Sir Bob E. Ogbuagu, an elder statesman and Secretary of the Abia State Advisory Council , clocks 90 years, today. the 25th of May, 2015. As one of the four survivors of the Zikist Movement, a nationalist, journalist, fellow of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations and an administrator per- excellence, a number of activities have been lined-up to celebrate this icon. In this first part of an exclusive interview with journalists from Hallmark newspaper, De Bob, as he is fondly called by his admirers, recounted his struggles to get an education during the colonial era and his ordeal in the nationalist struggle for Nigerian independence. Chuks Nwagbara and PETER OKORE report:
You are marking your 90thbirthday, which to an extent, marks a mile stone in the life of an individual. Can you give us a brief account of the journey, so far?
You are right. For some inexplicable reason, I was born on 25th of May in1925. I remember when we were celebrating it in Methodist College, Uzuakoli, it was popularly called 25/5/25.That date was well recorded and we had no doubt about the actual date, at all; because, Dede, my father, was a teacher. So he had the correct date. From the time my father lived, he taught us to have birthday celebrations.
Nobody thought one was going to reach nine scores. I don’t even believe I have clocked 90 years myself. But it is so.
What does the programme of commemoration look like?
What we intend doing is to have a Divine Thanksgiving service on the 24th of May, which incidentally, is Wesley Sunday throughout the world. We are expecting His Eminent, the Prelate of the Methodist church, Rev. Sunday C.K. Uche to preside. Coincidentally, as the Methodist Church Nigeria will be in this vicinity that week, that Sunday, the Prelate will be investing new Knights of the Methodist Church in the Umuahia Archdiocese. So activities will run from the investiture of the Knights to this Thanksgiving in my own village church, Umukabia.
The Community Primary School, Umukabia was here. Then with the growth in population of those going to school, we had to get the Central school to where it is now. For that reason, Okpuala had to get a church. Now, we have Umukabia-Okpuala Church . But then there is Umukabia Christ Church.
You are a legend in your own lifetime and an icon of the Nigerian Independence. If we cast our minds back, most of you were very young and you made your marks in the annals of the country’s history. I remember people like Ernest Okoli and Professor Ikenna Nzimiro. What was the driving force or preparations you all had?
That is the interesting thing about what happened between 1945 and 1950. That is where all the struggles for Nigerian Independence were anchored. There was no question of having any preparations in whatever we did then. For instance, I entered the Methodist College, Uzuakoli in 1939. While there I was interested in Current Affairs; to the extent that I had a column at one end of the Black Board on the wall, which we called, “BEKO’s Column”. There we discussed our own Current Affairs within the college. Of course, it was all about the critique of our teachers(English, Science, Arithmetic teachers, etc). Any slips of grammar from our teachers, we documented on the board.
Three weeks to Cambridge University examinations, I was among a group of 9 (nine) students expelled from the Methodist College, Uzuakoli; five from the final year and four from the class below Class five. Our names were sent to Cambridge University as expelled students. The Principal then, Rev. W. J. Wood expelled us because he accused us of causing a strike in the college. Well, on our part, we saw it as a resistance and our objection was for good course. Uzuakoli was a prime Missionary School for Methodists, just like other religious denominations had their own schools in the whole of Eastern Nigeria. These schools were meant for poor families. Dede (my father) sent me to Uzuakoli when he was earning One Pound Four Shillings as a Teacher. At Uzuakoli, we had to cook for ourselves. There we had family grouping to run the administration of the place. The cooks were not more than six, comprising the senior ones and new ones. The new ones, like us, washed the plates and did general cleaning of things for the senior ones.
Apparently, in my first year, I was in the same group with late Dr. M.I. Okpara and Mr. Obirike Kanu. On the first day I arrived Uzuakoli, I was assigned to ‘C’ House. During the time for meals, the bell went and we were all at the Dining Hall. There was the first meal of gari, served with egusi soup. In the Dining Hall, I found out that I could not sit down on the bench to eat, because the table was too high for me. I had to stand-up to eat. Another un-welcomed friend later joined me at the table. While there, a fly fell into my soup. We were expected to be eating with ‘fork and knife’.
I looked round and did not know what to do with that fly, as I was hungry. I quickly pushed it to one corner of my plate and filled my stomach. I have never forgotten that incident, because it frightened me; but I could not complain to anybody.
So Uzuakoli had its own style of feeding; namely, group, family nature . We contributed the money according to your class.
Sir, tell us more about the problem you had with your alma mater at Uzuakoli.
Fine! In 1945, we had the Inter-college Football and Cricket competitions with Government College, Umudike. At Government College, we found that when it was time for meals, they just ring the bell and everybody rushed into the Dining Hall; ate and came out. They called it central feeding. This caught our fancy. So, when we got back, we put our heads together and said ‘ we better tell the authorities to introduce central feeding for us in Uzuakoli. That was our problem with Uzuakoli. So when we protested about it, it landed us in trouble. As young people, we wanted to achieve something. We wanted to draw the attention of the authorities to our feeding problem.
Then we got together and organised secondary students. At Uzuakoli, they had brought- in some category of teachers to monitor students. It was these teachers who leaked our plans to the authorities. That evening, I was at a class meeting in the Principal’s house, when the noise started at the Castle, I knew what was happening, but pretended as if I did not know. The following morning they had told the Principal, Rev. Wood, who the ring leaders were. So that was why the nine of us were expelled fromUzuakoli.
