It is a fact that no historical account of the Nigerian nation-state will be complete, if the role played by Dr Akwaeke Abyssimia Nwafor Orizu(78), one of Nigeria’s foremost philosopher princes and educationist, fails to get an adequate mention.
He, it was who had the rare burden of being the first Nigerian head of state forced to sign away civilian governance to a group of hesitant, immature and unfocused army officers in January 1966, an antecedent that has continued to haunt Nigeria.
Although a pupil-teacher/fortune teller foretold that he was going to be a great man, Dr Orizu did not in his turbulent early days imagine he could be trusted by history to play such a decisive role.
Born July 11, 1920, into the polygamous Orizu family of Nnewi, he had just begun his early education, in 1924, when his father died, leaving him and his beloved mother to battle against all odds. His father had engaged the services of private teachers to teach him and his other sons in his palace, only to die some months after. In his autobiography, Liberty or Chains—Africa Must be, which has just been published Dr Orizu revealed that “with tears and courage of a widow… under punishment and wreckage she(his mother) gave [him] early education.” He was taken to the Kindergarten school at St. Thomas Church Otolo, Nnewi, in 1925.
By 1926 he was sent off to Onitsha in the guise that he was going to continue his primary education, but in reality, he had become a house boy and it was to be expected that he rejected this and even when he and his mother suffered grave opposition, from a senior brother, he lived with a more friendly family in Nnewi and continued his education in Nnewi. He later he went to Central School Onitsha, but again he returned to live with mother in1931 and to complete his Standard Six.
He was school timekeeper, chairman of a school government committee, chairman of school detective committee, football captain of first eleven. Although his numerous extra-curricular activities made him repeat his Standard Six, it was testamentary to his sterling personality that the headmaster of the CMS Central School Nkwo Nnewi insisted that he should not proceed for further studies immediately. He became a pupil-teacher.
He still a teacher, a restless teacher in search of greater learning, in1937 when he listened to a lecture delivered by Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe who was then 33 years old. It was a transformed Orizu “more determined, more enlightened about the scope of the problems of my race, more impatient with my surrounding…”, that went to Achimota College in Ghana, even as he sought Zik to help him further his education.
Even then Dr Orizu who was so widely connected, having been born to a man who married 80 wives, and whose mother had relations in three prominent towns, could not rake up the sum of just over 400 pounds to pursue an academic career in America, three times after Zik had procured an admission for him. Indeed, but for the inspired intervention of Green Mbadiwe who provided just the travel expenses, Nigeria may have lost the chance of benefiting from his wealth of experience.
In America, he studied in Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, USA, Ohio State University, Columbia University and the New York University. Picking up odd jobs as a dishwasher and so on, he worked his way through school even as he faced the challenges of presenting Africa to America in the World war years. He was an eclectic and versatile personality who created something out of every experience as these who know him attest. While studying public law and government in Ohio State University between 1940 and 1942, he wrote the famous “Without Bitterness”, otherwise hailed as the African Bible, which was first published in 1944. He wrote the column entitled Africa Speaks. It was also while there that his determination to fight imperialism took root. Most importantly, while in America Orizu organized the African Students’Association and founded a magazine known as the African Interpreter. With the support of personalities like Roy Wilkins, Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt and Pearl Buck, to name a few, he set up the American Council on African Education, under which umbrella he secured scholarships for many African students.
Dr Orizu returned to Nigeria, first in 1945, fully armed with BA and MA degrees, and most significantly with 150 scholarships for African Students who wanted to study in America. He personally took 10 Nigerian students over to America in search of a scientific and more wholesome education. As at 1949, by his own account, he had got as many as 431 scholarships offers. It was a record that the British Intelligence had and which gave the colonial government jitters. Between 1939 and 1949., Orizu did nothing else but facilitate the education of Nigerian youths, from all parts of the country.
Reportedly, he ploughed back the proceeds he made from his book Without Bitterness into the course of education for he hated, “ignorance”, “slavery” and “racial bluff”. For that single vision of his liberating his people through education, he toured the whole of Nigeria, beginning from the North with one message, for people to donate towards educating Nigerians in America, as opposed to London. His single-minded pursuit of American education and his consequent vociferous attack on Clement Pleas education policy while in the Eastern House of Assembly and perhaps his support for coal miners revolt in Enugu, prepared the ground for his subsequent arrest, trial and conviction and imprisonment in 1953.
So total was Orizu’s commitment to serving others that he left America finally in 1949 with only a prayer for God to show him the way. Obviously, in answer to his prayer, Bishop Johnson offered him his press and SCOA gave him a bus with which he set up a transport business. It was through the later enterprise, which was managed by a board of directors that he sustained his scholarship programme. With the aid of the Enitona Press, he set up The West African Examiner(1949), which was edited by MCK Ajuluchukwu, while he became the Managing Director/publisher, maintaining a column known as “Orizontolcurrent”.
The apostle of “horizontal education and African Irredentism”, became the Chief Whip of the Eastern House of Assembly. Even before he went to jail, “for his political activities and indeed for the political implications and challenges of horizontal education’, he played a grave role in the dissolution of the Eastern house of assembly. He derived joy for his role in that era.”It would have been a tragic experience to throw Zik out of the West Region through the episode of unprecedented carpet crossing, and then leave the Eastern House in the hands of those inexperienced in the art of imperialistic diplomacy and nation-building while Zik would be playing a minor role in the house of representatives”.
Between 1940 and 1953 and even much later, he virtually did and took any position that could destroy all “imperialistic images” and influences in Nigeria. In 1950 he founded the Nigerian Secondary School. So much was his passion for education that even while he was in prison, he continued to educate people, convicts and warders. How far he went in keeping imperialistic influences at bay would be highly controversial. For heat tested that when the army asked him to relinquish power as the acting commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces, he believed that it was a foreign leader of the Nigerian Air Forces, who must have drafted the memo. Again he was forced to make a choice between accepting intervention of foreign soldiers from two different countries and handing over to the Nigerian armed forces. He chose to hand over to the Nigerian armed forces bearing in mind the long and tortuous struggle for independence, with one parting advice to the reluctant head of state Major Aguiyi Ironsi, the most senior of the officers, to create states in order to further strengthen the Federal Government.
A detribalized Nigerian, who can only be compared to the Great Zik of in the class of Zik, Orizu, was a loyalist to the core. He knew how to remain loyal to his friends no matter the situation. For instance, he remained loyal to Zik to the very end. This was not because both hailed from the old Onitsha province, but because Zik was a man whose belief in the ideal of service to the nation was unshaken. Even when Zik was reluctant to become a ceremonial President, it was Orizu who convinced him to take up the post. The prize Orizu paid was that even when serving his prison tern between 1953and 1957, he had refused to take part in the East House of assembly, he went to the Federal House with Zik. Even during his prison term, the Action Group offered to used their connections to secure release for him, but he refused. His simple reason for the dedication was that whereas many of the other politicians served their sectional interest, it was only Zik’s nationalist language that he understood.
In addition to being a member of the American Geographical Society and a member of the Academy of Political Science, he is the associate editor of the Negro Digest and the patron of African Academy of Arts and Research. Married with Children, Orizu is evidently an author of repute, a poet and a sportsman, whose zeal is undiminished by old age. Apart from crystallizing Nigerian history from his point of view in Liberty or Chains…, he has promised to also document his activities since that fateful day in January in 1966 till date, in another book.
His life is a confirmation of Charles F. Kettering’s assertion that he” never heard of anyone who stumbled on something sitting down”.