Professor Pita Ejiofor is an emeritus professor of Business Administration, pioneer dean of Faculty of Management Sciences and the former Vice Chancellor of the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka. A native of Obeledu, Aniocha local government area of Anambra state, he retired in 2003 and, since then, has been at the forefront of championing the cause of the Igbo language and culture all over the world under the pressure group known as Otu Subakwa Igbo. Following is an exclusive interview with O’star Eze of Orient Daily newspaper in which he shares his experience as one of the pioneer members of staff of Nnamdi Azikiwe University and the events that led to his newfound passion for the Igbo language. The interview, conducted in Igbo was translated to English for the benefit of a wider audience.
Kindly share some of your antecedents, Sir?
I read Business Administration up to doctorate degree level in University of Nigeria, Nsukka. I majored in Management and Organisational behaviour which was what I taught as a lecturer for years.
It is said that you are one of the pioneer staff of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka. How true is this?
It is true to an extent. The university started immediately the new Anambra state was created. This was towards the end of 1991. The faculty of management sciences was, however, started in February, 1992. So, though I was not one of the first to start the institution, I was the first in the Faculty of Management Science. It was with my joining the workforce that the Faculty of Management Sciences in the faculty was started and I spearheaded the recruitment of every other member of staff that joined the faculty thereafter. Earlier, I was the pioneer staff in the Faculty of Management Sciences in the then Anambra State University of Science and Technology, ASUTECH, now Enugu State University of Science and Technology, ESUTH.
So, when the Faculty of Management Sciences was started in UNIZIK, I brought other Management Science staff in ESUTH of Anambra extraction, who were willing to assist, down to UNIZIK. I became the first dean and the first professor of the faculty. Now we have several professors in that faculty.
Nnamdi Azikwe University has passed through several stages. What can you tell us about its transition?
Whoever knew this university in 1991 and goes there now will find it difficult to believe it is the same institution. In 1991, we were virtually, just a name. We barely had any physical structure befitting the status of a university. Today, we hear of UNIZIK junction. It is quite symbolic as it shows people where the temporary site of the university was sited. The staff and students alike lived around there. With time, the institution started moving its academic activities down to the place now referred to as the permanent site.
Lest I forget, even while most of the academic activities were carried out at the temporary site close to the present UNIZIK junction, there were some faculties that started using the permanent site from day one. These were the Faculties of Law and Social Sciences. But, if you visit the facility that housed these two faculties in those days you would marvel at how we were able to get by. In time, while I was dean of Management Sciences, the faculty became the first faculty that moved from the temporary site to the permanent site.
I thank God for all He achieved through me. When I was made the Vice Chancellor in 1998, there was no single structure from the university first gate up to the Garba Auditorium. It was all forest. You will see the difference today. The office of the Vice Chancellor was a small accommodation close to the Garba Square, hardly befitting for a secondary school principal of today. It was from there that I headed the team that started the construction of the first storey building in the institution. We completed the building and invited, then president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, to commission what is now called the administrative block.
Another thing is that before I became the vice chancellor, the rule was that the institution would have no students’ hostel and the students were expected to provide accommodation for themselves. When I assumed office, however, I challenged this wondering if there was any other university in the country that did not have a students’ hostel. Of course, there wasn’t and so, I proposed to the school senate that there was a need for the institution to construct students’ hostels. The council supported it. So also did the Nigeria University Commission which approved that we should go ahead and build hostels. I, however, insisted that the minister of education then, Mr. Olaiya Oni to come down to UNIZIK and declare this new resolution to the entirety of the staff and students of the school so as to make it more authentic. He accepted. He came down to our usual meeting point, Garba Square, and addressed the staff and students who gathered there informing them of the new resolution.
I was the one that cleared the forests from the administrative block to the site of the hostels. We built a 3-floored hostel, now known as Dora Akunyili hostel. Chief Obasanjo was the one that also commissioned it the same day he commissioned the administrative block. We started the building of another hostel opposite the former. Each hostel had the capacity to accommodate 300 students. In all, I approved the building of four hostels. One was completed during my administration. One was nearing completion and the other two were already under construction before my tenure expired. These are some of the landmark achievements I was able to spearhead during my administration.
