From Magnus Eze, Enugu
Justina Obi is in the news for a rare academic feat. At 70, she stands out as the oldest graduate of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), since its inception in 1960.
The senior lecturer, Department of Mass Communications, Caritas University, Nike, Enugu State, bagged a PhD at the 49th convocation of the institution in June. Vice-chancellor of UNN, Prof. Charles Igwe, had expressed amazement at Obi’s tenacity in pursuing her educational career even at a senior age. He noted that her resolve to scale through the rigours of the academic programme and her intellectual ability and perseverance were extraordinary and worthy of emulation: “Postgraduate studies require a degree of rigour and ability for original and independent investigation, and it takes a lot of intellectual ability, discipline and perseverance to earn a postgraduate degree or diploma, especially at the University of Nigeria. This implies that all our graduates are worthy of celebration.
“However, I am particularly proud of a 70-year-old graduate, Justina Obi, who would earn a doctorate degree in Mass Communication in today’s graduation ceremony. This makes her the oldest person to ever get a degree of the University of Nigeria.”
Obi’s project supervisor and immediate past dean of the Faculty of Arts, UNN, Prof. Nnanyelugo Okoro, described her as a hardworking, purposeful and focused woman.
“Dr. Obi’s intellectual ability, discipline and her determination to deliver on her academic work/project were tremendous, given her age.
“One would think that, at 70, she might not be able to meet up with rigorous research involved in writing doctorate academic projects. But being a former broadcaster and working in the academic environment, she was able execute her project work very excellently like every serious student would do without cutting corners.”
Head, Department of Mass Communication, UNN, Dr. Edith Ohaja, called the septuagenarian an intellectual workaholic: “Her mix of intelligence, diligence and determination is a huge inspiration to the academia.”
The septuagenarian spoke with The Education Report. Excerpts:
How did you begin life?
I was born on March 2, 1951, in Lagos. For some reasons, I lost my mother at the age of four. My father brought me and my siblings back to our home village, Amichi, in Nnewi South Local Government, Anambra State, and we stayed with our aunt.
When I grew a little older, at about eight years, I went back to Lagos to join him and I had already started primary school in the East. I started at Our Lady of the Apostles Primary School, a Catholic school, in Yaba.
Those days, it wasn’t fashionable to send daughters to school. I took entrance to Queens College in Lagos and passed. In school, I would see all these children of ministers, ambassadors and medical doctors. Thank God I didn’t have inferiority complex.
Unfortunately, the war struck in 1967. My father was one of those diehards who did not want to return. He could speak Yoruba fluently. But when it got tough because we couldn’t do anything, we had to come back to the East. Then the shooting war was already on. And it was tough getting back to the East.
After the war, I tried to get back to Queens School but they said no. They said there was no space for me. I went back to the village doing nothing. One day, my godmother told me that, rather than stay idle, why not go to Nwafor Orizu there?
That was National Secondary School, Nnewi, owned by then Akweke Nwafor Orizu. That’s how I went to enrol there and finished my secondary school. And he, Dr. Nwafor Orizu, also had a lot of influence on me because he spotted me somehow.
When I went into the university, I went in to read Political Science; perhaps it was his influence. And then I got married almost in the first year. My husband said your English is very good, go and do English. That was how I read English for my first degree in 1973.
By 1974, I was already doing English. I got married also in 1974. I recall people like Professor Ibe Nwoga, he was one of our lecturers, later,there was Prof. Juliet Okonkwo. I did my youth service at Anambra Broadcasting Service (ABS). I was still at school and I was sort of employed.
By the grace of God, I did many things in broadcasting; announcing, news casting, production, presentation. I was the station’s programme planning officer for about eight years. Around 1990, I said I was going to news. So, I moved over to the News Department. I was the news editor and then states were created in 1991.
That was how we moved over to the new Anambra State. We started going to Awka. It wasn’t easy because, as a news editor, we had shifts. Sometimes, you finished your job around 9pm. Before the creation of states, I had done my master’s. I was doing that till 1989. I was going from Enugu to Nsukka.
I did my master’s in Mass Communications. Since I was working with ABS, I veered off to Mass Communications. I recall Prof. Charles Okigbo, he was one of my lecturers then. I continued working, going to Awka as news editor.
Then I said, let me retire and look for something here in Enugu. The then vice-chancellor of this institution, Prof. Romanus Onyegbu, happened to be in the same parish with me. He was the chairman of our harvest and bazaar committee, while I was his secretary. So, it was easy for me to get employment here.
I retired voluntarily and started working here in 2005. That was 16 years ago. Actually, when I was still in the public service, I made efforts to do the PhD but not many schools were doing it. Nsukka wasn’t, I went to UNILAG and they searched and searched and they said no supervisor; that one failed.
I came back and tried University of Uyo. They said they were not doing pure Mass Communications, but Communication Arts. When I got employed here, I started making efforts because, when you are in academics, you want to take it to the end.
Actually, it was by accident that I went to do something at UNN. One of my former colleagues, Professor Akpan, was the HOD there at Nsukka. He told me that the programme had started. He was surprised that I didn’t know.
At a point during the programme, our house was burnt down. I just came out by a miracle. You could imagine we were living in a boy’s quarters. That one room was everything. It was my kitchen, dining, study room, bedroom and store. It was near impossible to study in that space. That was in 2008. I got admission in 2009. My husband was very understanding.
We managed, but another blow struck in 2013, he died in an accident. It was traumatic because I spoke with him that morning as he was coming back from Abuja. He was then national president, Town Planners Registration Council (TOPREC). He had an accident in Ayangba, Kogi State.
