100 Years of Excellence at Uzuakoli Methodist College

100 Years of Excellence at Uzuakoli Methodist College

Chima Mbubaegbu

On   December 10, 2023, a thanksgiving service in the college’s chapel will kickstart Abia State-based Methodist College, Uzuakoli’s (MCU) year-long centenary celebration that will culminate in a week of activities in December 2024. Why should this celebration matter to anyone other than MCU students and alumni? It matters in this case because, established in 1923, MCU was the first secondary school in the present Southeast of Nigeria and only the 3rd or 4th, east of the Niger. It matters because thousands of students have benefitted from the excellent foundations laid down by MCU founders, teachers, values and traditions and the alumni have made significant contributions to Nigeria, at home and abroad.

It matters because 100 years of education and service spanning World War II, Nigeria’s Independence, the Nigeria-Biafra war, and numerous national developments, matter. This is a tribute to MCU.  It was Father Shanahan, a Roman Catholic priest who suggested, that “those who hold the school, hold the country, hold its religion, hold its future.” Over a period of 100 years, generations and thousands of students have passed through MCU and many have excelled in different areas of human endeavour. The following anecdotes, many of which are personal, and by no means intended to be a comprehensive narrative, illustrate the legacy of MCU educators for whom ‘holding the school’, was a vocation, and celebrate the diverse contributions of MCU alumni who have held and continue to ‘hold the country, hold its religion, (and) hold its future’.

William Dodds, a missionary, described the establishment of MCU as one of the most important ventures of the Primitive Methodist enterprise in Igboland.  MCU was a core part of the “Eastern Star” alliance of colleges as envisaged by Robert Fisher, the founder of Government College Umuahia. The others in this league were C.M.S. Training College, Awka; Dennis Memorial Grammar School, Onitsha; Government College, Umuahia; and Hope Waddell Presbyterian College, Calabar.

While the Primitive Methodist Church founded MCU in 1923, the church’s incursion into the area was some years earlier.  The first contact with Uzuakoli in 1910 was fraught with danger as unfriendly villagers led by Chief Iheukwumere surrounded a white missionary and his young African companion from the Niger Delta, wielding matchets and spears, not wanting any more of the white man’s ways. This account was written by Dodds who had an imaginative mind and formed a Local History Society at MCU.  Between 1957 and 1960, he encouraged students to research the community and in 1964 edited their writings into a fulsome story, in cooperation with Mr A J Fox.

In its rivalry with the Anglicans and the Roman Catholic church, and the scramble for territory, the Primitive Methodist Church’s strategy was to concentrate its efforts on the railway junctions. Uzuakoli was part of this strategy.

The missionaries were given the “evil forest” but instead of running away, they developed the Boys’ Institute, (later to become Methodist College Uzuakoli) under Rev Hardy. In January 1923, the first 68 students were admitted with over 20 on the waiting list. Founding MCU at Uzuakoli, was in part determined by the town’s location near the new railway station on the line that went from Udi (with the newly discovered coal bitumen) to Isaka, a suitable port. Isaka was later renamed Port Harcourt.

Uzuakoli was renowned for its market which was at one time bigger than the Onitsha market with planned quarters of various trading groups from Abiriba, Arochukwu, the Delta areas, Awka and Onitsha.  European goods and the products of indigenous industries created a bustling market, but the slave trade had also featured prominently and made the people nervous at the sight of white people. In the 19th century, Uzuakoli had superseded Bende as a centre for the slave trade. Slaves were bought at Eke-oba and Eke-ukwu (the two markets constituted the Agbagwu market in Uzuakoli) and taken through the slave route to Bende via Ozuitem, Arochukwu and then transported overseas through the Cross River. The slave route that led from Uzuakoli to Arochukwu is still marked within the borders of MCU.

Many MCU alumni have graced the corridors of power. Dr Michael Okpara, the first premier of the Eastern Region of Nigeria was so impressed by what he had benefitted from the college that he established a secondary school in his village named in memory of his Principal at MCU – Williams. Other alumni include Clement Isong who was the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and an elected governor of Cross River State. Christopher Osondu (my classmate) was also to later administer Cross River State. Dr Icha-Ituma, deputy senior prefect in 1966 (from current Ebonyi state) was the deputy governor of the old Enugu state.

