruitment took place at Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium in Enugu.
You wouldn’t believe the rush from Biafran youths who desired to be enlisted in the army. Most of them were brutally treated to get them discouraged. The ones who succeeded in pushing through, were enlisted into the army. Some of us already graduates, felt the war would not last. Some thought it would last for a week, but alas, it lasted for thirty months.
Those of us who had certificates did one thing or the other to keep ourselves busy. Initially I joined the Red Cross. Then later, I got into where the action was, the Army! From there I joined the rangers in Port Harcourt. When Port Harcourt was captured, we went on a long trek from Port Harcourt to Aba all night non-stop.
I DID THREE MAJOR TREKS IN MY LIFE TIME
First as I told you, was from Port Harcourt to Aba when Port Harcourt was captured by the Nigerian army. And when Aba fell to Nigerian army, we trekked again to Owerri on foot with neither rest nor sleep, then onward to Orlu. And when the war ended, I trekked again from Okigwe in Imo state to my hometown, Obeledu in Anambra state. It was actually the suffering I faced in Aba that made me decide to join the Biafran army where I was trained and posted to Okigwe towards the end of 1968.
AND SO, THE WAR ENDED
I was already an officer with my batman when the war ended. I traveled on foot from Okigwe in Imo state to Obeledu. With all my experiences during the war, my attitude/perception of the world changed. Do you know why? I have come to realize that the world has no sympathy for the weak.
The world is only interested in the strong. When you weep and support your jaw with your hand, it doesn’t concern the world because, the world has seen worse. When we lamented and cried that we were suffering and dying, the world didn’t so much care, except for Red Cross and Caritas who sent us support and relief materials.
Also, the Association for American relief came after to help. They brought yams to war thorn areas including Awka, so those yams became seed yams.
The first job I got after the war was at the relief depot in Enugu. I was not paid any salary. It was a “work for food” kind of arrangement. It meant that you would eat daily according to the amount of yam tubers you could off load for distribution. My operational zone was in Awka. After each day’s labor, some of the yams would be cooked and shared among all. There were no plates then, so each person would find any available wood to get his food served.
MY PRISON YARD ACCOMMODATION
We did that until it got to a point, I got tired of loafing around. One day I ran into a friend and chairman of a Local government. After telling him of my ordeals so far and how I needed accommodation urgently, he really wanted to help, but as at then he too was sleeping in his office due to lack of accommodations.
But then he suggested if I would love to take up a space at the abandoned toilets in the Amawbia prison. The Amawbia prisons was where Nigerian soldiers occupied during the war. When the soldiers left after the war, the place was taken over by the policemen, with the toilets abandoned.
I thoroughly cleaned up one of the toilet rooms and packed in. Few months later, a friend of mine who was also into the yam off loading and distribution job, joined me there.
One day, I got to read in the newspapers that a lecturer of mine at UNN was then a lecturer in Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. I was surprised, and, I immediately sent him a letter via the post office. Few weeks later a letter came to me. It was an appointment letter! I had been offered employment as a lecturer in ABU, Zaria. That was how I left the prison yard accommodation to be become a public servant in Zaria after the war.
Few years in ABU, I was offered a scholarship to do my MSc abroad. So, I travelled to Indiana University, Bloomington, America to pursue my MSc. Later, in my career, I also got another scholarship to do my doctorate again abroad which for some reasons, I didn’t quite follow through.
After seven years of lecturing in Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, I moved to University of Nigeria Nsukka, where I rose to the rank of associate Professor and then Professorship.
I CAN SAY I HAVE ACHIEVED A LOT IN MY CAREER PURSUIT
I graduated from the University of Nigeria with flying colors as a first-class product in BSc Business Administration.
Head, Business Administration Department, ABU, Zaria
Professor Emeritus, Business Administration
Pioneer Dean of the Faculty, Nnamdi Azikwe University
Dean of Faculty University of Nigeria,Nsukka.
Pioneer Federal Character Commissioner for Anambra state
Commissioner of Finance and Budget, old Anambra state
Chairman Vice Chancellors’ Committee of Nigerian Universities.
