By Obi Nwakanma
Today, in Long Beach California, the alumni of the Government College Umuahia in the United States, the GCUOBA-USA, will be concluding their annual national convention of Umuahians in the United States. This year’s convention, from which I’ve been regrettably absent, happens at an important development in the move towards the restoration of the Government College Umuahia.
Under the inspired leadership of Dr. Obinna Okereke-led local committee in California including – Dr. Ofo Iheanacho, Dr. Rico Mbamalu, Kofi Oparaocha, Bob-Mark Akponye, Frank Ifediba, and Ukay Obasi – the Umuahians meeting in Long Beach will certainly enjoy salubrious company, the sort that the likes of Edebeatu Ibekwe, Attorney and Partner Emeritus in the Los Angeles Law offices of Irell and Manella , do promise, but more importantly, beyond the champagne and cognac, and the traditional treat of Joy Iheanacho, Ofo’s wife, who often spoils Umuahians rotten with her great hospitality on such occasions, there will be the matter at hand: the Umuahia “restoration project.”
Of the books that have come out this year, Terri Ochiagha’s Achebe and Friends at Umuahia: The Making of a Literary Elite published in the UK by James Currey, stands apart in two rather particular ways: first, it take us through the annals of Nigeria’s public education, to the great moments when some thought went towards the education of the citizen – in this case, in the period of her study – the imperial or colonial subject, at the cusp of modernity; secondly, she puts to light, the significant ways that one place – in this case, the Government College Umuahia – could be the staging ground of the greatest intellectual awakening in one generation, that has given Nigeria its place in both the literary and the scientific world.
At the end of Ochiagha’s book, one cannot but discern a hint of the mournful closure, the sense that the failure of Umuahia in continuing in the foundations built for it reflects an aspect of the Nigerian tragedy. Perhaps again, we might say that great, elite schools like the Government College Umuahia, and her sister schools at Lagos (Kings College), Government College, Ibadan, and Barewa College, Zaria, Nigeria’s four foundational, leading English-type boarding schools built in the tradition of the elite public schools in England like Harrow, Eton, and Winchester, with later additions at Ughelli, Owerri, Afikpo, Keffi, and Bida, reflect in their current states, the failure of real public education in Nigeria, and thus also, the slippery state of the republic.
There were also the Queens Colleges built for the girls – the mother of them all in Lagos – then Enugu, Ede, and Ilorin. At the core of the idea of a republic is the creation of a free and enlightened citizenship, particularly its cadre of well-trained, selfless leadership, who should be prepared to build and defend the republic as a matter of course, and as their historical obligation. Today, the principles that inform public education policy in Nigeria dwell far more on the nature of market forces rather than on the enduring question of the status of the state, its continuity, and its transcendence. It is ironic that just a generation ago, these Government Colleges were Nigeria’s best schools; best funded; and best provisioned; the best competed for admission into these schools. Selection was tough, but once you have earned your place, you were assured of the highest regard of your peers.
The Government Colleges had first class facilities; the best teachers, and a place like the Government College Umuahia had the feel of a typical English environment. In some ways, it was unsustainable, given that the students were socialized in enclosures that seemed generally to overlook the general condition of the rest of the country. But it was a great thing happening at Umuahia and such other places; it only needed, rather than its destruction, an upgrade of the standards found in these places in other places. In any case, the Government College Umuahia, like its sister schools soon came to suffer the Nigerian malaise. Starting from the mid-1980s, funding for such places as Umuahia dried up.
The austerity measures, and the IMF rules, had as one of its great victims, such public schools; proper funding of public education, and for schools like Umuahia that once had special government funding became the first victims. The creation of states also reduced its orbit, as each state that inherited Umuahia increasingly reduced it, from its international and national status, to mind-boggling provinciality. Thus a great school was brought to its knees by the narrow-minded, illogical, and blind policies of administrations, often the military administrations that deployed it to catchment, rather than to enduring quality. For years, old Umuahians – alumni of the school – had tried, out of great nostalgia to keep important aspects of the school going, and had often pressured the governments, to carry out certain functions with regards to Umuahia. With its array of distinguished “oldboys,” the Government College Umuahia alumni could do this, but only to a limited scope. It was as a result, that in the last five years, they entered discussions with the Abia State government with a unique proposal to cede the school to a Trust – a sort of public partnership Trust – by which the Government College would be run, through the Robert Fisher Trust Foundation. The Reverend Robert Fisher, founding Principal of the Government College, had, at the end of the civil war in Nigeria, sold his earthly possessions, including his home in England, moved into a nursing home with his wife, and willed the money to the Government College Umuahia. This is the symbolic seed to the Fisher Trust, and Umuahians, especially in the United States, the UK, and in Nigeria, have demonstrated a commitment to the restoration of, arguably, Nigeria’s best secondary school for boys, nestling in that glade in Umudike Umuahia.
Last year, Mr. T.A. Orji, then governor of Abia State, signed off on the document ceding Umuahia as a public Trust to the Government College oldboys, to be run on by the Trust Fund. The momentum generated is an indication that good things can happen in Nigeria. Umuahia, its alumni insist, must be restored to its place as first-rate school. A great regret of some of the old Umuahians is that their own sons did not benefit from an Umuahian education. But they hope that a restored Umuahia will be a place they can bring their own grandsons – always a lovely sight – as I myself saw once with the late Dr. William Uduku, visiting his grandson at Umuahia in 1994 during a “Homecoming.”
It is also the dream of Umuahians that other Nigerian children will have the benefit of an Umuahian education; one of the great foundations of their lives of numerous achievers. So, this Labor Day weekend, in Long Beach, California, the dream of a restoration takes one step further, with Umuahians in the United States launching the Trust Fund. They aim at raising an initial N1 billion as Take-off fund for the repairs and upgrade of facilities – from student accommodation to the recruitment of a new head of school and world class teachers. It is an ambitious project. But it is an Umuahian thing, and Umuahians always light the path.