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By Ehi Braimah

IT was time to head back to the ancient city of Benin recently – that was from September 23-26, 2021 – for the reunion of my classmates.

We attended Government College, Ughelli, GCU, now in Delta State, previously in Bendel State. Edo and Delta states were created from the old Bendel State. Such gatherings bring back old memories for “boys” who have now become “men”.

It was truly a privilege to have attended GCU – a public secondary school for male students only. When my set gained admission into the school, J.E. Jones, an Englishman, was the principal.

I was quite young at the time and we were grouped into two arms – A and B – of not more than 20 students each. My class teacher who also doubled as Art teacher was M.D. Asoro. He was tall and lanky. I completed my primary education at Eserophe Primary School, Ughelli, which reverted to its former name: Nigerian Baptist Convention, NBC, Primary School, Ughelli. I was at Payne Primary School, Upper Mission Road, Benin City before we shifted base to Ughelli where I ended up spending 10 years.

After scaling the entrance examination successfully into three secondary schools, I chose GCU for its reputation. We were required to sit for another test and interview in the hallowed premises of GCU. Only those who made the final shortlist were given letters of admission. To the best of my knowledge, no one was bribed to facilitate the admission of students into GCU, one of the best public secondary schools in Nigeria in those halcyon days.

Admission was purely on merit and the experience in a productive learning environment was awesome. Nothing compares to that anymore except in the elite schools funded by the rich and affluent amongst us.

Today, you’re forced to weep at what public schools in Nigeria have become. They are not different from the general decay that is prevalent in every segment of society and it explains why parents and guardians who can afford the fees send their children to private schools. But paying school fees is no longer a stroll in the park due to our current economic circumstances.

From poor sanitary conditions to lack of desks and chairs, broken doors and windows, suffocating classrooms that are overcrowded without ceilings and electricity, the conditions in public schools (primary and secondary) are pathetic. Wouldn’t it be nice to know what happens to the yearly appropriations for education – both at the national and subnational levels?

We are not exactly strangers to the games people with access to opportunities and power play. Funds that are meant for the development of educational infrastructure are stolen and diverted. When contracts are awarded, there are no performance bonds to hold the vendors accountable. Even where such bonds exist, they are bloody pieces of paper that are thrashed for profit by all the parties involved in an egregious display of greed because there are usually no consequences.

 The interventions by philanthropists and humanitarian service organisations as well as alumni groups have helped to mitigate the rate of decay in public schools. Rotary clubs in 532 Districts all over the world have continued to make strong interventions in Basic Education and Literacy – one of Rotary International’s seven areas of focus. The late sage, Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013), said education is the most powerful weapon which we can use to change the world. He was right. According to information available at Rotary International website, over 775 million people over the age of 15 are illiterate – that’s 17 per cent of the world’s adult population.

There’s even a far more sobering statistic based on UNICEF data: over 40 per cent of the world’s children are not accessing basic education and Nigeria occupies the unenviable sixth position out of 10 countries in the world with the highest rates of out-of-school children. We are grouped with Liberia, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Sudan and Niger in the Hall of Shame. When we gathered in Benin City to reflect on the days we spent together in GCU, we counted ourselves lucky. There was regular electricity and pipe borne water flowed non-stop. The laundry took care of our school uniforms and bed sheets, while the sick bay attended to the sick. GCU was not a military school but there was orderliness and everywhere was clean. Sometimes, I wonder whether those days in GCU will ever return.

GCU was a training ground for future leaders. In addition to our studies, we had extra-curricular activities aimed at developing our talents in different areas. Students were encouraged to develop interest in at least one sport and take part in it in order to avoid being called a “waste pipe”. We had the Literary and Debating Society, Drama Society, Cadet (the para-military group), Scout, Boys’ Brigade, Red Cross, Mariners’ Dance Band and so on. Speaking vernacular was completely forbidden and siesta was compulsory. However, it wasn’t all work and no play. We also danced to soulful music on Saturday nights and generally enjoyed ourselves.

There were friendship and cultural exchange programmes between GCU and two female schools in Ughelli: Anglican Girls Grammar School and St. Theresa Girls Grammar School. It was an experience that helped us to grow as young men and it sharpened our worldview on relationships with the opposite sex.

