Last week, my alma mater, St. Anthony’s College, Ubulu-Uku in Delta State marked its Diamond Jubilee having been planted in 1956 in a thickly forested and hilly community. The nostalgic event was anchored by the Old Boys’ association of the school and it was an auspicious platform to relive the moments of years gone by, to reunite with old friends and reflect on the dreams of the missionaries (Catholics) who founded a school in a rustic community whose only defining emblems were the thick tropical forests, the lush verdant of greenery and the assortment of wild animals that hummed, howled and chirped from shrubs and warrens in the peaceful and serene neighbourhood.
Just sixty years of existence, no big deal. But it is a big deal not in the number of years the school has grossed but in its metaphorical exemplification of the rot that has blighted the nation’s education sector. Today, the school may not even amount to as much as a dot in the map of schools in Delta State but yesterday, it was the undisputed benchmark for academic and sporting excellence in the entire Midwestern region, the nursery for the making and shaping of men of unimpeachable character; professionals and business people who by dint of hard work and raw diligence pushed their way to the zenith of life, both in influence and affluence.
An old boy of the school, a distinguished colleague and the second Nigerian journalist to win the prestigious Nieman Foundation Fellowship for Journalists at Harvard, Mr. Tony Eluemunor, prior to the event chronicled some of the academic milestones and sporting landmarks of the school. It was a worthy historical adventure into the conquistadorial heights the school attained in those days when it was managed by its rightful owners – the Catholic Church.
Long before this writer gained admission into the school in 1976 and graduated with impressive result in 1981, St. Anthony’s College was already the school to beat in the old Midwest, later named Bendel State and now split into Edo and Delta states. In those days, mere passing the common entrance and being admitted into the school was itself a mark of brilliance. Being a student of the school and donning its uniform with the school badge (bearing the Latin words Emerge Et Adefica – Arise and Build) etched on the breast pocket conferred on one a tag of superiority over others.
Right from its infancy, emphasis was on the ‘total man’ concept of education. The school had standard laboratories and sporting facilities. And it was no surprise that in the WAEC exams, it was a given that the school would do well in all subjects. In 1969, it attained a 100 percent pass in WAEC exams. In those days, scoring straight ‘As’ was almost a norm. While the school notched several laurels in sports, it did not sacrifice the quest for academic excellence. And it had several academic epaulets to show for its devotion and commitment with its student at various times emerging overall best in the whole Midwest.
The likes of the current Minister of State for Petroleum, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, Prof. Chris Ogbechie of Lagos Business School, Dr. Evans Jegbefume, an Engineer, Chike Maduemzie, a medical doctor all passed through this school in a wooded community. There were many other masterminds who were shaped by the school and who went ahead to conquer heights from banking to law, journalism to engineering.
Yet, as it excelled in academics so it did in sports. In 1969, it won the Mid-West football trophy for secondary schools. Mr. Eluemunor captured the narrative most succinctly: “The school emerged Adeola Table-Tennis champions in 1970 with Patrick Ugoji (now a Medical Doctor in Port Harcourt) as Captain; late Chris Okasia, Vincent Onyemem (Demso Baby) and Enujoko, now a Medical Doctor and others remained unbeatable until the competition finally stopped in the 1980s. Obiora Edward, in Lawn Tennis, won a silver medal in the 1973 National Sports Festival; with Otto Edward and Aninye Jonathan winning Silver in Table-Tennis. Aninye was sent out by then Mid-West Gov. Sam Ogbemudia to Shangai, China in 1973 for training, and was relocated to Hussey College on his return to Nigeria; yet Otto Edward beat him when he came to pack his things away from the school!
“So, how does one explain the excellence streak? You could sum everything up in one word: “FACILITIES”. The school had over 500 metres by 500 metres field of lush evergreen grass with a football field in it (and space for two more football fields to spare) just behind the school gate and in front of the class rooms. Then it had another standard field after the dormitories. It had two standard Lawn Tennis courts, six Table Tennis halls (one dedicated to each of the five hostels and a massive one with three standard tables) as central one. It had pitches for Basket Ball, Volley Ball etc”.
Suddenly, all of these facilities were gone. They disappeared as soon as government took over the school from the church. That transfer of ownership and administration meant that everybody and anybody was admitted into the school especially in 1979 when the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) government of Ambrose Alli made education free. And once it became free, it got worse. Academic excellence suffered diminution; sporting activities faded into the horizon of time. And as years rolled by, the sports facilities became disused, decay set in and like a lit candle exposed to the vagaries of the wind, the flame and passion were blown away. The science laboratories and library suffered the same fate. Months before the Diamond Jubilee anniversary I visited my old school, now branded a ‘Government Model School’, what confronted me was a vast wasteland strewn with dilapidated buildings you cannot in all honesty call classrooms. There was nothing model about this ‘model school’. I was sad because the situation was bad, very bad.
In those days, it was unheard of that teachers were owed salaries. Teachers were paid relative to the economy of those years. Their allowances were paid as at when due. The laboratories were stocked and functional. The boarding system was alive and buzzing. Morals were taught and errant students were disciplined. I recall that in 1976 about 285 students were admitted into Form One but by 1981 when we were writing our WAEC exam, only about 157 students were left. The then principal, Mr. I.E Akaraiwe who was transferred to the school to rescue it from its own mess, rusticated over 100 students for poor academic output, gross misconduct or any other unbecoming character trait.
The story of my alma mater mirrors the story of the larger Nigeria school system. The rot is much. Way out? Mission schools must be returned to their original owners; that is the only way they can be shielded from the corruption in the education bureaucracy. What happened to St. Anthony’s College and to other mission schools taken over by government is public sector corruption. Money meant to run schools is stolen in the mazy web of school administration boards. First, unqualified teachers are employed. To add to the broth of decay, these ill-equipped teachers are underpaid or in some cases never paid at all. Discipline has disappeared, disorder has set in.
The Old Boys of my alma mater have decided to arise and build. They are raising money to add value to the school they once called home. I have joined them and I urge all well-meaning Nigerians to think of what they can do for their alma mater. Let us all arise and build, let’s repair the old wasted places. It’s a worthy cause, at least for this generation and for those to come. And to my SACOBA members who made the anniversary happen, I say thank you now and forever.