Daily Trust Sunday

Reminiscen­ces With Prof. Uzodinma Nwala

- From Tony Adibe, Enugu

Born in 1945 in a bush where his mother had gone to farm, Professor Uzodinma Timothy Nwala is regarded as the originator of African Philosophy; a course studied in universiti­es across the world. A radical intellectu­al in Marxism, Prof. Nwala once served as the Secretary General of the Academic Staff Union of Universiti­es (ASUU). During the Nigerian Civil War, Prof. Nwala played an active role in Radio Biafra. At the end of the war, his memo to the then Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, was reportedly approved, leading to the emergence of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). In this interview, Nwala talks about his role at the United Nations (UN), Biafra, University of Nigeria Nsukka, and lots more.

What was your growing up like? I was born in the village of Itu Ezinihitte Mbaise in Imo State. I grew up as an active village boy, participat­ed actively in farming, hunting, fishing, craft, collection of fruits and seeds. My late father was the Chief Priest of the earth goddess, Ala-itu. I interacted very much with my maternal grandparen­ts, participat­ed and enjoyed Ahiajoku - New Yam festival and other cult activities and ate fowls and goats sacrificed to the gods. My grandmothe­r was fond of circling balls of foofoo around my head in earnest prayer to the gods for my good health and long life.

I saw the many great shrines and evil forests in my village. I was loved by many of the priests and elders who always regarded me as a special child. Many of them gave me fowls or goats to rear as symbols of their attachment to me. I missed participat­ing in the rites of passage of my age mates because I was away from the village at the time. I was also active in wrestling and moonlight games.

I became a folk hero in school because I was endowed with unusual intellect, which has continued to manifest. I was so amazed by this gift and the heroism it won for me that one day I went into serious brooding. It was that day I promised God that I shall return His gift by not abusing it, but by using it to help my fellow human beings.

When I went to school, I became an active Christian. My mother and I were baptised in the Apostolic Church. In fact, I gave her baptismal name, Elizabeth, after Queen Elizabeth.

What are your likes and dislikes?

I love children, old people, and generally people who are sincere and honest. I like farming, football, music and drama. My life is consumed by an innate restless active spirit and repulsion against injustice and inhumanity.

How did you develop African Philosophy as a course?

In my final year as a philosophy student in 1967, Rev. E. J. McMahon, SJ, noticed that I was fond of relating some aspects of our discussion­s in Western Philosophy to traditiona­l Igbo thought. So when I was choosing a topic for my project, he drew my attention to the need for an original work on the nature of African thought patterns. He said he believed that my training in the rudiments of Western Philosophy, my interest in African thought and the fact that I was an African should put me in a favourable position to undertake the task.

Following this encouragem­ent, the topic that I chose for my project was: “The Thought Patterns of the Igbo”. Because of ill-health, I submitted the finished work in handwritte­n manuscript. Amazingly, it was accepted, marked and graded. The rest of the story is told in the Preface to my book, Igbo Philosophy.

When Prof. Hubert Kodilinye, the immediate post-war Vice Chancellor of UNN decided to restore the philosophy programme, he joined it with classics and that gave rise to the Department of Philosophy and Classics and I was transferre­d to the department. The Head of the new department, Rev Sturch, asked me to propose two courses in African Philosophy because he was aware that my research into the area had attracted internatio­nal attention. So I drew up two courses: African Philosophy I (Traditiona­l African Philosophy) and African Philosophy II (Contempora­ry African Philosophy). That turned out to be the emergence of African Philosophy in the curricula of African universiti­es and indeed in the global university system

Therefore, UNN was globally the first to introduce African Philosophy in her curricula in 1971/72.

The publicatio­n of two of those initial courses aroused internatio­nal interest. A number of scholars from Britain and the United States wrote to the Head of the Department of Philosophy and Classics, Dr. L. Sturch, seeking help and clarificat­ion on the course content and bibliograp­hy for teaching the courses. One of such letters came from the late Prof. Peter Bodunrin of Grinnell University, Iowa.

In my replies, I explained my personal perception of the subject matter. However, I stressed that African traditiona­l philosophy was a project to be explored because it was still in a state of terra incognita.

In describing African Contempora­ry Philosophy, I was aware that significan­t social philosophi­es had emerged from the works and ideas of Leopold Sedar Senghor (Negritude), Kwame Nkrumah (Conscienci­sm), Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe (Pan-Africanism and Welfarism), Julius Nyerere (African Socialism) etc. I was also aware of the works of Placid Tempels (Bantu Philosophy), W.E. Abraham (The Mind of Africa), John Mbiti (African Religions and Philosophi­es), etc.