The Udi-Isaka rail line would have contributed to MCU drawing students from across the Eastern region. There was also the church’s concept of “fusion of tribes” as students were drawn from a wide spectrum of the Nigerian community. There were many from the current Cross Rivers, Rivers and Bayelsa states including the Bayelsa Diette-Spiff brothers (a professor of gynaecology and an architect), and the traditional ruler Se-Alabo Reginald Abbey Hart XIII of Grand Bonny Kingdom. Many like Edet Amana, the current Chancellor of Wesley University, and past President of the Nigerian Academy of Engineers and also of Association of Consulting Engineers of Nigeria further illustrate the spread of alumni beyond Igbo land.

Udo Egbert Udoma was Chief Justice of Uganda before serving on the Supreme Court of Nigeria for 13 years. He was knighted by Her Royal Majesty, the late Queen Elizabeth 11, and in 1940 was one of the first black Africans to bag a PhD in Law from Oxford University. His brother alumnus Justice of the Supreme court was Augustine Nnamani who was also the Attorney General of the Federation. Kanu Agabi was twice the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation. He also contested for the governorship of Cross River State.

Amongst the judges, who are over 80 and being honoured during the MCU centenary celebrations are G C Ihekire, Enyinnaya Ejelonu, and Igbozuruike Akomas. Current judges will include Ben Opufaa-Whyte. From the bar, are a plethora of Senior Advocates of Nigeria.  Ernest Ojukwu is one, as is Awa Kalu who was my room head in Aggrey House at MCU. 

Edwin Ogbu from Utonkon in Idoma land attended MCU. There is a saying in Idoma folklore which is translated as “no matter how hard you study, you cannot be better educated than Dr Edwin Ogbu Iyanga”. Edwin Ogbu became the Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the United Nations and was simultaneously ambassador to Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana. He was also the Chairman of the UN Committee against Apartheid.

Many other alumni were in the diplomatic service. Jonah Chinyere Achara was the first Agent General of the Eastern Region of Nigeria to the UK and Ireland. Benson Ukpabi was a diplomat in the International Labour Organisation in Geneva. Columbus Ihekaibeya is still remembered not only in Commonwealth history where he was a special assistant to the Secretary General Emeka Anyaoku but in the literary world. Niyi Osundare was effusive in his eulogy after his death in the essay “the Orator’s last bow”.  He described Columbus as a hard-nosed grammarian and doctor of diction who was chosen to orate on Professor Adeoye Lambo, then Vice chancellor of UI, after that famous psychiatrist won the Haile Selassie Award. As a war reporter in Biafra, Columbus was one of the last people to see Christopher Okigbo (the poet) before he was killed in the Nigeria-Biafra war. Others that have followed the diplomatic route are Grant Ehiobuche (Ambassador Dem Rep of Congo and Japan) and Emmanuel Obi Okafor (my classmate) was the Minister, Permanent Mission of Nigeria to the United Nations and is currently the President of the alumni association of the Nigerian Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies.

HRH Edwin Ogbu is one example of an MCU alumnus that became a paramount ruler. Edwin Ogbu was announced as the Och’Idoma III (the traditional ruler of the whole Idoma Kingdom) in January 1996 (his status giving the throne more stature and credibility) but sadly, he died a few months later before he could make his mark on the throne.  HRM Kanu Ikonte is the current king in the MCU host community of Uzuakoli and is one of the over 80s due to be honoured during the thanksgiving service on the 10 December. Others to be honored include Se-Alabo Reginald Abbey Hart XIII.

An MCU alumnus, Eberechukwu Oji is to be installed as the Eze Aro in December 2023. Current traditional rulers include Osoka Agwu, Ndubueze Maduabuchukwu and Maduadi Achara, Obialo Ejibe. An alumnus paramount ruler of Isuochi, Godwin Ekebuisi took the unusual step of installing one of his former expatriate teachers at MCU (Mr Lodge) as one of his chiefs.  Bob Onyema (renowned for his football dribbling skills while a student) was a past traditional ruler.

In the sporting arena, MCU has not been left wanting. Okoronkwo Kanno played at centre back for the first ever Nigerian National Football team (called the Red Devils at the time, before it was renamed as Green Eagles and latterly the Super Eagles) that toured England in 1949.  This was the team that was famously feted all over England and played bare feet.

It is interesting that they lost all the matches in which they were made to wear football boots. Even though the team was captained by Etim Henshaw and had the likes Teslim Balogun and Dan Anyiam, Okoronkwo was chosen as the face of the team in England because the selectors believed “he had acquired the refinements necessary” to be that. Much of that refinement would have come from MCU. Okoronkwo, the eldest of seven siblings, left the college in 1938 but such was his family’s love for MCU that all the siblings attended the college with the last leaving in 1977 – a span of 39 years.

