By Obi Nwakanma
Today, I celebrate the life of a great man, Mr. James Emeziem Nworgu, Classicist and Justice of Peace. News reached me that Mr. Nworgu passed, this past week into immortality. I felt an immediate twinge of regret for I had missed one last opportunity to see him last June when I buried my own father.
James Nworgu was a distinguished school master in the very English tradition; and a most dignified man. He certainly made a deep impression on me, and set me straight in the era of rebellious youth. Anybody who went to secondary school in my part of Eastern Nigeria from 1960 to 1985 would have known Nworgu by reputation. He was one of those men whose reputation indeed preceded him.
A formidable administrator of schools, and a firm disciplinarian, he wanted his students always to be the best. He drove them to the limits of their ability. Those who could not stand Nworguâ€™s withering energy and stringent demands were weeded, but always, there was inevitably, the Nworgu imprimatur on their learning and character.
James Nworgu was my principal at the Government College Umuahia. As Headmaster at Umuahia, Nworgu created a storm. Principals of the Government College Umuahia were usually at the civil service level of Permanent Secretaries.
They would have served in other places and garnered experiences. Thus did Nworgu. Indeed James Nworgu had more than paid his due as an educator by the time he arrived to be Principal, the Government College Umuahia in 1980. Born in 1927 at Ibeku, Okwuato, Mbaise, Nworgu was one of those pioneers of modern Nigerian education, particularly at the height of Igbo academic insurgency of the 1950s and 60s.
He was educated first at the Holy Family College, Abak, and at St. Charles Teachers College, Onitsha. In 1953, J.E. Nworgu became the first recipient of the Mbaise County Scholarship, by which he was bonded to the Mbaise County, and which allowed him to go overseas to Ireland where he studied at Queens University, Belfast, taking his honours in the Classics.
In 1956, the Mbaise people, under the Eastern Regional governmentâ€™s grant-in-aid programme of Zikâ€™s government, by which many such schools were established all over the eastern region, established the Mbaise Secondary School. James Nworgu was to serve out his bonds in this school, to which he returned, first as Vice-Principal and understudy of the Irish Principal, Reverend Father Curtin, and then in 1960, as the first African Principal of the Mbaise Secondary School.
Nworguâ€™s life testifies to the values of a passing generation. For example, James Nworgu committed his life to the service of his community as a teacher. When he returned in 1958 with a degree in Classics from Belfast, he could have chosen to break his bond. He could have chosen to go to the Foreign Service, and become one of those pioneer Foreign Service Officers, and serve his country in many exotic places.
The Nigerian Foreign Service established in 1957 was looking for men of Nworguâ€™s sterling character, and with a Classics degree, could have joined the Ignatius Olisaemekas or the BA Clarks, and such others who were graduating from the Classics at Ibadan, and joining the Foreign Service.
For a man of his talents and comportment, James Nworgu could have done well in any place. But he chose to return to the rural glades, and help produce the new generation of men who are now judges, physicians, soldiers, captains of industry, scientists, teachers, and so on and so forth. His commitment to the Mbaise community was profound. Even as Principal of the Mbaise Secondary School, Nworgu also served as the Chairman of the old Mbaise County Council, comprising today three local governments.
He moved round to other schools, including Obizi High School, until he was appointed to be the principal of the Government College in 1980. Things had been fairly lax at Umuahia under the last principal, Mr. Otisi O. Otisi, who had been in the pioneering 1948 class at the University College Ibadan.
He had been Principal at Umuahia from 1975 until the last term of 1979. Although the Government College Umuahia still ran as an English-style boarding school with its very elite tradition and manners, and admitted very bright boys â€“ scions of the elite â€“ Mandarins of the Civil Service, Supreme Court Justices, Justices of the Court of Appeal, Barristers of the inner and lower Bar, distinguished physicians, Professors, Ambassadors, Ministers in government, millionaire captains of industry, Teachers, farmers, the high and mighty as well as the not so high â€“ all distinguished by their talent, but by the end of Otisiâ€™s administration, things seemed in a flux.
Otisi did like sports, particularly soccer, and he had admitted some â€œrough necksâ€ from Aba as â€œwhite shirtsâ€ who had diluted Umuahiaâ€™s manners. Things stood thus, and coincided with the election of Sam Mbakwe in 1979, who determined to restore Umuahia to its purpose. Meanwhile Umuahia was administered by acting principals, first Mr. Nduka, an old Umuahian of the 1948 class himself who was Zonal Director of Schools, whose son was my classmate, and briefly by the Reverend G.C.S. Nwachukwu-Uguru, school chaplain, and Master of Simpson House, until Nworgu arrived.
One day, in the second term of 1980, Nwachukwu-Uguru announced at Assembly that a substantive principal by the name â€œNworguâ€ had been appointed to Umuahia, and that things were about to change in that neighborhood. The next week, we saw Nworguâ€™s ox-blood Peugeot pull down the College Drive. After inspecting the school, the â€œBig Benâ€ was rung and we gathered at the Assembly Hall. He was an elegant man.
He took us down memory lane. In the end he said, and I remember distinctly, â€œboys, those who know me know, that I am sempre idem. Besides, in the history of this school, you have never had a principal by the name Nworgu. By the way, that means War.
You must certainly expect war!â€ And the assembly broke with the chant â€œWar!â€ Thus did James Nworgu become known as â€œWarâ€ at the Government College Umuahia. We did have a war against indiscipline at Umuahia, long before Buhari thought of it, but it was administered with resolve and example.
For example, Nworgu suspended Robert Mbakwe, the governorâ€™s son, and refused to readmit him, until his father came, like all parents to sign a guarantee of good behavior.
A visit was arranged for the governor, who used the occasion to address us at Assembly, saying, â€œthis school is the Eton of the East. Those who do not have the character to be here, will be let go!â€ to which we raised three hearty cheers to the governor, and sang the â€œjolly good fellow.â€
I was myself suspended by Nworgu, and it fell to my dear uncle, Eugene, and my mother to drive me to Umuahia because my father, too shamed by my conduct, refused to face Nworgu. I was no worse than my mate, Innocent Odocha, today a family physician in Gainesville, Florida, who was brought to the courtyard in front of the Assembly, and thoroughly caned prior to suspension.
He was asked to make a last statement of contrition. â€œDobro,â€ a terrible stutterer, looked at the principal, and with a mighty effort said, â€œN-n-nworgu, n-n-ne gi!â€ His thoroughly unamused father, who was Principal of the largest firm of Auditors and Chartered Accountants, East of the Niger, took him quickly in the waiting car, and from there, to finishing school in Zurich. But Iâ€™m sure the solitude in him remembers Nworgu today. We all do. Good night sir. May sweet bells chime you home.