The Journal of Philosophy, Uche, which I founded, was meant to promote general philosophi­cal discourse.

In 1990, as the Acting Head of Philosophy Department in UNN, I invited Prof. Peter Bodunrin as keynote speaker to the event. In his speech, he declared that, “It can be said with a good deal of justificat­ion that what has come to be respected today; African Philosophy, first received emphasis in the curriculum of this university”.

In 2010, my colleagues in the Nigerian Philosophy Associatio­n (NPA) gave me an award - Aime Cesaire Award for African Philosophy for Being the First Person to Introduce African Philosphy in the Curriculum of the University System Globally.

Who had greater influence on you; your mother or father?

My father died in 1947 when I was just five years. There is a firm belief in me that my acute revulsion against injustice, as well as my restless struggle for the enthroneme­nt of truth and justice is perhaps a genetic inheritanc­e from both my father and my mother. My father’s popular name was Ehilegbu (in full, “Ehi agaegbu

onye nenwegh ihe omere, agaghim ano ya,” which means, “Wherever or whenever the innocent is to be killed, let me not be there” or “I shall not be there.”

All the same, my father was a Justice of the Peace (JP) who tried criminals and meted out punishment; including capital punishment.

How did you gain employment at UNN?

After the Nigerian Civil War, UNN advertised for staff and I applied. I was recruited into the Department of Humanities and later into the African Studies Centre as Assistant Lecturer. It was there that Chinua Achebe and I met and struck a lifelong friendship.

How involved were you in the war?

Biafra set up a propaganda directorat­e under the Ministry of Informatio­n, headed by the late Comrade Uche Chukwumeri­je. People were recruited to go to their various provinces to set up units of the informatio­n directorat­e. I was one of the two persons sent to Owerri Province.

I was part of the team that used to write the Biafra Weekly propaganda piece; the Head of the unit then was Rev. Gregory Ochiagha; later a bishop. I was also active in the warfront as a correspond­ent. When the Scandinavi­an journalist­s came, I was one of those drafted to work with them.

As the war went on, Biafra was shrinking. I was posted to Mbaise as head of the Propoganda Directorat­e.

On January 8, 1970, Nigerian troops entered Itu Ezinihitte, my hometown. But before then, I had done some personal reflection; I knew Biafra had lost the war at that time. It was very horrible.

But by the time they were coming into my place I realised that there was no place again to hide. So I advised my family that we should not move out of our home. Therefore, we hid in the family palm plantation. It was from there we heard the first war victory sounds of the troops of the federal forces.

The following morning was the first time I saw the Nigerian soldiers. A soldier asked me, “Why are you running? Come back. We all are one Nigeria now.” I said I wasn’t running.

He said we should move our things to Nkwo Mbaise, our biggest market, and from there they were going to move everybody to Okpala because they were afraid that Biafran soldiers might make a counter attack.

As I came back into our compound, someone came in with a message that the soldiers wanted Mr. Nwala at Nkwo Mbaise. My mother, my brothers, my aunties and their families and everyone started crying. All of them knew they were referring to me.

So I went to Nkwo Mbaise and the person leading me pointed to a place where somebody was seated like a king with officers and armed soldiers around him. As I walked close to them, all I heard was “Nkume!, Nkume!” Then I saw Mr. Nwoguegbe who was my college mate at the Teachers’ Training College (TTC), Oloko. Then I shouted “Nwoguegbe!” He stood and hugged me.

Then he took me to the commander, Capt. Jibowu. He looked disdainful­ly at me. He got up and took my friend to one corner. Later he came back and my friend called me to the same corner. He told me “Nkume, can you tell me why you didn’t run? Why did you stay back?”

I told him I knew we had lost the war and would live under whichever authority. I said I didn’t stay back to fight.

His commander then said I should take them to my home.

So, all of us, the whole convoy, went to my house. The entire family was stunned over the sudden turn of events. The soldiers sat down and the family entertaine­d them with wine and food. They asked my family to bring back their things from the market place. The commander issued the family with a pass that read: “Mr. Nwala’s family have been authorised to stay in their home. No soldier should molest them. Any soldier found molesting them will be shut.”

Two days later, we heard the Biafran Head of State, Gen. Emeka Ojukwu, had fled Biafra and subsequent­ly the war was formally declared ended.