Lights out were compulsory at 9.30 pm; it meant you must return to your bed and sleep. From your first day in class until you wrote the final exams, everyone was groomed to be strong, focused and independent. GCU also had the Higher School Certificate, HSC, programme which lasted for two years but it was not compulsory. It was an Advanced Level course where only three subjects are taken before proceeding to the university.

We were also trained to develop a winning mindset. GCU gave us a wide canvass where you could splash your own colours with the brush of your choice. We were allowed to make our mistakes and learn from those mistakes.

Whether it was a Treasure Hunt game that required all participants to think on their feet by decoding clues or General Inspection which was a contest for the cleanest House (hostel), the competitive spirit was alive and well in GCU, preparing us for a world of competition in the years ahead.

In sports, GCU was ahead of its peers because the facilities were available and maintained regularly. Football, cricket, athletics, table tennis, lawn tennis, badminton, handball, volleyball and basketball were the dominant sports.

Over large swathes of land, we had the administrative and classroom blocks, dining hall, hostels, well-manicured lawns and shrubs, parks and gardens, junior and senior staff quarters, sickbay, sports complex, assembly hall, metal and woodwork sections, laundry and tarred roads that left a memorable and charming picturesque on our minds.

No one can foretell the future but the bonds of friendship and fellowship that we shared as young students back in the day are celebrated each time we meet in a convivial atmosphere – we generally exude good humour and bonhomie. The Benin re-union ticked all the boxes.

There’s also plenty of yabis time but the cheerful friendliness displayed anywhere old boys meet has created an enduring vibrant fraternity.

With a new EXCO in place after our AGM/Elections, our next reunion will hold in Abuja in 2023. Fidel Oke, our classmate and senior executive of FBN Insurance, chairs the Abuja Branch. He told us he was returning to Abuja to swing into action for a befitting Abuja re-union. Two classmates (Osaguona Ogie and Amos Agadaigho) celebrated their birthday on Friday, September 24.

There was cake and wine to the delight of the palate. Osaguona, by the way, is the twin brother of Osarodion Ogie, Secretary to the Edo State government, SSG.

It was the weekend of our reunion that the long-awaited list of Edo State commissioner-nominees including two special advisers was released by Governor Godwin Obaseki.  A classmate joked that Obaseki knew GCU old boys were in town for their reunion and he decided to honour their presence with the announcement.

Osaguona returned to Nigeria after about 18 years sojourn in the United Kingdom and he has adjusted well. He was a member of the Local Organising Committee (LOC) of the Benin reunion which was chaired by Godfrey Okobaroh.

They did an excellent job hosting the class. Initially, some classmates expressed security concerns and the spread of COVID-19 infections. They wanted the re-union cancelled but that was not to be. It turned out to be glorious get-together.

The diaspora arm of our class is very active and they support the welfare package of the class with generous donations. They are able to join our meetings from time to time using the Zoom app. With greying hair as our everyday companion, it means we are growing older by the day. That explains why the rank of retirees is swelling, even though they may not be tired.

Apart from the standard welfare package for classmates through voluntary donations, we also have a Group Life Insurance policy for the class – for both permanent disability and death. Indeed, we have lost some classmates to the cold hands of death, most of them not yet 60 years old. May their souls rest in peace!

Besides our class, we also have the broader alumni group: Government College, Ughelli Old Boys Association (GCUOBA) with different branches – both at home and in the diaspora. For a term of two years (2019 -2021), Sam Omatseye, my classmate, essayist, poet, journalist and chairman of the Editorial Board of Nation newspaper, was the president of the Lagos Branch of GCUOBA while I served as the vice president.

Being an old boy of GCU in general and my class, in particular, is a thing of joy and pride. The experience gave us the kind of confidence we needed to move ahead in life. The discipline and orderliness in GCU were unmistakable, making it possible for us to establish our credentials and competencies with authority at every station of life that we found ourselves.

When it was time for the election of officers, there was no rigging of ballot snatching – it was smooth and orderly. It was a mark of GCU excellence.

The previous EXCO led by Omatsola Vincent as chairman was largely returned for another term of two years due to their excellent performance. Vincent led by personal example and I’m not surprised that he, alongside members of his team, recorded a huge success to the admiration of his classmates.

The class chair always acted with courage and that is what leaders need to make the right decisions without fear or favour. Nigeria needs that tribe of leaders who can lead from the front as we prepare for another election cycle in 2023.

Braimah is the Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of Naija Times

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