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Ejiofor: Veteran scholar, administrator, engrossed in Igbo language activism

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PROFESSOR Pita Ejiofor, is an academic, scholar, researcher, school administrator, Igbo Language crusader. The professor of management sciences is a former Vice-Chancellor, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka. He was a former Commissioner for Finance and Economic Planning in the old Anambra State.

 At Prof. Ejiofor’s modest and neatly kept residence in Awka, is a tree he calls ‘BBC Mango.’ It was under that mango tree that BBC Igbo Language Service was sown. So dear to Prof. Ejiofor’s heart is the relevance and sustenance of the Igbo Language. It was under that tree that Prof. Ejiofor persuaded Michael Callahan, the chief correspondent of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to give a thought to having BBC Igbo service. Mr Callahan had gone to interview Prof. Ejiofor on the fate of Igbo  language.  

Since serving out his tenure as the Vice-Chancellor of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Prof. Ejiofor has devoted his time to the promotion and sustainability of Igbo language. The most visible and prominent Igbo cultural organisation spearheading the Igbo language cultural revolution the Otu ,Suwakwo Igbo,  was his brainchild. Prof. Ejiofor had incubated the cultural movement right from his days as a lecturer at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in the 1970s. Unlike the two other major ethnicities, ndi  Igbo had apathy for their language. 

The erudite scholar loves to excel. As the vice-chancellor of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Prof Ejiofor brought significant changes to the institution. He projected the institution from its relatively known status to becoming one of the most sought after universities at a point. Professor Ejiofor described the university as a glorified secondary school on the assumption of office. Then the university operated from its temporary site situated at the UNIZIK Junction in downtown Awka. 

The Obeledu, Anaocha Local Government Area born academic was also a former Commissioner for Finance and Economic Planning in the old Anambra State, under the tenure of Group Captain Emeka Omeruah. And later Commissioner for Commerce and Industry under Omeruah besides a delegate to the National Constituent Assembly 1994-95 in Abuja, representing Anaocha, Njikoka and present-day Dunukofia, in particular with towns in old Njikoka that formed Dunukofia, some in Idemili North LGA.

Professor Ejiofor’s love for the academics started at St. Paul’s Catholic School, Obeledu, up to Standard 4. He finished his primary school education doing Standard 5 and 6 at St. Mary’s Practicing School Agulu, for his Standard 5 and 6. Young Ejiofor had no conventional secondary; instead, he went to Preliminary Teacher’s College, Nimo, which lasted for one year.

After the programme, he was posted back to teach at St. Mary’s Practicing School, Agulu, where he taught briefly before gaining admission into St. Anthony’s Teacher Training College, Agulu, for a four-year course. The school is an all-men school only;  the present-day Agulu Girl’s.

Graduating from the college, he was posted to some schools, and after two years, he was posted back to St. Anthony’s Teacher Training College to teach. After teaching for about four months, he gained admission into University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) to study business administration for his first degree, after which he proceeded  for his master in the same course.

On June 30, 1967, six days to his convocation, the Nigerian Civil War broke out. The university had already offered him a teaching appointment. “I went into the war as a graduate. Nigeria Army mainly enlists recruits.  Every graduate’s dream was to get a job. We searched for jobs, and there was none. We left for our different villages. We were not thinking of the army. When there was no job, and the war was dragging, I joined the Biafran army in 1968.”

“I joined as a Second Lieutenant and left as Lieutenant at the end of the war. The war was a nasty experience but it was inevitable. After the war, the first job I got was in Enugu at Work for Life, where I worked for meals as a salary. My next job was with Corporate Relief for America Everywhere (CARE). The assignment was to buy foodstuffs and take to those places in dire need of it.”

An avid reader, going through some dailies after the war, Prof. Ejiofor read about one of his former lecturers at UNN, Senas Ukpanah who had switched to Ahmadu Bello University, (ABU) Zaria. He wrote Mr Ukpana, he invited Ejiofor over to ABU and took him to the Vice-Chancellor, Prof Ishaya Audu. After two weeks, Ejiofor received a letter, offering him a job as an Assistant Lecturer in 1970 but left in 1977 as a Senior Lecturer to join UNN where he eventually became an Associate Professor.

When Anambra State University of Science and Technology (ASUTECH) was established in the old Anambra State, he switched over to ASUTECH. “I was made a professor by ASUTECH when I joined them in 1985 from my post as Associate Professor at UNN. I was the pioneer staff of the Faculty of Management Sciences at ASUTECH and incumbent Dean of Management Sciences of the university.”

In 1991, when the new Anambra was created, ASUTECH was split into two after two months. There was a choice whether to remain in old ASUTECH later renamed ESUT or join Anambra State University, Awka. He opted to join Anambra State University. He was the incumbent Dean of Management Sciences.

