Solomon Elusoji tells the story of how the deeds of one man inspired an entire state

One afternoon this January, Miriam Nkume, a 200 level Bio-Chemistry student of Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, sat in her parent’s living room, deep in thought. Her first year in the university had been plagued with a plethora of financial difficulties; she could have been prevented from writing her first semester examinations, after only being able to pay her school fees a day before her debut paper. “It was an emotional trauma,” she told THISDAY, “I wasn’t a happy person.” But she persevered and came out with good grades. “I want to make a mark in the field of Chemistry; even win the Nobel Prize someday.”

But, that January afternoon, thoughts of greatness were far from Nkume’s mind. Her brain wandered, wondering where she was going to get money to pay for the upcoming session. “Honestly, my plan was to drop out of school, because there simply seemed to be no way.” Then, her phone rang. She pressed the green button, and like a blast of cold air, hope swept across her face. The universe had offered her a lifeline.

Sometime in late 2017, Nkume had applied for the Senator T.A. Orji Scholarship Scheme. Every year, Orji, who is the Senator representing Abia Central, doles out a minimum of 60 scholarships to indigent and outstanding students within his constituency. “When I applied, I just did it for application,” Nkume said. “It did not cross my mind that I would be selected.”

But selected she was. She screamed, tears of joy streaming down her ebony cheeks. Quickly, she rushed down to the hospital where her mother had been admitted the previous day and broke the good news. The older woman’s faith doubted such a miracle was possible, but she soon accepted the magnificent reality and they both broke into songs. “This scholarship is a wonderful thing,” Nkume told this newspaper recently, as she waited to receive her scholarship cheque at an open compound in Umuahia, together with 59 other fellow fortunate students. “The senator does not know the hope and encouragement he is giving us.”

Nkume’s miracle is similar to the account of the other students who spoke to THISDAY in Umuahia. Nwachukwu Chukwuemeka, a 200 level Computer Science student at Abia State University (ABSU), said the faltering economy had tightened his parents’ purses. The scholarship will go a long way in helping to “relieve the burden.” Williams Igwe, whose father told him about the scholarship, said his third year studying Economics at Michael Okpara, will definitely be a good one for him, with the help of the scholarship largesse. Ibelegbu Chizzy, a petite, fair-complexioned Biology Education student at Michael Okpara, said the first thing she was going to do with her scholarship money was pay her school fees. “In my 100 level, I saw hell,” she said. “It was not easy at all, and this is why the Senator has really tried.” She was in a lecture hall when she got the call that she had been selected to receive the Orji scholarship. “That news got me so excited about the future,” she said.

Education as a philosophy

Abia State, an entity created in 1991 by a Nigerian military government, has one of the most sophisticated educational cultures in the country. Virtually every year, the state comes first in West Africa’s premier examination for secondary school students, WAEC, a trend that can be traced to the governorship tenure of the now Senator Orji, who managed the state between 2007 and 2015 and instigated several educational reforms. Home to four universities, the state’s tertiary education sector is also vibrant.

When he was elected Senator by his people, Orji promised to represent them as effectively as possible. In less than 24 months, he empowered over 1000 entrepreneurs within his constituency, donating a stream of equipment, tools and machinery – power generating sets, sewing machines, fertilisers, many other items – encouraging the growth of Micro, Small and Medium scale businesses, the backbone of any economy. Among several other activities, he has also sponsored the construction of roads, built water wells and donated electricity transformers, facilitating development among his people. But Orji’s most credible achievement might be his scholarship scheme, which, in 2018, marked its third anniversary.

“I believe that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him to fish, then you can feed him for a lifetime,” Orji told THISDAY recently during a chat in his Umuahia office. “There is no doubt that education is the bedrock of all human endeavours.”

The scholarship scheme, he said, is an extension of his absolute conviction that, through education, man can do God-like things.

“Take for instance what the GSM has offered to the world,” Orji said, during a speech he gave at a ceremony celebrating the distinguished scholarship recipients this January. “Not too long ago, letter writing was a great art, the radio was a wonder and the TV, when it came to Nigeria the first time with Chief Awo’s WNBC in Western Nigeria, was a modern day miracle . . . beyond gadgetry, our health and aviation world have been greatly enhanced through education, some highly infectious and incurable diseases of the past are now curable, look at laser in medicine, using radar for surgery without wasting a drop of blood . . . all these are possible through science and technology through education . . . I will urge all my friends and every family to invest in education.”

Orji is not ignorant of the power of his choices, how they have helped given hope to the more than 180 students who have so far benefited from the scholarship scheme. “People are seeing the impact of what we are doing,” he told THISDAY, “because every year the number of applications into the scheme keeps growing.”

