The Life and Times of PrinceNwafor Orizu

On the attainment of independence on October 1, 1960, Nwafor Orizubecame the first President of the Nigerian Senate. This placed him inline to assume the Acting Presidency of Nigeria when Dr. NnamdiAzikiwe traveled out of the country in January 1966. That same month,a group of Nigerian army officers, under Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu,struck. It was the first coup d'etat by the Nigerian military;tragically, the first of many. In the confusion that followed, NwaforOrizu, as Acting President, was obliged to hand over power to GeneralAguiyi Ironsi, Officer commanding the Nigerian Army.
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The year was 1947; the time about three o'clockin the afternoon. My Umuahia Government College cricket teammates andI were waiting at the Asaba wharf for the Shanahan to ferry us acrossthe River Niger to Onitsha. Suddenly someone pointed to the otherside of the road from where we were standing. "Isn't that Orizontal,there by the pleasure car?" I looked across the road and saw andrecognized him at once. He was truly a sight for sore eyes, tall andmagnificently built, broad-shouldered, and impossibly handsome. Hisfamiliar double-breasted jacket, ash-gray in color, was so long itreached down to mid-thigh. It was the first time I had actually seenthe man so close I could have walked across the road and touched him.

Prince Abyssinia Akweke Nwafor Orizu, scion ofthe royal house of Nnewi, was one of the sons of Eze Ugbonyamba, IgweOrizu I. Soon after his return to Nigeria from America, in themid-forties, he became universally known as Orizontal. This was aplay on his name and the word horizontal, because he espoused what hetermed horizontal (typically American) education, as opposed to thevertical or perpendicular (typically British) education.

He wrote and talked endlessly about this. Hisbook, Without Bitterness, was a classic of its time. InAmerica, he said, education was available to all and was broadlybased. In sharp contrast, in Britain, education tended to be toonarrowly focused, and was the privilege of relatively small numbers.I understood this to be mainly in reference to tertiary education.This, he explained, was why he had made it his life's work to correctwhat he perceived as the pernicious influence of British educationalideas on Nigeria and Africa.

The American Council on African Education, hisbrainchild while he was still in America, obtained numerous tuitionscholarships from various American sources for the benefit of Africanstudents. My views and appreciation of this great son and prince ofmy home town, Nnewi, are based, force majeure, almost entirely on myrecollections of the man. I happen to be married to his niece Ethel,the second daughter of his elder sister, Mrs. Victoria Uduego Obi,wife of Onunekwulu-Igbo, Chief Z. C. Obi.

Orizu was a controversial figure. In all hedid, he had his detractors, and they were many. One of my high schoolteachers, with a penchant for quoting Shakespeare, was fond of sayingthat Prince Orizu was all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Therewere those who saw him only as a showman. And others who doubted theauthenticity of his scholarships.

Nigeria's British colonial rulers openlyscoffed at his educational philosophy and his message. The sameauthorities convicted him on charges of financial fraud, relating tothese same scholarships. Notwithstanding which, hordes of youngAfrican students benefited from his efforts. On the day I saw him atthe Asaba wharf, he was traveling to Lagos with one of thosescholarship winners. In time, he received a full pardon from thePresident of an independent Nigeria.

He was in the forefront of the struggle forNigeria's independence, alongside Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe (Zik of Africa,and Owelle of Onitsha). He belonged to that breed ofAmerican-educated Igbo men (Mbonu Ojike and Ozumba Mbadiwe were twoof the others), whose brand of anti-colonial activism contrastedsomewhat with the more staid approach of such British-educatedluminaries as H. O. Davies, S.L. Akintola, and even Obafemi Awolowo.Like Zik, Nwafor Orizu was nationalist in his outlook. So were MbonuOjike and Mbadiwe. Unlike them, Awolowo and Akintola, at least frommy perspective, were more narrow in their political orientation,though they fought just as hard against British imperialism.

On the attainment of independence on October 1,1960, Nwafor Orizu became the first President of the Nigerian Senate.This placed him in line to assume the Acting Presidency of Nigeriawhen Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe traveled out of the country in January 1966.That same month, a group of Nigerian army officers, under MajorChukwuma Nzeogwu, struck. It was the first coup d'etat by theNigerian military; tragically, the first of many. In the confusionthat followed, Nwafor Orizu, as Acting President, was obliged to handover power to General Aguiyi Ironsi, Officer commanding the NigerianArmy.

The General, who had not been a party to thecoup, took over the reins of government with the mandate to restoreorder. What followed turned out to be the sordid and tragic historyof a sequence of cataclysmic events that entrenched the army in powerand brought Nigeria to its knees in everything that was, and is,important to the weal of the nation. A civil war was fought,1967-1970 between Biafrans and the rest of Nigeria. General Gowon,the then military ruler, desperately seeking compromise andredemption, declared it a "no-victor, no-vanquished" civil war.Afterwards, Orizu faded from the political scene from the moment hetransferred power to Aguiyi Ironsi. But he remained an educator.Before the civil war, which started in July 1967, he had set up ahigh school, the Nigerian Secondary School, in Nnewi. He remained itsproprietor till, after the defeat of Biafra, the state governmenttook over all the schools.

Twenty-nine years later, at the age ofeighty-four, he died in March 1999. Now, he belongs to the ages.Nwafor Orizu was, at once, imperial in bearing, and a charmer. Myother personal recollection of him was the day I stood on the stepsof my father's house in Nnewi. This was some four or five years aftermy earlier encounter with him in 1947. I was an undergraduate studentof the University College, Ibadan. He was walking past our house whenhe saw me. He stopped, turned and came and chatted genially with mefor at least a half-hour before he continued on his way. I knew,after that conversation if I did not know it before, that he had avery persuasive tongue.

The topic of our conversation was mainly to dowith the nature and purpose of the Ibadan university college, thenonly in its third year of existence. I do not recall exactly what hesaid about Ibadan. I only remember that, at the end of that halfhour, I fervently wished he had been invited to help shape andstructure the university college, which had seemed, to some of us atthe time, a reluctant creation of the British colonial office.

He may have had the physical attributes of anAdonis, favorite of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Since hehad his human frailties, there are differing perspectives about hisprivate legacy. I appreciate him for his contributions to Nigeria,his activism in education, charm and ready wit.
Momah, based in Somerset, New Jersey, is a member of the NUSA(Nnewi USA), an umbrella organization of the sons and daughters ofNnewi in the United States.

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