The next question was where do we go? Everywhere was dry with hunger and poverty.

So we decided to go to Enugu. My childhood friend, Boniface Okorie, who is now a professor, and I decided we must go to Enugu. So we trekked from home to Umuahia and there we saw an open lorry, gwongworo, used for conveying cattle. We boarded it and got to Enugu the following day.

What is this notion about you initiating the NYSC?

It’s a long story. It all started with the war, in Enugu, we heard there was a Red Cross Feeding Centre around Ibiam Circus on Okpara Avenue. We went there and they were already feeding a lot of people. So anything you can lay your hand on - clean sheet of paper, broken pots, you can clean and use it to get your own ration. After that we said we must go to the Rehabilita­tion Commission. There we asked for the Chairman, Patrick Graham (Chairman of the East Central State Rehabilita­tion Commission). His Secretary was Mrs. Julie Alale, the wife of late Major Alale who was killed along with Banjo and Emmanuel Ifeajuna for alleged coup to topple Ojukwu.

Patrick Graham asked us our mission and we told him we wanted to go to the Enugu campus of UNN to help clean the place. He said it was ok, but that he was going to pay us with food. The arrangemen­t was known as Food-For-Work Programme.

So we went to Enugu. Many people joined us; several young men coming out of the war front; many of them ex-soldiers. Anyone that approached the commission was asked to go and see me at Enugu. I became the anointed leader of the group.

From there many people were coming and gradually it was a crowd and attention spread to other sections in Enugu and later beyond to the 34 divisions of the whole East Central State.

Watching this tragic human condition, the question then was what was to be done and who would do it? So I called some of my friends - mostly graduates. Incidental­ly, those of us in from UNN were actively involved in the run-down to the war, receiving our dead people and the maimed returning from the North. The tragic spectacle of indescriba­ble horrors daily flowing in from the North compelled us to come to the conclusion that the only secure place for our people was home.

But now that the thing had come to this point, we lost the war and our determinat­ion to come home and stay alive had been thwarted by what we called “internatio­nal conspiracy”, we reasoned that we owed our people the duty to help absorb the shock of continuing to live in Nigeria. We also owed them a duty to help them appreciate that there was still another day; that life didn’t really end with that.

Therefore, apart from organising the work they did, we always sat down to discuss and provide them some psychologi­cal therapy. It became obvious that a new social movement was in the air. I told my friends that we had to organise and make these informal discussion­s formal.

So I prepared a draft and we discussed the nature of the new organisati­on. We chose the name East Central State Youth Volunteer Services Corps (ECSYVSC) or State YVSC. We planned three things: to borrow a leaf from Gowon’s three Rs: Rehabilita­tion, Reconstruc­tion and Reconcilia­tion.

We presented the memo to Mr. Patrick Graham, chairman of the commission. He said it was a sound document.

Mr. Graham took the memo to Mr. S.G. Ikoku who was the then Commission­er for Developmen­t because the Rehabilita­tion Commission was under his ministry. Mr. Ikoku then took the memo to Mr. Ukpabi Asika, the then Administra­tor of the East Central State. Asika approved it and thereupon I was appointed the Chairman of ECSYVSC. Thus the government formalised ECSYVSC.

A committee of eight people (all graduates) was set up with me as Chairman.

UNN was still closed. However, before the war, we had launched a programme called Undergradu­ates Long Vacation Employment Programme (ULVEP) with an advisory committee headed by Prof. Ukpabi, Dean of Students.

The programme was later expanded to embrace the entire 34 divisions in the East Central State. We created different department­s: welfare, transport, publicity, orientatio­n, entertainm­ent, etc. It was in the Department of Entertainm­ent that I first met Chika Okpala, the famous Zebrudaya alias 4.30.

We met every week with Mr. Graham and his senior staff. The commission gave us some buses from its fleet, set up a store in Enugu Campus where they moved in loads of bales of stockfish, beans, rice, cornmeal, eggs, etc. And every week our transport committee was busy sending these things to the various divisions.

To the various divisions, we sent engineers, technician­s; they started to fix Enugu campus, made sure water started running, fixed the electricit­y, etc. But those in the divisions then were to mobilise the people themselves to carry out needed rehabilita­tion. Doctors and nurses in the teams worked in local clinics. We realised there were problems across various

communitie­s. People were suspected of playing the role of saboteurs, bringing enemy soldiers in, underminin­g the effort, embezzling relief items, and there were a lot of katakata. So we set our people to engage in reconcilin­g the crises: Why do we want to kill ourselves? We are all victims of the war.

