By Mcphilips NWACHUKWU
Prolific writer and researcher, Ozah Michael Ozah is a trained lawyer. His passion in the study of the history and culture of the Ukwuani speaking people of Delta State has resulted in the birth of seminal and referential books on the previously not well documented ethnic group.
The writer, Ozah, who works as the Legal Services Manager of Vanguard Media Limited is the author of Proudly Ukwuani: A History and Culture, The Great Debate : Okpala-uku Clan-head vs Monarchy, My Ukwuaniness and Ukwuani Names & Meanings. In this interview, Ozah spoke to Arts on Sunday about the issues that spur his interest in cultural and scholarly research.
You have done quite well in the last couple of years writing about the history and culture of Ukwani people. What gave impetus to this adventure?
My impetus in writing about the history and culture of my people, the Ukwuani of Delta State, derives from a burning patriotism. I am proud of my colour, of who I am. I recall a poem I read in my secondary school days, I thank You Lord, for creating me black.
History was one of my favourite subjects – or is it course they call it now? – in secondary school and I always found it interesting learning about the great ancient empires and kingdoms in Africa – Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Ashante Oyo etc.
The account of migration of peoples always filled me with wonder and, coupled with my knowledge of geography, I always looked out for practical proofs of what I was taught wherever I went. But one thing was missing: in all that I was taught in school no mention was made of my Ukwuani people. This heightened my curiosity even after I left school.
Are the Ukwuani historyless? Why was there no literature on their history? Was it that I had not searched / read enough? I intensified my search, asking questions, prodding elders. Some of the responses I got tallied with folk stories I had heard as a teenager.
I also stumbled on some cursory mention of Ukwuani in some works such as Groundwork of Nigerian History, edited by Professor of Obaro Ikme. I am satisfied that my interest has yielded enduring fruits to guide future generations on Ukwuani people and history.
Incidentally, this engagement of yours became active at a time when the study of history is no longer taken seriously by formulators of the nation’s educational policy. What is your own attitude to history?
Yes, it is unfortunate,and so much so, that the study of history has been relegated by formulators of Nigerian education policy. It is a sad retrogressive development. The falling standard in education is not unconnected with this development.
I recall Professor Pat Utomi saying how appalled he was to see a Nigerian graduate who did not know that this country once fought a civil war. Whatever discipline of study one chooses, one cannot have an all round knowledge without a good sense of history and geography.
In the preface to my first book, Proudly UKWUANI: A History and Culture I had noted as follows: “In order to appreciate the present and take a visionary glimpse into the future, we need to look, if only briefly, at the past. We must adapt the beauty of the past to the needs of the present for a meaningful future.
People who forget their history in a hurry often do not make appreciable progress. A people without a sense of history are doomed.” Professor Ayodeji Olukoji seemed tohave corroborated me in his recent Guardian interview, September 8, 2011 thus: “…society should develop a better appreciation of History, both local and national, as no nation or community can develop without a sense of history, the lack of which leads to collective amnesia and disorientation, especially of the youth.
The great countries of the world rose to technological, industrial and military greatness on the galvanizing wings of their national histories.” Knowledge of where we are coming from will help us in plotting where we want to be (apology to Bob Nester Marley).
We cannot ignore our history without doing damage to our present and future. We will continue to revile in our mistakes as long as we neglect our history. Recently, Boko Haram militants ordered southerners living in northern Nigeria to leave.
Those of us with a sense of history quickly recalled the pogrom of 1966 and condemned the act. History is a living course and the Nigerian education system is worse off without it. As a lawyer, I can tell you with certainty that judicial decisions are principally built around history – what we call precedents.
Do you think that the propagation of history and culture in a State as diverse as Delta and in a country, as heterogeneous as Nigeria is still very necessary?
History has no better soil for propagation than in a heterogenous society. it is the only binding force that can anchor the so-called unity in diversity. If we have good historical background knowledge of one another as a people we will understand our various sensibilities and prejudices and be in a better position to relate.
One lesson I learnt from history is that all peoples belong to one cultural world, to a common humanity. Tears, joy, laughter, pain and celebration transcend all cultures. The so-called National Question or calls for Sovereign National Conference will be unnecessary if we understood one another’s historical background.
Perhaps, I will suggest that in addition to prominently re-listing history on secondary school curriculum, it should also be taught at the National Youth Service.
In the present age of globalization and in a country that is continually divided along ethnic and religious fault lines, do you not think that your kind of intervention tends towards a more divisive society?
A globalization that does not take into consideration the history, culture and tradition of peoples is doomed to produce cultural alienation and possible dictatorship. The sad lessons of the German Nazi regime must not be lost on us; it was malignant globalization.
In pursing globalization we must not lose sight of our culture, the very essence that defines our being. Particulars birth the whole. It is not the intendment for globalization to re-enact the French colonial assimilation policy which created a culturally alienated elite.
It is instructive that in an age of globalization the United Nations has persistently recognized the need to preserve the culture, traditions and history of peoples as evidenced in Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2007, knowing that diversity like variety adds colour to life. The world would be monotonous and colourless if globalization was meant to make us mono-cultural
Have you in the course of doing your research encountered any kind of intellectual challenge over certain claims that you may have raised in the course of your writing?
In the course of my researches I came across few books written on Ukwuani people. But many of them were on particular clans. Much as these books were helpful guides some of them made wild historical claims which had the capacity of eternally mutilating Ukwuani history for posterity.
One of such claims was that it was the British who introduced clanship, clan-headship and clan administration to Ukwuaniland in 1927. Aside from being erroneous, this position was insulting to Ukwuani ethno-national psyche.
There had also been calls by some writers and actual attempts to alter our culture of governance which I found unnecessary. It would have amounted to encouraging intellectual immorality to leave such errors unchallenged. The author took on me, spilling much bile on ink which only succeeded in strengthening my resolve for more research.
And how did that reaction help to deter or spur your interest in cultural/historical research and publications?
The author’s debates with me on the pages of a community newspaper were very engaging. It sharpened my interest, spurred my research and resulted in my second book, THE GREAT DEBATE: Okpala-uku Clan-head vs. Monarchy.
It also facilitated the early completion of two other works, My UKWUANINESS and UKWUANI Names & Meanings and opened a floodgate of research on a few other works that were hitherto not within my contemplation.
Ogbuefi V. O. T. Abanum, the immediate past president of Ukwuani Foundation Union noted in his foreword to one of my books noted that my works had elicited assorted reactions from readers, some positive some violently negative but this had neither withered nor weathered my zeal. Controversies have a way of steeling one and eliciting the best.
What would you consider the greatest challenges to this kind of assignment?
My greatest challenge perhaps is finance. Two of my published works have their early roots dating back ten years or more due to financial constraints before they saw the light of publication. Thank God for my self determination. It has not been easy gathering resource materials either.
My background as a lawyer often came to my aid. One of the things they teach you in law is that a lawyer should not know all the law. What is necessary is that he must know where to get the law. That knowledge enabled me to source materials, so much that that my readers are impressed.