Uzodinma Nwala: How we packaged and sold NYSC to Gowon
By IKENNA EMEWU, Abuja
Saturday January 28, 2012
Professor Tim Uzodinma Nwala prides himself as the father of African Philosophy. That is a claim no one has disputed, yet. But beyond philosophy as a discipline, he devoted all his academic life to so many other things and he excelled in all. To him, life has not been just reading, teaching and researching. He has had a fair share of activism with his pioneering role in the birth of the powerful Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). And in national politics, he played a role in drafting the constitution of the G34, an organisation that became the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
But perhaps most profoundly, he played a role in his youthful days immediately after the civil war that did much in the rehabilitation of victims of the war in the East Central State (ECS). When that effort blossomed in Enugu, its birthplace, it grew large to reach the whole state and the entire nation. And that exceptional role, he would vehemently tell you, gave rise to the most cherished youth nationalistic orientation programme in Nigeria – the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC).
It was exciting listening to this scholar for hours tell his story of how the NYSC was incubated in Enugu, hatched in Lagos and spread to the entire nation. He was a major champion of the processes that led finally to the NYSC, although according to him, the government refused to acknowledge his roles and those of his mates in that laudable idea. NYSC provides the grand rule of orientating the youths in patriotism through the one-year programme for fresh graduates. It started almost four decades ago and it is still going strong, notwithstanding the threats to its existence.
Asked how he felt last year when the agitation for the scrapping of the programme was on the front burner of public discourse, owing to the killing of some NYSC members, Nwala simply answered: “I knew it was not going to be scrapped, so I never lost sleep over the calls.”
Nwala had graduated from the Department of Philosophy of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) during the war. As he would put it: “I graduated from the university as the only student in the class. I was a one-man full time student, taught by one part time lecturer who was actually a clergy man in the Catholic mission in Nsukka.”
The war had started taking toll on UNN and the entire region and the university closed down as foreign lecturers ran away. That was during Nwala’s penultimate year. As a result, all the students in the department changed course, but the young Uzodinma, who had dropped an earlier intention to read Economics, would not have that. So he stayed-put and became the only student of the department. On his insistence, the university Senate agreed to send him to Michigan State University in the USA, which was the parent citadel of UNN. But there was an intervention along the line where a cleric with the Catholic Church in Nsukka had to lecture him in the remaining courses to qualify him for graduation. That way, he became the only student to graduate in the course, and also the first to graduate in Philosophy in any Nigerian university because his batch was the pioneer set in the department.
He was fresh from the university when the war started dealing more devastating blows on Biafra. So he joined Biafra’s propaganda machinery, headed by now Senator Uche Chukwumerije. He joined as as war reporter.
“But after the war, we had a serious problem re-orientating Igbo youths into accepting to be Nigerians once again after we had told them during the war that Nigeria was evil. And moreover, there was so much damage and ruin that needed rehabilitation, and so we started in Enugu with a team of youths who cleaned places, cleared rubbles, rebuilt houses, assisted victims of the war. It was called Work for Food because, as we rendered our service, we were paid in food. We handled the rebuilding of the UNEC and many other public institutions, and later we extended the services to all the 34 Divisions of the East Central State. The body was split in eight committees, for efficacy. And Chief Mike Ahamba (SAN) who was a great dramatist was a member of the hospitality committee, while Zebrudaya (Chika Okpala) was our entertainer. With over 3000 volunteer youths, we spread out to all parts of the state and handled rehabilitation.
“With the success of the body in the region, we were imbued to extend it to the larger nation. We later conceived the idea of taking the project to the federal government. So, on September 30, 1970, we left Enugu for Lagos with a proposal to submit to General Yakubu Gowon. Apart from Lagos, we sent teams to some other parts of the country for the sensitization that led to our re-integration. I remember so well that the team we sent to Ilorin met with the Emir, Sulu Gambari, whose wife was Igbo from Owerri. They came back with a story of how the woman lavishly entertained them with ofe owerre.
“Because of the festivities of the Independence Day, we could not see Gowon, but had to drop our proposal with a senior government official. I must tell you, factually, that neither Gowon as an individual nor his administration, acknowledged our effort or receipt of our laudable idea. But we later heard from Ukpabi Asika that in recognition and appreciation of the work, Gowon sent the state government 75,000 pounds. Well, Government made use of the money and we were never consulted or got anything out of it.
