Richard Okachuku Ofuru is a phenomenal personality that has contributed his quota in shaping the course of human history, painstakingly beating the odds over the years and rising consistently to become a model of role models. A veteran educationist and former Permanent Secretary, Rivers State Ministry of Education, he was born in Omorihuru, Elele Alimini in Ikwere LGA, Rivers State, Nigeria. The erudite Chemist studied in Government Secondary School, Owerri; Okrika Grammar School; Rivers State College of Science and Technology, Port Harcourt; University of Benin; Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and the Commonwealth University Belize, Institute of Arts and Science.
He has to his credit many years of distinguished service as a lecturer, education administrator and member of governing councils of reputable institutions of higher learning. He is also a member of the Chemical Society of Nigeria and the Science Teachers Association of Nigeria among others. Dr. Richard Ofuru has been honoured on merit with many outstanding awards, including the National Merit Award, Old Boys Association, Government Secondary School Owerri; Fellow, Nigerian Institute of Management and Paul Harris Fellow, Rotary International. He is highly venerated for his effective leadership of frontline organizations, including the Old Boys Association, Government Secondary School, Owerri of which he has served as National President.
Not known to grant interviews quite often, Dr. Ofuru who recently spoke to Ojemba Magazine in Port Harcourt, advocated for a reawakening of Nigeria’s national conscience, top priority attention on the education sector, balanced national economic development agenda and pragmatic youth orientation and empowerment programmes. Here is the full text of the interview:
Q: What was your motivation to pursue a career as an educationist when you had opportunities to work in the booming oil and gas industry?
A: I graduated from the university in 1979 and prior to my admission, I already had a passion to study chemistry and the desire to teach the subject grew through my years in the university. Besides, the oil industry had not become as attractive as it became in the later days. The government offered good incentives to those willing to work in civil service establishments, more than the oil companies including Shell, could offer. So when I got a job as a lecturer in the then Rivers State School of Basic Studies, Port Harcourt in 1980, it was in line with my career aspirations and it has been a most rewarding experience.
Q: A lot of concerns have been expressed by stakeholders across the country about the declining quality of education at all levels. Do you share this concern? What is your position in this regard?
A: I completely agree that the quality of education is declining. Part of the reason is that people no longer study education courses as a matter of choice, but because they failed to be admitted for their first or second choices of course of study. During our days, when someone studied education chemistry, it was based on passion for the course, and the person would come out to teach with same passion, transmitting the best standards of knowledge. These days, most of those who study education courses come out parading certificates of ignorance, and since you cannot give what you don’t have, they end up contributing to the decline in quality of education. Again, there is an urgent need for governments at all levels to upscale the quality assurance mechanism in the education sector, and enforce regulations in both public and private schools. These days I wonder to what extent private schools in particular are regulated, because each is competing to showcase his school as the best, resulting in all forms of malpractice. They have turned primary schools to what they now call ‘basic schools’ which is against government regulation. They have little or no consideration for employment of qualified teachers. At the end, it is the country that would pay the price because when young people are not equipped with sound knowledge, they’ll be unemployable and the few that get employed would only continue to sustain the cycle of mediocrity. This is something everyone should be concerned about.
Q: What about curriculum content, sir? Do you see the need for review of curriculum in addressing the issue of quality decline?
A: Sincerely I have no issues with curriculum. Review of curriculum is periodical and there are rules guiding it. I think the focus should be on quality assurance, teacher welfare, provision of equipment, research incentives and appropriate teaching and learning environment.
Q: What is your view on the issue of take-over of schools by government, as against the management of schools by religious bodies? Has that affected the quality of education in some ways?
A: Yes, of course. Government take-over of schools became predominant after the civil war because most churches could no longer fund the schools. But government over-stretched its resources by establishing many other schools that were equally not adequately funded or equipped. Also, the establishment of too many schools by churches is not healthy. Before now, only three churches – the Anglican, Catholic and Methodist were involved in running of schools. Today, we have nearly as many schools as there are churches! That is not good at all because we are invariably cheating our own future as a country when we do not give quality education to our children. There should be a reasonable balance. Government should ensure that only few churches with proven capacity to run schools, would be licensed to do so. And there must be strict adherence to regulatory provisions.
Q: Let’s look at the issue of leadership and development. New governments are settling down across the country following the 2023 general elections. In Rivers State, it is widely believed that former Governor Wike left very big shoes for his successor, Governor Fubara. How do you think Governor Fubara can sustain the tempo of development set by former Governor Wike?
A: There are different yardsticks to judge the success of a government. Quite frankly I do acknowledge and appreciate the pace of physical development in Rivers State under the immediate past administration. But there is something we must ponder over. Julius Berger has constructed the roads and fly-overs or interchange. But after Julius Berger, what efforts are we making to ensure that in the future, our own citizens would have the capacity to do what Julius Berger can do? You see, governments across Africa, not just in Nigeria, must take the issue of education and human capital development as top priority for the sake of the future. We must strike a balance between physical and human development. I expect the Fubara administration not just to sustain the tempo of development established by the immediate past government, but to do even better especially by paying serious attention to the education sector. We are making progress but the gaps between us and the Julius Bergers in every sector are really wide, if we must say the truth. We must begin to make conscious efforts to bridge these gaps.