Part-time lecturer Chukwuemeka Odumegu University, Management studies
Part-time Lecturer Chukwuemeka Odumegu University, department of Igbo language
Vice chancellor, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka.
Former Chairman Committee of Vice Chancellors in Nigerian University
I have about twelve books published and three were written on me.
I HAVE ENCOUNTERED CHALLENGES ASIDE THE WAR …
There is a saying among the Igbos that “the whistling is not as loud as the sound it produces”. I plunged into Otu Suwakwa Igbo with so much zeal and enthusiasm, involved all concerned bodies and had all the communique prepared and signed by all bodies involved. I convinced them that something drastic must be done by Ndi Igbo to save the Igbo language.
I was thinking by now Ndi igbo would have been doing much more than they are doing for their language, but it has not been so. The way people are less concerned about the Igbo language, piloted by the Otu Suwakwa Igbo movement is quite frustrating. But I am glad that many high institutions have introduced departments of Igbo language into their curricula, which weren’t there before we started the Otu Suwakwa Igbo movement.
I am not implying that Otu Suwakwa Igbo has not achieved much. We have recorded some considerable amount of success; however, we haven’t met our expectations. Our people should know that the nonchalance and indifference we display with our language has adverse effect on us.
MY MOTIVATION WAS
The love, enthusiasm and passion for education. I needed to fulfill the God’s given talent bestowed onto me, which is teaching. I have job satisfaction in teaching. I was doing well in school and I had high hopes that I was going to make it in my field.
WHAT I CONSIDER MY GREATEST ACHIEVEMENTS
Being a Vice Chancellor and subsequently the Chairman Committee of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian Universities are what I consider my greatest achievements in terms of position.
Another thing that gives me joy, which I also consider as one of my greatest achievements, was what I did when I was the commissioner for Finance old Anambra state. Before I became the Commissioner, Igbos were spending 28 days in mourning the dead.
I saw in it an entirely different culture from what I experienced over the years I lived in Zaria. Of course, no culture is superior to the other. There are instances where our culture was superior to that of the Hausas and where theirs are superior to ours.
Where I discovered that our culture was not the best was in our attitude to burials. One person would die, and twenty days would be spent in burying the person, which to me, amounted to financial, economic and human capital wastage. So, I wrote a book titled ”Cultural Revival in Igboland” and in chapter five of it, I strongly kicked against the colossal amount of time and resources wasted on burials in Igboland.
After publishing the book, one year later I was appointed the Commissioner of Finance, and then I knew that the hour had struck. I told the then Anambra state governor of the need to review the burial tradition in Igboland. We were spending millions of naira on burials, unknown to us eighty percent of the expenditure was leaving our economy.
Take for example; the materials for cloths, cows for entertainments, and indeed most of the items used for burials were imported into the state from other parts of the country, aside the palm oil and other miscellaneous items. How can we create jobs and increase the employment when all we use in Igboland are imported, even the building materials.
So, I was able to convince the governor to call all the traditional rulers and indigenous stakeholders and I addressed them. That day, October 2, 1986, I think was the day I gave the most impactful speech in my life and the traditional rulers were awed.
When they left that day, they began to Implement the resolutions in their various communities, and it worked. First from 28 days, we brought down the mourning period to 7 days (1 week) and subsequently reduced the mourning days further. I still feel fulfilled with this achievement.
WHEN DID YOU START OTU SUWAKWA IGBO?
February 14, 2006. That date is very important to me.
WHATS YOUR MESSAGE FOR THE PEOPLE OUT THERE?
Youths should try to excel, notwithstanding the adverse environment they have found themselves in. The environment for the youth today is not as good as our time. Igbo man is not as advantaged now as he was then. Imagine graduating without a job in today’s harsh economic environment.
These days, matriculations are more celebrated than convocations, because of the fear of facing the harsh realities in the society. It was not like that in our time. Presently you see graduates hawking, loitering on the streets, and the government is not doing enough to salvage the situation. We have to improve the value system in order to raise the standard of our people.
I write in Igbo language and our people can’t read them. The last book I wrote is also in Igbo language. Our people should know that our nonchalance to Igbo language has very adverse effects on us.