Before the activities in the various divisions took off we had an orientatio­n programme at the Awgu Man-O-War Bay Centre for the participan­ts.

We realise that if the youths had to return to Nigeria, there had to be a genuine programme of reconcilia­tion; one that had the capacity for enhancing national integratio­n. The war and the massive killings had divided the people to a point that made reconcilia­tion impossible. Our idea then was that the war was mainly provoked by disagreeme­nts among the elderly political class due to political difference­s. We felt that if there was to be any reconcilia­tion, we should focus on the youths all over the country. That was our own sense of reconcilia­tion, but how do we implement that? We said we were going to send teams to travel round the North, West and so on to preach reconcilia­tion and visit some traditiona­l rulers.

We were quite impressed with what we had done in the East Central State and we decided that if this thing could be made a national programme, it would go a long way in healing the wounds of the war and also advance national integratio­n.

All these thoughts were put in the form of a memorandum which the eight-man committee discussed, endorsed and we took it to the weekly executive meeting with Patrick Graham, the Advisory Committee discussed and approved it.

We then decided to send the memorandum in the form of a proposal to the Federal Government, explaining what we were doing in the ECSYVSC, urging the government to nationalis­e it so that it could become an instrument to weld the youths and the country together.

Our idea then was to use the long vacation as a period to mobilise the students. In our time, long vacation was an in-thing in the whole university system. During the long vacation period, every undergradu­ate looked forward to doing some job and get some money before going back to the university.

So we felt the Federal Government should take over the responsibi­lity of deploying the undergradu­ates within this period. Thus during the long vacation, all of them would be mobilised and sent to different parts of the country; those from East would go to the West or the North, while those from the North would go to the West or the East and so on.

We proposed a programme to propose what they should be doing, not going to work in the ministries. They should work with the rural people. Those of them that were nurses or doctors should work in the health centres and clinics, those that were teachers would organise literacy programmes, those that were craft people would also be part of it, etc. The youths should mix with the people; understand their culture, tradition and feelings and so on. We thought that was a way of promoting national integratio­n.

So on September 29, my delegation left from Nsukka and Enugu left for Lagos. It was the first post-war independen­ce anniversar­y. Our host was the Nigerian Youth Council (NYC). We also had meetings with some youth organisati­ons in Lagos.

Because we arrived Lagos on the eve of the post-independen­ce anniversar­y; we couldn’t see Gowon. We had to deliver the memo at the Ministry of Economic Developmen­t, Aminu Kano’s ministry. It was received on behalf of government by one senior civil servant, Mr. Habib.

We also went to Ibadan and Ilorin and met with some organisati­ons. In Ilorin, we met the Administra­tor, Col. Bamgboye and the Emir, Sule Gambari, and presented our memo.

A year or two later, the programme in our memo was approved by Gowon after receiving the report of a committee he set up to study our submission.

However, the committee recommende­d that instead of focusing on all the youths on long vacation alone, government should focus on graduates at the terminal end of their education. That caused a lot of problems. The university students revolted against it and eventually it was forced on them. So that is the story of the NYSC.

Did Gen. Gowon try to see the initiator of the programme one-on-one?

The Government of Gen. Gowon eventually gave £75,000 to the government of Ukpabi Asika in appreciati­on of the memo and the work done by ECSYVSC. Mr Patrick Graham confirmed this informatio­n.

Beyond the NYSC thing, can you share your experience at the UN?

First of all, one would like to know what drove me into working hard to get close to be part of the UN. It was the war. One of the riddles that I faced as a young philosophe­r and moral agent was the question why did Biafra fail despite the fact that we believed that our case was just. We didn’t want anybody’s territory or land but just leave us alone. Then why did that just quest for freedom fail?

So I said the only place you can get the answer is that place in the world where various organisati­ons, government­s and global forces mingle. Logically it was New York at the time. That’s what led me to do my graduate work in New York at the UN Headquarte­rs.

Luckily I became part of some people who were active in global affairs. One of them was Prof. Harold Taylor, a restless intellectu­al activist.

I started relating with the UN and became active in several of its programmes. Then my student colleagues and other social activists noted my leadership qualities and eventually I was appointed the Chief Representa­tive of the Internatio­nal Students Movement for the United Nations (ISMUN).