Q: At the national level, do you think we have made laudable progress in terms of leadership and development?
A: No, no, no! We are neither balanced nor consistent. Leadership is no longer selfless. At some point in history, before the civil war, we could boast of selfless service at various levels of government. But the military came in and messed up the culture of selflessness. In terms of a balanced approach to leadership and development, I think we should borrow a model from the old Eastern Region under Dr. Michael Okpara as Premier. Okpara did not leave any part of Eastern Region undeveloped. For instance, we have the Hotel Presidential in Enugu and one in Port Harcourt. We have the Obudu Cattle Ranch near Calabar and the Oguta Lake Resorts now in Imo State. We have the Golden Guinea Breweries in Umuahia and the glass industries in Aba and Port Harcourt. We have Trans-Ekulu in Enugu and Trans-Amadi in Port Harcourt. We also had the cement factory at Nkalagu. Eastern Region had more government colleges than all mother Regions – Umuahia, Owerri, Afikpo, Queens School, Enugu and Government Comprehensive Secondary School, Borokiri, Port Harcourt. Okpara did not concentrate development projects in Umuahia just because he was from there. He showed proper leadership. Umuahia as a city existed since 1929 and Okpara raised its status in terms of urban renewal. But the military, when they came, they speedily pursued their selfish interests, not knowing when the next coup would take place. So they bequeathed a culture of massive corruption and selfishness that the country is yet to pull away from.
Q: In other words, coming from your childhood days, it is right to say that you haven’t yet seen the Nigeria of your dreams?
A: I saw it as a child. Most of my age mates and I, saw Nigeria as the hope and pride of the Black Race. And we gave our all towards actualizing that vision. Unfortunately, corruption destroyed the Nigeria of my dreams, especially with military intrusions in politics. Then came the civil war, leading to creation of States, neutralizing the little we had as regional autonomy and killing what we experienced as healthy competition in terms of development. State creation killed Nigerian nationalism and gave rise to unnecessary ethnic bigotry. Let me use my experience as example. I travelled all over the Eastern Region and saw everyone as my brothers and sisters. But suddenly, lines of division sprang up everywhere as new States were created. A Rivers man started to see himself as different from an Imo man. An Imo man saw an Abia man as stranger. Even between Rivers and Bayelsa, unnecessary divisions arose between kinsmen who shared everything in common prior to 1996 when Bayelsa State was created. Honestly, Nigeria has failed to become the country I had envisioned as a young man.
Q: Still on the issue of divisions and ethnic cleavages, there is a popular belief that the Igbo and Ikwerre people share a common ancestry. Yet, they seem to experience sharp socio-political dichotomies in the larger Nigerian context. As a senior citizen of Ikwerre Land and one who has mingled with Igbos from Childhood, how do you think Igbo and Ikwerre people can pursue a future of common interests?
A: There are prevalent geo-political realities and divisions created by the civil war, the military, greed and corruption, which cannot be ignored in efforts at forging common fronts. These divisions have become quite deep. As a little boy, I grew up in Mbawsi, now in Abia State where I lived with my Aunt. We had people from various parts of Nigeria, especially the Eastern Region living together peacefully in Mbawsi. We had the Abiriba quarters, Opobo and Nnewi quarters. We worshipped together in the Anglican or Catholic Churches. During harvest celebrations, we held combined Church services. We had three major schools – St. Georges, an Anglican School; St. Johns, a Catholic School, and the Faith Tabernacle school. We attended these schools and there was no discrimination or ethnic profiling. As a matter of fact, I see ethnic profiling as an expression of inferiority by anyone or group indulging in it. At Government College, Owerri, where you came from was never a basis for what you got. You got what was due to you purely on merit. The post-civil war era has also deepened these artificial lines of division affecting our unity as one people. For instance, in 1971, after the civil war when I went to Okrika Grammar School, I was discriminated against in the appointment of the Senior Prefect. They jettisoned academic excellence and said an Okrika person must be the Prefect. I was the best student. But they had their way. Unfortunately for them, when the results of school certificate exams came out in 1972, I was the only one who made a Grade One. The Senior Prefect failed, and the Principal, Mr. C. E. Abraham remarked that in the history of Okrika Grammar School, such a thing had never happened – for the Senior Prefect to fail. But that is what discrimination could cause. So when people emphasize on what they see as differences between the Ikwerre and Igbo man, I tell them that I see no such difference. If we sincerely interrogate the origins of our so-called lines of division, we would discover that they are essentially artificial. We have intermarried. We do business together. Ikwerre land has been home to people from Arochukwu and other parts of Igbo land for several decades – in Aluu, Rumukwurushe, Rumuobiakani, and we live in peace. It may interest you to know that Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa, one of our highly respected Old Boys, speaks Ikwerre language more than myself. He was born and raised in Rumuobiakani. They have a family house in Rumuobiakani which is still there. As an Ikwerre man who schooled in Government Secondary, Owerri, when I was due to become the National President of our Old Boys Association, nobody discriminated against me. I did not even campaign. The emphasis was on merit. When I served out my tenure, some Old Boys wanted me to continue but I told them it would amount to a breach of the Constitution. So, the Igbo man and the Ikwerre man are one and we could strengthen our unity in future if we give our youths proper orientation to eliminate the artificial lines of division and respect our peculiar areas of natural diversity.