The trauma put me off and I broke down. I was ill for months. In fact, I didn’t come to school afterwards. Thereafter, I decided to pick the pieces because I tell myself that anything I start I must finish it. I like to quote my mentor, Professor Nwafor Orizu, who said, if you are starting anything, you should have power to see it through. It stuck in me. I continued and here I am.
It took you about 11 years to go through this process. How do you feel after?
Fulfilled. One of my colleagues asked me how do I feel answering ‘Doctor,’ I said normal. I feel normal but I’m grateful to God that it happened.
Was there any point when you felt like giving up?
No, because when I would have given up was when I did a proposal and gave it to my supervisor and, eventually, I wasn’t the one that collected it. He gave it to another to supervise who said he said it was not good. I asked him what he said was wrong with it. He said nothing that he only said it was not good. I was dispirited but then, later, I picked up, redid the proposal and then the person who continued the supervision, Prof. Nnanyelugo Okoro, attended to me. If what you did was not good he would tell you what to do.
What was your PhD thesis on?
It was on Nollywood. I must confess that I seldom watch films anymore. What keeps me is political discussions, analysis, that is what I’m interested in. I have a television in my kitchen. In fact, if it were possible to have a television in my garden, I would have done it but I often go with my radio set to listen to news. Perhaps, because, as a child, I always listened to speeches by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. Even when I didn’t understand what he was saying, I would listen to him and that influenced my interest in political issues, though I’m not a politician. Going for Nollywood was just what was available for me, not because I’m so much interested in filmmaking and acting.
What do you intend to achieve with the thesis?
It was on audience perception of the aesthetics of films in Nollywood. By aesthetics, we mean the graphics, the editing, everything about filmmaking. I had wanted to make a contribution. People have said Nollywood movies are not good.
Many people write Nollywood off, saying the films are not good, but I found the audience didn’t feel that way. In fact, they enjoy it. You see that filmmakers are moved by what the audience demands. My problem is being more particular about other aesthetics like quality of sound, quality of picture; sometimes they talk about morality.
Those who assessed the films I used did consider them very immoral though they want improvement in so many other areas.
But I think it’s the academics, the scholars just threw off Nollywood.
You were about 60 when you commenced your PhD, how did undergraduates and those in your class pursuing PhD see you?
They respected me. They just gave me respect as someone who was old enough to be their mother and some saw me as an inspiration. And if you are dealing with younger people, you don’t patronize them. You don’t behave like they don’t know anything.
I put everybody somewhere that is important and you try to move along. The tendencies move every day and you don’t want to be left so much in the past such that you cannot agree with them. Stay somewhere in the middle, bring the benefit of wisdom to the exuberance of the present.
How about your family?
I have four children by the grace of God. Three are male and one female. The female is second in the line and she is the academic among them. She is, by the grace of God about to get her PhD. She read at UNIZIK. She did Pure and Industrial Chemistry. She had eight ‘As’ and when she went into the university, she didn’t work as hard and she came out with a second class lower division. She worked at Conoil and decided at some point to checkout without even informing me. She travelled to Ireland and it wasn’t easy for her. But then I looked at her and said, God has given you talent, don’t waste it and she went back to school did her master’s and came out in flying colours. This was despite the difficulties. She said when others were going to the canteen she won’t have any money to eat. But despite that, she came out in flying colours.
How do you compare what it was in 1977 when you got your first degree and what we have today?
If I can use the ones I’m teaching here, what I use to tell them is that in our days if you had spare time as a student, you would always go to your books. But these ones, you will never see them going to read. They are always on their phones. And I tell them, what you write is very shallow because you don’t read.
Imagine I asked students how many senators represent a state and they were like, what’s this one asking. These were 400 level students. They didn’t know. They were looking at me. They are so blank. All they want is frivolities.
The students of today are not business minded. I asked them is this how you are going to rule Nigeria? I told them that as mass communicators, they should drive communication and information. In our own time, you will study and study and study till 1am.
In your spare time, you were studying. You were going to the library but these ones are not going to the library. They don’t believe in books. Give them assignments they will go and download in the internet. I don’t know, I’m not happy about it. Just very few are serious.
What is the solution to this problem?
What we are going to do is for us to change our values because sometimes even the parents have no values. I would have said have these values from home but at times, the parents buy question papers and certificates for them. So, where is the change going to come from? And some of us teachers we collude.
For us to have a change in Nigeria today, leadership is important. When we have a different kind of leadership in Nigeria that will galvanise and change everything. But we say let it be piece meal. I do my own here, you do your own there, it will have no effect as when it is coming from the leaders.
That little pamphlet by Chinua Achebe; ‘The trouble with Nigeria’s Leadership’. Get good leadership in Nigeria, everything will start falling into place. Just recall the days of Idiagbon, how people fell into line. How Nigeria can start to change; it is leadership.
If we get a good leader in Nigeria, we will begin to see change trickle down. This saying, “do your own in your own corner,” I don’t believe in it. There must be something central that must be done. Good leadership will change Nigeria. If we are able to put in the right people, Nigeria will change.
How many books have you written?
Unfortunately, I have just this book, ‘Mass Media Development: The Nigerian Experience.’ Some of us, when you want to be so thorough to come out with something; you keep robbing oil on it. I have only this book but I’m planning to bring more. This one is on the history of Nigerian mass media. That’s a course. I’ve also been very busy as a human being.
Nigeria’s education sector is on its knees. How do we can come out of the woods?
There will be no magic if there is no change in our character. If you have inspector of schools and he goes and they give him a cow, he doesn’t look around to see what is happening. If we have something like an honest suggestion box where students can bring in ideas; make suggestions about what are hindrances to their learning, what they would want; if we can start from there. If you hear from primary school pupils, you will know where to begin the change. And then we have honest people executing ideas not those looking for what to benefit something from, then there will be no change.