Eventually, I was elected the Chairman of the UN Youth Caucus. This was a platform that brought together many youths and youth-related organisati­ons that have consultati­ve status with the UN. As chairman of the body, I became a frequent visitor to the UN, observing several sessions of the various UN bodies. I was very close to the then Secretary General, Kurt Waldheim.

A a 10-man internatio­nal committee was set up by the secretary general to advise the UN on measures to get youths involved in UN affairs, and I was appointed a member. So we produced a report. So our committee laid the foundation for youth involvemen­t in UN affairs.

Can you specify one of the interestin­g experience­s?

One of the interestin­g experience­s occurred when we wanted to organise an internatio­nal conference on apartheid. And before we knew it, the CIA had infiltrate­d the committee. So we had to put off the conference. The US and other western powers that were driving global affairs were fond of supporting those struggling for freedom and opposing them at the same time

You were at a point the Executive Secretary of ASUU. Can you share your


When I came back from America in 1977, one of the influences I had, even though the thing was already there in me because of my nature and culture and so on - this was the longing for human freedom; longing for truth, justice and human happiness..

So one of the things we were confronted with was the “Ali Must Go” students’ crisis in the universiti­es. Right there in Nsukka were a group of radical scholars at the head of whom was Ikenna Nzumiro; people like Emmanuel Obiechina, Dr. Eya Eteng and there was Dr. Emordi, the husband of Sen. Joy Emordi. I was part of the scholars then. Dr. Chuba Okadigbo was part of them, but Chuba wasn’t a serious socialist because he was what we call a “bourgeois radical”. He had a radical mind, very sharp, but he was not all that a socialist.

That time also, the Constituen­t Assembly was on, working towards evolving the 1979 Constituti­on. We had taken part in it in New York. We had a group called the Nigeria Study Group that had Gambari and others as members.

So here was a campaign by the socialists for a“One-Man-One-Plot” to be inserted in the new constituti­on. The idea was that no one person had need or should have more than one plot in any city in the country. So that campaign was on but I remember I was later sent to go and see Chuba and S.G. Ikoku to share with them our own position. When I discussed with Chuba, he laughed and said, “Dr. Nwala, you know I was elected here by the power of money men and they didn’t send me to come here and fight against their property.” I laughed, but that’s Chuba; he was a very elitist person.

So I became actively involved in the quest to remake the Nigerian society. We were all over the whole country. As we were doing this, I had one or two experience­s which made me think we were just theorising or just day-dreaming. In fact, at a point three of us decided to pull out of the socialist family and formed a group we called Revolution­ary Directorat­e. We set up a Radical Directorat­e and who were there? Uzodinma Nwala, Edwin Madunagu and Dr. J. Biodun Jeyifo of the Ife University.

During one of the meetings in my house, I said to them, “Gentlemen, don’t you think we’re still doing the same thing - intellectu­al masturbati­on, theorising? We must make this thing more practical and concrete to show a difference. At the end of all this theorising, how do we bring it down to earth?” At the end of our discussion, we decided that we must seize one of the social organisati­ons, take over leadership and turn it into an instrument of struggle. We agreed. ASUU fitted into our scheme. The then Head of State, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, had unified trade union movements then. The Associatio­n of University Teachers (AUT) had become the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universiti­es (ASUNU) and later Academic Staff Union of Universiti­es (ASUU). It was a fledgling thing. We now agreed to use ASUU as an instrument of the struggle; not empty struggle to fight anybody but a struggle to make society better.

The question was which was the most important position or office? We identified the Secretary General and decided we were going to take over the position of Secretary General. We started manoeuvrin­g and I was appointed the Executive Secretary of ASUU.

So the agitation started and then President Shehu Shagari set up a committee to review the condition in the universiti­es under S.G. Kuki. This coincided with the period I had taken over as secretary. And I spent a long time preparing a memorandum; reviewing the whole system. That memorandum today is referred to as ASUU Bible; being the main reference point in everything ASUU does. The pillars are academic freedom, university autonomy, funding of the university system and the conditions of service.

 ??  ?? Pages 9, 10 & 11
Pages 9, 10 & 11
 ??  ?? Professor Uzodinma Timothy Nwala
Professor Uzodinma Timothy Nwala
 ??  ?? I was part of the team that used to write the Biafra weekly propaganda piece
I was part of the team that used to write the Biafra weekly propaganda piece
 ??  ?? Professor Nwala as Executive General Sec of ASUU with the Ag. National Chairman Dr Mahmud Tukur
Professor Nwala as Executive General Sec of ASUU with the Ag. National Chairman Dr Mahmud Tukur

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