Q: You’ve been very active over the years in the administration of your Old Boys Association. You’ve served the Association in various capacities, including serving as National President. What is secret behind your passion for the Association?
A: The Old Boys Association is an extension of the strong family spirit and values we cultivated during our school days at Owerri. Government Secondary School Owerri built our character and consolidated the training we got from our parents. We imbibed the values of hard work, forbearance, discipline and a sense of justice built on the message of our school anthem – ‘to do or to die for the right’. We were taught to build our future on the foundations of honesty, excellence, merit, humility, self-discipline and mutual respect. Nothing more! During my days, there were no day students. Everyone lived in the boarding house and we were fewer in number than what obtained in the later days. So the bonding among class mates and school mates was very strong. The school exposed us to practical principles of human relations that have stayed with us and helped us navigate our ways through life. We socialized freely and expressed our innocence and fantasies without compromising the principles our school was known for. Respect for seniors was sacrosanct. So I have always seen the Old Boys Association as a platform to sustain those sterling principles, promote them in the larger society, network among ourselves and recreate fond memories, give back to the school and help the younger Old Boys to stand on their feet. These are the basis for my passion. The Old Boys Association is a very unique family and no one ever gets tired of being active in his family. Here, in the Port Harcourt branch, I encourage the younger Old Boys to attend our monthly meetings because there’s a lot they could learn during the meetings – such as commitment to a cause, responsive leadership and respect for seniors.
Q: What specific roles can Old Students Associations play in education development? And how can they collaborate with government?
A: Old Students Associations could either be pressure groups or support groups, or both depending on the issues at stake. As pressure groups, they can influence public policy directions in favour of their schools and also intervene on issues of facility upgrade or students welfare. As support groups, they can throw their weight behind good policies and programmes of government and their schools. They may also pursue initiatives in collaboration with their schools. Those who can pull strings can get corporate organizations to support their schools. No passionate old boy is happy when the name of his school is going down. But whatever they do must be from the standpoint of humanitarian service. They cannot take over the administration of schools or interfere unduly in the internal affairs of schools. They must also embrace changes to a reasonable extent, including the challenges of population explosion. Classes one to upper-six were just about 350 students during our days. Today, one class set alone surpasses that number. You may now imagine the total population of the school and the pressure it brings on facilities and administration.
Q: From your experience as an education administrator and leader of your Old Boys Association, has there been active collaborations between Old Students Associations and Parent-Teacher Associations to upscale education development?
A: No, no, no! Most PTAs have constituted serious problems to schools over time, so much that, as Perm Sec of the Ministry of Education, I considered placing a ban on PTAs across the State because many persons saw PTAs as their farm. They were not after the welfare of schools but the financial benefits of heading PTAs. Some members of PTAs had no students or wards in schools and I wondered how such persons became members of PTAs. Again, some of them were fighting with school principals over PTA funds. So there could not have been any collaboration between them and Old Students Associations. I think that Old Students Associations should approach government to explore ways of properly streamlining the activities of PTAs, but not to have clashes with them because that would bring more problems to schools.
Q: What is your message to the younger Old Boys of Government College, Owerri and to the students who may soon become Old Boys?
A: They should work hard and uphold the values and traditions for which the school has been respected since its inception in 1935. They must bear in mind that personal integrity is a fundamental asset that everyone should cultivate and sustain. They should be committed to the activities of the Old Boys Association and show capacity to serve the Association at various levels. We have a culture of reciprocal commitment. If you are committed to your Association, your Association would be committed to you. In a nutshell, they should be good ambassadors of our alma mater. I have consistently advocated that we should gradually hand over the leadership of our great Association to younger Old Boys, to ensure sustainability of our heritage. At the last national reunion, those who attended would recall that the oldest Old Boys present were of the 1963 class, and they were just one or two. In the past we had people of the class of 1950s attending reunions. This shows that some of us, the older ones would soon retire from active participation and if we don’t encourage the younger ones to step into leadership positions, a vacuum may be created resulting in the gradual dissolution of the Association. I am happy that class sets are doing well. But we must put measures in place towards ensuring that the umbrella Association continues to grow as a dynamic family.
Thank you so much for your time, sir.
Thank you too.