Tuesday, April 7, 2020 7:57 pm
By EC Ejiogu
I still recall it quite vividly. The year was 1972. I must have been nine years old, and growing up in my village, Ubonukam, which is also one of the ten villages that comprise my Village Group, Onicha Amairi, i.e. Onicha, the ten-village sub-clan, in the Igbo heartland. The shooting phase of the Nigeria-Biafra war that claimed more than an estimated 3 million Biafran lives—a significant proportion of which were women, children and elderly through hunger and starvation—had ended a couple of years earlier in January 1970, and the non-shooting phase, which continues to this day was already underway.
That non-shooting phase that comprised all manner of social engineering couched as state policy of different sorts by the rulers of unitary Nigeria who emerged victors in that total war that they levied against the peoples of the then Eastern Region to crush the young Republic of Biafra they declared in their bid to self-preserve from the two horrendous waves of pogrom that were inflicted on those of them who resided in locations, towns and cities in parts of Nigeria’s Western Region, and especially the Northern Region.
One such social engineering policy that directly affected me and all elementary school-age children in my village and other villages in the former Eastern Region was the government takeover by fiat of all mission-owned and operated educational institutions. Recall that the former Eastern Region had by an earlier military decree in 1967, been apportioned out into East Central, Rivers, and Cross Rivers states respectively.
Anyone conversant with the history of Western education in the areas that British colonial intervention carved into Nigeria would also be conversant with the ubiquitous roles played by the Anglican and Roman Catholic Church missionary sects in the propagation of Western education in the south of Nigeria. Those roles canalized into fierce rivalries all over the villages and communities in the Igbo heartland.
In my village, Ubonukam, where the Roman Catholic Church missionaries founded the Saint Pius Catholic Church, they also established the Saint Pius Primary School alongside. The Anglican missionaries who came in long before them had earlier founded a Saint Peters Anglican Church and a Saint Peters Anglican Primary School alongside it also in our village. Our village and we, the villagers were subsumed in the attendant sectarian rivalries that characterized the advent and presence of the two sects. But that rivalry was neither violent, nor blood though.
For my siblings and me, like the children of other converts of the Roman Catholic Church in our village, when we attained school age, we naturally enrolled and attended Saint Pius Catholic Primary School Ubonukam.
By I don’t know how,the Umukam part of our village that comprised three enlarged kindreds—Arugwueze, Ezukwu, and Umuafa—were predominantly Roman Catholic Church converts and adherents, while Umubo, the other enlarged kindred in Ubonukam village were predominantly converts and adherents of the Anglican Church. That, by implication means that most of the children from Umubo attended Saint Peters Anglican Primary School Ubonukam.
Our village’s immersion in the said sectarian divide wasn’t helped by the government’s takeover of all missionary schools in the East Central state, which was placed under Mr. UkpabiAsika who was appointed administrator by the unitarist military regime headed by General Yakubu Gowon in Lagos. There’s no time and space to delve into how and why Mr. Asika gained the preferment for that appointment. But Asika leveraged on his adherence to the Anglican sect faith and caused virtually all Roman Catholic-owned schools that existed alongside Anglican-owned schools in villages like ours to be folded into the latter in almost every case.
That was how we came to school one fateful morning and our headmaster, his name is Mr. Onwumere, announced to us that our school was no more. We were instructed to gang carry our long-form omni-sitter-desks long-distance and all the way to Saint Peters Anglican Primary School, which was renamed Community School Ubonukam.
For us children, the sectarian rivalry between those of us from Umukam and those from Umubo remained in place, and would flare up to the fore in school on playgrounds during recess times. There were also times when that rivalry even degenerated into group fist fights on those playgrounds during recess times and after school when we had left the confines of the school en-routehome. Fist fights on the school compound if reported, attracted severe punishment from our teachers. But beyond the compound confines, we were beyond the strict rules that applied
So, it was, on that day in school in 1972 during the second cholera outbreak that hit communities in Nigeria. The first one was the year before, i.e. 1971. News about it was everywhere, and peddled by word of mouth in the main. There had been announcements regarding the outbreak and how to protect ourselves from it, by our headmaster, Mr. Echendu during morning assembles. Our teachers took up from there in the classrooms during health science classes. We were instructed to look out for the symptoms—running stomach and watery stooling, etc.; and to observe and practice good hygiene and sanitation in our homes: wash all fruits well before eating, boil all drinking water fetched from the stream, etc.
It then hit close home to us on the playground during recess time that day when suddenly, a lad from Umubo broke out in uncontrolled watery stooling and sent all of us scampering out of the playground all over the school compound in fear. Cholera! Our school was abruptly dismissed and we were all sent home early.
Then began the public campaign all over the place to vaccinate everyone.
My father’s social standing came handy. Rather than my siblings and I being taken to the clinic, or the health centres for the vaccination, our distant relative—her name is Jovita, but we, the children out of reverence, called her Danne Jovita—who worked as a nurse at the Obonna Rebecca Memorial Hospital, Obizi, came over and vaccinated us all—my siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews, et all. That’s how that outbreak in 1972 was stemmed all over the Igbo heartland.