Stanley Ihekwaba (Senior Prefect 1965) helped to win the Phensic cup in 1964 prompting Dr Okpara to donate a television to the college. He was in the Academicals and played at Onikan Stadium. Nnamdi Egbukichi captained East Central State Academicals and the Nigerian Academicals that trounced our footballing arch-rivals Ghana in the famous 5-1 final match of the inaugural Nigeria-Ghana Sports Festival. Other national players have included Emeka Ezeugo. Enyioma Igbokwe played for Enugu Rangers and Obioha Achilefu thrived in many teams within the country and abroad.

Clement Chukwu was part of the Nigerian team that won gold in the 4 X 400 metres relay at the 2000 Olympics (elevated after the USA team was disqualified), as well as gold in 1998 at the African Championship and at 1997 Universiade.

With the motto, you first, I second, it is not surprising that many of us have devoted our lives to medicine. Enyioma Obineche has only just retired as emeritus professor of medicine in his eighties. Both Obioha Onuba and I reached the top of our profession in Orthopaedics. The three academically best of the 1971 class all became medical doctors – Kanu Nkanginieme (paediatrics), Onyebuchi Ukabiala (paediatric surgery) and Onyebuchi Eseonu (Obstetrics and Gynaecology). Raphael Oramabo combined paediatrics with being a traditional ruler.

The dermatologist Prof Anezi Okoro is also a literary giant. We can only but be in awe of Okoronkwo Kesandu Ogan who was the first Nigerian gynaecologist and obstetrician (and my mother-in-law’s doctor). He was instrumental to setting up the University of Nigeria medical school. His brother Agu Uzoechi Ogan was similarly, a giant of biochemistry. Eddie Mbadiwe was a biochemist in the same department but later veered into politics as a member of the House of Representatives. He is one of our living icons to be honoured during the MCU centenary celebrations.

Alumni in academia include Ernest Nnorom Ukpaby who was the first African Dean of student affairs at UNN.  I remember him visiting MCU while I was student in the early 70s. O C Nwana was a professor of history at UNN and in my last recollection of him, he was gently gyrating but with poise to some music at his in-laws’ event many years ago. Ogbonnaya Onwudike was of the National Universities Commission and previously, the Vice-Chancellor of the Michael Okpara University of Agriculture Umudike.

MCU has produced a good number of alumni in the writing business.  Both Kanu Offonry and Beremako (Bob) Ogbuagu were giants in the Public Relations business. The latter was so well regarded by his very close friend from Obinagu in Udi, that my wife-to-be was handed over to him by my in-laws at our traditional marriage. Ogbuagu was a Zikist, an orator and intellectual and had a voice that could not be denied in national affairs. While at Uzuakoli, he was interested in current affairs and had a column called ‘BEKKOS’ at a corner of the blackboards where he ran comments on issues concerning students and the general affairs of the country.

Offonry published a history of MCU as well as a biographical treatise of Michael Okpara. Onyema Ugochukwu who was the first Chairman of the NDDC, was at different times, editor of Business Day, Editor in Chief of West Africa, and of the Daily Times of Nigeria.

Other professionals include Architects Oba Donald Arinze Nwandu I and II (father and son), described as builders of men and monuments.  The son was the traditional Prime minister of Enugu-Ukwu in Anambra State. He handled many projects including Enugu masterplan, Owerri masterplan, masterplan of IMT and quite a few of the faculties at UNN. He has been instrumental, as his father was before him, in erecting infrastructure in MCU. Osoka Ogala, who I remember as a senior and soccer player, has been at the pinnacle of the re-insurance business in Nigeria and was the MD of Nigerian Reinsurance Company and of NICON.

Being a mission school, it is not surprising that MCU has produced many in the higher echelons of the clergy. The past Prelate of the Methodist Church Sunday Mbang attended both MCU and Methodist Boys High School Oron. Rev Egemba Igwe was the Secretary of the Methodist Conference in the 1960s (as well as co-authoring an Igbo Grammar book with the Caucasian Margaret Green), as was Archbishop Rogers Uwadi (my RE teacher and choir master). The Archbishop Raphael Opoko, the current archbishop of Umuahia archdiocese was also the secretary of the Methodist Conference.

Beyond the Methodist clergy are alumni like Iheme Ndukwe who heads an international Christian discipleship organisation that spans the whole of Asia and the middle east and most of Europe.

Allied to these spiritual leaders are giants in music like Prof Kanu Achinivu (son of a former Principal) who has done so much and continues to do a lot to popularise Harcourt Whyte’s music. Buchi Atuonwu is a current star in gospel music.