We understand that UNIZIK is commencing a lecture series in your honour. Can you tell us about it?
Just as I told you earlier that the Faculty of Management Sciences was pioneered by me. This year, the faculty is celebrating its 25 years of existence; silver jubilee. They decided on their own to start holding public lecture in my honour from this year. It is a thing of great joy to me because this is the first of its kind. The lecture series UNIZIK had been observing before now had been memorial lectures in honour of those accomplished persons who had already passed on. We have memorial lectures in honour of late Chief Frederick Chidozie Ogbalu, that great promoter of Igbo Language; late Prof Gordian Ezekwe; a foremost engineer and former minister of science and technology. So, this is the first lecture series in honour of a living personality. The event will hold on July 25.
You read, taught, and practised Management Science but today you are a proponent of Igbo Language. What led to this transition?
I would liken my case to that of Saul of the Bible who was persecuting Christians until he had an encounter with our Lord Jesus Christ after which he became a strong apostle. I started teaching Business Administration in 1970 at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. I was fulfilled in it and became a professor, Vice Chancellor and the chairman of Vice Chancellors Committee in Nigeria but it was just a year before my leaving office as Vice Chancellor, in 2002, that the NUC embarked on a study of all the courses in all the universities in the country. They published the result of their research and distributed it to all the universities. Going through the journal, I found out that there were seven universities where Yoruba language was taught, four universities that taught Hausa language, all federal universities; one university was teaching Kanuri and another Efik. None offered the Igbo language! The discovery caused a deep revolution in me. I wondered the fate of Igbo, with such a development. If we are not teaching Igbo in the universities, where would we get those who will teach it in the secondary and primary schools. What it implied was that soon, Igbo language would go extinct. I understand that whatever is not being written and documented in the present times is bound to go extinct. It became a stark reality that Igbo language was an endangered language indeed.
I quickly presented the issue to the senate. We had a place where we were teaching African Studies. I had observed that Igbo indigenes seemed ashamed of their language, that when they are speaking it and one who is not an Igbo comes around, they would revert to English. So, this Faculty of African Studies had students who were offering Igbo but they were usually made jest of then and many shied away from the course. I, then, proposed to the senate that the name of the department be changed from, African Studies to Igbo Language and Culture. The first time I proposed it, I was seen as backward and the proposition was rejected. So, the next monthly senate meeting, I presented the NUC journal. After it was read to the hearing of everyone, there was silence. And it was quickly approved that the Department of African Studies be converted to Department of Igbo Language. But two years after I left the school, this name was revised to something else. I was dismayed. I started calling on all Igbo stakeholders telling them that the Igbo language was on the verge of being lost out of the carelessness of Igbo people just as it happened with the Biafran issue. Igbo elder statesmen were summoned and made part of our pressure group which we called Otu Subakwa Igbo. We started pressuring for the promotion of Igbo Language in every facet of the Igbo society and the importance of language in the society. We visited all the dioceses in Anambra state, all the civil servants from Grade Level 10, the Nigerian Union of Journalists, NUJ, members, school principals, Anambra state education Commissions and others on sensitisation. This led to several transformations. One such very significant transformation is that several universities in the South East have instituted the Igbo language as one of the compulsory General Studies courses just as has been the case with English language. Igbo language has also been made compulsory in all primary and secondary schools. Hitherto, it was very bad and was such that one would hardly find any Igbo literature in bookshops. At one time when the president of the country then, Goodluck Jonathan, visited Anambra state, the governor sent me to get that popular Igbo literature, Omenuko, to present to him. I went into the Eke Awka market and combed through the bookshops in search of the book but I could not find it. The feedback I was getting was that Igbo literature is no longer being sold. Today, however, my grandchildren come back home with Igbo literature from school. It is a thing of joy. It would have been disastrous for our language but for the intervention of our group. I remember that when we started, one of our members who was a school proprietor introduced Igbo language in his school, but parents of Igbo origin started withdrawing their children from the school as a result. But today, every school in Igbo land has made Igbo language compulsory at all levels. It was pressure from our group that led to the governor making Wednesday an Igbo Day when Igbo language and culture would be promoted. Many thanks to those governors that accepted what we said and made it a law.