Still, he is not oblivious of the fact that more still needs to be done, with hundreds of students turned down every year. “I equally pray that you follow my example and give one scholarship today,” he told the crowd during the 2018 scholarship scheme ceremony. “Start at your level – a primary school, an indigent boy or girl in the secondary school, just at your level. Do you know that education can turn a beggarly deaf and dumb into a genius? Join me, follow the examples, you may even surpass me, God willing.”

The man in brief

Orji’s obsession with education can be traced to his humble beginnings. Born in Amaokwe-Ugba, Ibeku in Umuahia North Local Government Area of Abia State on November 9, in the year 1950, his father Chief Tom Orji Ikoro was a man of great means by all measurable standards and ramifications. Being the only son of his mother and one whose father was a well-known Warrant Chief that built the very first storey building in modern Umuahia (which is still standing till date), his parents ensured that he got the best education they could afford.

He started his primary education at St. Michaels Catholic Primary School, Umuahia. From there, he proceeded to Santa Crux Secondary School, Olokoro in the present-day Umuahia South LGA, before moving to Holy Ghost College, Owerri. Orji then capped his educational pursuit with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English, from the prestigious University of Ibadan, in 1977.

Upon graduation from Nigeria’s premier University, the young Orji got enlisted for the National Youth Corps Scheme and was deployed to Sokoto State, where he was posted to teach at Government Secondary School, Shinkafi, Isa Local Government Area of present day Zamfara State.

On the successful completion of the NYSC programme in 1978, Theodore Ahamefule Orji offered himself for public service and was employed as an Administrative Officer in the old Imo State Civil Service, on December 18, 1979. Subsequently, as an Administrative Officer, he served, in various capacities, in the Cabinet Office, Ministry of Lands and Survey, Ministry of Agriculture and Imo State Government House.

Upon the creation of Abia State in August 1991, Orji returned to Umuahia to contribute to the cause of laying a strong foundation for the smooth take-off of the new state. He served, at various times, in the Government House, the Bureau of Budget and Planning, and the Ministry of Agriculture. On March 1, 1996, T.A. Orji was seconded to the Abia State chapter of the National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON), now Independent National Electoral Chapter (INEC), as Administrative Secretary, and was later redeployed to Enugu State in 1997, where he supervised the elections that ushered in the democratic government in that state, in 1999. Thereafter, he returned to Abia State to take up another assignment as Principal Secretary, Government House, Umuahia, and later Chief of Staff to the Executive Governor.

In December, 2006, Orji decided to contest for his state’s governorship seat. He won, but he never forgot the pedestal that lifted him to such heights: a good education.

Inspiring an entire state

The Senator T.A. Orji Scholarship Scheme caters equally to each of the six Local Government Areas (LGA) in Abia Central – Umuahia North and South, Isiala Ngwa North and South, Ikwuano and Osisioma. From each of the LGAs, 10 students are chosen annually to benefit from the scheme; five students are chosen based on an indigent-based criteria, while the remaining five make the list on the basis of their superior academic performances.

The Chairman of the Scholarship Committee, Engr. Emma Nwabuko, told THISDAY the selection process was very transparent. The Committee has representatives in each LGA who come together to verify the authenticity of the applications received. The applications are sent through a web portal, which can be accessed by any Abia Central indigene, regardless of their present location. Amadi Jesse, a 16-year-old Marketing student at the Port Harcourt Polytechnic, received a scholarship while studying in Rivers State.

After the 60 names have been selected, they are forwarded to Orji, who then goes through to ensure that all the criteria – be a university student, be indigent or outstanding academically, not related to any of the Committee members – have been fulfilled.

Then a public scholarship ceremony is held in honour of the students, before they are invited to Orji’s campaign office as a group, where they take photographs with the Senator and receive their scholarship cheques, a handsome sum of N100,000 each.

The scheme’s model has been so successful that, during the 2017 edition, the present Governor of Abia, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, who was the Special Guest of Honour, vowed to adopt the members of the Orji Scholarship Scheme into the Abia State Scholarship Board, a move that could affect, positively, the academic success of thousands and spurn a new generation of scholars, professionals and technologists.

“Now that His Excellency, Senator Orji, has done this, others are now trying to key in,” a member of the Orji Scholarship Board and former Commissioner of Works, Mr. Emeka Longman, told THISDAY. “I heard over the radio recently that the Senator representing Abia North is also flagging off his own scholarship scheme, taking a cue from Senator Orji’s success. And you have to understand that the best empowerment anyone can think about is human capital development; it is the best investment any society can make. Plato once said you cannot build the city if you do not first build the man.”

He went on to describe the three year old scholarship scheme as “a phenomenal project. I cannot imagine anything like it. As the year rolls by, the reception, the appreciation keep increasing. And I want to thank God for giving us a representative in the person of Senator T.A Orji.”

Still, Orji is open to improvement. “As humans, there may be one error or the other,” he said during his 2018 speech at the scholarship ceremony. “Don’t be satisfied at criticising from afar, reach out to us as your idea may improve the project.”