He became the Vice-Chancellor of Anambra State University, now renamed Nnamdi Azikiwe University in 1998. He noted that the school then was a glorified secondary school. “I started the construction and completion of the first-ever storey building at the university, which is today’s Administrative Block; it houses the Vice-Chancellor, Registrar, and the Bursar offices, among others.

I was the first VC to occupy that building. Before I assumed office, the university was declared non-residential by the federal government. I changed its non-residency status. There was no single hostel. I started and completed the first-ever hostel, four in number. One was the Dora Akunyili Hostel. I initiated and constructed the road from the Administrative Block to the express road. President Obasanjo commissioned the Admin block and the road.”    

Before Prof. Ejiofor tenure as VC, UNIZIK was known for strike actions. Some students were getting their first degrees in the eight-year, something that should take four years. “In my first year in office, there was a strike action, and it lasted for one and half months. After that industrial action, there was no more strike at UNIZIK for 15 years.”

Under Prof. Ejiofor vice chancellorship, UNIZIK was the first university in Nigeria to organise voluntary renunciation of cultism by students. “It happened in a day I called ‘Glorious Wednesday.’ That was on August 18, 1999, at Garuba Square. We assured them that they wouldn’t be prosecuted except if they go back to cultism or any illegal act. About 117 of them renounced cultism. Then other universities began to imitate UNIZIK.”

On the strength of those achievements, management of staff, the judicious utilisation of funds, despite the lean resources that the university got and other contributions on national development, the federal government gave him a National Productivity Order of Merit Award.

When Prof. Ejiofor disengaged from the UNIZIK services, he devoted his time to the revival and sustenance of Igbo Language. He believes that language sustains people. Pained by the declining interest by ndi-Igbo in their language, he sought for a change that led to the establishment of Otu Suwakwa Igbo.

As UNIZIK VC, he spearheaded the change of the Department of African Studies to Igbo Language. And called on all the universities in Igbo land to change their Department of African Studies to Igbo Language Department. “I left as VC happy that I have established a department of Igbo Language.  It wasn’t long that the name was reversed. I felt bad.”

“I have always had an interest in culture. I started my career at ABU, Zaria, in 1970, when I came back to the East joining the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 1977. It struck me the amount of attention the northerners gave to their culture, their language to be precise. When I came to the East, I saw something different. At that time, it was common to see our people in suits and western attires.”

“I told myself that if Igbo people would continue doing this, the language would die. In appraisals, (from that point) I started gathering influential people like the late Dr Dozie Ikedife, Justice Ononiba, (Onowu Nimo), retired Chief Judge of Anambra State, Prof Ezeilo, and some people from Imo and Abia States. I spearheaded the whole thing. The first meeting was in my office in Awka. In that meeting, we adopted the name Otu Suwakwa Igbo, and that was on February 14, 2006.” 

From that, we began sensitisation visits to churches, local governments and finally, the state government bought the idea. On July 2, 2009, the state government called out all level 12 and above officers for a meeting at Dora Akunyili Women Development Centre. It was after that meeting that the state adopted Wednesday as Igbo speaking day and wearing of traditional attire in the state. The impact was magical. The Monday after the meeting, the Head of Service issued a circular directing all civil servants and schools to comply.“

In 1984, Prof. Ejiofor published a book titled, ‘Cultural Revival in Igbo Land,’ and two years later was appointed a commissioner. As the Commissioner for Finance and Economic Planning in the old Anambra State, under Group Captain Emeka Omeruah, he advocated  change in funeral rites in the state. “I saw that we are spending so much time and resources on burials.

Those funerals take seven native days (izu asaa) for about 28 days. It was incongruous. It shouldn’t apply. Back in the days, the society was agrarian, and people could afford such time but not for career workers and people into other vocations who couldn’t afford time in today’s world. I told Gov Omeruah that besides social impact, it has its economic effects.”

  ‘‘To that effect, I influenced the state government to organise traditional rulers, presidents-general and religious leaders to explain these to them rather than issue an edict in Enugu city, which might be effective in the villages. The governor consented.. On October 2, 1986, at Hotel Presidential, Enugu, the meeting was held with Gov Omeruah in attendance.

The message was go back to your community and effect the change. That was how I changed the number of days of mourning from 28 days to one week. It worked, and everyone was surprised. Except for Umuoji Town in old Anambra State, no other town did it before October 2, 1996. It gave me joy cutting the number of days from 28 days, one week to three days and two days.”     

  The erudite professor’s philosophy about life is to work as hard as you can and do your best to change what you feel is wrong. Given the power to effect a change in the polity, he has one single issue to tackle.” I will do anything within my power to address one major problem in Nigeria that I call dishonesty. Dishonesty in any institution leads to corruption. The worst enemy of the public is a corrupt public servant. Exams leak, how did it happen, and you are punishing students.”

Professor Ejiofor is married to Vera Ejiofor, a retired Deputy Bursar at UNIZIK. He described his wife as a beautiful woman, but more than her physical beauty, her intelligence, the love she showers on him and for believing in him endears him most to her. They are married with five children.  

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