That’s also where this narrative begins to crux. I do still recall that our teachers who bought and read the East Central state government-owned Renaissance newspaper talked a lot about a man, a professor at Nsukka. His name is Njoku-Obi who they said is responsible for the development, the previous year—1971—of the anti-cholera vaccine that helped save us from that outbreak.
I was fascinated and inspired all at once that someone, and Igbo like me, perched at a citadel of higher learning at Nsukka had achieved such feat that placed his name alongside the like of Edward Jenner, the inventor of the anti-small pox vaccine that we were taught about during our health science lessons in class.
Professor Augustine Nwaneri Njoku-Obi’s prowess and employment at Nsukka was one of the attractions for my friends and me when we entered for and wrote the JAMB test in our choice of Nsukka in 1980. My pal, Panthelon Anyanwu was so fascinated by the thrill to go and study microbiology at Nsukka under Professor Njoku-Obi. Tony Ojukwu wanted to study law there. Jude Emekwuru, Solomon Nwogwugwu and Charles Onyekwere all wanted to study medicine at Nsukka. My desire was to study animal science, or mass communication at Nsukka.
Which quickly brings to mind Chinua Achebe’s assertion somewhere on page 76 in his last published work, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (Penguin 2012) about what used to be Igbo affinity and respect for Western education: “The Igbo,” he said, “for the most part (at least until recently), respected the education that the colonizers had brought with them. There was not only individual interest in the white man’s knowledge, but family, community, and regional interest. It would not surprise an observer that the “Igbos (sic) absorbed western (sic) education as readily as they responded to urbanization”, he concluded, quoting en part from Paul Anber’sclassic article, “Modernisation and Political Dintegration: Ngeria and the Ibos” in the September 1967 issue (volume 5, number 2) of the Journal of Modern African Studies.
One must urge readers of this piece to stand with me as we situate Njoku-Obi and his team’s feat in their development of the anti-cholera vaccine there in their laboratory at Nsukka in 1971 in its proper context.
The shooting phase of the total war that Nigeria and its international allies led by British Prime Minister Harold Wilson levied on and waged against the Republic of Biafra and its beleaguered people had just ended a year before. Every nook and cranny of the former Eastern Region was still dissolute from the war and wholesome devastation that came with it. The peoples of the Region, especially the Igbo were still dazed and traumatized from the effects even as they scrambled to pick themselves up and restore all aspects of their lives. The university at Nsukka itself, which was a theatre in the war was in ruins—its Nnamdi Azikiwe Library was burnt down by Nigerian troops. The famed Princess Alexandra Auditorium in which Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu pronounced the Declaration of Biafra as a sovereign Republic and other buildings on campus were still in ruins. So were buildings that housed lecturers’ offices and laboratories, students’ classrooms, etc.
Those constituted the environment in which 42-year old virology professor, Augustine Nwaneri and his team in the microbiology department labored and developed the WHO-certified anti-cholera vaccine that saved the lives of us, children of Biafra who were still recuperating from the blockade-induced kwashiorkor that we had just experienced as a result of the war.
Njoku-Obi may have earned his first degree before the war from the University College, Ibadan. Ditto some members of his team. That placed them as products of the rock-solid education system that obtained in the south of Nigeria, which produced the generation of individuals that included Chinua Achebe, Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, et al. Njoku-Obi and members of his team may have laboured in Biafra’s Research and Production (RAP) war Directorate, where their ingenuity helped see the young Republic through a rough time with their various inventions.
They truly understood the role of a university in society and rose to it.
As chance would have it, I once ran into the man, Professor Njoku-Obi myself, as a teenage and impressionable undergrad at Nsukka. I had been compelled to ride on my Kawasaki KH100 EL motorbike from my down-campus hostel to the telephone exchange in the old post office building in town to make a call to someone in Enuugwu one evening. In those days in the early 1980s, for faster outcome, it was still necessary to go to the exchange to place calls. There was one on campus in the Faculty of Education Building, which was often times filled with people, and the one in town. As I sat in the hallway at the exchange with others and waited to see if the operators would connect us, the professor also came into the exchange and submitted his own request to be connected and stood around to wait. It wasn’t long before he requested the operators to transfer the call to his home telephone on campus when they connect, and left. That was when someone whispered to me that he was Professor Njoku-Obi. I still remember what he looked like: middle age, medium height, about 5.”6, moderate stature. Hs eyes, visible through his pair of eye glasses looked congenitally bulgy and teary probably from a lot of peering into the microscope almost all his life.
Fast forward to today and the dawn of the still ravaging COVID-19 global Pandemic and tell me what you feel and see! Those buildings, one of which housed the laboratory that Njoku-Obi and his team laboured in to develop their world standard anti-cholera vaccine are still there on the Nsukka campus. So is the University. The microbiology department is still there as well. The place teems with numerous “professors”. There are also “laboratories” in which they still “work”. But the likes of Njoku-Obi and his team are visibly missing and absent.
If the likes of Njoku-Obi were still on campus there today at this time, there is no doubt that they would come up with a rock-solid COVID-19 confirmatory test, and perhaps a vaccine that would meet the needs for this society in this dire present time.
*EC Ejiogu, a political sociologist with specialty interests in states, citizenship, military organization and international security is the author of the The Roots of Political Instability in Nigeria: Political Evolution and Development in the Niger Basin (Ashgate, 2011, and Routledge, 2016)