Three years after, the Gowon’s administration announced the creation of the NYSC. What we sent was not called the NYSC, but it was solely the idea with some adjustments. For instance, we had proposed that the programme should be for undergraduates who would work on vacation for three months in states other than theirs. But the final approval changed it to one-year service by fresh graduates. The policy was strictly restricted to graduates, but later, it took roots and still survives as one of the most laudable programmes of the nation.”
Nwala, the young graduate, did not lose everything in that effort, as his coordinator in the ECS Youths Volunteer Corps, Mr. Graham, gave him a letter recommending him to UNN for employment. He was engaged by UNN on November 13, 1970. That way, he got a job to teach in the varsity as lecturer assistant and remained there till he retired as Professor of Philosophy. Not minding his pioneering and outstanding academic heights, Nwala had to wait till mid-90s before he got his professorship. It was delayed for 17 years.
Father of African Philosophy
Prior to his employment to teach at UNN, there was nothing called African Philosophy as course of study in any university. “All we were taught as students were Western philosophy. Nothing like African philosophy existed anywhere. In fact, many years after the introduction of the courses, there still remained arguments among experts, whether there was really African Philosophy. I remember very well that Prof. J. A. Shodipo of the University of Ife then was one of the grand proponents against the idea of African Philosophy. The introduction of the courses was deliberate. It was after the war that Prof. Kodilinye, the VC of UNN, asked us to draft courses of study in the Philosophy Department that was starting afresh. With that opportunity, I introduced two courses in African Philosophy and that became the first time anywhere anybody was taught a course by that name. It was from my introduction in UNN that the course spread to other universities later.
So, I have no doubt, and it is never in dispute among scholars, that I am the authentic father of African Philosophy as course of study. Initially, the argument was that Africa had no philosophy and only had just religion. But with my bold step, the whole concept changed and today we have professors of African Philosophy and also have the courses studied in even Western universities.”
At the time of his employment in UNN, he was in the General Studies Faculties to teach GS Humanities. He worked there for one year before he was taken to the Institute of African Studies. These years availed him the opportunity to visit almost every Igbo community in search of the rudiments of African Philosophy and later he expanded the quest and elevated it to a position of honour.
With Philosophy, no doubt, Nwala would not be too close to big money from his academic pursuits. Yet, he has what he needs and would boldly say that: “Because of my knowledge of philosophy, I am one of the happiest persons on earth. I am one of the most intellectually gifted persons in the world, and philosophy and life have taught me patience, a virtue I cherish so much and that has remained my guiding light. I have so much serenity in me with little concern for material wealth. My professorship was delayed for 17 years and I never for one day complained. So though, I might not have much money, I have peace in me at all times. That is why I am not so keen about taking credit for what I do. For instance, I am one of the founders of ASUU, drafted the document that gave birth to the G34 and later PDP.”
However, none of Nwala’s children studied philosophy, although they, according to him, are natural philosophers with the influence of their father. The erudite scholar started on very shaky note in life after becoming fatherless at four. His mother, who was not handy, decided his little son, Uzodinma, should learn trading. “My parents were illiterate. My father was a priest of the earth goddess, ala, and my mother a Christian. While things were very tough for the family after the death of our father, a clergyman in our village who had four children lost the young wife and I was taken to live with him and assist to take care of the children. That accident is what brought me into education. So I did baby-sitting for some years before I was sent to school. In fact, in all, I served five teachers as houseboy in my primary school years.” Later, providence worked out the reality of his name – Uzodinma (the way or future is good).
After his primary education, he got a teaching job and later took teachers training course, and read on his own to pass six GCE subjects.
He made his ‘A Level’ in four months and made three papers at a sitting. During his years as houseboy of a pastor, he was taught to pastor church. And while he taught, and picked up in his education level, teacher Uzodinma was saving for the future, to actually make it good as his name suggests. His savings accumulated to 24 pounds, which enabled him to register in the university on direct entry admission. However, money was to become the major obstacle. But someone encouraged him to look for money and pay the fee for the first year, while he would work hard to win the university scholarship for the remaining years. That is exactly what he did and what happened. He got the university scholarship. And so, he had no problem completing his programme, even while the war raged.