The five of us who were ready to take our Cambridge examinations were shocked to hear that the principal, that same day, had informed Cambridge University that we were now categorized as external students. In those days, they used to have External Students and the Students. There was disparity in grading for the two categories of students. So that was our first brush with the authorities.
How did your father receive the news of your expulsion from Uzuakoli?
The day I came back, my father was teaching in the Township school.
He was furious and mad when I showed him my letter of expulsion. He just jumped on his bicycle and went to see the Principal. From what he told us, he went there and cried to the Principal, saying, ‘please this is my son. Kindly allow him to come back to do his exam’. In response, Rev. Wood took out two white handkerchiefs. He gave one to my father to wipe out his tears and the other one to take home; telling him that his (Principal’s) decision was irrevocable. You can imagine the fire I was into, as we all lived in one house.
Was there no option given to those final year students?
One of the conditions the Principal, Rev.W. J. Wood gave us was that he allowed us to take the Cambridge certificate Examination with others, but we were not allowed to reside within the College premises.
We had to go to town or elsewhere and come to take the exam from there. But one Mr. Ukachi Ikemba from Umunnemeze, who was a member of staff was kind enough to smuggle me into his boys quarters. It was from there that I wrote my Cambridge Certificate exam.
Unfortunately, by the time the exam was over, Rev. Wood heard about my place of hiding, which nearly cost Mr. Ukachi Ikemba his going to Ibadan University that year.
To cut it short, all these were because Uzuakoli was really cut-out for people from poor families. Even when I wanted to go to Government College, my father will never let me go, because my uncle, Chief Tom Ikoro (then father of Abia state governor, Chief Theodore Orji), would have made it possible for me. But my father said No! ; that I must go to Uzuakoli. At last I saw that he was right; because I found that the Jesus in him, which he sought for , had already got into me.
I was already there at Uzuakoli as a local preacher in-training (even as a student). You can imagine my age that time. I was going from the college to Ozuitem, on Sunday mornings, with the local preacher to whom we were attached to under study. I thank God for giving me that background, which helped me very much in the later years.
How do you see your experiences in Uzuakoli?
I did an unthinkable thing. At Uzuakoli they had this tradition of final year students being given a special service of dedication and send-off to the community. In those days at Uzuakoli and in all those Mission Schools, Government Departments and Agencies used to come to interview final year students for appointments while they are still there in school. There you have to choose where to work (the Railways, Post and Telegraph, P and T Department, Customs Service, Sanitary Inspector, etc). So that by the time you are leaving school, you already have a job. These were some of the advantages we were getting for being in schools like Uzuakoli, Hope Waddel, St Patrick’s College, Calabar, DMGS, etc.
So, that evening at the Quadrangle, I went straight to Rev. Wood and requested if we could be allowed to join other students in the service. He looked round and focused on me again and replied:” No! Because you are a devil”. That statement caught me. The following morning, every Book I had that had to do with religion, I gathered them and sold them out to the Bookshop, pocketed my money and returned home.
When got home I did not know that the conspiracy had been perfected. After the New Year’s Day, 1946, I discovered that I had one Bible that I had not sold to the Bookshop. I complimented it and gave to my father, as a New Year gift. Until later on, he did not understand what I had done. To me, that gesture meant that it was finished with religion.
We hear you once served as a Motor-boy. How come this after Uzuakoli?
So, on 4th of January,1946, they (my parents) had me in the train enroute Sokoto , where my uncle was residing. First of all, the train stopped at Gusau (now in Zamfara state), from where I had to go by lorry to Sokoto. In Gusau, I heard about one Nnewi-man called, Mr. Ilochonwu, who had taught here in Umukabia. I still remember that Ilochonwu was sent packing from the school he taught at Umukabia because he went to our Iyiocha (stream) and caught fish, which was a taboo. For that they chased him out of this place. His brother took him to Gusau and established him there. By the time I got there, he had a fleet of lorries under his control. So I stopped at Gusau and joined his drivers’ group as a motor-boy. Each day I chose the driver I worked with to carry groundnuts and cotton from the hinterlands to the railway station at Gusau. This was an interesting part of my life I have always recalled. It was very exciting. I loved it. Of course, I was regarded as a distinguished motor-boy. As a result wherever they (drivers and motor-boys) stopped to eat, they bought me the choicest food. And, if in the course of the job I was tired, they put their bench on the ground for me to sleep on.
Why the preferential treatment, as a motor-boy?
This preferential treatment was because I went to College and I was Oga’s friend. They (the drivers) appreciated me and I also appreciated the experience I was getting. One day I was invited to the main residence of Mr. Ilochonwu, which was a very serious thing to happen for a driver or motor-boy to be invited to Oga’s parlour. I went there and I was asked if I had my bath and I said No!. He asked me to go and have my bath and come back. I went, took my bathe and came back to see the whole place was filled up with visitors. When I eventually saw the Oga, he brought out a telegram from his pocket and readout the contents to me. That was a telegram from my Principal, Rev. J. W Wood. The telegram conveyed to me my Cambridge University Examination result. I had Eight “C’s and one A”, which, of course, meant exemption from London matriculation. The following morning when I wanted to follow the drivers for the day’s job, he (Ilochionwu) said I should not go anywhere. He said I had to stay in the house and that, he was looking for a job for me. Through him, I got a job with John Holt within a month. Eventually, I did not proceed to Sokoto, where my uncle had been waiting to receive me.