MCU history is chequered with more than its fair share of tragedies and involvement in wars. It would be remiss not to provide a summary account of these before concluding my reflections with hope for the future.  Herbert Lewis Octavia Williams who was the second MCU Principal, died in 1941 at sea on the MV Swedru when the ship was sunk by German aircraft of the northwest coast of Ireland.

When Government College Umuahia was turned into an internment camp for German and Italian prisoners, its students were dispersed to other colleges including MCU. There is a bunker in the MCU premises that was, depending on who you believe, either a refuge for the King George VI, king of the United Kingdom and its dominions or built for Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Biafran leader.

MCU housed the Biafran Research and Production Directorate (RAP). This unit among other things built its own oil refinery and made salt from the salt lake constructed on the college playground adjacent to the main students’ residence – the castle. Kanu Nkanginieme was a member of the team involved in the petrol refining. Both Agu Ogan and Eddie Mbadiwe played prominent roles in the war effort at MCU.  They developed antidotes to be used in the event of chemical weapon attacks.

Some students and alumni of the college were lost in the Nigeria Biafra war. Bosah Ibeabuchi Katchy, a recent old boy at the time, died with his friends in Uzuakoli as Biafran soldiers were in a bloody battle in which Ibrahim Babangida who later become the head of state of Nigeria suffered serious injuries. Jonah Achara is thought have been killed in the early part of the atrocities in mysterious circumstances. Dr Udo Udo Okure, the first black Principal of MCU, was one of the Annang people executed while in Military detention towards the end of the war.

Other untimely non-war related deaths include that of a first London matriculant and tutor Dick Ogan, who by all accounts was an extremely brilliant student. He had come first in the country with 5 distinctions and would have been another Aggrey if he had not died. Following a Scout Jamboree in the UK, in which he visited Westminster Abbey and the tomb of Dr Livingstone with the inscription “brought by faithful hands over land and sea”. He realised those hands were black and noted that “what the English had valued so much was given to them by my people”. The MCU college library is named in his honour. 

Ejere Umezie who was a handsome man with elegant football skills died in 1972 while on a football field. I witnessed the depressive effect that this had on MCU students, and many had nightmares for several years.  Kanu Achinivu suddenly died while he was a serving Principal. He had an MCU House named after him. His legacy lives on in his children who are now in their late 70s and 80s.

It is self-evident that MCU was ravaged during the Nigeria Biafra war and in common with all the schools in the east of the Niger that were sectors of the war, was looted bare. The records that had been carefully preserved from the inception of the college were destroyed. MCU also suffered deprivations and sometimes deliberate humiliations after being taken over by government after the war.  These have included a brief change of name, forced removal of higher school certificate student intakes, and change in a tradition in which Principals with no prior link to MCU were appointed. Obiyo Onokala, an old boy and the first black principal to ride a bicycle in Uzuakoli, was summarily removed. With successive ownership changes from East Central State to Imo State and then to Abia State came further deterioration.

However, we cannot but be inspired by the successes of alumni and the ideals of MCU.   Drawing from the past, the annual report on the Nigerian Education Department, 1936, refers to the Uzuakoli Institute (MCU) as one which “approaches nearer the ideal that all West Africa educationists have in mind than probably any other institution in Nigeria”. When Col Ochefu, the Military Governor of East Central State visited MCU in 1975, he wrote in the visitors’ book “Old Soldiers never die”. This is a maxim that is being tested to its limit.

I conclude with the theme of ‘holding the future’. The challenge now that MCU has been handed back to the Methodist mission is how to restore the institution to its former glory. The opportunities are there. At the last estimate, there are over 90,000 out of school children in Abia state. There is therefore great potential to tap into this and get many of these children into MCU. There is a need to partner with the current government which has education as a central plank in its policies. Considering MCU’s cosmopolitan history, the aim should be to expand the catchment area beyond Abia.  MCU needs to be a place of choice for students who want to receive quality education. We must find a way to make it so.

I recall the stirring motto of Aggrey House which was “indefatigable calling combined with burning patriotism formeth the firmest bulwark of a nation”. This is quite a mouthful but still relevant. The simpler motto of MCU is You first, I second derived from the acronym of the old name of the college – Uzuakoli Institute (UI). The motto emphasises the selfless attitude engendered in students, and this was expected to be the guiding ethic in life and career after leaving MCU.

It would really be a successful centenary celebration if the alumni can proffer a solution that will achieve not only restoration of MCU’s former glory, its values, and ethics, but also provide a real lift off into the future. That is the hope.

Mbubaegbu wrote in from Hampshire, England

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