What are the benefits of language in a society?
Language is the greatest source of identity for every people. It is not one’s complexion or dress code that gives one identity. So, language is what distinguishes one group of people from another. Once you lose the language, you have lost the primary identifying factor of the people. For instance, if you go to the United States, you find African Americans. They are of African descent but they speak only English now even though they know that they are not originally Americans. You find out that they yearn to find out their origin and go as far as conducting DNA tests to find this out. Every July 25, in Staunton, Virginia, Igbo people from far and wide gather at what they call Igbo village and those who have discovered their origin as Igbo come to identify with the Igbo people. I have witnessed this when I was invited to speak to the gathering in 2013 and 2014. When they discovered that the Igbo stock or race was the strongest among those races brought down as slaves, making them more expensive during the slave trade, they instituted an Igbo village in the US. These African Americans came down to Arondizuogu, got materials such as mud and raffia palm leaves for building houses in the Igbo way. They took it to the US where they built mud houses the Igbo way. So, language is very important. It holds people together. For instance, you will find out that Britain and America easily form alliance because they speak the same language. Same with the Arab countries. But in Igboland, we find it difficult to stay in unity and would always emphasise our different dialects. This is one of the negative attitudes we exhibit as Igbo people. Every people have dialects but they maintain one central dialect. Every religion always looks for a language that would be their language; Latin for Catholics, English for Anglicans. So, language is very important. Hausa people hold their language dear and it serves as their unifying factor and their leaders facilitate this. Unfortunately, the Igbo joke with their language and do not take it seriously. Israel is another case in point that shows the importance of language as a way of preserving a people. Though the Israelis were dispersed from their land to various parts of the world, and lived away from their land from AD 70 to 1948, they held onto their language and remained a people. They have it as a rule that before they would accept any returnee as a Jew, he must be able to speak the language.
Can you tell us about the events Otu Subakwa Igbo has instituted for the promotion of Igbo Language?
There are many adverse effects of not promoting the speaking of Igbo language. I never knew Mr. Godwin Ezeemo until I met him at a symposium in Awka where I spoke on the need to promote the Igbo language. I showed them a magazine called Classifier and published by the National Film and Video Censors Board, NFVCB in 2010. It gave a list of films they had approved and the languages they were made in. Of 241 films that the Board approved, 98 were in Hausa, 94 in Yoruba, 31 in English and 11 in Benin. None was none in Igbo language. This was despite the fact that Igbo people are heavy weights in Nollywood movie production. After the presentation, Godwin Ezeemo invited me over and started asking me to make a proposal to address the grave situation. I prepared and forwarded the proposal to him in 2012 and he said he would start supporting the competition for the Igbo movie production called ‘Godwin Ezeemo prize for Igbo Language Videos. It has continued since 2012 till date.” Entries for 2017 edition are being processed now. Experts in Igbo language and movie production usually scrutinise the entries and determine the winners. Some of the criteria for judging the video entries are that the video must be solely in Igbo Language; must be in formal Igbo language and must promote core values.
What is your final charge to Igbos?
Language is very important and we should start speaking ours. It will help us a lot as a people. If we look around us, the Yoruba and Hausa people speak their languages. We do not even speak the English language better than them. Speaking Igbo language will not cost us anything. The problems we have in Igbo land are many and include the second River Niger bridge and an Igbo president. We cannot get these without the support of the federal government and other ethnic groups. But the whole right to speak and promote Igbo language has been given to us as a people as provided in Section 55 of the country’s constitution as amended. So, the promotion of our language is in our hands. If we promote it, we keep it alive. God has given this to us and I am sure God has not made a mistake.